It’s become quite fashionable recently to claim that Jesus was a liberal.
This is mostly done by left-leaning progressive Christians and their Jesus-respecting secular allies determined to pry the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth from the cold, decrepit fingers of American conservatives. The ones who believe Jesus was white, co-wrote the Constitution (with Ronald Reagan, of course), would own an assault rifle, and predicted the Free Market.
Of course these blogs and memes almost always are trying to portray the idea that Jesus would in general support left-of-center social positions were he alive in 21st-century America, as “liberal” has somehow become synonymous with “center-left” in American politics. In general, they are correct: Jesus did not teach hate, exclusion, discrimination, judgment, xenophobia, elitism, or greed, all hallmarks of conservative political ideology.
But the term “liberal” means a little more than that. Liberalism as a philosophy emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries and was kicked off by the writings of John Locke, who is sometimes known as the “Father of Liberalism.” Liberalism created the necessary alternative to what became known as classical conservatism, a worldview characterized by ideas such as Divine Right, despotism or absolute monarchy, theocratic government, feudalism, and hereditary rule.
Liberalism, as suggested by the Latin root liber, which means “free,” is a political philosophy that holds individual freedoms as fundamental to a life worth living – the freedom of self-determination without government interference. To what extreme this idea is taken to depends on on the society in question, but in general a liberal society believes in a free market, secular State, internationalism, democracy, and free speech.
In this most classical meaning of the word, almost all American politicians, past and present, have been/are liberals. To many American “liberals” (meaning those whose politics generally align with the Democratic Party) most of these ideals are widely-held, however classical liberalism also stresses the importance of free-market capitalism with as little government interference as possible. It opposes the welfare state on the grounds of its supposed interference with an individual’s right to self-determination, and it also in general opposes corporate regulation as an undue burden on private property (which liberals believe is a human right).
So given all that, what can we say about Jesus? Was he really a liberal?
But it’s a useful and honorable question to ponder if you phrase it somewhat differently, such as, “Are the religious and ethical teachings of Jesus compatible with liberalism?” or perhaps even, “Had Jesus been magically transported in time to the 18th/19th/20th century and given a crash course in civics and political science, what would he have thought of liberalism?”
Some aspects of liberalism are quite easy to reconcile with Jesus’s message. He was not a fan of monarchy or despotism, for example, preferring divine kingship (the Divine-as-king instead of king-as-divine). I strongly believe that Jesus eventually opened or planned to open his program to Gentiles on a conditional basis, so liberal ideas of international cooperation might have appealed to him. Free speech, while anachronistic to retroject as an ideal Jesus espoused, does not seem like it would present any conflict with his style of living.
Other liberal tenets are harder to square with the Kingdom of God. That term, Kingdom of God, was the name Jesus used for his program or mission, and it inherently carries political meaning (Rome considered itself a kingdom, not an empire). Clearly Jesus favored some form of theocracy, although I seriously doubt it was in any way autocratic, with a high-priest-type intermediary between God and the people. That type of system was familiar in first-century Palestine, and Jesus made many statements condemning it and its personification in the Temple (Mark 11:15, 13:2, 14:58, ; Matthew 8:4=Luke 5:14, etc.). Consider this crucial aspect of Jesus’s mission:
[Jesus] appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road…Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:1-2, 4, 8-11).
This program is more than just evangelizing; it is Jesus putting the Kingdom into practical action. By inducting a multitude (70 should not be taken as an exact number, but rather as shorthand for a large amount) into the ranks of his disciples and sending them to bring the Kingdom to the towns and villages of Galilee, carrying no supplies to advertise their destitution and reliance on the charity of the towns they came to (signalling an interdependence between itinerant charismatics and settled householders), Jesus was quite literally beginning to create the Kingdom here on earth (as it is in Heaven).
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