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An essay donated by James B. Gray

"Why is our 'Christian' society anti-Jesuan?"

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While attending an Easter service yesterday, my mind wandered to two gospel passages—neither of which was a part of the readings for the day. The first passage was Matthew 23, within which Matthew has Jesus blasting the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees; the second passage was John 11, which contains the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).

Why did Jesus (in Matthew 23) express anger at the teachers of the Law and Pharisees—such that he felt it necessary to engage in a rather lengthy diatribe against them? They were, he asserted, according to Matthew, hypocrites who posed as experts on the Law, yet did not practice what they preached -- and, indeed, taught a version of the Law that de-emphasized the heart of the Law, i.e., the passages that taught justice and mercy and honesty. “You hypocrites! You clean the outside of your cup and plate, while the inside is full of what you have gotten by violence and selfishness.” That is, the behavior and values of the individuals against which he was directing his tirade were anything but that which the Law enjoined.

What caused Jesus to weep in the John passage? Jesus had just learned of the death of his friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus saw Mary’s weeping, and the weeping of the people who were with him, and his heart was touched -- “he was deeply moved,” in fact, and began weeping himself.

Seemingly, these two passages have little in common. Why, then, did these two passages come to my mind as I was in church today? The point that I would like to make here is that Jesus is commonly portrayed as mild manner -- as one with, in fact, a somewhat bland personality. Yet these two passages portray Jesus as overcome with emotion: anger in the first instance, sadness in the second. And the passages depict Jesus as not only subject to the same emotions as we are; the two passages have in common that they reveal a Jesus whose orientation was to the well-being of his fellows. He was angry with the teachers of the Law and Pharisees because he knew that the orientation of the Law was to well-being (see my essay “Worship” for elucidation of this point), yet they were obscuring this fact from the people -- in effect, thereby, blaspheming the Law. Given this why wouldn’t Jesus be angry?! Also, he weeped at the death of his friend Larazus because Lazarus had been a friend. and weeping is what one does under the circumstances.

Although the gospels do not record it, Jesus was likely also saddened, near the end of his ministry, by the fact that it was ending in failure—which it did, contrary to “the [alleged] Easter message.” Jesus had tried to call the attention of his fellows to the fact that the religious leaders of the society were promulgating an inverted -- and therefore perverted -- version of the Law. He had tried to make his countrymen aware of the true Law (that one loves God by loving the neighbor). He had tried to “convert” his fellow Jews to the truth regarding the Law. But Jesus had failed. Despite this fact, the religious leaders of his society had perceived Jesus as a threat,1 and therefore developed a plan which eventuated in silencing him.

Or did it? Jesus’s words (and deeds) were purportedly recorded in the gospels that appear in our Bibles. But two questions arise regarding those books:

  • Do these four books give an accurate record of what Jesus said and did, so that the dozens of other books written during the early years of the movement were properly ignored, or declared heretical and, therefore, mostly destroyed?

  • Insofar as these four books do provide a good basis for discerning the true nature of Jesus, are their contents—despite the diversity of those books—accurately presented in the churches?

I will not herein address the first question (a very interesting and relevant one, certainly) choosing, rather, to focus only on the second one. And the assertion that I would make regarding the Christian churches as they relate to the canonical gospels, is that were Jesus to attend virtually any Christian church today—whether at Easter, or any other time of the year—he would become both angry and saddened.

He would be angry at the fact that the values that “drive” our society—greed, materialism, and selfishness—are not ones that he would perceive as “of God,” yet the churches established in his name do, and have done, little to denounce those values. Rather, what the churches emphasize is correct belief (i.e., orthodoxy) and the participation in ritual; they do not ignore giving attention to the sorts of values associated with Jesus’s ministry (i.e., “Jesuan” ones)—but merely give lip service to them. Which amounts to the same sort of hypocrisy that he accused the religious leaders of his time of engaging in. The complicity of the churches in giving support to our society’s dominant values—with some churches going so far as doing so explicitly!—would not only make Jesus deeply angry at this blasphemy, but deeply saddened as well. For Jesus would realize that millions of Americans, over the years, have been in effect “brainwashed” into thinking that they were being sold the genuine article when in fact they have been sold a cheap, fraudulent substitute.

I’m not sure that Jesus would have taken the next step, and asked: Why is it that in this society the dominant values are greed (i.e., people are driven to acquire as much as possible), materialism (i.e., they are driven to acquire things), and selfishness (i.e., after they have acquired all they can, they are intent on keeping it for themselves)? But if he would not have asked that question, I will—for I believe it to be an essential question. The basis for my saying that is that if one would like to see a “conversion” of our society from the dominant ones of greed, materialism, and selfishness to ones more decidedly “Jesuan,” one needs to address four questions:

  • Why are those values the dominant ones in America?

  • Given the reasons for their dominance, which of those factors are subject to change (and can therefore be thought of as “levers”), which not?

  • Given the factors identified as subject to change, what specifically can be done to change them?

  • Of actions that can be effectively engaged in, which ones should be?

It’s possible that if Jesus’s ministry, as recorded in the various gospels (canonical and otherwise), were analyzed carefully, one would conclude that implicitly he asked the above questions. But whether or not that might be the case, my concern here is with contemporary American society, not a society of 2,000 years ago. Also, although all four of the above questions warrant attention, I will restrict myself here to just the first one—and be deliberately brief.

It would seem that there are three possible answers to this question:

  • People in general (not just Americans) are born with a strong tendency to be greedy, materialistic, and selfish; i.e., they are genetically “programmed” this way (which answer implies that a solution is not possible—short of changing “human nature”—so that it is foolish to even think about “reforming” Americans).

  • People use their free will to choose to be this way (which suggests that the solution is to preach at those most responsible for the problem—i.e., the elite—the “solution” used by the prophets and Jesus—the implication here being that because the prophets and Jesus were failures, there is no point in attempting this “solution” either).

  • Societal developments have been such as to prompt people to be this way—despite the fact that they are neither programmed to be this way, nor want to be this way (which implies that the answer lies in bringing about societal system change—which, in turn, raises two additional questions:

    • (a) change in what direction? and

    • (b) how shall the change be brought about?).

In this essay I choose not to give attention to the first two explanations—primarily because I believe that they are of too little importance to merit attention. And although I will focus solely on the third explanation, even that one will receive but cursory attention below. Given this, I would mention three facts of the American experience as particularly decisive in explaining the current prominence of greed, materialism, and selfishness in our value system. Values that are particularly prominent in our elite—but because of that fact are also notably present in non-elite groups given that elite values have a tendency (in part because of elite promotion!) to spread through the rest of the population. The three facts:

  • The fact that we are a nation of immigrants—with roots especially in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

  • The frontier experience—which especially affected those of us whose ancestors came from northern Europe (given that that experience can be thought of as ending in the 1890s).

  • Urbanization/industrialization—which experience affected especially those whose ancestors came from southern Europe and (more recently) Asia.

The immigrant experience—first given significant attention by Oscar Handlin in his classic The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, (1951)—was one that removed people from a situation that was often rather miserable, but that provided some measure of security; provided them with a stressful and miserable journey to America (resulting in many deaths—especially in the case of slaves); and placed them in a situation of discrimination and maltreatment (especially with slaves, of course). The language barrier placed immigrants at a disadvantage, but the fact that many those who had come over “freely” had arrived with family members and village friends/acquaintances at least provided them with some sense of security—a sense denied, however, to slaves, who were often separated from family members. Basically, however, immigrants—whether free or slave—were “provided” with a sense of estrangement by their immigration experience (i.e., their trip over, along with their experiences as new citizens in this country), and that sense was transmitted to progeny—which helped prepare those progeny later to acquire the values of greed, materialism, and selfishness.

The frontier experiences (first given important attention by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”) affected primarily immigrants from northern Europe who came to this country in the middle and late nineteenth century. Turner claimed that that experience encouraged those involved in it to value conquest (initially of the environment—which needed to be “tamed”), invention, individualism, simplicity, and democracy. A value system that encouraged innovation (especially of a technological nature) and energetic activity—values further encouraged by the “Protestant ethic” which these immigrants may have brought over with them. These values, again although not themselves involving greed, materialism, and selfishness, contained the seeds of those values, and required only further societal development before “flowering” in the values of greed, materialism, and selfishness.

That further societal development I would identify as industrialization/urbanization—a development that especially impacted immigrants who came to this country from northern and southern Europe, and who settled in urban areas. Those from Europe who settled in rural areas (primarily from northern Europe) were not initially affected; nor were those who had been brought over as slaves (and were still associated primarily with the South). Asians may have been affected somewhat, but few of them were present in America a century ago—and the ones that were present were “shielded” somewhat from the effects of industrialization/urbanization by strong family ties.

A “classic” (if largely unknown) discussion of the effects of industrialization/urbanization the American value system was provided in Thorstein Veblen’s 1891 “Some Neglected Points in the Theory of Socialism” (published in the Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science). 2 This article was written at a time when industrialization/urbanization was well underway in America, Darwinian thinking (with, e.g., its “struggle for existence”) was in the air (and being applied in socio-political contexts), and socialism was a significant movement in the Western world, including in America. All three of these developments are reflected in Veblen’s article.

His starting assumption was that man has, and always has had, regard for “his good fame—to his standing in the esteem of his fellowmen. 3 This characteristic he always has had, and no doubt always will have” — presumably because it is a trait rooted in our biological nature as humans. In the past, the people with whom one interacted were known to one; and because one had first-hand knowledge of their behavior, one could make judgment’s regarding their character from that knowledge. One had, i.e., a good basis for labeling another as honest, trustworthy, hard-working, skilled, kind, selfish, etc.

An industrial society, however, is one that typically has a settlement pattern featuring cities of varying sizes. 4 The density of population in cities is such that one typically, during the course of a week, interacts not only with a large number of people, but people who mostly are strangers. Because of this fact, how is a city-dweller to satisfy his/her need for having a good reputation in the eyes of others?—given that “the existing organization of society does not in any way preeminently foster . . . [such a] line of development” [i.e., a reputation based on solid knowledge on the part of others].

Given that the opinion that others have of oneself cannot, in most cases, be based on their first-hand knowledge of oneself, the only avenue open to oneself is to seek economic success, and then display that success (Veblen’s famous “conspicuous consumption”). The urban environment, then, tends to precipitate a “struggle for respectability” on the part of its residents. 5 A “struggle” that—as it manifests itself with clothing, e.g.—may result in a person choosing “to go ill-clad in order to be well dressed.” A “straining after economic respectability” that comes to result in “the struggle of each to possess more than his neighbor . . . .”

Veblen went on to note that this “struggle” was (a) inseparably related to the institution of private property; was (b) resulting in increased jealousy (feeding the socialist movement) and unrest; and (c) resulted in much wasteful production (i.e., goods that were not necessary to produce)—but these comments are all beside the point so far as the present discussion is concerned. The principal contribution of Veblen’s article was to provide a basis for explaining greedy behavior focused on the acquisition of material things. And given that it virtually follows that if one is driven by greed, one likely will also be selfish, in effect Veblen also provided an explanation for the selfishness component of our value system.

Veblen concluded his article by asserting: “With the abolition of private property, the characteristic of human nature which now finds its exercise in this form of emulation, should logically find exercise in other, perhaps nobler and socially more serviceable, activities; it is at any rate not easy to imagine it running into any line of action more futile or less worth of human effort.” A conclusion—the latter one—that I find easy to accept. Whether Veblen was correct in asserting that the abolition of private property would result in a change—for the better—of our society’s value system is more debatable. If by “private property” Veblen meant “privately-owned real property,” I tend to agree with Veblen. The problem, however, is developing an implementable plan for accomplishing such a change, one that would also involve the use of non-violent means. Veblen did not offer a solution to this problem, but neither has anyone else.

It may be, then, that we are “stuck” with a value system that is inherently anti-Jesuan—while being Christian. Unfortunately, Christian values—for what they’re worth—will likely lead us to the edge of the precipice, and then some. So that just as Jesus was crucified as a consequence of decisions by the religious leaders of his time, the human species may very well crucify itself—led by people attached to Christian values.

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Footnotes:

  1. Bruce Chilton has argued brilliantly in The Temple of Jesus, 1992, that there is good reason for believing that at some point Jesus began using bread and wine as sacrifice substitutes. Although Chilton does not carry his argument to its logical conclusion, I would add that if Jesus did this, this would seem to indicate that Jesus learned—perhaps from Essenes living in Jerusalem—near the end of his life, the Essene view that the High Priest was not legitimate. In learning this he concluded that Temple sacrifice lacked legitimacy, and that he needed, therefore, to cease participating in Temple sacrifices and instead institute a suitable substitute that would simultaneously not place a burden on his fellows. Jesus then “hit” on the idea of using bread and wine as substitutes for flesh and blood, and began promoting the practice of the sacramental use of bread and wine—outside the Temple. When the Temple authorities learned of this practice, they realized that they could not allow it to become widespread, because their livelihood depended on Temple sacrifice. (One is reminded here of the amusing story of Demetrius’s reaction to Paul’s preaching; Acts 19:21 – 41.) They therefore plotted to have Jesus killed, having the Romans do their dirty work for them—for reasons other than the real ones. (Reminds one of the current war in Iraq, doesn’t it!)
  2. Available online at http://de.geocities.com/veblenite/txt/neglect.txt.
  3. The article was written before the era of political correctness.
  4. A hierarchy of cities, in fact—something that German geographer Walter Christaller was to theorize about several decades later.
  5. An analog of Charles Darwin’s “struggle for existence,” with its “natural selection” (or “survival of the fittest,” a phrase Darwin borrowed from Herbert Spencer, and first used in the fifth edition of the Origin of Species).

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Originally posted: 2008-MAR-25
Latest update: 2011-APR-03
Author: James B. Gray

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