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
(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
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,
(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
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.
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!)
The article was written before the era of political correctness.
A hierarchy of cities, in fact—something that German geographer Walter Christaller was to theorize about several decades later.
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).