“Even more striking are Jesus’ teachings that we must elevate ‘feminine virtues’ from a secondary or supportive to a primary and central position. We must not be violent but instead turn the other cheek; we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us; we must love our neighbors and even our enemies. Instead of the ‘masculine virtues’ of toughness, aggressiveness, and dominance, what we must value above all else are mutual responsibility, compassion, gentleness, and love.”
-Riane Eisler, The Chalice & The Blade (p. 121)
Yesterday was Easter, the day that many hundreds of millions of Christians around the world celebrate the believed-in resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth about 1,985 years ago. Should those of us who believe that systemic, fundamental change, revolutionary change, is needed in this wounded and struggling world join in this celebration?
Many revolutionaries would say no, given the questionable proof that Jesus actually rose from the dead and ascended to a mysterious place called heaven. For myself, I’m not that kind of a believer. But I do believe that, after Jesus died, the memory of him, his spirit, if you will, had profound impacts upon his followers that led to the emergence of Christianity as, for many decades after his death, one of the most revolutionary movements the world has ever experienced.
No less a revolutionary than Frederick Engels saw things in a similar way. In “The Book of Revelation,” he wrote, “[Quoting Ernest Renan] ‘When you want to get an idea of what the first Christian communities were, do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like local sections of the International Working Man’s Association.’ And this is correct. Christianity got hold of the masses, exactly as modern socialism does, under the shape of a variety of sects, and still more of conflicting individual views, but all opposed to the ruling system, to ‘the powers that be.’” (pps. 205-206)
Karl Kautsky, a close friend of Engels until his death in 1895 and a leading theoretician and practical leader of the European socialist movement, saw things similarly. In his classic book, Foundations of Christianity, published in 1908, he explains how early Christianity was all about raising up the lives of the poor and the oppressed. He comments favorably on Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount: “The reader will observe that to be rich and enjoy one’s wealth is regarded as a crime, worthy of the most cruel punishment.” (p. 328)
More than this, Christianity, with its “outspoken proletarian character,” naturally “aimed to achieve a communistic organization. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘And all that believed were together and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need. Grace was among them, because no one suffered lack, for the reason that they gave so generously that none remained poor.’” (pps. 331-332)
Kautsky, understanding the importance of organization to the efforts to transform society, identified this reality of early Christianity as the reason why the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had such an impact not just in the early first century AD but for the last 2000 years. “Jesus was not merely a rebel, he was also a representative and a champion, perhaps even the founder of an organization which survived him and continued to increase in numbers and in strength. It was the organization of the congregation that served as a bond to hold together Jesus’ adherents after his death, and as a means of keeping alive the memory of their crucified champion. It was not the faith in the resurrection of the Crucified which created the Christian congregation and gave it its strength, but, on the contrary, it was the vigor and strength of the congregation that created the belief in the continued life of the Messiah.” (pps. 376-378).
We all know what happened as the years rolled by, the eventual corruption of the religion of Christianity and it becoming a willing ally of oppressive and violent ruling governments for a millennium and a half.
We also know what happened to the socialist project in the two major countries in the world which had socialist revolutions in the 20th century: the rise of Stalin and Stalinism within 10 years of the Russian Revolution and the reality of repressive crony capitalism in today’s Russia, and the failure of socialist efforts in China to withstand the strength of capitalist ideas in that heavily peasant society.
Today, there is much more appreciation by people who understand the need for people-before-corporations social change that the way that we treat each other as individuals, the quality of our human interactions, is an absolutely fundamental component of that change. You can’t say that you want a society where women and men and people of color and whites have equal rights and opportunities, where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, and interact with those around you in a disrespectful or indifferent way.
We need forms of organization that embody this new, this very old, culture as we go about our day-to-day work of working for change.
Could it be that there is an historic model of this way of living and being that lasted for a long time that most of us have known little about? Could the Christianity of the first century AD help to inspire and lead us in this 21st century toward the world we not just want but which we need, in this time of escalating climate change and more and more serious extreme weather events and ecological destruction?
In “The First Coming,” a book by Biblical scholar Thomas Sheehan published in 1986, the case is made that the important thing about the life of Jesus is not the uncertain resurrection but his radical teachings: “’If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matthew 19:21). The vocation of Jesus and his followers was to live God’s dawning presence—not up above in heaven or up ahead in an apocalyptic future, but there in their midst, at the edge of things where security unravels into risk, at the center of things where common sense is challenged by the wager that henceforth God is found only among men and women.
“All Jesus did was bring to light in a fresh way what had always been the case but what had been forgotten or obscured by religion. His role was simply to end religion—that temporary governess who had turned into a tyrant—and restore the sense of the immediacy of God.” (p. 68)
You don’t need to profess a belief in “God,” or in a higher power of some kind, to get it on the deep and profound truth that we should all try to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” And that organizations which have internalized and openly manifest this truth are organizations that, yes, can change the world.
Ted Glick has been a progressive organizer and activist since April 4th, 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.