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Jesus, Christianity And Social Justice

By Braj Ranjan Mani

26 December, 2013

Jesus of Nazareth was an extremist for love and justice, if not ‘the greatest socialist in human history' (as claimed by Hugo Chavez). His radical inclusiveness—valuing the vulnerable and oppressed—makes Christianity tilt towards universal justice, but there is a substantial tension between his ideals and the religion that was institutionalized in his name. The formula of ‘divine dispensation' allowed the rich to enjoy their wealth while envying the poor their future inheritance of earth and heaven! But Christianity as a religion of moral challenge, notwithstanding hypocrisy and sleaze of conservative clerics, also produced a distinguished line of social revolutionaries—the Anabaptists and the Levellers—who became the pioneers of progressive forces in the West. In regard to India (where 85 per cent Christians are subalterns who embraced the religion in the hope of freedom from caste-class oppression), the Christian leadership has to decide whose legacy it carries and celebrates.

T he fundamentals of Western civilization have been forged through a creative tension between the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. The ancient Greece, the cultural cradle of the West, witnessed the emergence of the idea and institution of democracy. But the democracy in Athens was opposed not only by the adjacent military state of Sparta but also by the elitist Athenians, including some leading philosophers who viewed social hierarchy as a necessity for good society. To Plato and Aristotle, good society was synonymous with their class privilege, and their notions of justice, truth and beauty were derived from this fraudulent formulation. As I have shown in my recent book Knowledge and Power , they opposed the nascent democracy that was struggling to stabilize itself and abolish slavery. In the midst of a protracted battle between the pro and anti democratic forces, the old Greek civilization came to a mysterious end about which nothing much is known. In the subsequent centuries, with the rise of Roman power, there was also a republican-monarchical tussle for supremacy in which the anti-republican forces finally came on top. The Roman aristocrats zealously promoted slavery for the imperial glory and grandeur. As the empire flourished on the toil and tears of slaves, the slaves' rebellions were not uncommon as the spectacular revolt of Spartacus vividly attests. However, in the context of the larger arc of the Western history, a significant challenger to slavery in all its manifestations, though it is not often understood, was none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

Hidden Radicalism

Jesus' own humble origin and social marginality can be seen as a great source of his extraordinary radicalism. In the texts of New Testament, he comes across as a person who is homeless, propertyless, without a formal education and profession, disdainful of material possession, contemptuous of the powerful, and extremely kind to outcasts and pariahs. He never had an exalted religious or political status, but his vivid visions of a righteous God and the imminent Kingdom of God on earth—when ‘the first will be the last, and the last will be the first' —attracted a large following. For reasons known and unknown, he became a living legend—and a thorn in the side of the establishment. The Pharisees, the traditional Jewish priests, felt threatened by his teaching, and the Roman colonialists (who were ruling Israel at that time) also sniffed seditious stuff in his activities. Whatever the exact circumstances, it was the conflict between Jesus and the governing authorities that led to his conviction and crucifixion.

In his life and thought (as the New Testament accounts attest), Jesus emphasizes above all that love and empathy are of more value than anything: that a fair treatment of other people is the condition for our own thriving. His words and activities carry the connotation that sensitizing the self to the needs of others—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outsider, setting free the imprisoned—would generate a climate of reciprocal love, creating the condition for each individual to flourish. Sincerity and equality in relationships would provide the ground of social amity and unity, paving the path for individual excellence. This is possible, however, only in a society of equals, not in the one divided between losers and winners. In parable after parable, he says that God's love is unbounded and oriented towards especially the needy, the suffering, the outcast. His befriending the neglected and reaching out to those who are in pain due to social indifference or oppression overturns hierarchy. By overturning the conventional dualisms of righteous and sinner, rich and poor, ruler and the ruled, his teaching destabilizes structures of oppression.

Thus, Jesus' religion of love, in a manner of speaking, takes off where the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy of hierarchy leaves off. By stressing on radical love as redemptive, he transforms the very notion of contemplation that does not stop in the intellect but spills over in the love of God and all humans. This love could touch and inspire a dour theological scholar Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 74) to transcend Aristotelian thought (wherein man is defined as a political animal) by insisting that we are first and foremost social beings. Arguing that ‘God is the ground of human freedom', Aquinas set out ‘a permanent peace treaty between faith and reason' and wrote this remarkable egalitarian passage in his Summa Theologia :

Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whenever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani : ‘The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.'

Conservatism and Progress

This radical inclusiveness makes Christianity tilt towards universal social justice, though there is a substantial tension between such ideals and the religion that was institutionalized in Jesus' name. The power-loving elites started trooping into Christianity after it received the patronage of Roman emperor Constantine ( c. 274 - 337). With the ascendancy of Christianity as the state religion, the powerful elements gradually appropriated its leadership. The Christianity led by the priest-prince combine encouraged the poor to remain content with their hard lot in the present life so that they could be wonderfully rewarded in the next! Passages like St. Paul's (in Epistle to the Romans ) in which he exhorts Christians to obey the powers that be came handy to the ruling class to command unquestioned allegiance from the commoners. Such doctrines also helped in pulling the wool over people's eyes, thus keeping them away from emancipatory ideas and struggles. In the name of God, the vested interests would justify the status quo and class-structured society, as reflected in this popular verse:

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.

Thus, the faith in God went hand in hand with the faith in the established social and power relationships. Everyone or everything is, or will be, fine by God's grace , or similar abracadabra, became the ruling mantra of the Catholic Christianity. Divine solutions to worldly problems allowed the rich to enjoy their wealth while envying the poor their future inheritance of earth and heaven! It was such elitist domestication of Christianity that prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to define religion as something that ‘stops the poor from murdering the rich'.

However, Christianity as a religion of moral challenge—each person being the custodian of his or her own soul, and responsible for it to God—continued to affect the powerful and powerless alike. Unlike the Platonic-brahmanic philosophy, Christianity—at least in theology and theory—did not deny full humanity to commoners. Jesus' central message that it is unbounded love that will redeem humanity made him a hero even to those who might not have absolute faith in his miracles and resurrection. His life, his message and his martyrdom to redeem the humanity were majestic enough for radicals like Thomas Paine (the author of Rights of Man and The Age of Reason ) who would praise Jesus as a ‘virtuous reformer and revolutionary' but damn the religion practised in his name.

In contrast, the dominant Greco-Roman paradigm of philosophy was openly elitist whereby only the patricians were deemed fit to acquire their full humanity. Behind the smokescreen of ‘justice' and ‘republic', Plato and Aristotle wanted to keep commonality like human cattle, perennially enslaved to the chosen few. Equally contemptuous—and fearful—of commoners was Cicero, the Roman statesman and rhetorician, who advised the rulers to ‘avoid any specific discussion of public policy at public meetings'. On the other hand, Jesus' ethic of unbounded love completely reverses such standards of worthy and unworthy. In his eyes, it was the poor and powerless who were closer to the spirit of love and God. This ethic provided the oppressed an effective moral weapon against the oppressive forces. It is no surprise that in those cruel days of slavery and patriarchy, common men and women became fervent supporters of Christianity.

In other words, though the ruling class exploited the popular appeal of Jesus to further its exploitative agenda, the common people, too, employed the Christian ethic to demand their dignity and human rights. Thus, universalism of the Roman law and Catholic Church, despite their elitist stranglehold, was also utilized by the common people and Christian radicals to foster egalitarian sentiments. Increasing demand for the Bible in people's languages, as we will see shortly, was a part of this ongoing tussle between the powerful and powerless. In contrast to the brahmanic bias in India that completely barred the lowered castes and women from any access to education, Christianity has a history of evolving as a religion of the book which ultimately overcame the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy and set a premium on mass education.

It is worth noting that the printing technology, the greatest invention of the fifteenth century, was pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg ( c. 1400 - 1468) to print the Bible in large number in order to make them easily available to people. Following the Gutenberg Bible in German, the Bible was translated (from Greek and Latin) and published in all European languages, despite stiff opposition of the clergy. Common people came to know from the translations in local languages that their religion, unlike its priestly representation which revolved around an endless stream of rituals to placate a distant Lord, was centred around a loving God who created all humans in his own image and gave them free will to live a meaningful and productive life. Interpreting Christianity in this way, the religious radicals put forward the idea of human beings as free and rational agents. No wonder, the ruling establishment saw such Christians as a threat to their power.

The Great Challengers

A forerunner of this Christian turnaround was William Tyndale (1494 - 1536). Young and restless, he arrived in London from his village ‘not to make his fortune, but to transform the relationship between ordinary people and the written word'. With his extraordinary linguistic gifts, he was determined to render The Old and New Testaments—the defining texts of his age and culture—in an accessible English so that, as he put it, even a ploughman's son could read it. ( Confronting a clergyman who mocked his ambition, Tyndale had retorted: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.') This revolutionary mission, made lethal by Tyndale's unusual brilliance, earned him the wrath of religious and political establishment. Forced to flee England and dodging the authorities from one European city to another, Tyndale was at last caught and burnt at the stake as a heretic at Antwerp for exposing the vested interests to ‘keep the world in darkness', as he himself put it:

In this they [the priestly class] be all agreed, to drive you from the knowledge of the scripture, and that ye shall not have the text thereof in the mother-tongue, and to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine, to satisfy their proud ambition, and insatiable covetousness, and to exalt their own honour above king and emperor, yea, and above God himself. …Which thing only moved me to translate the New Testament. Because I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish the lay-people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.

Tyndale could have saved his life by agreeing with the authorities that the Bible was best left in Latin for the clergy to interpret. Instead he chose to dismiss the Church's claim to monopolize its reading with a boldness that further infuriated the clergy. But before his life was snuffed out, he fulfilled his dream of making Bible available to the English people in their own language. It was Tyndale's brilliant translation (though it is barely acknowledged) that became the main source for the King James or Authorised Version of 1611 Bible. In recent times, Tyndale has rightly been hailed as one of the father figures of English literature. His lasting legacy, though, is as a hero of freedom of expression—as a man who gave his life to disseminate the word.

Like Tyndale, the Dutch Erasmus ( c. 1469 - 1536) had rejected the idea that study of the Bible should be confined to a Latin version that was produced in the year 400. He insisted on going to the original—Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New—while stressing the need to use the best linguistic tools to interpret the Bible. It is notable that Christian humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More (1478 - 1535) celebrated Jesus' ethical teachings but ignored the Church, which, they felt, had become an institution marked by greed, corruption and needless rituals. Influential writings of More, Erasmus and other Renaissance scholars paved the way that led to the movement of Reformation.

The breakthrough came in 1517 when Martin Luther (1483 - 1546), a rebel German monk, defied the Pope, insisting on a new reading of the Bible. Challenging some of the Catholic Church's longstanding dogmas, Luther went on to translate the Bible into German. Coming from a working-class background, he was impatient to take the knowledge of the book to common people. He led a famous rebellion against the Catholic establishment by arguing that a Christian did not need a cleric to connect with God. A complete faith in God, he thundered, was enough to redeem individuals, to guide them to a good life, and lead them to heaven. This revolt jolted the Church and gave birth to the Protestant Movement that engulfed the whole of Europe in the following decades. The Swiss Ulrich Zwingli (1484 - 1531) and the French John Calvin (1509 - 64) adopted and popularized Lutheranism in their countries. Churches of many countries such as England, Germany and Switzerland broke all connections with the Catholic Church and its Pope.

His humble origin and religious zeal notwithstanding, Martin Luther was a social reactionary who conspired with the German rulers to suppress the rebellions of peasants, many of whom, ironically, were inspired by radicalism unleashed by Lutheranism itself. But other German reformers such as the Anabaptists stood for radical social change. They got the support from Thomas Muntzer (1489-1525), a prominent Protestant, who broke way from Luther on this issue. Criticizing Luther for his conservatism, they sowed the seeds of sedition by blending the Christian idea of redemption with the ideal of an exploitation-free society. Since God has created all humans equal, they argued, people are entitled to choose their own priests as well as withhold taxes to the Church. Such argument came like sweet music to the oppressed peasantry overburdened with taxes and indignities of everyday life. All over Europe, peasants and workers began to rebel against the taxes and other services demanded by the Church.

Popular resentment against the Church authority was also stoked by the ruling feudal class which wanted the supremacy of the State over the Church—not for any noble reason but for their own exclusive right to exploit the people. The Catholic Church itself did not escape the profound impact of these developments, and began to reform itself from within. Conscientious Church leaders came out in support of the struggling people. In Spain, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier and others set up the Society of Jesus in 1534 with the avowed aim to serve the unserved, thus broadening their moral and intellectual horizon. Their followers known as Jesuits set a new benchmark in missionary work, contributing significantly to the cause of Catholic thought and education throughout Europe as well as many other parts of the world.

More important, beginning with the publications of Bible in local languages, the emergent print culture unleashed a wave of ideas, opinions and information that challenged the elitist stranglehold of religion and culture in Europe. The emergence of secular and religious scholarship that marked the great movements of Renaissance and Reformation gave birth to a powerful book culture. Led by a glittering array of writers, artists and scientists, it was best articulated by Erasmus, ‘When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.' These exciting developments promoted critical thinking and public reasoning in the West, producing intellectuals like Blaise Pascal (1623 - 62) who would ‘prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise'. It was this creative conflict between the intellectual currents of humanism, scientism and Christianity—represented by geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare, Galileo and Descartes, St. Francis (of Assisi) and Martin Luther, Bacon and Vico—that laid the foundation of the New Age in the West.

Even in the earlier era, there was an opposition in Christianity between those who were contended to prepare their souls for the coming Kingdom of God through repentance, and those who wanted to pave the way for this coming by changing not only themselves but also the social world. The former came to view Church as the pre-figuration of the Kingdom of God, and tended to ally with the social and political regimes that they legitimized as embodiments of the order willed by God. On the other hand, the pro-changers—smaller in number—saw the concepts of social revolution in the teachings of Jesus and biblical concepts. They saw in the Exodus a riveting example of the de-sacralisation of authority by calling for civil disobedience against the oppressive ruler. They took inspiration from Moses, Isaiah and other prophets of Israel, who forbade the people to idolize man-made and wrong laws and taught them to oppose the unjust order. To them, Jesus carried this torch of freedom majestically and his proclamation (in St. John's Book of Revelation) ‘Behold, I make all things new' was interpreted as the faith that encourages one to participate in the transformation of the world. This tradition was embodied by Joachim of Fiore, the prophetic twelfth century abbot, who regarded the ‘holy spirit' as the power that would create a new age both in the Church and the world. In the following centuries, this ‘theology of history' exerted a profound influence on the radical criticisms of the early Franciscans and on the movements of religious reform and social change.

The Christian Left

As we saw earlier, Christian radicals like Thomas Muntzer, the hero of the German Peasants' War, carried forward this tradition. This sixteenth century ‘theologian of revolution' saw humans as divinely inspired creatures capable of reshaping and overhauling the given facts. ‘In its original principles', he argued, ‘the faith enables us to accomplish impossible things.' A champion of natural rights and political freedom, he organized the armed uprising of peasants in order to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. For him, God's Kingdom, whose coming must be prepared in combat, was a society with neither slaves nor masters, without private property, without any state or church authority higher than conscience. Fighting for such cause alongside the rebellious peasants, he was captured and killed. Not surprisingly, Marx recognized Munzer's revolutionary programme as the most advanced the world had known until the mid-nineteenth century, and Engels hailed him as one of the greatest radicals ever. But there were other Christian revolutionaries like the English Gerrard Winstanley that Marx and Engels did not seem to be aware of.

Christianity, thus, did not produce only conservative clerics but also a distinguished line of social revolutionaries known as Levellers, who became the forerunners of the progressive Left in the West. The Levellers played an important role in the English Civil War (1642-9), calling for the abolition of the monarchy, social and agrarian reforms, and religious freedom. Outstanding among them were Gerrard Winstanley and Richard Rumbold. Winstanley was among the first moderns who grasped the necessity of economic equality for social and political freedom; he articulated these views in his remarkable 1651 tract Law of Freedom . This son of a mercer was an impassioned Protestant who advocated a return to an older Christian vision of equality without ranks or property. (This had also animated the famous Peasants' Revolt of 1381 with the rallying cry ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?') Winstanley was up in arms against the government that ‘gives freedom to the gentry to have abundance, and locks up the treasures of the earth from the poor … if they beg, they whip them by their law for vagrants; if they steal they hang him'. Opposing autocratic kingly rule as class rule, he spelt out the radical task to ‘make restitution of the earth, which has been taken and held from the common people by the power of the conquests'. Colonel Rumbold, the leader of the Levellers, ignited similar subversive sentiments. He was brutally murdered for his conspiracy against Charles II, but not before challenging the powerful: ‘There was no man born marked of God above another and none comes into the world with a saddle on his back neither any booted and spurred to ride him.'

Similarly, the Religious Society of Friends founded by Richard Fox ( c . 1650), popularly known as Quakers, though less radical than Levellers, came forward with a progressive vision. Central to the Quakers' belief was the idea of ‘Inner Light, or a sense of Christ's direct working in the soul, which led them to reject both formal ministry and all set forms of worship.

In brief, whatever the reason—perhaps the most important was the transformation of human values by Christianity—the conservative forces in Europe could not stop the triumphant march of progressive forces embodied best by the two events that changed the Western world: Magna Carta and the French Revolution. Magna Carta (1215) became the source of English rights and liberties in the coming centuries, especially in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which started the decisive shift from the monarchical to parliamentarian form of government. The French Revolution of 1789 was more incendiary and universal with its slogan of equality, liberty and fraternity. Since then, in Europe as well as the USA (marked by its Independence and establishment of democracy in 1776), the values of human rights and equality gained steady ascendancy despite the strong opposition from the entrenched elitist forces.

The Indian Context

In the context of Indian subcontinent, Christianity, as we know, came with St. Thomas as early as the second century but for centuries remained confined to a small community known as the Syrian Christians in the south-western tip of India. The second wave of Christianity came only after the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India in 1498 and since then several groups of European adventurers and traders that culminated in the establishment of British colonialism. Obviously, the Christian missionaries who came to India were of different denominations and persuasions. Some of them carried within their Christian work the vision of social radicalism while others were only interested in religious conversion without changing or disturbing the existing social system.

In other words, the Christianity in India was—and is—not a monolith of social conservatism or progressivism, very much like Europe or elsewhere (as we saw in the preceding discussion). This duality of the Christian tradition continued during the colonial rule and continues still in many visible and invisible ways. Put otherwise, the emergence of phenomena such as the Christian right and Liberation theology have their local versions all over the world. Thus, in regard to India (where 85 per cent Christians are subalterns or dalit-adivasis who embraced the religion in the hope of freedom from caste-class oppression), the Christian leadership has to decide whose legacy it carries and celebrates.

Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History: Dominance and Resistance in Indian Society (2005). Manohar has recently published Mani's important new work Knowledge and Power: A Discourse for Transformation .



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