Saturday, January 17, 2015

Was Jesus A Communist?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 16, 2000

You might remember that last Sunday, I mentioned how the use of quotation marks-- those little, tiny bits of punctuation-- can sometimes change the entire meaning of a written passage. Well, today I'd like to point out how capitalization can sometimes play a similar role:
In transmitting to you the title of this morning's sermon ("Was Jesus a Communist?"), the rules of punctuation and capitalization required me to capitalize that last word-- "Communist". I didn't wanna do it... I didn't wanna do it...
For to me, you see, whether that "c" is big or small makes all the historical difference in the world. In my opinion, there is all the difference in the world between "Communism" (capital "C"), and "communism" (lower-case "c").
"Communism" (big C) can be defined as (and this is right from one of my books, so you know it's right): "An economic and political system in which all property is owned by the state and the society is placed under the control of a single (Communist) party." That's the Communism that we mean when we think of Soviet Russia and Red China and political states like them... Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the whole bloody century...
But when we talk of "communism" (small "c"), I at least mean something different. I'm talking here about a kind of system in which everything is owned by everybody, an economic system in which all property  is shared in common for the good of the whole society. I guess what I'm talking about here is socialism, really-- the ultimate stage of socialism-- but (to be honest), the title "Was Jesus a Communist?" sounded better than the title "Was Jesus a Socialist?", so I went with it!
One thing that really galls me is when so-called experts on these matters (who should know better) insist on lumping socialism (or even lower-case communism) together with historical Leninist-Stalinist tyranny and discarding both to the same trash compactor of history. That system which existed in the USSR (and which exists in China and North Korea and a few other places today) has as much resemblance to the ideals of socialism (or even Marxism for that matter) as the pomp and circumstance of the present-day Vatican has to Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table in the upper room in Jerusalem for the Last Supper.
Now, religious operatives (like your truly) love to speak for Jesus. This is true of religious leaders both of the Left and of the Right. We like to think we know what Jesus would have done; what he would have said; how he would look out at our present-day society and culture. And, of course, if we are honest, we have to admit that this is dangerous and perhaps a bit disingenuous. Because we really don't know what Jesus would make of our world-- or given the context and historical era out of which he emerged, whether he'd be able to make any judgments whatsoever about our own time.
It's like Albert Schweitzer said in his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: Looking for Jesus is like looking down a deep well; every generation that does it ends up seeing its own reflection reflected back at it. When we make pronouncements about what Jesus would think-- or what Jesus would do-- we're really saying more about ourselves (and we're where coming from) than we're saying about Jesus...  But that doesn't stop us from wondering, does it?
A friend of mine once suggested some of the amazing things that might happen if, somehow, we could clone Jesus. It's an intriguing matter to consider, don't you think? Perhaps we would all be really surprised! (If I didn't have another book to write during my sabbatical, that's one I'd really like to try my hand at! That one might even sell, too!)
Of course, we don't really know what Jesus would make of our world.
But I'm willing to bet on a couple of things:
For one thing, I know that if we had to keep that "c" in "Communism" capitalized, then the answer to this morning's question ("Was Jesus a Communist?") would be a resounding "No!".
The meek and mild teacher of Nazareth would have nothing to do with that damnable system founded upon an authoritarian, Leninist, one-party dictatorship. He would have nothing to do with the mad totalitarian police state of Stalin, or the endless purges and political machinations of Mao (or even Castro). He would have nothing to do with a system founded upon godlessness-- which reduced humanity to a cog in an economic machine, and completely denigrated humankind's spiritual and creative side...
Which means also, I'd be willing to bet that Comrade Jesus wouldn't be much of a capitalist either. I mean, really: If Jesus came back to Earth, can you see him hob-nobbing and carrying around with Bill Gates? Or Donald Trump? Or Ivan Boesky or Michael Milliken? I don't think so.
No, he would spend his time now with the same kinds of people with whom he spent his entire relatively-brief earthly life: with the poor and the oppressed; with those whom society had discarded and marginalized; with the poorest of the poor, the anawim   (to use the original Aramaic term)the wretched of the earth.
And he would listen to them and hear what they had to say and become, once again, a voice of the voiceless.
Here are the kinds of things that Jesus would hear among the anawin of today:
He would hear that in Brazil there are more than 20 million children living on the street, abandoned by families that just could not afford to pay for them...
He would hear that in Haiti, the literacy rate is under 20%, and the infant mortality rate is over 30%... that there are only seven physicians for every 100,000 people... that per capita earnings average only about $300... and that 77% of the population earns less than $150 per year...
He would hear that there are 1 billion people in this world of ours who are going hungry... while a handful of people possess more wealth than a score of nations combined.
Among the poorest of the poor in our own land-- this land of abundance-- in these days of "unrivaled economic prosperity" (and there are quotation marks around that phrase, by the way), he would hear these tales:
  • that 20 million Americans (more than 12 million children under the age of 12) will have no food left at some point during the next month...
  • that 3 to 7 million Americans are homeless, and that 40% of the homeless are families with children, and 50% of the homeless are Vietnam veterans...
  • that 40 million Americans have no health insurance, and no access to basic health care...
  • that one out of every five children under the age of 6 in America today is living in poverty--- including two out of every five Hispanic children--and one out of every two African American children...
  • that in 1968, the poorest 20% of American families had an estimated 91% of the income they needed for basic requirements; by 1983, they had only 60%; today, that figure is somewhere around 45%...
  • that since 1980, the income of the lowest 60% of Americans, adjusted for inflation, has dropped 14%; at the same time, the income of the top 1% has increased by over 90%.
Jesus would hear that in capitalist Japan, the average CEO makes (about) 5 times more than the average worker... in (capitalist) Germany (about) 20 times more... an in this rich fortress, America, the average chief executive make 419 times more than the average worker in that same company... 
I can't talk for Jesus. But I can't believe that a soul like his-- a gentle, radiant spirit whose compassion and goodness have touched us and moved us, so often, for so long--  would not be moved by such injustice and depravity.
I deeply believe that if Jesus were among us still, he would preach a theology of liberation-- a theology of freedom-- a theology of blessings and hope for all living creatures.
He would talk of a faith that has its birth not in doctrine or dogma (with which he seemed to have little patience during his own day)-- not even in Scripture itself, perhaps (for which Jesus had a healthy respect, but which he could transcend on occasion and use creatively in service to the real life all around him). A genuine theology of liberation can be developed only out of the actual day-to-day experience and lives of those who long to be liberated. Liberation theology is based in the direct experience-- the praxis-- of the poor and oppressed and exploited.
Secondly, the faith of Jesus was (and would be) energized by its commitment to the poor. Living Christianity clearly exhibits a "preferred option for the poor", in the words of contemporary liberation theologians. This preferred option emerges unmistakably from Scripture itself: "Blessed are the poor," Jesus declares. The love of
God is not an earthly possession that the world can give or take away. It is a free gift, available to all people. It is in loving the poor most dearly that the God to whom Jesus prayed reveals just how unlimited and untrammeled and full of the most amazing grace His love truly is. Jesus would be prejudiced, yes-- not in favor of any particular race or religion or nationality or gender or sexual orientation-- but prejudiced in favor of the poor and the oppressed.
Thirdly, Comrade Jesus would come and offer us a faith of resurrection and transformation. His is a theology of life arising from the very bonds of death-- not just physical death-- but even more importantly (perhaps) new life that transcends the deadening of the spirit within this life. The most powerful form of this living death in our world today is poverty. In the political and economic realm, poverty equals death. And exploitation and oppression and obscene economic imbalance and globalization are, in our own day, the chief executioners of the human spirit. The hope of Easter-- the hope of the resurrection-- is the hope that death that be overcome in all of its forms-- a hope that the bonds of poverty can finally be overcome, within this life.
Finally, this neo-Jesus, like his historical antecedent, would preach the coming of the kingdom (or the realm) of God. No longer would the coming of God's realm be seen as some supernatural, future event (to be dutifully chronicled on CNN). Nor is the "realm of God" just another "feel good", amorphous, theoretical religious construct. Rather, with our eyes focused on liberation, we can now see the "realm of God" as the ultimate transformation of human society:
We'll build a land that will bind up the broken,
We'll build a land where the captives go free,
where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning,
oh we'll a promised land that can be...
The coming of the kingdom is not to be seen in terms of supernatural intervention, but rather in terms of the culmination of human history. Thus, the actual struggles of all of us for justice-- joined with the struggles of men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere on this good earth-- is intimately interwoven with our ushering forth-- our bringing to birth-- the Realm of God.
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," Jesus taught. "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."  "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the earth."
Clinton Lee Scott once wrote:
Jesus is risen from the dead.

Forsaken by his friends,
sentenced to die with thieves,
his body buried in a borrowed tomb,
he has risen to command
the hearts of millions, and
to haunt our hate-filled world
with the restlessness of undying hope.

The years bring him increasingly to life.
The imperial forces that tried to destroy him
have long ago destroyed themselves.
Those who passed judgment upon him
are remembered only because of him.

Military might and political tyranny
still stalk the earth;
they too shall perish,
while the majesty of this carpenter-prophet
bearing his cross to the hill
will always remain to rebuke the ways of violence [and despair].
The road to the realm of God is not primarily to be found in ritual and liturgy and "church stuff" like that-- although these things can bring us refreshment and can nourish us along our spiritual journeys. No, the truly religious road is to be found in the daily struggles of the poor and oppressed. As a religious person, that's where Jesus stood-- firm and strong and unwavering, at the center of a radical kingdom of equals. As religious people, that's where we need to stand, too.
If Jesus were to come and be among us again, he would probably leave it to us to choose for ourselves the political and economic system to best meet our own needs. But we know, I think, what his "bottom line" would be: Not how much money will it make, but how good will it make you, how much closer will it bring you to your God, who is in Heaven? How much more like Heaven will it make this Earth your God has given you? He would not as us what we did to protect the status quo, to serve the rich and powerful. He would ask now what he asked way back then-- well neigh two thousand years ago: "How did you meet the unmet needs of your sisters and brothers all around you?"
"For as you have done it to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, so you have done unto me."

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