Libertarian Jesus?

Guest article by Jan Golan.

Religion is a vital factor in the creation of one’s worldview. Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “there are very few who can think, but every man wants to have an opinion; and what remains but to take it ready-made from others, instead of forming opinions for himself?”. Whether one agrees that religion seems to be a mechanism of adoption of whole sets of views, religious teaching undeniably influences the political views of individuals. For most theists, it established their ethical foundation and must therefore have a considerable impact on their political philosophy. However, it often seems unclear what is the actual teaching of Christianity on economy or politics. Winston Churchill famously criticized socialism from a religious perspective saying that it could only work in two places. In heaven where it is not needed and in hell where they already have it. Others seem to notice egalitarian, anti-capitalist message, and utopian trends in the early Christian communities. Bart Ehrman in Triumph of Christianity wrote: “The founder or leader of the church was a “father”; fellow believers were “brothers” and “sisters” in one big family. Moreover, these were self-consciously communities of mutual love and respect. They provided material support for their needy members.”. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Catholic church represents a sort of third way with some acceptance of capitalism as long as it is accompanied by a generous welfare state, but recent comments and encyclics under pope Francis’ reign seem to indicate an even deeper misunderstanding of capitalism. An important question therefore arises. What would Jesus do … with our economy?

I remember that as a teenager libertarian and a devout Catholic I was astounded during one of the Bible study sessions when we read a passage from the gospel of Mark. The action of Jesus that set out before us stood in plain contradiction with my libertarian worldview. And it was not one of those disputed Bible chapters, where one could argue that a translation mistake or insertion of a later story invalidates the whole issue. It was not a missed nuance nor a misreading of God’s intention. Plain and undeniable contradiction. I felt like one of my beliefs had to go. After a long period of intellectual struggle, I had to conclude, that I had more evidence for the political necessity of free markets and free minds than that Jesus was a son of God. The story, which so vastly shaped my understanding of the world comes from Mark 5:

“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. (…) When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”  For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So, he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. (…) Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.”

Jesus faces a legion of demons, whom he grants permission to enter a flock of swine that does not belong to him. He treads on somebody else’s property, with the result of absolute destruction in its entirety. He is perfectly able to cast out demons without causing damage to anyone’s livestock as demonstrated by other accounts of exorcisms in the gospels and the mere fact of his godly omnipotence. For the pleasure of the demons, he brings destruction upon the flock. He does not make any attempt to compensate for the caused damage. He does not seem to be concerned about the fate of the peasants who were affected by the calamity he has caused. Two thousand pigs were lost to his vanity! Source of food and income of the whole village vanished. In the end, inhabitants just beg Christ to leave them alone.

A standard response of Christian apologists, who would be less concerned with the intrusion on freedoms and property rights of the shepherds and more with breaking the sixth commandment would argue that any ownership does not apply in this case. God as a creator is in possession of his creation and therefore Jesus owned everything that was destroyed in this situation.

Yes, one can make that point. However, one has to follow the consequences of such a view. God as an ultimate owner could make absolutely any use of his property at any time. He could rape Mary Magdalene in a dark alley and then stub her to death afterward. He owns her and everything else. He could lead a riot and burn down houses of the archpriests and slaughter the faithless Pharisees with their children up till the 4th generation, as God seems to suggest his curse is supposed to last (“The Lord…visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7).

Christians however commonly accept that Jesus was supposed to be a symbol of perfection to his flock. Therefore, he did not rape, kill, and rampage through Jerusalem despite being the sole owner of the whole universe. If one were to do everything as he did, one would attain absolute perfection and salvation. Therefore, Jesus in this passage is actually showing what attitude Christians should have to the private possessions of others.  He just does not seem to believe in the existence of any property rights. How awkward.

I have used the example of raping Mary Magdalene to shock the reader with the logical entailment of the fallible position. However, I am not certain, that what has happened in Mark 5 is any better. Are the dozens of impoverished shepherds and their families slowly starving to death because their only source of income got killed by an insane messiah much better off than victims of rape or murder? And even if they were not the owners of the pigs, one can only contemplate the severe punishment they would face for Jesus’ derangement. Flogged to death or thrown into prison for theft of the flock. No one can expect the owner of the shed to believe that the pigs got possessed by demons.

Even if you do not care about humans, you should at least be concerned with the fate of animals in this tale. Drowning is arguably one of the most horrific deaths one can go through. The water slowly fills out your nostrils, your throat, your lungs. You desperately try to catch a breath. If you try to keep your mouth shut, then an involuntary bodily mechanism will eventually make you open your lips. Slow, cruel death. Jesus does not seem too vegan, does he? And to what end was all of this pain and suffering caused? To please a demon. Well, a legion of demons, if it makes it any better. If this whole story is not offensively absurd, then it is certainly offensively unethical, but also deeply anti-libertarian.

However, Jesus’ tampering with property rights does not end there. Another key piece of evidence is the Temple Purge. Even non-libertarians have to engage in a massive apologetic effort to justify his uncivilized action. Appropriate historical background information seems to counter all those tries. As Dan Barker puts it in Godless: “These were people who were practicing free enterprise, most likely using their profits to provide for their families. More than that, they were offering a service to worshippers who would otherwise be unable to donate to the temple devoted to Jesus’ father, hence to Jesus himself! Was he totally nuts?”. According to the second commandment (conveniently overlooked by most Christians), Jews were not allowed to make any images of anything under the sun to prevent idolatry, which led to aniconism amongst Israelites (lack of any art depicting nature or humans). Therefore, they could not enter the sacred temple with coins containing the image of the Roman Emperor. To avoid God’s wrath the Temple in Jerusalem would produce special coins, which could be brought into the sacred area to pay for example for the redemption of the first-born son. What does Jesus do with those who dared to conform to his father’s teachings? According to the gospel of John 2:

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”.”

Jewish travelers to Jerusalem therefore could not, engage in an exchange of money, essential for temple rituals. He persecuted the entrepreneurs, who facilitated the life of the pilgrims and destructed their private property. Does not sound too libertarian, does it?

The most despicable act for any libertarian may perhaps be slavery. Jesus himself does not take the stance on that issue in the gospels, however, it can be well approximated from writings of the early Christians, his parables, and ultimately his silence. What does the divinely inspired word of God say outside of the four gospels? For the sake of time, I will skip the Old Testament passages where Jews are allowed by God to own slaves and even beat them as long as they do not die within two days (Exodus 21) to concentrate on what his “first followers” had to say. A multitude of Christians disagree with the majority of God’s works in the “less joyful” part of the Bible and marginalize their importance as “first covenant” or “harsh historical circumstances” anyway.

The letters of Peter provide us with plenty of insight into the moral beliefs of early Christians passed on from Jesus himself. Though, it is highly unlikely that the first pope is actually the author of the text since the Bible itself mentions that he was illiterate. Either way, Christians consider those pieces of literature inspired by God, so it does not change the line of reasoning or importance for moral doctrine.

“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh”

No libertarian could ever utter such a sentence. Unless he is reading the following passage in a church. But then he should leave that church, shake the dust off his feet and never come back. And it is not only saint Peter who holds a reprehensible view of slavery. Paul, who some argue influenced Christian theology to a greater extent than Jesus did, does not seem to notice anything even potentially immoral about ownership of other people. Colossians 3:22:

“Servants, obey in all things your masters.”

At this point, it is simply meaningless to comment on the passage. If Paul and Peter were to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, they would conclude that the plantation owners were the morally superior characters in the story, while ex-slave Django trying to help his enslaved wife escape was the evil villain. She should be obedient to the masters not conspiring to break from her chains.

No, if you are a slave, you should not be obedient in every aspect of life quite the opposite. You should do as little work as possible while minimizing punishment. If an occasion comes, you should rebel and escape your owners. That is the primary focus of your life once you find yourself in a state of enslavement. It is Paul also, who makes the astounding claim about the divine right of the government in Romans 13:

 “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

No, the power wielded by Joe Biden was not bestowed upon him by God, and whenever he takes away our freedoms, we should and will rebel. This single passage bears a lot of responsibility for the multitude of Christian theocracies during the last two millennia.

 One still could argue however that the following texts were corrupted with a stain of the original sin and devil’s machinations. Make a far-fetched case that they do not represent what Jesus thought about slavery and the state. Then let us analyze the following words uttered by the messiah himself. Luke 12:47, 48:

“[Jesus speaking] “And that slave, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.”

Jesus demonstrates his compassion by advising us that some slaves should not be beaten as hard as other slaves because they did not know any better. It would be surprising for Jesus to denounce slavery while he justified the use of violence by slaveowners. Not only slavery seems to be considered by the messiah an appropriate relationship between humans, but corporal punishment for misbehavior is considered a just act.  Although Jesus does not explicitly endorse ownership of people in the following quote, he certainly normalizes such a relationship.

All four gospels lack his clear stand on that issue. However, Christ’s silence on the topic of slavery is a piece of evidence as well. If one were to oppose the ownership of other people as property in the times of ancient Rome, we would expect it to be a vital component of his teachings. Unethical activity so widespread and damaging certainly would garner significant attention of a moral teacher. It can also be assumed that his followers would notice his very controversial at that time stand. At least one gospel writer would remember that Christ opposed the status quo in that aspect. But the text we have perfectly fits the narrative that we would see in the opposite case. If Jesus would have nothing against slavery, he simply would not mention it in his teachings. He would not be concerned with that issue. Instead of versatile opposition towards ownership of people, we have silence.

One biblical passage, which instantly comes to mind when trying to find some libertarian thought in his teachings, is the one where Jews ask Christ if they should pay the taxes to the Romans. Christ answers in Luke 20:25:

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

Quite disappointing. Someone should have reminded him that taxation is theft. The justification laid out by Jesus is even less convincing, than “taxation is the price for civilization” or “you consent to taxation through social contract”. Statists improved their rhetoric over years. Christ simply believes that Caesar has the right to tax you all he wants. He considers the money taken away in taxes as rightfully belonging to the state. Whatever tax rate Caesar declares it is not immoral extortion, but a matter outside of God’s consideration. It has to be noted that the tax Jesus ruled in favor of paying was minuscule in comparison to modern and medieval standards. Jews had to pay one dinar to the Caesar, which was an equivalent of a wage for one day of labor. An obvious correction must be made for poverty. The overall share of absolute necessity in spending of citizens in antiquity was much higher, and therefore taxation had to be lower. Roman Emperor simply could not impose a forty percent income tax because half of the taxpayers would vanish after an epidemic of famine.

The following evidence seems to suggest that Jesus had nothing to do with libertarian principles. It would even be naïve to expect a bronze age figure to believe in a political philosophy dating back to the seventeenth century. None of those ideas existed two thousand years ago. However, it is a necessity to at least expect a son of God to restrain from completely contradicting the principles one believes. If one holds unregulated markets and private liberties as self-evident, then they cannot be stifled by an all-wise, all-knowing God. Either Jesus was not a son of God or God is an authoritarian.

Categories: Politics

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