From Christianity and the Social Revolution, ed. by John Lewis, Karl Polanyi, and Donald K. Kitchen. London, Victor Gollancz, 1935.
[In this short essay Conrad Noel outlines some of the themes that will be developed in greater detail in his Life of Jesus, published in 1937. It is reproduced here as an introduction to the thought contained in his later, book-length work. -- Ted M.]
I. The World Plan of Jesus
WHEN CHRISTIAN PREACHERS tell us that the world can be saved only by each one of us accepting Jesus as our personal Saviour, we may justly ask, By which of the many Christs who are presented to us as the " authentic "Jesus? Who in reality is He? For what does He stand in the world of our day? Was He the " final revelation of God "? He Himself assumed that after His resurrection He would send forth His Spirit among men to lead them into further truth, and promised His disciples: "Greater works than these shall ye do." It may be, then, that in His " coming again," whether in visible and tangible form, or expressed in human terms when men shall have created the new world, there may be a further revelation of God.
This question is, anyway, not urgent. In His incarnate manifestation in Galilee, He was so far ahead, not only of His own age, but of ours also, that it will take mankind a good many centuries to catch up with Him. This sketch of His life and personality and principles will at least disclose my own reason for believing in His unique importance.
The significance of Jesus is not always fully appreciated. Someone triumphantly proves that some thought which occurs to the mind of Jesus Christ is to be found also in Jewish philosophy, or in a pagan saying. It is conceivable that every single saying of His can be so paralleled. But the mark of originality is not to think, say, or do something entirely new and alien; it is to have the power of distilling a food from a poison; of taking in from the world around one all that is vital, and of rejecting the rest as refuse; and, finally, of giving out to the world what has been re-created in such a way that people will exclaim, "Never man spake as this man." This is the originality of genius. This is the originality we claim for the Christ.
There is in His life and in His death a sense of compelling truth. This would not have been so, as Bernard Shaw would have it, if He had died comfortably in His bed. To an account of His death, and its tremendous significance, I shall return. I am concerned now with points which suggest His gigantic personality. There have been men down the ages who have had a real love of mankind in the large, and a genius for world statesmanship; others who have had an intense and burning affection for the individual, and who have devoted themselves to the service of individual cases of hardship and misery. No man has ever, to the same extent as did the Christ, combined genius for world reconstruction with intimate care for the individual.The gospel reveals that Jesus was working against time. There was something like a three-year plan-some say a two- or even a one-year plan-for the propaganda of world redemption. But what is rare and extraordinary is the way in which He would risk the success of His world statesmanship by deliberately stepping out of His plan to give succour bodily, mental, spiritual, to some obscure person; losing time, expending much energy, as if for the moment the whole world contained but one solitary and helpless soul. It is an amazing thing for a good general to surrender his time-table in the midst of a battle. A Syrophrenician woman calls on Him for help. He is, at the time, in extreme need of rest after a march into exile of twenty miles or more, after a bitter conflict with enemies who were bent on His destruction; and the publicity which would attend on healing her daughter would destroy the privacy anc! rest in which he could re-think His programme. Thwarted by His Galilean enemies, He hesitates, and doubts whether such an expenditure of energy is right -- for a foreigner, and at this particular crisis. But the faith of the woman, and the desperate need of her daughter, compel Him to become absorbed in this individual and her misery. At Jericho, on the final march to Jerusalem, Jesus, in spite of the protests of His disciples, held up the progress of Himself and His followers to attend the cry of the blind beggar, Bartimreus, and to give him his sight. In Jerusalem, in immediate danger of arrest and death, in the last and fiercest conflict with the ruling classes, Jesus, hurrying from the city to a place of security for the night, stops, and asks His disciples to notice the act of a widow putting a farthing into the alms chest: the world seems to hold for Him that poor woman and her amazing generosity alone. Nothing else for the moment matters. She has put in more than they all-more than all the plutocrats with their big and much advertised subscriptions. He sees in that act a sign and promise of, the final victory of the world plan.
For the Christ, world statesmanship and individual need do not stand in contrast: they are one and the same thing. It is for individuals such as these -- the poor, the "unimportant," the people who "don't count " -- that world reconstruction on the basis of divine justice is worth while. It is of individuals such as these that the new world shall be built. This is the rock on which He will.. build His community.
Only when these contrasts and contradictions, these supreme paradoxes in His personality, are understood, can we judge whether the claims glibly made from the pulpit can be substantiated; whether the pulpit phrase, "Jesus only," means much; whether He is the supreme master mind of His own time, perhaps of all time.
Christ realised, both in His principles and in His actions, the infinite value of each personality, while insisting that individual personality could come into its own only in community, never apart from the realisation of the commonwealth of God here on earth. Mankind, for Him, was a living organism, pervaded by God. As St. Paul put it, " We, the many, are one body."
Now for the main question. What was this commonwealth, this Kingdom of God? Undoubtedly the Kingdom was the core ofHia preaching: " Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice" ; "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will , be done on earth as in heaven." It is the treasure hid in a field for which the seeker is ready to give all that he has.
II. The Temptations
Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Kingdom of God: it was thus that He opened His work.
For thirty years He had lived an obscure life. After Joseph's death, He had taken over the business at Nazareth, making household furniture, ploughs, and various implements for the village and countryside. There must have been much thinking and much talk in the village shop; news from the caravans along the high roads near by, about the political condition of the country, about the empire, about the hard times, about exploitation by native rulers, and by the Roman (Herodian) tax-gatherers. Abortive risings, and the doings of bandit chieftains, would have been hotly discussed. Gradually there formed in Christ's mind the conviction of the role He was destined to play in His nation's history.
But the hour had not yet struck, and still He waited. Suddenly there came to that workshop news of the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert places, in the district near the crowded villages on the hills that formed an embankment to the Jordan. People were flocking from all points to listen, for John answered the popular Messianic prophecies, and fanned the enthusiasm of the folk for a new order of things to a blaze. He was not the Christ-- he was His necessary herald, an Elijah announcing His approach. No other leader or group in Palestine had struck that essential note: it was a call to repentance both individual and national, an attack upon false patriotism; and an appeal to the nation to return to its historic role, and to become again a light to lighten the nations of the world. "Bring forth fruits springing from a real and drastic change of mind and will; lay the axe to the roots of the evil; give generously, don't pillage the poor." It was with simple everyday maxims such as these that John prepared the way for the Messiah.
Jesus at once perceived that this voice from the wilderness was indeed destined to prepare the way for the Messiah, that it was the authentic voice of God. He left the carpenter's bench, identified Himself with John's mission, and underwent baptism at his hands: thus did He fulfil all justice -- by identifying Himself with a messenger of social justice in whom He saw the last and greatest of the prophets.
He did not begin His work at once; He retired to a lonely spot to think out the principles and the method of the Kingdom of God, whose Messiah He knew Himself to be. For forty days and forty nights He fasted, absorbed in these problems, alone with God.
The keynote of His ministry is struck in the Gospel story of the Temptations.
According to popular tradition, the Messiah was to be the bringer of material prosperity, of food in abundance, the victorious conqueror of foreign powers and the ruler of an Israel triumphant over the nations -- Lord of the world. These were precisely the temptations which Satan offered to Christ. After His long fast, He was hungry; and His hunger brought home to Him the hunger of His people. What could be more natural than that He should use His gigantic powers in giving them bread, in creating fields of waving corn in barren places, either by a miracle or by scientific means? He rejected the temptation as Satanic; for men do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. The words of God had come through Moses and the prophets, who had commanded men to practise justice and generosity, the love of God and of the neighbour. First convert the people to the Divine Justice. As fruits of conversion, let them regain their liberties and till their lands to bring forth abundantly. Besides, what practical statesman would put the food supply in the forefront of his programme when the Romans and their native satellites were in possession, and would drain off by exploitation or by commandeering the new supplies all that had been gained by this extra fruitfulness in Palestine? So the next suggestion is for the Messiah to put Himself at the head of any available forces, however small, and to hurl Himself against the Roman imperial invaders, and to drive them from the soil. Had not God promised to come to the aid of so valiant an endeavour, and had He not actually done so almost within living memory, at the time of the Maccabean victories ?
Put yourself, runs this next temptation, at the pinnacle of the Temple, the Temple party, the Zealots, and fling yourself and your forces down against the might of the Roman army, courting disaster and annihilation, for what appears to be disaster is bound to be turned by God, according to His covenant with Israel, into triumph. And the answer is: "Thou shalt not bargain with the Lord thy God." He has really made no such promise, for the conditions of the promise on the side of Israel have not been kept. From the righteous laws of Moses and the social tradition of the prophets, the Jews had become apostate. God would therefore abandon them to their just fate.
Well, then, if this be so, there remains one other chance. Instead of trying to turn back and convert Israel to its ancient traditions, why not consider them as hopeless and turn to that other way? He climbed to the mountain top, and there was shown to Him, as He saw the kingdoms, subdued by the might of Rome, a picture of all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. All these could be His-at a price. Other men were aiming at imperial power with considerable chance of success. These other aspirants, cunning and powerful, were no match for Jesus, with His enormous powers and His great mind. His technique would far surpass theirs. The thing could have been brought off; but what was the price? " If thou wilt fall down and worship me." Accept for a while the cunning crafty ways of the empire builders, turn a blind eye for a while to the people's miseries, fall down into the mire of bribery, corruption, compromise. Make friends with the oppressors of mankind, or seem to be their ally. Once you reach the summit, what good you can do! All will be within your power, and, instead of using it for your own personal dds, you can become a benevolent despot, a sort of Fascist dictator, dictator over no narrow Jewish nation, but over a world empire. And the answer came swiftly, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve."
Once these suggestions had been clearly seen to be Satanic and swept aside, Christ was able to begin His work of social redemption. He would attempt to build up His own nation, recalling them to repentance and to their original mission as light-bearers to the nations, making them the spear-head of God's own International, which alone can sweep the empires of this world away.
III. The Social Gospel of the Old Testament
The Convocation of Canterbury published a statement, "The Moral Witness of the Church on Economic Subjects." It insisted that we cannot discover the meaning of Christ's " Kingdom of Heaven " without first considering the social and economic teachings of the Law and the prophets to which He Himself was perpetually referring His hearers. "Christianity inherited from the Old Testament certain social principles, in part embodied in the Law and in part enforced by the prophets and moralists. 'The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of the people and the princes thereof; it is ye that have eaten up the vineyard; and the spoil of the poor is in your houses; What mean ye that ye crush My people and grind the faces of the poor?'. ..The tendency of the legislation was to raise the status of the Israelite slave to that of the hired workman who was to be treated as a brother. We find a prohibition of usury between Israelite and Israelite, and provision is taken against the permanent alienation of the land; various enactments protect labour. ..the general well-being is a supreme consideration restricting the selfish acquisition of wealth. Manual labour is held in honour, it is the necessary basis of all society. ...Christianity did not take over the formal legislation of the Old Testament, but it did inherit its moral principles which Jesus Christ deepened and universalised."
Dr. Gore, when Bishop of Oxford, wrote as follows: "Our Lord assumed all the Old Testament laid down. Do you see the meaning of that? The Law and the prophets had been struggling and striving for the establishment of a great social system on a great moral basis. The Old Testament is full of all sorts of social and moral doctrine, social and individual righteousness. The Law is full of that. prophets are full of it. Now do you see that every word our Lord said, He said to people who had got all that behind them ...He could assume it all. ...It is the point at which He starts. Till you have got there, you have not begun."
Moses has, with some justice, been described as the successful leader of a brickmakers' strike. And his mighty opposition to a mighty empire began with the killing of a taskmaster who was found bullying an Israelite. Our Lord is continually referring His hearers to the laws of Moses. By these laws the Pharisees meant one thing, our Lord another. They meant the washing of pots and pans; He meant mercy and justice. He came, not to destroy Moses and the prophets, but to fulfil them.
.What, then, did He mean by" the weightier matters of the law?" There was the land question. In the Old Testament, the ultimate landlord was God, who had given the earth to the children of men. This was no barren formula, for the land was in fact the common property of the various tribes, distributed in holdings among their families. Every seventh year, the land was to lie fallow, and its fruits to be common property. Every fiftieth year was a year of Jubilee (the "Acceptable Year ") when any family which had been forced through poverty to sell their plot, would regain it ; prisoners were freed, debtors were forgiven, and the law against usury more strictly enforced. A family which had been forced to sell was not allowed to sell the freehold, but only the usufruct, at prices varying with the number of years still to run till Jubilee. These provisions were designed to secure in perpetuity the land to the workers, and guard against the rise of a landlord class.
Land laws, unless coupled with laws against interest (usury), are useless. And so we find equally stringent provisions against lending at interest, a practice which leads the worker directly into debt, and ,ultimately eviction. These economic laws were again and again disregarded by the ruling classes.
Christ says little about land, because most of His ministry was in Galilee, where the people were still in possession of their holdings. In the south, He attacks with vehemence the Pharisees who have evicted the defenceless poor and are "full of extortion and excess," while for a pretence they make long prayers. But in Galilee, He roundly denounces usury, urging His hearers to lend expecting nothing in return, and not as sinners who hope for as much again.
Modern writers have expended much ingenuity in an attempt to prove that Jesus could not have been alluding to the practice of lending at interest, since it would be practically unknown among the simple country folk whom he was addressing. But the argument is worthless: the richer type of Galilean peasant would lend to the poorer, and, as in Russia in modern days, would charge considerable interest, and become a kulak. Again, we are expressly told that among Christ's audience were strangers from north and south, among whom usury was common.
In the life of the world to come (to use a phrase of the Nicene Creed, which in Dr. Gore's comment is" the life of the good time coming "), all will produce in common and share in equity. "This world and the next " in the Gospels is not a contrast between this life and the life beyond the grave, but between this epoch of usury and exploitation and the age to come. This was the interpretation of the phrase by the early Church, and by the apostles of the later New Testament.
It is a tragedy that the passage in Isaiah about their sins being as scarletl is chiefly familiar to our generation through its misuse, wrenched from its social context, by revivalists and hot-gospellers. The sins described in it as " carlet" are the sins of avaricious "religious" people who squeeze the last drop of blood out of the land and labours of the worken. As they lift up sanctimonious hands in prayer to God, their "hands are full of blood." These words of the prophet are a warning to-day, alike to the Sabbath-loving Protestant and the incense-loving Catholic. For God hates their sacrifices and their prayer-meetings, their sabbaths, their incense, and their solemn assemblies. God is "fed up " with "the multitude of the sacrifices. ... Your solemn feasts My soul abhorreth." The prophets denounce the ruling classes, "for the spoil of the poor is in your houses." They " grind the faces of the poor.'" They "build up Sion with blood." The message of Amos and Micah, country prophets, is one with that of the urban aristocrat, Isaiah. Micah made an attack on the lawcourt" -- one law for the rich, another for the poor. He thunders against the sins of the urban nobility, with their town houses and their country estates, as " unscrupulous bloodsuckers and despoilers of the people.'" It is the same with Deutero.-Isaiah, with Jeremiah, with Ezekiel, and with the prophets of the Restoration. Nehemiah is "furious" with the nobility and the new rich: he holds a mass meeting against them, demanding that they should cease their merciless money-lending, their mortgaging of cottages, and lands, and their evicting of tqe poor on the non-payment of their usurious demands. They must restore to the workers their holdings, and cease from usury and oppression. Their words seem in this instance to have been effective: they had the Jubilee law on their side. Either the nobles were conscience-stricken, or they were terrified at the strength of the workers under such powerful leadership.
We now see what our Lord meant when He told the Pharisees that they tithed mint and cummin, neglected mercy and justice, and utterly ignored "the weightier matters of the law." They, the appointed guardians of the Law, "strained at the gnat while they swallowed the camel."
We have now seen what the Kingdom meant for Jesus in the Law and the prophets to which He is constantly alluding. We are now in a position to understand His actual teaching of this New World Order in His Galilean ministry.
IV. The Gospel of the Kingdom
On the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus came into Galilee teaching the Kingdom of God. After making a few disciples, who were to become the nucleus of the inner band of twelve, during a preliminary tour of Galilee, He came to His own town, Nazareth, and on the sabbath day He was allowed to read the "lesson" in the synagogue. He chose a Messianic passage from Isaiah, and says in comment that this very day the scripture is being fulfilled in their midst.
What, then, was this scripture? "Good tidings to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovering of sight to the blind. To set at liberty them that are bruised. To proclaim the Acceptable Year of the Lord." They are astonished at His words of grace, but He hardly dares hope they will accept Him, for "a prophet hath no honour in his own country." And He proceeds to alienate them by allusions friendly to foreigners: how God of old had sent Elijah not to Israelites, but to a widow, a foreigner; how Elisha had been sent not to his own countrymen, but to Naaman the Syrian. His suggestion that the Good Time Coming would be for foreigners and might be rejected by Israel, aroused the jingo instincts of the crowd: they made a rush for Him and would have killed .Him.
The people of Nazareth were hostile to His message of the good world to come, but He seems to have had considerable success in Galilee generally, for "the common people heard Him gladly.". The ruling classes were for the most part hostile, and later whole cities of Galilee were among those who rejected His message -- Chorasim and Bethsaida, for whom the lot of Sodom and Gomorrah will be more tolerable in the day of judgment. In spite of this, it was the Galilean pilgrim crowds who supported Him in His last adventure in Jerusalem, and who made it well. nigh impossible for the authorities to arrest Him.
That He should have had this popularity with the common people is natural enough when we consider His teaching as recorded in St. Luke's Gospel, and, indeed, in the so-called "Sermon on the Mount" of Matthew. In the beatitudes of Matthew, however, the corresponding " woes" are cut out; but here in Luke the contrasts are given in full. (It is possible that sayings in Luke are another version of those found in Matthew, or they may have been given on a later occasion. It does not very much matter.) I prefer Luke, and I will paraphrase his version thus: "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the New World' Order ." (This is not really in contradiction to Matthew's "Blessed are the spirited poor." [which seems to be the meaning of " poor in spirit." It must be remembered that he was addressing a spirited crowd of Galilean peasants and fishermen.]) "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. ...Blessed are ye which hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for ye shall hunger." Compare this with the Magnificat, our Lady's prophetic song, "He hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away."
"Blessed are ye that weep now (lamenting the present disorders) for ye shall laugh. Woe unto you that deride now, for ye shall mourn and weep." Does not this read like a forceful prophecy of the lot of the workers after a successful revolution as contrasted with the émigrés, outcast and bitter, mourning and lamenting, irreconcilable? .
, Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, ostracise you, reproach you, and vilify you for the Son of Man's sake (i.e. for the sake of mankind and the Kingdom as preached by Christ). Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for even so did they to the prophets which were before you." We have seen what kind of men those prophets were, and why they had been vilified, exiled and killed.
"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be filled." .
There is one passage almost always misunderstood; it runs: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." The word " meek " has unfortunately changed its meaning and become associated with "gentle Jesuism." Aristotle uses the term "meek" as the equivalent of reasonable and generous. Du Bose explains it as meaning good in team work with others. It is people who will co-operate in team work, who are reasonable and generous, who will inherit the earth. Moses is described as "the meekest of men," and it was this same Moses who led a successful strike of brickmakers and slew the Egyptian .tyrant. It is, then, in this sense, that Jesus pronounces a - blessing upon the meek.
Of the golden commandment, "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you," so much has already been written that I need not comment upon it. It is the basic law of the New World Order of which Jesus says: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice and all these things shall be added unto you." "These things", it will be seen in the context, refer not to blessings in the sky, but to material things such as food, clothing and shelter. .
Amongst Christians who do not deny what they lamely call the "social implications of the Gospels," there often exists an assumption that Jesus Christ gave certain persons their immense wealth, or their more modest incomes, to use in His service and for the advancement of His Kingdom. It is asserted not only of individuals, but of countries, with their God-given "civilising mission" to "lesser breeds without the law" (most often, not so much of countries in themselves, but of countries swollen into empires). A delightful, if somewhat blasphemous, example of this may be seen in a recent prayer published by the authority of the officials of the Church of England. It runs as follows : " Almighty God, who rulest in the kingdom of men, and hast given to our' sovereign Lord, King George, a great dominion in all parts of the earth. .." When we consider how our Empire has been obtained -- by fraud, trickery and violence -- the unctuous assumption that God has bestowed it upon His chosen Englishmen is almost British-Israelite in its pharisaic naivete.
Wealth, according to these people, must be used as a sacred trust in the service of God and the ministry of men: but no questions are to be asked as to how it has been corne by. The sin of Dives, according to them, is that he was callous, and did not give enough of the leavings in largesse to the poor, or did not put forward with his wealth large schemes for founding university chairs or Rhodes scholarships. In that case, he would have been called " benefactor '' -- as Jesus said these imperialist millionaires loved to be called. All this is what I call the heresy of stewardship. Christ is not only concerned with how you spend your wealth, but with how you get it.
The point of the parable of Dives and Lazarus is not that poor' men because of their poverty will automatically go to Heaven, and that rich men because they happen to be rich will go to Hell. Dives was one of those who "trusted in riches," i.e. who enjoyed and supported the economic system which made him rich. He was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: he probably argued that it was good for trade. He was not so unkind, or blind, as to drive Lazarus from his door; he fed him on the leavings. But it came to pass that the rich man died and was buried: he found himself, to his astonishment and indignation, in Hell, the place of torment. The beggar died and was taken to Abraham's bosom. The Lazarus class has always been at the service of Dives & Co., so it was natural for Dives to ask if Lazarus might come to serve him, at least to give him a cup of water to assuage his thirst. Abraham replied that it was impossible, for "between us and you there .is a great gulf fued." It is implied that this gulf had been dug by the rich in this life, who had separated themselves off from the poor. But the sting of the story is in its tail. Dives fears that his brethren, unless they are warned, may come to the same torment. May someone be sent to warn them? Abraham replies that it would be useless: they already have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. If they have not listened to them "neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." Dives had, very likely, been something like a churchwarden in his synagogue, and read the lessons sabbath by sabbath: his brethren had probably also been deeply "religious" men. If they had really listened to what had been read, to such passages, for instance, as have been quoted from the land and usury laws, and the warnings of the prophets, they could never have become inordinately rich.
It is, then, not merely a question of the sacred stewardship of riches, but of how you get your riches, of whether rlcnes had been wrunf by land grabbing, mortgages, and usury from the poor.
That this is the real point of the parable is seen in the sequel, where the question of the status of the rich man comes up for consideration. How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the coming Kingdom of God. They did then, and still do, find it well nigh impossible to enter into the spirit and comradeship of that New World Order which does away with their privileges. They can find relief only in the remark that "it won't come in our day." They say that the common people's desire for it is the work of " hose damned agitators," who ought to be strung up as a danger to the State. They accused the "agitator " who told this story of being one who "stirreth up the people from Galilee unto this place." The best thing to do with a seditious fellow of this sort is to hang him. "Crucify Him, Crucify Him."
This, in point of fact, is why Jesus, the working man of Galilee, was nailed upon a cross.
True, the Pharisees hated him for His theology, His sabbath breaking, His attack on their lifeless taboos; but they could never have got Him out of the way on these counts alone. He had denounced them as lovers of money, as evictors of the poor, as being full of extortion and excess. It was on such counts, which hit not only them, but the Sadducees and Herodians, and ultimately the Roman exploiters, that they were able to combine forces to strangle His propaganda and to destroy Him. It has been suggested that Jesus was an Essene. The similarities between His followers and this sect, although they exist, are superficial. The Essenes were Communist in practice: but they were vegetarian, which the Christians certainly were not: but the chief difference was that they had no interest in a New World Order, and it was the preaching of the New World Order which brought Jesus to His death..
Note. If it be asked, How far did Christ and His followers practise a kind of interim Communism within the existing order of their day we may anawer ; they had a common purse, and shared a common meal. On more than one occasion, He fed multitudes who were hungering for a New World Order of justice, and the distribution was made on Communist principles
V. Jesus, Militant
Albert Schweitzer has shown that the catastrophic, apocalyptic, element in the Gospels is too much inwoven with the narrative, too much part of the very texture of Christ's teaching, to be disregarded. He has thus finally destroyed the picture of our Lord as a mild nineteenth- century humanitarian professor. But, in doing so, he has landed us in another impasse; for he suggests that the alternative is a deluded dreamer who banked on the intervention of a deus ex machina from the skies, who would within a very few years set up the Kingdom; and that the heavens failed to oblige Him. Jesus was a titanic figure, and His teaching was heroic, but He went down in defeat and delusion.
The frank acknowledgement of the apocalyptic element in the gospel rigbtly gave the death-blow to the gradualists who saw in Christ's teaching a smooth programme of slow human progress, "broadening down from precedent to precedent." But it must not be allowed to kill, along with this, revolutionary Christianity. In point of fact, a Christianity in rebellion against the system of its day and of our own, with the fervent desire for a reconstructed world, alone is adequate. It is not only true to history: it alone can save the world from despair.
It is often assumed that Jesus was a pacifist, in the extreme sense of the term. Certain sentences, such as, "They who take the sword shall perish by the sword," are quoted. Certain other sentences are wrenched from their context in the Sermon on the Mount. "The method of the Cross " is assumed to be the only method for the Christian, and so forth. Thus the picture is built up of a non-resistant Saviour, a Jesus meek and gentle, who never appealed to anything but persuasion for the attainment of His Kingdom. This "all-in " policy is put forward as the complete programme of the Messiah, and the Church down the ages, because it has consistently refused to endorse it, is condemned as apostate.
The Church has, it is true, tragically departed from the teaching of the Founder, and has often come very near to apostasy. But the pacifist gives a completely lop-sided view of the Christ, a view which we shall hope to show is un-scientific, unhistorical, untenable.
First of all, we must be on our guard against taking isolated sayings too literally. Jesus announced that he that hated not his father and his mother was not worthy of Him: yet He Himself showed His love for His mother in His last hour on the cross. Jesus said, "Resist not him that is evil": yet He Himself resisted the evil Pharisees, and expelled with violence from the Temple courts those whom He branded as robbers.
Here, then, is a short summary of the evidence. The apparently pacifist passages which are well known, and which are all to be found in my longer study of the subject, will be taken as read. But they must be considered along with the following; and readers must have in their minds this question: Whether or no extreme pacifism can be reconciled with these sayings and incidents; whether they are reconcilable with the assertion that persuasion was the only method in His armoury, and non-resistance His sole practice. Does His saying, that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for Bethsaida and Chorasim, suggest an "all-in" policy? Or, "Many shall come from the east and the west, the north and the south, and shall sit down in the Kingdom, but ye yourselves shall be cast out"? Then comes a picture of the excluded emigres weeping and gnashing their teeth (a metaphor He constantly used).
How can the parable of the wheat and the tares, although it counsels patience, be reconciled with an "all-in policy" ? We are confronted with its conclusion -- the wheat gathered into the barn and the tares burned with fire unquenchable. How reconcile the story of Dives and Lazarus with the view that the advent of the Kingdom must be postponed until the conversion of the last obstinate rich man?
Consider the woes in Luke's version of Christ's beatitudes. "Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full now, for ye shall hunger." "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God."
Or, take that parable which ends with the destruction of "those murderers" and the burning up of their city. Or, again, the parable of the nations at the last judgment: some will go away into eternal life, and others into eternal damnation. We are not arguing that the word "eternal" is the equivalent of "everlasting," but at least the parable warns us that some nations will be excluded from the New World Order whose merciful and just values they despised. When He spoke of the disaster which fell upon certain Galileans, He adds, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Here, again, He is referring to their doom in this world, not in the next.
The oft-quoted text, "The Kingdom of God is within you," should probably be translated, "The Kingdom of God is among you." It was said in answer to Pharisee opponents, whom He described as snakes and whited sepulchres. They jeeringly asked when this precious Kingdom of His was coming. They belonged to a party who did not believe in hastening its coming: philosophically, they were passive fatalists; practically, the present system suited them well enough. They were always demanding signs of its coming, and anxiously straining their eyes for those magic portents which should herald its arrival.
This is an attitude Christ repudiated. He said, in answer to these critics: "The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation." The Kingdom was already among them, in His presence, and in the shape of the communal group: which surrounded Him. It is like the wind before the storm, the first sign of the coming order. He did not mean it would come very secretly and silently, spreading, "without observation," from heart to heart: this is clear from His conclusion in the same passage -- "for as the lightning shines from one side of Heaven to the other, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be." Then come the familiar analogies of the crash and doom, referring to the fate of Sodom, and the fate of Lot's wife, and the destruction of the cities of the plain. As the Greek phrase can be translated either " within you " or " among you," the sense and the sequence of the whole passage compel us to adopt "among you" as the only possible rendering.
How reconcile with a slow and "all-in " coming of God's Kingdom the last great discourse of our Lord to His disciples outside Jerusalem, the Parousian sermon? It will come with the crash of the present corrupt system at Jerusalem. It will come when few expect it, breaking in as a robber in the night. It is likened to the rushing flood and sudden disaster. The disciples must take heed lest their hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness and the cares of this life, "lest that day come on you suddenly as a snare."
The Parousian discourse is too much of a piece with the rest of His teaching to be considered a later addition. And, if it were added later, how reconcile that addition with the supposed pacifism of the early Christians? Further, how reconcile "early Christian pacifism " with either the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles of Peter and Paul? Does not St. Stephen, in the Acts, liken Christ to Moses, the revolutionary, who slew the Egyptian tyrant? Does St. Peter use the method of persuasion with Ananias and Sapphira? Compare with this the treatment meted out by St. Paul to Elymas, who is called the son of the devil, and full of all villainy; he is not persuaded, but blinded, by the apostle. And we are told by St. Luke that in this very act St. Paul was "full of the Holy Ghost."
Turn to the Pauline Epistles-to Thessalonians, the Colossians, and Ephesians.
"The day of the Lord will come as a robber in the night, and when they are saying, peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them." The same note is struck in the other Pauline Epistles. Even more terrible are the warnings given by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Readers should also study the Second Epistle of Peter, with its awful picture of the judgment day; and St. James's epistle, with its "Go to now, ye rich men," and its threat to those despoilers of the poor who have " nourished their hearts as in a day of slaughter."
The Revelation of St. John (written by the apostle or by one of his school) abounds in allusions to the Christ as a terrible judge "with eyes like flaming fire" : and the message of Jesus to the unfaithful of one of the Churches is, "I will kill her children with death." The Christians rejoice over the expected fall of Rome, and the ruin of her merchants: and the vision of the kings and the princes of the earth, and the chief captains, the rich and the strong, every bondman and freeman "hiding themselves in the caves and rocks." "And they say to the mountains, fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb "
These passages are not consistent with the persuasionist interpretation of the gospel. They cannot be ignored, any more than can those gentle passages which counsel love. sweet reasonableness, and infinite patience.
A true interpretation must take into account the flaming indignation of Christ against Pharisees; His vituperative language against hypocrites; His frontal attack upon the profiteers in the Temple courts who were exploiting His children: must reconcile all this with the Cross, with His mercy and loving kindness. I believe that they are not only reconcilable, but identical; that these examples are a sufficient proof that God Himself is not regarded by Jesus as a pacifist, and that Jesus neither spoke nor always acted as one.
Much of the language which seems to say that the Kingdom would come through a coup d'etat from the heavens is symbolic: it by no means implies that the workers have to wait with folded hands for the intervention of God from the skies. There is much in Christ's teaching to show that an act "from above" is by no means incompatible with the action of men. When Christ describes John the Baptist's movement as being "from above," He did not imply that John waited with folded hands for the movement of a deus ex machina. When the disciples, having converted many, return from a tour of Galilee, Jesus exclaims, "I saw Satan as lightning fall from Heaven." The response of men to the inspiration of God is often described as a coming of the Son of Man, or as God acting from the skies.
It is impossible in so compressed an account of the thought and teaching of Jesus, an account chiefly devoted to His revolutionary outlook, to keep the right proportions: but it would give a wrong impression to end on a note of fierce militancy. The catastrophic elements in His mission have been underlined because they are so often omitted altogether: without them, the picture of Christ is falsified.
But He came, not to condemn, but to save the human race. He was meek and gentle with the broken and unfortunate: and He willed, if so as by fire and terror, that all men, including exploiters and tyrants, should be redeemed. He knew that it was " hard " for rich men to enter the Kingdom: and when the rich young ruler asked Him what he should do to be saved, "He looking on him loved him."
This love which was Christ's is foreign to many modern revolutionaries, and in this measure modern Communism falls short of the standard of Christ the Communist. The impression created in the ancient world was: "How these Christians love one another," and how, in thought and action, they were marked by a burning charity to all mankind. They remembered their Master's description of His heavenly Father, who makes "His sun to rise on the evil and the good," and who "sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." So you must "love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that ye may be sons of your Father which is in Heaven."
This is part of the paradox of Jesus which we spoke of at the beginning of this essay, part of His apparent inconsistency. In this unique Man, burning anger and burning love are identical. There is eternal significance in that strange phrase, " the wrath of the Lamb."