By Craig M. Watts
Was Jesus a class warrior? The very question will no doubt cause many to answer with an instinctive and emphatic, “No!” Clearly that was the answer given recently by Bill O’Reilly, well-known FOX News commentator, in a discussion about government programs that help the poor. “The problem I have,” insisted O’Reilly, “is that you’re helping one group by hurting another group and a bigger group, and so I don’t know if Jesus is going to be down with that.”
He went on to make the slanderous and debunked claim that the poor are particularly unworthy of support because a large portion of them, even if not the majority, are alcoholics and drug abusers. Still, aside from that misleading assertion, would Jesus support helping the poor only if the more prosperous, particularly the rich, were not negatively impacted? Would he seek the well-being of the poor –be “down with it”- only if the most well-off weren’t “hurt”?
Even before his birth, his mother Mary envisioned Jesus in a way that seems to offer an answer. She didn’t see the work of her son as “spiritual” in a way that was disconnected with the economic struggles of this world or as predominately having to do with the afterlife. As our Lord was wiggling in her womb, Mary spoke of the mission of Jesus as a fait accompli, declaring,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who revere him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-53).
In these words we find no hint of blindness to or complacency about the competing interests of the powerful and rich, on the one hand, and the poor and powerless, on the other. Nor is there any inkling that Jesus wouldn’t take sides. Mary was not subtle about what she saw of our Lord’s posture toward injustice and inequality. The “strength of his arm” is used to bring down the high and mighty and to lift up the weak and disenfranchised. This certainly sounds a lot like class warfare.
As Jesus began to teach, his words echoed the sentiment of those spoken by Mary. “Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). At no point in his ministry did Jesus support the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the weak and poor. At no point did he suggest that the advantages of the wealthy should be preserved or that the needs of the poor should be treated as secondary. And at no point did he hint that the “freedom” of the rich to cling to their property was sacrosanct while it was optional to insure the less advantaged ones were aided.
Jesus challenged, criticized and warned the wealthy. Jesus offered the wealthy no praise for their superior energy, ingenuity, intelligence or virtue. Jesus saw great personal wealth as both a spiritual problem and as a justice problem. It was not in vacuum that Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).
These words were uttered after Jesus spoke to a wealthy man who inquired about eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). The man walked away from the Lord unhappy because of what Jesus told him to do with his possessions. The issue was not that he failed to maintain an “inner detachment” toward his riches, a failure that placed an obstacle between himself and God. At issue was not just his attitude toward his riches in relation to God. The command of Jesus suggests that Jesus may have known something about the man’s posture toward the poor as well. Jesus didn’t merely say, “Sell your possessions.” He added, “Give the money to the poor” (vs. 21).
The rich man’s imagined “right” to excessive property and his refusal to relinquish wealth in a way that would impact his lifestyle for the sake of the less advantaged, was the problem confronted by Jesus. In the end, Jesus revealed that despite the man’s generalized decency and religious disposition, he neither loved God above all nor loved his neighbors as himself much as he loved his own privileged position over them.
Jesus identified with the poor and victimized in a way that he did not identify with the prosperous and powerful. Of the hungry, ill clad, sick, etc., Jesus said that “as you treated these you treated me’ (Matthew 25:31-46). Rather than identifying with the rich and powerful, the ways Jesus spoke of himself suggests contrast with them. He said he had no place where he might lay his head (Matthew 8:20), that he came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45), that he was “meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his followers to prefer the company of the poor and less advantaged over the wealthy and those who could materially benefit them (Luke 14:12-14).
Even when those who were rich gave large and conspicuous donations to the temple –part of which would go to help the poor- Jesus offered them no commendation, “for all of them have contributed out of their abundance” (Mark 12:44). Their lifestyle was not affected, or to use O’Reilly’s word, they were not “hurting.” Their contributions were convenient, comfortable and the consequences were under their control. They preserved their privileged status. And Jesus saw this as a problem.
Hosea spoke of those who self-deceptively claim they are innocent of causing harm to others as they accumulate wealth, saying, “‘Ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself; in all of my gain no offense has been found in me that would be sin.’” But the prophet denounced the self-serving moral blindness of the rich who gain much at the expense of the poor, saying, “All his riches can never offset the guilt he has incurred" (Hosea 12:5-8). While not all wealth is created by impoverishing others, great wealth that is clung to in the face of great need is destructive to both the needy and the wealthy (Luke 16:19-31).
No, Jesus didn’t advocate the violent overthrow of the wealthy or promote an armed revolution against the kind of government that preserves their elite interests. Jesus didn’t call his followers to take up the sword, bow and arrow against the agents and beneficiaries of social injustice. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t plant seeds that would grow and crack the foundation of systems of injustice. The example and the teaching of Jesus, if embraced, followed and promoted, will create a groundswell of opposition against any arrangement that fosters or furthers gross inequality. This will happen as surely as our Lord’s life and message led to opposition to slavery as an institution and not just freedom for slaves who were voluntarily released by their masters.
Jesus as God incarnate gave up the extraordinary power of the divine and lived within the constraints of human existence. As such, he lived within the limits provided by the political options available to one whose home was in an occupied land under the control of the Roman Empire. But even so, he did all that was nonviolently possible to challenge the rich and lend support to the poor. To claim, as some do, that Jesus didn’t in any way advocate using the mechanisms of government to help the less prosperous or limit the advantages of the wealthy, and therefore Christians today shouldn’t do so, misses the point. He used all the nonviolent options available to him. We should follow him in doing the same. For us, that includes supporting governmental means of achieving greater equality.
There is no basis to maintain the Jesus would oppose taxes that are used to help the less advantaged because “redistributive taxes” are theft. All taxes are redistributive taxes. Some tax revenue is used to redistribute wealth to provide subsidies to profitable corporations. Some taxes redistribute wealth to build weapons systems used to threaten peoples and take lives. Some taxes are used to help those who are less advantaged- sadly, in the U.S. this is a proportionally smaller amount of help than in virtually any other developed nation. There is far more reason to believe Jesus oppose the first two of these uses of taxes than there is to think he would oppose the third.
Whether we can justifiably call Jesus a class warrior is open to question. What is much less questionable is that he calls his followers support the interests of the poor and less advantaged over against the interests of the wealthy elite, both in our personal lives and with the public policies we support.