Although his narrative never slides into an ardent polemic, it is arguable that Reza Aslan's Jesus is a bold and tireless advocate for the poor. A close read of Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth makes this conclusion the Number One Take Away Point; a perspective not necessarily original, but nevertheless comforting and affirming if you're inclined to worry about white privilege and socio-economic inequality.
Aslan is not alone. Many scholars have postulated that Pauline Christianity - the version that eventually became imperial Christianity - was an extreme sharp right turn from the path on which both Jesus and his biological half-brother, James traveled. Aslan explores this turn to the right and offers explanations as to why the early Christian church preferred an altogether different guy, i.e., a peaceful, turn-the-other-cheek spiritual leader, seldom angry; a gentle soul who never spoke truth to power.
Aslan's Jesus, however, is a radical; a politically conscious revolutionary.
Were he alive today, this Jesus would be advocating an ethical minimum wage, a new consciousness about America's underclass and a serious campaign against global poverty.
The majority of America's workers are hourly wage earners at an average minimum wage that is not sustainable. Union representation is less than 12%. There are children in Silicon Valley living in poverty. On a global level, one billion people are still trapped in extreme poverty, which up close, means that 800 million people go to bed hungry; more than 700 million drink dirty water; and 57 million kids live without access to education.
Inevitable? Unavoidable? Evidently, Jesus didn't think so.
How do we know what Jesus thought? Aslan says that the Epistle of James is where we find out. "The overwhelming consensus," Aslan writes, "is that the traditions contained within the epistle can confidently be traced to James the Just. This would make James's epistle arguably one of the most important books in the New Testament. Because one sure way of uncovering what Jesus
may have believed is to determine what his brother believed."
The first thing to note, Aslan says, is James's passionate concern for the poor and his bitter condemnation of the rich. (James 5:1-3; 5:3,5; 1:11) James asserts that one cannot be a follower of Jesus, if one does not actively favor the poor. (James 2:1,9). Aslan says that James was likely killed because "he was doing what he did best: defending the poor and weak against the wealthy and powerful."
There have been several strains of Christianity that have followed this Jamesian path. One is the social gospel movement, a Protestant intellectual crusade in the early 20th century in America and Canada that applied "Christian ethics" to issues of social justice. Another was the late 20th century Catholic movement in Latin America called liberation theology.
What about the other side? Is there a relationship between Pauline Christianity and the excessive accumulation of wealth?
Max Weber (1864-1920) pointed a finger at Reformation-era theologians for the development of 16th-18th century capitalism. The results were not necessarily intentional yet the result was the belief that economic gain is endowed with moral and spiritual significance. In his influential work, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber links the accumulation of capital to God's grace. In short: humans are born into sin yet God has already predetermined which of us will be "saved" and which damned before we are ever conceived and born. Thus, being rich has historically been understood - either consciously or unconsciously - as evidence of salvation. R.H. Tawney (1880-1962), an economic historian and a Christian socialist, wrote more about this in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1922).
What relevance does this have for contemporary times? It validates our options. We can choose. We can believe that Jesus was an advocate of the poor or we can believe that the accumulation of wealth is evidence of being one of the chosen ones for eternal life. Before you choose sides, however, think about the facts.
• The World Bank has systematically abandoned its mission to help the poor.
• The world's poor have wretched lives. Europe's border security agency, Frontex, says that between 500,000 and one million migrants are massed in Libya waiting to set forth for Europe, compared to the 170,000 who arrived in Europe by sea last year.
• Economist, Joseph Stiglitz says America has become the most unequal advanced country in the world. In The Great Divide, he argues that inequality is a choice―the cumulative result of unjust policies and misguided priorities.
• The USA as a society is out of balance: Only in America is there an entire class of people called "the working poor." The richest, single family in America is worth the same as the bottom 30% of all Americans combined. America's CEOs earn between 300, 500 or 1000 times more than their employees. Public policy professor, Robert Reich asserts that we can re-distribute America's wealth through political will and tax reform.
Not all Christians believe that excessive wealth means God loves capitalists. One of Denmark's architects of its welfare state was a Lutheran priest and his message to Danish society is still alive today. "We will have achieved a good society," N.F.S. Grundvigt (1783-1872) wrote when når få har for meget og færre for lidt. "When there are few with too much and even fewer with too little."
Equality. A fair distribution of a nation's wealth when it is common knowledge that no one makes a profit without somebody's labor.
For those who've been unaware of the penetrating scholarship of the Jesus Seminar over the last twenty years, hearing about the historical Jesus of Nazareth in Aslan's Zealot was unquestionably new. Hearing how Jesus became Jesus Christ, a cult that eventually became imperial Christianity was probably disturbing to many who have grown up believing that Christianity has been around forever and remains the signature of western civilization. (The division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, merely a footnote.) Whatever. Jesus once walked among us and he identified with the alienated.
That's all we need to know.
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