Was Jesus a revolutionary?

In our age of vulgar atheistic polemics, Catholic-turned-Marxist Terry Eagleton brings a rare combination of intellectual depth and seriousness to his study of the gospels. But humanity will not find salvation in the ‘Good Book’.

Michael Fitzpatrick

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‘Was Jesus a revolutionary?’ asks Terry Eagleton in the opening sentence of his introduction to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (1). Not according to Pope Benedict XVI. In his recent encyclical Spe Salvi Facti Sumus (‘In Hope We Are Saved’), he declares haughtily that ‘Jesus was not Spartacus’, whose ‘ill-fated’ struggle ‘led to so much bloodshed’ (the responsibility of the Roman authorities for the savage suppression of the legendary slave revolt is entirely ignored by Benedict) (2).

The Pope presides over a church of declining recruits to the priesthood and dwindling congregations, its moral authority damaged by clerical abuse scandals and its doctrinal integrity threatened by controversies over women priests, abortion and homosexuality. Yet, as Benedict hastens to remind the faithful, the Catholic Church has reasons to be cheerful. It has seen off challenges from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and the secular ideologies of reason, freedom and progress. Triumphant over its adversaries in the closing decades of the last century, the church has received a further boost in the new millennium from the vulgar polemics of atheist propagandists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (3).

A Catholic who became a Marxist, Terry Eagleton brings a rare combination of intellectual depth and political seriousness to the troubled interface between religion and society. In his 2003 book After Theory, Eagleton noted that ‘religion has been for most of human history one of the most precious components of popular life’, linking questions of absolute value – God, heaven, sin, redemption – to everyday experience (4). ‘It was thus a particular shame’, writes Eagleton, that religion ‘involved a set of beliefs which seemed to many decent, rational, people, remarkably benighted and implausible’.

In a post-religious age, many have looked to culture to take over the functions formerly fulfilled by religion. Eagleton catalogues the areas – from morality and metaphysics to evil, death and suffering – in which cultural theory has promised to grapple with fundamental problems but has failed to deliver. This is, as he concludes, ‘rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on’. Can a re-reading of the gospels help us to tackle these existential challenges in the context of the current political order?

In his introduction, Eagleton follows recent New Testament scholarship in contrasting the historical Jesus (as presented in the ‘synoptic’ gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Christ of faith (who emerges in the works of St John and St Paul) (5,6). Jesus was a charismatic healer and teacher, a Hasidic holy man, an itinerant preacher from the rural province of Galilee. His message, delivered in informal parables and homilies, was ‘repent, the end is nigh’. Though he was an orthodox and pious Jew who disavowed both messianic and subversive intentions, his enthusiasm for the imminence of the Kingdom of God attracted substantial popular support. In the febrile political climate of first-century Palestine, Jesus’ preaching was regarded as blasphemous by the religious authorities and seditious by the civil authorities, leading to his summary execution. The gospel of John, written at least 70 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, established his identity as the Son of God and his role as redeemer of mankind. St Paul, ‘the true founder of the Christian religion’, emphasised the universal significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, for gentiles as well as Jews (7).

Perhaps Jesus did not advocate the overthrow of the prevailing power structure, argues Eagleton, because he expected it to be soon swept away by a higher order of justice and peace. Yet the biblical theme of revolutionary reversal – the replacement of the powerful with the powerless – celebrated in the Magnificat (Luke) and the Beatitudes (Matthew) – has given the New Testament an enduring appeal to radical movements. The presentation of Jesus as ‘homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful’ has ‘an obvious popular resonance’. Eagleton explains Jesus’ austere lifestyle – and his celibacy – not as asceticism or Puritanism, but as sacrifices made in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Eagleton points out that the kingdom projected in the gospels ‘turns out to be a surprisingly materialist affair’. Jesus heals the bodies of the sick and advocates ‘mercy, justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, sheltering the destitute and protecting the poor from the oppression of the powerful’. Indeed ‘a new polis is implicit in the New Testament’. Yet Eagleton is well aware of the evolution of the Christian church to become, as he puts it in his earlier book, ‘a badge of the rich, powerful and patriotic’. Whereas Pope Benedict, with a grotesque one-sidedness, celebrates how ‘in the history of humanity’, the Christian faith ‘has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities’, Eagleton reminds us that ‘it is this faith which has been used to justify imperialist adventures, the repression of women, the disembowelling of unbelievers, the reviling of Jews, the abuse of children and the murder of abortionists’.

In her discussion of the theological controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Karen Armstrong observes that ‘a period of wrenching social change is often characterised by anxiety’. People feel ‘lost and impotent’ and experience the ‘subterranean transformation’ of society ‘in incoherent, sporadic ways’. Indeed these are common features of Palestine under Roman rule, of Europe torn by Reformation, counter-Reformation and wars of religion, and our own era of globalisation and ‘global war against terror’. The perception that we are approaching some sort of terrestrial terminus fosters a ready resonance for the central eschatological themes of the New Testament and its preoccupation with the ‘last things’: Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement.

An influential current of eschatological thought and feeling is to be found in the environmental movement, which embraces scenarios of global climatic catastrophe with all the apocalyptic enthusiasm of a biblical prophet. The distinctive feature of this movement is the bleakness of its outlook: it assumes a human subject of a degraded and destructive character, without redeeming features, indeed without any real prospect of redemption by either earthly or divine forces. It expresses the chiliasm of despair without any prospect of transcendence.

Eagleton’s reflections provide a useful introduction to the gospels but, rather than taking us any further towards tackling the problems outlined in After Theory, they risk encouraging a recourse to the Bible for inspiration. Though the New Testament presents, in the words of Geza Vermes, a ‘magnificent poetic-theological dialectic’, its ‘salvation drama’ remains a consolatory fantasy, all the more insidious for its enduring appeal.

The fact that past attempts to realise the dreams of reason and freedom through the quest for social progress have ended in failure indicates the need to deepen the humanist project – rather than surrendering to the baleful doctrines of original sin promulgated with renewed fervour in the void of the new millennium by Pope Benedict. While Benedict insists that hope depends on faith in transcendental redemption, Eagleton rightly insists that our source of hope lies in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’.

Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

The Gospels, presented by Terry Eagleton, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

1. This selection from the 1989 New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament is published by the New Left publishing house Verso in its series of ‘classic revolutionary writings set ablaze by today’s radical writers’.

2. See the Vatican website

3. See Baiting the devout, by Michael Fitzpatrick

4. After Theory by Terry Eagleton, Allen Lane, 2003

5. The changing faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, Penguin, 2000

6. The Bible: The Biography by Karen Armstrong, Atlantic, 2007

7. Though St Paul’s epistles – which once inspired Martin Luther – have recently attracted the attention of radical intellectuals such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, who have both drawn parallels with Lenin, they are not included in this selection. (see ‘After Dialectics’, Goran Therborn, New Left Review 43, January – February 2007)

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