A recent OpEdNews article entitled “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right” adopted the following lead, “The fact that the religious left and the religious right can both use the Bible to back up their opposing agendas shows us that the Bible is meaningless.”
I found the essay interesting, especially since it quotes me as a liberation theologian advocating a “Jesus for the left” position that (in my brother-author’s opinion) is no more well-founded than the “Jesus for the right” view. Both are simply matters of bias, he held. Each side merely chooses biblical texts that support its prejudices while ignoring problematic ones that contradict them. The left likes socialism and selects accordingly. The right opposes socialism and does the same thing.
As his remedy, my dialog partner argued for:
What follows here attempts a largely appreciative response to my friend’s argument. In fact, I and most liberation theologians and biblical scholars agree with Paine’s critique of pre-Enlightenment religions founded on the naïve approaches to the Bible enumerated in the article under review.
Nonetheless, I found my friend’s critique did not go far enough. His equation of Jesus- for-the-left with Jesus-for-the-right remains mired in Thomas Paine’s pre-modern approach to biblical texts.
I wish it had gone further.
I mean my friend’s piece ignored the fact that “Jesus for the left” theology takes seriously relevant discoveries in archeology, history, ancient languages, and in texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It wrestles with developments in literary analysis and critical studies involving recognition of diverse literary forms. It does the detective work of redaction criticism that traces down the historical and political reasons for editors’ changes in scrolls over centuries of revision with its additions, omissions, contradictions, and errors.
In other words, Jesus-for-the-left scholarship is founded on scientific method and advances unknown to Thomas Paine and other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, they are also largely ignored by Jesus-for-the-right advocates who as a result remain vulnerable to the criticisms of Paine and my brother author.
Without getting too far into the weeds of modern biblical scholarship, let me show what I mean by first expressing appreciation for Paine’s critique of religion, by secondly illustrating the advances in biblical science since Paine, and thirdly by reflecting on liberation theology as a politically powerful alternative to Paine’s 18th century Deism.
A great deal of Thomas Paine’s criticism of traditional religion as understood before the Enlightenment was spot on. That approach to the Bible was unscientific. It understood the Bible as a single book inspired by a single author (viz., God). Before the advent of modern biblical scholarship, the Bible’s interpreters tended to read texts literally as though they were all infallible statements of historical fact. This led to the inanities and contradictions Paine struggled against and which my dialog partner rightly lampooned.
So, as a seeker of truth, Paine could write with reason:
“I do not believe in the creed professed by … any church that I know of . . . All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. . . Whenever we read the obscene stories . . . with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. . .The Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world. . . The fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty.”
Harsh words, no?
However, I don’t know a single liberation theologian who would argue with Paine’s criticism. In fact, it is a principal purpose of liberation theology to free humans from what Paine rightly calls the terror and enslavement of religious forms meant to consolidate the power and profit of the professionally religious. Liberation scholars do so by basing their approach to the Bible on the discoveries of modern scientific scholarship.
Paine would have welcomed both their commitment to science and the revolutionary implications of their work.
The discoveries in question are myriad and complex.
At the simplest level though, they tell us that what we call “The Bible” (The Book) is not a book at all, but a collection of books – an entire library written by different authors at different times, under vastly different circumstances, and for different and often contradictory purposes involving what we call today “class struggle.” No wonder then that we often find an upper-class God supporting the royal classes with their debaucheries, exploitation of the poor, and bloody wars all fought (as they are today) in the name of their deity.
All of that becomes even more complicated when we realize most of the literary forms within the Bible are far from history as we understand it. Yes, there are “Annals of Kings” (like Saul, David, and Solomon). But those represent the work of court historians whose job was to glorify their employers, not to tell the truth; all of them must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.
But besides such “histories” the Bible also contains myth, legend, debate, and fiction. There are letters. There are ancient laws that seem superstitious and ludicrous to moderns. There is poetry and song. There are birth stories and miracle accounts that all follow predetermined patterns. There are prophetic texts and wisdom literature including proverbs, jokes, and plays on words. And then there’s that strange literary form called “apocalypse” which, scholars tell us, was a form of resistance literature written in code during times of foreign occupation and oppression. If all of these are read as history, as statements of fact, or as somehow predicting the future, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings result.
What’s more, virtually all biblical scholars (even the most politically conservative like Josef Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI) tell us that the Bible’s basic story is that of the formation of the Jewish people. And that account, the scholars say, begins not in Eden, but in Egypt and the deliverance of slaves from bondage there. It’s a story of liberation. All the rest is commentary.
The rest is also an account of the struggle between the poor and oppressed on the one hand against the royalty, generals, priests, and scribes on the other who consistently tried to wrest away from the poor a God the privileged wanted to support the elites’ status quo. It was a struggle between the establishment and the prophets who defended the poor as God’s favorites. What we find in the Bible then is a “battle of gods,” a kind of theogony.
According to the scholars I’m referring to, Jesus appeared in the Jewish prophetic tradition. He was a poor man himself – a prophet, a mystic, a storyteller, a healer, a social critic, an opponent of oppression by priests, kings, and emperors. And the one certain thing we know about him was that he offended the Establishment (Rome and its temple and court collaborators) to such an extent that they arrested, tortured, and killed him. Significantly, they used a form of execution reserved for rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists.
Yes, Jesus was on the side of the poor and oppressed. But close examination of texts shows that even the evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) often altered the Master’s radical pronouncements to suit their own more conservative purposes. Scholars like those in the famous Jesus Seminar have developed criteria for (tentatively) separating the wheat of Jesus’ own words from the chaff of his editors. Liberation theologians avail themselves of such scholarship.
Alternative to Deism
So, if it’s all so complicated, why not just pitch it all in favor of Paine’s reason and Deism which conceptualizes God as the Great Watchmaker in the sky who set the world spinning according to its own rules and hasn’t been heard from since? Why not just reason everything out abstractly?
To my mind, the answer is because we are human beings. And humans need stories. Perhaps some, like my dialog partner find abstract reason and an even more abstract concept of God more inspiring and helpful. If so, good on them.
But I repeat: most of the rest of us need stories. In fact, many like Nesrine Malik hold that with everything falling apart in our world, we need more not fewer stories.
My reply is that we already have the stories we need. And the ones found in the Bible are shared across the western world and by Islam. We all know those tales. They can bring us together and shed a penetrating transcendent light on issues that plague our world just as they did those of Jews living under foreign imperialism – including Jesus and the early Christians under Rome.
When those issues are confronted in the face of the liberating God of the Exodus or of Jesus and his pronouncements about God’s Kingdom, they can generate the power to move people to revolutionary action.
The experience inspired by liberation theology in Latin America during ‘70s and ‘80s is proof enough of that. Without liberation theology one cannot explain the Nicaraguan revolution, nor similar movements in El Salvador, Brazil, or Argentina. One cannot explain the pink tide that subsequently swept all of Latin America including the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez.
What I’m saying is that liberation theology provides a scientifically based revolutionary potential that Tom Paine would have admired.
(However, it must also be acknowledged that without liberation theology, one cannot explain the rise of the religious right in America and elsewhere in the world. Its Jesus-for-the-right was instrumentalized for reactionary purposes by the Reagan administration precisely to combat liberation theology which was seen by the CIA and State Department as a threat to U.S. national security.
That is, besides inspiring social activism, liberation theology evoked the exact type of persecution and martyrdom suffered by the early church under Rome. Such parallels say a great deal about liberation theology’s authenticity.)
I hope it is evident from the foregoing that I very much respect what my friend wrote in “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right”. However, I worry about its call to surrender religion and spirituality to right-wing forces. To my mind, there is no more powerful or important ground to defend.
Like the Constitution and American history, spirituality has always been and remains contested terrain. The fact that the left and right have differing interpretations and narratives by no means proves anything about “meaninglessness.”
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The struggle over history’s versions, over the Constitution’s interpretations, and especially over biblical texts only serves to illustrate their importance and the need to approach them with the scientific spirit of Thomas Paine.
Had he been exposed to modern biblical science, I believe Paine would have embraced liberation theology. He may have seen it as his counterpart, Noam Chomsky does in the film clip at the head of this essay. Paine may even have accepted liberation theology as the answer to his prayers.