Philip Whiteley's Blog

December 31, 2011

Was Christ a liberal or a conservative? Or both?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:49 am

As it’s still, just, the Christmas period, I thought I’d begin a regular religious slot – regular as in once a year. On Christmas Day, listening to a Radio 4 broadcast by Giles Fraser, the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s who resigned over his support for the Occupy movement, I’m moved to comment. I’m not qualified on theology, but I seem to have a better grasp of the sweep of Christian history.

The synopsis was: the Emperor Constantine, by co-opting Christianity into the Roman Empire, stripped it of its radical, campaigning edge and turned it into an establishment religion. This is evident in the content of the Creed drafted at the conference of Nicea, and still recited weekly in Catholic and Anglican services. It refers to the birth and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but not to his radical teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount.

So far, so conventional and up to a point I agree, but I kept waiting for the health warning. Canon Fraser presented this thesis as though it were some novelty, rather than a recurring narrative within Christendom over the centuries, and the dominant one in the English-speaking world since at least the 1640s and the British revolution. This perspective has encouraged some benign movements, such as the Franciscans and the Methodists, but also extreme sectarian attitudes and acts, such as Cromwell and his followers, who massacred fallen women at Naseby and Papists at Drogheda. When anti-Rome campaigners become allied with the mob, they can cause as much injustice and suffering as any empire.

And even within the Biblical texts, the radical Jesus is more complex than presented here. He stresses justice but he also urges philanthropy, threatening eternal punishment for those who do not practise it (Matthew 25: 31-46). Not very meek and mild, then. He also defends or praises stalwarts of the Roman Empire, such as tax-collectors and even a Centurion – Jesus healed the officer’s servant, but didn’t set him free. References to over-turning of established order tend to be metaphorical or other-worldly, and do not constitute a clearly defined programme of political action. When Margaret Thatcher made the observation that the Good Samaritan was only able to be of help to the crime victim because he had some personal means, and could arrange a stay in the inn, her comments caused outrage among left-wing Christians. But why? We may quote selectively, but conservatives may not, seemed to be the gist.

I’m not sure that Jesus can be easily conscripted to the left or right-wing cause, in the way that they are defined today. Both sides have their good Christians. And their monsters.

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