The left’s non-existent Jesus

Ross Douhat quotes Michelle Obama saying,

Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday.  It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.

Apparently Michelle’s “faith journey” has little to do with actually studying the life of Jesus.  When, exactly, did Jesus either go about fighting injustice or speaking truth to power?

Remember, about the only remotely political thing Jesus said was “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).

As far as speaking truth unto power, when Jesus finally was brought before the authorities shortly before his crucifixion, his main comment was….nothing.

And the closest he got to “fighting” anything was when he tossed the moneychangers out of the temple, angry that his Father’s house was being defiled.

Jesus spent his time teaching and healing, often in small, private settings.  His tendency to hang out with the bottom rungs of society such as lepers or publicans sent a powerful message, as did his interactions with women.  But does this constitute “fighting injustice?”  Only in the sense that he tried to change hearts through his example and his words.  To say that he was about attacking existing power structures or explicitly encouraging others to do so is a huge interpretive stretch.  He mocked the hypocrisy of the local elites, but he did nothing to challenge their power.

Liberation theology and other variants of religious social liberalism have many followers.  I wouldn’t want to question their devotion or commitment.  Their desire to create a better world for the poor and downtrodden is admirable.  But alleviating poverty and suffering through the coercive power of the state is certainly not something Jesus taught.  In fact, his appreciation for worldly notions of injustice was not what people wanted to hear.  His message to those who were treated unjustly was to turn the other cheek and to love—not to demand fair treatment.

Jesus spoke a lot about righteousness and what it truly means to keep God’s commandments (not usually things that the left wants to talk about, I might add), but fighting injustice was not very high on his list of priorities, at least according to the scriptures.  What he did want was to turn people’s hearts unto God.  “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).  Its very hard to pull out a “let’s storm the barricades” message out of those words or anything else he said or did.  Perhaps one who truly becomes a disciple of Christ becomes committed to fighting injustice, but the scriptures are largely silent on any political method for doing so, and Jesus seemed singularly uninterested in anything having to do with worldly power or injustice.  Sorry, Michelle.

The Obamas come from the “community organizing” tradition, which is essentially about rallying political power to take money from one group and give it to another.  Fine.  Let’s just leave Jesus out of it.

10 thoughts on “The left’s non-existent Jesus

  1. “Render unto Caesar…” was the ultimate speaking of truth to power. In fact, it could be taken to be a rejection of Caesar’s divine status. The passage mocks Caesar. And what of the powers that be in Jewish culture at the time? Christ rebuked the Sanhedrin, the Priesthood, and John the Baptist rebuked the dynasty of Herod. Jesus did not speak in his own defense because doing so would have done nothing. His choices would have been to lie, certainly not the Jesus we are accustomed to, or to affirm the charges against Him, His claim to being the Messiah, i.e., king of the Jews. Of course, none of this supports liberation theology. Christ said that the poor would always be among us, he also said that his kingdom was a heavenly one, not an earthly one (utopia).

  2. As my wife has said, Jesus said “feed my sheep”. He did not say “lobby Caesar to feed my sheep for you”.

    That said, I remember a short animation which the local TV stations would air before shutting down for the night (back in the 70s). It was the rancher who piously went to church every Sunday, then was cruel and exploited his workers through the week. So from the standpoint that your actions reflect your faith, fighting injustice, etc. is definitely part of the Christian message. But “fighting injustice” has been hijacked to mean “take from the rich and give to the poor” in too many cases.

  3. Amen to the post and the first two comments; I don’t recall Jesus being an advocate of government power to bring about his kingdom.
    Yesterday, D.G. Hart posted a grand quote from J. Gresham Machen, many decades ago, which more than a few Christians should take to heart. Check it out at

  4. This is a great post to show just how out of touch some people can be when trying to construct straw-men arguments attacking a group/ideology they understand nothing about.

    Yes, Jesus did spent his ministry “fighting injustice or speaking truth to power,” but you demonstrate just how narrowly you define “power” in your next sentence when you say “about the only remotely political thing Jesus said …”

    The biggest problem some libertarians have is understanding that you can have power and injustice outside of government. Alternatively, you need to understand that before the Enlightenment and the development of clear spheres for “culture,” or “religion,” or “government,” there was but one “power.” People didn’t need to identify the establishment as “political” in order to be exploited by it.

    And really, you’re going to attack the left for a non-existent Jesus by saying that Jesus didn’t “fight” for anything by obviously assuming a “violent” form of resisting power, throwing out any and all attempts to classify Jesus and the left as believing in nonviolent resistance? You want to go back and read through the arrest of Jesus in the garden a bit?

    Jesus spent his time healing the sick, often those most ostracized by society. He spent his time bringing people together in egalitarian situations. He spent his time teaching parables that questioned the status quo that divided people by ethnicity or religion, or assuming that the status quo was the only possible world out there.

    You’re demonstrating a severe lack of understanding decentralist, libertarian versions of leftism by believing that the only way to “fight” injustice is to actively take up arms and tear down the powers that be, or try to take over the powers that be. Never heard of “building a new world in the shell of the old?”

    Your problem is with a group of leftists who believe that government power is the only way to alleviate poverty and suffering. But you’re also rejecting the idea that Jesus opposed hierarchy, violence, war, and suffering. So in the end you have what? A conservative Jesus that came to earth to tell us how to get to heaven, and to just put up with injustice here on earth in the mean time. Sounds like the perfect authoritarian message. “Just shut up and do what you’re told by the state, you’ll get to heaven someday.”

    1. This is well said, though I’m not convinced.

      Libertarians realize full well that there can be power and injustice outside of government–but we just believe the government’s role should be very limited in addressing that injustice. If one feel’s it is unjust that the poor have less power than the rich, then surely it would be good to address that injustice. But the libertarian says just don’t do it by violating the rights of others, including the right to hold property. Libertarians don’t oppose efforts to promote better lives for the less privileged. We celebrate those efforts. We just oppose using the coercive power of the state to accomplish those ends. The ends, in themselves, are admirable (as I said).

      As far as “building a new world,” I’m all for it. And I would wholeheartedly agree with the idea of Jesus trying persistently to subvert the social order. So if your method of building that new world involves teaching people the gospel of Jesus Christ so that they will change their behavior, then I’m all for it. And lots of Christian libertarians spend lots of time doing just that.

      I think what is narrow is not my conception of fighting injustice but your conception of what libertarians believe. Jesus taught a code of personal conduct profoundly at odds with the social order of his day (and ours). Personally, I think it is the ONLY way to bring about a better world. I just don’t want to use state power to force people to buy into my vision.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. Sven,

        My criticism is not out of a failure of understanding libertarianism, it is my belief that you are failing to adequately understand the environment in which Jesus Christ’s ministry occurred. I don’t think you can draw fine lines between “government” and “religion” like libertarians like to do today. A gospel of preaching against power and injustice in Ancient Roman Judea may not perfectly align with today’s modern assumptions about what is and is not government.

        You yourself first draw a distinction between the overly political statements by Jesus (Render unto Caesar) and his other statements, but do you think within the context of the time there would have been such a sharp line among listeners to what is and is not “political?”

        What was the throwing out of the moneychangers from the temple if not an explicitly political act? To the extent that we can properly ascribe any statements regarding Messiah-hood to Jesus, how can you draw the line between those statements as “religious” and not “political” within the context of a state that claims divine status for its Emperor?

        A code of conduct profoundly at odds with a social order that, at the time, was deeply interwoven with political power IS a political agenda.

      2. If we define everything as political, then, yes, everything is political.

        I grant that the religious and governmental powers in Jesus’ day were closely intertwined, often the same thing, but I see Jesus doing very little to challenge either. The Jewish leaders tried to pin treason on him, and before Pilate Jesus simply said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

        My definition of political power is that power which has the ability, through the threat of violence, to compel people to do something (pay your taxes or you will be forced into jail, for example). That power encompasses a variety of institutional arrangements, and Jesus seems rather uninterested in all of it. His goal (at least in terms of what he did or said) was to get people to take up their cross and follow him. It is virtually impossible to pull out any coherent political philosophy concerning the appropriate use of political power from his words or actions.

        This doesn’t mean that if people were to follow him more fully it wouldn’t change the world. Of course it would. But that change happens through personal devotion (the kind that “exceeds the [phony] righteousness of the scribes and pharisees,” to use his words). His method was not to seize political power (or “occupy” it, to use the latest phrase). He pointed out sharply the hypocrisy of those men who challenged him in that they claimed allegiance to a religious law that they did not really keep or understand. But I can’t think of any instance where he challenged their authority or ever encouraged others to do so. The Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would deliver them from the unjust oppression of the Romans. Jesus just wasn’t interested.

        Jesus used every opportunity to emphasize that what he was teaching was about a spiritual kingdom, of which he was king. Even the most elemental worldly things necessary for survival–bread and water–he turned on their head. He fed thousands, but his message was not, “join my group and we will make sure everyone has enough bread and water.” It was, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”

  5. I agree completely! Michelle Obama’s single quote does reflect the entirety of the Left’s misguided religious beliefs. Wee!

  6. There is actually an interesting dispute over the best method of translation for Jesus’s response. Is it “My kingdom is not of this world” which would indicate an interest in a purely spiritual kingdom, located in the heavens, that the divine presides over with little to no interest in the physical kingdoms of the here and now.

    Or is it “My kingdom is not from this world” which would indicate that Jesus’s kingdom rests not on the threat of violence to compel others (the source of worldly political power, as you point out), but on the authority of the heavens, an authority granted to him by God. No king but Jesus indeed.

    The traditional political left is entirely uncomfortable with this sort of rhetoric, of course, because of assumptions about the separate of church and state. So is the traditional political right, for other reasons, for the strong egalitarian and anti-establishment message focused on the here and now that it contains.

    If there is any coherent political philosophy for today here it’s some sort of quasi-anarchist, quasi-socialist Christian message. Which you can be free to dismiss, but you should note that it arguably has a larger influence, historically, than you are giving it credit for. How much of liberation theology is about state coercion, and how much is about direct action? I’d argue that it emphasizes the latter, not the former.

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