Image by Flickr user Rodrigo Paredes

Organized Religion and the American Empire

By Norman Lambert

In David E. Roy’s article, “The Story of How Jesus Was in Opposition to the Empire” (Community Alliance, December 2014), the point seems to be that Jesus was the original “freedom fighter” and that the Bible is a moral compass to lead us out of our current morass. This is way off the mark as I see it.

The very human Jesus, whom I have studied, was an itinerant preacher who disliked the Roman Empire and the stifling Jewish religious practices that he lived with. This Jesus said that you didn’t need to go to the temple to find God. God was everywhere, he was all around you. His ministry went out to the people. He never called people to come to him. Unfortunately, churches that were ruled by the power hungry would not listen to his words. Instead, they would build costly temples for the faithful to come and kneel down (or prostrate themselves) to leaders with no accountability to their subjects and whose only goal was to bring in more faithful (and their money) to worship them as if they were a god.

Today, Jesus would have been going from ghetto to ghetto, decrying organized religion as we see it practiced. Professional clergy strutting around and praying loudly in front of everyone. Jesus said not to pray out loud in public, do it quietly and to yourself so as not to draw unneeded attention to your actions. Public piety was for the vainglorious seekers of power. It was then, it is now.

Unfortunately, Jesus was also a man of his times in some ways. He never talked about slavery as an evil. He did mention slaves and no doubt mingled with them. Finally, 1,800 years later, America made slavery illegal. But certainly not because of Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The scriptures found slavery quite acceptable in the days in which they were written.

He did break segregation of strangers, those outside of your ethnic group, as in the story of the Good Samaritan. While he was probably against the Roman Empire, he was evidently not willing to rise up against the colonial economic system initiated by the Greeks and Romans that was carried out by those in power in Israel, much to their enrichment.

Rome was truly a conqueror and a ruthless administrator, but if you played ball, paid your taxes, and made nice, you could make money. Lots of it. Pax Romana meant goodies for everyone (at least those who had some power or were very clever) if they played along and joined the game. Lots of high-ranking Jews did just that and made out very well. The “poor,” whom Jesus also accepted (“the poor will always be with us”), were the ones who rose up against Rome in the 60s. They were inflamed by so-called religious affronts by the Romans, but underneath it was the same thing that drives many poor groups to revolt, unbearable living conditions. And those unbearable conditions were carried out by powerful Jews who were profiting greatly from the Roman occupation.

So Jesus’s social gospel is not very clear from our vantage point. He seems to have been far ahead of his time as far as his outlook on women. They were always a part of his entourage. Or, was it possible that they were a source of his income and his entrée into the homes of the wealthy? He did hobnob with the wealthy; what does that say about his commitment to the poor? Hard to say, but an interesting question.

More accurately, I would say he seemed to oppose the Roman occupation, he had no use for organized religion, but he didn’t seek economic change to help the poor. He had no problem with slavery (from what little we actually know) and seemed to accept it as a fact of life. And it was a fact of life and few people would challenge something that deeply ingrained in society.

Roy also says that “these deep religious values are quite similar to ones that can be found in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.” I won’t comment on Islam or Buddhism except to note the tremendous internecine fighting and killing today between Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Without religion, the world would most likely have a lot less senseless carnage.

As far as Hebrew scriptures, they are full of God’s admonitions to kill and enslave the Israelites’ enemies, even to the point of genocide. They also teach such things as selling your daughter into slavery (prostitution), having multiple wives and sexually assaulting female servants.

Christians have never been able to figure out where they belong. Are they the “new Jews” with all the baggage that comes along with it? They’ve commandeered the Hebrew scriptures, and taken phrases and words out of context to justify their actions. They have segregated Jews into ghettos and mercilessly killed them at the drop of a hat. Jews were excluded from buying property in exclusive neighborhoods in many California counties up until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Christians can’t seem to determine whether Jews are the stock that Christianity came from, or are they the crazy uncle who has to live out in the barn because he’s not fit to be with proper company?

Marcion, in the second century, said that Jesus was from a different God than that evil Old Testament God, so Christians should shed the Hebrew scriptures and use only a few of Paul’s letters and a rewrite of Luke’s gospel that Marcion had written. For his efforts, he was kicked out of the church and called a heretic. In those days, being a heretic was often a crime punishable by death. Nonetheless, his movement persisted for several hundred years.

So the Jesus we know is a mixed bag. His followers did not follow his advice and ended up building an enormous organization that did everything it could to subvert what little of Jesus’s message that was passed down. Furthermore, they have supported every evil empire, kingdom, fiefdom, or what have you, that has come down the road ever since. Just as they do today, supporting colonialism, war, economic slavery, mass killings (see Pope Pius XII and his concordat with Adolf Hitler) and, of course, outright physical slavery (see the Southern Christian churches use of the Bible to back up America’s slave trade).

Organized religion, for the most part, is so involved with the American Empire that it is now, as it was with Constantine in the 300s, in bed with what should be the enemy. And in fact, organized religion in America is the cheerleading squad of the American Empire. They never have offered up their power against any evil that has come our way, except to forbid us from shopping on Sundays (oops, what happened there?).

The Bishop of Fresno sided with the Delano growers against Cesar Chavez. Billy Graham pushed war as a moral imperative with five U.S. presidents. Walmart (oh cursed name) gives more to charity in one year than the entire Mormon Church has given in the past 25 years. I could go on, but it simply becomes too mind-numbing. Today’s religion, just like yesterday’s, is all about power. Nothing more, nothing less. And citing the Bible as a moral compass doesn’t take into account the entirety of its exhortations.

*****

Norman Lambert has lived in Fresno since 1989. He has an advanced degree in theology and has taught Bible literacy for a number of years at a local adult school.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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