Against family values

NS Christmas - Christian evangelicals have got Jesus Christ all wrong, argues Terry Eagleton

The most lethal book on the planet at present is not the Koran, but the Bible. Christian evangelicals have faith that the world will soon come to an end. What they don't see is that it might come to an end because of their faith.

Enlightened liberals, naturally enough, detest this kind of zealotry. But because most of them are disastrously ignorant of theology, they fail to see that right-wing evangelicals are wrong even by religious standards. And this means that enlightened liberals deprive themselves of some vital weapons which can be wielded against the evangelicals.

The Christian right sees morality as being basically about sex and the family. The New Testament they claim to venerate takes exactly the opposite view. The God of the Old Testament certainly seems to have had it in for Sodom and Gomorrah, but no reputable biblical scholar now holds that it was because of homosexuality. The twin cities got whacked in an early Israelite power struggle with their enemies, not because the cities' menfolk were leaping into bed with each other.

The New Testament has strikingly little to say about sex. (Curiously enough, it has strikingly little to say about gun ownership either, except for remarking that those who take up weapons will die by them.) Jesus hangs around with criminals and prostitutes. To the horror of his minders, he talks compassionately to an adulterous Samarian woman, thus violating three rules simultaneously: a young celibate religious leader in first-century Palestine would not usually be seen alone talking to a woman; he would give a wide berth to a sexually disreputable woman; and a Galilean such as Jesus would think twice before consorting with Samarians, the country bumpkins of the region.

The New Testament is also largely silent about the family, though what little it has to say is unremittingly hostile. With commendable impudence, the boy Jesus refuses to apologise to his distraught parents for wandering off. He insists instead that what he calls his Father's business takes priority over domestic loyalties. Any pious Jew of the time would have understood that his Father's business did not mean, in the first place, religious ritual, but questions of justice and solidarity. What Jesus has in mind are the staple Judaic obligations of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. Later, he will propose that such things, rather than churchgoing and piety, are the criteria for salvation or damnation.

With a celibate son, a virgin mother and a cuckold for a father, the Holy Family was hardly the kind they celebrate down in Dallas. The most important Father of all in the New Testament wantonly condemns his own son to death. When Jesus is in the womb, Luke's Gospel puts into his mother's mouth a triumphal chant traditionally known as the "Magnificat", all about the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty, which some biblical scholars suspect to have been popular among the Zealots, the underground anti-colonial movement of the day. In fact, to the casual bystander, Jesus himself might have sounded much like a Zealot. He would have refused marriage not because he had anything against sex (for Saint Paul, marital love is a sign of the coming kingdom of justice), but because domestic commitments would have impeded his mission to the poor. Footloose popular leaders can't be bothered with mortgages.

Jesus makes a point of his homelessness. He has no respectable suburb to which he can retire after a hard day's healing, and has harsh words for an intending follower who wants to say goodbye to his family before joining up. He tells his followers brutally that the choice is between their parents (whom they must "hate") and himself. Justice cuts through the conventional bonds of kinship: he has come, he announces, to divide households, setting those who seek his sort of justice against those who do not.

When a woman in the crowd loudly blesses the womb that bore him, he spurns this pious compliment, observing in his customarily acidic way that the blessed are, rather, those who keep God's word. When his mother and brothers ask to see him, he tells them abruptly to wait, commenting that his true mother and brothers are those who do God's will. In short, he goes out of his way to put the skids under the whole ideology of family values.

None of this makes much sense to those for whom morality is about the bedroom rather than the boardroom. When Margaret Thatcher was asked what she thought the New Testament was about, she replied, quite insanely, "freedom of choice". This is only slightly less absurd than seeing it as being about reforming the electoral system or banning fox-hunting. It is tempting to call George W Bush and his fellow bigots Pharisees, were it not that this would be to demean the Pharisees of the Bible, who were in some respects the theological wing of the anti-Roman Zealots. The New Tes-tament Pharisees were anti-colonialists, but of a purist, exclusivist, theocratic kind, rather like some Islamist radicals today. Jesus reserved his most frightful curses for this self-righteous bunch, loudly broadcasting his opinion that they were probably damned to hell.

US evangelicals, who see religion as being all about success and suburban respectability, are the latter-day inheritors of this odiously hypocritical crew. It is just that their obsession with worldly success makes it hard to see why they should worship an executed political criminal who was a total failure.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester