There’s a compelling story in the New Testament that, unusually, is included in three of the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell of a rich young man who wants to follow Jesus. The eager fellow explains that he obeys the commandments and is genuinely good. What else, he asks, should he do?
The response is exquisite. ”There is still one thing lacking”, says Jesus. ”Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young millionaire hears this “he became sad; for he was very rich”. Jesus looks at the man, with a stare we can only imagine, and explains, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Then the timeless, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
So, as we approach Christmas, what are the genuine values of the Gospels, and what should we learn from the commemoration of the birth of a baby to a teenage Jewish refugee 2000 years ago? I’m not going to indulge in apologetics here, and whether you believe or not is entirely your concern. Faith is a dialogue and anybody who claims to have every answer should probably be ignored. What I want to emphasise is the socialistic nature of Jesus, who owned no property, lived communally, chose as friends the marginalised and rejected, warned of the dangers of wealth and power, and scolded those who judged others or stood behind smugness and legalism.
He was born in an age where cruelty and confusion abounded, but born, Christians believe, the Son of God, to bathe the world in shades of grace and hope. This is the Jesus who insisted it was humility rather than pride, and peace rather than war that would change the world. This is the permanent revolution of love that inspired Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and so many in the Labour movement. William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, went so far as to say that “socialism is the economic realisation of the Christian gospel”.
I recently wrote a book called The Rebel Christ, and judging by the attacks on me by the Christian right I touched a nerve, or even the entire central nervous system. There’s none so angry as a fundamentalist scorned. I wrote that the Christian right reveres a harsh individualism that runs directly contrary to the melodies of the Christian song. Jesus repeatedly told of the absolute need for community and fraternity, as did St Paul and others in the New Testament who wrote letters of instruction to the early church.
Yet since the 1960s, beginning in the US but spreading internationally, the right has edited and twisted the faith to justify its polemics. Conservative Christians have always existed, of course, but the intense organisation, activism and electoral success is a new phenomenon. They obsess about abortion and homosexuality, when Jesus speaks of neither subject. Simultaneously they promote policies that directly hurt the poor and empower the military, when the Gospels are soaked in calls for peace and economic justice. Beyond the Protestant right – and 81 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 – the traditionalist wing of the Roman Catholic Church is frequently venomous on these issues, in direct reaction to the sometimes surprisingly progressive Pope Francis.
Quoting scripture has inherent challenges because it demands context but take a typical example from Matthew 25. Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” He was speaking not of himself but of all who need, all who go without. This is much more than charity, this is systemic change.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to understand how anybody could interpret the statements of Christ as anything other than politically and economically liberating; it’s why he was eventually executed, when the conservative religious leaders around him were ignored. They simply weren’t a threat to the status quo.
As for the argument that the socialist vision of Christianity is modern or “fashionable”, the Didache dates from the first century and is one of the most important documents in early church history. It tells Christians to “share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own.” The Church Fathers and Mothers writing in the third and fourth centuries say similar things.
Even when Jesus performs the miracle of feeding a multitude with a limited amount of bread and fish, what we’re seeing is either a breathtaking example of mass sharing, or a literal miracle where hungry people are fed. Either way, it’s about fellowship, a joint effort, a coming-together of people who are hungry. Indeed, the New Testament is peppered with examples of the needy being fed and provided for. Luke’s Gospel: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Genuine faith is sandpaper of the soul, it hurts, it stings, but in the final analysis it should lead to a more perfect believer. It drags those who claim to follow Yeshua out of our comfort zones, calling for a great reset of the world as it was designed to be. There’s no war on Christmas but there is a war on Christmas virtues, often led by those most triggered by an absence of greetings cards without religious scenes, or a local authority removing a Christmas tree.
On 25 December it all changes. The baby who becomes a man is the living model of equality and empathy, leaving us a new template of life and conduct. Treat others as you want to be treated, understand and forgive, never ignore oppression, transform the very structures that create and maintain exploitation, and turn over those tables in the temple. Blessed are the radical for they understand Christmas. Have a good one.