Growing up as a Muslim in the United States was often difficult, but it provided me a wonderful gift - the privilege of being an observer. As I have discussed in previous posts, the Muslim experience in America is in many ways similar to the feeling that many Jews have in our society - the loneliness that comes from being different in a nation of Christians. But this position allows members of minority religions to be observers, to notice the paradigms and the assumptions under which American society functions. And it allows us at times to provide an objective critique of America's worldview.
So in the spirit of that observer's duty, let me jump into the fray about an issue that is dominating the conversation among American Christians today - Jesus and his economic views. Pope Francis struck a very painful nerve in recent days, at least for Christians in the United States, when he made critical comments about predatory business behavior and called for increased compassion for the poor in the modern capitalist world. In one fell swoop, the Pope has become Socialist Enemy # 1 in American political discourse, dethroning President Obama as the most feared threat to capitalism today in the minds of many conservative Christians.
But for those of us who aren't Christian, Pope Francis was simply reiterating what all of us instinctively know - Jesus Christ's entire life was spent on helping the poor and attacking those of wealth and privilege who abused the weak. As a Muslim, hearing the vitriol against the Pope for simply pointing out what everyone already knows - that Christianity should be about helping the poor - was shocking. I turned to a Jewish friend and asked: "Well, isn't that what Jesus Christ was all about?"
And his response was: "Mahatma Gandhi was right. Everyone in the world knows what Jesus Christ was about - except for Christians."
So the question arises - why? How did the Jesus of the Gospels, the good shepherd who fed and healed the poor and overturned the moneychangers in the Temple, become the poster boy for Wall Street? How is it that the Pope's simple reminder of Christ's values create such outrage among the economic elites that think they are good Christians?
As an observer inside the United States, I am able to see many of the myths by which this country was founded for what they are - intentionally crafted stories that were effective in pulling together a diverse group of European immigrants into a cohesive political entity that would go on to conquer this continent. America's entire myth is rooted in the idea of Manifest Destiny - that God had chosen the European newcomers to subdue and colonize this country. And it is an idea that worked. Manifest Destiny brought together the United States into one nation (under God!) and that idea remains deeply embedded in American psychology.
The vast resources and open space provided by this new continent provided the chance for an entire civilization to be built from scratch. And new myths were required to motivate the incredible effort needed to build a New World out the forests, plains and deserts of this virgin continent. The Calvinist movement with its focus on "salvation through hard work" provided exactly the kind of ideology that could tie in with Manifest Destiny and build a prosperous nation. American Christians from the very beginning believed that commerce and conquest were not only a practical necessity of survival, but also a divinely-ordained endeavor. And the results are clear. Within a few centuries, the United States became the richest and most powerful country on Earth. For believers in the American Dream, this was proof of God's divine favor toward this country.
Sadly, the American Dream has been somewhat tarnished over the past few decades. America was once the creditor to the world, and is now its largest debtor. Military adventurism, fueled by the military-industry complex President Eisenhower warned of, has weakened the United States both financially and morally, and its influence in world affairs is arguably losing ground to China, Russia and other emerging powers. A student of the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun would simply see this as the natural cycle of history that all nations go through, from birth to prosperity to inevitable decline.
And yet this idea, that America is like every other country and subject to the laws of history and economics, violates its foundational myth. The United States was born under Manifest Destiny, and the idea of "American exceptionalism" - that the rules of the world don't apply to us - is deeply embedded into the psyche of a nation built by risk-taking entrepreneurs and explorers. The fact that this myth has always been expressed in religious terms, that God supports America in a special way, makes facing its current problems inherently a question a faith. What are we doing wrong that God has taken His favor away from us?
The answer is of course the bogeyman of "socialism." For a civilization built on the myth of self-reliance and frontier independence, the idea of a powerful government is inherently threatening. And the idea that this powerful government could swoop in and "enslave" people with high taxes and strip them of the very guns that their ancestors used to conquer the land from its native population is a threat not only in physical terms, but also in psychological terms. The rest of the world, for better or worse, is accustomed to mundane government activities such as taxes, regulations and restraint on weapons possession by the populace (since by Max Weber's definition, a state's very claim to existence is its monopoly on violence).
But these regulatory norms of the Old World are seen as a direct attack on the Manifest Destiny of the New World, the Divine force that underlies American identity and individualism. And so the inevitable rise of the bureaucratic state is seen in terms of religious conflict. And its current head, President Obama, is not just demonized, he actually becomes a demon in the eyes of his opponents - the Antichrist of Revelation sent to unravel God's plan for America and the world.
When Pope Francis made his noble and inspiring comments calling for the world to help the poor, he was interpreted in the ugliest and stupidest possible way by the right-wing media machine that labeled the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics as an enemy "socialist." And yet all the Pope did was actually point to what Jesus Christ taught according to the Gospels.
I have been fascinated by the history of Christianity all my life. And I am currently working on my third novel on the birth of Christianity (my first, "Mother of the Believers" followed the birth of Islam, and my second, "Shadow of the Swords" chronicled the Crusades). The more I study the early sources on the Christian tradition, the more remarkable the journey appears from the simple Jewish sect that Jesus led into the global culture that Christianity has created in his name.
I have come to realize that the reason that Pope Francis hit such a deep nerve among many American Christians is that they are willfully ignorant of who the Jesus of the Gospels actually was, as it violates their foundational myth of Manifest Destiny. I have already stirred the pot with my post on whether Jesus was a vegetarian, where I question whether the Christian vision as promulgated by Paul was in conflict with the practices of the earliest followers of Jesus who knew him in his lifetime. And I must ruffle feathers again, by asking whether Christianity as imagined through the lens of American Manifest Destiny has any relation to the actual teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.
In the past several decades, many American Christians have been drawn to the claim that Jesus was a teacher of free market capitalism, leading to very successful "prosperity gospel" movement. This movement has indeed inspired many people to lift themselves up from poverty and find financial success, and I applaud its efforts to guide poor people to work hard and become prosperous. In fact, the "prosperity gospel" movement is a natural extension of the frontier entrepreneurialism inspired by the Manifest Destiny myth. But does it actually have anything to do with Jesus Christ as the Gospels portray him?
What we know of Jesus from the Gospels does not support the idea that Christ was a successful businessman or entrepreneur (unlike Islam's Prophet Muhammad, who was a prosperous merchant before his spiritual calling). As discussed in "Young Jesus" by Jean-Pierre Isbouts (an excellent primer on the economic realities of first century Palestine), Jesus is called a "tekton" in Greek (often translated as carpenter, but the term also covers others artisans and craftsmen). Dr. Isbouts suggests that Jesus probably worked as a laborer in the Greek city of Sepphoris, near the hamlet of Nazareth where the Gospels say he was raised. His familiarity with agriculture in his many parables makes it likely that Jesus also learned farming skills necessary for survival in rural Galilee. There is no evidence that I am aware of to suggest that Jesus was involved in the merchant trade that could have brought him riches and social standing in the economy of his world.
The Jesus of the Gospels is an itinerant teacher and healer, moving among working class people, fisherman and the like. He appears deeply suspicious of wealthy merchants and landowners, such as the rich man who wished to join his movement, only to be told that he would be required to give away all his wealth to the poor to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:16-24). When the wealthy man left dismayed, Jesus made his famous comment: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." This incident, which is seen by many Christians as simply a nice parable about greed, may actually reveal much more about Christ's attitude toward personal property than many Christians are comfortable admitting, as we shall soon see.
The Jesus we see in the Gospels is most comfortable nursing the poor, and his opposition to the powerful elites of his time brought his mission to a shocking and bloody end. Indeed, the event that nearly all historians and believers accept as the catalyst for the crucifixion is Jesus going into the heart of the Jewish Temple and overturning the money changers in its midst (as well as releasing the sacrificial animals that served as the economic foundation for the Jewish priesthood). This attack on the rich and powerful of his society branded him a political threat, that soon led to Jesus being labeled as a seditious troublemaker. And the Roman overlords who ruled Palestine disposed of seditious troublemakers quickly and horrifically through public crucifixion.
I don't think any Christian of any political stripe would disagree with my extremely basic characterization of Christ's earthly life here. But these events do not really support the idea that Jesus was a "self help guru" teaching people how to be economically successful, as many American Christians like to portray him. Since Christ's life story is not particularly instructive in wealth building (by all accounts Jesus remained poor his whole life), many Christians choose to prune general principles in support of capitalism from a broad reading of the Bible as a whole. So we are told that Jesus would have supported the free market economy because he taught "personal responsibility." That he would have opposed "big government socialism" because he spoke out against the rulers of his time. And that he believed in private property rights because they stem from the free will God has given us to do right and wrong. Christ's call for helping the poor is transformed into a more complicated idea - "help the poor, but do it freely and don't let the oppressive government tax you to feed the poor, as it takes away your freedom of choice, which God uses to judge righteousness." Wow, that's a lot of caveat to insert into pretty straightforward teachings.
The problem is, in re-imagining Jesus as Adam Smith, many Christians find themselves jumping through tortuous hoops to prevent cognitive dissonance when actually confronted by the man in the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels appears to condemn wealth accumulation in his criticisms of the rich. Many "prosperity gospel" proponents soften these harsh words, saying that Jesus meant that wealth accumulation is acceptable if followers tithe 10% of their earnings to the poor. While Jesus does support tithing (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42), he also condemns a Pharisee for believing that his tithing is sufficient without embracing justice and righteousness as well.
More problematically for American conservatives, Jesus has no problem whatsoever with paying taxes to the government. Indeed, he commands his followers to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21) specifically when questioned as to whether he opposes paying taxes to Rome. Jesus as a Tea Party activist simply doesn't fit with scripture.
But perhaps the most troubling fact to many American Christians is that the earliest Christian community was essentially a socialist commune. According to Acts of the Apostles, the followers of the Jerusalem Church were required to reject private property and give up all their goods to be shared in common with the community and the poor (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-35). So when Jesus told the rich man to give away all his goods and follow him, he appears to not be making a broad point about greed, he appears to have been presenting an actual membership requirement to his movement!
Of course, it is inevitable as Christianity expanded from a small fellowship of believers into a global civilization, that such communal practices would be rationalized away and forgotten. Trade is the lifeblood of a nation and people will always be self-interested despite moral exhortations otherwise. The failure of ideologies such as Marxism and communism is proof of that. It makes perfect sense that the developing Church tolerated and eventually embraced business enterprise because there was no other way for the Christian movement to survive and grow. And yet the asceticism and anti-materialism at the heart of Christ's words can never be erased. And it is that painful reminder that fills many American Christians with pangs of secret guilt, despite all their talk of "Jesus was a Millionaire." No matter how hard they try to justify it, the poor and pacifist Jesus will never fit into the box of capitalism, imperialism and Manifest Destiny they have constructed. And that deep subconscious guilt feeds the rage toward sincere Christians like Pope Francis.
The tragedy is that it is humble believers like Pope Francis who provide the world something greater to aspire to than just material success. Christ won over the hearts of the crowds exactly because he did not judge the weak or blame the poor for their plight. He offered love, kind words, healing and forgiveness to all. And in the process he inspired within people a hunger for something more than the kingdom of this material world. He showed them a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that they could find within themselves through humility, service and compassion. And this hunger cannot be satiated with all the shiny baubles offered by the free market.
If I can provide any insight as a Muslim observer of Christianity, it is that many American Christians do not really appreciate what wondrous beauty they have in the character of Jesus, their teacher. Too often, they place Jesus on a pedestal as a divine being to be worshipped, rather than doing the hard work of moulding their lives according to his simple and powerful human example. I encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to emulate the beauty that they have in Christ's living example and not just pay lip service to his legacy with empty words. Christ's simple actions of generosity and compassion feed the soul more than all the complex theology Christians use to explain and justify their beliefs. It is Christ's living example, his actions, that draw people to faith, not convoluted arguments about the Trinity or clumsy efforts to disguise economics as spirituality. The latter are merely breadcrumbs of words that get stuck in the throat and don't touch the heart.
And as Jesus Christ so wisely said 2,000 years ago: "Man cannot live on bread alone."