Myth: The Bible is conservative.
Fact: Using the Bible to support any political ideology is highly problematic.
The New Testament is a liberal's paradise; almost every principle
espoused in it is one that liberals -- not conservatives -- espouse today.
(The only exceptions are its pronouncements on divorce, sexuality and slavery.)
The Old Testament, however, is a conservative haven, filled with pronouncements
favoring war, slavery, theocracy, monarchy, wealth accumulation, capital
punishment, extreme female submission and more. Interestingly, however,
the Old Testament is sexually permissive. Attempting to use the Bible to
justify their modern beliefs therefore poses significant challenges to
Does the Bible really espouse conservative philosophies?
Let us briefly run through the politics of the religious right, just
so the comparison will be fresh in our memory. Christian conservatives
believe firmly in God, country and family. Self-sufficiency and rugged
individualism are highly esteemed qualities; people should pull themselves
up their own bootstraps. Becoming rich is a keen goal and almost universally
admired. Taxes are seen as a curse. Social programs for the poor are a
waste of tax-payers' money, and the sort of people on those programs (mostly
blacks) are lazy and given to crime. As for criminals, they should feel
the full force of the law. And that goes for international criminals as
well... a nation should deal with its enemies from a position of strength,
and should never be afraid to let them feel the full force of its military
Were these the politics of Jesus? Let's take a look:
On defense: Jesus said "Love your enemies" and "Blessed
are the peacemakers." "If someone strikes you on the right cheek,
turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:44; 5:9; 5:39.)
On social programs: "If you would be perfect, go, sell
what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
On rugged individualism and the pursuit of self-interest: "Love
your neighbor as yourself." "So in everything, do to others as
you would have them do to you." (Matthew 22:39; 7:12.)
On financial success: "Truly, I say unto you, it will be
hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." "You cannot
serve both God and Money." (Matthew 19:23; 6:24.)
On the philosophy that "greed is good": "Watch
out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not
consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15.)
On paying taxes: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and
to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:22.)
On crime and punishment: "If any one of you is without
sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." "Do not judge,
or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will
be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
(John 8:7; Matthew 7:1,2.)
On climbing the social ladder: "The Son of Man came eating
and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend
of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Matthew 11:19.)
On money-hungry televangelists: "In the temple courts [Jesus]
found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and other sitting at tables
exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the
temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money
changers and overturned their tables." (John 2:14,15.)
On the free lunch: "Taking the five loaves and two fish
and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves… The number
of those who ate was about five thousand men…" (Matthew 14:19,21.)
On the perks and privileges of power: "After that, [Jesus]
poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, drying
them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (John 13:5.)
On moral absolutes: "If any of you has a sheep and it falls
into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?"
"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."
(Matthew 12:11; Mark 2:27.)
On family: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his
father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes,
even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." Also: "'Who is
my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said,
'Here are my mother and my brothers.'" (Luke 14:26; Matthew 12:48,49.)
On race relations: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus
praised the morality of a hated foreigner over his own countrymen. (Luke
On the superiority of one's native country: "These twelve
Jesus sent out with the following instructions: 'Do not go among the Gentiles
or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.'"
On letting others pull themselves up by their own bootstraps:
"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame,
the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you
will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:13,14.)
Modern Christian conservatives may be horrified, but there is no getting
around the fact: Jesus was not just a liberal, but a radical liberal!
In fact, except for one pronouncement on divorce, there is not one text
in all four Gospels which even remotely supports or resembles the conservative's
most cherished beliefs. It is a standing challenge to the religious right
to find a list of Gospel texts, as I have provided here, which advocates
the conservative's philosophies. Not one Christian can give a single example,
because these texts do not exist.
And if anyone remains unconvinced about the deep liberal slant of Jesus
and the early Christian Church, a review of their economic policies should
remove all doubt forever. The early Christian Church actually serves as
history's second example of pure communism! (The first was the Essenes,
who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.) In Paul's Christian Church, the fruits
of everyone's labor went into a collective pool, which was then divided
evenly among everyone in the group. The following passages from Acts of
the Apostles are remarkable in this description:
"All the believers were together and had everything in common.
Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
The New Testament itself is filled with countless calls for a redistribution
of wealth from the rich to the poor. As for the rich, they are clearly
portrayed as wicked; both Jesus and his apostles condemned them in the
harshest terms possible:
"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed
that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they
had… There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those
who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and
put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had
need." (Acts 4:32,34,35)
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your
comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry."
Giving to the poor was not just an act of kindness, it was a Christian
duty, and Paul ended his letters with a reminder to send money to the poor
in Jerusalem. It was this identification with the poor that led them to
attack usury, or the loaning of money for interest, in the bitterest terms,
for this was seen as exploitation of the poor. In the end, one cannot read
the New Testament and escape the conclusion that the Early Christian Church
condemned inequality of wealth as one of the greatest of human sins.
"Indeed, 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." (Luke 18:25)
"People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and
into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evil." (1 Timothy 6:9,10)
"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant
nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their
hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and
willing to share." (1 Timothy 6:17,18)
"Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor
in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom
he promised those who loved him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it
not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging
you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name
of him to whom you belong?" (James 2:5-7)
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery
that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your
clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify
against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the
last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your
fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached
the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.
You have fattened yourself in the day of slaughter. You have condemned
and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you." (James 5:1-6)
These observations are a disaster for conservatives who try to use
the Bible as moral authority for their political opinions. I have had only
a few Christians even try to defend them. I present you with the few counter-arguments
I have received:
Jesus came across as radical because he was affecting radical change.
True, but you can agree with this observation completely and still not
lose sight of the fact that the changes Jesus called for are quite liberal
by today's standards.
Jesus was simply representing the positive side of God's message,
namely, his love, mercy and forgiveness; it was left to the apostles to
describe God's judgment and wrath against sinners. But even in the
later books of the New Testament, you cannot find support for such conservative
beliefs as a strong national defense, the superiority of one's own people,
tax-cuts for the rich, the pursuit of wealth, or the abolition of welfare
programs for the poor. These ideas are still strongly condemned. But, to
be truthful, there are two issues which the apostles later developed in
the New Testament which could be construed as conservative. The first is
a profound anti-sexual theme which was not common among Israel (the Jews
were quite liberal about sex, as we shall see below); but this anti-sexual
bias ran deep throughout the Greek world of Paul's time, where Christianity
was to thrive. The second was the apostles' acceptance of slavery. I somehow
doubt Christians will be eager to use this latter example.
Times were different in Jesus day; today we have a different economic
and social system. With this argument, conservatives abandon their
source of authority. To say that Jesus represented his own time is to say
that his words do not matter any more. It means that conservatives cannot
use the Bible as the moral authority for their modern viewpoints. They
may admit that their political views are based on their own logic and reason,
but they must stop there, and cease to claim that these views come from
the New Testament, because they do not.
The Old Testament is filled with philosophies that conservatives
agree with today. This is, in fact, the most common conservative defense.
From the condemnation of homosexuals to the praise of wealth and national
defense, the Old Testament is indeed a conservative's paradise. And Jesus
himself said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or
the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."
(Matthew 5:17.) But this argument fails on a single point. If the Old Testament
were still valid, we would still be obeying it. That is, Christians would
still be bringing doves into the temple for slaughter upon the altar. We
would still be sinning for planting two different crops in the same field,
or wearing two different fabrics at once. Even the least educated Christian
knows that a profound difference occurred at the cross, and that a different
set of rules came into play. Those rules can be found in the New Testament,
and they are overwhelmingly liberal.
Even so, falling back on the Old Testament often backfires for Christian
Conservatives. The problem is that the Old Testament goes too far
to the right. The Old Testament was not only undemocratic, it featured
a monarchy. (1 Samuel 8.) Social inequality not only existed, but was embodied
in slavery. In fact, it was legal to beat slaves so severely that they
could not get up for a day or two. (Exodus 21:21.) Children were not only
expected to respect their parents; their parents could legally kill them
if they didn't. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21.) Women not only had a submissive
and inferior status to men, they were considered chattel. (Genesis 3:16,
Exodus 21:7-11, Numbers 30.) God not only ordered Israel to initiate wars
of aggression, but ordered Israel to kill all captive men and non-virgin
women, and to bring the virgin women into sexual slavery. (Deuteronomy
7:1,2, Numbers 31.) God even ordered the suckling infants of the enemy
to be massacred. (1 Samuel 15:3.)
Interestingly, there is one area of the Old Testament that runs diametrically
opposed to the conservative's most cherished values: sexuality. Of course,
many conservatives frequently cite the Old Testament laws against incest,
homosexuality and bestiality (Leviticus 18:6,22,23). But in almost all
other sexual matters, the Old Testament is really quite permissive. There
were no laws prohibiting pre-marital and non-marital sex, and only a few
stipulations to this liberty were explicitly stated. One was that if a
man seduces a virgin, he must pay a bride-price and marry her. (Exodus
22:16.) However, the law says nothing about non-virgins, including divorced
or widowed women. Also, a wife found guilty of adultery could be stoned
to death along with her lover. (Deuteronomy 22:22.) However, no law prevented
a married man from carrying on with as many affairs as he pleased, as long
as they were not with other men's wives. For a man, divorce was both legal
and easy to obtain, if for no other reason that she displeased him. (Deuteronomy
24:1-4.) Prostitution was illegal for Jewish women, but it was permitted
for foreigners. (Deuteronomy 23:17.) However, many Jewish women
became prostitutes as well. The practice was widely tolerated by the authorities,
and considering how many scriptural warnings were voiced against harlots,
it is clear they did a thriving business.
If Christian conservatives find all this alarming, it gets worse. Polygamy
was not only allowed, but King Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines were
recorded as a matter of national pride. (1 Kings 11:3.) Concubines served
the role of secondary wives; they were often, but not necessarily, purchased
servants. As for purchased female servants, male masters were allowed to
have sex with them (Exodus 21:7-11), a practice which Christians defend
by claiming that the rights of these slaves were "well-regulated."
(!) If a male soldier found a female captive to be attractive, he could
force marriage, and therefore sexual relations, on her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14.)
In modern society, this is called rape.
Except for a distinct misogyny and homophobia, the ancient Jews were
generally free of sexual repression. Like most cultures and religions of
the world, they celebrated heterosexual pleasure as a gift from God. This
positive view is reflected in Song of Songs, an erotic poem that
even becomes sexually explicit:
"Listen! My lover is knocking: 'Open to me, my sister, my darling…'
I have taken off my robe -- must I put it on again?… My lover thrust his
hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. I arose
to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with
flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock, I opened for my lover…"
(Song of Songs 5:2-6)
The sexual double entendre here is obvious, and has been the source
of embarrassment and controversy to Christians for almost 2,000 years.
The standard disclaimer is that the author was really describing God's
relationship to his people, a view that even the ancient rabbinic scholars
taught. But this is still an embarrassment to the sexually repressed
philosophies of Christian conservatives, given the overtly sexual nature
of the poem. What is more likely is that the author was engaging in the
sort of double entendre that often occurred in ancient Jewish writings.
Many of their stories and parables having second meanings, just as many
of their character's names are actually puns in Hebrew. It seems that the
author of the above poem was engaging in this tradition: writing erotica
under the guise of religious metaphor.
Rabbinical scholars also taught that both men and women had a right
to receive sexual pleasure in marriage.
Jesus did not seem bent on fundamentally reforming Jewish law and culture
on sex and marriage. His only statement on the subject was that it was
wrong for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, not just
adultery. (Matthew 5:31,32, Luke 16:18). It is easy to see the Jewish context
in which Jesus was arguing, and that he was only concerned about refining
the existing law, not revolutionizing it. (However, Jesus also mentions
in Mark 10:12 that a woman cannot divorce her husband and marry
another man without committing adultery. Controversy surrounds the point
of whether the woman in this case is the initiator of divorce, or merely
has been divorced.)
So where did the sexual repression of the New Testament come from?
It first surfaces in the writings of Paul, and worsens with the other apostles.
That is because these writers generally come from the Greek world, where
the anti-sexual philosophies of Greek Stoicism were dominant. Paul was
born and raised in Tarsus, an important Greek trading port which was also
the birthplace of two famous Stoic philosophers and the site of several
excellent Greek schools. Christianity failed to take root in Israel, but
it flourished in the Greco-Roman empire. As this new religion swept through
that region, it absorbed the anti-sexual tenets of Greek philosophy and
then spread them wherever the Christian empire spread, even to the shores
of America. Those familiar with this history know that it is horrific;
the Church Father Origen, for example, castrated himself in his fear that
sexual temptation would deprive him of the kingdom of heaven. And women
-- the purveyors of sexual evil -- were so vilified under Christian doctrine
that the Inquisition tortured and murdered them for two centuries as "witches".
For these reasons, European and American history is filled with a sexual
repression and guilt that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
In summary, both the Old and New Testaments offer profound challenges
to modern Christian conservatives who wish to quote the Bible as the basis
of their political beliefs.
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