The below article appeared in the autumn edition of Quaker Socialist. To receive our newsletter you can join QSS here .
The idea that Jesus was an antagonist to those who hold power is two millennia old. The story is told four times over in the library of books known today as the Bible. Based on these accounts, Jesus has been called a social reformer, revolutionary, anti-racist and supporter of women’s equality who affirmed sexual diversity, was sceptical of the ‘nuclear family’, taught his students to be nonviolent, became a prisoner of conscience and suffered capital punishment for his beliefs.
The movement that he inspired was of the marginalised and the oppressed. It consisted principally of colonised peoples from the Middle East and Africa, including his home country which was suffering under military occupation. The movement’s leaders were largely from working class backgrounds. Central to it was an interfaith alliance bringing together Jewish people with people from Samaria who also suffered religious discrimination. Disabled and formerly disabled people were especially prominent in building the movement. The community included women, men and genderqueer people.
Yet before three centuries had passed, the faith had become a religion of empire, used at the service of the very same anti-Semitic, classist, white-supremacist, misogynist and imperialist mindset that Jesus had spent his life challenging. Ever since there have been powerful forces in Christianity who have used a version of faith to justify religious intolerance, economic inequality, racial injustice, oppression of women, homophobia and war. Part of the task of liberating humanity from oppression will involve liberating Jesus from those who claim that oppression is consistent with Christianity.
Radical Christianity suppressed
Given the revolutionary potential of Jesus’ teaching it is no surprise that for generations elites tried to keep it out of the hands of ordinary people. Even at the point that the shape of the Bible was negotiated and agreed, there were even more radical accounts, which referenced, for example, the divine feminine and focussed much more on the lives of female leaders. These were left out and ordered to be burned. Those who didn’t hand them in were threatened with death and people who disagreed with the official view were deported.
For a millennium afterwards, the Bible was available only in ancient languages, giving elites with expensive educations the near-exclusive power of interpretation. When in 1382 – just a year after the Peasant’s Revolt – John Wycliffe translated the Bible in to English, he was condemned as a heretic. Wycliffe died of a stroke, but not content to let him be, church authorities ordered that his body should be dug back up and then burnt.
William Tyndale is credited with translating the Bible in to English direct from the Greek and Hebrew, publishing his New Testament in 1526. His work was initially appreciated by Henry VIII who went on to make himself head of a new English national church in order to allow himself to divorce his first wife. But when Tyndale criticised the King for the ways his actions differed from scripture, Tyndale was ordered to be strangled at the stake before being burnt.
Martin Luther completed his full Bible translation into German in 1534. By that stage he had already been declared a heretic and excommunicated from the church. As the text reached common people’s hands it became clear that what was being taught and done by some of those in power was quite different from the example set by Jesus. In the same year a group dubbed Anabaptists attempted a revolution in the city of Munster in order to try and introduce a more communal system. Luther spoke out against the rebellion, but was never readmitted to the church.
Eventually, in 1611 the King James Version of the Bible was produced. Although copies were placed in churches in English and in Latin, great efforts were made to shape people’s understandings of it. The church was sharply hierarchical, priests tended to be drawn from the upper classes, and at the top of the pyramid was the King himself who claimed he had been put there by God. Attendance at church was compulsory with the threat of fines or imprisonment for those who refused.
But the cat was out of the bag. Alternative visions of Christianity were already beginning to be adopted across Europe and a spiritual gulf was growing in England between the approaches inspired by these developments and the national state church preferred by the upper classes and royalists. By the 1640s this was a factor in the outbreak of civil war, culminating in the execution of both the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Quakers and fellow travellers
England’s short period as a republic coincided with a relaxation of the laws against grassroots faith groups. Thousands of people in previously underground groups emerged. Some agitated for the extension of the ballot and limitations on the death penalty and others set out to redistribute land through direct action, by reclaiming rich landowners’ fields and farming them communally. The most famous of these were nicknamed ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’. Later, many of those radical spiritual activists combined together as the Children of the Light, later known as the Society of Friends (Friends for short), and nicknamed ‘Quakers’.
Although then, as now, many men tried to use their religion to suppress women’s voices, Quaker women found in the Bible a powerful case for women’s equality. Most prominent was Margaret Fell who wrote a pamphlet pointing out that Jesus often revealed truths to women before they were revealed to men. Amongst thousands of fellow freethinkers, she endured prison for sticking to her beliefs. But a path was beginning to be paved towards women’s ministry, which many more would follow.
It was another Christian non-conformist, Mary Wollstonecraft – a Unitarian – who wrote one of the foundational texts of modern feminism; a Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1791. The work not only called for gender equality but called out the whole system of unjust hierarchies that reinforced the male power structure. She was shunned by many in her community.
One who didn’t ignore her was Tom Paine – who had written the first part of a Vindication of the Rights of Man the previous year. By writing books that profoundly shaped the founding fathers of the USA, revolutionaries in France and England’s emerging movements for democracy, he played a role in contributing to the development of human rights. The child of Quaker parents, he was also a keen Bible reader on which basis he rejected the literalist approach. For this he was forced to flee his country for his life.
Yet another contemporary of Wollstonecraft and Paine – as well as an early campaigner in the movement for the vote – was Olaudah Equiano, whose memoir of life in slavery had become an international bestseller by 1792. The book gave a narrative of the events of his life, but was also a work of spiritual autobiography recounting how he had found strength in the actions and words of Jesus and Paul, which he contrasted against the moral hypocrisy of the nominal Christians who had enslaved him.
It was from within the anti-slavery movement that a new chapter in the movement for votes for women began. After being excluded from an anti-slavery convention in 1840 on account of her gender, Quaker activist Anne Knight wrote what is usually considered the first leaflet calling for women to have the vote, arguing that a female influence on Parliament would lead to more peaceful and just decisions. She became a regular thorn in the side of the male leaders of anti-slavery campaigns who she argued had not understood scripture properly. Her contemporary Elizabeth Cady Stanton went further and wrote a version of the Bible from a woman’s perspective.
This was not however just a white woman’s cause. Perhaps the most memorable women’s rights speech of the century was given by Sojourner Truth to a conference in Ohio. Pointing to a church minister who had argued against women’s rights she declared “that little man in black there he says women can’t have as much right as a man because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him”.
All the while nascent trade union groups were being built, perhaps the best-known of which were the Tolpuddle Martyrs, led by a preacher George Loveless. After organising an association of agricultural workers in England, they were sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1834. After mass mobilisation in solidarity they were pardoned two year later. That same year the Chartist campaign began, one of the most significant mass-participation working-class campaigns since the industrial revolution, which demanded the vote be extended to workers. Amongst the teachings of Chartist leader Ernest Jones was the idea that “Christ was the first Chartist and democracy is the Gospel carried into practice”.
In the Eastern Church, Christian dissent was more effectively contained. Nonconformist sects such as the Dukobhors needed to escape to avoid persecution. One of those who sympathised with and assisted the Dukhobors was Russia’s most renowned novelist Leo Tolstoy. Reading of the activism of anti-slavery campaigners abroad, he penned a series of books about the essence of Jesus’ teaching and the potential of nonviolent action, which he contrasted to the actions of the national church. He couldn’t find a publisher for his work in his own country, which ended up being printed abroad. Among the best known of his overseas readers were the US women’s rights activist Jane Addams, and the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. In his own country though, Tolstoy’s membership of the church was revoked.
The early twentieth century saw an upsurge in radical union activity in the USA, a contributor to which was a young Dorothy Day, who went on to organise Catholic Worker houses of hospitality with the dispossessed. Against the same background, Walter Rauschenbusch published his seminal work Theology for a Social Gospel pointing to the institutionalised sins of poverty and injustice, the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and the potential to understand the resurrection as the ability to do good. US civil rights leader Martin Luther King came across Walter Rauschenbusch’s work whilst at seminary, which along with Gandhi’s work, profoundly shaped his thinking.
Informed by global struggles against racism and poverty, the term ‘Liberation Theology’ was coined in 1971 by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest. He drew attention to the Bible’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ and invited an approach to theology based on praxis – a cycle of action followed by reflection, repeated many times. Alongside the work of others – most prominently the Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff – this inspired a resurgence of theological perspectives in struggles against authoritarianism and imperialism. Gutierrez and Boff were subjected to investigations and silencing orders respectively by the church hierarchy. Despite this, their message was heard as it opened the way for other forms of liberation theology to emerge based on the experiences of different oppressed groups.
A black theology of liberation began to be systematised by James Cone based on the religious thought of the civil rights movement. One of Cone’s best-known readers was a young Desmond Tutu, who wrote his PhD on Black Theology. He went on to serve as Archbishop of Cape Town and one of the best-known voices against apartheid in South Africa. Later in life he has related this experience to further campaigns, including for peace and justice in the Middle East, for LGBT inclusion and for financial disinvestment from fossil fuels.
Another approach which now forms part of Liberation Theology, is Feminist Theology, referred to as Womanist Theology where it specifically centres black women’s experience. These approaches find in scripture examples of Jesus breaking convention to associate with women, appointing women to the leadership of the movement and making women central to teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. It also finds in Jesus words and decisions an awareness of gender inequality. For example, when a woman is brought before Jesus by an angry mob of men wanting to punish her for having had sex outside of marriage, he challenges them in a way that so bruises the fragile egos of the men that they storm off.
Feminist and womanist theologians often advocate ‘reading between the lines’ to enquire after the silent female characters who are often unnamed. Continuing with the same story we might ask: Who was that woman who was brought to Jesus by the mob? What were the circumstances of the action that made the man so angry? Had she had an abortion? Was it her idea to take the matter to Jesus rather than to a judge? If it was, it was a smart move. Jesus points out the patriarchy by inviting ‘him without sin to cast the first stone’. The story serves as a powerful critique of modern-day Christian-led protests outside abortion clinics.
Yet another approach to draw inspiration from the liberation school is the emergent ‘queering’ of theology. This has led to some novel questions being asked of the Bible: Could the fact that there is no record of Jesus getting married or having a girlfriend indicate an acceptance or even a modelling of a queerer approach to sexuality and gender? Can we detect an androgyny, or alternative masculinity in his character, with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics? Who was the unnamed semi-naked man who ran towards him at the time of his arrest, and was he the same as the unnamed ‘disciple Jesus loved’ who was present at his crucifixion? These are of course all impossible questions to answer with any certainty, but the fact they are asked indicates not only a theology of liberation, but an increasingly liberated approach to theology.
Most rapidly emerging today is the field of eco-theology which finds themes of care for nature in the first book of the Bible and prophesies of environmental breakdown in the last. Both Jesus and his followers appear closest to God when taking walks in nature. Jesus teaches that God cares about the flowers and birds and draws on the metaphors of seeds and fields. He compares himself to a vine and his followers to plants who will be known by their fruit. In widely read encyclical letter in 2015, Pope Francis contrasted Jesus’ example to “the culture of consumerism, which prioritises short-term gain and private interest” which is leading to ecological violence.
A radical manifesto
By now the argument should be clear; as well as being used as a tool of oppression, the Bible is a tool of liberation. Jesus taught that we would know his true followers by their actions when he said “You shall know them by their fruits”. His brother James taught that if faith is not accompanied by action, it is dead and continued “I will show you my faith by my deeds”. So we live our faith in action, but it cannot be only that. Praxis is a process of action followed by reflection, action and reflection. Part of that reflection is the lives of those who have gone before, including those people we meet in scripture.
By one estimate there are up to five billion copies of the Bible in the world. That’s five billion manifestos for change present a great many libraries, hospitals and hotels right across planet, many of them going unread. This article is an invitation to pick one of them up. The fact that a great many of us don’t is no doubt a relief those who exercise unjust power. Because if enough people studied and acted on Jesus’ words, then the foundations of elite power would start looking very sandy indeed.
Tim Gee is the author of ‘Why I am a Pacifist’ (Quaker Quicks, 2019). His next book ‘Open for Liberation: An activist reads the Bible’ will be published next year.