Monday, 2 June 2014

Jesus Wasn't a Conservative (but He Wasn't a Liberal Either) - Part 1.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
It seems like there’s a bit of a battle over Jesus these days with each side wanting to claim him for themselves. The conservative Christians loudly proclaim that Jesus is a conservative; the liberals argue that Jesus is a liberal, and the Marxists argue that Jesus was a Marxist. In fact I hear these claims all the time. But I don’t think that we can rightly make those claims. Why? The obvious reason is that apply these modern political systems on a first century preacher from Palestine is quite anachronistic. Saying that Jesus was a Greenie makes about as much sense as saying that Alexander the Great was one too.

But with that out of the way, what’s to stop us from saying that Jesus represented a proto-political party? Could he have been a proto-21st century conservative or liberal? However, I would caution against identifying Jesus as belonging to a particular political ideology. Why? Well we’re going to look at a rather extreme example from history.

One of the most popular speculative arguments regarding Nazi Germany is whether Hitler was a Christian or not. But we’re going to largely ignore that question in favour of looking at the wider attempt by German theologians to reinvent Jesus as a German Christ.[1]

During 1939, a group of Protestant theologians, pastors, and laypeople gathered together to found the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, a group whose goal was to “rescue Christianity from Judaism”. The Institute was a well-funded part of the German Christian movement, a faction of 600,000 people who sought to combine Nazi ideology and the German Protestant church. This movement aimed to bring churches into compliance with the Nazi ideology by prominently placing swastikas next to the cross on the altar (at least one church removed the cross altogether), regarding Hitler as a German messiah, and altering fundamental church doctrine where it came into conflict with Nazi ideology. The most prominent example was the Institutes efforts to remove the Old Testament from Christian Bibles to minimise the Judaic influence on German Christianity.[2] But what were they to do with Jesus? Wasn’t he explicitly a Jew? Not according to the Institute who argued that Jesus was really an Aryan and that the Apostle Paul, as a Jew, had perverted Jesus’ message to make it more Jewish.[3]    

Rather than acknowledging Christ’s Jewishness, members of the German Christian movement took several approaches to recasting Jesus as an Aryan. At this point it is helpful to realise that this attempt was not a sudden movement that arose as a result of the Nazi Party gaining power; rather it is best seen as the culmination of a German religious nationalistic movement that stretched from 1870 to 1945. During this time we see many attempts to redefine Jesus which later be used in Nazi thinking.

The first was to cast Jesus as a Jew who fought against Judaism. The French scholar Ernest Renan put forth the idea in his 1863 wildly popular book Life of Jesus that Jesus was a man born into Jewish culture but he had managed to purify himself of Jewish traits and emerge a glorious Aryan.[4] Jesus was no longer the Son of God, but a Galilean man who was possessed by God’s love and had reached a unique religious consciousness. In the words of Renan, Jesus “appears no more as a Jewish reformer, but as a destroyer of Judaism… Jesus was no longer a Jew.”[5] With this argument Renan had established a frame of thinking for future scholars who wished to view Jesus as a destroyer of Judaism. But for others, the problem of Jesus’ Jewish bloodline made this position untenable. Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891) argued that Jesus certainly was not a Jew and that Paul had Judaized him.

Others viewed Jesus as being a religious Buddhist, Hindu, or Zoroastrian, either of which would make him an Aryan.[6]  At the beginning of the 20th century Buddha had replaced Socrates as the darling of the intellectual elite, and many sought to link Jesus’ teachings with Buddhist teachings. Others rewrote history so as to create a version of history where first century Galilee had actually been populated by Assyrians, meaning that Jesus was an Assyrian and not a Jew. Some even insisted that the father of Jesus was a Roman soldier named Panthera.[7] Others sort to identify Jesus with Teutonic myths. In short, many attempts were made to prove that Jesus was not a member of the Jewish race.   

Lastly, there was a wide movement aimed at recasting Jesus in terms of 1930s “heroic realism”. Portrayals of Jesus suffering on the cross went out of vogue, with many artists portraying him as a manly warrior instead. Pastor Immanuel Berthold Schairer believed that the traditional Jesus was making the German people effeminate and that recovering “the real Jesus” would harden them. In 1936, Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller rewrote the Sermon on the Mount in order to make Jesus into a German hero. Matthew 5:4-5 now read: “Happy is he who bears his sufferings like a man; he will find the strength never to despair without courage. Happy is he who is always a good comrade; he will make his way in the world.”[8]

Jewish historian Susannah Heschel writes:
“Nazism’s relationship to Christianity was not one of rejection, nor was it an effort to displace Christianity and become a form of “political religion”… rather, Nazi ideology was a form of super-sessionism, an usurpation and colonization of Christian theology, especially its anti-Semitism, for its own purposes. The theology of the Institute was a similar effort at supersessionism in reverse, taking over elements of Nazi racial ideology to bolster and redefine the Christian message.”[9]

Of course not all theologians thought like this. The next post will look at one who stood against this movement and will contain the conclusion to this blog post.

[1] Of course this does have implications for the debate over Hitler’s religion but that’s for another time.
[2] The Institute weren’t the first to attempt to remove the Old Testament from the Biblical canon. Marcion of Sinope (85-160AD) insisted that Christianity was in discontinuity with Judaism, resulting in Marcion rejecting the Old Testament and certain New Testament writings he saw as “too Jewish”. As a result he was declared a heretic by the Church and excommunicated.  
[3] From private conversations we know that Hitler approved of the Institute’s views and repeated many of them in rants.
[5] Renan, The Life of Jesus, 206-7. As cited in The Aryan Jesus.
[6] Indians and Persians were considered Aryans.
[7] Again, note the denial of the divinity of Christ.
[8] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 53.
[9] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 8.

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