Harnack: Jesus and Economics

Was Jesus a communist? Throughout the twentieth century, a range of scholars and theologians were concerned to look for any economic systems or doctrines put forward by the Bible – just in case there’s anything in there that might speak to certain questions about capitalism and the unfettered pursuit of profit at the expense of human lives. As might be expected, different people have come to a range of different conclusions, citing all sorts of different verses – render unto Caesar, the cleansing of the Temple, the bit where Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his stuff in order to be perfect – you know, the usual gamut. In lecture six of his series ‘What is Christianity’, delivered in 1900, Adolf von Harnack argues that Jesus actually never committed to any specific economic policies:

“Jesus laid down no social programme for the suppression of poverty and distress, if by programme we mean a set of definitely prescribed regulations. With economical conditions and contemporary circumstances he did not interfere. Had he become entangled in them; had he given laws which were ever so salutary for Palestine, what would have been gained by it? They would have served the needs of a day, and tomorrow would have been antiquated; to the Gospel they would have been a burden and a source of confusion.”

In short, Harnack argues that Jesus deliberately kept away from specific policy positions, as he understood that idiots would take those positions and try to apply them across all time, even if they were only meant to work in that specific first century context. And that’s fair enough – I mean, I’ve seen people try to replicate a so-called Biblical diet, because it’s what people ate in the Bible and it must therefore necessarily be the only stuff we’re ever supposed to eat. Biblical literalists exist, and they suck, and if Jesus had suggested any economic policies that might have been relevant or useful to first-century Palestine, you can bet your ass people would be trying to apply those policies today, regardless of how little sense they make. You’d have these fuckers trying to start a goat economy or something.

From that perspective, Harnack argues, Jesus to some extent had to remain above the specifics of his time, or risk having his message of salvation seem in some way contingent on the culture and context of first-century Palestine. In his next lecture, lecture seven, Harnack argues that the Catholic church has fallen explicitly into this trap:

“In the Middle Ages this Church, anxious to participate to the full in all questions of progress and civilization, gave them form and shape, and laid down their laws. Insensibly, however, the Church identified its sacred inheritance and its peculiar mission with the knowledge, the maxims, and the interests which it then acquired; so that it is now, as it were, firmly pinned down to the philosophy, the political economy, in short, to the whole civilization of the Middle Ages.”

If we look at the Gospels, Harnack claims, we can therefore see a range of instances where Jesus was dodging this pitfall that the Catholics have ended up in. When a rich man asks Jesus in Luke 11 to settle an issue of inheritance, Jesus tells him to fuck off. He starts talking about the broader spiritual value of not being greedy, deliberately avoiding getting tangled in the specific legal issues relating to inheritance in first-century Palestine and turning instead to a universal, spiritual idea. And you can see Harnack’s point – if Jesus had said well hey here’s how I think you should actually split the inheritance, Christians would have taken his words out of context and applied them as standing orders for all people over the past two thousand years. They wouldn’t see it as context-dependent advice only relevant to the situation of these two Palestinians: if Jesus said it, it has to apply to everyone, forever.

But there are also possibly some tensions with this approach too. If Jesus was only concerned with higher, more universal ideas like salvation and the redemption of humankind – I mean, you can get saved regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, right? If Christ’s key concern is for our souls in the afterlife, then maybe he wasn’t that interested in the physical condition of the poor right now. When he says that his kingdom is not of this world, how can we then use his words to try and create change in the world? Harnack notes that the Bible talks a lot about accepting your situation in life, about giving up your belongings and your desire for more stuff:

“We see a whole class struggling for its rights; or, rather, we see it struggling to extend and increase its rights. Is that compatible with the Christian temper? Does not the Gospel forbid such a struggle? Have we not been told that we are to renounce the rights we have, to say nothing of trying to get more? Must we, then, as Christians, recall the labouring classes from the struggle for their rights, and exhort them only to patience and submission?”

Patience and submission are certainly two of the key terms used to argue against the struggle for rights. In Ephesians 6, you’ve got the verses about how slaves should obey their masters – where Jesus is identified with the slaveowners, and where obedience to your master is described as obedience to God. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” It sounds like God is totally fine with slavery, and that any political resistance to the institution of slavery is in some sense resistance to the order enshrined by the deity. Harnack notes a similar complaint made by socialists who look to the Bible for support: “They say that it imposes restraint upon aspirations which with a clear conscience they feel to be justified; that in requiring absolute meekness and submission it disarms everyone who wants to fight; that it narcotises, as it were, all real energy.”

Between these two poles of submission and advocacy for the poor, Harnack offers a middle ground, based on Christ’s message of loving your neighbour as yourself. “The Gospel is a social message, solemn and overpowering in its force; it is the proclamation of solidarity and brotherliness, in favour of the poor. But the message is bound up with the recognition of the infinite value of the human soul, and is contained in what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God.” Even so, he says, “laws or ordinances or injunctions bidding us forcibly alter the conditions of the age in which we may happen to be living are not to be found in the Gospel.” The Gospel is only concerned with salvation. If you get saved, your subsequent actions are sort of up to you. You’re welcome to fight for the poor, if you want, but it’s also fine to just loaf around and do nothing. “How you are to maintain yourself in this life on earth, and in what way you are to serve your neighbour, is left to you and your own liberty of action.” From that perspective, Harnack says, advocating for rights for the disadvantaged is fine and good, but it’s not something that everyone has to do, and in the eternal view, it’s all going to end the same way anyway. “Then let us fight, let us struggle, let us get justice for the oppressed, let us order the circumstances of the world as we with a clear conscience can, and as we may think best for our neighbour; but do not let us expect the Gospel to afford us any direct help; let us make no selfish demands for ourselves; and let us not forget that the world passes away, not only with the lusts thereof, but also with its regulations and its goods!”

It’s not the strongest argument, really – it’s kinda frustrating how happy Harnack is to allow Christians to just chill out and do nothing. That seems like ignoring the story in Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, which suggests that even for Christians there will be a division between those who genuinely cared for the poor and those who did nothing to help, where those who did nothing “will go away to eternal punishment.” It also doesn’t really resolve the tension between the two different poles, between spiritual salvation and practical advocacy for the poor. Harnack asserts that this so-called spiritual brotherly union is part of Christ’s message, and argues that it has implications for how we treat the poor, but only really if we can be bothered – and if we can’t be bothered it’s totally fine. So is it really a core part of Christ’s message? A stronger approach might integrate care for the poor into the fundamental saving action of Christ, identifying salvation with liberty and freedom from oppression. It might position care as a natural unfolding of Christ’s identity within us: that is, as he came to earth to give himself for us, selflessly and without thought of his own advancement, so too must we pour ourselves out on behalf of other people, uplifting the poor and downtrodden in a mirroring of the redemption that we have received and as a sign of the divine life within us. Of course, Harnack can’t make that argument, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus was actually God – OH SHIT, plot twist, tune in next week to see how that spins out.

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