Encouraging individuals to do good deeds isn't the same as calling for reform of oppressive power structures.
“Jesus was a liberal,” the bumper sticker says. It’s a slogan quoted by progressive Christians to explain why they hold on to their faith despite its domination by the religious right.
According to this viewpoint, Jesus was a progressive—even a radical—but those teachings have been blotted out and his image co-opted by a corrupt, ossified religious establishment, just like the one he preached against in his own lifetime.
It’s easy to see where the sentiment comes from. In the biblical accounts, Jesus was born into a family of refugees fleeing violence. He condemned the greedy rich and the religious hypocrites who flaunted their piety. He preached pacifism, universal compassion and the Golden Rule. He told his followers to give away their wealth to help the poor and the needy. He allowed himself to be executed and rose from the dead, proving that love triumphs over violence.
I’d agree that all of these teachings are laudable (though it’s questionable whether we can map modern political factions onto religious sects from the ancient world).
But even taking them into account, Jesus wasn’t a progressive.
How can this be? The answer is right there in the word: Being a progressive means believing in progress. It means that your goal is to make the world better by abolishing evils like hunger, poverty, war and injustice. It’s implicit in this goal that the world can be made better—that our efforts aren’t futile, that we can make a difference.
Jesus didn’t teach this. In fact, he taught the opposite.
Jesus was a quietist
According to Jesus, evils like poverty and tyranny can’t be eradicated by human beings. They’re permanent fixtures of this sinful world, until Judgment Day when God descends from the clouds and sets everything right. Jesus told his followers to do good deeds, but not in the expectation of making any real or lasting difference. It was merely to purify their own souls so that they’ll be worthy to enter heaven when they die.
This worldview is best described as quietism, “a passive acceptance of things as they are without attempting to change them”. Jesus’s teachings and the New Testament in general embody this view.
Of course feeding the hungry or giving to the needy are praiseworthy acts. But being progressive means more than calling for good deeds at an individual level. It means seeking to cut down oppression at the root, to overthrow the oppressive power structures that give rise to injustice.
Jesus didn’t teach Christians to fight back against oppression. Instead, he told them to turn the other cheek and “not to resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39). He taught Christians to give in to others’ demands, however unjust (Matthew 5:40). He encouraged them to submit meekly to unfairness, because the meek are blessed (Matthew 5:5) and will be rewarded in the world to come.
Slavery is the epitome of an oppressive system that’s caused tremendous evil. Here, too, Jesus is lacking progressive credentials.
Although he took the time to repeal kosher dietary laws, Jesus specifically did not preach against slavery. He works it into his parables as if it was the most normal thing in the world, comparing God to a slave owner who beats his slaves for disobedience (Luke 12:47).
Imagine what a difference it would have made in world history if Jesus had denounced slavery and commanded all Christians to set their slaves free!
Jesus treats poverty in a similar way. In one passage, a woman anoints him with expensive perfume. The disciples are indignant, telling her she could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor (Matthew 26:6-9). They must have thought they were following their master’s teachings, but Jesus rebukes them.
He says that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11) and there will always be opportunities to help them later. But because he was going to die soon, he deserved something nice for himself for once.
This story may puzzle believers, but it’s clear about one thing: there’s no point in Christians seeking to end poverty, because their founder has said that they won’t succeed.
Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr., rather than envisioning a world where everyone will be judged by the content of their character, had taught that racism would always exist no matter what people did to oppose it.
“My kingdom is not of this world”
Judaism teaches that the messiah will be a conquering ruler who will vanquish God’s enemies and reign over God’s kingdom on earth, ushering in an era of peace for humankind. Isaiah 2:4 expresses this belief as prophecy:
“He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
This is a progressive religious vision. It imagines the world—this world—transformed by human action, putting an end to violence and injustice. Many Jewish sects believe that humans can speed the coming of the messianic era by performing good deeds (a concept known as tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world”).
However, Jesus specifically denies that this is his mission. When questioned by Pilate and the Jewish elders, he says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). He taught that his “kingdom” was a mystical communion of believers that crossed race and class lines, but didn’t erase them. He never aspired to end all war and injustice in the world, nor did he instruct his disciples to do so.
While Christian belief in the second coming has a superficial resemblance to Jewish belief in the messianic age, Christianity doesn’t teach that there’s anything we can do to make this happen sooner. It teaches that an earthly paradise will never be created through human action. Instead, we should just sit back and wait for God to fix everything. Again, it does encourage believers to do good deeds, but only to keep their own souls pure in the meantime.
Outside the gospels, the New Testament supports this quietist view. One passage that’s frequently quoted by religious liberals and religious conservatives alike (depending on which party is currently in power) is Romans 13:1:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, whoever resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
This is the antithesis of a progressive view. It says that all governments, including those that are cruel and unjust, have been put in place by God, and Christian believers should submit and obey them without resistance.
Why Christianity is a quietist faith
It’s obvious why the character of Jesus is written this way. Christianity started off as a tiny, vulnerable sect in the midst of a brutal empire. If the first Christians had preached rebellion and resistance, Rome would have stamped them out. The only reason the faith survived was its insistence that it was no threat to power and didn’t seek to change anything in the world as it was.
This belief had lasting repercussions. As Christianity grew to become an imperial power in its own right, it maintained an emphasis on individual repentance and salvation. This otherworldly focus allowed crusaders, conquistadors and enslavers to justify their actions by arguing that what happens in this world isn’t God’s ultimate concern.
Even today, there are evangelical churches that are in favor of helping the poor, but oppose ending poverty, which is why they preach against government safety-net programs. They argue that saving souls matters most of all, and everything else—like whether children have enough to eat, whether everyone has a home, or whether people are dying from preventable disease—comes a distant second.
This doesn’t mean that individual Christians alive today can’t be progressive activists fighting against oppression. It simply means that they can’t look to the life of Jesus or the teachings of the New Testament as inspiration for this mission. No such justification can be found there. If you believe that the world can be made better by human action, I support you in this mission—and it means you’ve surpassed the limitations of what Jesus taught.