[Site editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the new Disinformation title 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]
The history of Christianity is like a treasure chest for anyone who is fond of contradictions. The Gospels bicker with each other by relating similar tales in very different ways. But even more obviously, Christianity has often so dramatically departed from the words attributed to Jesus as to make you wonder how these glaring contradictions can be justified. Jesus tells you to “Love your enemies” and “Turn the other cheek”? So let’s show how much we love Jesus by waging crusades, inquisitions, witch-hunts, and brutal campaigns of repression against anyone who doesn’t love Him as much as we do. Jesus’s pacifism has drowned in the hyper-violence that has characterized much of Christian history.
But—we may object—most Christians alive today seem to have lost the bloodthirsty enthusiasm of their ancestors, and are no longer inclined to exterminate non-Christians. Even though it is true enough that chopping the unbelievers’ heads off may no longer be a popular pastime, the vast majority of Christians still conveniently forget about another theme that was central to Jesus’s ideology, and structure their lives in direct opposition to it. Jesus, in fact, was one of the most anti-capitalist thinkers this side of Karl Marx. Yet, most Christians are capitalists. What gives?
The concept of capitalism may have not existed in its modern forms during Jesus’s times, but Jesus’s words about accumulation of wealth leave little to the imagination. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all report Jesus saying: “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.”
Damn … does it get any blunter than this?
Just to make sure we are paying attention, Jesus hammers the same point over and over, repeating multiple times his condemnation of accumulation of wealth. We find him telling wannabe followers to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor (in case you are wondering, this made some decide that following Jesus was not such a hot idea anymore). In another passage, he categorically states that you can’t serve God and wealth at the same time. Elsewhere he warns us to focus on spiritual wealth rather than material wealth, and not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy …” In yet a different occasion, he tells “Woe to the rich for you have received your consolation.” And in a series of sentences that are as antithetical to spirit of capitalism as they come, he advises his followers not to make any plans about the future in regards to food and shelter, since God will take care of everyone’s basic needs.
Considering how insistent Jesus is on this topic, it is with little surprise that we find out in other parts of the New Testament how his early followers shared everything among each other, and nearly eliminated private property.
In the face of this ultra-radical stance about wealth by their founder, it would be easy to conclude that most Christians live by making vows of poverty and shunning wealth like the plague. But that’s not quite the way things play out. God may be cool—most modern Christians think—but so is gold. Why should we have to choose one over the other? Ever since the Protestant Reformation, any qualms any Christian may have had about chasing good, old-fashioned cash began to fade. Many Catholics had maintained a theology frowning on accumulation of wealth, but simply had chosen to ignore it in practice. Plenty of Protestants, instead, decided to feel better about the whole thing and banish hypocrisy by reinventing the economic ideology of Christianity. Step one was to conveniently skip the many, many passages mentioned above. Step two was to focus instead on the biblical passages (mostly in the Old Testament) approving of wealth. Step three was to argue that since nothing in the world happens without God willing it, economic success (or the lack of thereof) is a quantifiable way to judge how much God does or does not favor you.
Voilà! The tables are turned and suddenly the obsession for money making has been recycled as a perfectly acceptable Christian endeavor. In the theology endorsed by some Christians (particularly those espousing the quintessential American “gospel of prosperity”) accumulating wealth is not only justifiable but almost a Christian duty since material prosperity is God’s reward for His faithful followers. The obvious corollary is that if you are poor, instead, it is probably because God hates your guts.
What makes this hijacking of Jesus’s message even funnier are the ways in which the God & Gold enthusiasts have tried to claim that Jesus was himself wealthy. Only the rich—they reason—could afford to travel around like he did and not work. But my all time favorite is the argument that Roman soldiers gambled for the right to take Jesus’s underwear after he died suggesting he was so rich that even his underwear was made of very expensive materials.
Really? Is that what this theology hangs by? Jesus underwear? Memo to self: if I ever try to justify my beliefs by appealing to a divine pair of underwear, it’s time to admit defeat.