This is a rare request blog; rare only because I have so few readers, and most of them are not champing at the bit to set me to task. However, a good friend who happens to be incredibly knowledgeable about religion and Scripture asked me to take up the crossovers between Bernie Sanders and Jesus. How could I say no?
I have to offer some caveats, though. because this is the sort of blog that could offend a whole bunch of people and actually get me in some trouble if I don’t set forth ground rules. First, I am writing as a private citizen who is guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and the right to participate in the American democratic process. I happen to be a pastor at a very specific place, but my words in no way, shape, or form represent an official or unofficial position of the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), More Light Presbyterians, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, or First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. Full stop. Second, while I voted for Bernie Sanders and continue to support him, I am not “endorsing him” as a pastor or even as a Christian. My reasons for supporting him are (almost) purely political, although I would be lying if I didn’t say that my religious principles influence my needs from a political candidate. And finally, my comparisons between Sanders (I-Vermont) and Jesus (I-Nazareth) are meant to be interpreted within the larger gestalt of Evangelical Christianity in the United States, in which Bernie’s Jewishness has been identified as somehow unacceptable for a president.
Setting Up the Argument
John Dominic Crossan, in a career spanning five decades, has argued that Jesus’ talk of kingdom (hereby referred to as kin-dom) was a specifically political act that posited a foundational question: “What would it look like if God sat on the throne of Caesar?” Ever since I encountered this idea during undergraduate studies, it has stuck with me. From the language of “Lord” to presenting Jesus as the King of the Jews, the gospel writers are pushing readers to engage in compare and contrast: where kingdoms of humans (Roman or American) favor the wealthy, oppress the poor, and subjugate the many, the kin-dom of God privileges the poor, liberates the oppressed, and offers freedom to all who are repentant and desirous of transformation. While reasonable people can disagree about the timing of Christ’s promised kin-dom (here but not yet, I like to say), it is clear that Jesus’ good news was in no small way about the radical turning over of power structures that humans put in place which create an “us and them” dichotomy. And while, in my opinion, too much of Christianity has focused on a confession to blood atonement theology and a looking to the next world, there can be no doubt that Jesus provided (through his life and work) an example of how followers can address the systems that keep people in physical, economic, mental, spiritual, and emotional chains.
Finally, before turning to the 5 points I will highlight, I want to pause and say that comparisons between an American politician and a Jewish man billions follow as Messiah are flawed from the start. There are things I would say about Jesus–Lord, Savior, Son of God–that I would never say about Bernie, and vice-versa. So if your inclination is to want to attack this blog for its underlying chutzpah, don’t. I get the weaknesses, but I again reiterate the purpose: to show that Sanders is actually very close to the social message of Jesus. I’m also not arguing the viablity of his plans; rather, I am pointing out the crossover between Gospel requirements and Sanders’ own political platform. I’ll also note that I provide very substantive, scholarly evidence for my claims in the links. If you come at me without having read the links, I’m going to know.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV)
Jesus does speak of a kin-dom not of this world, one that will be ushered in by his Parousia (second coming), and will feature a judgment based upon specific criteria. While I could highlight numerous platform proposals of Bernie Sanders that would address each of the issues elucidated by Christ, I want to focus on prison, because it is an issue close to my heart. It is well known that the United States leads the world in prison population; that our rates of incarceration have increased by 700% since 1970; that disproportionate numbers of Latino, Black, and poor White persons are incarcerated with increasingly punitive sentences, despite evidence that rehabilitation programs are more effective in preventing recidivism; and that many longtime prisoners have few to no visitors, increasing their isolation.
I attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C. in 2015; the topic was mass incarceration, and there I was met by members of law enforcement, the legal community, and religious leaders who are dedicated to reforming our justice system. The biggest roadblock right now? Private, for profit prisons. In some cases, like in my home state of Ohio, these prisons threaten to sue their city or state where they reside if the units are not at capacity, putting pressure on politicians to support judges, District Attorneys, and country prosecutors who keep the school to prison pipeline going.
Bernie Sanders is for the elimination of private prisons immediately, and sets forth a systematic analysis of how racial, economic, and family justice are derailed by the monied interests that see the continued incarceration of Black, Brown, and poor Whites as good business.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:15-17)
Most often, this passage is used in the context of discipleship; Jesus has just called to discipleship Levi the tax collector, and Jesus is being questioned about his choice of company. Clearly, the overt claim here is that Jesus comes to those who are set aside by common wisdom and practice. Those who are already taken care of are taken care of; Jesus is concerned about those who are left out. It is not an irresponsible reading to point to Jesus’ example of a physician’s duties. He or she is to go to the sick. Not the sick who can afford it; not the sick who have the right paperwork; not the sick who have proved themselves worthy; not the sick who have behaved in a way found acceptable. The sick. Full stop. Period.
Bernie Sanders calls for universal healthcare and declares it is a fundamental human right that comes from simply being a human person. This, to me, sounds like a secular way of saying that the right comes from God, and that we all as beings created by God have the right to healthcare.
For those who think this is a stretch, that’s fine. But I will point out that Jesus spent a vast majority of his time healing those the priests refused or could not heal. And he did so in violation of the law and cultural norms. Jesus put himself on the line to help the sick, and we cheapen the historical Jesus’ work if we claim that healings are merely signs of his true identity and not an indication of his priorities. If we espouse imitatio Christi, that should logically extend to creating an accessible system in which the sick can get to a physician.
By some estimations, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible concerning money. Jesus was especially critical of the wealthy, arguing that humans cannot serve both God and Mammon. From the Parable of the Sower to the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain) , Jesus was quite clear that economic disparity is not acceptable to God. In fact, the oft-mentioned destruction of Sodom was not the result of homosexuality, but rather greed and indifference to the plight of the poor. I’ll be honest and say that anyone denying this very basic point–that Jesus set forth a preferential option of the poor which arose from his confession of the Jewish God–is studying a Christianity I have never met. I suggest they follow Joel Osteen and his church of good feelings and large bank accounts.
Bernie’s “one issue” (sic) is economic justice. It accounts for many of the planks in his platform, from the right to an education to expanded access to loans to start businesses. Now while Jesus spoke about how money can become a deity unto itself, thereby keeping people from serving God, and did not speak specifically about startups and reasonable interest rates from poor and minority applicants, let us think about the underlying assumptions of Jesus’ words. Money itself is not the problem. The problem comes in its use and in its hoarding. We are not to store up treasures here on earth, but rather in heaven. Recall our first passage; Christians believe that there will come a time in which we will be judged, and the criteria are clear: Did we assist those who needed help? In our capitalist system, money is one of the easiest and most readily-available ways for the economically wealthy to assist the poor. It seems clear to me that Jesus calls for us to do so. Sadly, private charity is not enough. Bernie’s call for the government to do so seems pretty much in line with Christ to me.
Regulation of Economic Centers
I’m treading dangerous water here because we are comparing apples and oranges. There was no notion of Church and State in the ancient world. There was the Roman Empire (during Jesus’ lifetime) and their occupation of Israel. Jews were allowed to practice their religion only because Rome understood preventing them from doing so was simply not worth the hassle. Jews were very good at uprisings, both violent and nonviolent, and were willing to die for the Torah. Some Rome just threw some more taxes at them and left the Sanhedrin in charge, with a Roman procurator coming in from time to time to make sure everything was in order. Of course, the soldiers never left.
The Temple itself was the center of Jewish life. It was like Wall Street, the National Cathedral, Harvard, and Piccadilly Circus all rolled into one. There has been much written about Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple; his overturning of the tables was meant to send a message, but what?
It seems unlikely that Jesus was objecting the Temple itself being a place of commerce and meeting. Jerusalem, since the time of David, was a neutral political and religious capital meant to provide the disparate tribes a “national” identity. Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and rebuilt and dedicated in 515 BCE, was a wonder of the world and attracted visitors, thereby assisting in the economic viability of the Temple and the people of Jerusalem. Jesus does not object to economic transactions on the face; what he does object to is the corruption that kept the average person from having access to God. According to Jewish law, a number of relationships or realities could not be set right without a sacrifice offered by and blessings bestowed by a priest. Roman money was not allowable in the Temple, as it contained a portrait of Caesar and was considered a graven image. Therefore, a Temple currency had to be used. There was usury by the shulhani, money changers, that could sometimes price people out of the market. The practice was legal, but disproportionately hurt the poor.
Bernie is for the breaking up of the big banks and prosecution of Wall Street speculators who greedily bend and break the law without any ramifications. Bernie is metaphorically going into the economic center of the United States and is overturning the tables, shouting that the people’s house is one for all, not just the few.
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
This is again a slightly slippery area. Jesus is clearly speaking about how one should receive God. Here, the example of a child is used. It is important to note that during Jesus’ time, there was no notion of childhood as we have it now. Children were to be seen, not heard. Children were regarded as little adults. They had no rights. Their lives were often filled with sickness and loss.Once children reached around the age of 10, they began to enter adulthood. We in the first world really don’t understand the ways that childhood functioned in the ancient world, but let us try. Jesus is using the example of a rather marginalized figure; the child had not reached the age of religious accountability, and the child could not produce a full day’s work.
Children were economic, spiritual, and emotional investments. No one is suggesting that parents in the ancient world did not love their children. Of course they did. But life was shorter and more brutal then. Attitudes and notions about responsibility and utility were different. Children had to be educated, trained, fed, and protected.This is what Jesus means when he says that we have to receive the kin-dom like a child. We have to understand our dependence upon God, our need to be protected and nurtured and educated. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can do it alone.
Bernie prioritizes programs for children that enable them to be productive, educated, contributing citizens. He sets forth ideas to address child poverty, skyrocketing prices of childcare, and nutrition. He believes that the better a child starts in life the greater the chances that he or she will succeed. If the children are going to receive the kin-dom, there better be something there to help them.
Truth be told, I wrote this article because I was asked. I think my points are solid and fair, but I fear that the piece will be misunderstood. I’m not suggesting a theocracy. Far from it. I don’t think the United States is or ever has been a Christian country. I also live a contradiction; I am invested in this world but have a deep belief that this is only a step on a much longer journey. I understand that we cannot perfect our society because we are fallible, selfish, flawed individuals. But I believe we are capable of great things for the whole of humanity. We are failing in that charge now. In very big ways. To me, Bernie is the closest thing to a “Christian” politician I have ever seen. I do not want to put that label on him, though, because he is not Christian. And he need not be. And these ideas that he sets forth do not have their basis in Christianity, at least for him and a lot of his followers. They don’t need to. But I see the connections and I will not deny that my faith informs some of my political stances.
So take this for what it is worth. I am open to reasonable discussions, but I have been pretty straight-forward with the flaws of my presentation, and also honest about what it is and is not meant to do. To the friend who requested it, thank you! You helped me think through these issues a little more deeply.