Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are starting to sour on the new pope.
In response to Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation, in which the pontiff denounced “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” these two paragons of the far right – both of whom regularly invoke the teachings of Jesus to bolster their own political views – have suddenly turned their backs on the man whose actual job description is to speak for Jesus.
Sarah Palin complained that Pope Francis sounded “kind of liberal” in his statements decrying the growing global income equality between the rich and the poor (she has since apologized).
Rush Limbaugh went one step further. “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope,” he harrumphed into his giant microphone.
Limbaugh, in his trademarked conspiratorial style, speculated that the pope’s tirade against “widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion” must have been forced upon him by somebody else. “Somebody has either written this for [the pope] or gotten to him,” he said.
Limbaugh is right. Somebody did get to Pope Francis. It was Jesus.
Self-styled “defenders of Christianity,” like Palin and Limbaugh, peddle a profoundly unhistorical view of Jesus. Indeed, if you listened to those on the far right you would think that all Jesus ever spoke about was guns and gays.
But even many modern Christians who reject the far right’s perception of Jesus tend to hold an inaccurate picture of the historical Jesus, viewing him as some kind of celestial spirit with no concern for the cares of this world – a curious assertion about a man who not only lived in one of the most politically charged periods in Israel’s history, but who claimed to be the promised messiah sent to liberate the Jews from foreign occupation.
This popular view of Jesus, which I challenge in my book, has dominated Christianity ever since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not difficult to see why. After all, if you think of Jesus as an apolitical, pacifistic preacher of good works whose only interest was in the world to come, then you can domesticate Jesus’ radical teachings and more easily accommodate him to your own political or economic agenda.
You can be millionaire megachurch pastor Joel Olsteen, preaching a “prosperity Gospel” that claims Jesus wants to you drive a Bentley. You can be Republican congressman Steven Fincher, citing Jesus to denounce welfare and food stamps. You can be libertarian icon Rand Paul appealing to Jesus’ teachings to advocate ending foreign aid.
The truth is that Jesus’ teachings were so revolutionary that were he to preach today what he preached 2,000 years ago, many of the same preachers and politicians who claim to promote his values would be the first to call for him to be silenced.
Jesus did not preach income equality between the rich and the poor. He preached the complete reversal of the social order, wherein the rich and the poor would switch places.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall soon be laughing” (Luke 6:20–21).
These abiding words of the Beatitudes are often remembered as a promise of vindication for the poor and the dispossessed. But that is because few bother reading the verses that follow.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you laughing now, for soon you will mourn” (Luke 6:24–25).
Jesus is not simply describing some utopian fantasy in which the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich. He is advocating a chilling new reality in which the rich will be made poor, the strong will become weak, and the powerful will be displaced by the powerless.
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 5:3–12).
While modern Christianity has tried to spiritualize this message of Jesus, transforming his revolutionary social teachings into abstract ethical principles, it is impossible to overlook the unflinching condemnation of the wealthy and powerful that permeate Jesus’ teachings.
“How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).
As one can imagine, such a radical vision of the world would have been both profoundly appealing for those at the bottom rungs of Jesus’ society, and incredibly threatening for those at the top. The fact is not much has changed in two thousand years, as Palin and Limbaugh have proven.
Yet if these “culture warriors” who so often claim to speak for Jesus actually understood what Jesus stood for, they would not be so eager to claim his ideas for their own. In fact, they’d probably call him a Marxist.
Reza Aslan is the author most recently of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.“