On Nov. 3 at the Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of San Jose reportedly invoked the question “What Would Jesus Do?” to a group of “little people” and “average citizens” as part of the Occupy Oakland Movement. The orchestrated answer came from the crowd: “spend money;” in other words “tax the rich.”
A four-minute video of the event can be found here.
The main slogan of the broader Occupy Wall Street Movement protesters has become “We are the 99 percent,” referring to the presumed growing difference in wealth in the U.S. between the so-called “1 percent” at the top of the social class levels and the remainder of the population.
It takes roughly $344,000 to qualify in the 1 percent category in the U.S.
Coincidentally, the median home price in Alameda County in Sept. 2011 was also $344,000. So the “average citizen” who sold their home in 2011 in Oakland or Alameda County was in the top one percent and next year they will fall back into the 99-percent category with the “little people.”
In Pasadena the median home value in 2010 was $510,000 and about 865 houses sold for more than $344,000. A very rough estimate is that about 2,400 households in Pasadena make more than $344,000 per year in gross income.
But what about Congressman Honda’s question: “What would Jesus do?”
It was Karl Marx’s fellow traveler and writer Friedrich Engels who was one of the first modern day leaders of a proletarian social movement who tried to appropriate Christianity for Communism when he wrote:
“The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, or poor people deprived of rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome” (Marx and Engels, On Religion, 1894). Karl Kautsky went to so far as to say that Jesus was one of the first socialists and his movement achieved true communism.
In Monrovia, California during the Great Depression it was socialist writer Upton Sinclair who ran for Governor under the slogan “End Poverty in California” (EPIC), formed the A.C.L.U., and in his book “Religious Profits” believed that religion was the “source of income to parasites and the natural ally of every form of oppression and exploitation.” Sinclair never joined the Social Gospel movement of the Depression Era led by Walter Rauschenbusch.
In his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism written in 1929, American theologian and sociologist H. Richard Niebuhr said that religious movements are “the child of an outcast minority, taking its rise in the religious revolts of the poor.”
In the 1960’s, University of California trained sociologist Rodney Stark advanced a “deprivation theory” of religious social movements that proposed that people sought “religious solutions to their misery when direct action failed or was impossible.” But this theory failed to explain any difference with non-religious social movements and why such movements are typically led by the children of the wealthy, such as the adult children of Muslim elites recrutited into contemporary Jihadist-motivated terrorism.
Stark has turned 180-degrees and now asserts: “religious movements typically are launched by the privileged class.”
Even biblical Christians often seem to overlook verses in Christian scriptures such as Second Corinthians 8:9 where the Apostle Paul wrote:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” While this verse has been “spiritualized” it might be reflective of the truth that Jesus came from a rich family.
For as W.H.C. Frend writes in his The Rise of Christianity (1984:57): Jesus’ parents were well of enough “to have had property in Capernaum as well as Nazareth.” Jesus’ parents could also afford to go to Jerusalem each year for Passover, which most could not have afforded, let alone leaving their farm fields unguarded.
Having two houses today and going on annual vacations would be a sign that one had reached the proverbial “1%” of the Occupy Movement.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Talents he indicates his family was rich and that he had some knowledge of banking and investment. Jesus spoke to privileged audiences. As George Wesley Buchanan noted in his chapter “Jesus and the Upper Class” in his Novum Testamentum (1964: 205): Jesus’ parables “would be pointless if told to people who had not enough wealth to entertain guests, hire servants, be generous with contributions, etc.”
Jesus did reach out to the poor and the marginalized but he associated and preached to the wealthy such as Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy convert, Joanna, a steward of Herod Antipas, and Susanna, a wealthy woman and benefactor to the Jesus movement.
“What would Jesus do?” I agree with sociologist Peter L. Berger that there is no way of knowing and that solutions to such complex economic issues as the current day financial crisis cannot be found in what was written about him.
But in Matthew 26: 6 to 11 we find an intriguing story. Jesus was ready to have dinner at the home of a Pharisee and an unidentified “woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head.” His disciples became outraged because it could “have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus is said to have replied: “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
As noted in the book The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius by Paul Trebilco (2004:406), the price of the ointment was equal to a year’s wages for the typical worker of that time.
From all that we can know, Jesus would be one of the one-percenters of today’s Occupy Wall Street Movement whose leaders are also drawn from the upper middle class if not from the top 1 percent.
Which leads to a proposition: be skeptical of those appropriating Jesus, whether they are part of the “system or the horde.”