gospelmatthewRather curiously for a man who has been described as “arguably the most important intellectual alive” (New York Times) and who has been quoted as much as the Bible, Plato, Marx, and Freud, Noam Chomsky has made something of a career (or at least a part of it) by doing something so simple a ten year old could do it: pointing out things Adam Smith wrote — literally.  He has pointed out, for instance, how Smith’s one reference to the Invisible Hand is part of his condemnation of what is today called “neoliberal globalization,” which, naturally, it is today used to support.  And Chomsky has done similar things, pointing out things Adam Smith has said, including his various remarks on the division of labour, which he argues will make men stupid and ignorant; equality of condition, which is his ethical ideal; and power relations, which suggest that the merchant class dictates policies in its own interests.  And if my use of the term ‘pointed out,’ seems rather odd, rather too simple for the world’s most prominent intellectual, that is because the situation itself is rather odd.  In an interview with Chomsky, the interviewer David Barsamian suggests, “You’ve done some pretty impressive research on Smith that has excavated … a lot of information that’s not coming out …” but before he finishes his statement, Chomsky interrupts him: “I didn’t do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There’s no research. Just read it,” and continues, “the version of him [Smith] that’s given today is just ridiculous. But I didn’t have to any research to find this out. All you have to do is read. If you’re literate, you’ll find it out.”[1]  As Chomsky is right to point out, it is not remarkable that he read these things in Smith — he is looking at their plain and obvious meaning; it’s right there before one’s eyes.  What is indeed remarkable is that intellectuals — economists, mostly — do not see it.

When I sat down to read through the Gospel of Matthew recently, I had a similar kind of experience.  It struck me that the plain meaning of the text is socialism, and it is transparent.  Quite beyond this, the text provides, I would argue, something of a general anthropology of social revolution, an anthropology which continues to be valid in many points.  And it is right there before our eyes.  It doesn’t take any research; it doesn’t take exegetical genius to see it.  In fact, it arguably takes a certain kind of exegetical genius not to see it.  You just have to read.  And it is quite simple.  Anyone can do it.  In fact, there’s a very simple way to figure out whether not.  Every time you see the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven,’ replace it with ‘socialism’ and see how much the text makes sense.  It doesn’t need any additional layers of complicated hermeneutics.  It makes perfect sense of the whole message, with virtually no exception.  And the stunning fact is that no other interpretation yields such a simple, clear, and obvious meaning.  No other interpretation obviates the contradictions.  In fact, theories hardly ever, even in the sciences, work out with such mathematical precision and come out with such few contradictions.  That is why it is so easy a child could see it — as Jesus of course points out.

It might be surprising, for example, that a notion whose meaning is so hotly contested as that of the Kingdom of Heaven, is very explicitly defined in the Gospel.  Jesus defines the Kingdom of Heaven very explicitly.  It is equal wages.  As Jesus himself says, the Kingdom of Heaven is like the man who says: “I choose to pay the last man the same as you.  Surely I am free to so what I like with my own money.  Why be jealous because I am kind?”  (Matthew 20:14-16)  It might be relevant here to observe that this, equality of income, is far more radical than anything Marx ever proposed.  It is also a matter of giving those who beg, not refusing those who ask to borrow (Matthew 5:42).  It is, moreover, the fulfillment of the Law, which can be summarized in a single line: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).

Consider also, for example, the temptation: “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And [the devil] said to [Jesus], ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’  Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” (Matthew 4:8-10)  Here, then, the worship of the devil is identified with possession of the kingdoms of the world; it is the quid pro quo.  Likewise, the possession of the kingdoms of the world is, as Jesus sees it, anathema to the worship of the Lord.  If for Jesus, worship of the devil is identified with possession of the kingdoms of the world, then worship of the Lord is identified with the Kingdom of Heaven, which is, uncontroversially, the core of Jesus’s teachings.  In fact, Jesus himself says that we should worry about the Kingdom of God before we worry about anything else; it should be our primary concern: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.”

And though we have a tendency to over-spiritualize Jesus’s teachings, it is instructive to perceive their direct and simple meaning.  So when Jesus, for instance, says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28), we can suppose it is referring to the fact that in the Kingdom which he is inaugurating, people will not be oppressed by work, or at least not so much as they are under their present circumstances.  In this, the socialists of the world are of the same mind.  In his essay, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism,’ (1891) Oscar Wilde elaborated on this Christian ideal, suggesting that “man is made for something better than distributing dirt,”[2] a simple enough idea which still, somehow, manages to perplex learned modern economists.  Before Wilde, the International Workingmen’s Association resolved that “the limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive.”[3]  Indeed, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, one of the best reasons for being a socialist (or a Christian, we might add) “is that you detest having to work,” an ideal the enactment of which is easy enough to point out, with the Jewish creation of the weekend, or the socialist’s struggle to actualize it.[4]  In fact, Jesus’s ideal — leisure rather than labor — is hardly so lofty or quixotic as we might think.  A recent article in The Guardian, the leading British newspaper, suggests that we have the technology to realize the ideal “but none of the will.”[5]  In this judgement, socialists and Christians are of accord with the man who is uncontroversially considered the greatest economist of the 20th century.  John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by virtue of increases in economic productivity, his grandchildren “would only work 15 hours a week, exploiting their greater productivity not to make more money but to have more leisure time.” Rather uncannily and perhaps unintentionally echoing Marx’s ideal of the human being who is at last free to “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner,”[6] Keynes believed that by utilizing the economic productivity of society, human beings, having freed themselves from the material shackles of labor, would be able to “cultivate into a fuller perfection the art of life itself.”[7]  As Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post rightly pointed out, Americans today are “more than twice as productive as we were in 1964. That means that we could work less than half as much as we did then and still have 1964-style living standards,” but Matthews fails the point out the rather obvious reasons why we in fact do not work “half as much,” despite “growth actually exceeding Keynes’ forecast” — uncontroversially, because, as leading economist Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out “all the growth in recent decades — and more — has gone to those at the top.”[8]  As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich points out, since the 1980s, the economy has more than doubled in size, but real wages have stagnated.[9]

But legalized theft, exploitation, oppression — these are hardly new.  As Jesus suggests, oppression is the truth which has been “hidden since the foundation of the world,” (Matthew 13:35).  But it will be no more once the Son of Man comes in the clouds with power and glory.  In fact, according to Jesus, those who are oppressors now will be utterly excluded from participation in the this radical social vision of his which he calls the Kingdom of God.  In this, Matthew’s conception of God is identical to that of Luke, whose God promises to fill “the hungry with good things and sen[d] the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).  Thus Jesus tells the elders and chief priests, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt 21:43, my italics) — rather as Marx envisaged the proletarian class taking ownership of the means of production away from the bourgeoisie and using it for their own needs.  Again it is important to emphasize the importance of apprehending the simple, plain, and obvious meaning of the scriptural text: the kingdom is the inheritance of those who “produce its fruits,” that is, create its wealth.  The oppressors, the sinners, the “law-breakers” will be thrown “into the fiery furnace” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” — “[j]ust as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire” (Matt 13:42).  In citing Jesus’s admittedly, perhaps uncomfortably, violent rhetoric here, it is well to observe that Jesus does also regularly employ a more conciliatory rhetoric when he is talking to his followers — for example when he says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39).  When, on the other hand, he is addressing those elites from whom “the kingdom of God will be taken” (Matt. 21:43), his rhetoric, in its tone, diction, and content, is consistently violent, virtually without exception.  These “hypocrites” will be thrown into a “furnace of fire” or into the “outer darkness” where they will be “cut into pieces” and where the “gnashing of teeth” will be amply provided (Matt 13:42, 13:40, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30).[10]

We can also understand Jesus’s string of obloquies against the scribes and Pharisees (“woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”) in the same light.  If he directs his most excoriating invectives against them, it is because they have deserved it: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous” (Matt 23:29) while disgracing their legacies.  It is a practice which continues to the present moment: elites whitewash their crimes by cloaking it in prophetic vestitures.  Simply consider, for instance, when Obama, commander in chief of the history’s most awesome and violent empire, swore the oath of office on the bible once owned by the man who called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”  Martin Luther King even suggested that the United States be put on trial before the United Nations for violation of human rights.  Meanwhile, his memory is praised in words but disgraced in action.  When Obama gave a speech commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King, he was taking positive steps to erode that legacy in virtually every regard, which I have written about elsewhere so will not review here.[11]  But to give a telling example, at the very moment Obama was waxing eloquent over Martin Luther King, his administration was fabricating pretexts for bombing Syria on the pretext of humanitarian concern about chemical warfare, which a rich historical record suffices to demonstrate the United States have no real concern about.  So, Obama, like the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, decorates the monuments of the righteous while taking positive steps to systematically dismantle their legacies.  And whereas we, with our genteel liberal sensibility, might be more forgiving of these hypocrisies, Jesus was not, at least not according to this gospel, where he clearly and repeatedly bans the hypocrites from his kingdom, and throws them out into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angel” (Matt 25:41).

In this way, the complete overturning of the social order will be accomplished, in which the “first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30) when the poor rise up and overthrow their masters.  The “beatitudes” in fact serve as perhaps the best description of Jesus’s radical social vision in its turning of the whole social order on its head: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:3-6).  It is easy to imagine these words on the lips of any revolutionary socialist.  Of the entire Gospel, these words are probably the most misunderstood.  It does not mean a vague kind of spiritual blessedness.  Such a conception of the kingdom of heaven would scarcely threaten the elites, as we shall shortly see it did.  It means what it says.  Once the kingdom of heaven — equal wages, the fulfillment of basic material needs — is “taken away” from the elites and given instead to those who “produce its fruit” they will indeed be blessed: the poor, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger for justice.

Thus there is scarcely a need to explain why the rulers whom Jesus unequivocally condemns “conspire against him” and seek to “destroy him” (Matt 12:14) or why, from “the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:13).  These are facts of a general anthropology of revolution which are as true today as they were millennia ago.  In fact, it is one of the few remarkably consistent themes of American foreign policy.  As Noam Chomsky has suggested, “in order to maintain the freedom to rob and exploit,” the United States, which is the closest modern analog to the Roman Empire of which Jesus was a colonial subject, “consistently oppose[s] democratization, the raising of living standards, and human rights,”[12] for reasons that are almost too obvious to explain, namely that such measures as social spending on health, education, welfare, etc., reduce the “efficiency” of capital, which naturally prefers dictators who suppress wages, crush unions, murder and mutilate and torture dissidents — as the long, ugly historical record consistently attests.  Or to generalize the principle, the beneficiaries of the status quo will always — as it is very naturally in their interest to do so — oppose a more egalitarian society from which they stand to lose.  The principle holds whether it is a pharisee or an emperor, a CEO or a president.  And indeed, the practice is just about as old as history, and just as perennial too.  In recent times, the United States has overthrown countless legitimate, democratic governments installing in their stead monstrous dictators; from Iran in 1953, where it overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh and installed the Shah, who went on to have the worst human rights record on the planet; or Guatemala in 1954 where it deposed Jacobo Arbenz and inaugurated decades of brutal military rule; to Chile in 1973, where it overthrew the democratically elected Allende and installed Pinochet who went on to convert the national soccer stadium into a concentration camp; or Nicaragua in 1979, where after a decades-long policy of support for the Somoza dictatorship, the US crushed the modest but meaningful Sandinista reforms, which included increases in education, health, and land reform; or the Congo; or Venezuela in 2002, where the United States supported the illegal coup of the democratically elected Chavez; or Indonesia under Suharto and all of Southeast Asia; or the whole Middle East up to the present day.[13]  Or to take a more recent example, simply consider the Obama administration’s eager support in organizing local police forces to viciously crackdown on nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protestors.[14]  The pattern, as I have said, is a familiar one, a fact well attested by Jesus’s own case, where he posed too much a threat to the ruling elite.

State terrorism, whether it is air strike or violent coup or crucifixion, is an ancient policy of annihilating a good example.  In Jesus’s case, it was the consummation of a process of public defamation and rejection, which is, like nearly everything else in the Gospels, as true today as it was in Matthew’s.  Jesus, like Plato’s philosopher descending into the Cave, is rejected by his own as a madman.  When the Nazarenes “took offense at him,” Jesus responded, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and his own household” (Matt 13:57-58).  Very little indeed has changed in the interceding two-thousand years.  We still reject our most prophetic voices, and take offense at the simple truths they have the courage to reveal.  Noam Chomsky and Cornel West are the obvious contemporary examples, both telling the uncomfortable truth about power and empire, both paying dearly for it.  Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, himself a prophetic and courageous journalist, suggests that “[n]obody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky” likely because nobody tells the truth more courageously and unflinchingly than Noam Chomsky.  But what Greenwald finds most striking about the demonization of Noam Chomsky is that “virtually every mainstream discussion of him at some point inevitably recites the same set of personality and stylistic attacks designed to malign his advocacy” while avoiding “the substance of his claims.”  And, notably, Greenwald continues, “these attacks come most frequently and viciously from establishment liberal venues, such as when the American Prospect’s 2005 foreign policy issue compared him to Dick Cheney on its cover.”[15]  The same is true of Cornel West, who, ever since he began to critique the Obama administration, has come under ferocious attack from his former colleagues.  As another very prophetic journalist Chris Hedges (who was fired from the New York Times for telling the truth — naturally) writes, Cornel West has been variously and “routinely attacked by Obama’s black supporters” as a “race traitor,” and the equivalent of a “self-hating Jew.”[16]  The liberal class, Hedges writes, has descended upon West “like hellhounds, never addressing the truths that are expressed but instead engaging in vicious character assassination.”[17]  West and Chomsky, like Jesus, like all prophetic voices, are rejected by their own colleagues.

But even if the kingdom is violently repressed by the rulers and its prophets rejected among their people, we are told in the Gospel of Matthew that the Kingdom of Heaven — this social vision of Jesus’s — “is like a grain of mustard seed” which might be small but will grow into massive proportions (Matt 13:32).  How do we conceptualize the kingdom as a mustard seed but as an alternative social order growing within the very framework of the present order.  Again, the Gospel here sketches out a general anthropology of a specific kind of social change (prefigurationalism) and these considerations are hardly hypothetical.  Mustard seeds of the kingdom, or alternative, more egalitarian forms of social organization do currently exist.  One need only think, for instance, of Mondragon, one of the largest exporters of durable goods (and one of the largest firms) in Spain.  Mondragon is a democratically-controlled worker-owned cooperative called run by over a hundred thousand worker-owners, and runs over 125 subsidiary companies, 75 industrial firms, five schools, a technical college, and a central bank.  It is a particularly exciting example of the Christian ideal of prefigurationalism.  Jesus, we can recall, reminds us that the Kingdom of God is already within us (Luke 17:21), not something to be expectantly waited for, but already here, already at work in the really-existing conditions of the world, depraved and degenerate as it is.  Like Jesus’s call to embody what is paradoxically hoped for, to prefigure the coming kingdom in the midst of our fallen condition, Mondragon prefigures in germinal form that which might be hoped for on a grander scale.  It prefigures socialism and economic democracy within the very framework of a capitalist order, within which it thrives, even in the throes of financial crises.  So, for example, when 25 percent of all businesses in Spain failed as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008, less than 1 percent of Mondragon’s 125 businesses failed.[18]  And while the larger Basque region in which it is located suffers from a 12 percent unemployment rate, Mondragon has maintained zero unemployment.[19]  Moreover, the default rate of Mondragon’s central bank is “less than half that of other Spanish banks.”  And the Basque region in which Mondragon operates, which was once the poorest region in Spain, is now, thanks to its cooperatives, one of the wealthiest, boasting both the highest standard of living and lowest unemployment in all of Spain.[20]  But we need not look far for examples.  Examples of successful economic democracies can even be observed here in the United States, where there are upwards of 12,000 worker-owned enterprises.[21]  In an article entitled, “Everyday Socialism, American Style, Is Happening Now,” Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, suggests that socialism is not only as “common as grass,” with cooperatives and public utilities and the like, but is also often cheaper and more efficient than capitalist enterprises for the simple reason that co-ops don’t pay ludicrous salaries and dividends to rich CEOs.[22]  From Boston to Austin to San Francisco, these mustard seeds of the kingdom, these alternate forms of economic organization, are becoming more and more attractive to people who are tired of capitalism, of inequality, of a form of socio-economic organization whose only fulfilled promises, of the many it makes, seem to be continual unemployment, perpetual war, and rapidly escalating environmental destruction.[23]

In fact, Jesus has such faith in the kingdom of god that he thinks it will come to pass within a generation (Matt 24:34) and that the children of his own generation will inherit it: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:13).  Though he does say it elsewhere, notice that here Jesus is not saying the childlike will inherit the kingdom, but those “little children” literally in front of him will literally inherit the kingdom within the passing of a generation, when they are its heirs.

Moreover, the means by which this will be accomplished is rendered exceedingly clear in the text: it will be accomplished by faith in the Son of Man which is justified by his power and authority, an authority which, as he makes clear to the chief priests, resides not in any mystical metaphysical notions, but in his influence over the hungry masses, “the crowd,” of whom the elders admit amongst themselves they are afraid (Matt 21:26).  And for good reason too, because the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven with power and glory means social revolution, the precise date of which no one knows (Matt 24:36) but which will consist in part of nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom (Matt 24:7).

And for such ideas as these, a man named Jesus was put to death.

To come now to a point which I have made earlier, the plain meaning of the Gospel of Matthew is social revolution, and as I have also attempted to show here, the meaning is in fact so plain that I had not so much to interpret it as simply to point it out.  Moreover, the Gospel remains relevant to us today because it spells out in a rather comprehensive manner a general anthropology of social revolution.  But quite beyond this, it is so simple and so obvious that a child could see it — as Jesus of course points out.  And perhaps one day someone will make a partial career out of pointing out what texts already plainly say.


[1] Noam Chomsky, ‘Education is Ignorance,’ excerpted from Class Warfare, 1995, pp. 19-23, 27-31, available online: http://www.chomsky.info/books/warfare02.htm

[2] Oscar Wilde, qtd. in Owen Hatherley, ‘It’s the 21st century – why are we working so much?’ The Guardian, 01 July 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/01/why-are-we-working-so-hard

[3] International Workingmen’s Association, qtd. in Karl Marx, Capital, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis Feuer, London: Fontana, 1971, pp.199-200

[4] Terry Eagleton, ‘In Praise of Marx,’ The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 April 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/in-praise-of-marx/127027/

[5] Owen Hatherley, ‘It’s the 21st century – why are we working so much?’ The Guardian, 01 July 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/01/why-are-we-working-so-hard

[6] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1845, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm

[7] John Maynard Keynes, qtd. in Dylan Matthews, ‘Why are we all working so much?’ The Washington Post, 23 August 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/23/why-are-we-all-working-so-much/

[8] Joseph Stiglitz, ‘Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,’ Vanity Fair, May 2011, http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105.print

[9] Robert Reich, ‘The Truth About the Economy,’ Youtube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTzMqm2TwgE

[10] For an index of these references, see: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+13%3A42%2CMatthew+13%3A50%2CMatthew+22%3A13%2CMatthew+24%3A51%2CMatthew+25%3A30%2CLuke+13%3A28&version=NASB

[11] Kelly Maeshiro, “We Dare Not Speak of the Man Who Existed,” Essays, 29 August 2013, http://kellymaeshiro.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/we-dare-not-speak-of-the-man-who-existed/

[12] Noam Chomsky, ‘American Foreign Policy,’ Lecture, Harvard University, 19 March 1985, http://www.chomsky.info/talks/19850319.htm

[13] For a vivid record of these interventions, I recommend William Blum, Killing Hope, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995; also Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, New York: Holt, 2004.

[14] Kelly Maeshiro, “We Dare Not Speak of the Man Who Existed,” Essays, 29 August 2013, http://kellymaeshiro.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/we-dare-not-speak-of-the-man-who-existed/

[15] Glenn Greenwald, ‘How Noam Chomsky is discussed,’ The Guardian, 23 March 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/23/noam-chomsky-guardian-personality

[16] Chris Hedges, ‘Cornel West and the Fight to Save the Black Prophetic Tradition,’ Truthdig, 09 September 2013, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/cornel_west_and_the_fight_to_save_the_black_prophetic_tradition_20130909/

[17] Chris Hedges, ‘Why Liberal Sellouts Attack Prophets Like Cornel West,’ Truthdig, 22 March 2013, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/why_prophets_like_cornel_west_make_liberal_sell-outs_attack_20110523

[18] Georgia Kelly, ‘The Mondragon Cooperatives: An Inspiring Economic Hybrid,’ Tikkun, Vol.28, No.2, Spring 2013, pp.23-26

[19] It has done this by relocating workers to other cooperatives and by job sharing “where people work fewer hours and take a pay cut.  In one case, 20 percent of the workforce left their jobs for one year.  During that year, they received 80 percent of their pay and could retrain for other types of work (for free) if they wished.” (Ibid., p.25)  Bertrand Russell long ago advocated a similar policy in his economic writings in In Praise of Idleness.

[20] Ibid., pp.23-25

[21] Gary Dorrien, Economy, Difference, and Empire, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, p.170

[22] Gar Alperovitz, ‘Everyday Socialism, American-Style, Is Happening Now,’ Truthout, 14 May 2013, available online: http://truth-out.org/news/item/16353-everyday-socialism-american-style-is-happening-now.  This brief but informative article, which I highly recommend, is excerpted from one of Alperovitz’s books.

[23] The preceding paragraph is adapted from my “God Contra Capital,” Harvard Ichthus, Fall 2013

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