Americans often take for granted the wisdom of the founders of this country. They prefer to overlook the founder’s views on such issues as slavery and women’s rights and celebrate their role in establishing a country with unprecedented freedoms. The latter should be celebrated and admired while the former should always remind us that the country’s founders were in fact mere humans rather than infallible deities.
Many Americans also believe there is wisdom in the teachings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and that wisdom is above questioning and an important part of our culture. The “love thy neighbor philosophy” he espoused has great appeal but much of his assumed wisdom is questionable. After all, is it wise to kill trees that don’t bear fruit during the wrong time of year or to endorse eternal punishment for temporal crimes?
Since both Jesus and the framers of the U.S. constitution are so often considered unquestioningly wise by so many people I know, to what extent would they have agreed with each other? We know that some of the founders were Deists who did not believe in a personal god. Individuals like Thomas Jefferson regarded Jesus as a good moral teacher but did not accept claims of his divinity. While it is impossible to definitively ascertain what someone would have thought about events over a thousand years after his death, it is an interesting question. Would Jesus and the early Christians have supported the American Revolution?
On the one hand, Jesus certainly has times where he comes off as a revolutionary figure. He makes it clear he does not approve of the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem and is willing to forcefully rebel against its practices as seen in this verse:
“And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.”-Mark 11.15,16
Indeed, despite his more famous “turn-the-other cheek” teachings there are places where he expresses a genuine taste for conflict like in this verse:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. -Matthew 10:34–37.
Not sure that Jesus would have applied this to the American Revolution, but it does at least seem to be an endorsement of violent conflict.
On the other hand, despite having a critical tone towards the Jewish authorities of his day, the Bible seems to make a point of emphasizing that he is a non-threat to the Roman occupiers of his home land. For example in response to an attempt to force Jesus to speak out against paying tribute to the Romans, Jesus seemingly endorses the practice:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” -Matthew 22:21.
This passage refers to a coin with Caesar’s image on it. I always found this to be a deliberately evasive answer to the question of whether one should pay taxes to an occupying authority but I have difficulty interpreting it as anything else. This hardly strikes me as a passage that could be used to endorse the American Revolution, which was a revolt against unfair taxation.
If we are to assume the Apostle Paul represented Jesus’ views accurately, this interpretation is confirmed. Paul states in Romans 13:1-7:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
This is a rather straight forward endorsement of obedience to Earthly powers. Jesus seems to confirm this with his statement to Pontius Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:37)
This shows Jesus expressing disinterest in pursuing or encouraging the pursuit of political power among his followers. Indeed, after hearing this exchange Pontius Pilate concluded “I find no basis for a charge against him.” That is to say that Pilate saw Jesus and his followers as not representing a threat to the Roman Empire. Jesus seemed to confirm this by passively accepting the Judgments of the local authorities he was tried under, no matter unjust they might be.
It would be hard to argue that the Jews and early Christians had less cause for political revolution than the American colonists did and yet Jesus and his successor Paul said nothing to indicate support for such actions. Paul goes as far as to recommend that the world’s most oppressed individuals not resist when he states:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.- Colossians 3:22
This is consistent with much of the rest of the Bible, which says much about slavery but never condemns it. Much of this “turn the other cheek” business sounds a lot like a passive acceptance of bullying.
There is a strong possibility that Jesus and his immediate followers would not have endorsed the American Revolution based on their passive acceptance of authority displayed in the verses cited above, as well as, the apolitical nature of their movement.
Being an Atheist, I am happy to disagree with the founders of Christianity. I do not think that people who are slaves should passively obey their masters, nor do I think that passive acceptance of political authorities is a good thing. People under the burden of tyrannical political authority or slavery should do all they can to resist. I see little virtue in Jesus’s passive acceptance of his crucifixion. The American Revolution freed people from an outmoded monarchy and created a nation of unprecedented freedoms. It could have gone further by freeing slaves and empowering women as well but alas it was a product of its times.