James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary's University, Twickenham. He writes mainly on religion and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first century and the historical Jesus in the first century.
James Crossley argues for the importance of the radical Christian tradition as an important resource for the revolutionary transformation of the world.
On becoming leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn envisaged living a society “where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.”
Every since that historic victory, Corbyn has repeatedly used the language of “not passing by on the other side.” It is an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel and one popular among politicians. While David Cameron, Hilary Benn and others have used the parable to promote military intervention in North Africa and the Middle East (think the Good Samaritan violently beating the robbers), Corbyn, unusually for a contemporary politician, has used the parable to attack the scandal of increased homelessness, rough sleeping and the housing crisis.
These contradictory interpretations of a parable attributed to a figure like Jesus are not unusual: revolutionary and reactionary tendencies have always been part of Christianity, perhaps even present in the message of Jesus. The earliest traditions about Jesus have him predicting an imminent theocracy, not all of which would necessarily look progressive to us. It was likely to have been understood as a violent intervention in history, with new hierarchies established and subservient nations put in their place.
Christianity itself would later become integral to the Roman Empire. Some of this was due to changing religious affiliations in the Empire and Christianity adapting itself to Roman power. But it was not entirely alien to a theocratic message present from the beginning.
However, Jesus and his earliest followers’ hope for a new divine empire was tied in with stark attacks on the inequality and wealth, some of which were brought into sharper focus by the major building projects and land displacements in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some indication as to what this would have looked like in the case of one such building project, the town of Tiberias:
The new settlers were a promiscuous rabble, no small contingent being Galilean, with such as were drafted from territory subject to him [Herod Antipas] and brought forcibly to the new foundation. Some of these were magistrates. Herod accepted as participants even poor men who were brought in to join the others from any and all places of origin. It was in question whether some were even free beyond cavil. These latter he often and in large bodies liberated and benefited imposing the condition that they should not quit the city, by equipping houses at his own expense and adding new gifts of land. For he knew that this settlement was contrary to the law and tradition of the Jews because Tiberias was built on the site of tombs that had been obliterated, of which there were many there. And our law declares that such settlers are unclean for seven days. - Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.36-38
Jesus seems to have formed an alternative community to one where traditional households had been uprooted by aristocratic demand for greater surplus with a message revealing some awareness of the structural nature of poverty and wealth. The Acts of the Apostles suggests that these revolutionary impulses were kept alive in a community of shared goods that would later inspire Tony Benn in his defence of public ownership against the attacks from New Labour.
We should understand Jesus’ teachings in terms of Marx’s famous understanding of religion as “an expression of and protest against real wretchedness.” In a world where wealth was concentrated among a small aristocratic elite, Jesus was remembered as saying the rich would burn or be excluded from the coming kingdom while the poor would be blessed.
Parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus (where the rich man burns for being rich and the poor man Lazarus is rewarded because he was poor) and sayings such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” are in line with other expectations that the wealthy will eventually be overthrown and punished, at least if they did not give up their extreme wealth to those in need.
Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck, Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, 1610
This was to be, as the Acts of the Apostles note in a different context, turning the world upside down. But warning signs of this future were enacted in the present. People overcharging for sacrificial animals were the focus of Jesus’ ire as he was remembered for overturning the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers which would lead to his execution as a seditious threat.
The tension between reaction and revolution has continued throughout the history of Christianity. Clashes between elite power and the desire for radical democratic transformation or wealth redistribution simmered and occasionally boiled over in the history of English Christianity, leaving us with a long radical history, from the Peasants’ Revolt through the seventeenth-century radicals to the growth of the Labour movement and Keir Hardie’s desire to “stir up a divine discontent with wrong,” a saying referenced by Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in 2015. The language of this tradition was employed in the founding of the NHS and the successful Labour manifesto of 1945.
Thanks to countless dedicated socialists from the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp to revolutionaries travelling to Rojava, this was a tradition whose language would remain alive on the English left. The story of Jesus and the moneychangers was a prominent one in challenging “the one percent” at Occupy London Stock Exchange where St Paul’s Cathedral itself epitomised the tension: church leaders were uncomfortable with protesters while the grounds were simultaneously a readily available space for a sustained protest.
We now find ourselves in the position unusual for the Left: close to power. There have been encouraging discussions among Momentum and union activists about growing a working-class socialist culture “from below,” where social events, sports clubs, foodbanks, etc. become part of building a mass movement, see http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home.
Historically, this socialism from below has had strong overlaps with Christian traditions. The impulses of Christianity which tackle poverty continue today, as in work of the Trussell Trust, whose role in foodbanks has made sure that Iain Duncan Smith does not forget Jesus’ words about poverty.
Yet, as I have discussed in a forthcoming book (Cults, Martyrs, and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse [Pluto, 2018]) there is evidence that much of the public does not like politicians explicitly invoking religion, Christianity and the Bible, particularly for grandiose claims about Christianity being the source of parliamentary democracy or free markets, as David Cameron claimed.
However, there does not appear to be widespread hatred of Christianity per se, not even beyond the pockets where church attendance remains relatively high. There is some indication that there is support for the Bible as a general moral code for helping others. This is something that should not be ignored by socialists. And Corbyn’s allusion to the Good Samaritan is precisely what is palatable for much of the British public: pithy, vague, but full of basic human decency.
This can, of course, be dangerous for the left and fertile ground for the right. Theresa May and Nigel Farage have both tried to capitalise on this ethnonationalist understanding of Christianity. For example, when asked in Parliament about the respecting between Christmas of “mainstream Britain” and “minority traditions” of Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, May responded, “We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.”
May, like Farage, was attempting to appeal partly to a certain kind of working-class voter in the light of the EU Referendum. Uncomfortable though it may be, these issues should not be ignored by the English left where the struggle over national identity has been a difficult one. Here we can turn to the radical English tradition which has informed the contemporary left, including Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn.
There is, of course, no doubt that religion can be a divisive issue on the left because of its well-known reactionary traditions. But Christianity (or any other religion) does not always have to be reactionary and socialist Christians won’t cease to be socialists because some of their co-travellers are not.
Left-wing Christianity has been central to English and British socialism and its legacy remains important to this day, whether in fighting poverty, keeping radicalism alive, providing ready-made community networks, or influencing the general language we use. None of this means, of course, that we all convert to Christianity or attend church on a Sunday morning. But if we want to transform this world, this radical tradition will prove to be an important resource.
James Crossley analyses Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, unearthing their twin discourses of a materialist explanation of American capitalism and an expression of a revolutionary Christianity.
Even if someone has somehow not seen Sergio Leone’s Westerns, the poncho-wearing, cigar-smoking, gun-toting, stubble-growing image of its breakout star, Clint Eastwood, as well as the distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks, may still provoke some kind of recognition. For those unfamiliar with Leone’s Westerns, the films include the Dollars Trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964; US release: 1967), For a Few Dollars More (1965; US release: 1967) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966; US release: 1967)—and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; US release: 1969).
The Dollars Trilogy
The Dollars Trilogy involves quests for money and focuses mainly on Clint Eastwood’s bounty killer character, often referred to as The Man with No Name, though in each film he is in fact named (Joe, Manco and Blondie). Once Upon a Time in the West shifts the focus to another dangerous figure, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), but he gives way to Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a non-violent former prostitute, effectively the ‘mother’ of the new town of Sweetwater. These kinds of Westerns gained the label ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ because of their origins in Cinecittà Studios, Rome, and for having an Italian director. However, as Christopher Frayling (probably the most influential analyst of Leone) would detail, Leone’s Westerns were also a critical commentary on the American Western, transforming the optimistic view of the frontier into a world of death and corruption. Once Upon Time in the West, however, would be a deliberate attempt by Leone to replace the Dollars Trilogy with a story of, as Leone himself put it, ‘a birth and a death…a cinematic fresco on the birth of America…the end of the Western’s golden age and the demise of the Western as a fable’.
One of the oldest questions (and once among the most popular) in the critical study of Leone’s westerns is, as Frayling put it, ‘why did the “moment” of the Italian Westerns appeal so much to children of Marx and Coca Cola in Europe, especially the generation of May 1968?’, to which we should extend the geography to include North America and widen the timeframe to include its ongoing reception. It has long been noted that Leone’s Westerns can be read as simultaneously celebrating and critiquing capitalism and Hollywood Westerns and that such tensions have always surrounded their various receptions (including Leone’s own understandings).
Eastwood’s anti-authority character and distinctive style in the Leone Westerns, it is often pointed out, resonated with the social changes of the 1960s and stylistic statements of associated Vietnam protests. Yet this individualistic gunslinger with little time for bureaucracy is not too far removed from figures in other films which pick up on various western themes and which represent the next stage in the development of the Eastwood and Bronson personas. Harry in Dirty Harry (1971) and the vigilante Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish films both represent a firm shift to the Right and a reaction against perceived progressive politics of the 1960s.
There are many ways we can try to understand the popularity and survival of Leone’s Westerns. One (and only one) is to look at their ideological fit with changes happening in Europe and North America since the 1960s. The timing of the marketable and pop art image of the recognisable Eastwood persona that emerged from the Dollars Trilogy (and which Eastwood was keen to protect) is crucial because the instant image and PR have become a defining feature of neoliberal or postmodern capitalism emerging from the 1960s onward. More broadly, leftist criticisms of traditional forms of authority, alongside a sustained critique of the dominance of Marxist metanarratives, are also significant for understanding the emergence of neoliberalism. In a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, individuality, and challenges to the role of the state which came out of the 1960s would be appropriated by the Right (albeit in economic terms) and adapted in many parts of popular culture and in the Reaganization or Thatcherization of the media, journalism, universities, economics, and politics. The values associated with Leone’s protagonists are sometimes compatible with, though sometimes critical of, dominant values that have since become associated with neoliberalism. Leone’s amoral, and seemingly unconstrained, entrepreneurial bounty killers are, after all, obsessed with accumulating a personal fortune.
But, as Austin Fisher in particular has shown, the Italian Westerns of the 1960s were engaged in radical left-wing political debates and this includes Leone’s Westerns. Basic influences can be seen, for instance, in the form of corporate greed (e.g. the railroad boss, Morton [Gabriele Ferzetti], in Once Upon a Time in the West) and relatively sympathetic treatments of bandits as symptoms of socio-economic circumstances (e.g. Tuco [Eli Wallach] in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) who can gain popular support in small rural towns (e.g. Agua Caliente in For a Few Dollars More). But Leone’s Westerns were not radical enough for some. The Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté, who played the roles of Ramón and Indio in Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More respectively, was a Communist Party member who, despite his prominence in Leone’s westerns and growing fame, turned down the role of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in favour of what he saw as more significant political roles.
Volonté may have had a point as the political critique is largely muted in Leone’s amoral universe. And when Leone gets to the more cynical Duck, You Sucker! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) in 1971, the political critique is levelled more at the ‘intellectual’ concept of revolution, post-’68 disillusionment, and the Italian Westerns of the Zapata variety, though the film is hardly unsympathetic, puts class distinction in sharp focus and adds degrees of chaos to understanding revolutionary commitments and attitudes.
The First Transformative Stage of Capitalism
The political mark of the Italian Western still runs deep in Leone’s Westerns. Taken collectively, they provide a materialist explanation of the origins of American capitalism which further helps us understand their political ambiguities. There are effectively two transformative stages of capitalism in Leone’s Westerns which resonated with the tensions leading to the emergence of neoliberalism. The Dollars Trilogy represents the first transformative stage of capitalism where death and chaos rule. In this stage, the deceitful, untrustworthy, morbidly entrepreneurial masters of the new technologies thrive, latching onto death as a commodity, and wiping out the lingering feudalism of the Rojos and Baxters in A Fistful of Dollars or the outdated peasantry and peasant technology at the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (recall the boy endlessly circling a well on a mule) overpowered by the solitary killer and his gun.
Unlike the two opposing families in A Fistful of Dollars, Joe can move freely across the boundaries and sell his services to both sides. As Timothy Campbell argues concerning such issues, Joe ‘comes to stand in for a technological form linked to that mode of postmodern capitalism in which circulation of bodies, objects, and labor power is key’. Once the macabre market has dried up, Joe moves on to make more money from death elsewhere in a world increasingly suited to his particular talents. And so the beginning of For a Few Dollars More explains to the audience the reason for the bounty killers: life may not have value but death did sometimes have a price.
The seemingly appealing disregard for traditional authority by the main characters is a marked feature of Leone’s first transformative stage of capitalism, represented by the Dollars Trilogy. Paralleling the overturning of the lingering feudalism, state, government, and local authority are not only corrupt or outdated but are constantly undermined, used, or humiliated by a form of individualism represented by Leone’s main characters. In this stage, the corrupt sheriff is no longer loyal, courageous and especially honest, as Manco points out in For a Few Dollars More. With no other authority than his own, Manco can remove the sheriff’s badge and toss it away with impunity. But traditional authorities are not simply involved in petty corruption. The Northern prison camp can be used by Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to carry out torture in his pursuit of Carson’s gold. Indeed, we might say that the bigger the authority, the more destructive and the more indifferent to suffering it can be. As we see in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, both sides in the Civil War are presented as wasting life on such a mass scale that it even provokes a response of near disgust from a seasoned killer like Blondie.
Alongside the money and the pervasiveness of death (a theme typical of the Italian Western generally), Christianity is one of the most prominent discourses in Leone's films which illuminate this first transformative stage of capitalism. In striking contrast to American Westerns is Leone’s representation of Christianity, which is almost always Catholic and Latin rather than Protestant and white. As has long been noted, however, this representation is typically a profaned version of Christianity in the period of Leone’s historical schema, where death knows no boundaries. The normative family structure for Leone is presented in terms of the Holy Family (particularly in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) and is either uprooted or its members murdered. Throughout the films, de-sacralised Christian imagery is clear enough in rowdy Last Supper scenes, broken statues, disused and ramshackle crosses, crumbling churches, churches as bandit hideouts, and ominous church bells.
Main characters are presented in similarly ironic ways. Indio provides a parable from the pulpit explaining how the bank of El Paso might not be impenetrable after all, the bounty killer Mortimer is first introduced dressed as a priest reading the Bible, Blondie is labelled (by the vicious Angel Eyes) a golden-haired angel just before he dupes Tuco, and Blondie and Harmonica both take on the role of ‘Judas’, which is as much a compliment as insult in a world where betrayal and trickery in pursuit of money are the closest things to virtues. In this profaned world, resurrection plays a transformative role for at least three of Leone’s main characters (Joe, Blondie, Harmonica) which leads to the ultimate deaths and to the ultimate prize.
In A Fistful of Dollars, for instance, Joe escapes in the coffin, complete with a shut lid and a few seconds of black screen, followed by his ‘resurrection’ in (of course) a cave. The new Joe dramatically returns, seemingly immortal thanks to the trickery of his protective metal vest. But this profanation of Christianity as grotesque, macabre, macho, and something integral to the pursuit of money and transformation of the world of the American Western, is part of a world that also gets transformed in Leone’s schema in order to hasten the development of modern American capitalism.
The Second Transformative Stage of Capitalism
Whilst Once Upon a Time in the West continues Leone’s critical engagement with the American Western, he would now incorporate his Dollars Trilogy as part of his critique in what is the second transformative stage of capitalism in Leone’s schema. At this point in Leone’s story, the age of the gunslinger is coming to an end, as Leone pointed out and as Frayling has documented in detail, as they die off or, in the case of Harmonica, leave the boomtown. By the end, it is Jill McBain, the mother of Sweetwater, who now represents the American future. The gunslingers had their uses in protecting Jill McBain from the remaining ravages of the first transformative stage of capitalism but it is the investment in building materials for a strategically-located town that guarantees its long-term future.
This second transformative stage of capitalism in Once Upon a Time in the West involves the shift to a different form of capitalism. In sharp contrast to the Dollars Trilogy, financial gain is not a primary motivation for the gunslingers in Once Upon a Time in the West. By the end of the film, the successful use of money is now associated with investment and the emerging business class. Death is also controlled and regulated once the wiping out of the old world and its values is complete. Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) defend and aid Jill McBain in her development of Sweetwater before their departure from the historical stage. The development of the railroad (a staple of the American Western) picks up on conventional Western themes but with a Leone spin. This new technological advance brings death, whether troops and criminals in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, bounty killers in For a Few Dollars More, or Frank (Henry Fonda) and his gang of killers in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West: Final Scene
Once the railroad is in place, however, and the McBains have taken control of water and labour, the development of the railroad becomes domesticated in the next stage of capitalism as the old killers are all removed. Already in Once Upon a Time in the West, the trains bring or will bring commerce, Jill McBain, and different ethnic groups, including Native Americans who are conspicuous by their absence in Leone’s previous westerns. As Leone himself implied, this harnessing of a more ethnically diverse community—and labour force—is part of the construction of new boundaries and new towns in this stage of capitalist development.
A re-sacralised Christianity is also found in Once Upon a Time in the West, especially in the plans of Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) for a church within the town. The profaned Christian imagery of the era of the bounty killer and gunslinger accompanies Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank, but by the time Jill McBain secures the train station and guarantees the future of Sweetwater at the end of the film, the murdering angels, resurrected killers, and trickster Judases are dead, long gone, or in the process of leaving town. Gone too are the decaying statues and crooked crosses. The construction of a de-sacralised religion is associated closely with bygone eras, either in its decline or as a time when, as Tuco pointed out to his brother amidst the crumbling statues in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you either become a bandit or a priest (the latter being the easy option).
But in Once Upon a Time in the West, religion is controlled and put in its place, though not obviously Catholic. At a push, it might be argued that Jill McBain picks up on the holy mother and whore tropes which have been associated with the two most famous Marys of the New Testament and in some aspects of Catholic traditions, and Leone clearly had interest in Holy Family imagery. Yet from what we see of Sweetwater at the end it could be a town from the Hollywood mainstream rather than a distinctly Leone one. But whatever we make of it denominationally, the church is now domesticated and, as Harmonica and Cheyenne discovered, put in its place alongside the post office, corral and water tank in Brett McBain’s plans for the building of the town.
A Different Kind of Revolution
Culmination of a Marxian reading of history though it may be, Once Upon a Time in the West still ends optimistically and is hardly an overt condemnation of American capitalism found in other Italian Westerns. The Dollars Trilogy may well have turned the world of the American Western upside down, they may have linked capital with the forces of death, and they may have challenged traditional forms of authority and community in a way that would be appealing to 1960s counterculture, but Leone’s second transformative stage of capitalism showcases the values of amoral capitalism, untrustworthiness and a certain form of individualism which are hardly alien to emerging neoliberalism.
It is also perhaps significant that the optimistic and initially heavily-edited Once Upon a Time in the West was not the immediate success that the Dollars Trilogy was, and it was not until Vietnam was comfortably in the past and Reaganism was firmly in the ascendency that its reputation as a cinematic classic began to develop with an extended version released in 1984. And by the time the Westerns of Leone and Italian cinema were being showcased through relentless borrowing (just as Leone himself had done) from the 1990s onward, the radical leftist element of the violence was largely drained (as Austin Fisher discusses), though Tarantino’s Django Unchained arguably intensifies critique of a racist heritage.
A Bullet for the General
Nevertheless, we might contrast two of the most obviously political Italian Westerns of the time: A Bullet for the General (1966; dir. Damiano Damiani) and Requiescant (1967; dir. Carlo Lizzani). Both films cover similar themes of death, revenge, money, and religion, and have considerably more prominent female roles among the fighters than would ever be found in a Leone film. Both films deal with the development of a country but this time Mexico and the ways the American involvement and capitalism, as well as the Mexican government and landowners, play their part, as the films side firmly with peons and peasants. Against Leone (and certain treatments of Mexico in American Westerns), these films use death to further the revolutionary cause, money is more closely associated with corrupt capitalists and imperialists rather than any virtue.
In both films there is an element of Christianity profaned through violence (e.g. the crucifixion on the railway line in A Bullet for the General or Ferguson [Mark Damon] effectively identifying himself with the God of the Bible in Requiescant) but Christianity can use the violence for revolutionary good. At the idealistic heart of both films are revolutionary priests, Santo (Klaus Kinski) and Don Juan (Pier Paulo Pasolini). In A Bullet for the General, Santo is the most hardened of revolutionaries, almost blindly loyal to the cause, and who believes that stolen weapons are being used for God’s work. He tells another priest that Christ sided with the poor and downtrodden and died between two bandits and so a good priest should be a violent revolutionary. He grenades the military in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (ending with an ‘Amen’) and, in place of poor prisoners, he puts their captors in a prison cell telling them that they will die slowly and can take the time to think about forgiveness of their sins. He too asks for forgiveness for shedding blood but accepts its necessity in the interim.
Requiescant (Lou Castell), in the film of the same name, follows a familiar path of developing political awareness but the Bible itself is on this path. Brought up by a non-violent preacher, Requiescant embarks on a mission to find his half-sister Princy (Barbara Frey) and the Bible (both physical and in quotation) justifies his actions, accompanies him in his fights, and even protects him from a bullet. But it takes the commentary of Don Juan, beginning when Requiescant’s Bible lands at his feet, to reveal its full revolutionary potential. As Don Juan claims, this is The Book that will bring the people freedom. And in sharp contrast to Leone’s characters, Don Juan denounces individualist revenge and enjoyment of violence. Instead, he claims that violence is an unfortunate necessity in order to fight the Fergusons of this world who will steal their land, and for justice and liberty. The endings of both films make for a sharp contrast with Once Upon a Time in the West: rather than the backdrop of the boomtown of Sweetwater, we get peasants tilling the land as the backdrop of the freedom fighters riding off to fight for the cause (Requiescant) and Bill Tate (Lou Castell)—the gringo assassin of the revolutionary leader, Elias (Jaime Fernández)—is shot dead and sent packing on a train back to the land deemed to put a price on everything: America.
By the time of Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone had become enamoured with the romance of the American West, before moving on to a jaded view of revolution in Duck, You Sucker! Nevertheless, revolutionary Christianity is not entirely overturned in Leone’s deconstruction of the Zapata Western in Duck, You Sucker!, and John/Sean (James Coburn) returns to Juan (Rod Steiger) the cross that he previously ripped from his neck as his new life as a revolutionary general-in-the-making (albeit an accidental and reluctant one) is confirmed, in place of his previous worship of (robbing) the bank at Mesa Verde. Once upon a time this West was full of radicals but like (partly because of?) Leone’s overarching narrative, they have become a thing of the distant past.
But if ever there were a time in recent decades for a return of a more radical past, one that goes beyond contemporary Hollywood in its criticism of bad capitalists in the name of good capitalism, is it not now, as the validity of the assumptions of neoliberalism is being challenged like never before?
Anarchist, conservative, liberal or revolutionary? Professor James Crossley discusses the various interpretations of the Easter story of the life of Jesus, the Monty Python film Life of Brian, and in the political life of Britain.
Jesus has long been present as a political figure in English and British culture. Two of the more prominent and sometimes overlapping assumptions about Jesus have been Jesus the Liberal and Jesus the Radical. Jesus the Liberal is no doubt familiar to us all. He is (crudely put) someone who is tolerant, kind and loving. This Jesus has had a notable reception among those who have more openly identified as atheist (and, at times, Liberal Democrat), such as Douglas Adams, Philip Pullman, and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins even claimed that the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount was one of the great ethical innovators in history.
Jesus the Radical is (crudely put) someone who shared such views but goes a socialist step further in promoting things like land and wealth redistribution, confronting power and wealth, egalitarianism, anti-clericalism and direct access to God, the importance of conscience, prophetic critique, and even ‘apocalyptic’ language, particularly with reference to a radical transformation of the social, economic and political order. To rephrase Morgan Phillips, the Radical Jesus owes as much to Marx as it does to Methodism.
This Jesus has had a sustained, if not always prominent, reception among, for instance, anarchists, Marxists, Nonconformist churches, and the left of the Labour Party. George Orwell was neither the first nor the last to compare Jesus with Marx when he claimed that the core of Marx’s thinking might be found in Jesus’ saying, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’, in that laws, religions and moral codes are deemed to be a superstructure built over existing property relations. What unites both the Jesus the Liberal and Jesus the Radical is a common assumption that his views were suppressed by an authoritarian church or reactionary followers. In this sense, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (released 1979) is certainly connected with such traditions. Clearly the film attacks the delusion of religious followers and interpreters and they relentlessly misunderstand Brian. Of course, on one level Brian is not Jesus. Jesus, after all, appears briefly in the film and in a thoroughly unconventional manner: he was born in manger, he did deliver the Sermon on the Mount, he did heal lepers, and he certainly looks like (the cinematic) Jesus.
This could have given the film some protection against its religious critics but its religious critics also had a point. Brian really is Jesus, or rather the historical Jesus as reconstructed by the scholarship Monty Python read or about which they were broadly aware. This Brian is not the Messiah, he is not a martyr, he is not resurrected, and the crucifixion is not significant, yet all of which were attributed to Brian by his deluded followers. This Brian/Jesus is someone who is
born out of wedlock, with a Roman soldier as a father who raped Mandy (read: Mary) ‘at first’, and with high Mariology attributed to her by deluded followers
emphatically not the Messiah with Messiahship attributed to him by deluded and stupid followers, including one who knows because he’s followed a few
a Jew loyal to Jews and Judaism with no intention of starting any new movement in his name (quite the opposite)
an anti-Roman insurrectionist
happy to enjoying non-marital sex with Judith (read: Mary Magdalene)
going to die with death being the end and with no resurrection
keen to suggest that we are all individuals who should not let anyone tell us what to do and that we should think for ourselves
And who, after all, are supposed to have misleadingly attributed martyrdom, messiahship, resurrection, and so on, to Jesus/Brian? His earliest followers, obviously. This follows, then, the standard pattern of singling out Jesus as someone decent, a cipher for our values, whether liberal or radical, which have unfortunately since been hijacked. But is this the Liberal Jesus (/Brian) or the Radical Jesus (/Brian) who emerges from beneath the rubble of bad interpretation? If the film has one serious message it is that we are all individuals who should not take orders blindly. That looks somewhat anarchistic, does it not? But, in another light, could it not look somewhat liberal?
Precisely what ‘our values’ are can, of course, be quite complicated, not least due to the amount of unconscious and cultural baggage we carry. With this in mind, we should remember that Brian and Life of Brian were not the only ones in 1979 proclaiming the importance of individuals while lampooning the collectivist bureaucracy. Life of Brian enters the scene at a notable point in the recent history of Jesus, as it was released as Thatcherism was starting to take hold, and in the aftermath of 1960s radicalism, at a time when the British Left eas still relatively strong. On the one hand, we have Thatcher who, from the 1970s onwards, was explicitly using Jesus and the Bible as a key source for her emerging neoliberalism, as well as representing the core values of England, Britain and the West.
This Bible was, of course, was constructed in sharp contrast to Marxism and Soviet Communism. Thatcher’s Bible and Thatcher’s Jesus was about — and was the authority for — individualism, freedom, tolerance, rule of law, and English or British heritage. It also had a particularly influential (and then distinctive) emphasis on individual wealth creation and charitable giving as a partial alternative to state provision of welfare. As she famously claimed of Jesus’ parable, ‘no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’.
On the other hand, we have Tony Benn, whose popular 1979 book, Arguments for Socialism, foregrounded Jesus and the Bible, as part of a continuous and specifically British socialist tradition which also included the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Blake, the Chartists, and so on. This was a theme that would continue throughout Benn’s later career. It is clear from Christopher Rowland's 'Building Jerusalem' article elsewhere on the site that William Blake believed in a radical, anti-authoritarian Christianity and an empowering Bible. Benn’s Jesus and Benn’s Bible were also hostile to kingly and priestly authority and mediation, supportive of freedom of conscience and could be used to support a number of radical causes, from opposing the Iraq war to critiquing globalisation and wealth inequality.
As with Orwell, Marx was part of this tradition and understood as a latter-day biblical prophet. This was significant for Benn because he sought to protect socialism from totalitarianism, Stalinist interpretations and atheistic dominance of socialism which had affected the Left outside the UK. Jesus and the Bible provided such immunization, as well as giving English or British socialism a distinctive flavour.
To complicate matters further, there was no absolute ideological consistency among the Pythons either. Michael Palin, for instance, would identify as a traditional Labour supporter while John Cleese was a prominent supporter of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s and the Liberal Democrats in the 1990s, and was open to certain Conservative views on entrepreneurship and defence. But what we can say is that whatever the individual motivations of the Pythons, and whatever kind of radicalism we might read into Brian’s advocacy of individualism, Life of Brian does not make the same radical moves as Benn’s Jesus.
In fact, the film has moments which are clearly compatible with the way Thatcher contrasted individualism with socialism. As Cleese himself would do on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, the film clearly satirises trade union and revolutionary leftist/Marxist groups in its portrayal of the ineffective and overly-bureaucratic People’s Front of Judea ('Splitters!') et al, even if (unlike Thatcher) there was some lament over misguided focus and a loss of ideals. The British establishment and class system are implicitly satirised, whether through the strict Latin teacher, market traders, the tortured liberal crucifixion official, or the incompetent ruling classes and imperial administrators.
But the anti-establishment satire has its limits, particularly in the case of imperialism, most famously when the revolutionary Reg unintentionally listed its (not entirely historically accurate) benefits in his ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?’ speech. As the great Brianologist Philip Davies pointed out years ago, this is also a gentle poking fun at the imperialism of the public school class without condemnation of the system. In other words, for a nostalgic view of the Roman Empire, read a nostalgic view of the British Empire. The alternative presented to the relentless criticism of religious interpretation in Life of Brian is the one serious message in the film: Brian’s call for individualism and self-help over the collectivism of the crowd. This message might ten years earlier have been more naturally associated with anarchist and student radicalism of 1968, but by 1979 the context was somewhat different.
Life of Brian carries a number of ideological tensions in the aftermath of the 1960s which Thatcher and Thatcherism would, in different ways, attempt to harness, hold together, reconfigure, or transform. As David Harvey has argued, the cultural shift towards neoliberalism in the 1960s and 1970s involved the rhetoric of freedom, liberty and individualism which could be constructed in opposition to traditional upper-class authorities as well as trade union power, and eventually paved the way for a new dominant class of sometimes provocative entrepreneurs. Freedom from the state could be taken up in terms of economic freedom as much as, or as well as, social freedom. Youth movements, pop culture, and political satirists would play a significant role in such cultural developments, including the so-called ‘Satire Boom’ of the early 1960s which would produce some of the most significant examples of twentieth-century English anti-establishment comedy. Including, of course, arguably the most influential of all, Monty Python.
So, like Thatcher herself, Life of Brian was a popular cultural critique of post-war consensuses and a credible carrier of cultural change. Life of Brian, like the roughly contemporaneous punk movement, was hardly ideologically pure Thatcherism and its cultural provocations were clearly out-of-step with Thatcher’s morally upright, good Christian housewife image of the 1970s. Individual Pythons may well be horrified — and rightly horrified — with the idea that the central message of individualism, a kind of secular humanism, and a punk-like think-for-yourself attitude could be deemed compatible with Thatcherism.
But at the same time, all those who voted for Thatcher were not necessarily in agreement with everything Thatcher believed and promoted. And nor was there a precise ideological match between Thatcher and Thatcherite symbols such as champagne-guzzling yuppies, celebrity entrepreneurs, or Duran Duran. These phenomena were obviously part of the Thatcherite phenomenon, irrespective of whether Thatcher would have personally approved of the uncensored video for ‘Girls on Film’. Perhaps we might re-imagine Brian’s words on the cross being levelled at Monty Python for unintentionally giving Thatcherism an assist: ‘You stupid bastards!’
And in the long run, in parliamentary political discourse from 1979 onwards, Jesus the Radical was likewise being pushed out as Thatcher’s template for understanding the Bible was becoming increasingly accepted. Blairism was a key moment in this respect. In addition to accepting the basic tenets of Thatcher’s Bible, Blair rethought Labour’s Radical Bible tradition, which previously had a notable presence in the founding of the NHS and the development of the Welfare State. Instead of ridding Britain of the ‘evil giants’ of ‘want’, ‘squalor’, ‘disease’, and ‘ignorance’, as Labour (following the Beveridge Report) had promised in 1945, Blair sought to reapply this ‘apocalyptic’ thinking ‘from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan’, in a post-September 11 Labour Party conference speech, presumably a dog whistle to a nervous Labour Party familiar with such language. The other significant qualification made by Blair was a socially liberal spin (especially on issues relating to gender and sexuality) to Thatcher’s economically liberal Bible. This legacy was apparent in the parliamentary debates over same-sex marriage in 2013 where Jesus the Liberal was invoked only as a supporter of same-sex marriage. A notable shift in contemporary political attitudes certainly; Peter Tatchell’s potentially free-loving, erotic Jesus of ’68, indifferent to constructs and constraints of conventional sexuality, this was not. Cameron, as we might expect, has only intensified the Jesus of Thatcher and Blair. It was Cameron’s Jesus, after all, who founded the concept of the Big Society. But is it not merely the logic of parliamentary democracy to domesticate or deal with elements deemed politically radical? Perhaps. But at present, the surprising emergence of Corbyn has resurrected Jesus the Radical in parliament. Corbyn’s close ally, Cat Smith, has openly claimed that ‘Jesus was a radical socialist’, as well as picking up on probably the most prominent image from the Bible in the Occupy movement: Jesus ‘turning over the tables in the temple’.
Corbyn has also been making regular references to the parable of the Good Samaritan, including in his victory speech, his first major interview with Andrew Marr, and at the Labour Party conference. He has used it to promote his stance on welfare (e.g. ‘we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system’; ‘we don’t pass by on the other side while the poor lie in the gutter’). But the Good Samaritan is probably also tying Corbyn in with a specifically British or English socialism. It was notable that the conference speech came shortly after the faux outrage levelled at Corbyn for not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial service (and perhaps picking up on the Radical English Bible of his mentor, Tony Benn): ‘Solidarity and not walking by on the other side of the street when people are in trouble..…these shared majority British values that are the fundamental reason why I love this country and its people.’
What is also significant about this is that it tells us what Corbyn does not represent. The Good Samaritan is probably the most common biblical allusion in party politics today and, for those with ears to hear, it is a parable present in the battle for the soul of the Labour Party and cross-party views on militarism. In addition to Thatcher’s example, Cameron, for instance, has alluded to the example of the Good Samaritan to justify any future military intervention against ISIS and, in his pro-bombing Syria speech, Hilary Benn justified it with the claim that ‘we never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road’.
In other words, Jesus and the Bible continue to function as an implicit authority in English political discourse. This authority has never been the sole preserve of the Right, and access to such authority has long been tapped into by agitators from seventeenth-century radicals to Linton Kwesi Johnson. The dominant Thatcher-Blair template of how Jesus should be understood is now being challenged from inside (and, of course, from outside) Parliament. For now, Jesus the Radical has come in from the cold of Occupy London Stock Exchange, bypassed the decaying remains of the Miliband experiment, and returned to Parliament triumphant..…for now. His future depends in no small part on the success of those like Jeremy Corbyn and Cat Smith and the movement which propelled them to power, because it looks as if they will continue to draw on this source of authority in their challenge to neoliberal dominance.