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.
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.