Image Credit: José Manuel Balmaceda, Wikimedia commons

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are my own; they are not the editorial position of the Ichthus and should not be construed to represent the views of its staff.

It is perhaps all too easy to forget the material meaning of Christian texts, no less when the whole of the intellectual tradition conspires to shut down any inquiry which so much as gestures in this direction.  Historically, the production of theological discourse has almost instinctively shut off such inquiry as might probe into the material meaning of Christian texts, and for reasons which are quite obvious — namely that Christian texts, as has long been recognized for example by the US State Department (which is why it opposes it), embed deliciously subversive material meanings.[1]  One need only, for instance, sit down and read the Gospel of Matthew, the plain meaning of which, even in terms of its political message, spiritual matters aside, is something far more radical than anything Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels ever proposed.[2]  And there is by now a substantial literature on the radical political implications of Jesus’s life and teachings.[3]  The radical material meaning of the Gospel should come as no surprise either: it is easily enough recalled, though perhaps more easily forgotten, that Christian consciousness was moulded by its historical context: brutal Roman imperialism.  The respected biblical scholar Richard Horsley, who has done more work on this topic than anyone else I can think of, suggests that in this context, Roman conquest entailed “devastation of the countryside, burning of villages, pillage of towns, and slaughter and enslavement of the populace.”[4]  It might be easy for comfortably suburban Western Christians, living at other end of the bludgeon (or gun) to forget the material meaning of Christian texts, and to focus instead on mystical abstractions, but it is not easy for those Christians, say, in Latin America which has been exploited by the United States for decades, to see these meanings — as they do.[5]

Among the most grossly unexplored themes in Christian theology, in my view, has been the crucifixion.  Most Christians rather blithely follow Paul’s mystical interpretation of the crucifixion (such as he outlines in Romans: the soteriological theory of sin and death, flesh and spirit).  I do not wish to discount the theory; for me, it is at worst unintelligible and at best irrelevant.  But even were one to adopt a Pauline interpretation of the crucifixion, this does not in any case exhaust the various dimensions of its meanings, and indeed I should like to suggest an inquiry into the material meaning of the texts yields, with the most modest efforts, a very rich and even more subversive message.

Moreover, if seeking out the material meaning in the crucifixion is rich, it is not by any means difficult.  As we now know very well from excellent historical scholarship, the crucifixion was an ancient Roman political practice, reserved almost exclusively for political crimes.  As the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan points out, “Roman crucifixion was state terrorism,” the purpose of which was to “deter resistance or revolt, especially among the lower classes.”[6]  Here, then, is the obvious starting point for investigating the material meaning of the crucifixion: it was a form of state terrorism which aimed to deter political resistance.

This established, it is not in the least difficult to determine what the concept could mean for our own contemporary situation, and once this has been ascertained, even less difficult to see why its obvious material meaning is almost universally ignored. The meaning and significance of the text is easy to establish if only because the contemporary historical analogues are so obvious they hardly require pointing out.  And yet — this no doubt tells you something about how pervasive this ideology is — even something as simple as this, for the simple fact that hardly an intelligent person knows about it, does require pointing out.  It requires pointing out, for instance, that the United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”  In fact, the words are not my own.  I am quoting from Martin Luther King, who also suggested that the United States government had committed more war crimes than any nation in the world.”[7]

No less astounding is the fact that it has to be pointed out that terror has been, for its convenience, a regular function of United States foreign policy in beating down popular movements which attempt to carry out what is called, in the professional jargon, “radical nationalism” — which, along with the equally dubious term “Communism,” is what we call regimes which don’t follow U.S. orders.[8]  In fact, one can predict American foreign policy with a decent amount of accuracy with these principles.  For example, as Noam Chomsky points out:

American policy toward Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution could have been predicted by simply observing that Nicaragua’s health and education budget rose rapidly, that an effective land reform program was instituted, and that the infant mortality rate dropped very dramatically, to the point where Nicaragua won an award from the World Health Organization for health achievements (all of this despite horrifying conditions left by the Somoza dictatorship, which we had installed and supported, and continued to support to the very end, despite a lot of nonsense to the contrary that one hears). If a country is devoted to policies like those I’ve just described, it is obviously an enemy.[9]

Moreover, such a policy is hardly anecdotal.  What happened in Nicaragua is representative of what happens just about everywhere else, and has been happening since WWII.  As William Blum has suggested, this is the regular policy of United States foreign policy, perhaps the closest thing it has to a guiding principle.  Since WWII, the United States has attempted to overthrow more than fifty foreign governments, bombed more than thirty nations, and has attempted to assassinate more than sixty foreign leaders — all with the goal of extirpating this “virus” (as Henry Kissinger called it[10]) of independent nationalism.[11]  By the same token, it ought to be acknowledged that the United States doesn’t love terror for its own sake (nor, presumably, did the Romans).  Terror is a means — an effective one no doubt — rather than the ends.  One of the easily discernable goals of American foreign policy, as Blum has pointed out, includes “making the world safe for American corporations” and, in order to do this, “preventing the rise of any society that might serve as a successful example of an alternative to the capitalist model.”[12]  It is easy to see why support for terror and dictators easily follows from this: dictators crush popular movements, crackdown on unions, suppress wages, and slaughter dissidents — all of which are very good for profit margins.  In fact, these are hardly speculations on my part.  The high correlation of U.S. foreign aid and human rights abuses is well established in the scholarly literature.  In a 1981 study, Lars Schoultz, one of the leading Latin America schoalrs, concluded that foreign aid, as in the case of Latin America, “has tended to flow disproportionately to … governments which torture their citizens, … to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.”  And Martha Huggins, another leading latin America scholar, similarly suggests that “the more foreign police aid given [by the US], the more brutal and less democratic the police institutions and their governments become.”[13]  The same observations generalize elsewhere.

            We need hardly be so abstract.  A modest sampling will suffice to demonstrate the connection between U.S. foreign aid, human rights violations, and U.S. capital, as the connection holds true in case after case of American intervention abroad.  In Iran in 1953, for example, the United States, through the CIA, helped to engineer the illegal overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, who attempted to nationalize the Iranian oil supplies which were at that time predominantly controlled by the British oil company now known at British Petroleum (BP), and then re-instated the brutal dictator Mohammad Reza Shah (the Shah), whose security forces went on to have the worst human rights records on the planet according to the main human rights organizations.  A year later in Guatemala, the United States overthrew the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, who instituted modest land reform measures which the U.S. Fruit Company, owning as it did 42 percent of Guatemala’s land, was obviously not pleased with.  The U.S. then went on to support, according to Blum, “40 years of death-squads, torture, disappearances, mass executions, and unimaginable cruelty, totaling well over 100,000 victims.”[14]  In 1973, the U.S. helped topple the democratically elected government of the socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, installing in his stead a monstrous tyrant, Augusto Pinochet, who went on to murder and torture thousands, converting the national soccer stadium into a concentration camp for dissidents, making the country what is called in the professional lexicon, “stable.”  And the United States remains no less committed to stifling democracy today.  In 2002, for example, the U.S. supported an illegal coup which attempted but ultimately failed to overthrow Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela after the poor people, on the eve of the coup, marched down from the barrios to the presidential palace to demand the return of their president.

To be sure, the United States has supported more brutal dictators than any other contemporary state I can think of — from the Shah in Iran, Suharto in Indonesia, and Marcos in the Philippines, to Pinochet in Chile, Baptista in Cuba, Gomez in Venezuela, and the Somozas in Guatemala (whose preferred method of torture was to drop political opponents into the Masaya volcano), among many, many others.  One dictator perhaps worth special mention for all the pretextual denunciation he received in the United States leading up the invasion of Iraq is Saddam Hussein, whom it should be recalled the Reagan administration took off the U.S. terrorist list in 1982 so that we could legally provide him with foreign aid, and whom we continued to support after the worst atrocities had been committed — the same atrocities we denounced when it was convenient to do so twenty years later.  Incidentally, shortly after the Reaganites took Saddam off the U.S. terrorist list, they put a another figure on it, Nelson Mandela, who wasn’t removed until 2008, which tells you something about how the term “terrorist” is used.

But these are cases in which the United States has indirectly supported human rights violations and terror.  There are, of course, cases in which the United States has been rather more direct, not just in supporting terror, but in carrying it out too.  To name just one, which is probably one the greatest international terrorist operations in the world, we might consider Operation Mongoose, devised and carried out by the Kennedy Administration in 1961.  It involved “blowing up hotels, sinking fishing boats, blowing up industrial installations, [and] bombing airplanes”[15] as well as attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.  The motives behind it, moreover, were very candidly articulated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, namely to “lure or provoke Castro, or an uncontrollable subordinate, into an overt hostile reaction against the United States; a reaction which would in turn create the justification for the US to not only retaliate but destroy Castro with speed, force and determination,”[16] which is, again, quite in line with the goals outlined earlier, to prevent “the rise of any society that might serve as a successful example of an alternative to the capitalist model,” as Blum puts it, or to inoculate this “virus,” as Henry Kissinger called it.  The U.S. officials, for all their mendacity, were quite justified in viewing Castro as a threat.  The Cuban revolution (1959) did have a profound effect on the whole of Latin America, as Arthur Schlesinger, for example, keenly observed when he wrote that “the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.”[17]  The Cuban revolution was even a part of the inspiration for liberation theology.  As Christopher Rowland writes in a preface to Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, “The revolution in Cuba … seemed to herald new possibilities in human affairs” and it needed a theology to express these new hopes.[18]  Or one could just observe what happened in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, particularly the U.S. response to widespread popular movements, namely the attempt to crush all of these popular movements and install brutal dictators across the region.

Nevertheless, Castro had to be overthrown, so the argument goes, in order to “contain” the “Communists,” which, again,  is the technical term for those who disobey U.S. orders.  In fact, if you look at the way the term “Communist” is used, it is, like the term “terrorist,” rather interesting.  In the first place, it has nothing to do with theoretical communism such as Marx for example wrote about.  Secondly, it has nothing to do even with with the gross distortion of it which Lenin and Stalin misappropriated.  So you can be a “Communist” even if you are not Communist — a logical contradiction which can be overcome with proper education.  To revisit just some of the cases sampled earlier, the familiar Soviet “Communist threat” was invoked, for instance, in the illegal overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala, which at the time did not even have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.  Of course, it went on after the fact to develop diplomatic relations with the Soviets, out of (understandable) desperation.  In the case of Iran, now-declassified internal documents demonstrate that the U.S. officials knew the Iranians had no connection with the Soviet Communists.  Secretary of State Dean Acheson, for example, candidly admitted that the Communist threat was a “smokescreen.”[19]  But the Iranians imagined a different kind of social organization; therefore they were Communists.  So as we can see, the term “Communist” is a rather flexible one, which can be defined as “those proposing an alternative to the dominant form of socio-economic organization.”

Notice that under this definition, Jesus easily qualifies as a “Communist”: he was a “virus” who represented an alternative way of life and therefore had to be inoculated by terror, which in his own time meant crucifixion.  The contention is not indefensible, and the notion is hardly my own.  As one of the pre-eminent biblical scholars Marcus Borg points out, “Christianity is the only major religion whose two most formative figures were executed by established authority.  Accident?  Plan of God?  Or is there in Jesus and Paul a vision and a program, a message and a mission, that should cause systems of domination, ancient and modern, to tremble”[20]  To answer this is in fact very easy: one need only read the Gospel of Matthew, the plain meaning of which is something far more radical than socialism.[21]  As even more traditional biblical scholars like N.T. Wright agree, the overriding theme of Jesus’s teaching is the Kingdom of God, which is a matter of total equality of wages and the forgiveness of debts, a vision of society in which people labor less and rest more, a society in which the hungry will be filled with “good things” and the rich sent away “empty” (Luke 1:53), in which the Kingdom will be “taken away” from the leaders and given to those who “produce its fruits” (Matt 21:43).

And just like the Western elites and State Department planners, the elites of Jesus’s day were also “afraid of the people” particularly because they “hold that John was a prophet” (Matt 21:26).  The context for this admission on the part of the scribes and pharisees is rather interesting.  The gospels report that John the Baptist was beheaded more or less because Salome requested his head on a platter.[22]  The first century Jewish historian Josephus, however, in his Antiquities of the Jews suggests alternately that “Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause.”[23]  It wouldn’t have been inconceivable. John, baptizing in the Jordan River, was symbolically re-enacting an exodus, loaded with its own political meaning.  Rebellion, moreover, was not by any means unheard of in this political milieu.  In one episode dating from around this time, the Romans crucified two thousand subjects in one day for rebelling against them.

In the Gospels, the case could be made (strongly in my view) that the elites feared a similar possibility with Jesus.  Perhaps the elites feared that “the poor and underprivileged,” to use Schlesinger’s terms, were “now demanding opportunities for a decent living.”  It is not inconceivable.  The Romans reserved crucifixion for political crimes, and the entire history of U.S. foreign policy suffices to demonstrate that state terrorism is just as effective today as it was two thousand years ago, when a peasant called God was mutilated for having the gall to imagine a more just society.

Since WWII, the United States has been supporting the terror which mutilates peasants and poor people who have had the same radically modest goals, except this time, the “Christians” have often been the persecutors rather than the persecuted, the beneficiaries of empire rather than its victims — as they have been since the fourth century, when Constantine incorporated Christianity into the Roman imperial state, transforming Christians overnight from  “from persecuted outsiders to persecuting insiders.”[24]  But perhaps the term “Christian” is like the term “Communist” and means its opposite.  Perhaps one doesn’t have to be a Christian to be a Christian, just as one doesn’t have to be a Communist to be a Communist.  Jesus, as we have established, was a “Communist” under the modern, doublespeak sense of the term; he probably would not have counted as a “Christian.” Perhaps the real Christians today are those we have called “Communists” — like those peasants and churches in El Salvador who struggled alongside Oscar Romero to resist U.S. – supported atrocities.  Perhaps today, in a way which would have quite amused George Orwell, the term “Christian” simply means “un-Christian.”

If this is the case, it should be no surprise why “Christians” do everything in their power to ignore the material meaning of crucifixion — because it was a form of state terrorism, which “Christians” today have been ignoring for the past six decades.  Because taking account of the material meaning of crucifixion would mean that “Christians” have been supporting or ignoring the the state terrorism which put their God to death two thousands years ago.

Crucifixion is a rich concept with multiple layers of meanings (metaphysical, soteriological, philosophical, ontological, material, etc.), and by no means do I wish to reduce it to its material, or political, meaning.  But if those who consider themselves Christians in the oldspeak sense of the term endeavor to be true to their God and faithful to the witness of his teaching, then perhaps they ought to take account of the material meaning of their God’s death, to question why the state terrorism which put him to death still happens today, and to attempt to stop it. Otherwise, are we any better than the Apostle Peter, who betrayed his teacher, who stood by in silence as his God was strung up on a Roman Crucifix and mutilated?


[1] It is the official position of the United States government to oppose the spread of liberation theology.  See, for example, my “Church in the Service of the Poor,” Harvard Ichthus, 26 Novemrber 2013, http://harvardichthus.org/fishtank/2013/11/the-church-in-the-service-of-the-poor/

[2] The Gospel of Matthew.  See also my “Socialism is the Plain Meaning of the Text,” Harvard Ichthus, 05 December 2013, http://harvardichthus.org/fishtank/2013/12/socialism-is-the-plain-meaning-of-the-text-the-gospel-of-matthew-and-a-general-anthropology-of-social-revolution/

[3] The unsurpassable classic, in my view, is Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, especially the first few chapters.  In contemporary mainstream biblical scholarship, see especially the work of Richard Horsley (Jesus and Empire, Paul and Empire), John Dominic Crossan (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography), and N.T. Wright (How God Became King).  Liberation theologians have also done good work, from a more theological point of view, but also with some good biblical criticism, including Gustavo Gutierrez (A Theology of Liberation, which is a classic), Leonardo Boff (Jesus Christ Liberator), Jose Porfirio Miranda (Marx and the Bible)

[4] Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, p.27

[5] Base ecclesiastical communities in Latin America are a very good example of this.  For more information on this, see, in particular, the work Leonardo Boff on this topic, or Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies, ch.3

[6] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, p.127

[7] For more on Martin Luther King, see my “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/

[8] See, for example, Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, New York: New Press, 2002

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

[10] Kissinger was referring to Cuba

[11] William Blum, “Has the CIA Been Murdering Hundreds of Thousands of People,” Lecture, Freedom Law School, Irvine: 2007 Justice and Freedom Conference, March 2007

[12] William Blum, “A Brief History of U.S. Interventions: 1945 to the Present,” Z Magazine, June 1999, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Blum/US_Interventions_WBlumZ.html

[13] Lars Schoultz and Martha Huggins, qtd. in Noam Chomsky, ‘On Colombia,’ Chomsky.info, Online: http://www.chomsky.info/articles/200412–.htm.  For more information, see Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981

[14] William Blum, “A Brief History of U.S. Interventions: 1945 to the Present,” Z Magazine, June 1999, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Blum/US_Interventions_WBlumZ.html

[15] Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, New York: New Press, 2002, p.8

[16] Qtd. in Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, New York: Holt, 2004

[17] Arthur Schlesinger, qtd. in Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, New York: Holt, 2004, p.114

[18] Christopher Rowland, preface to Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Maryknoll: SCM Press, 2001 (originally published 1971), p.xv

[19] Ervand Abrahamian, “The 1953 Coup in Iran,”Science & Society, 65 (2), Summer 2001, pp. 182–215″.

[20] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p.258

[21] See my See also my “Socialism is the Plain Meaning of the Text,” Harvard Ichthus, 05 December 2013, http://harvardichthus.org/fishtank/2013/12/socialism-is-the-plain-meaning-of-the-text-the-gospel-of-matthew-and-a-general-anthropology-of-social-revolution/

[22] Matthew 14

[23] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 18.

[24] Stephen Prothero, God is Not One, New York: Harper One, 2010, p.76