How Radical Was Jesus?

A Unitarian Universalist Reflection
on Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church
of Bowling Green, Kentucky
July 17, 2011

Unitarian Universalists often say we are open to wisdom in other faith traditions. One way we can practice this is to appreciate what they say when they say it well and present our differences in the framework of basic respect. Opening a conversation of this sort is a way of strengthening a shared spiritual journey.

In April, Western Kentucky University students and faculty members, and members of the Bowling Green community had a chance to hear Brian McLaren present his analysis of current global problems and his vision of how to confront them inspired by his interpretation of the message of Jesus. A more elaborate version of his view is found in Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope.1 McLaren is an evangelical Christian—a fairly radical or progressive evangelical, in fact.

I intend to summarize his diagnosis of the problems, then share with you how he understands Jesus' message, which he contrasts with the visions advocated by rival social movements forces in Jesus' time. I will assume that McLaren accurately gauges the radical social message of Jesus—if you want to question that assumption, we can take it up in the discussion period.2 Finally, I will say a few words about the adequacy of this approach as a strategy for today.

Drawing from public official and theological sources3, McLaren identifies four root problems, or global emergencies—the "PPPR" problems: Planet (global environmental issues), Poverty (apparent economic injustice in the absence of opportunities for vast numbers of human beings), Peace (the prevalence of war and all the devastation that it causes), and Religion. Not surprisingly, he thinks that some forms of religion hold out more hope for solving our problems than others.

McLaren develops a useful diagram to help us understand these problems. (The basic chart is given on p. 60, with variations on pp, 62 and 63.) The Earth's ecosystem, represented by an ellipse, contains what he calls the Societal Machine, represented by a rectangular box. Short thin arrows go into the Ecosystem figure from outside; they represent solar energy. Resource consumption is represented by thicker arrows from the Ecosystem into the Societal Machine box. Waste disposal is represented by thicker arrows from the Societal Machine box to the Ecosystem space outside the box. Two thin arrows leaving the Ecosystem ellipse represent heat escaping into space.

There are four main parts of the Societal Machine, all of them represented by gears in the diagram. Three large gears, each touching a smaller gear in the center, represent subsystems of this Machine, the Prosperity, Security, and Equity Systems. The three connect with the fourth gear, which represents the prevailing Framing Story and the religion that is truly dominant in the society. The diagram implies that the Framing Story holds the whole Machine together.4

The Prosperity system is what we normally call the economy. Here things are produced that human beings consume or use to embellish their lives. The Security system consists of institutions by means of which people try to restrain forces that allegedly threaten prosperity. The Equity system corresponds to the principles and institutions that consider and resolve issues of justice.

Against this background, McLaren identifies four crises that are occurring simultaneously:

1. A Prosperity system that cannot stop growing beyond environmental limits, producing multifaceted environmental crises. In his diagram, this point is illustrated by the growth of the Societal Machine box and its system parts to such an extent that it threatens to overwhelm the sustainability of the Ecosystem on which it totally depends.

2. An Equity system that cannot keep pace with the growing gap, on a global scale, between rich and poor.

3. A Security System that fails to curb, and arguably helps to create, crime, mass migration, terrorism, and (violent) anti-terrorism.

McLaren claims, however, that the central crisis attaches to Religion, inseparable from the Framing Story that interprets the Societal Machine as a Whole:
4. The world's religions have failed to provide a framing story capable of healing the dysfunctional Societal Machine.
McLaren surveys the world religions in their current incarnations. He regards them as supporting five different Framing stories, none of them adequate. I indicate them each by a single word, which with one exception labels the implicit means of salvation advocated by the corresponding story:
1. Domination (the prime narrative of Western 'civilization')
2. Revolution--by which he means violent revolution
3. Purification/Scapegoating (blaming the impure)
4. Isolation
5. Accumulation (of Wealth), which results in Victimization
Like many Christians, McLaran gives considerable attention to the first century of the Christian (or "Common" Era), when Jesus lived and the earliest Christian communities were organized. He finds in first century Palestine groups adhering to each of those Framing Stories. The Sadducees (Jews whose attention centered on the Jerusalem Temple), the local Judaean aristocracy, and the Romans represent the Domination Frame. The Zealots (who fought the Romans to their death in the revolt of 79 AD) represent the Revolution Frame. The Pharisees represent the Purification Frame. The Essenes of Qumran, the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, represent the Isolation Frame. Wealthy Judaeans in general represent the Accumulation Frame. Those most likely to adopt the Victimization Frame (before Jesus came alone) were the poor people of Galilee —many of them identified as sinners, lepers, and outcasts.

According to McLaren, Jesus not only had a story distinct from all these; his story can address our present situation. What was Jesus alternative framing story? M. explains:

The term kingdom of God … is at the heart and center of Jesus' message in word and deed.…As a member of a little colonized nation with a framing story that refuses to be tamed by the Roman imperial narrative, Jesus bursts on the scene with this scandalous message: The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available; the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all imperial narratives, counter-narratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narrative. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way; follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living. At every point, the essence of his kingdom teaching subverts the 'common sense' of the Roman Empire and all its predecessors and successors. (99)
He paraphrases Jesus' teaching:
Don't get revenge when wronged, but seek reconciliation.

Don't repay violence with violence, but seek creative and transforming nonviolent alternatives.

Don't focus on external conformity to moral codes, but on internal transformation in love.

Don't love insiders and hate or fear outsides, but welcome outsiders into a new 'us,' a new 'we,' a new humanity that celebrates diversity in the context of love for all, justice for all, diversity for all.

Don't have anxiety about money or security or pleasure at the center of your life, but trust yourself to the care of God.

Don't live for wealth but for the living God who loves all people, including your enemies.

Don't hate your enemies or competitors but love them and do to them not as they have done to you—but as you wish they would do for you. (99-100)

Before we can evaluate this approach, we have to consider a few more details of McLaren's diagnosis of our current problems. The current Prosperity System (one of the three parts of the Societal Machine, which he also calls is a Suicidal Machine) embodies the false religion of Theocapitalism, which has a Framing Story that combines Domination and Accumulation Themes.

According to McLaren,5 Theocapitalism tries to do "for us exactly what any religion does or its adherents." Prius and I-phone owners will understand this: (1) "it gives us identity"—as the person who uses product X as distinct from Y; (2) "it helps us belong to a community of kindred spirits who share our faith"—in the power of the product to perform as advertised; (3) "it develops trust by making and keeping…promises"—again, it is advertising that makes promises; (4) "it helps us experience ecstacy"—when corporations give us the experiences their ads promise; (5) "it communicates…transcendence through sacred images and symbols—the mystical Nike swoosh" or "the iconic Target bulls'-eye"; (6) it converts us to "a new life…if we join their brand 'family'"; and (7) it even "promises rest for the restless heart…"—expressed in "testimonials of satisfied customers…complete with…before and after photographs." (190-91)

For McLaren the false religion of "theocapitalism" has four "spiritual" laws (obviously, not everything "spiritual" is healthy): Progress through Rapid Growth; Serenity through Possession and Consumption; Salvation Through Competition Alone; Freedom to Prosper Through Unaccountable Corporations (chapter 23)

These "spiritual" laws endorse key features of the economic system currently prevailing in the U.S. Earlier, McLaren had described the dysfunctional Prosperity System as follows: "Our [dominant] story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste as possible. As a result we burn through nonrenewable resources without concern for their eventual disappearance, draw down renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and produce more waste products than our environment can absorb, manifesting a host of negative symptoms…"(68)

The "Unaccountable Corporations law" of Theocapitalism, which reinforces our dysfunctional Prosperity System, privileges the role of private corporate property. In the early years of the United States, at least in parts of the country, property rights were those of relatively small property holders hemmed in by societal obligations. A person's property rights depended on a rough equality with other property holders and the fact that there were laws, sometimes effective, aiming at fairness and preventing the concentration of power in a few, unaccountable hands. But, as some of the American founders feared, corporations have become so large and powerful, and our politicians have become so dependent on them, that they are, for most purposes, as McLaren suggests, unaccountable.

Jesus, he says, recruits heroes to join him in dismantling the acutely suicidal machinery of theocapitalism (206). Of course, Jesus can do this only through present-day people who transmit his vision. In any case, McLaren discovers in Jesus' message four laws that challenge theocapitalism and its four "spiritual" laws.

Good Deeds for the Common Good (ch. 25) replace The Pursuit of Rapid Growth (i.e., endless capital accumulation). Satisfaction Through Gratitude and Sharing (ch. 25) replaces Consumption as the path to serenity. Salvation through Seeking Justice (ch. 26) replaces Salvation through Competition alone. Freedom to Prosper by Building Better Communities (ch. 26) replaces leaving everything in the hands of Unaccountable Corporations.

In McLaren's reading, the point of the vision in the Book of Revelations is that "the empire of Caesar, including the religious apparatus that sustains his system, will not last forever but that the empire of this world…will ultimately be transformed" into a society deserving of the label the Kingdom of God. "It is the end in the sense of the goal toward which we move…the end of the world as we know it…dominated by suicidal machinery driven by a suicidal framing story. But it is the beginning of…a new story, a new chapter, a new way." (ch. 34, p. 297)

Most Unitarian Universalists will sympathize with McLaren's progresssive understanding of traditional Christian symbolism and parables. Our congregation's mission "is to be a caring community that…actively works to improve our society and the environment." The second of our seven UU principles is "Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations."

What actions does McLaren think Jesus would recommend today given his focus upon promoting the common good, fostering gratitude and sharing, seeking justice, and building better communities?

At the individual level we will do our individual tasks as "builders of a new world." (298) On the community level we will create "courageous nurturing communities as powerful expressions of combined personal effort." (298-99)

On the public level faith communities will link together and employ the full range of nonviolent methods of social change. M. finds models in the civil rights work of M.L. King Jr. and the anti-apartheid witness of Desmond Tutu. (299) At the global level, he speaks of "integrated global action." Alas, he is systematically unspecific. He says that "It is the societal map of greed, lust, arrogance, fear, racism, domination, oppression, revenge, and injustice that [Jesus] wants to redraw. He wants his disciples to move mountains of injustice and make new rivers of creativity and compassion flow[,]…[he wants] his followers to…label as unacceptable, unnatural, and changeable a world where homeless children beg outside the sprawling estates of the super rich, whose luxuries are protected by walls and fences topped with razor-wire and patrolled by vicious dogs, dogs that eat better than the street children from whom they serve as protection…a world that could [but currently does not] tithe its weapons budget and so feed, clothe, and shelter the poor." (300)

McLaren's description of the problems humanity now faces is more accurate than we usually get from preachers, politicians and the mass media.6 But has he adequately clarified the institutional resistance that must be overcome to alter or abolish the Societal Machine that he says has become a Suicide Machine. His largely realistic description of this Machine has a curious blind spot, which needs correction if we are to develop an effective counter-approach. His Christianity is a source of strength but also of limitation: Jesus lived in a social order radically different from ours, one that prevented him from seeing the problems we face today and developing solutions now open to us, if we can act collectively.

Ultimately, Jesus' vision (and McLaren's) is based on and limited by the idea of radical generosity. Generosity, like its opposite stinginess, is a question of distribution. It is closely related to distributive justice, which is concerned with fairness in distribution. McLaren hardly mentions production except as the source of the goods we consume. Yet even the first law of Theocapitalism, Progress through Rapid Growth, is usually understood in terms of growth of production.

The modern system of production, the capital system, did not exist in premodern society; it did not exist in ancient Palestine, in the Roman Empire, or anywhere else for that matter before 1500.

Let's focus on Judaea in the time of Jesus, which was subservient to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was structured by a pyramidal scheme: at the very top was the Roman emperor, officially considered a God in human form, backed by the imperial elite who controlled the legions of Rome. At the very bottom were the peasants, slaves, and landless poor. The landless poor likely included Jesus and certainly provided his original audience. In the middle were Roman officials like Pontius Pilate, local Judaean rulers like Herod who were subject to Rome, and the High Priest at the Jerusalem Temple.

The best the poor and oppressed in such societies could hope for, even in their wildest dreams, was radical generosity. Any military attempt to overthrow the oppressor could only lead, as the revolt of the Maccabees 200 years earlier had led, to a new aristocracy and tyranny based on the military structure of the revolting party.

The political pyramid of ancient society was designed so that the warrior aristocracy and its emperors at the top could extract wealth from the labor of the vastly larger group of slaves, peasants, and landless toilers at its base.

The modern capital system is different in key ways. It began emerging around 1500 and became dominant in Western Europe and English North America by 1800. Its difference can be characterized in five ways:

A. Ownership of the means of production becomes more central than ever. No longer will a military aristocracy simply extract by force what others produce. But the owners of the means of production will extract wealth from workers who have "voluntarily" contracted to labor for them for what turns out to be a subsistence wage.

B. This society will be increasingly divided into two classes, those who own the means of production and the vast class of workers directly or indirectly employed by them, workers who have, with few exceptions, only their ability to labor to sell. They have neither income nor means of subsistence unless somebody with capital will hire them.

C. What is now produced (under the control of capital) is produced for a market, i.e., in order to be exchanged, so that capital can maximize profits. For reasons I cannot explain in this brief summary, those profits have to be reinvested, with the aim of expanding production for the market. The result is a treadmill of accumulation that never ends so long as the capital system stays intact.

D. The rapid expansion of this system is essential to it; by 1900, operating under the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. extended it throughout the Western hemisphere and European colonialism did the same for the rest of the world. Two world wars, the Great Depression, and national liberation struggles slowed down this expansion during the first 60-70 years of the 20th century. But, by the year 2000, the system had retaken the initiative and a new phase of globalization created a world system more interconnected than ever.

E. The interconnected capital system, however, is never an interconnection of equals. The core countries of the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan dominate the periphery in the Global South. To maintain this domination, large corporations and governments in the core countries use monopoly advantages they have developed in five areas: finance, patent rights, rights to access resources, electronic communication, and military force.

The capital system is reinforced by the framing story McLaren calls Theocapitalism, but the system is far more than its framing story ; it is a social reality that, like a living organism, strives to remain in existence. (How the system recreates itself by binding individuals to it psychologically is an important question we cannot discuss here.) In any case, to change the system, we must indeed change the story but much more must be done.

It is necessary to generate a new set of aims for production as well as consumption. Ways must be found to enable people to produce for genuine need, even in cases when doing so runs contrary to maximizing profits and accumulating capital.

McLaren is right that the prevailing practical "religion" he calls Theocapitalism seems to endorse the Law of Unaccountable Corporations. It is reasonable, and necessary, to ask what it might take to make economic life genuinely accountable to the people it affects. In my view, this means that the right to control the means of production must be shifted to the real producers, those who do the work, as well as those who have genuine needs for what is produced or who live downstream or downwind from places of production.

I don't believe this is possible unless political democracy is expanded into economic democracy, unless democracy is intensified so that it rests upon workplace and neighborhood democracy. Of course, decisions of locally elected and controlled councils would have to be coordinated regionally and globally, but ultimate power must be local. To make such democracy a real possibility ownership must be reconceived as shared social ownership—not private or state ownership—experience has taught us what can go wrong with those, and laws must be reformulated to make this possible. The key idea of social ownership is that each generation receives the Earth and productive equipment from the collective social labor of prior generations. Social ownership means that each generation has what ancient lawyers called usufruct, a right to enjoy the current fruits, of this collective wealth. But it also has the right and duty to democratically control the management of the local workplaces and farms in the context of regional, national and international plans that respects human rights at regional, national, and international levels and the rights of nature.

The Principles of Unitarian Universalism already say that Unitarian Universalists "affirm and promote…the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." Why not take more seriously the last four words of this principle—"in society at large"—and ask ourselves what high-intensity democracy might mean. It would certainly be quite different from low-intensity democracy, the contest of shadow puppets, that we currently experience in state and national elections every two or four years.

1. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). For those interested in checking the accuracy of my quotations or paraphrases, references to pages or (short) chapters from this book are given in parentheses. In order to avoid attributing inconsistency to McLaren, we must understand "Revolution" in the subtitle of his book as a fundamentally nonviolent change. This is not what he has in mind when he later refers to the "Revolution"-centered framing story adopted by first-century Jewish Zealots.

2. McLaren's interpretation of the New Testament evidence concerning the actual views of Jesus seems to me within the general ballpark of opinions on this topic held by scholars who have devoted their careers to reconstructing the message of the historical Jesus. For instance, he is clearly aware of the work of John Dominic Crossan, author of The Historical Jesus (1991) and Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography (1994; rpt. 2009), and a leading figure in the Jesus Seminar.

3. These include the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals of the UN, the Copenhagen Consensus on the top 10 global problems, and Rick Warren's Peace Plan. (McLaren, 46-48)

4. McLaren has an understandable tendency to overstate somewhat the leverage that a concentration on this factor gives us. See note 6, below.

5. Drawing on work by Catholic theologian Thomas Beaudoin. After Purity: Contesting Theocapitalism and The church: defender of theocapitalism?.

6. In making the framing story (or Religion) central, and so, presumably, pivotal, McLaren joins a long line of reformers that underestimate the relative independence of social, economic, and legal institutions from the discourse of intellectuals and others who operate largely in the realm of ideas, a category which includes theologians and preachers as well as college professors in the humanities and social sciences and pundits in the media—a category that includes McLaren as well as myself. I am far from denying the importance of the Framing Story, but the capital system is "organic" in the sense that its parts express and reinforce each other in very subtle ways; the mostly unconscious habits (and Freudian complexes?) of people who operate in the economy of this system would provide a basis for regenerating the now-dominant Framing Story should the current chattering classes themselves suddenly fall silent. Those habits can be changed to the extent that the actual social relations of production and governance change. A new Framing Story (or perhaps a new set of framing stories) that blends a perspective centered on radical generosity with modern revolutionary ideas of social ownership and high intensity democracy can help pave the way for those changes but it cannot be substituted for them.