For many years I have maintained that my problem with Christianity has to do with the supernatural aspects of the religion, and the hypocritical attitudes of many of it’s adherents. I have no need for superstitious fairy tales or childish deities with psychopathic tendencies. For holding this point of view I am labelled atheist (among other things), and that suits me fine. Many people require labels in order to distinguish themselves or their group from the rest of humanity, making it easier to justify the brutality we often unleash on one another in the name of religion or nationalism.
As William Thurston Brown states near the beginning of his essay, quoted below, “(t)o me the term “Christ” has no meaning and no value whatever. It is a purely theological term. It is born of speculation and superstition. It is only as the man Jesus that the founder of Christianity has any value to me.” I hold the ideal expressed in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the highest esteem, and I firmly believe that if more “Christians” would practice what the man they call Christ preached, most of mankind’s problems could be resolved in very short order.
The excerpt below, from an essay titled “The Axe at the Root,” was written in 1901. You can read the entire piece here. These words could have been written as easily today as the day were originally published over 100 years ago.
John the Baptist had not been preaching six months before he discovered a fact which some people now on the eve of the twentieth century do not seem to know. He found out that there is such a thing as a class struggle. It was none of the common people that caused the arrest of John. They loved him. They listened to him. He spoke the language of their hearts. He aroused the highest aspirations of their souls. No, it was another class entirely that put this man out of the way. And of all the men who have lived on this earth whose words have been recorded and preserved, not one has had so much to say about this “class struggle” as this man Jesus, whom the great institution calling itself the Christian Church has the audacity to pretend to worship. There is not one discourse of Jesus on record nor an incident of his life reported in which that fact does not appear. What was the life of Jesus? It was one long, bitter struggle against the persistent, systematic persecution of one class of society. You need not believe me. You have access to the New Testament, and if that does not verify what I say I am a deliberate falsifier of history. It was not the common people that persecuted Jesus, though they did finally desert him. It was everywhere the pillars of church and state who did that. It is said that “the common people heard him gladly.” It is nowhere said that the pillars of society did that. And the fate which the pillars of society visited upon John within less than twelve months from the beginning of his ministry they visited upon Jesus less than three years after. And they did it in both cases for the same reason—the one reason which is always conclusive with that class—because John and Jesus were a menace to their interests.
But some one will say” “Everything is changed now. We are living in the midst of a Christian civilization. This is the Christian era. This is a Christian government. And here is a great church overspreading the earth, founded and maintained for the sole purpose of preaching the gospel of that crucified Galilean.” If any one ever says that to you, I want you to tell him nothing could be farther from the truth. There does not exist on this earth today an institution that is more distinctly or persistently hostile to all that Jesus stood for, or that is more radically opposed to all his teaching, or that has a greater contempt for that Nazarene, than this church which pretends to worship him as a God. The church did not even adopt the name of Jesus. It was under the name of Jesus that the pillars of church and state crucified him. They did not crucify a Christ. Not at all. They put to death Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose ideas and ideals were hostile to all they were cherishing. That was the man the pietists and rulers of that first century were after.
And the church of today has as great a contempt and hatred for that man as did those who nailed him on the cross. It is a Christ that the church worships and deifies. “Why do you preach so much about Jesus?” said a woman to me somewhat over a year ago. “We do not want to hear about Jesus. We want to hear about Christ.” My friends, you can make anything you like out of a Christ. Christ is only a name, a title, a fancy, a superstition. But Jesus is a historic fact. You cannot evade that fact. It belongs to all the world. No one can take it away from us. There it is—a man of flesh and blood, a man with a message, a man with an ideal, a man with an experience of persecution and failure and death—an outlaw, a criminal, a felon. That is what law and authority made him. But the Christ is a mystery. Only the initiated can know anything about it. You must take it on faith. It is an attenuated theory, a missing link in the speculations of people living in a world of ghosts. So Christ is the great cornerstone of an institution whose permanence depends upon its power to mystify and delude men. An institution which will today squarely plant itself upon the historic fact of Jesus’ life and teaching and advocate his ethics as the true basis of human association will be refused the designation of a church.
But the point I want to make is simply this, that the time comes when a radical departure must be made, when the axe must be laid unto the root of the trees, when the worthless structure of a false and outgrown civilization must be torn down and burned up as refuse, that a new and better growth may be realized. That time has come many times, and it is easy to see why it has come, why it is here now, and why it will come again and again in the future. It came 1900 years ago, not at the call of any individual. It was not from personal choice that John and Jesus acted as they did. They did not set out to get themselves killed. They loved life as really as you and I. Every man wants to live. That is his first and highest desire. But he may discover something that subordinates and smothers that desire. That was true of John and Jesus. It has been true of scores of others.
The movement has already begun which is to end in the utter repudiation of all that Jesus of Nazareth stood for. Indeed, there are men today—and they belong without exception to the ranks of the Pillars of church and state—who frankly say that Jesus was a misguided man, that his ethics have no place in the affairs uf this world, and that the only thing that remains for men and women is to settle down to the ancient task of man’s animal ancestry—that of coolly eating each other up. A good, respectable, Christian man of Rochester, who assured me with great solemnity that he believed in God, declared to me in this very room: “We must eat each other up. There is no other way.” And it is such men as that upon whom depends the maintenance of the Christian Church! It is to such men as that that we must look for the means of propagating the gospel these churches believe in. Indeed, in the last analysis—and there is no escaping the logic of it—it is to such men that we must look for the only gospel the church is to be permitted to preach. It follows, therefore, that it is some form of the gospel of cannibalism that the church must bear to the world.
Men and women, I am sure you do not need to have me tell you that this message with which that rude Hebrew stirred the souls of men down on the banks of the Jordan nineteen centuries ago is the message which events are speaking more eloquently than words in the days in which we are living. Now is the axe laid unto the root of the trees. Of no age were those words truer than of this. And any man of intelligence and courage knows that our civilization is a failure. He knows that it is miserably inadequate. It is a putrid corpse. It menaces the well-being both of those who seem to profit by it and of those whom it crushes with remorseless cruelty. It damns men and women at both ends of society. Both exploiters and exploited are the pitiable victims of a hideous system. The fact is being seen and felt all over the earth today. Edward Carpenter, one of the clearest minds of England, puts his philosophy in an essay entitled “Civilization—Its Cause and Cure.” That is to say, he sees that our civilization is a malignant disease, and that the thing to do is to purge the social body of its corruption, that man may live a normal and healthful life.
It seems to me that very little has changed in the 110 years since this was written. We are even further divided today than at the turn of the Twentieth century. The planetary environment we depend on to exist is changing rapidly and the finite resources our technology depends on is dwindling. Power and wealth are concentrated in fewer hands than ever before. The time for laying the axe to the root of the diseased trees among us is long overdue.
To those today who claim to follow Jesus, compare the teachings of your master with the ideology of the politicians you vote for. Look deep into your soul and discover the truth: the conservative Republican agenda is contrary to everything the founder of your religion stood for. Jesus was a revolutionary, and if you follow him, you must be a revolutionary for social justice as well. Anyone who tells you otherwise is distorting the truth.