Germany and America III: Following Jesus’ Advice
That title got your attention, didn’t it?
Jesus of Nazareth is like the air we breathe. He’s all around us. He’s not only in or churches, on our streets and hills, and in our homes. He’s in our language.
Nearly every common saying in the English language comes from one of two sources: the writings of William Shakespeare or the Bible. And the ones from the Bible most often quoted come from the New Testament, the story of Jesus.
But Jesus is like the “wallpaper” on our computer screens and mobile devices or the paint on our houses. How often do we really notice him? How often do we really think about what he said? How often, for example, do we consider that his advice turned around the most horrible disaster in human history? Not only turned it around, but turned it around spectacularly.
We’ll get there. But first let’s take a fresh look at Jesus himself.
Jesus of Nazareth: Son of God, Prophet, or Practical Politician?
Who was Jesus of Nazareth? He said he is the Son of God, and that’s what Christians believe. But after two millennia, no one can prove he is, and no one can prove he isn’t. Jesus’ divine status is something you just have to take on faith.
In contrast, there are lots of things about Jesus that we don’t have to take on faith. Books have preserved his thinking and writing for twenty centuries. You can find one in a bedside drawer in almost every hotel and motel in the world’s most powerful country.
In the ancient world—at least in the West—the most powerful and well-known figure was Julius Caesar. He was a general and a politician. Even today, every schoolchild knows his name and some of his history.
In the intervening two millennia, many leaders of great nations tried to emulate Caesar. The words “Kaiser” in German and “tsar” in Russian are just linguistic variants of the word “Caesar.” They are attempts by leaders in later epochs to tap the awe and power of Caesar’s name.
So let’s compare Caesar with Jesus.
The two men lived at almost the same time. Caesar died in 44 B.C., less than a lifetime before what is now universally taken as Jesus’ birthdate. Both men died in the same way: by assassination, Jesus through formal “legal” process and Caesar informally, murdered by his peers.
Both men had enthusiastic followers. That’s why they were killed. Yet in their power when they lived, there was no comparison. Caesar had a mighty Empire. He had legions of fearsome troops. He had the love of Rome’s common people. That’s why his colleagues killed him, right in the Roman Senate.
In comparison, Jesus was a non-entity. He was a Jew, a member of a tiny, powerless minority on the fringes of the vast Roman Empire. Not only that, he was the leader of a tiny, powerless, radical movement even among Jews. That’s why the Romans crucified him on a common cross of wood, outside the city gates, and left his body abandoned as food for crows. He was a nobody.
The Romans recognized Jesus’ powerlessness. They inscribed on his cross the legend “INRI,” meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That legend was sarcastic: Jesus was king of nothing—an outcast even among his own people—and the Romans knew it. The Romans despised him not only as powerless compared to them, who were masters of the known world, but as powerless even among his own.
Jesus had no wealth. No army. No empire. No real political power. All he had were his strange ideas. He recognized these facts himself when he told his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
Now let’s fast-forward to today. How does Jesus compare with Caesar now?
Every schoolchild (at least in the West) still knows the names and some of the history of each. But there the comparison ends. In the old days, when every educated person had to know Latin and Greek, he or she read something of Caesar’s “Gallic Commentaries”—the history of his invasion, conquest and governance of what is now large parts of France and Spain.
But no more. Today Latin is an obscure subject taught only in some private schools and colleges. The Gallic Commentaries are fodder for specialists. Day by day, they are increasingly obscure and neglected.
Not so Jesus’ words. Hundreds of millions of people read and recite them every Sunday, tens of millions almost every day. His image appears not just in countless churches and cathedrals, from mighty cities to tiny towns. It also appears in countless ordinary people’s homes, on walls, bureaus, desks, and even in cars.
How many common folk have similar images of Caesar? Only a few rich do, and not for veneration, but for art.
So who won the test of time, Caesar or Jesus? The contest is not even close.
Jesus began with nothing at all. Today he is among the most widely read and respected leaders in human history. His is the one whose reputation stayed brightest longest. Doesn’t that make him our species’ greatest politician?
Jesus and Bumper Stickers
Jesus invented the bumper sticker nearly two millennia before there were cars. He understood that most people are not abstract thinkers. They get little practice, and their day-to-day cares get in the way. With his parables and pithy language, he tried to make important ideas easy for common people to understand and remember.
If the common people of Jesus’ time had had Chevies, Fords, Hyundais and Toyotas, as they do today, his followers would all have sported bumper stickers. They would have touted Jesus’ sayings, things like “Love thy enemy,” “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and “Turn the other cheek.” These are the essence of Jesus’ teaching, which every educated person in the West knows today, whether Christian or not.
Jesus’ bumper stickers didn’t promote commercial products or tell lies designed to win the next election. They offered nuggets of eternal wisdom. Just how eternal? Just how wise? Read on.
The Marshall Plan: “Love thy enemy” Come to Life
At the end of history’s most terrible war, only one nation was both victorious and largely intact: ours. We had lost over half a million troops. That loss was a small fraction of the losses borne by the war’s aggressors and their immediate targets in Europe and Asia, including Russia and China. And our territory—our homeland—was intact, except for the damage at Pearl Harbor.
So our leaders had the time, resources and space to reflect on what our species’ greatest conflict had wrought. We humans had descended to a level of bestiality that not even animals could match. And we had produced utter devastation of most of the civilized world.
So our leaders determined to do all they could to make sure it never happened again.
They started the United Nations, to give different peoples a chance to discuss and resolve their differences, instead of fighting. They convened the Bretton Woods conference and founded the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to make sure that nothing like the Weimar Hyperinflation that had driven Germans crazy ever happened again.
But the most important thing they did is now history and almost forgotten. They followed Jesus’ advice and loved their enemies.
Germany and Japan had been our bitter enemies for four long years. Together, they had killed about half a million of our people and gravely wounded millions more. To fight them, we had to nationalize much of our industry and ration food, rubber, gasoline and other necessities. Even our people who stayed home endured conditions of daily sacrifice and want that would be unthinkable today.
But at the end of the great war, after our hard-won victory, what did we do? Did we crush our vanquished enemies under our heels, as Stalin did the Baltics and Eastern Europe?
No. We implemented our Marshall Plan. We spent our own hard-earned wealth and substance rebuilding Germany and Japan, trading with them, and cooperating with their industry. We loved our enemies.
The result is nothing less than astounding, for both victor and vanquished. Today the United States, Japan and Germany are the world’s first, third and fourth largest national economies, respectively.
Three out of the top four ain’t bad. That’s especially so when you compare populations. Ours, Japan’s and Germany’s, all together, don’t amount to one-half of China’s, now number two. Loving our enemies created a certain synergy that persists today.
George Marshall, the author of the Marshall Plan, was Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. He had been a military man, a general. You can’t get much more practical than that. Yet when the task of reconstructing devastated global civilization and preventing future cataclysms fell into his lap, he followed Jesus’ advice.
“Love thy enemy,” Jesus said. Counterintuitive? Certainly. Practically effective? Just as certainly. The three nations involved—ours, German and Japan—are arguably the richest, happiest, most productive and strongest not only today, but in human history. And all because we followed Jesus’ advice.
Russia’s Belated Version of “Love Thy Enemy”
Due mostly to its Soviet period, Russia today gets a lot of blame for a lot of things. But Russia, too, eventually followed Jesus’ advice, in its own strange way.
On a per-capita basis, Russia likely suffered the most of any nation in the Great War. It lost more dead in a single city, Leningrad, than we lost in the entire war. It lost one-seventh of its entire population—a fraction equivalent to 21 million of us Yanks today. Virtually every family in Russia had casualties and felt the burden of the war personally.
After the war, Russia followed Stalin’s plan of crushed buffer states. It built the Iron Curtain, with half of Germany behind it. Its crushing embrace, backed by a fictional economic system (Communism) oppressed Eastern Europe’s people and destroyed their economies. In Hungary and later in Czechoslovakia, Soviet Russia suppressed popular yearning for something better with tanks and machine guns.
But amidst all the hatred and revulsion directed at the Russian Bear, people often forget one thing. The end came suddenly and peacefully because Russia gave up its hegemony voluntarily. The Wall came down without a fight because Russia let it fall.
By the time Vladimir Putin came to power nine years later, Russia’s vision of Eastern Europe had changed radically. Putin’s Russia began to follow Jesus’ advice.
When he first came to power, Putin was a visionary. The Soviet Union was gone, and he didn’t try to restore it. What he did instead was visit the German Bundestag (Parliament) and—in fluent German—propose a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Today that zone exists. Trucks from Germany and all over Europea line the highways to St. Petersburn and Moscow, bringing German manufactures and farms goods east. Pipelines bring Russian oil and gas west, to Europe, to pay for them.
Germany is now Russia’s largest trading partner, by far, accounting for nearly $100 billion in annual turnover.
The relationship has not been without conflict, especially when the Ukraine tried to tax the flow of fossil fuels going West. But, in essence, Russia under Putin followed Jesus’ advice. It freed East Germany and permitted reunification. Then it loved its former enemy with trade and peaceful relations, creating one of the world’s most vibrant and lucrative trade corridors and cementing an interdependence that virtually precludes any repetition of the devastating “Great Patriotic War.”
These feats are all the more remarkable for Russia’s Pyrrhic victory in that war. It suffered more than any other European country, save perhaps Germany itself. Yet, in the end, it, too, followed Jesus’ advice.
“Love thy neighbor”: Counterexamples
Jesus’ second instruction was “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
That one ought be easier than “love thy enemy.” After all, your neighbor is so close, and usually so peaceful. Isn’t it better than not for you to get along?
But oddly enough, it’s hard to find many shining examples of following that part of Jesus’ advice, at least until relatively recently. The ceaseless battles of Man against Man naturally occurred most often among neighbors, and the result was monotonously tragic.
Because Carthage was a pesky trade competitor, Rome burned it to the ground, tore down its walls, and sowed its fields with salt. Down almost to the present day, victor crushed vanquished just so, then held him down, often for centuries.
Among conventional political and military leaders, conventional wisdom has always been that weak and subservient neighbors are best. China, for example, has applied that “wisdom” for over a millennium.
During its Communist era, china nurtured a pathological dictatorship right on its southern border. The idea seemed to be that a passive and dependent state would provide a buffer against the type of Western intervention that had turned Japan into the history’s second vilest military tyranny (after Nazi Germany) and that had occupied large parts of China itself for almost two centuries.
The result of this policy was and is North Korea. In creating and nurturing that dysfunctional state, China wrought the planet’s most dangerous tyranny. It also created a source of constant internal anxiety about possible collapse, inflows of refugees, and border instability.
Vietnam is similar. China cleverly exploited its neighbor’s yearning for freedom from Western colonialism. It even helped Vietnam fight the final battle against colonialism (and against us) outside China’s own territory.
That struggle was successful. But since then, China has done little to strengthen and assist Vietnam. The result? Vietnam, our bitter enemy only forty years ago, is even now turning West. It docks our cruise ships and makes our underwear.
China is hardly alone. In its Soviet guise, Mother Russia was an even more extreme counterexample of Jesus’ second bit of advice—perhaps the most extreme in human history.
Before World War II, Stalin wanted weak and dependent border states as “buffers” against the West. So he deported non-Russian ethnic groups, including many hard-working ethnic Koreans, to the Soviet Far East. He murdered 30,000 Polish officers—a vast crime that at first the world attributed to the Nazis. He starved the Ukraine and what is now Belarus by forced collectivization of their agriculture and by commandeering far more food for Russia than the weakened farmers there could afford to supply.
The results, little known in the West today, were uniformly terrible. Vast famine and great economic hardship overtook virtually all the territory between Kiev and Germany. The people didn’t have enough to eat; they couldn’t even think about defense.
So when the Nazis began their assault on Soviet Russia, the so-called “buffer” states were utterly defenseless and utterly useless to Russia. Despite a common history and Slavic culture, they hated the Soviets so much that many of their people fought initially on the German side. They did so until they discovered (too late!) that the Nazis considered them subhuman, just like the Jews.
With a little more love for its neighbors, Soviet Russia might have had defensible buffer states and useful allies. Instead, they fell like dominoes to Nazi blitzkrieg, giving Mother Russia no time to prepare its own defenses, let alone to arm itself to meet the Nazis’ mechanized advance.
The Nazis almost took Moscow, and Soviet Russia lost almost one-seventh of its population in the Pyrrhic victory that followed. If Hitler had not countermanded his best generals’ orders, Soviet Russia might have lost its bizarre Communist system and the Russian people’s national existence as well.
After the War, still-Soviet Russia treated its conquered neighbors with a heavy hand. It imposed its bizarre economic system on them by force, thereby destroying their chances for early economic renaissance and alienating their people. As a result, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, including East Germany, turned irrevocably West. That’s where they remain today, despite the pull of geography, the greater ease of trading eastward, and common Slavic roots in nations like Poland.
Would following Jesus’ advice have better protected Mother Russia from the Nazi onslaught, vastly reduced its horrendous losses in its “Great Patriotic War,” and better insured the success of its own and its neighbors’ economies today?
We’ll never know, of course. You don’t get to replay history. You only get one shot. But every understanding of cause and effect suggests that ignoring Jesus’ advice can be hazardous to your economic health, as well as your safety.
Counterexamples that prove Jesus’ point also come from much closer to home. Because of a common language and common cultural origins, we have a strong, good neighbor to our north (Canada), which we love. Our love for Mexico is far weaker and more ambivalent. As a result, we have a possible failing narco-state on our southern border.
Many of us want to spend billions on fences, arms and force to keep out Mexican immigrants and prevent terrorists from hiding among them. But wouldn’t it be better to apply a little love? What might happen if we welcomed honest hard workers and stopped the massive flow of small arms southward that have already killed over 50,000 Mexicans and have turned our southern neighbor into a dangerous civil battleground?
Loving Thy Neighbor: the Few Positive Examples
Fortunately for humankind, there are few positive examples of loving thy neighbor among all these depressing counterexamples. But they, too, are under ignorant assault.
The most illuminating example is the European Union itself. For the last two millennia, Europe has been a ceaseless battleground. Imperial wars, religious wars, even accidental wars have drenched its soil with blood.
Finally, exhausted Europeans got tired of their endless wars and decided to follow Jesus’ advice. They started to love each other, with unpoliced borders, cultural exchanges, a common government and even a common currency. As a result, the pointless wars have stopped cold, just in time for the nuclear age, which might otherwise have destroyed all of Europe once and for all.
I have written an entire essay about the EU. In it, I described how it now carries the torch of Western Enlightenment as much or more than our own beleaguered “democracy.” I won’t repeat the analysis here.
I will simply note that Christians deriding the EU and hoping for its collapse are talking about today’s foremost practical exponent of Jesus’ advice: “love thy neighbor as thyself.” They are also deriding what is collectively, right now, the world’s second-largest economy.
Beware of what you wish for. Another collapse in Europe like that of the Weimar Republic might destroy us all, if not in a final nuclear conflagration, or in an economic meltdown requiring decades of recovery. And because of the global economy’s close interdependence, it wouldn’t much matter whether the collapse came first here in the US, in the EU, in China or even in Russia.
We are our brothers’ keepers. And the EU, which keeps alive the flame of Western Enlightenment as much as we Yanks do, is vital to human progress. So let’s not talk about united Europe’s demise, which, like Mark Twain’s, is greatly exaggerated. Let’s talk about how we Yanks can help it succeed, and how, in turn, it can help us.
Applying Jesus’ Advice Today
So what does all this have to do with preventing a Nazi-like putsch in these United States? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Right now, today, the whole globe risks suffering the kind of economic collapse that led to the Weimar Republic in Germany, the isolation of Japan, the rise of Nazism, and the world’s bloodiest conflict (so far).
For three reasons, we Yanks are most in danger. First, we have yet to acknowledge, let alone correct, the lapse that caused the collapse in the first place, namely, our own failure to regulate derivatives sensibly. We now have $700 trillion in face value of derivatives outstanding. A collapse of that house of cards could reprise the Crash of 2008 at any time. There would then not be enough “liquidity” in the entire world to pick up the pieces.
Second, despite all our many mistakes, we are still the world’s biggest economy and the one that has farthest to fall. Third, we still have not yet relinquished our own Soviet-style absurd ideology, which keeps us from thinking practically to solve our many long-standing practical problems. Outside of our executive branch, which still functions, our government is virtually paralyzed by ideology.
So this time we Yanks need love—from our neighbors, rivals, opponents and even enemies. The fount of wisdom and economic strength that we have been for the last half-century is failing. We need good advice, patient guidance, forbearance, and even assistance, of the kind that Germany didn’t get a century ago but did after humanity’s greatest self-imposed catastrophe. Whether we get that love in time to do any good may determine whether the world in two or three decades looks more as it did in 1945 or more as it did in 1995.
Jesus’ advice is not just a sequence of unattainable moral commands. It’s not just a subject for Sunday school. As recent history shows, it’s practical advice for governing our human species.
When you think about it, loving your neighbor—and even your enemy—just recognizes our human condition. As individual organisms, we all suffer and die alone. But we owe all our considerable success to our social side—our ability to work together and love each other.
All the “miracles” of modern society require the willing cooperation of vast numbers of people. It takes tens of thousands to build an airplane or run an airline. We need similar numbers to build and run power plants, whether nuclear or conventional, and to find, mine, refine and transport the fuels that power them. It takes legions of us to run a banking system, or to make the innumerable parts and products that go into our homes, our cars and trucks, or the equipment, drugs or medical knowledge that saves our lives from disease and injury.
In a modern economy with minute division of labor and corresponding economic and even survival dependence, you have to love you neighbor as yourself. You can’t make all your own food, you own cars, computers, airplanes, ships, power plants and fuel. You can’t perform surgery on yourself, or invent and manufacture the wonder drugs and medical appliances that keep you healthy and alive. If you don’t love your neighbor, who does all these things, they may get worse or even go away.
The same rules hold globally. Our planet is so small and fragile, and we all live on it. Any tribe can ruin it for everyone, by making war or pollution, by destroying the trees that give us life, by accelerating climate change, or by fostering and releasing a viral or bacterial pandemic. If we don’t work together, we may well perish together. So loving thy neighbor as thyself is a practical prescription for surviving and prospering on a crowded Earth.
Right now, our future as a species is in the balance. We Yanks are not the only ones in economic trouble. The EU’s members are at risk and are beginning to squabble among themselves. China’s huge economy may be slowing, raising the risk of social stability in what is increasingly a global source of cash and economic progress. Brazil and India are not yet strong enough to stand on their own, let alone to help a failing global economy. Like everyone else, they cannot afford to lose either suppliers or customers.
The tide of global capitalism and democracy that is still sweeping the Earth can bring on a new, worldwide Golden Age. But it can do so only if we cooperate and smooth over capitalism’s hard edges with sensible regulation. If we are selfish and seek more than our share, the same impulses toward the good life that, if controlled, can bring on Paradise can subvert our global culture, undermine our global economy and destroy us.
Collectively, we hold our own future in our own hands. We, not some prophet or devil, will determine whether we live in Paradise or in Hell. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ advice today. And that’s why he is more than a prophet in the wilderness or the subject of Sunday school.
Jesus of Nazareth was the best practical politician our species has yet produced. If we can follow his advice—if we work together and love each other—we can overcome our current difficulties. We can tame our rogue banks, solve our global government-debt problems, find new, less-polluting sources of energy, and make our small planet a smashing success. If not, we might extinguish ourselves, or at best just muddle through.
Christians, above all, should know this. They, more than others, should be able to see their spiritual leader’s advice behind the “miracles” that brought our species’ greatest Golden Age (so far) out of the ashes of our most terrible war. It wasn’t ideology that did it; it was the kind of unconditional and generous love that Jesus of Nazareth had in mind.
Some called it practical politics. But they amount to the same thing.
Coda: the Divinity that Hinders
Why did Jesus say he is the Son of God?
Christians have an easy answer: because he is. (I use the present tense because, to believers, God is ever present, and Jesus is, too.)
But suppose, just for a moment, that Jesus was/is not a deity, but an extraordinary man. Are there reasons why a practical but entirely mortal politician in his day would have described himself as the Son of God?
Look at historical context. Jesus was a marginalized leader of a marginalized sect (only much later known as “Christians”) of a marginalized people (Jews) on the very fringe of the Roman Empire. He was a tiny, utterly powerless cog in a very, very big machine.
But Jesus and his Jews had one thing going for them. It was a religious and superstitious time. Science as we know it today lay a millennium and a half in the future. Gods, generals and emperors were all.
The Jews’ advantage was an innovation. They had a single God—the very first monotheistic religion. The Romans prayed to as many gods as there were caves, streams, mountains and temples to admire, just as the Greeks had done before them. In contrast, the Jews prayed to a single one. They were very proud of that innovation, which they viewed as a vast intellectual and religious advance.
So when Jesus said he was the Son of a single, solitary God—the most powerful of them all—he certainly got people’s attention. Not even the son of Jupiter, the father of all Roman gods, could command that sort of power. Is it possible that Jesus, who wanted people to pay attention to his strange and wonderful new ideas, just found the best practical way to do so?
Even if Jesus himself believed what he said, he sometimes doubted. When facing the Cross and personal extinction, he lamented that God, his father, had forsaken him. But Jesus’ assertion of divinity helped give him the cachet to make his ideas last for two millennia after his death.
Today, in contrast, his divine status hinders those same ideas. Only a divinity, we think, could love his enemies, turn the other cheek, and love his neighbors as himself. Those feats, we think, are far beyond us ordinary mortals.
We try to follow Jesus, but we expect to fail. And we too easily forgive ourselves when we do.
By putting Jesus on the pedestal of divinity, we relegate his practical political advice to the pulpit and to Sunday school. What a shame! If Jesus were just an ordinary mortal, then shouldn’t we love, respect and follow him even more?
It’s easy to be superhuman when you know that the God that runs the Universe is your father and will protect and resurrect you. But what if you are human, die permanently like the rest of us, and yet still insist on novel ideas in a bestial age, pointing the way to something better? What if you do so at the cost of your own comfort and even your life. Isn’t that more admirable still?
More to the point, if Jesus was simply one of us, can’t many more of us emulate him? Shouldn’t we?
We all know, deep down, that Jesus was right. Loving our enemies, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, is the only way to live together on our little planet, especially as our population passes seven billion. But it’s so easy to excuse ourselves for failing to do so because Jesus is the Son of the Father and we are not.
So to those of us who are not Christians yet revere Jesus as the very best of us, his divinity is a shame. Far better to revere him as a man and follow him every day than to put him on a pedestal of divinity and follow him only one day a week.
George Marshall and Harry Truman did better than that. They turned Jesus’ teachings into practical politics. A few decades later, the result was three out of the four happiest, strongest and wealthiest nations on Earth.
If Jesus could do what he did, and sacrifice himself in such a painful and final way, maybe we can do what we need to do to make our lives better here and now, not in some afterlife. It’s a thought worth pondering, as we face the self-imposed evils of rogue bankers, economic selfishness, self-induced climate change, and nuclear weapons proliferation.