Libertarian From Nazareth?
religious denomination, a careful, dispassionate analysis of the
teachings of Jesus
of Nazareth compels the conclusion that Jesus was an uncompromising
political libertarian. Libertarianism is of course not a faith or
a creed, but rather a political
theory for organizing civilized society. The written record
provides strong, unambiguous support for the fact that Jesus was
a political libertarian who very likely had an Austrian
understanding of money.
in and taught the importance of the following principles: (1) all
people must treat others as they would like to be treated (the "Golden
Rule"); (2) manís primary responsibility is to obey God
and his conscience, not man-made positivist
legal codes; and (3) that state actors who violate Godís will
are morally responsible for their actions. Further, Jesusí parables
repeatedly recognize and implicitly support the ownership and responsible
stewardship of private property.
further, it is necessary to understand what most libertarians believe.
Libertarians believe that people have all right, title and dominion
over their own lives,
liberty and property. Libertarians believe that all people or
entities (organized groups of people) that infringe on othersí lives,
liberty and property violate reason and/or Natural
Law. To most libertarians, government is legitimate only insofar
as it meets both of the following conditions: (1) governmentís power
derives from the voluntary "consent
of the governed" (i.e., everyone governed contractually
agrees on the laws and a method of enforcement that ensures due
process prior to restraining any single individualsí life, liberty
or property rights); and (2) governmentís enforcement methods
do not indirectly violate any individualís life, liberty
or property rights, including the rights of those not party to the
theory is different from all other political theories primarily
because libertarians reject the notion that government is entitled
to a monopoly
on violence or otherwise has license to violate reason, Natural
Law or the Golden Rule. Simply put, libertarians believe that the
Golden Rule applies to everyone, including government and its agents.
Thus, a government that deprives an individual of property without
prior consent violates reason, Natural Law and the Golden Rule.
This is the sine
qua non of libertarianism.
believe that government was subject to the Golden Rule? Most clearly,
yes. Jesus lived in first century Iudaea,
a province of the Roman Empire. The governing authority was the
Roman governor, Procurator
Pontius Pilate, and his enforcement arm was the imperial Roman
army. Jesus and his kinsmen thus lived under the occupation of a
foreign army and foreign authority that, as imperial armies are
wont to do, extracted tribute from the locals in the form of taxes.
interactions with the state are limited, those few interactions
provide deep insight into his political views. Next to the legal
positivist Pharisees, the most reviled and universally hated characters
in the New Testament gospels are unquestionably the tax
collectors. These are the locals who served the empire by collecting
from their own people, often skimming or demanding their own personal
tribute. Although Jesus is kind and generous to the tax collectors,
and his own disciple Matthew,
there is no question that he regards them as "sinners"
who have violated Godís law and who must acknowledge
their sins and repent. It is more than their collaboration with
the Romans that makes these people sinners, for the gospels regard
the dishonest tax collectors like Zacchaeus Ė those that line their
own pockets with other peopleís money Ė as the worst of these bad
In the story
of Zacchaeus, in consideration for forgiveness and redemption, Zacchaeus
pledges half of his property (for abetting the Romansí unjust taxation)
and further pledges to return four times the money he has personally
extorted (300% interest to the victims!).
The other state
actors with whom Jesus fatefully comes into contact are of course
the Roman soldiers that put him to death and Pontius Pilate.
As he is being
executed, Jesusí prayer for the soldiers shows that he believes
they are morally responsible for their acts and in need of forgiveness:
forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
is significant because, if Jesus believed that the soldiers were
not morally responsible for carrying out immoral orders, he would
see no need to seek forgiveness on their behalf. The record shows
that the soldiers did not falsely accuse Jesus of blasphemy and
sedition, the soldiers took no part in his trial before the Sanhedrin,
the soldiers were not present when Pilate interrogated Jesus and
they were not part of the crowd that demanded Jesusí crucifixion.
Yet Jesusí prayer for them indicates that he believes they are nevertheless
morally culpable for their actions.
seeks forgiveness because the soldiers "know not what they
do," the soldiersí lack of self-awareness clearly is not sufficient
for their forgiveness. If it were, Jesus would not have to ask for
it. Jesusí prayer indicates that he believes that the soldiers,
and by extension all state actors, are not without sin simply because
they are unaware of the nature of their actions. He prays for the
soldiers because they are too obtuse to recognize
that their actions are evil. They receive forgiveness not because
of their ignorance, but because Jesus seeks forgiveness for them.
Pilate? While Pilate attempts to "wash his hands" of any
culpability for Jesusí death, it is Pilate who imprisons Jesus,
Pilate who interrogates Jesus upon his return from the Sanhedrin
trial and it is Pilateís Roman soldiers that actually carry out
Jesusí execution. Although the gospels are somewhat opaque on the
Roman governorís acts, omissions and motivations leading up to the
crucifixion, it is clear, from Pilateís wifeís warning Ė "have
nothing to do with this innocent man" Ė that his participation
in Jesusí execution was unjust and immoral.
Taxation and Sound Money
who argue that Jesus supported taxation and/or the state ignore
the many passages relating to sinful tax collectors and Jesusí unjust
execution by the Roman secular authority and instead point to the
"Render unto Caesar" passage in Matthew, chapter 22 as
evidence that Jesus was pro-state. In the story, Pharisees and other
"spies" attempt to goad Jesus, a middle-class Jewish tradesman
surrounded by Roman centurions, into foolishly fomenting a tax revolt.
The story begins
with Jesusí Pharisee inquisitor asking him whether or not the local
Jews should pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. Jesus responds by
asking him to produce a coin that Caesar would accept as a tax.
After the Pharisee produces the coin, Jesus asks him whose image
is on the coin and the Pharisee responds "Caesarís." Jesus
then recommends: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís,
and unto God the things that are Godís."
story offers many wonderful, nuanced and insightful lessons, the
story in no way offers moral support for taxation or the state.
Taken in context, the story sheds much more light on Jesusí views
on the role of money and pragmatic, non-violent civil disobedience
in response to overwhelming secular power.
To fully understand
the story, one must know a little about money and currency in first
century Iudaea. The story of the moneychangers
at the Temple shows that more than one currency was in circulation
at the time. History indicates that at least four currencies, Greek,
Roman, Jewish and Tyrian, were used as media of exchange. Because
only Jewish shekels and Tyrian coins were allowed in Temple ceremonies,
the entrepreneurial moneychangers opened shop outside the Temple
so that that the faithful could exchange their Roman denarii for
Jewish shekels in order to offer their sacrifices and meaningfully
participate in Temple ceremonies.
In this context,
with at least four separate currencies circulating in Iudaea, Jesusí
response to the Pharisee: "Whose image is on the coin?"
says a lot about what was going through his mind. Jesus wants to
know what authority issued the coin; that is, who "made"
it and who, therefore, accepts or demands it as currency?
Pharisee responds "Caesarís," Jesus learns that the money
in question is that of the occupying imperial forces, is not allowed
in Temple ceremonies and carries the craven
image of Caesar, declaring him a "God." Given this
context, Jesusí response, "[r]ender unto Caesar the things
that are Caesarís and render unto God the things that
are Godís," in no way sanctions taxation as moral or
justified. Nor do Jesusí statements support capitulation to the
occupying Roman army or secular authority. Jesusí response actually
evades the question entirely and instead provides a powerful statement
in support of private property, for Jesus clearly recommends that,
notwithstanding Caesarís confiscatory and illegal taxation, Caesar
remains entitled to the things that Caesar owns.
recommendation expresses contempt for the imperial currency and
at the same time subtly and paradoxically suggests that cooperation
and rebellion are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The implication
of the story, in the context of the voluminous anti-state and anti-tax
gospel evidence, is that Jesus seems to be saying, "thank you
for telling me that the coin is that of empireís, minted from ore
taken from seized
mines and debased
to satisfy the empireís military
ambitions; I say cooperate and pay the tribute the empire demands,
as it is prudent and may save your life, but do not materially support
the empire and the occupying forces by giving them anything of real
value; things of real value, like shekels, belong to God."
thus gives rise to the inference that he believed the Jews living
under Roman occupation should pay their taxes in overvalued denarii,
as the Romans likely demanded, and hold and perhaps shield their
wealth in the undervalued shekel and Tyrian money. This position
reflects both libertarian political views as well as a recognition
Law, according to which government-decreed bad money drives
undervalued good money out of circulation.
and Jesusí View of Property and Contract
A cursory review
of Jesusí teachings would seem to indicate that he did not think
highly of property or property rights. From the Sermon
on the Mount to the conversation with the young
rich man whom Jesus instructs to sell all his possessions, Jesus
repeatedly decries the evils of worshiping things instead of God.
For Jesus, it seems a manís wealth is not only irrelevant to how
God views him, the two are inversely related as can be seen his
I tell you, it is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter
of God. Matthew
Jesus and his followers lived a kind of communal existence, sharing
their food with one person responsible for the groupís money. Based
on this evidence alone, one might conclude that Jesus had little
understanding of or regard for private property.
But to draw
broad conclusions from this limited evidence is to make a hasty
generalization, for the core of Jesusí teaching is found in
the parables and the parables are replete with spiritual lessons
drawn from material and commercial examples, including examples
relating to thrift,
use of capital, negotiation
of debts, respect
for othersí property, responsible
stewardship of oneís own private property and freedom
In the universe
of the Jesusí teachings, the anti-property lessons are not so much
anti-property as they are a warning to people who, in Jesusí view,
have misplaced priorities, people who mistakenly believe that ownership
of private property and accumulation of wealth is an end it itself
rather than a means to a higher end. The weight of Jesusí teaching
in fact shows that Jesus highly regarded private property rights
and, in order to illustrate the proper relationship between God
and man, repeatedly analogized the responsible use and stewardship
of private property to the responsible use and stewardship of life
received from God.
Crimes and Self-Defense
infamous for socializing and dining with prostitutes and other "sinners."
While Jesus clearly did not sanction prostitution, his interaction
and defense of prostitutes and adulterers illuminates his political
worldview. Jesusí lessons indicate that he believed that prostitution,
adultery and other "victimless" crimes, although grievous
sins, were matters of conscience that could only be solved through
the internal action of the sinner.
In John, chapter
8, the Pharisees bring to Jesus an adulterous woman who, by some
accounts, was a prostitute and suggest that she be stoned to death
in accordance with Old
Testament law. Jesus stops the stoning and protects the woman
by stating: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
As the crowd slips away and no accusers are left to "condemn"
the woman, Jesus instructs her to go and "sin no more."
tax collectors who must atone by paying back what they have taken,
Jesus recognizes that the womanís sins are a matter of internal
conscience. Jesus instructs the Pharisees that want to stone the
woman to examine their own consciences and correct their own sins
before seeking judgment against the woman who has harmed no one
but herself. Jesus thus shows that he does not believe that the
womanís crime can legitimately or practically be enforced by anyone
other than the woman.
Here it is
important to note that libertarianism is not synonymous with libertinism.
While some libertarians find nothing at all morally wrong with prostitution,
other libertarians (like Jesus) believe it is morally wrong but
understand that because it is a victimless
crime the state has no legitimate role in enforcing it. Prostitution,
like drug use and abuse, directly harms only the voluntary participant.
Jesus clearly understood and believed this principle. Jesus sought
to eradicate prostitution not through state or collective action,
but through individual self-examination and counsel.
to self-defense, Jesus did not use violence against those who aggressed
against him and advocated against
using violence at all. Although Jesus laid down his life for
purpose and although there is some
authority in his teachings for the use
of force in self-defense, the weight of evidence suggests that
Jesus was a pacifist.
then is whether Jesus can at the same time be a pacifist and a libertarian.
In the big tent of libertarianism, he can. Although libertarians
believe that individuals have the right to use violence
commensurate with the threat in defense of life, liberty or property,
they do not believe that people have an obligation use
violence to protect themselves or others. As such, Jesus was a simply
libertarian who likely believed that the use of force was never
and actions reflect the libertarian commitment to the rights of
person and property, and hint at the Austrian understanding of money.
Jesus taught the Golden Rule and believed all individuals, including
state actors, must observe it and must make reparations for violating
it. He believed that taxation was theft and a violation of individual
private property rights. He believed in wise, calculated, and non-violent
civil disobedience. He believed that neither the state nor any collective
group has a role in punishing or enforcing victimless crimes. Finally,
he believed in sound money. One does not have to accept any particular
Christian creed to know that politically, Jesus was a libertarian.
Butler [send him
mail] is a Minneapolis attorney and the owner of Butler
© 2008 LewRockwell.com