“The Roman state looked at Jesus the same way the American state looked at Malcolm X or Martin Luther King,” [Hedges] concludes. “And, as is true throughout history, prophets are often killed.”
[Journalist and minister, Chris Hedges. [Photo courtesy of Chris Hedges]
Another holiday season plagued with high Covid-19 rates and fears of infecting loved ones has come around, this time amid supply chain shortages and other economic woes. As runaway American capitalism tries to sell us consumerism as the answer to our current crises even now, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and ordained minister Chris Hedges reminds us that the real meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with purchasable gifts. Hedges joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss which personal experiences revealed to him what the Christian holiday is about, as well as what he thinks of American Christianity in its current, most prevalent iteration.
“The Bible has been used by systems of power to perpetuate all sorts of injustices and persecution since the Christian Church was institutionalized in the third century by Constantine, who was a brutal dictator,” says Hedges. “[Once power] essentially captivated this ideology, it was [and] has been used throughout history to carry out all sorts of what I would call heretical [acts]. [And] I’d call the Christian right heretics; they’ve acculturated the worst aspects of American capitalism and imperialism and white supremacy with the Christian religion.
“Jesus, if he lived in contemporary society, would be undocumented, because he was not a Roman citizen; he lived without rights, under Roman occupation,” adds the ScheerPost columnist. “Jesus was a person of color; the Romans were white. The Romans nailed Jesus and other people of color to crosses the same way we finish them off on death row, or gun them down in the streets by militarized police. And the Romans didn’t care about Jesus’ religious importance; they killed him as an insurrectionist, as a revolutionary, because they feared the radicalism of the Christian gospel, which defied so much of Roman culture.
“The Roman state looked at Jesus the same way the American state looked at Malcolm X or Martin Luther King,” he concludes. “And, as is true throughout history, prophets are often killed.”
Listen to the full conversation between Scheer and Hedges as the host asks the reverend how to recognize the misuse of Christianity, as well as how to directly challenge immorality with one’s own actions, culminating in a personal and yet deeply universal Christmas parable of Hedges’ own.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and this one is occasioned by, obviously, the Christmas holiday. And I have my favorite reverend, Reverend Chris Hedges, who—first of all, his father was a Presbyterian minister; he went to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained years later after a career in journalism. And yet he’s sort of my go-to person about what religion says, and particularly about Christianity. He’s written about Christian fascism; he understands all its complexity. So let me just throw it up to you. And I remember a slogan from my youth: there would be some people on the religious side of things who would say they wanted to put Christ back in Christmas, that this holiday had become totally commercialized, and that Christ was left out of it. So let’s just begin with that. What is the relevance of Christmas to this national religion of ours, which it is?
CH: Ah, well, that’s probably a fair criticism; it has been completely commercialized, and as less and less people have any relationship with the institutional Church, that’s probably primarily what it is. But the actual story of Christmas was driven home to me when I was in a refugee camp in Honduras for Guatemalans who had fled the fighting in the early 1980s. And so these were all peasants, very poor, living in mud, in tents provided by the UN. And they were all hanging up strips of colored paper, because they said that in the evening they were going to celebrate what’s known as the Day of the Holy Innocents. So that’s the moment when Herod, in order to prevent the birth of the Messiah, according to the Bible, slaughters the children of Bethlehem; but Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are warned, and they flee.
Now, that’s a story I—it’s from Matthew—I could recite by heart. I heard my father read it in Christmas services every night; we lived in a small farm town in upstate New York. But I asked them, well, why is that such an important day? And they said, well, because that’s the day that Christ became a refugee. And I realized the power of that story for somebody who had to flee with their children from the murderous rampages of the Guatemalan army and the death squads. It had a whole different import than it did to somebody who lived in relative comfort in a farm community in upstate New York.
And so I think—and James Cone, the great theologian, I think has driven home this point: that the gospel was written, in his words, for the crucified of the earth, and that they see in these stories of persecution, and finally crucifixion, a message that is lost on people who don’t suffer from that kind of oppression.
RS: So, you know, this is the positive view of gospel and of Christianity. And I know that you were ordained officially so that you could be more effective in your work in prisons, with prisoners and so forth. And obviously, the story you just told is one of bringing strength and understanding to the most dispossessed. And the current Catholic pope is given to that message. On the other hand, there’s another side of the impact of Christianity, and you’ve written about Christian fascism, and we know antisemitism was also fueled by some perceptions of the gospel.
And I remember as a kid—one reason I go to you on these occasions is I had a very ambiguous relationship, as did many people, and certainly many who were not Christian, to this holiday. And I remember as a kid the song we would sing and really liked was “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” And it was a dream of family and inclusion and love and support, and everybody sang it; it was very popular, and it had been written by a Jewish guy, Irving Berlin, who had a different name when he started out; Israel was his first name. And yet, researching it just for this thing, I thought well, what about this song? And we used to think it was sort of odd, because at that time many of our Catholic neighbors thought—well, some of them, anyway, thought we Jews had killed Christ. And I was of a mixed family; my father had been born a Lutheran and my mother was Jewish. But nonetheless occasionally I was held accountable for this deicide, and you know, “you killed our Lord” sort of thing.
And there would seem to be irony in it. It was a positive season, it was a season for—but somehow, Jewish people weren’t included. Yet Irving Berlin, who wrote that song, was married to a Catholic woman who went to church all the time. But it wasn’t until 1965 when Pope John officially said that the Jews were not responsible, and it was in 2011 where Pope Benedict officially said that. So this charge of deicide fueled antisemitism, was used by the Nazis very effectively during World War II. So why don’t you comment a little bit about that contradiction?
CH: Well, the Bible has been used by systems of power to perpetuate all sorts of injustices and persecution since the Christian Church was institutionalized in the third century by Constantine, who was a brutal dictator, a savage dictator. And they attempted to codify—I mean, the Bible, it comes from the Greek term ta biblia, which means “little books.” So there were all sorts of books—Gnostic books, and matriarchal stories, and stories that fused Roman pagan customs with the Christian religion—and you would go in and take out what you wanted. Well, that wasn’t put together into a formal doctrine until the third century. None of the gospels, of course, were contemporaneous with Jesus’ life.
And so once power essentially captivated this ideology, it was, has been, used throughout history to carry out all sorts of what I would call heretical—I’d call the Christian right heretics. That they’ve acculturated the worst aspects of American capitalism and imperialism and white supremacy with the Christian religion. The Nazis, by the way, did the same thing with the so-called German Christian Church. But just a close read of the Bible defies so much of that. And Jesus, if he lived in contemporary society, would be undocumented, because he was not a Roman citizen; he lived without rights, under Roman occupation. Jesus was a person of color; the Romans were white. The Romans, you know, nailed Jesus and other people of color to crosses the same way we finish them off on death row, or gun them down in the streets by militarized police.
And the Romans didn’t care about Jesus’ religious importance; they killed him as an insurrectionist, as a revolutionary. Because they feared the radicalism of the Christian gospel, which defied so much of Roman culture. So the Roman state looked at Jesus the same way the American state looked at Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. And as is true throughout history, prophets are often killed. So, yeah, you’re right. It has been perverted and used for—I mean, from the Inquisition to the Crusades to the antisemitism carried out against Jews in Europe, it’s been used quite effectively to give a kind of sanctification to genocide, murder, and oppression. But I don’t think that that is in any way in accordance with either the teachings of Jesus or the life that Jesus led.
RS: Well, you know, this contest over what basically is Jesus’ legacy—and I know there’s a project to find out what can you really attribute. And so let me just cut to the chase here. Did Jesus exist? What is the documentation, if he did, to what he said? Which camp, or different camps, are right? One of my most favorite, most important ideas attributed to Jesus is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it’s only in Luke, I’m told. It doesn’t have—you know, the meaning if it had been in all of the gospels, et cetera, et cetera. So you get in these—you know, and you have the people of the prosperity church telling you, no, that’s the real Jesus, he wants you to get rich and be happy.
So what are we fighting about here? And the reason I’m raising this with you—I know you can get irritated when I raise it—because I am worried that, first of all, these ideas are misused by different people. But also, where do we get ethics and morality without religion? That’s a question that very often is not raised by—basically, in a secular culture. But at least in our traditional religions there’s a notion of accountability; there’s a notion of judgment, there’s a notion that your life has to add up in some summary court of meaning and value and ethics. And the secular society is up against the reality that maybe there’s no ethical, moral core.
CH: Well, you can get ethics without religion. I mean, I don’t know Kant would be considered religious; Aristotle, Socrates—I mean, all sorts of figures sought to perpetuate or propagate the ethical life, who didn’t necessarily come out of a religious tradition. I think where religion actually is probably most powerful is when it deals with mystery and the sacred and the transcendent, and all these forces that exist for all of us. The search for a life of meaning, the struggle with our own mortality. And that almost always, I think, pushes you into some kind of religious language. But you know, the power elites in every society, not just Christian society, have always sought to—and this was true with Islam, with Buddhism, with everything else—have sought to coopt religious leaders to serve their interests, and those religious leaders are well compensated, often, and essentially integrated into the power structure. Billy Graham would be an example of that.
But there’s always existed, I think, these radical elements in any society, these radical religious elements—I was of course friends with Daniel Berrigan, the great radical Catholic priest—who I think have held fast to the core issues raised by all of the world’s great religions, and sought to lead the religious life. But it has often not only put them in defiance of the major centers of power, [but] created antagonisms between them and the institutional religious structures. My own father had that by standing up for GBLTQ rights in the seventies when the Church did not recognize the equality of GBLTQ people, in terms of ordination, marriage, or anything else. And he was very ruthlessly attacked for that, although, you know, he’d spent almost 40 years as a parish minister.
So it gets to this idea that the theologian Paul Tillich writes about, is all institutions, including the Church—Tillich writes—are inherently demonic. So in many ways, in order, I think, to come closest to the radicalism of—and that core issue of empathy and ministering, as you talk about, the Good Samaritan, ministry to the suffering—let’s go back to Cone, to the crucified of the earth—often has to be done in defiance of the very religious institutions that you may belong to, and that may very well expel you. I mean, Spinoza, who was Jewish, was excommunicated. You know, oftentimes these figures are seen as—especially radical reformers—are seen as heretics, condemned as heretics.
RS: So, but you did decide to get ordained, and you did go to the Harvard Divinity School, which is I guess the center of Protestant consciousness about ethics historically. And you do, when you entered the prisons—and people know your writing, they know you’ve written quite a bit about prisons—but you’ve devoted, what, the last 15 years to teaching in prisons. And religion comes up all the time.
And one thing that differentiates certainly Christianity—and we’re here to talk about Christmas—say, from Aristotle or others, is the notion of accountability. And rebellion. Because what you have in the—at least the perceived image of Jesus, the way Martin Luther King or Father Berrigan referred to him, was as a rebel. Challenging authority. If you go to Aristotle, you have a defensive authority, certainly a Greek authority. And you know, and even to Confucius, of the Good Emperor. And at least what was compelling, say, to King, as a very good example, certainly the Black Baptist Church as opposed to the white Baptist Church, was the notion of Jesus as an instrument of justice. Of acceptance, of concern for the least among us. And it’s a very powerful message that is left out of a lot of what I consider convenience philosophy: you know, do unto others as you would do unto yourself. Here is a notion, no: you are accountable to worry about the least among us. And all of us have a soul, and so forth. And that seems to me what’s been lost in modern Christianity.
CH: Well, that’s the core of the Christmas story, is really, I think, a kind of lesson in how to be human. About kneeling before a newborn infant who’s helpless, vulnerable, despised, and poor. So it’s—and this is why the Romans were so terrified. Because it inverted traditional Roman values. That it calls on us to protect—you know, let’s use the Biblical term, the least among us. And not only the least among us, but those who are demonized and rejected. So, you know, that is the power—for me, anyway—of the Christmas story.
RS: So let me—I don’t expect you to have all the big answers, and you kind of kid me every once in a while, say I seem to bring this up more than you do. But your writing about the Christian fascism, the misuse, or the use of Christianity to support basically racism and xenophobia and so forth—your writing suggests that that’s a very powerful element in contemporary America right now.
CH: Well, it’s predominant. I mean, the mainline Church that I come out of is dying; every year the numbers are dwindling, churches are closing. And so it is this fusion of the iconography and language of the state with the iconography and language of the Christian Church. So it’s the sacralization of state power, but the worst forms of state power, of capitalism. For instance, the whole idea that God rewards or Jesus rewards the just means that if you live in poverty and deprivation and suffering, you deserve what you get. You don’t need unions, you don’t need health care, you don’t need vaccines; it’s magic Jesus. And that’s very appealing to people who feel shunted aside by the rest of the society. Because what comes with it are calls for holy vengeance against these Satanic forces that have created this dysfunctional world around them. That is a very large part of the message of the Christian right, and why that kind of holy violence is an integral part, or I think a very attractive part, to people who feel—I mean, not incorrectly—that they’ve been dispossessed by a society that no longer needs them or cares about them.
RS: Well, you know, this blending of opportunism on the part of very powerful forces—corporations, the state—and a message to the people who are despairing of their condition, you know, has precedent in other societies. And particularly—and I want to close on this—but, you know, when we talk about Christian fascism, I mean, the echo there is of Nazi Germany. And when you bring it up people say, come on, that’s an exaggeration; well, I think increasing numbers of people now in the United States recognize, hey, you know, even a very prosperous society—which Germany had been at different points in its contemporary history, well-educated and so forth—can go berserk. And can entertain what would seem to be contradictory ideas. You can have, as Germany did, strong science and clarity and logic and so forth, and yet engage in a religious war against Jews, primarily, and then others, or “the other.” And we see that in the United States now. I mean, that’s basically what you have been writing about; it’s the combination of the calculating, rational, capitalist state, which Germany was, with this truly irrational, primitive religious appeal.
CH: Right. And there are very frightening similarities. So Hitler, in the eyes of this German Christian Church, was the Volk Messiah: he was an instrument of God. The same view that right-wing evangelicals held about Trump. And then you sought out those who were demonized for Germany’s economic collapse, especially Jews and communists, and in religious terms they became agents of Satan.
Again, that’s replicated in the United States. I mean, I studied with the great scholar James Luther Adams, who was 80 when I was at Harvard Divinity School, and he’d been in Germany—he was bilingual in German—in 1935 and 1936, and actually dropped out of the University of Heidelberg and worked for a year with the Confessing Church, the underground, with Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, Schweitzer, all these figures, until he was picked up by the Gestapo and thrown out. And he drew these parallels for us with the Christian right; in fact, he was the first person I heard use the term “Christian fascist.” He used to tell us, when you’re my age, you’re all going to be fighting the Christian fascists—we were all in our early twenties, and although he was certainly one of the most brilliant scholars I ever worked with, I thought even then he was being hyperbolic. Well, of course, it turns out that he saw what was happening long before we did.
So I find—and of course Trump had no ideology; it was the Christian fascists who filled that ideological void. And what comes next in 2024 may not be Trump, but it will be probably a Trump-like figure, like Pompeo or DeSantis or someone else; Tom Cotton, I don’t know. But they will be, I suspect, far more embedded within this movement—Trump was not embedded at all—and, frighteningly, probably more competent. And I think with the return of these Christian fascists to power, the overriding theme, given the attempt at censorship and January 6 and the belief that the election was stolen, will be a reign of vengeance, really frightening vengeance.
RS: You know—we’re going to conclude on this, but to my mind, this is the essential quandary, really, of the human condition. We don’t have, really, a story of who we are, what we are, why we’re here, what is life all about, what is mortality. You have, you know, attempts at it; the scientific goes far, but fails in the end to tell you what it’s all about, mortality and so forth, and the meaning. And then you have these variety of competing religions which can be twisted and turned and changed. And so, you know, you have people quoting, whether it’s the Old or the New Testament or what have you—or Buddhism can be oppressive, it can be liberating, any one of these religions. And really when it comes to morality, we’re in a never-never land. And you’re a guy who’s trying to assert a moral imperative. And at times you tell me, well, you’re not basically, you know, into the religion anymore as a guide. So why don’t we conclude with that? What are people to make of the human condition?
CH: Well, the moral imperative, actually, the categorical imperative, that actually comes from Kant. I think that really the issue is, if you want to speak in religious terms, it’s God’s law versus human law. And then Martin Luther King, I think, spoke about this quite eloquently: that we have a duty to defy human law when it is in conflict with God’s law. And that can be very empowering. Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago about those most able psychologically to endure the gulags, and he said it was the Chechens, who were practicing Muslims, and the Christians, who didn’t ask whether it was practical; they just asked whether it was right. And they often died in larger numbers. But they had a kind of sense or a bond that allowed them or gave them a kind of protection against many of the oppressive forces around them.
And H. Richard Niebuhr had a great quote: he said, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.” There are all sorts of charlatans, and the airwaves are filled with them, who misuse religion to manipulate the despair of people as, I think, is happening with the Christian right. And then there are those magnificent figures; let’s not forget that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X came out of strong religious, had a strong religious orientation. King actually writes about it at the end of Strength to Love. And I think that especially in moments of extremity, I would say that kind of orientation to the world, which I’ve had since I was born, is very liberating, and gives you a kind of sense of right and wrong, and a sense of direction that allows you to at least hold on to yourself.
RS: So, finally, when we understand, say, the pope washing the feet of prisoners and so forth, I want to put you in this picture, Chris Hedges. It’s not easy to go into these prisons; it’s not easy to endure those conditions, which you have to, let alone to be a prisoner. And is this your connection with your father? Is this where you go to meditate and think about this?
CH: In all of my career as a journalist, I placed myself in situations of extreme oppression: El Salvador during the war, Gaza, Sarajevo. And the prison, going into the prisons when I came back from overseas, keeps up that kind of continuity. I think that’s what I’ve always done, and I think that that does come out of my religious background and my understanding that one must stand with the crucified of the earth. And that often if one truly stands with the oppressed, they’re going to get treated like the oppressed.
And that actually is a great comfort, because, you know, I used to work for the New York Times covering the biggest stories in the world. And I’d write a story on the front page of the Times, the next day the State Department would have to hold a press briefing about it. Well, that doesn’t happen anymore; I’ve been pushed out. And yet I think that that very clear understanding of what life is meant to be about, you know, gives me a great deal of comfort, and not a sense of loss, but a sense of—you know, I don’t want to use the word “achievement,” but a sense that I am able to be who I am meant to be.
RS: So you, finally, you’re your father’s son. Your father the minister would be proud of you; you’re proud of your father. And it’s not exclusive to the Christian tradition, but there is something about religions that can produce accountability. And isn’t that the main struggle, that we don’t let careerism and opportunism and individualism of a certain kind dominate? That there’s accountability, moral accountability?
CH: Yeah, but even more, you can’t teach morality. You have to show it. So, I mean, I watched people walk out on my father’s sermons when he spoke about, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, or against the Vietnam War. And then, of course, the Church pushed him out for standing up for GBLTQ rights; he was pushed out.
And I remember I was at Colgate, and he had a big church in Syracuse; they told him to stop speaking out about equality for GBLTQ people, and he instead held an Easter service for the GBLTQ community in the city of Syracuse, and came and got me. He said, this is probably the last time you’ll hear me preach. And he got up and he said, marriage is a sacrament; it’s not a reward for being a heterosexual, and any church that doesn’t honor the sacrament of marriage does not deserve to call itself Christian. And they crucified him for that, the church where he dedicated his life to. And that’s how you pass on morality.
So, yes, you know, because I saw it; and I saw that it entails sacrifice, and if there isn’t sacrifice, it’s probably not very moral. And that’s right: you know, it’s my voice, but they’re my father’s words. And in the Christian religion, that’s called resurrection.
RS: OK. Let’s conclude this. Is it right to say this is a parable for Christmas? Is that the proper use of the word? Can people share this with their children or grandchildren, reverend?
CH: Yeah, yeah. You’ve got to act morally; you can’t teach it. You’ve got to—if you live the moral life, that’s what perpetuates the moral life to those around you. As Daniel Berrigan said, it’s the good drawing to it the good.
RS: Ah. All right, well, that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. And I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these, and Natasha Hakimi for writing the introductions, Joshua Scheer for being the overall producer, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. And the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, a very independent and morally driven journalist, for helping fund these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.