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Justice, Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Jesus’ Third Temptation – Resisting Economic Globalization (Caleb Upton)

Fyodor Dostoevsky in his masterpiece The Grand Inquisitor – as well as Leo Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief – both  “translate” for a contemporary audience the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  At the same time, the story of the temptation serves as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation and as a signpost to our salvation from it.

In our earlier exploration of the first temptation (that of changing stones into bread) we recounted how Dostoevsky’s account offered profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its resistance to the use of the promise of material prosperity to enslave people.  In our exploration of the second temptation, we talked about  Jesus’ ministry as a refusal to use of the promise of miraculous ecstasy in order to captivate the conscience.

With the insufficiency of “bread and circuses”, however, we are lead into the final temptation of the Gospel narrative, that of Satan’s promise to give ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ if Jesus but bow down and worship him.

Tolstoy for one final time again plays the traditionalist foil to our seemingly “radical” Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy’s take on this temptation is not Satan offering Jesus any form of power, sovereignty, or authority but rather an invitation for Jesus to “labor for the flesh, expecting gain therefrom’” just like “all the kingdoms of the earth and all mankind” if he but work for Satan.

For Tolstoy, the perennial wisdom of asceticism is manifest in all of Jesus’ refusals of the temptations of the “voice of the flesh”.  Jesus refuses turning stones into bread because his “spirit is able to disregard the flesh”, Jesus refuses to throw himself down from the temple because for some reason God gave him a body.  Finally now, Jesus refuses to work for Satan like all the fleshly people of the earth because he does not expect any gain from the pursuit of the flesh, whereas if he served his father who is spirit he can expect reward, perhaps of a heavenly sort.

Tolstoy, the Christian anarchist, pacifist, vegetarian who inspired Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., would have perhaps been dismayed by this comparison, given his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.  But amazingly his understanding of the temptations of Christ is a thoroughly tame one in the sense that it focuses on the importance of personal austerity in preference over collective and/or violent revolution in societal change—as he himself argued in his 1900 essay “On Anarchy”.

It is of course, not to say that Tolstoy is of no service to a political theology from which we could all benefit, but it is only to say that this comparison between Tolstoy’s interpretation of the temptation narrative, and that of Dostoyevsky’s is stark given that Tolstoy’s alignment with such ‘radical’ politics stands alongside his remarkably severe and austere ‘traditionalist’ theology.

However, if we take heed to our Biblical scholar interlocutor Yoder in his work The Politics of Jesus, in which he argues that Satan is not tempting Jesus to sin, but rather offering differing options of how to be a Messiah/King—it is this temptation, of offering Jesus the kingdoms of the world, that is “…the one most widely recognized as socio-political in character.” (26) Yoder points out that throughout the Gospels the title of “Son of God” is most likely derived from Psalm 2:7, in which case Satan’s temptation to Jesus come from the promise of the next verse!  “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”

But we are still left with the question of what it would have meant for Jesus to “bow the knee” before Satan.  Yoder asks:  “Are we to imagine some sort of Satan cult?  Or does it not yield a much more concrete meaning if we conceive of Jesus as discerning in such terms the idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism?” (26)

It is here where Dostoevsky makes his final contribution to our understanding of these temptations in his narrative of the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor here also recognizes that even bread and miracle would not be enough to enslave humanity, for inevitably humanity as “they are created mutineers” would collapse themselves into violent division all the while striving for the great general need of “a universal union”. The Inquisitor elaborates to Jesus that all the great conquerors of the world were unconsciously striving for the great unification of humanity. Finally then the Inquisitor makes his final revelation to Jesus, that the Roman Catholic Church is,

“…not with you [Jesus], but with him [Satan], there is our secret! We have long been not with you, but with him, eight centuries now…We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar and announced that we alone were the kings of the world…”

The event eight centuries from the time of the Spanish Inquisition to which the Inquisitor refers was the assumption of secular power by Pope Stephen II in 755 C.E.  It was in this moment, as Dostoevsky in his anti-Catholic perspective believed, that the church by assuming secular power, the power of the sword, the power of coercion to make a nation, that the church in the name of Christ itself took Satan’s last temptation.

Dostoevsky’s combining in his imagination of the Roman Catholic Church with the emerging movements of secular socialism may at first appear to be nothing but blatant prejudice, as a product of Dostoevsky’s own Slavophile commitments. However, in Dostoevsky’s own writings we see that the combination of these two entities is because they both share the same principle: “the principle of coercive authoritarianism.”* What Dostoevsky argued in this legend then was that the rise of totalitarian secular socialism would in many ways mirror the brutality and assumption of infallibility that marked the Roman Catholic Church itself. The third and final temptation of Jesus then, according to Dostoevsky, was not to labor for Satan in service of the flesh but rather refusing to take up the coercive power of the sword to establish his kingdom.

Dostoevsky saw, as his treatment of the first temptation shows, how the promise of material prosperity and the boast of genuine ‘love’ for humanity, prophetically foresaw how secularized neo-colonialism in our current geopolitical landscape operates. Regarding the second temptation he foreglimpsed how the promise miraculous ecstasy found in the games and permissiveness within our sports-industrial complex would further distract us from our enslavement.

As concerns the third temptation, Dostoevsky (using the mouthpiece of his Inquisitor) does not argue that bare raw violence will be the means by which we are enslaved.  Instead the Inquisitor takes on the full importance of the word “all’”in Satan’s temptation. The temptation to use coercive violence would be used with the aim to unify. As the Inquisitor himself says, “Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty Spirit, you would have supplied everything that man seeks in the world…a way of at last uniting everyone into an undisputed, general, and consensual ant-heap…”

Hence we begin to understand the frustration of David Swanson, author of War No More: The Case for Abolition, with the UN when he argues that “this institution was set up 70 years ago to keep nations, rather than a global body, in charge, and to keep the victors of World War II in a permanent position of dominating the rest of the globe…”  For Swanson, problem is that the UN is not actually committed to being united.  He believes rather that it serves the United States, and that if it really were committed to being united it would oppose war unequivocally, rather than sanctioning it so often.

But what if the reverse is actually the case? What if it is the pursuit of this ‘universal basis’ for humanity that brings about such horrendous war and violence?

Sectarianism and division are derided as forces of tremendous violence, with many pleading that we cannot tolerate the intolerant, that it is those who seek to divide and separate people, who are causing the conflict in the world—because unity is peace, and division is violence. Consider however just a cursory glance at our world stage: Vladimir Putin is waging wars of aggression, while, according to the Ukraine’s PM Arseny Yatseniuk, trying to restore the Soviet Union.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership threatens local economies and national sovereignty the world over as current United States Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders highlights, while seeking to unite the Pacific Rim. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) aspires to create a Sunni Islamic Caliphate under which they reunite the Middle East after its break-up due to the Skykes-Picot Agreement, and, as they have detailed in their own magazine Dabiq, continue until their “blessed flag…covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam…”

Lastly, consider the ‘End-game’ memo of 1997, which detailed the process by which the Financial Services Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) would pursue global deregulation of the division between commercial banks and investment banks so that trades in assets like financial derivatives from American banks could take place world-wide. The debt-crisis in 2008, the Greek debt crisis, and the all consuming pressure put on South American nations like Argentina, all have their roots in this economic coercion to unite markets and banks worldwide to financial speculation. The holdouts of this agreement just so happen to currently saturate our media as global conflict zones: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Afghanistan.

In his depiction then of the final temptation of Christ, Dostoevsky makes us aware that the temptation to take up the coercive power of the sword to establish his kingdom is in fact the temptation of all imperial powers past or in our present neo-colonial embodiments to unify the world under the thumb of its coercion. The last of the temptations for Jesus then was to establish by violence a unified and uniform body—all equally slaves—in which Jesus refuses, once again in Matt. 4:10 quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” .

It is here, in the assertion of monotheism, or what Carl Raschke in his new book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy calls the “force of exception”, which many see the backward or medieval impulses of divisive religion—unable to accept plurality in an enlightened cosmopolitan society.  But as Raschke rightly points out,

“…What defines the Enlightenment is not so much a suspicion or even a rejection of religion, but the assertion of a counteruniversality under the flag of a totalized regime of reason.” (117-118)

It is this contest of what will constitute the unity of the world, of who has the authority to establish a kingdom that underlies our deepest of political questions. Jesus then in refusing coercive violence as incarnate in the figure of Satan, asserts the authority of YHWH as the only authority on which to properly found a kingdom. What however, if not “reason”, is such a kingdom founded upon? In the scene of the last supper in which a kingdom is conferred, leadership and rule for YHWH’s kingdom is clearly laid out by Jesus,

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them… But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom…” (Luke 22:24-30, NRSV)

In Dostoevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor we find that it is the future enslavement of the totalitarian state will be based ultimately upon a rejection of servanthood.  For the Grand Inquisitor doubts whether the average person can “perform the deeds of which you [Jesus] are capable”, and that Jesus had “demanded too much of him”.  Ultimately it is this call to bear the cross that the Inquisitor cannot accept because he viewed it as far too burdensome, finally proclaiming, “I do not want your love, because I myself do not love you”.

First there was the temptation to use of the alluring promise of material prosperity in order to establish his kingdom—in which he resisted because he knew that humanity desires freedom and justice more than a full stomach. Then there was the temptation to distract his followers in spectacles of games and permissiveness, so as to pacify their conscience from their enslavement under his kingdom—in which he resisted knowing that even with the appeasement of their conscience humanity would violently strive for a lost unity. I

n this last temptation  Jesus rejected unity based on coercive violence, and choose to found his kingdom upon servanthood, love, and bearing one’s cross.

Caleb David Upton received his Masters of Theology in Biblical Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 2014, his dissertation for which focused on postcolonial and feminist exegesis of passages from the Apocalypse of John.  His research interests include the following: early Christianity, liberation theology, the new monasticism, postcolonialism, feminism, international relations, and cultural studies.  In addition to his academic work, he has contributed to a wide variety of community service projects both through his home church  of Kingsway Baptist Church and through other agencies such as the Oasis Dufferin Community Centre, the Church of the Redeemer, and Carrubbers Christian Centre


* For a fuller discussion of this, see: Gorman Beauchamp, “‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’: The Utopian as Sadist,” Humanitas XX, no. 1 and 2 (2007): 127–133.

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