DETROIT - Sound provocative? According to the Rev. Tim Yeager it's not: "I've been saying that for years. If anybody wants to know what this priest's position is, the answer is 'yes.' Look it up, it's in that secret book, you know, the black one."
The book Yeager was referring to is the Bible. He added, "People who claim to follow Jesus ought to read that once in a while."
Yeager, an Episcopal priest from Chicago, was in Detroit this past Saturday to discuss Jesus Was a Commie, a 15-minute short film directed by the actor Matthew Modine. In the film Modine poses questions about the life of Christ and its meaning in the 21st century. The People'sWorld hosted the discussion, attended by an enthusiastic crowd of believers and non-believers.
The priest cited the Biblical parable of the laborers in the vineyard. In his words, the landowner (who is God) made several trips to the town square during the course of a day to pick up workers for his vineyard. While the first group worked the full day, the last worked a much shorter time. Despite some grumbling from those who had worked longer hours, all were paid a full wage - a "living wage," Yeager added.
As he put it, "In the Kingdom of God you will be expected to contribute what you can and you will get what you need ... That's also how the early church in Jerusalem operated after the crucifixion. Look at Acts 4:32." He compared this sentiment to Karl Marx's description of an advanced communist society where the motto "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" will guide society.
Matt Modine "is reclaiming the history of what the early church practiced in the first centuries after the crucifixion," said Yeager. "That's a useful thing when you hear the name of Jesus being invoked to defend all sorts of things such as denying women the right to choose, contraception, or to invade another country, not likely something Jesus would have approved of."
The priest said, "Throughout the New Testament, we find Jesus tearing up the old rules of society." Examples he cited included these: Jesus stopped the stoning of the woman accused of adultery. While men were not supposed to speak to women - they were seen as property - Jesus talked to women all the time, including women who were not Jewish. When Jesus was crucified the disciples were nowhere to be seen, but the women braved going to that dangerous spot. "Women saw in him their liberator, much more than the men," Yeager added.
The Episcopalian minister asked the audience what phrase is most often said by Jesus in the Bible. After hearing numerous wrong answers, he replied that it is, "Fear not."
"Jesus called upon his people to be bold for justice," said Yeager. "He says the same thing that Karl Marx says at the end of the Communist Manifesto: fear not, stand up, move into this new era, be free, you have nothing to lose but your chains."
The Episcopalian minister is also a United Auto Workers organizer. He told the audience, "When I talk to my union members, I say the God of your upbringing is not neutral. We should not be neutral. God is on the side of the oppressed, on the side of justice, on the side of working people."
At the same time, Yeager said, all who profess some faith or ideology should have "humility."
"The sins and the crimes committed against humanity in the name of the Prince of Peace would fill a concert hall, but don't hold that against him," he said. "I don't hold the crimes of the crusades, or of the white slaveowners, or of the Methodist pastor who led the Colorado militia to slaughter the Native Americans at Sand Creek, against Jesus.
"Just as Christ should not be responsible for all actions of his followers, we should have an understanding that neither should Marx be held responsible for the crimes of Pol Pot or Joe Stalin. There is no philosophical tradition or ideology or religious faith that is without its detractors, without its distorters, without its criminals."
Finally Yeager said, "The U.S. has a heavy interweaving of Christianity and theology throughout the fabric of our society. Whatever your philosophy or ideological orientation, if you are dealing with Americans, you have to deal at some point with this subject."
Modine's film highlights the themes of forgiveness and nonviolence, the priest noted. "As we fight the struggle to make a better world, this approach allows us to find the common humanity that unites us all," he concluded.
Photo: John Rummel/PW