Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Seven - The Church of the Social Revolution

Locust and Wild Honey

This proletarian strain in Christianity goes back to a time long before Jesus; it seems to have been inherited in the religious character of the Jews - that stubborn independence, that stiff-necked insistence on the right of a man to interview God for himself and to find out what God wants him to do; also the inclination to find that God wants him to oppose earthly rulers and their plundering of the poor. What is it that gives to this Bible the vitality it has today? Its literary style? To say that is to display the ignorance of the cultured; for elevation of style is a by-product of passionate conviction: it is what the Jewish writers had to say, and not the way they said it. that has given them their hold upon mankind. Was it their insistence upon conscience, their fear of God as the beginning of wisdom? But that same element appears in the Babylonian psalms, which are as eloquent and as sincere as those of the Hebrews, yet are read only by scholars. Was it their sense of the awful presence of divinity, of the soul immortal in its keeping? The Egyptians had that far more than the Hebrews, and yet we do not cherish their religious books. Or was it the love of man for all things living, the lesson of charity upon which the Catholics lay such stress? The gentle Buddha had that, and that is long before Christ; also his priests had metaphysical subtlety, greater than that of John the Apostle or Thomas Aquinas.

No, there, is one thing and one only which distinguishes the Hebrew sacred writings from all others and that is their insistent note of proletarian revolt, their furious denunciation of exploiters, and of luxury and wantonness, the vices of the rich. Of that note the Assyrian and Chaldean and Babylonian writing contain not a trace, and the Egyptian hardly enough to mention. The Hindoos had a trace of it; but the true, natural- born rebels of all time were the Hebrews. They were rebels against oppression in ancient Judea, as they are today in Petrograd and New York; the spirit of equality and brotherhood which spoke through Ezekiel and Amos and Isaiah, through John the Baptist and Jesus and James, spoke in the last century through Marx and Lassalle and Jaures, and speaks today through Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky and Israel Zangwill and Morris Hillquit and Abraham Cahan and Emma Goldman and the Joseph Fels endowment.

The legal rate of interest throughout the Babylonian Empire was 20 percent; the laws of Hanu permitted 24 percent, while the laws of the Egyptians only stepped in to prevent more than 100 percent. But listen to this Hebrew law:

If thy brother be waxen poor and fallen in decay with thee, then thou shalt relieve him, yea, though he be a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with thee: Take thou no interest of him, or increase; but fear thy God that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him any money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.

And so on, forbidding that Hebrews be sold as bond servants, and commanding that at the end of 50 years all debtors shall have their debts forgiven and their lands returned to them. And note that this is not the raving of agitators, the demand of a minority party; it is the law of the Hebrew land.

There has been of late a great deal of new discovery concerning the early Jews. Conrad Noel summarizes the results as follows:

The land-mark law, which strictly forbids encroachments upon peasant rights; consideration for the foreigner; additional sanitary and food laws; tithe regulations on behalf of widows, orphans, foreigners, etc.; that those who have no economic independence should eat and be satisfied; that loans should be given cheerfully, not only without any interest, but even at the risk of losing the principal. To withhold a loan because the year of release is at hand in which the principal is no longer recoverable, is described as a grave sin. When you are compelled to free your slaves, you must give them sufficient capital to embark upon some industry which shall prevent their falling back into slavery. A number of holidays are insisted upon. There must be no more crushing of the poor out of existence, for God cares for these people who have been driven to poverty, and they shall never cease out of the land. Howbeit there shall be no poor with you, for the Lord will bless you, if you will obey these laws.

But then prosperity came, and culture, which meant contact with the capitalist ideas of the heathen empires. The Jews fell from the stern justice of their fathers; and so came the prophets, wild-eyed men of the people, clad in camel's hair and living upon locusts and wild honey, breaking in upon priests and kings and capitalists with their furious denunciations. And always they incited to class war and social disturbance. I quote Conrad Noel again:

Nathan and Gad had been David's political advisers, Abijah had stirred Jeroboam to revolt, Elipah had resisted Ahab, Elisha had fanned the rebellion of Jehu, Amos thunders against the misrule of the king of Israel, Isaiah denounces the landlords and the usurers, Micah charges them with blood-guiltiness; Jeremiah and the latter prophets, though they strike a more intimate note of personal repentance, strike it as the prelude to that national restoration for which they hunger as exiles.

The first chapters of Isaiah are typical of the Old Testament point of view. Just as the prophets of the 19th century thundered against the "Christian" employers of Lancashire, and told them their houses were cemented with the blood of little children, so Isaiah cries against his generation: "Your governing classes companion with thieves; behold you build up Sion with blood." Their ceremonial and their Sabbath keeping are an abomination to God. "When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you. Your hands are full of blood." The poor man is robbed. The rich exact usury. "Woe unto you that lay house to house and field to field that ye may dwell alone in the midst of the land." "Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doing from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be blood-colored, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword.

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