Sunday Meditations: Jesus and Politics

Several years ago, I was an elder at a small but dedicated Reformed church.  Given the size of the congregation, it might not seem like being an elder there was a lot of work, but the body of elders was also very small at least some of those times, and there were a lot of big ups and downs during that time, so it really was like having a second, albeit part-time, job.

During that time, a congregation member had called me to vent.  He was angry and thinking about leaving the church.  Those are awkward times in the life of an elder, because you want the other person to be able to pour out their pain.  Sometimes, people just want to be heard even if they don’t want you to do something about it.

On the other hand, people can say some really unfair things during those times, and while you don’t want to get into a debate (anecdotally, I’d say that 90% of people who say they’re “thinking of leaving the church” in your conversation have already made up their minds to do so), it’s also not always healthy to let them say whatever they want about whomever they want without some gentle nudging back to a more fair and charitable way of talking about them.

In this particular case, this man was upset at, among other things, the pastor not preaching things he felt were indispensable.  As an example of this, he pointed to a recent sermon and said, “He said that Jesus wasn’t political, but Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.”

Like I said, those aren’t times for a careful discussion, but I am almost totally positive that, if I’d asked, “What do you mean by Jesus being political?” I would not have gotten a cogent answer back.  Someone he had complete exegetical trust in had told him Jesus was political, and even though he didn’t understand that, himself, he knew that anyone who said otherwise had to be wrong.

The pastor being critiqued is someone whose impact on my life overall is inestimable, and I remember the sermon where he said that Jesus wasn’t political.  I also remember the phone conversation where someone countered that notion with a somewhat odd way of putting it: Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.

As mid-term elections draw nigh (I already voted – get the whole nasty business over with), I’ve been thinking about Jesus and politics, and depending on what you mean, I think some could make the statement, “Jesus was not political,” and be right or the statement, “Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny,” and also be right – and not because of the funny part.

Jesus Was Not Political

Jesus was not political in the sense of how evangelicals have viewed American politics of the last several decades.  Jesus did not try to get influence with public officials, nor did he encourage others to do so (with the possible exception of Luke 16:9).  He did not participate in the various groups vying for the political destiny of Jerusalem in true Game of Thrones style, nor did he endorse any of them.  In short, Jesus did not view his mission in terms of using existing political mechanisms to bring about his agenda or accomplish his mission.

This is something of a contrast as to how conservative evangelicals have approached the American political sphere where using existing political mechanisms to bring about your agenda or mission is seen as vital.  At an evangelical church, you are likely to have a Voters’ Guide thrust upon you at some point.  It’s not uncommon to hear this or that political party or specific politician elevated or decried from the pulpit.  It’s also not uncommon to hear the outcomes of elections or referenda as incredibly high stakes events for the Church where the results mark major watersheds in God’s plan for America.  Oh yeah, in this way of thinking, God has a special relationship with America that is, more or less, the relationship He had with Old Testament Israel.

When we compare that view of spirituality and politics with the activity of Jesus, we do see some pretty large differences.  In that sense, which is the sense the Rev. Smith was using in his sermon, Jesus was not political.  Jesus was about the coming Kingdom of God, and that kingdom had a trajectory and destiny that began with calling faithful Israel out of the present world structures and into the coming kingdom.  To plant the seed of this kingdom, Jesus spent his time reclaiming the lost sheep of Israel – body and soul.

As we look at the early church continuing this mission, they continued this perspective.  The early church forbade their members to be politicians or soldiers (or actors, for some reason).  This is obviously a stark contrast to the fervent political activism and veneration of the military that are defining marks of much of the American evangelical church, today.  The idea for the early church is that those were institutions that propped up the powers of the age – the very powers that God was in the act of overturning.  A convert to Christianity who became a soldier or a Senator for his career was like a Jew becoming a pork distributor; you were not just joining “the rest of the world,” you were actively propping it up.

It’s from this standpoint that the sentence, “Jesus was not political” has meaning.  If we think about all the money American Christians have spent to get their favored candidate elected or what have you and transferred that money to programs that work against poverty and hunger, or that feed and clothe orphans, or that help prisoners get their lives back in society, it’s staggering to think of the good that might be accomplished.  From that standpoint, Christians in America could stand to reevaluate the example and commands of the Lord Jesus to see if our priorities and resources are directed along the same lines that Jesus’ were.

But Jesus Was Political

In American Christianity, you also have a group that contends that Jesus was solely interested in the spiritual condition of individuals, and this should be the Church’s priority.  What’s weird about this is that there is a significant overlap between the “Let’s Burn the World to Get Our Candidate Elected” crowd and the “Jesus Only Cared About People’s Souls” crowd.  I don’t get it, either, but there you go.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about the Kingdom of God without talking about politics – specifically, how do the people of God exist in the world in the midst of other nations who are typically hostile or at least far more powerful, and what does this mean for the futures of both God’s people and the surrounding nations?

This concern weaves throughout the Old Testament, obviously.  The Old Testament writings do not give us a story of people’s individual spiritual well-being, but rather they give us the story of Israel and her God in the world.  It isn’t too uncommon to read the Old Testament in an individualistic way, especially in sermons.  The different characters become examples of our own individual spiritual journeys rather than pivotal figures in the ongoing story of Israel and her God among the nations.  I think, sometimes, we’re just not sure what to do with the Old Testament, so this is the route some choose to make it relevant.

But you have to cut out a rather lot of the Old Testament to make the Old Testament a collection of positive and negative examples of individual spirituality.  The Old Testament is about the fate of nations with Israel at the center.  When God saves His people, He saves the nation.  When Israel’s sins get her in trouble, they are national sins like idolatry or the priesthood only using lame and diseased animals for offerings or rampant injustice toward the poor and defenseless or dishonest business practices to make a profit.  Israel’s leadership stands as a proxy for the nation such that all it takes is an unfaithful king or obsequious prophets to get the whole nation in trouble.

And as Israel comes into contact with other nations, they are drawn into the scope of this story.  God saves Israel from other nations.  God invokes the penalties of the Law on Israel with other nations.  God takes and restores Israel’s land with other nations.  On the whole, messing with Israel is a sure means to God removing you from the world scene at some point.

It is this trajectory into which the Son of God is sent.  Israel’s land is occupied by a larger, more powerful pagan empire.  Many Jews can still live in their land and Jerusalem is still the center of their religious and political life, but this is a shadow of what it once meant.  Many Jews are dispersed throughout the empire and don’t live in their ancestral lands at all.  Roman law, not Torah, is the highest ethical and political authority in Judea.  Roman officials, not Jewish officials, have the final say in what goes on in the land.  Even the High Priest becomes a position filled by Roman appointment.

When Jesus arrives, his goal is to save Israel from their sins.  He is going to turn this situation around.  This will involve calling the lost to repentance of their ways of life into the ways of love of God and neighbor.  This will involve instilling a new piety in Israel and reminding her that God has not abandoned her, loves her, remembers His promises, and is for her.  In this sense, the disposition of the heart is very important to what Jesus is trying to accomplish.

But this is also political.  This all happens in the context that the Kingdom of God has come with Jesus.  He forgives sins, heals the sick, and casts out evil spirits not just to be a good dude but because the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the king of it.  He is out to restore everything that was broken and lost.  He is liberating his people from the curse of the law.  He is creating a counter-kingdom that runs off a very different engine than the world powers at the time – a kingdom where the Law is love, and no matter how much damage you may have done in your past, if you are willing to put that life aside and begin anew in God’s kingdom with Jesus as your king, there is no limit to how much you will be forgiven and what God will restore to you.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ claim to leading a rival kingdom that finds him executed by the Romans for insurrection.

Furthermore, there is a coming calamity on Jerusalem that will shatter the power of Israel’s leaders and redefine her place in the world.  Jesus wills that as much of Israel that can be spared this fate should be spared, and he labors powerfully to make that happen.  Many believe his warnings and are saved, but the powers of that age reject Jesus and crucify him, and God does not prevent the Roman onslaught when Jerusalem falls and the Temple is destroyed.  These consequences are not merely personal and spiritual; they are highly political.  The landscape of God’s people in the world would never be the same after that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The Kingdom grows like a giant tree from the smallest of all seeds, and this does not escape the notice of the Empire.  While it would be a mistake to portray Christians as under constant and fiery Imperial persecution, they nevertheless experienced those seasons as the disposition of emperors toward Christianity would vacillate from seeing them as “distasteful religious sect not worth the bother” to “threat to Imperial stability.”

And one of the reasons for these changing dispositions was – to the shock of everyone – the fact that Romans themselves were hearing about Jesus and what God had done and believed it.  They believed and wanted to be part of this kingdom, too, eventually in even greater numbers than Jesus would have among his own people.  These people, too, were forgiven and healed and displayed the same Spirit that Israel’s God had poured out upon faithful Israel.

It was this trajectory of the kingdom that eventually caused Constantine to declare Jesus Christ the Lord of the Roman Empire and paint the Chi Rho on his shields, removing all who persecuted Christians decisively from power.

This is not to say everything Constantine did was good or even very Jesus-like.  But the political impact of the spread of the Kingdom cannot be denied, here, and the change it made on the political landscape for the people of God.

What About Now?

We’re in a situation for which there is little analogy in the Bible, unfortunately.  While we can and should turn to the written word for guidance, the Church must be especially attentive to the living Word because we are in a very different place than the Bible addresses as far as politics are concerned.

  1. Believing Jews and Gentiles have been made into one people of God.  In the Bible, this opened the scope from “the land promised to Israel” to “the nations,” which essentially meant the Roman Empire, and now we see the people of God distributed throughout the entire world, effectively decentralizing God’s people into all lands in general and no lands in particular, including America and what we now refer to as the modern nation-state of Israel.
  2. There is no centralized world power or dominant empire.  We talk about military super powers, but there is no Empire in the same sense as we find in the outlook of the New Testament.  In the New Testament writings, Rome is as big as you can get and they rule everything.  They were “global power” from the first century perspective.  Now, this perspective no longer serves in a direct sense.  We might look at the influence different nations have on the global community, but there is no longer a single, centralized Empire to define ourselves against.
  3. Christendom has come and pretty much gone.  In America, we have a strong fundamentalist streak that has slowed the disappearance of Christian elements prevailing in culture and government, and maybe there’s even a baseline under which it simply will not dip, but the idea of a government run basically by Jesus is gone and is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever.  The images of a world where all nations proclaimed Jesus as lord has, from the standpoint of the New Testament, had its run, and now we’re kind of on the other side of that.  That doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen in the future, but where we are now, we are post-nations-proclaiming-Jesus-as-Lord, not experiencing it.
  4. America is a Republic informed by democratic principles.  The people elect representatives to government to speak and vote on our behalf.  So, there is a sense in which Americans (including American Christians) are the government and wield its power.  We are not helplessly at the mercy of a monarch or an emperor (however much it might feel that way from time to time), and this one factor alone puts us in a very different situation than Jesus or the early church.  Turns out that the principalities and powers of our age are, to a large degree, us.

This is why trying to drop the examples of the New Testament directly on top of our situation without further thought are bound to take us in weird directions.  Even in the Torah itself, we see God’s commandments changing to reflect the changing circumstances of Israel.  For example, the laws about sacrifices while Israel is wandering in the wilderness undergo some serious revision once they have an established Temple in Jerusalem.  It would be absurd to think that, politically speaking, the people of God in 21st century America are basically in the same situation as Jesus or the Apostles.  There are countries in the world, today, where Christians face an extremely similar situation to the first century Church, but America is not one of those places.

At the same time, Jesus is still Lord and we are not free to replace him with people or values we might prefer or who might better embody our cultural sensibilities.  What was important to Jesus?  Who was he helping?  Who received his critique and who received his compassion?  What principles and values do his commandments reveal to us such that we can still find ways to act in accordance with those principles and values?

The power of a vote or a political voice is a resource given to you just like your money or your time.  It belongs to Jesus and was given to you for stewardship.  How will you use it and what outcome do you hope to see from that?  Is it the sort of outcome that our Lord has shown us best represents his own priorities?  Are we shaping a world with MORE healing?  MORE forgiveness?  MORE lives being put back together?  MORE compassion?  MORE care for those who cannot care for themselves?  What did Jesus spend his time doing?  Who received his critiques, and why?

Is the Law love or isn’t it?  Is Jesus’ highest concern that we protect ourselves and our stuff?  Did Jesus value his own prosperity at the expense of others, or the prosperity of those he loved at his own expense?

And at any time, did Jesus ever use the complexities or ambiguities of a situation as a reason to do nothing?