Jesus and Politics
‘Tis the season (no, not that one yet), to be politic. At my church we did just that a couple weeks ago, with a lecture and discussion on political engagement (click on the link for audio).
My part of the event was to talk about Jesus’ political views in the light of his contemporaries. And it turns out Jesus’ political views agree with mine! Ok, ok. I’m only joking. But it’s an important joke actually because I suspect many Christians do actually make the very simplistic step of reading their views about politics and society back into the life, times and teachings of Jesus. Motivations and presuppositions being the tricky things they are, I’m not going to claim that I have escaped that either. But I will say that I made an attempt to describe Jesus in his own time and place based on historical and biblical data. I think it’s at least a good place to start.
There were several political options in Jesus’ day, but they were all based on the same set of issues and vision for what life should be like. The Jews at the time of Jesus, you will perhaps recall, had been living under foreign domination for about five centuries by this time, and this political reality had led to a very deep sense of frustration. The worry circulating among Jews for generations was something like this: if we are the people of the God who created the world and has all power over that world, why are we perpetually ruled over by foreign powers and empires? Shouldn’t we be the one’s in the seat of power? A certain kind of reading of the Hebrew scriptures could lead to that conclusion. The answer to the question was actually not that big of a mystery. Given the premises, there could only be one: the nation is not faithful to God, not holy enough, not dedicated enough, not sufficiently single-minded in its worship. That is why God is not blessing and empowering it. The next logical step was to talk about what it meant to get back into God’s favor, and it is this final step that informed the different political options of the day.
How do we get back in with God so that the nation can prosper?
Does that question sound familiar? It should because one hears it both literally and as a whispered implication in political Christian discourse today. But I digress. Back to the first century. Here are some of the main political agendas of the time of Jesus based on the answer to that question.
The Zealots stood for old fashioned style military action of the type described copiously in the Hebrew scriptures. The zealots in fact got there name from an incident described in Number 25:1-12 where an individual named Phinehas shows “zeal” for the Lord by killing a couple people who had flagrantly disobeyed the law of Moses. They had the example of the Maccabees to guide them too. In second century BC these Jews had carved out a small military kingdom that survived for 100 years between the waning and waxing of empires. The zealots, btw, finally got their chance in AD 70 when the Jews rebelled against Rome and were subsequently utterly and completely defeated by the Romans. Jerusalem and the temple were razed and Judaism as it existed at the time of Jesus ceased to exist. So, how do the zealots bring back the state of blessing for Israel? Praise God and pass the arrows.
Qumran sectarians: Another group placed their hopes in an alternate pure society. The Qumran sectarians lived in isolation out in the desert overlooking the Dead Sea where they at least could be righteous and holy all on their own. They were severely critical of the religious establishment of their day, particularly the temple leadership, and they were convinced that if they remained pure, God would return TO THEM, not to the other unfaithful people. They saw their little group as central to the cosmic battle between good and evil and they were extremely critical of all outsiders, whom they were taught to hate. They might have thought their own leader was the messiah. So, how do these sectarians answer the question of regaining God’s good graces? Come out to the desert and be holy and God will return and bless us.
Pharisees: The answer here is that God will again bless the nation when holiness prevails over unholiness among all the chosen people of God. The goal was similar to the sectarians, but the scope was much greater. To bring in this state of blessedness the Pharisees engaged in what has been called “the politics of holiness.” It involved separation from all unholy things and people, such as gentiles and unworthy individuals, even if they were Jews. It also meant ceremonial purity, which came down to following a set of regulations that had been handed down by tradition (see the example of hand washing in Matt. 15:2). The Pharisees were the moral police of the first century. If you “mowed your lawn on a Sunday” (so to speak), they would come knocking on Monday, they would circulate petitions against you; they might even make a citizens confiscation of you lawn mower. But let’s be clear about the goal: it wasn’t just to be mean and self righteous that the Pharisees policed the nation. It was very much a political agenda: if we are pure, God will bless the nation. We will regain power, stature and influence. Maybe the Messiah will also return and usher in the rule of God.
Priestly rulers and temple hierarchy were charged with the supervision of temple rites and sacrifices, but we should not forget that the high priest was also a very important political figure. So much so that the Romans reserved the right to appoint the high priest and kept the official priestly garments under lock and key. This is because in the preceding five centuries the Jewish nation had basically been a vassal state to empires which was ruled internally by the high priest. The he high priest was just as much a political ruler as he was a religious one. In fact, it is probably a mistake for us to think of those two realms (political and religious) as separate in the first century. The high priest was in charge of the nation, we might say, precisely because he was in charge of the temple. As you might imagine the priestly rulers were the least likely to be critical of the current situation. For one, they were in charge and who wants to rock the boat from the captain’s chair? For another, they served at the beck and call of their imperial overlords. But another thing about the temple hierarchy: they believed that the sacrificial system, which was massive and which enjoyed the participation of people from all over the known world, was in itself winning God’s favor. This what ancient temples did! They maintained God (or the gods) propitious through sacrifices. For the priests and temple functionaries the answer about regaining God’s blessing was: “we’re doing it! What’s the problem?”
And then there was Jesus
As you might expect, Jesus’ position is fairly unique. Take a look at this important announcement at the beginning of his ministry:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15-16)
Here’s an important difference: while Jesus’ contemporaries are working hard (in a variety of ways) to get God back, Jesus is doing nothing of the sort. He is merely announcing that God is returning. The proper response to this return is repentance, but the return does not depend on repentance. It’s just that if God is coming back, well, you might want to get right with him. The second really important difference in Jesus’ approach is that he was himself God returning. In him God was fulfilling his ancient promises to Israel and restoring his people to their glorious position. So Jesus is ahead of the game. He is not waiting for God, he is not trying to get others to work for his return. How, then, does Jesus’ teaching interface with the other political options of his time? Let’s take a look.
To the Zealots. Although there have been some attempts to paint Jesus as a Zealot this just doesn’t work. Jesus never commended violence as a means to establishing God’s blessing for the nation. When he famously tells peter to put away his sword in the face of the arresting mob that came to crucify him (Matthew 26:52-53), Jesus is telling all his followers for all time that the kingdom of God will not be established by violence. No doubt his repudiation of violence has something to do with the love of neighbor which features so prominently in his teaching. But another, more practical, reason is simply that neither God nor Jesus have the slightest need to use violence. As Jesus explains it to Peter, his sword does makes no sense. If Jesus wanted to go that direction he would simply use the legions of angels that are at his command and that would be that. But this is not the way God is going to go about building his kingdom.
To the Qumran sectarians. Jesus has in common with the sectarians that he also sets out to build a new “eschatological community” (a group of people who live in the light of God’s return). His choice of 12 disciples is very important here: he is reforming faithful Israel in the midst of unfaithful Israel. But Jesus’ community of disciples is not at war with outsiders, it is not separate, but living in society. Remember how the Qumran sectarians were commanded to hate outsiders? Look at the striking contrast in the teachings of Jesus :
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44)
Of course, it doesn’t say anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures to “hate your enemy”, so Jesus is quoting a contemporary distortion of the “love your neighbor” command. It was being used to mean “and hate your enemy”. But as Jesus goes on to explain, this is inconsistent. If we are to imitate God, who blesses both good and evil people, then we ought to also love our enemies. Was this teaching targeting the Qumran sectarians specifically? Perhaps. The meaning, though, is clear: fierce sectarianism that treats outsiders like enemies is not an option for disciples of Jesus.
To the Pharisees. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is surprising, radical and it would still be controversial today if we were really listening. In contrast to the “politics of holiness,” Jesus maintains that compassion is greater than holiness. Here’s a key passage for understanding his critique the Pharisee agenda:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.
The stinging accusation is that they have paid the most detailed attention to all the written laws and traditions in order to pursue the ideal of a holy nation, but in all of this they have forgotten “the more important matters of the law” (wait! there are more important matters of the law than the laws themselves?!): justice, mercy, faithfulness. This helps to explain so many of the conflicts Jesus had with the Pharisees. It’s more important to heal a man on the Sabbath than to keep the Sabbath rest laws (both biblical and the traditions). Why? Because compassion is more important than holiness. Twice in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Once because they complain of his association with “bad people” (9:16), and once because of their legalism regarding the Sabbath (12:7).
I think this position of Jesus is the one that hits closest to home. Are many Christians today, like the Pharisees, pursuing the “politics of holiness”? Are we trying to clean up the nation so that God will bless it? Have we maybe even confused our own comforts and benefits with that “holiness” we purport to pursue? Are we trying to impose holiness on others as part of our big picture notion of what is good for our country while at the same time neglecting “the more important matters” of mercy, compassion and justice? Whatever the political positions of a follower of Jesus, faithful Christian politics does not place righteousness, purity or holiness above compassion and mercy. Sometimes I wonder if being a Christian in the political context just means having a new set of “Christian” opinions to get angry about and to push out on the rest of society. I think that is sadly missing the point. We can’t just have Christian opinions. Those opinions must be held in Christian ways as well, and they must also be informed by the Christian ethic of compassion.
To the priestly rulers: Jesus critiques the corruption of the priests and their lack of compassion as well. The two characters that pass the wounded man in the ditch in the story of the Good Samaritan are a priest and a levite, or a temple functionary. It was not so much, perhaps, that they didn’t want to get involved with a messy situation of a man lying in the ditch. If he looked dead, or possibly dead, they, being the holy people they were, could not go near him an risk ritual contamination.
But Jesus’ impact on the temple goes deeper. His death completely nullified the spiritual value of the temple. The sacrifices that the Jews participated in with great pride, that they believed kept God kindly disposed to them, were all done away with when Jesus died once and for all for the sins of the world. Another thing that came to an end with the death of Jesus was the combination of political and religious power that the temple embodied. No longer would political leaders play the intermediary between God and his people. The connection between God’s work and political entities was broken. Permanently; irretrievably. This is why the good news about salvation in Jesus went out to the whole world without regard to political or racial distinctions (remember, it was a religious, political and ethnic combination that the temple stood for). With the death and resurrection of Jesus God’s power exploded out from Israel into the rest of the world without any political or nationalistic affiliations.
First, for Christians political power is a very relative thing. Jesus did not triumph by means of politics (if anything it was in the teeth of political power), nor did he use or commend the combination of the gospel or the church with a political institution, party or individual. Just as God’s kingdom does not depend on violence, neither does it depend on any worldly power. But does this mean that we should not be involved with politics? I don’t see why not. In fact Jesus’ emphasis on compassion pretty much mandates political involvement. Politics is about living together justly and fairly and our political system provides a mechanism for promoting justice and compassion. Why not do it?
But a second point I see coming out of all this is that in the light of Jesus’ teaching it seems like a political agenda for Christians should always be strongly other-centered. Jesus defended the poor and the needy and he also went out of his way to include the ostracized- even people who actually bad. In the same way our politics also ought to be at least others-conscious, if not even others-centered. This is a far cry from some of the politicking we hear today in which it is transparently clear that the self-focus and self-protection have been wrapped up into a Christian sounding set of agendas and are being used as the basis for a bellicose campaign against anyone one who disagrees.
When it comes to making decisions about our society, it’s compassion first, holiness second, self-benefit third.