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Jesus the Poet: Politics and Poetic Imagination

Posted on: February 22, 2014

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© David Galston, 2014

It is not easy to talk about the historical Jesus and politics because it is really not clear what sort of political ideology Jesus may or may not have held. What happens is that scholars need first to picture the Jesus of history and then, having calmed these rough waters, figure out how the line starting with Jesus ends at the crucifixion.

It is probably a fact, inasmuch as we claim a fact here, that the crucifixion was not specifically about Jesus but about the movement he was part of. Jesus was the main character or at least one of them, so his crucifixion was a warning shot by Rome over the bow of the movement as a whole. Still, why was Jesus a target to begin with? What made this minor movement threatening?

There are some options to review, and these are familiar to anyone involved in historical Jesus research. A popular idea is the “Jesus was a Zealot” model wherein Jesus leads a charge against Rome that rested on apocalyptic visions similar to those found in the book of Revelation. This idea takes two forms: passive and active. In the passive form, Jesus is not politically active but rather the voice of warning. He says things like “watch and be ready” or “be aware and alert” (Mk 13:33) and “the Son of Man shall return” (Q 12:40). It seems like Jesus believed the judgement of God was imminent and that the thing to do is passively watch for signs.

The problem with this reading is that the theme of the returning master, for whom we watch and wait, is highly utilized in early Christianity as a way to interpret Jesus. It is not really part of the parables associated with Jesus and his teaching. These sayings seem like primitive Christology (beliefs about Christ) that arose in the early Church.

The second option is that Jesus was actively political, meaning that he did not just say “watch and be ready” but did invoke revolutionary activity. This is harder to prove because such an idea relies on implications. One is that the messianic title of Jesus (the “Christ” or the “Anointed One”) suggests he thought himself a political leader given a task by God. Another implication is in the title “Son of David.” This is an early title appearing first in Paul (Roman 1:4). It also suggests that Jesus thought himself a political saviour and revolutionary figure. Thirdly, the disciple Judas in the Gospels is presumed a Zealot (Mark 3:19) - that is, a political revolutionary. If such is indicative of all the disciples, then it seems like Jesus was the leader of a revolutionary party. Finally, the entry into Jerusalem recorded in Mark 11 has Jesus come into Jerusalem as if a military general in a victory parade. This seems very provocative, especially since a war had not yet been fought.

Though these observations seem significant, they can also be misleading. They rely not on what Jesus said but on what the early Church believed about him (being Christ and Son of David). Jesus did not use these titles for himself since his message was not about himself but his vision. Then, in relation to Judas, our only knowledge is from the Gospel of Mark where he is called “iscariot.” This is an ambiguous name. It could refer to Judas being a member of the sicarii (assassines), meaning he was a Zealot. But it might simply refer to the town he comes from: ish means “male” in Hebrew, and Keriot is the name of two towns in ancient Judaea: Judas Is-cariot might just mean Judas from Kariot. Then, regarding the entry into Jerusalem, we don’t know if Jesus was playing a joke (mocking a Roman triumph) or if the whole event is a creation of the Gospel of Mark.

Neither the image of Jesus as a passive nor active political leader correlates well with what we know of Jesus from his sayings, so there must be some other options.

Unfortunately here again there are two possibilities. It would be nice if there was only one, but history does not grant such clarity. One scenario is that Jesus as a poet simply engaged in too much satire. He ended up making a mockery of the Empire and, eventually, the Empire had had enough. This is not at all far fetched. In Canada our own Conservative Prime Minister - much like the Conservative Prime Minister in Australia - has had about enough of the public broadcasting service otherwise known as the CBC. Our Prime Minister thinks that the CBC should not be an independent voice that keeps the government accountable to public interests but rather should be more like a national cheerleader. Instead of crucifixions, however, our government employs corporate takeovers. And that is what is proposed: the Government of Canada is trying to take over the CBC’s Board of Directors to convert its sound from criticism to applause.

It is possible that when Jesus employed zingers like “give to Caesar what Caesar deserves” - raising the question what in fact does Caesar deserve - or when he entered Jerusalem mocking a Roman triumph, the Empire was not amused. Imagine if we say “give to the Prime Minister exactly what the Prime Minister deserves” - knowing full well that we do not think he deserves applause - we could experience trouble, should the Prime Minister ever pay attention.

Jesus can also be pictured as more than simply the leading satirist. He also seems to advocate non-violent resistance. When he advises to “go a second mile,” he advocates an act that would arouse heightened anger among a population already upset for being forced to go one mile carrying a Roman soldier’s gear. Did Jesus, like Mahatma Gandhi, advocate ways to embarrass Rome in its occupation of Palestine? This is certainly possible. It is also possible that the open commensality practices of Jesus is something Rome did not like. He may have advocated solidarity among the poor through shared meals. One thing wealthy folk who control society do not like is solidarity among the poor. It seems to them revolutionary and, in fact, it is.

There are three possible ways Jesus was political when we consider his characteristic sayings: by way of satire, by way of non-violent resistance, and by way of social solidarity. He probably practiced all three at the same time. Each act could have been noticed by the government and each could have been perceived as threatening. For Jesus this meant the government looked upon his movement, perceived him as the leader, and took action. For us it means something a bit different. It means that anyone who wants to take the historical Jesus seriously cannot just do so only as an academic exercise. There is a social dimension to the historical Jesus. Even in his supreme poetic satire there is an active political imagination that calls for the liberation of the world from the hands of oppressors.

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