content top

The Political Jesus

Posted on: October 25, 2020

Category: Theology

The Political Jesus

The Political Jesus
I confess I am reluctant to mix politics with religion because the result can be divisive. Nevertheless, I promised thoughts on the topic of the political Jesus.

It is important first to say that there is a difference between the political Jesus and the politics of Jesus. We do not know the politics of Jesus because that involves recovering the personal thoughts of Jesus, which is an impossible task. Jesus was a teller of parables and a crafter of aphorisms, but in these artful forms of speech, he does not say what he thinks about politics.

Like other forms of art, such as painting or poetry, parables and aphorism point to an alternate reality that brings our present or default reality into question. In parables and aphorisms, we are invited to think about reality politically, but we are not told what political ideologies to hold. That second question is one we need to work out for ourselves. Christianity, theology, and the church, in the best circumstances, are about helping us think about the question, not telling us what we “should” think or how we “should” answer.

Jesus was political, to be sure, in his parables and aphorisms. He was political because he brought into question the assumptions about the world and how it operates. Scholars often say that Jesus brought default reality into question. Sometimes he ridiculed default reality; sometimes he exaggerated it; sometimes he casted it in unexpected scenes. In whatever way he managed to relate his vision, he was indeed political.

To me, the most prominent example is the aphorism translated as “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). This is a very polite and traditional translation relying on the King James version that suggests we should pay our taxes. Even if we conclude the aphorism means that we should pay our taxes, this already takes Jesus out of the Republican Party so far as I can tell. Nevertheless, that translation is too neutral. More literally, the Greek reads “pay off Caesar Caesar’s, and pay off God God’s,” which makes it an ambiguous statement. A better translation that relates the sense of the phrase is “Give to Caesar what Caesar deserves and to God what God deserves.” This latter translation preserves the ambiguity, and it also raises the question, which is the point of the aphorism, “What does Caesar deserve?” In our context, we can ask, “What does the President of the United States deserve?” We can certainly see that the answer will vary from person to person. Audience members have to figure out the answer on their own. The only help is that the answer relates to whatever “God” is about and God deserves.

What is God about, then? There are several parables and aphorisms that imagine an alternative Empire of God set in the context of the Empire of Rome. The Empire of God is the alternative world that lives and breathes in this world whenever someone awakens to its presence. It’s not hard to awaken if we are willing to try. To me, “Love your enemies” is the sine qua non Jesus aphorism. The Empire of God is that reality where enmity cannot exist among people because loving enemies means no enemies. As I have had occasion to say before, this aphorism does not mean that we should keep some enemies in order to love them. It just means “no enemies” are held in the alternative reality of the Empire of God. Living in the Empire of God means re-imagining how we live. This is not a quaint moralism; since it involves “Empire,” it is a political directive.

Parables that characterize life in the Empire of God include the Samarian parable (where enmity is erased), the “second-mile” aphorism, where nonviolent resistance is practiced, the Mustard Seed parable (Mark 4:31), where a pungent weed-like condiment mocks the majesty of a Cedar (Ezek 17:22–23). The default interpretation of the Mustard Parable is to contrast the small seed with a big plant or (even) tree, but the parable is a contrast of values in two different empires, the Empire of God and the Empire of Rome. Values in the Empire of God mock the magisterial values of Rome. The political Jesus, here again, surfaces when the Empire of God expresses a change in social values.

It is hard for me not to conclude that Jesus was a nonviolent political agitator who used the image of an alternative empire to critique the empire he was in. This must be said with the caution that this does not mean Jesus was a socialist or a capitalist. Words like these from our own time were foreign to Jesus. Moreover, Jesus never had the privilege of voting, and no one should be told how to vote in the name of Jesus. But we can hope, and we ought to hope, insofar as we think religion can have human value, that Jesus still makes us think. Alternative thinking is always dangerous and not always for the good, but a changed mind is also a changed heart. Jesus, in Roman eyes, was a political agitator because his alternative empire promoted thoughts and actions contrary to Roman default values.

In the present United States election, it will be sets of values that are on the ballot. It is no secret that I cannot uphold any value represented by the current president, and I am baffled time and again at Christians whose messianic thinking can be so opposite to what we know about Jesus. Beyond the United States, it seems like our present time in history is about a competition of values. There remains a determined commitment to colonial values in Western nations that hold the default assumptions of racism, sexism, and the use of violence. These values are consistent with what we know about the Roman imperial system and how it was enforced. These values are not consistent with what we know about Jesus and his alternative Empire of God.

©By David Galston

wrapper background