Monday, March 08, 2010

Jesus the Politician

It's cute, quaint, and totally wrong -- but I hear it frequently when I get into political "discussions" with other Christians. At some point (I suspect it's usually when they sense they're losing the argument) they will tell me: "Well, we shouldn't be arguing about this stuff, because you didn't see Jesus making political speeches and campaigning or fighting for social causes. He was all about changing lives, one individual at a time. The important thing is getting to heaven, not politics or social justice."

Seven quick points:
  1. There is no such thing as a human action that is not political. All human actions are political, because there is no human action that has no effect on fellow human beings. None. All of my actions, even if done in secret, have an effect on my identity, and unless I live in complete, total solitude somewhere, I will interact with other human beings at some later time, and I will do that on the basis of who I am, which includes every act I have ever committed. There is no such thing as a human action that is not political.
  2. Jesus died as the result of a political execution. Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the Empire. His calls for allegiance clearly were threatening to the powers that be.
  3. The concept of the "kingdom of God" is not a call to have your mind drifting among the clouds. It is a call to live out the kingship or the reign of God in your life each day. "Kingdom of God" does NOT equal "church," though we would hope there would be a great deal of overlap. But, just as there are parts of my own life that are not fully under God's reign, so there are parts of his creation that are in rebellion against him. In fact, the whole creation is fallen, and "waits with eager longing" for the redemption promised to the children of God so that the whole "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). Ultimately, God's plan is to bring everything he created back under his reign. That is the kingdom of God.
  4. When Paul the Apostle tells Christians that their "citizenship is in heaven," he is not telling them to abandon God's creation as if it were worthless. After all, when God created it, he pronounced it good. Yes, it is fallen, but that pronouncement was never reversed or taken back. Even the "burn it up" text of 2 Peter 3 includes a "new heavens and new earth" clause, equivalent (perhaps) to Paul's (2 Cor. 5) and John's (Revelation 22) "new creation" concept.
  5. Jesus' ministry is a revival of part of the Jewish tradition that seems to have been neglected in his day -- the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. That's why he uses Isaiah's text in Luke 4 as a paradigm for his ministry. The prophets, of course, were staunch advocates of social justice. Just as all human acts are political, all human sin is social sin. The Hebrew prophets address societal and systemic sin = oppressive social systems. The "system" was rigged to advantage the rich over the poor and to oppress the widows, orphans and strangers. God's "justice" isn't to give a person what he or she deserves, it is to defend the defenseless, to show mercy to the people who are disadvantaged. "Give the king your justice, O God," begins Ps. 72. When the king has God's justice, it is shown in his acts of mercy: "For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (Ps. 72:12-14; cf. Isa. 1:17, et al.).
  6. There is no concept in the Bible that is equivalent to the modern concept of the individual. Our modern concept is just that: modern, having been invented during the modern or Enlightenment era by such philosophers as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. This concept was unavailable to the ancient writers, for whom the human being is always a part of some community or communities. Even in the famous "the soul that sins shall die" text of Ezekiel 18 must be understood communally. The sins Ezekiel lists in that chapter are societal and communal sins (for some, you have to check their context in, for instance, the holiness code of Leviticus 18). Yes, the "individual" will be held responsible -- for sins against the covenant people and the covenant God. To break covenant with God is to mess up the people's covenant with God (the covenant context is explicitly set up in Ez. 17). So, even here it is a mistake to read into the ancient text a modern concept of the individual.
  7. Jesus, therefore, also did not have our modern concept of the individual, and salvation in the New Testament is not individualistic. Nowhere do you find one of our favorite modernistic construals of salvation: "You must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." It's not a biblical phrase and not a biblical concept. Salvation is always corporate: it occurs "in Christ." Count the number of times in Ephesians 1 you find the phrase "in Christ" or its equivalent. All of God's blessings on Christians, including that of salvation, are said to occur "in Christ."
Summary: if you understand Jesus in the way proposed in the introductory paragraph above, you've misunderstood Jesus. That's not a judgment on your salvation, just on your scholarly preparation.

If someone were to want to do the scholarly preparation, here are three books you should start with -- all by John Howard Yoder, one of the foremost scholars of the New Testament in the last half of the 20th century.

  1. John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Herald Press, 1971).
  2. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972).
  3. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: The Gospel as Social Ethics (Notre Dame, 1984).