Monday, December 5, 2011
Religion and politics: Was Jesus a politician?
In one obvious sense, Jesus was not a politician. That is, Jesus neither held nor sought public office. By that narrow definition, Jesus was not a politician.
Did Jesus seek to influence the political process?
Jesus did not die because he had committed blasphemy. Had Jesus blasphemed God, the Jews would have stoned him to death (killed him by throwing stones at him until he was dead), which the New Testament Book of Acts reports had to Stephen, the first Christian deacon.
The Romans executed Jesus because they believed he posed a threat to their political power. Pilate, like most Roman rulers of Judea, avoided Jewish religious debates, leaving the resolution of those to the Jewish civic and religious leaders. The Romans, for example, took no legal actions against the Jews who participated in stoning Stephen for blasphemy. The New Testament text notwithstanding, Pilate would never have ceded his authority to authorize capital punishment to mob rule. Jesus died because the Romans feared that he was organizing, or would organize, a revolt against their political power. In that sense, Jesus was a politician, i.e., a person who exercised political power (not political authority) by influencing others.
From the death of Jesus until sometime in the mid to late fourth century when Rome recognized Christianity as the Empire’s official religion, Christianity largely existed apart from formal political structures. Often, Christians, members of what was then a pacifist religion, sought to remain anonymous for their own safety. Yet persecution was frequent and typically brutal. The Romans recognized that the Christian demand for loyalty to the one living God alone and insistence on creating a community of justice and love among believers implicitly threatened the Empire’s very existence. What Pilate had seen in Jesus, other Roman leaders recognized in the early Christians. Christianity, if fully adopted, incarnated a set of ethics inimical to politics as usual.
Liberation theologians have articulated a hermeneutic of suspicion, that is, calling Christians to question the faithfulness to Jesus of ethics and policies endorsed by rulers. Jesus lived an ethic that favored the sinful, the sick, the outcast, and the hungry. The one person in the gospels who appears to turn away from Jesus is the rich young man to whom Jesus had told, in response to the man’s question about life abundant and subsequent declaration that he had kept the commandments, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Jesus socialized with the rich and powerful; some of the rich and powerful, changed by that experience, made reparations to people they had defrauded and gave large sums to the needy. But the focus of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been with the most vulnerable and neediest in society.
A genuine Christian perspective on politics mirrors Jesus’ focus. The Christian’s political engagement is distinctive because Christians seek the well-being of all creation rather than narrowly focus on benefits to self, family, or nation. The Christian’s goal is not the increase of his/her wealth, but equal prosperity for all. The Christian’s goal is not ensuring adequate food, water, shelter, and healthcare for self and family, but ensuring that all people have fair access to those necessities. The Christian when injured does not seek an eye for an eye, but rather seeks to restore the alienated to the community, to heal the broken, to comfort the dying, etc.
The radicalness of the Christian gospel is the expectation and attempt to live Jesus’ ethic in the present. Jesus’ ethic challenges those who seek to live for self (or family, clan, tribe, or nation), implicitly threatening to erode the hierarchies, the lopsided distributions of power and wealth, and the values (greed, self, etc.) that perpetuate the status quo. This is why the Romans executed Jesus. This is why the Romans often persecuted Jesus’ early followers. And this is why many people today, both in and outside the Church, would prefer to deny the political implications of Christianity.
Christians agreeing among themselves on broad principles and basic moral values is far easier than their agreeing about specific programs and policies. Holding similar values is no barrier to reaching divergent conclusions about the same (and often different) information, information processed by brain patterns shaped by different sets of genes and experiences. This is why the Church bears a plural witness, sometimes with members advocating radically opposing positions (e.g., although all Christians agree about respecting life, the dignity and worth of all people, and the importance of individual freedoms and rights, the Christian community sharply divides about the morality of abortion and gay sex). A secular democracy that welcomes religious views as part of public discourse but does not seek to establish legislatively a particular set of those views best coheres with the underlying Christian emphases on respect for the rights and freedoms of persons, justice, and other core values.
Even as Jesus was a politician – a person whose beliefs had significant political ramifications – so Christians in seeking to emulate Jesus inevitably become politicians. Like Jesus, each must decide whether to try to increase her/his political power and how to use her/his political power in support of which causes. Ultimately, the Church best uses its authority to provoke, stimulate, and engage people in political discourse without having the hubris to presume that it can speak authoritatively and without error for God. Religious organizations that claim to speak authoritatively for God, whether on the right or the left, inevitably miss the mark (one of the definitions of sin) and proclaim a message other than the gospel of Jesus.