John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

The Political Message of Jesus

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

This post comes out of a Facebook discussion about whether Jesus's message had anything to do with political reality and if we as followers should be involved in political matters.

What had been covered so far is:

  1. Jesus, as a Jew, was the inheritor of an earthly promise (Abraham), was formed by stories of deliverance from political oppression (Passover, the Pharaoh and Moses) and was of the legacy of earthly reformers (the Prophets, like Amos).
  2. He announced his mission as about the Kingdom of God, from beginning to end. He regularly resisted earthly abuse by the religious and political (though the references in writing are more subtle due to danger). He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come to earth.
  3. He was killed by Rome as a non-violent but very real political threat.
  4. His followers wrote about him with titles stolen deliberately from Caesar: "Prince of Peace", "Savior", "the beginning of the Good News (Evangelion)", "Son of God", "Lord", "High Priest". See more here and here.
  5. The book of Revelation is from beginning to end an intentionally cryptic and encoded allegory (of the odd literary genre known as "Jewish apocalypse" or "unveiling", like part of the book of Daniel) of the Roman Empire being defeated by Jesus's kingdom. The overall pattern of the story is based on a Roman foundation myth, but with characters reversed! 666 is a standard 1st century letter replacement code for Nero, the Mark of the Beast (Nero's nickname) refers to a requirement to mark your forehead with ash from sacrifices before entering the market (signifying your acceptance of the Caesar as both political and religious leader), and in the final chapters we see heaven coming down to earth and establishing a city from which the faithful go out to provide healing for those who are suffering. Not a picture of a post-Earth Earth in the future, but a picture of the purpose of the community of Christ established on Earth 2,000 years ago.

See, right now we're inheritors of a Western Enlightenment tradition of "spiritualizing" religion. Yet in Jesus's time, and for much of the world, religion cannot be separated from the rest of our lives. Religion speaks of the shared life, which means it is inherently political (Greek "polis": of the city or society). Maybe it's time to change how we approach this complex issue.

I don't believe Jesus's message for us is about establishing a political entity in his name with physical borders and an army ala David. His message goes much deeper and broader.

We are called to fight against the "powers and principalities": that means the systems of domination and oppression that earth-born empires use against their citizens. We are to be advocates of heaven-born systems of justice, mercy, peace, and well-being for all, especially the poorest and weakest among us.

We are to be the leaven in the dough (not replacing all molecules of the dough!) which makes life more flavorful and better for all.

Jesus spent his life ministry showing us what "the life of the polis" is supposed to look like, under any national regime: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, advocating for those oppressed by the military and the religious.

We must be careful not to confuse this by taking on the banner of being a "Christian nation" in the sense that we use Jesus's name as a weapon against others (which has been our entire history right up to 9/11 and going to war in the Middle East). But I believe we followers of Jesus are called to work toward all nations being "Christ-ian" (like Christ) in the sense that our society looks like Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the poor, making peace and refusing war, etc.

And I believe that with every action we take toward this end, Jesus returns and his Kingdom becomes more established (Matthew 25). This is what we might call "participatory eschatology".

You see, back in Jesus's day, there were many groups trying to establish the Kingdom. Jews had been under division and exile and empire oppression for centuries with little break. They were wondering how the promise of God that they would be a kingdom that blessed all other nations (Abraham) was to be fulfilled. And they had different solutions toward that end:

  1. The Pharisees were a lay reform movement: if we just start doing right as a people, God will deliver us.
  2. The Sadducees trusted in temple ritual: if we get sacrifices right, God will deliver us.
  3. The Essenes focused on purity: if we separate ourselves from the world and become pure, God will deliver us.
  4. The Judaizers looked to power: get in good with the ruling authorities and we'll be saved.
  5. The Zealots wanted violence: start the fight in full confidence and God will end it for us (didn't go so well in 70 and 132 AD).

I see Jesus walking into this conversation and having a different answer to the same question. His answer was to look at the vision of the prophets for what the kingdom would be like, and then having faith that if we all started living as if it was already real it would come to life around us. Again, feeding, healing, protecting, comforting. And teaching his disciples to do the same (not converting people to a new ritual system, but to a new way of living).

Toward this end he called on people to "repent, and believe this good news". This is the same phrase the 1st century historian Josephus used when trying to convince his band of rebels to follow his plan rather than their plan. It simply means "turn" (the word often translated "repent" literally means turn, change) and follow this new path instead of the one you've been on. Be a follower of Jesus's Way (as the early church called themselves) rather than the way of others.

He also confronted Rome's message that violence brings peace. Walter Wink calls this the "myth of redemptive violence". Rome had coins with the motto: "peace through victory", yet Jesus refused that model. In direct opposition to Rome, his "Evangelion" or "Good News" was that peace was obtained from the bottom up, not the top down. Paul played a lot with this motif, the reversal of human wisdom and how Christ made fools of earthly models of power in ways that are still counter-intuitive today.