As a political opinion writer, I am generally amused by many of the critical comments people leave on my website or my Fox News Opinion pieces; sometimes I am amused because the comments are insults, other times because they are patently inane.
Yet, other times, the critical comments should be taken seriously because the commenter intends them seriously; one of the most serious and recurrent criticisms is that, “Christians should not be involved in politics and public life at all. Jesus wasn’t political, and he never asked us to be political.” In effect, they are saying “Withdraw from politics and public life.”
So, was Jesus “political” during his time on earth?
In certain contemporary American senses of the world “political,” no he was not. He never took out newspaper ads telling the folks in Nazareth to “vote for option C in the sewage referendum.” He was not a government official and never ran for public office. He never spent his free time on Facebook yelling at people from the other side of the political aisle, employing a generous use of the CAPS LOCK and !!!!!!!!!! keys to make his points.
But in a deeper sense, Jesus’ ministry was profoundly, thoroughly, and inescapably political. Here are three proofs of the political nature of his ministry:
1. Jesus’ last name was not “Christ.”
Jesus’ last name was not “Christ.” In other words, when he went to the doctor’s office and the nice lady at the window asked his name, he did not reply, “first name ‘Jesus,’ last name ‘Christ.’” Christ is not a last name but a title, a Greek word referring to the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, whose salvation had not only personal, but social, cultural, and political connotations.
The Roman Empire formed the context of Jesus’ ministry. Like Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, the Roman Empire offended the Jews not only by publicly worshiping idols, but by being a constant reminder to the Jews of their own unfaithfulness to God. This sort of frustration led the Jews to long for the promised Messiah who would restore them from exile; the long-awaited Messiah would act decisively on their behalf, and he would do it politically.
So when Jesus declared that God’s kingdom was at hand (Matthew 3:2), his audience heard him loudly and clearly: a political kingdom was on the rise. Nobody imagined that Jesus envisioned an a-political series of radio devotionals or tent revival meetings. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright describes the situation well:
Jesus’ message was after all inescapably political. He denounced rulers, real and self-appointed. He spoke of good news for the poor. He led large groups of people off into the wilderness, a sure sign of revolutionary intent. He announced the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem temple. At the start of a festival celebrating Israel’s liberation, he organized around himself what could only have looked like a royal procession. And he deliberately and dramatically acted out a parable of the temple’s destruction, thus drawing on to himself the anger of the authorities in a way which he could never have done by healing lepers and forgiving prostitutes (though we should not miss the revolutionary note in his offer of forgiveness, whose real offence lay in its bypassing of the temple cult). . . . He died the death of the lestai, the political insurrectionists (Barabbas, and the two crucified with Jesus, were lestai). How could he not have been ‘political’?
One reason contemporary readers might miss the patently political aspect of Jesus’ kingdom is that, during his first coming, he intentionally avoided military might and traditional avenues of power. But make no mistake: when Jesus demonstrated time and again that he was Lord, and when the early church declared “Jesus is Lord!” the net effect was to declare that Jesus was Lord and the Roman Caesar was not. It doesn’t get any more political than that.
2. Jesus promised he would institute a one-world government and a one-party system.
When Jesus preached his gospel of the “kingdom,” he was saying that he would return one day to institute a one-world government and a one-party system, with him as the supreme ruler. The book of Revelation depicts this kingdom as one that is characterized by justice, love, and peace; in which worshipers from every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship him (Rev 5:8-9) from a capital city called the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2), in which there will be no more pain and no more tears (Rev 21:4-5).
What, then, are we to think of Jesus’ statement to Pilate that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36)? Should we think that he means his kingdom will be located “up and away from the earth” in some sort of ethereal never-never land? No. In fact, his kingdom will be a renewal and restoration of this cosmos. Should we think of his kingdom as being located in the inner recesses of people’s hearts? No. His kingdom is holistic encompassing both the spiritual and material, both the private and public, aspects of our lives.
What Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom was “not of this world” is that it would not be characterized by sin or by sin’s consequences. Unlike today’s kingdoms, it would be characterized by love rather than self-love, justice rather than injustice, peace rather than war.
Another oft-misinterpreted statement of Jesus’ regards the famous dictum of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:13–17). Does this mean that our lives are divided into two realms, in which we let the government have supreme rule over the public aspects of our life, while we let Jesus rule over the private aspects? Absolutely not. It means the opposite. It means Caesar’s role is limited, but Jesus’ is not. He is saying something to the effect of, “Look at this coin. It’s got Caesar’s face on it. Fine, he can have it. Pay your taxes. Be a good citizen. But never give him your ultimate allegiance. That belongs to God alone.”
3. Jesus’ suffering teaches us how to be political in this era before he returns.
But, somebody might object, “Jesus was crucified; and if you are right that his ministry was political, doesn’t that mean that he failed in his political aims?” This is a good question, and the answer is “no.” The worldly powers crucified Jesus because they didn’t want a Messiah who would disrupt their rule. And Jesus willingly gave himself to be crucified so that he could save us from our sins and for a life as ambassadors of his kingdom (2 Cor. 5:20). We remain his ambassadors to a lost world until the time he returns to consummate his kingdom.
But not only did he die to make us ambassadors of his kingdom; he suffered to show us how to be ambassadors of his kingdom. This cross-shaped pattern of witness is immediately relevant to Christians who find themselves being disempowered and decentered socially, culturally, and politically in the midst of the American Empire. As painful as this decentering has been, we should embrace the moment. We should accept the challenge to serve our nation from a position of weakness.
After all, our Lord reigns from a tree. His first coming did not take the form of an ascendant political movement to subvert the reigning powers and replace them with better rulers. Instead, it took the form of a humiliating and painful witness, even in defeat. In fact, when the risen Jesus said to the apostles, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he held out his hands and side to them, affirming that their public witness would also be cruciform.
A cross-shaped political witness will be prophetic; just as Jesus declared that he is Lord and Caesar is not, so we must challenge the cultus publicus of the American Empire. A cross-shaped political witness will be sacrificial; just as Jesus ministered as a homeless itinerant teacher, we must be willing to serve our nation from a position of weakness rather than power, and in the face of disapproval instead of applause. A cross-shaped political witness will be humbly confident; as dark as our political moment may seem, the realm of politics will one day be raised to life, made to bow in submission to the King. Since Jesus will gain victory and restore the earth, we remain confident. And since it will be his victory, we remain humble.
When he returns victorious, American Christians will meet him first and foremost as Christians. But we will also meet him as Americans. Being American is not the most important aspect of our identity, but it is an inescapable aspect and one for which we will give account. For that reason, we owe it to our nation to follow the way of the cross, to minister from a tree just as our Lord now reigns from a tree and only later will reign visibly from a throne.