Years ago, I was in a class that tackled the question of whether Jesus (and, thus, Christianity) was purely spiritual or had a political dimension. These days, the hijacking of Christian words and symbols for decidedly unChristian political goals has inspired more than a few Christians to try to escape the question by declaring Jesus apolitical. The Jesus thing is a personal thing, they say. I dug out my notes from that class, and boy-howdy, they still apply. The short answer is this: Jesus is, according to the Gospel, a model of radical political action.
Read the Gospels — heck, pick Luke, the one most bent on minimizing the political “threat” of Jesus – and read it with the question: Is there a social ethic in here?
Jesus was political. Big time. Which, in turn, means there’s no pretending that our* Christian spirituality somehow transcends politics. Indeed, our Christian spirituality demands to drive and direct, to inspire and inform, our politics. (*I’ll presume the reader is Christian, because this won’t be of much interest to non-Christians.)
Let’s start at the beginning, before Jesus’ birth, when Mary sings:
He has shown strength with his arm, He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich he has sent away empty.
That’s an announcement of the birth of someone who is to be an agent of radical social change. You don’t get much more political or more progressive than that.
There are political messages, too, in the angels’ proclamation of “peace on Earth,” in the expectations of Simon and Anna, in Luke’s identifying Bethlehem as the city of David, and in Matthew’s report of Herod’s fear and massacre of the infants. But let’s move past the Christmas story.
Fast forward to the grownup Jesus facing the Tempter: All of the options laid before Jesus by the Tempter are ways of being king, and Jesus rejected them all. That’s a political message.
As Jesus begins his preaching, Matthew and Mark tell us, he does so with political terms: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” If Jesus had meant for his teaching to be purely spiritual, he would not have started it with a political term (and “kingdom” was far more political to his listeners then than it is to us now). The word “gospel,” too, had a social and political meaning back then that is lost to the modern reader.
Consider the passage from Isaiah 61, one which Jesus turned on himself:
He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives;
And recovering of sight to the blind;
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
That’s an expression of what was expected of the messiah, and it’s said mostly in social and political (and progressive) terms.
The term “acceptable year of the Lord” refers to the jubilee year, the time when all accumulated debt is to be forgiven and all people begin again at the same point. When you compare Jesus’ concept of the coming kingdom with the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year, you see the former heavily influenced by the latter. And when you read the Gospels with the jubilee proclamation in mind, new light falls on some of the “harder” parables. And, yes, it is a political light.
In the plain meaning of his words, Jesus (like Mary) was announcing the start of a new social and political order (one characterized by values we’d call progressive) and, of course, the start of a new mentality for those who believed his news.
When Jesus proclaimed that the Gospel was also for the Gentiles, and not just for the Jews, he made another political and progressive statement: He was undercutting the nationalism and racial egoism of his time and place.
From here, Luke reports that Jesus becomes increasingly effective at reaching the multitudes and faces a rising backlash from the religious and political establishment, including some angry scheming. “In these days,” Luke writes, Jesus concluded a night-long vigil by naming his 12 key messengers – in other words, his response to opposition was to formally found a new social order, creating a movement that would extend his reach in time and space and challenge the existing political and social structure in ways that mere words never could. Note that he picked 12 messengers, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel – a direct political challenge.
Luke’s account of the sermon on the plain is even more political than Matthew’s of the sermon on the mount. The blessings are for the poor and the hungry, not the poor in spirit or those who hunger for justice. Luke focuses on personal and economic conflicts and envisions a social order in which debts are forgiven and property is not reclaimed. In this sermon, as in the jubilee, debt is the definitive social evil.
The Lord’s Prayer is a third instance of Jesus defining debt as a great evil. The versions of the prayer, including the one we use in my church, that replace “debt” with “offense,” “transgression,” or “trespass” are simply in error. The Greek word opheilema specifically and precisely means a monetary debt in the most material sense. The Lord’s Prayer is a jubilee prayer, and Jesus was making a direct link between the practice of the jubilee and the grace of God.
Understanding how political this was, and why it was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, requires understanding a bit of the economics of the day. The demands of King Herod and his sons and the Roman empire caused the common folk to go into debt to the wealthy and to lose their land, their goods and their freedom. Compounding the deadly weight of debt were the sums extorted from the people by the debt-collectors hired by the absentee owners. These dirt-poor sharecroppers paid debt, rent, and tax far above what they actually owed, and they really had no one to turn to for help. In the end, the former farmer could be sold, along with his wife, children and extended family, into slavery to retire his falsely inflated debt.
Read the parables of the merciless servant and the unfaithful steward in this light, and Jesus’ theological politics, or political theology, is clear: To commune with God, the path of the jubilee must be followed.
In Luke’s 13th chapter, Jesus is warned that Herod seeks to kill him – which Herod could not do for spiritual teaching or prophecy, even if he considered it heresy. The only possible charge is a political charge: sedition. Indeed, if Jesus was not political and not being understood as political, Herod would have no reason to fear him and want him dead.
When Jesus speaks in parables – a political act in itself – he often mocks the political rulers and system of the day. For instance, the parables of the builder and the king who too hastily commit themselves to enterprises, the costs for which they are unprepared, were certainly heard by Jesus’ audiences as allusions to, and mockery of, Herod who had recently engaged in a rash war and overly ambitious building plans. We who enjoy Stewart and Colbert may find it hard to understand, but in those days merely alluding to a king’s foolishness was a dangerous political act.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, the conversation with the Syrophoenician woman and the talk with the “rich young ruler” all show Jesus as both political and progressive. His transformation of the “natural” commandment to love your neighbor into the commandment to love your enemy show Jesus as radically progressive.
That transformation of the law also marks Jesus as a progressive, and it wasn’t the only instance. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus contradicts the law of Exodus 21, when he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
He transforms the law again in Mark 2:23-27, when he’s caught “breaking” the law against working on the Sabbath and declares “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
And Jesus goes full radical on the law in John 13:34-35 when he issues a new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
If they had the equivalent of our Constitutional “originalists” or “textualists” back then, Jesus must have driven them crazy. In true progressive fashion, Jesus adapted and evolved the law to meet human needs and changing times and understandings.
Consider that never once does Jesus scold his followers for expecting him to set up some new social order – which is what he would have done if his teaching were purely spiritual. Instead, when Jesus scolds them he does so for their misunderstanding of what his new social order would look like. For Jesus, the alternative to the existing political and economic systems was neither withdrawal into spirituality nor violent imposition of a new king. Jesus’ alternative was “servanthood.”
Even when, in Mark, Jesus calls on his followers to “take up their cross” and follow him, it was likely heard as a political statement. “The cross” was well and widely known as an instrument of political torture, terror and the standard punishment for sedition, insurrection and the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.
When the temple leaders tried to trap Jesus with the question about the denarius, the question and the trap were both obviously political. In fact, unless Jesus was already understood as one who repudiated the Roman empire, and understood as one who would likely give an answer for which he could be politically denounced, the question and the trap would make no sense. (Ironic, then, that so many erroneously read this story as “proof” that Jesus was apolitical.)
The stories about the end of Jesus’ life on Earth also point to his political nature. Luke emphasizes the ironic tragedy of the trade of Jesus for Barabbas – a Zealot leader convicted for insurrection and murder – and the execution of Jesus in the manner reserved for political crimes under the mocking sign, “King of Jews.”
The fact that both the Jewish and Roman establishments broke their own rules in the “trial” and execution of Jesus tell us, too, just how seriously they both took Jesus’ political threat. Both governments were protecting themselves. It didn’t matter that the threat was unarmed and nonviolent, it still bothered them enough that they were willing to resort to irregular procedures to counter it.
And, of course, the crucifixion – a Roman execution used for political dissidents – says it aloud: Jesus posed a sufficient threat to the political order according to Roman standards.
In short, Jesus was, in his divinely mandated role, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social and political relationships.
That Luke has given us these stories describing Jesus as a kind of revolutionary is particularly important, because Luke was trying to convince his reader, Theophilus, that the Christian movement was not a threat to the empire. Luke would not have invented or added such stories, because they didn’t fit his purpose (in fact, he was trying to downplay them).
OK, so Jesus was political — how do we modern Christians apply Jesus’ progressivism to the issues of our lives? Jesus can’t tell us what specifically to do about global warming, social security or most of our other issues, because such issues didn’t exist in his days on Earth. What’s needed is a bridge from the first century to this one, from theology to ethics, from the existential to the institutional. A small amount of freight can be carried across the bridge – humility, compassion, equality, inclusion, forgiveness, tolerance, peace, and love – but the bulk of our Christ-based ethics, our Christian politics, must be put together on this side of the bridge.
The politics that can be pieced together from the freight that can be carried over the bridge are progressive, and radically so, but that’s a post for another day.