Tag Archives: politics

The Myth of Apolitical Jesus

politics-JesusSilly liberals! Jesus wasn’t political! Do you read about him protesting outside of Pilate’s fortress? Did he sign petitions for Herod? Did he work to pass legislation protecting Israel’s streams, lakes, and underground water supply? Was Jesus concerned with fair wages for farm workers? Did he advocate for an 8-hour work week?

Let’s see… no, no, no, no, and… NO.

Jesus wasn’t political. Jesus didn’t concern himself with big government. Jesus advocated for personal responsibility. Jesus wanted people to strap on their sandals themselves and get to work!

 

The 33 A.D. Election in Israel

My little caricature here is over the top, but it’s not too far from what I hear sometimes in discussions with my fellow Christians about Jesus and politics. I hear that Jesus wasn’t political, that he worked outside the system, and that he was primarily concerned with the Kingdom of God.

There’s something true about all of that. I won’t dispute what we find in the Bible. I can’t point to a super secret passage that we’ve all been overlooking where Jesus lobbied for better insurance protection for fishermen. Jesus never ran for office, campaigned for new laws, voted in elections, or organized protests outside of the palaces of his rulers.

Fine. I’ll concede that point.

The big problem is that we take this observation and take it as the once and for all time blueprint for political engagement as followers of Jesus. The application is flawed because Jesus lived in a completely different time from our own.

Want to protest the personal decisions of king Herod? Ask John the Baptist how that worked out for him.

Care to propose a new law to Pilate? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind adding another person to his collection of crosses outside the city gate.

Want to vote in an election? How about just trying to not get speared by the occupying Roman army?

Jesus lived in the midst of a military occupation that installed puppet kings and governors who couldn’t care less about the plight of the people under their rule so long as the people didn’t rebel, continued to produce food for their storehouses, and paid their taxes.

There was no voting, no representation, and no way to express political will outside of hosting a rebellion—a surprisingly common tactic around the time of Jesus. In fact, everyone feared that Jesus was on the brink of launching a rebellion.

Jesus wasn’t involved in political activity like us today because that simply wasn’t an option.

Whether Jesus involved himself in activities that intentionally subverted the political systems of his time is a point that’s up for debate.

I think it’s quite possible that he took jabs at the power of Rome through his teaching to walk the extra mile with a Roman soldier’s pack as a way of countering abuses of power with an act of generosity. His comment about faith moving mountains may have referred to a power greater than Herod’s desert fortress that was built with mounds of earth and rock that formed a small mountain.

Jesus also took his shots at the Jewish authorities who were a blend of civil and religious power. When he overturned tables in the temple, he was acting out against the powers of his time.

However, we once again don’t have a modern equivalent for something like the Sanhedrin.

 

What Does Jesus Teach Us About Politics Today?

I’m often struck by the way Jesus invited a wide variety of political viewpoints into his camp of followers. There were working class, uneducated fishermen, revolutionaries, and tax collectors. The latter two may have had some sharp exchanges at times, but we never read anything about that.

There is an inescapable spirit of inclusiveness with Jesus, but nailing down a particular path forward for political engagement is frustrating. I don’t think we can make a compelling case for Jesus as a small government conservative or as a big government liberal.

The political system back then is so different from modern democracies that we’re left with a jumble of hypothetical scenarios.

This touches on a bigger issue of Biblical interpretation: How do we apply the Bible’s teachings in a different time to our daily decisions today?

While I don’t think we can use the Bible to create a political action plan that is beyond dispute, we should certainly use the Bible to inform the ways we vote, legislate, and govern. The challenge will be figuring out how to apply something like “Loving our neighbors as ourselves” to governing.

However, we could wander in confusion or we could use this lack of specificity as an invitation to let the Holy Spirit guide our imaginations. How is the Spirit leading you to love your neighbors?

You may be lead away from politics completely.

You may love your neighbors through a nonprofit organization.

You may work to pass fair laws for prisoners.

You may advocate for better environmental protection.

You may work within or outside of the government to end human trafficking.

You may take to the streets on your own to help anyone you can find.

I don’t see one political action plan from the Bible. I see Jesus advancing the Kingdom of God and welcoming people of every persuasion into his camp.

Christianity today can be big enough for all of us, whether we believe in big or small governments.

My bigger question is whether you’re being faithful to the lead of the Spirit as you love your neighbors.

I’ll support anyone who loves Jesus and is helping their neighbors inside or outside of the government. I just don’t buy that Jesus was apolitical. Jesus was most likely more political than we realize, but he also lived in a time when true political engagement was all but impossible for a common peasant from a no-name fishing community.

We can’t make one-to-one comparisons between the politics of Jesus and our politics today.

In one sense, that is a very, very good thing. We are free to serve others in the best, Spirit-led ways possible.

Postscript: My thanks to Zack Hunt whose blog post sparked a series of comments that helped inspire this post.

It’s Impossible to Speak of the Gospel Apart from Power

Some Christians speak and write of the Gospel as a purely private matter of deliverance from personal sins and an empowerment to live in holiness. Heck, some just focus on the deliverance from sin and leave things there.

I hear over and over again that we need to be “Gospel-focused” or “Gospel-centered.” It’s often stated as a kind of critique of those dedicated to addressing the seemingly peripheral issues of Christianity.

  • Don’t address the problems with patriarchy… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t talk about political corruption… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t speak of economic inequity… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t call out abuses of power in the church… just focus on the Gospel.

Defining the Gospel has been a sort of ongoing street fight among evangelicals of late. I don’t expect that I can resolve all that much with this blog post, but I want to explore one aspect of the life of Jesus as it relates to defining the Gospel and at least leave everyone with something to chew on.

How Jesus Announced the Arrival of God’s Kingdom

The politically charged message “Jesus is Lord” and even the phrase “Gospel” were appropriated from the Roman Empire. The “gospel” was an announcement from the Roman Emperor, who was known as “the lord.” Jesus took hold of these common phrases used by the powerful and offered a remixing of that word according to his own message.

While Jesus certainly depoliticized these words from their Roman usage, he didn’t necessarily move completely away from the public and political realm. Jesus didn’t launch a political party, but he also wasn’t unconcerned with the issues of his day. He just addressed them through the message of God’s Kingdom coming.

When we speak of God’s Kingdom coming, we’re not just talking about the cross, although it was an essential part of it. The message throughout the New Testament of God’s Kingdom and Jesus as Lord was spoken directly counter to that of the Romans even though the Kingdom of Jesus was different from Rome in just about every way.

The Gospel addressed the powers of our world, but it didn’t address these powers on their own terms.

What This Means for the Gospel

To say that we want to “only” focus on the Gospel and then speak of personal salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only captures part of the picture. The Gospel literally proclaims freedom to captives, but it’s not a politically organized freedom. There is both a spiritual element to this and a physical reality of freedom.

We can both pass along spiritual and physical freedom to each other, living as if the Kingdom of God is truly present and among us—because it is. We can give generously to one another because God’s Kingdom has come. We can pray for emotional or physical healing because God’s Kingdom has come. We can treat the least as the first because God’s Kingdom has come.

Our opportunities for living in the Kingdom of God and embodying the Gospel’s message, Jesus is Lord, are all around us:

When a single mother encourages an overwhelmed new mother, the Kingdom comes.

When a family delivers a meal to those who can’t provide for themselves, the Kingdom comes.

When a child offers a pile of her clothes to those in need, the Kingdom comes.

When the most fearful and insecure Christian prays with confidence for a friend in a dark place, the Kingdom comes.

The Gospel isn’t about standing around the cross for the rest of our lives.

The Gospel sends us running down a dirt road in the early morning hours to find an empty tomb.

The Gospel fills our rooms with fire and wind, giving us words we would never find on our own.

The Gospel gives us confidence to lay hands on a friend and to pray as if God can actually do something.

The Gospel steadies our minds in a chaotic world because Christ has overcome the world.

The Gospel breaks our hearts for those suffering from the consequences of their pasts.

The Gospel is incarnation, God among us, God broken for us, God risen for us, and God forever in us.

The Gospel is too big to keep it inside of ourselves or to be confined to a dark Friday morning outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of our Lord started with the arrival of God among us, and it continues every time we live in the freedom and peace that our Lord’s presence brings.

The Gospel is freedom, hope, peace, healing, and salvation. It has everything to do with confronting the powers of our world, whether that’s an abusive church, an abusive government, or an abusive relationship.

Every time we live as if the power of evil has been defeated, every time we mend the broken, every time we tell the powerful they can’t bully the weak, and every time we tell the fearful and lost about our wounded healer, we proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s Lordship over every power in this world.

Note to Readers: Today’s post is the second of a 3-part series covering 3 things that are impossible for evangelicals.

Jesus Loves Failures: Jesus and the Evil Roman Empire

If you asked me in an unguarded moment, “Who do you hate?” I would probably reply, “The New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Cowboys.”

Not too deep, I admit.

Still, I have so many childhood memories of both teams crushing my hopes as they swept aside Philadelphia’s ill-fated sports teams year after year. Everyone around me hated the Devils and Cowboys. It wasn’t just something I experienced. It was something we all experienced in my championship-deprived city.

If the frustration of a sports fan isn’t a first world problem, I don’t know what is.

It’s not like the Devils stole our land or the Cowboys taxed us into poverty. My sports angst can’t compare to what a bunch of people endured in the ancient world.

The Jews in the audience of Jesus didn’t know a hat trick from a boot leg, but they knew what it was like to be under the boots of Rome’s soldiers.

Remember what Jesus said about Roman soldiers making the Jews carry their packs a mile?

Remember how John ordered a few Roman soldiers to stop extorting the Jewish people?

Remember how the Romans made someone else carry Jesus’ cross?

That’s just a little sampler of life under the corrupt, oppressive, cruel, and destructive rule of Rome.

If you wanted to make enemies in Jesus’ day, you just had to help out the Romans. That’s what being a tax collector was all about. Great pay, lousy social life.

For all of the anger against Rome’s occupation in Jesus’ day, both John the Baptist and Jesus went seemingly soft on Rome and may have even been considered compromising themselves. Perhaps the most flattering thing a patriotic Jew could say was that Jesus remained aloof and non-committal in his politics.

As I said before, John simply commanded the Roman soldiers to be content with their pay. He didn’t ask them to leave the occupying army.

Jesus never forced a Centurion to leave the Roman army.

Jesus even included people in his band of followers who made their money by serving Herod, Rome’s puppet king.

Whose side was Jesus on anyway?

Jesus challenged the Roman soldiers to treat the Jews with equality and mercy, but he fell far short of what many freedom fighting Jews would have expected.

Jesus never left people where they were without an invitation to live differently, but he didn’t necessarily create the kinds of boundaries we may have expected. It is quite likely that Jesus imagined a community where a Roman soldier could worship God next to a patriotic Jew.

It’s easy to understand why Jesus wasn’t always Mr. Popular.

Much ink and more pixels have been devoted to trying to nail down the politics of Jesus. Was he just a moral teacher? Was he only concerned with spiritual truth? Did he fight to subvert the Roman Empire?

I think Jesus surprised and disappointed everyone.

I don’t think he opposed or supported any one side enough to make anyone happy.

What would he say today?

I’ll take a few guesses.

Are you a Republican? Pay your employees fair wages, tax with equity, create jobs among the poor too, and fix the loop holes that give the rich an unfair advantage.

Are you a Democrat? Don’t rely on the government to always care for the poor, don’t just fight for the middle class since the poor need you too, and stop acting like abortion is a good thing.

That’s just my guess.

I’m also guessing that Jesus would hate the Cowboys.

If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that he definitely hates the Devils…

 

This post is part of a Faith and Politics Synchroblog with Andi Cumbo:

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A World Where Everyone is Dangerous?

I grew up among conservative Christians, and between the radio and various things I heard from others, I developed a sense that the world is somehow full of dangerous liberals, both religious and political liberals, who wanted to somehow destroy our nation and my religion. That fear was followed by anger and a kind of hostility where I just wanted “those people” to leave us alone.

bombLife was simple. I knew who the “dangerous” people were. I feared their agenda, and listened to people who acted as watchmen, protecting me, my country, and my faith.

Yesterday I realized that the tables have turned quite a bit in my mind.

Today I think I fear extreme conservative Christianity and politics a lot more. Why do I fear them? Because I believe they’re dangerous, though for a different reason. I have fallen into the same exact trap as before: developing an irrational fear that a whole segment of America is “out to get me.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about who is actually out to get us and whether everyone around us is really all that dangerous.

Continue reading

Raise My Taxes Please

UPDATE (4:30 pm): The title of this post may be causing confusion with some readers. This is not a pro-Democrat post. I am not advocating for Christians to rely on the government to solve all of our problems. I’m trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to stir some discussion about the absurdity of a government that would ask the poor to make sacrifices and not those who are wealthy. I apologize if I misled some readers about my main point.

I used to work in Vermont where a lot of people from New York City retired. They had nice homes and many of them were kind and generous people. However, whether or not they were nice people, I often caught myself behaving differently with people who had more money.

Sometimes this could be chalked up to a haughty air or something about their manner that I couldn’t quite process. However, I think I was naturally inclined to be more respectful if I perceived someone had more cash in his bank account.

It’s really the most ludicrous thing ever.

It also explains, in part, why wealth is such a deceptive force in our lives—promising us security and respect. Such a promise works because it’s true in part, even if it’s based on flawed logic. We naturally want to make people who have money happy.

James rebuked the readers of his epistle for showing more respect to the wealthy than the poor. Those with money represent industry and respectability, the very things we want for ourselves. It’s as if we’ve stopped seeing God in others and only see monetary value and the qualities associated with earning money.

Instead of seeing a fellow bearer of God’s image we see a price tag.

A lot of this starts in our own hearts, but I think this matter of seeing people in terms of dollar amounts is on display in our nation right now. In fact, both political parties are doing it.

As our nation debates how to cut our spending, something that I support in principle, we have immediately looked to the programs that impact the poor among us such as heating assistance.

Just a few months ago we heard that we couldn’t let tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans expire. Today we’re hearing that politicians wouldn’t dare touch Medicare or social security. So we need to let thousands of families go cold for the good of the nation.

This isn’t a partisan issue. Both parties are missing this completely, and it needs to be said: This is immoral.

We haven’t touched the Pentagon’s budget. Nuclear weapons sit comfortably in their silos, warm and well provided for while the poorest among us will go hungry and cold.

How many of us have ever been hungry and unable to do anything about it? How many of us have ever shivered uncontrollably?

So here’s my solution. I want the politicians to cut into my future social security payments. I want the politicians to raise my taxes. Cut away at defense spending and put my safety at risk. Don’t cut funding to the poorest people in America.

I want to lose. The poorest people should not have to take this hit.

If our politicians aren’t brave enough to cut away at our defense spending, tax the wealthy, and cut services to the middle class, then their only solution is to chop away at the poor. That’s unacceptable.

As a follower of Jesus, I don’t really care whether we cut spending, raise taxes, or do a mix of both. However, I must speak up when I see injustice against the poor. It’s easy to cut funding to the poor because we don’t really care what they think of us.

We should not try to win the future by stepping on the backs of the poor. If that’s the plan, then we all lose.

The Gospel as a National Security Issue

cross-flag1

Over the past weekend I had a chance to hear a variety of Christians speak about writing and our call to be ambassadors for Christ. For the most part I was encouraged by the sincerity, kindness, and insight shared among these believers.

However, at certain key points I heard speakers, some who spoke to large crowds, sharing a kind of counterfeit version of the Gospel that almost left me in tears. I’d like to address this matter, but I want to avoid words like “danger” or “threat” that just inject venom and anger into these discussions. I’d rather just say that I heard some sincere followers of Jesus clouding and possibly distorting the Gospel and particularly our motivations for sharing it.

I’ll spend the majority of my time focusing on my understanding of the biblical witness concerning what the Gospel does and why we should share it. I’ll end with a few words of caution about ways Christians have distorted these ideas.

What Does the Gospel Do?

The Gospel reconciles us with God. I think we can all agree on that. As we join others who share the same Spirit and relationship with God, we form the people known as the church. We have all been saved and sustained in the same way.

The Gospel makes us citizens of God’s Kingdom, which is the other worldly and this worldly place where his will is done. When we pray, “Your will be done, your Kingdom come,” we are asking God’s Kingdom to expand on earth as his will is done.

Why Should We Share It?

We share the Gospel because Jesus asked us to do so, because it is the way others can be saved, and because God intensely loves his creation and longs that all would come to know him. We don’t share the Gospel to preserve our churches, to ease our egos, or to give a soul fire insurance. We want others to know the joy and freedom that comes from knowing Jesus today, sharing in his sufferings, and moving toward eternal life with him.

What’s at Stake

In getting back to our problem of a distorted Gospel. I heard several speakers challenge the Christians present to preach the Gospel in order to preserve America’s Christian character and to prevent God’s judgment from falling upon us. One speaker made it clear that Democrats were to blame. Such teachings cloud the real reasons why we should share the Gospel and what it accomplishes.

I used to think that America was a Christian nation, so when I speak of Christians who operate from this assumption, I can identify as a former insider. The trouble is that the Kingdom of God cannot be affiliated with the agenda of any one nation since the Gospel is Good News for “all people” and “all nations” are blessed through Abraham.

In addition, classifying America as Christian at its founding raises serious historical questions since many founders were deists, slave owners, and generally greedy and corrupt. While some may have resembled evangelicals today, crediting good fortune to Providence—a common practice among the founders—did not make someone a Christian.

Christian sociologist Bradley Wright has also found that there is a much higher proportion of Christians in America today than during the Revolution. We could point at some places where Christianity impacted the founding of America, but calling America a Christian or godly nation from the start is a mistake that only white Americans could make. Our African American friends have much to teach us in this regard. America’s history is not a fall from grace spurred on by Democratic politicians. It’s more realistically a mix of high and low points.

Having said that, we should not ignore the possibility of God’s judgment. The Old Testament shows that time and time again God will judge a nation that neglects the poor, allows corruption, attacks its enemies without mercy, and concentrates wealth among the few to the detriment of the many. These are real, bi-partisan problems to consider in America.

Nevertheless, we should seek righteousness and preach the Gospel not as a means to preserve America or to keep America as a Christian nation. That turns the Gospel into a self-serving, political tool that unintentionally brands unbelievers and sometimes Democrats into religious terrorists who are calling down God’s judgment on America and only the true patriots will hold off destruction through their preaching.

In a sense, this kind of thinking turns the objects of God’s desire, those who do not know him, into enemies who are ruining our country and our place as the keepers of our country. Christians are servants who are called to follow Jesus and Jesus alone. Even allegiance to one’s country cannot be allowed to cloud the goals and motivations behind our calling.

I won’t say that such teachers are ruining Christianity or America, but they are distorting their Christian practice with political agendas and suspect history. As I stated in Coffeehouse Theology, an unexamined context can influence our theology and fool us into thinking that we are free from its influence.

Sadly, there are still some evangelicals who are failing to consider how American culture and particularly conservative politics are skewing their understanding of the Gospel and our mission as believers. They can be Christians who happen to be American patriots. That’s a different conversation. Our problems come when they create a Christian patriotism that uses the Gospel as a means of preserving America.

America is not the light on a hill. The light is Jesus shining through his people—a people that is not limited to those found in America.

The Christian Quest for Legitimacy and Influence in All the Wrong Places

We’ve seen Christians latch on to enough movie stars, beauty queens, and politicians to realize that we are in the midst of legitimacy crisis. This is rooted in wanting to be viewed as legitimate, powerful, and influential in both our government and in popular culture.

Our situation speaks to not only an identity crisis, but a legitimacy crisis. Are we truly making ourselves and the Gospel we preach more legitimate by leeching on to celebrities?

You can probably guess what my answer is going to be…

When Jesus said that all authority on heaven and earth have been given to him, he was locating the source of influence and power in the world in himself. A crucified Messiah who overcame the world through his death and resurrection leads us down a path that helps us fulfill the Beatitudes today: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek.

In such a Savior and in such actions are where we find our identity and legitimacy.

The Messiah did not establish his Kingdom by fighting for influence on the top. He did not recruit “role models” to his cause. He initiated a mustard-seed style Kingdom that makes a mockery of our celebrities and politicians.

How can Christians find legitimacy and influence in the world today?

To quote a wise man: Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, start following Jesus, and claim your treasure in heaven. To be perfectly blunt: we need to lose.

We can’t beat the world at its game because Jesus never intended to play that game. The more I consider what it looks like to follow Jesus, to pick up my own cross, and to die to myself so he can live in me, the more I’m beginning to realize that Jesus peals away all that we value so that we can trust in him more perfectly.

What do we want more than Jesus?

Judging by the way some Christians fawn over supposedly Christian celebrities as their standard bearers and fight for political power and influence, I think we can ID a few things pretty easily. However, bloggers such as myself treasure influence and readership, theologians crave being right, and the list goes on because we all have our idols to identify.

Once we identify those things that we want, disciples of Jesus need to give them up. Stop worrying about them. Stop fighting for them. Lose.

It is only in losing the fading things of this world that we experience not only the intimacy of Christ, but are enabled to speak to our world with true influence and power: the influence and power of Christ. We can’t speak with the authority and power of Christ fighting for influence, recognition, and power at the top. 

Paul reminds us that we are seated with Christ in heavenly places—not earthly places. Let us throw aside all that we crave, all that overshadows Christ so that we can claim our true identity and influence as loving servants of God’s Kingdom who are poor, meek, and peaceful.