Silly 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.