Nearly every week I hear from readers with the complaint that I am writing politics under the guise of religious commentary. It’s a fair observation though I am almost tempted to say, “Yeah, but the other guy started it!”
By the other guy I mean, of course, the current hyper-politicization of Christianity by the political and religious right.
So let me confess. I do have a political interest in religious issues, and a religious interest in political issues. What I don’t have is any interest whatsoever in linking my faith to a particular political party. The good news that Jesus announced is way too important to trust in the hands of mere political parties.
That said, it is necessary to pause for a moment and remember that Jesus’ message did have a political edge to it. In fact, one of the great losses to Christianity in the past few decades is an adequate understanding of Jesus’ politics.
Fortunately, there is help. One of the best studies ever written about Jesus’ message was penned by a Mennonite scholar by the name of John Yoder. The title of his classic work is, appropriately enough, The Politics of Jesus.
The book is not an easy read–Yoder is no Max Lucado–but the message is compelling and well documented. Yoder’s basic assertion is that Jesus’ politics grew out of his commitment to a social and theological agenda of non-violence.
Israel in the first century was a conquered nation. Rome ruled over all, and paid for their world conquest by means exorbitant taxes. Imagine being taxed for the privilege of being held captive.
Anger and resentment bubbled just under the surface in Israel, and occasionally boiled over into violent resistance. Jesus knew that sooner or later these uprisings would push Rome too far and when that happened, the retribution would be quick and devastating. Jesus told his followers that “not one stone would be left upon another” when that terrible day came.
So Jesus counseled a non-violent response to Roman occupation. His compelling images of “go the second mile,” and “turn the other cheek,” were aimed at those who suffered at the hand of Roman legions. In essence Jesus was saying, “Don’t give them the pleasure of humiliating you. Keep your dignity and rob them of their advantage over you.” Rather than giving in to the violence by becoming violent, find creative ways to resist the tyranny.
Jesus’ commitment to non-violence had other applications as well. Reading the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was concerned about the violence inflicted by abject poverty. He called on his followers to care for “the least of these in your midst.”
Yoder points out that Jesus invoked the language of the Jubilee found in the book of Leviticus. This ancient custom involved canceling all debt and restoring land to original owners. The Jubilee was God’s way of ensuring that poverty would not persist generation after generation.
Underlying all his teachings was Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. The expression certainly carries political overtones, especially when uttered in the hearing of Roman soldiers. But Jesus wanted his followers to have an identity based on the values of God’s kingdom rather than the values of Caesar’s empire. In God’s kingdom there is peace and care for the poor. In Caesar’s empire, then and now, this is not the case.
So, doing politics in Jesus name is not necessarily problem. Let’s just be sure we do the politics he was doing.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.