The Politics of Jesus
It is a mistake that religious people make, and no less a mistake because it is all too common, to believe that religion and politics exist in discrete spheres that should have nothing to do with one another. This belief arises both from a misinterpretation of the concept of the separation of church and state and from some unfortunate teachings by Martin Luther and others, who suggested that a so-called “secular” realm exists and that God has given the administration of that realm over to political rulers, leaving the church and “spiritual life” in the hands of religious leaders. I firmly believe in the importance of the separation of church and state, but that does not mean that we as persons of faith must bow out of any role in political affairs, world without end, amen. That kind of abdication of responsibility strikes me as cowardly and unwise.
A large part of the problem comes in the way we define politics. For many of us, in this country at least, “politics” has been reduced to the machinations and maneuvering of the two major political parties, each jockeying for the upper hand and seeking to sabotage the efforts of the other. But that is an impoverished understanding of a far more profound and encompassing subject. And it’s an understanding that our ancient forbears in the faith, including Jesus and Paul, would have found utterly bewildering.
Politics, after all, is a term rooted in the ancient world. The word itself comes from the Greek word polis, which means a city-state. The most recognizable examples of poleis in the ancient world were Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and the like. For thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, the polis, like the family, was the one of the fundamental units of social organization. Citizens of the polis enjoyed certain rights, played specified roles, and held definite responsibilities to the polis itself and to their fellow citizens. Politics, then, was a question of the arrangement of these rights, roles, and responsibilities. It had to do with the fair distribution of resources among the citizenry. Politics was not about campaigns or ideologies or voting, except as these secondary concerns enabled the citizens to carry out the primary task of deciding who got what, when, and how.
That is the definition I use when I say that Jesus of Nazareth was a political figure, and that Christian discipleship is a political matter. Everything about Jesus’s ministry signaled his concern for the just distribution of resources and the proper arrangement of his new communities. Through healings and exorcisms he demonstrated concern for the physical, social, and spiritual wellbeing of his people. His practice of open table fellowship, his signature teaching that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and his willingness to accept women as disciples underscored his determination that his communities would function according to a different set of values than the wider world. His feeding of the thousands in the wilderness, his instruction to pray for daily bread, and his insistence on the forgiveness of debts showed that mundane matters of money and food were not beneath his concern. And his consistent challenge to religious leaders and the agents of Empire highlighted his intention to establish a new polis that would be faithful to the covenant between God and Israel and offer liberation to those suffering under systems of oppression. He called his new polis the reign of God.
The notion that Jesus was political in this sense may be hard for us to accept, conditioned as we are to shy away from that sort of language when it comes to religion. But we are not the first or only ones to be tripped up by Jesus’s brand of politics. Simon Peter, the Rock himself, becomes so disturbed by what he hears from his rabbi that he takes him aside and rebukes him. Just a few verses before today’s passage, Peter earned Jesus’s commendation for identifying him as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), but when he objects to the next thing Jesus has to say, he gets some serious comeuppance. Jesus calls him Satan, and accuses him of being a stumbling block, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 23).
What Peter has objected to so strenuously is Jesus’s prediction that he will be rejected by the chief priests and scribes and elders, undergo great suffering at their hands, be killed, and then be raised on the third day. Peter has no problem envisioning Jesus as a political figure, but he cannot countenance the notion that the one he has named “Messiah” and “Son of the living God” would ever face such an ignominious reception by his people. Peter is so incensed by this suggestion that he exclaims, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (v. 22).
After Jesus calls out Peter for his effort to steer him away from his path, which Jesus equates with the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, he turns to his disciples and spells out his true politics, and the politics of anyone who wishes to follow him. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (vv. 24–25).
Peter is mistaken not because he expects the apolitical Jesus to have a political mission, but because he misunderstands the nature of his politics. Peter has in mind the popular notion of what the Messiah will be like: a military commander and king in the mold of David. Except for a brief period of self-rule about two hundred years earlier, the people of Galilee and Judea have lived under the thumb of a series of foreign oppressors for the last half millennium, ever since the Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem and sent the people into exile. Even the century or so that a Jewish dynasty, the Hasmoneans, ruled from Jerusalem turned out to be no picnic, as they proved to be just as corrupt and oppressive as the Persians and Syrians and Romans. The people have been pining for deliverance from their overlords for many generations, and Peter thinks he has identified the deliverer in this young rabbi from Nazareth.
What a rude awakening it must be, then, for Peter to hear Jesus talk about his impending death! Then, when he attempts to correct Jesus, explaining that that is no way for a Messiah to talk, it must be an even ruder awakening to be called a stumbling block who is in league with the devil. On top of all that, imagine Peter’s chagrin when Jesus starts talking about self-denial, losing one’s life to find it, and carrying one’s cross. Peter knows that crosses are for slaves, rebels, and those who are defeated in battle. So why on earth would Jesus be talking about these things? After all, he commended Peter when he identified him as the Messiah. What is going on here?
What Peter has failed to understand is that Jesus has no interest in being a king like David. As a matter of fact, he considers that model of messiahship shortsighted and counterproductive. In Peter’s political calculations, the enemy is Rome, and if Rome is the enemy then the key to his people’s liberation must be someone who is powerful enough to defeat the Roman legions in battle. But Jesus sees the situation differently. He perceives that the real enemy is not Rome, just as it was not Babylon or Assyria or Egypt before them. The real enemy is the spirit of Empire itself, the oppressive domination system that operates through violence, competition, greed, and fear. This system has existed from the dawn of humanity, merely changing its outer appearance as a different empire briefly becomes king of the hill. Jesus knows that there is no way to defeat such an enemy through raw power or violence, because such a triumph only means that one oppressor takes the place of another, and no real change ever happens.
No, to defeat this enemy one must take an entirely different approach, one that seems counterintuitive, even foolhardy. The power of domination must be met by the power of subversion. Violence must be countered by nonviolence. As Martin Luther King would later say, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Where the politics of Empire employs a divide-and-conquer strategy that fosters suspicion and competition, the politics of the reign of God encourages sharing, cooperation, and mutual support. Where the politics of Empire operates according to a me-first philosophy, the politics of the reign of God says those who wish to be great must become servants. Where the politics of Empire says win at all costs, the politics of the reign of God says to save your life you must be willing to lose it. Where the politics of Empire uses the cross to terrorize and subjugate its subjects, those who participate in the politics of the reign of God pick up the crossbar and willingly carry it to the place of execution.
To the world’s way of thinking, it makes no sense whatsoever. To the mind of a disciple who is committed to the nonviolent way of the reign of God, it’s the only thing that does make sense.
A few decades later, Paul takes up the theme of the surprising and peculiar politics of the reign of God in his letter to the church in Rome. To those who live at the heart of the Empire, in the belly of the beast, as it were, he gives instructions on how to live the countercultural life of citizens of God’s polis.
He tells them, among other things, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (vv. 9–10, 13). In contrast to the domination system’s emphasis on competition and mistrust, the reign of God is characterized by love, mutuality, and sharing.
Paul goes on: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (v. 14). Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
“Live in harmony with one another,” Paul says; “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (v.16). Those who want to be first must be last. Those who want to be great must be the servant of all.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if you enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 17, 19–21). Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
What both Jesus and Paul offer us in these readings is a strategy for living lives of faith and courage in the midst of a dark and dangerous world. And that is a matter of not only theology or spirituality or piety, but also of ethics and politics. Whether we hoard or share is not only a personal matter but also a political one. Whether we respond to abuse with abuse and violence with vengeance is a matter not only for our souls but also for our bodies. Whether we bless or curse when we are cursed demonstrates not only our spiritual substance but also our dedication to God’s reign. Whether we take up the sword or the cross tells the world about not only our religious devotion but also our political commitments.
We each have a choice. Every day we are faced with choices about how we will live our lives in the polis of the world. Will we choose the politics of Empire that says get yours and to hell with everybody else, or will we choose the politics of Jesus that says we’re all in this thing together, so let us love and serve and live peaceably with all? Will we swim with the current, make no waves, and rock no boats, or have we decided to follow Jesus—no turning back, no turning back?