The Political Jesus
The gospel is, in many respects, political. The same is true of the Bible in general. The story of the Exodus is a liberation story. From the burning bush God said to Moses, “I have heard the cries of my people.” Those people, of course, were living as slaves under an oppressive emperor. God’s response to that injustice was liberation.
The Revelation to John, although quite violent in nature, is an appeal to the justice of God. Christians living under the rule of an oppressive regime appealed to God for the replacement of that regime with a rule of peace and justice.
At Christmas, Christians read the Magnificat, the song Mary offered after the angel told her that she would bear a son who would be a savior. In the Magnificat Mary, claimed that Jesus would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful while lifting up the lowly and that he would fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty. Later in Luke, when Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he points up his questioner’s hypocrisy by telling them to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar while rendering unto God that which belongs to God. By that, Jesus meant Caesar would get nothing. If God is sovereign over creation then creation belong so God; nothing really belongs to Caesar. This is the same Jesus who said that the poor are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed, the hungry are to be fed, and the sick are to be healed. This message was rejected by first century elites. It is sometimes ignored by Christians today.
In first century Rome, order was maintained through the threat of violence. Twenty-first century American leaders appeal to law and order and the strongest military in the world to maintain peace at home and around the world. In first century Rome, there was no middle class. The wealthy exploited the poor. Today we lament the shrinking middle class as our nation’s leaders are bought and paid for by those favoring the wealthy.
Many early Christian communities were communities of resistance. People did not trust their rulers to act in their best interests. In early Christian communities the sick were cared for, the poor were fed, and resources were shared. When early Christians proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord” the implicit sentiment was that Caesar was not. To call Jesus a king was to reject the sovereignty of imperial rulers. To pray, “… thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…” was to pray for political change.
Christian resistance to imperial power was subtle but it didn’t go unnoticed. Initially, Christians were persecuted. Later, imperial powers enticed the church to cooperate by offering to share power.
Understanding Jesus in this context can help the Christian Church renew its appreciation for resistance to injustice. As people today begin to look for a more just and less violent order, the message of Jesus in its context becomes more and more important.
On Friday and Saturday, April 27 and 28, Dr. Celine Little (Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary) and Dr. Arthur Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University), will be at University United Methodist Church in East Lansing, MI, to discuss “The Political Jesus.” Both are Fellows in The Westar Institute. Westar seeks to bring the latest and best historical and theological research to the public through its Jesus Seminar on the Road programs. We invite you to join us on April 27 and 28 in East Lansing to consider whether Christianity today might benefit from considering the early church as communities of resistance offering alternatives to imperial power.