The Politics of the Church

politics-of-jesus-buttonFor Christians, the political question isn’t “who should I vote for?” but rather, “how do the politics of Jesus inform my public action?” It is fitting then that yesterday, on the Sunday preceding America’s presidential election, the Gospel reading came from Luke 6: 20-31 which lays out the political platform of the Son of God: enemy love, economic liberation, a special concern for the poor, condemnation on the rich and powerful, welcoming the refugee, and neighborliness. When one views the Beatitudes up against the Bill of Rights, it is striking how dissimilar they are to one another. For Jesus, politics were nothing if not personal, local, liberating, and selfless. And like us, his formal political options were limited.

Jesus had three political choices in first century Palestine. He could align with the conservative Herodians (think Moral Majority), who colluded with Rome to carve out their own religious and political hegemony. In one of the grossest acts of religious nationalism, Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, and put a Roman eagle on the entrance. Or, Jesus could reject co-opting religion and power by joining the Essenes, who refused social and political involvement by retreating to the desert to carve out their own sectarian community. Finally, he could bear arms with the Zealots by rising up in violent revolution against the jackboot of Rome.

Instead, like most “lesser of two evils” positions, Jesus chose neither. Refusing collusion with Rome and violent revolution against her, he instituted a third way of being political by putting to speech and action the kingdom of God. As a colonial subject, Jesus never tried to redeem the empire’s politics, nor has he asked us to do so. In fact, from his first temptation in the wilderness to the final temptation of Christ in the garden, Jesus resisted political power as a just means to His Kingdom’s good ends. Instead, he instituted his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven by modeling faithful presence and redemptive suffering in a violent world.

Sadly, since Constantine wedded and bedded the church at Nicea, Western Christians have believed that the best way to bring about the Kingdom of God is in and through the kingdoms of this world. It’s an understandable mistake whereby church and state became consensual partners birthing a culture uniting clergy and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities whereby the church legitimized the activities of the state and the nation enforced the decrees and status of the church. Christendom converted the church from a subversive community of Jesus followers into a compliant acolyte of the empire. Think about it, when was the last time you saw the American #church significantly challenge institutional power instead of defending it? And in their will to power, many evangelicals continue to confuse their particular and fallible political opinions with the cause of Christ. Lacking both the education and imagination to realize that the church has transformative agency without power, they demand a Christian assault on Washington. Having “power over” the culture is the only way they understand the political process.

But that isn’t revolutionary enough. In this modern version of Christendom, the oppressor and the oppressed simply switch seats, and the throne of power remains unshaken. But Scripture never endorses such an strategy. In fact, it calls into question any political power that protects it’s own vested interests at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. “Can the one who goes the way of the cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?”

On the contrary, the Biblical narrative is a revolutionary manifesto against vested institutional power. Whether its Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or the Davidic Dynasty, God’s judgment falls on the predatory imperial claims of permanence, totalism, and invincibility. Truth rarely if ever resides within established institutions of power. Instead, it is delivered through the un-credentialed: poets, prophets, and the poor. Scripture “shows us two major political strains: the kingship/priestly hierarchy, and the prophets who critiqued the crown and temple.” Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Scripture presents us with a continual contestation between imperial power and God’s truth. It’s Moses confounding Pharaonic totality by delivering God’s people from bondage. It’s Elisha turning poverty into abundance at the exclusion of the king who is both unable and impotent to do so himself. It’s the state execution of Jesus and God’s utter refusal to allow the empire to have the final say over life and death. While the empire may have power, the people of God have agency. We are his faithful presence in the world offering new ways of being political without force and dominion.

The Politics of Jesus is a clarion call is to wake up the American church resting far to comfortably in the bosom of the empire. In fact, the church has always been most effective at doing what she was designed to do during a time in which she had absolutely no political power.

It is therefore possible to be political without power. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “Christians should get involved in politics the way porcupines make love, very carefully.” Here are 6 ways the Body of Christ can impact key platform issues without coercion, dominion, or power.

  1. War: We will no longer send our youth group to fight in America’s wars. We will no longer kill other Christians simply because they wear a different uniform. We will finally take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies and confront the demonic lie of redemptive violence.
  2. Immigration: We will convert our empty church buildings into housing for the immigrant and the refugee.
  3. Abortion: We will provide healthcare, counseling, and homes for women with at risk pregnancies and we will critique the systems of gender inequality and injustices that lead to so many marginalized women becoming pregnant against their will.
  4. Welfare: Following the example of Acts 2:42 we will share our resources openly and liberally ensuring that not one person in the community of Christ has any physical need.
  5. HealthCare: Believing in a holistic theology of life, we will appropriate 10% of our operational budget to provide for the basic well being of every member of our community.
  6. Education: Believing that children are people and not products, we will provide a living educational experience that exposes students to the “Great Recognition”, that all learning is sacred, that the goal of education is to produce life-long learners who are known more for what they care about than simply what they know.

Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord means that the President is not. Jesus was incredibly political, he just refused to play by the rules set down by the powers that be. He never petitioned for female equality, he gave it to them. He never voted to end poverty, he fed the masses. The politics of Jesus, and the faithful politics of the church will come about not from the center of power, but from the periphery as we daily offer the world an alternative to the politics of scarcity, monopoly, and violence.  Do you want to make a difference in the world?

Be faithful to your wife.

Become a foster parent.

Befriend a person with a different skin color.

Invite your neighbors over for dinner and a beer.

Raise nonviolent children.

Hire a female as your senior pastor.

Support your local food pantry.

Give freely to that guy at the corner.

Yes, vote. But as you vote ask yourself this question: Which candidate will do the least amount of harm to the ‘least of these’? And after you leave the ballot box, do the real political work of bringing about the Kingdom by practicing the subversive politics of Jesus. Re-read the Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice. Bring the Kingdom to God to life on your street and in your neighborhood by being his faithful presence in a world that only recognizes power and dominion.

God has given Jesus dominion over the nations. “The task of the church is to bear witness to this reality and embody the reign of Christ here and now in our daily life.” Then, and only then will we offer the world a Christian alternative to politics as usual. And finally, love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before your God and your neighbor.