Politicizing Christ

An old friend of mine posted this article on Facebook this morning.  It has been many years, decades, even, since we were last able to sit down and have a theological conversation.  I know that our trajectories in terms of theology diverge rather markedly in some areas, and this article is a good reminder of that.

The article purports to give ten reasons why Jesus himself would not be accepted as a political candidate by evangelicals today.  We’ll ignore the fact that Jesus is not a political candidate, and that when He returns it isn’t going to be a matter of whether evangelicals support him or not.  The fact is that his own people rejected him – I have no doubt that both liberals and conservatives would find reasons to reject him today as well.

But the rationale the article lays out is just so bizarre at times.

Free healthcare.  The Gospels account many instances where Jesus grants healing.  Such healings continued after his death and resurrection and ascension.  But it’s also likely (if not obvious) that not everybody was healed.  Jesus’ main purpose was not to provide free healthcare and healing, but rather to give signs that reinforced what He said.  Healings were not in and of themselves his purpose, but they pointed to the greater, perfect healing that his death and resurrection would promise to all who believed in him.

Let’s presume for a moment that free healthcare was Jesus’ main point.  If such were true, it would be no means mean that any attempt to give free healthcare is the same as Jesus’ free healthcare.  Jesus’ free healthcare was actually free.  Free healthcare as conceived and implemented here in the USA is anything but free.  It comes with a high cost that is hidden and distributed soas to make it appear that it is free.  Jesus was pretty keen on honesty as well as healthcare.  Let’s be honest about who is really capable of offering free healthcare.

Class warfare.  Jesus did not come to pit the poor against the rich.  Nor did He mandate state-sponsored wealth redistribution.  He was vocal about caring for all people – not just poor people.  Jesus loved the rich young man, after all!  (Mark 10:17ff)  Jesus warned of the dangers of riches more than he attacked the rich for being rich.  Being rich is problematic only in how those riches can waylay and distract us from our trust in God.  Those riches are not problematic in and of themselves just because not everyone has them equally.

Immigrants & the poor.  Jesus stood behind the social mandates of the Old Testament.  Our love of neighbor is best defined by how we treat the least of these.  Caring for the poor and for the foreigner is a major theme throughout Scripture, but at the same time God created social and cultural practices that effectively isolated the Hebrews from much of the surrounding nations and cultures.  He created them as a very separate people, not by building walls but by dictating aspects of their everyday life that marked them as unique and that necessarily separated them.

And again, Jesus did not argue that the State should redistribute wealth to the poor, but rather that each individual should take seriously their personal obligation to be of assistance to the marginalized in their society.  You can’t translate Scripture’s call to this kind of holiness into a public policy mandate for a secular government.  Not even the theocracy of Israel was successful in doing that!  I, personally, need to take steps to care for the poor and marginalized around me.  Jesus makes this clear.  He does not make clear that a bureaucrat somewhere on the other side of the country should take my money forcibly to redistribute it to those that they see fit to.

Taxes.  I don’t have a problem with taxes nor do I know any conservatives who do.  Do I like them?  Not particularly – but that’s because I feel I no longer have any meaningful input into how they are spent.  Decisions are made locally and nationally on spending that are not dependent on tax revenues but on political agendas.  Accountability is pretty low in these regards because the solution is always available to raise taxes.  I’m happy to pay my share towards the services and amenities I enjoy, but I also don’t think this requires me to unquestioningly and uncritically allow others to dictate what my share is and how it is used, particularly in a country where I ostensibly have the right to protest and be involved.  I believe this attitude is consistent with Jesus’ teaching as well as Romans 13.

And all of this ignores the basic issue that Jesus is responding to a trap laid by the religious authorities in an effort to get Jesus to advocate not paying taxes, a Roman criminal offense.

Protests at churches.  Churches have always been places where confrontations with the larger culture have occurred (or even begun), so I’m not sure what the point is here.  And Jesus didn’t ransack the Temple because of social policy!  He drove out moneychangers and animal sellers because the Temple was not an appropriate place for such activity.  He didn’t claim that they were cheating or oppressing people, but rather that they were misusing God’s house.

Name-calling.  I think we need to be careful here.  There is a fundamental difference between mudslinging on a political or personal level, and the authoritative judgments of the Son of God.  Did Jesus call every religious leader names?  Of course not.  He doesn’t call Nicodemus names in John 3.  Why does the author specify Graham and Falwell?  Are there evangelical leaders the author doesn’t think would earn Jesus’ negative attention?  I’m sure there are.

Death penalty/Soft crime – Jesus at all times and in all ways upheld the Old Testament.  He never contradicted it but only clarified it.  As such, He was apparently not anti-death penalty.  Jesus didn’t stop the execution of the woman caught in adultery – he clarified the reasons that the religious leaders had specifically brought her to Jesus and made an issue of it in front of him (yet hadn’t, for some reason, brought the man as well).  Oh, and since the Jews weren’t technically allowed to execute someone for a religious offense, the woman likely wasn’t in mortal danger.

What is the goal in dealing with crime?  Is it to make the criminal suffer, or is it to restore that person to right behavior?  I suspect that we like to think that our ideas about crime are restorative – we put people in prison so that they have time to reconsider their life choices and rehabilitate themselves.  Statistics are pretty clear that this generally isn’t happening.  Which leads me to think that our ideas about crime and punishment are punitive.  We simply want to punish.  We want that person to suffer because we suffered.

Jesus makes clear that God the Father’s goal is restorative.  He is concerned with finding the lost sheep, restoring the prodigal son rather than sentencing him to hard labor simply because it feels good.  The author also fails to mention that Jesus does pronounce sentence on the woman – go and sin no more.

Christians of all stripes need to recognize that simply demanding that crime be punished is counter to our faith.  We don’t imprison or fine or castigate because it feels good (or at least we shouldn’t).  Rather we do these things as regrettable necessities towards the end of restoration, towards changing someone’s life.  Jesus is able to do this without executing the woman or imprisoning her.  This doesn’t make him soft on crime – it makes him hard on sin.

Loving enemies. I would again stress the importance of not trying to translate individual attitudes into national policies.  I am not to hate my enemy.  My nation cannot hate an enemy – a nation is an abstraction and extension of the citizens (at least in theory).  I am not to hate my enemy, but I am not commanded to let him kill me, either.  God is pretty big on national defense in the Old Testament, and in fact takes action against his people sometimes because they don’t trust his ability to protect them from their enemies.

I don’t find the Biblical call to love our enemies inconsistent with a national defense policy.  It should guide how we craft such a policy and for what reasons.  It should truly be defense, the ability to protect ourselves against forceful aggression when other means of resolving the situation have failed.

Gun control.  Jesus came to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice, the spotless, divine lamb of God.  We have to understand this first and foremost.  What does He tell Pontius Pilate during his interrogation?  In Matthew 26:43 Jesus claims that his heavenly Father could and would send more than 12 legions of angels at Jesus’ request.  That’s 72,000 angels.  It isn’t that Jesus isn’t capable of defending himself (or being defended) but rather that He is obediently waiving that capability.  The Matthew 5 text the author cites has nothing to do with force – it has everything to do with the state of our heart.  We are not free to discount or hate someone who disagrees with us, even if they threaten us.  While we may be free to defend ourselves, we do so as such – in defense, not in hatred.

Whether I carry a gun (or a stick, or a pocket-knife) is not the issue.  The issue is the state of my heart, because the state of my heart towards others will determine how (and whether) I use that gun or stick or knife.  We might also consider Jesus’ curious words in Luke 22:35-38.

Kingdom of God.  I agree with this completely.  Yes, the Kingdom of God is here and now not just there and then, and we are to take seriously our role as citizens of that kingdom here and now, not just there and then.

 

I dislike attempts to co-opt Jesus  from either side of the political spectrum.  What He does and promises is far beyond what any of us can conceive of, and I have no doubt beyond what most of us are comfortable contemplating within our sin-soaked experience.  There will be plenty of liberals and conservatives shocked and offended at the Kingdom of God.  I just pray that they’re all inside of it when it is fully revealed!

 

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4 Responses to “Politicizing Christ”

  1. Daniel Peterson Says:

    I am very much on the side of Luke 22:35-38 herein mentioned. Only if we be prepared will we not fear. I think that means self-defense.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Hi Daniel and welcome!

      I don’t think that Jesus is necessarily dealing with self-defense here, but it seems like a reasonable text to bring up if someone wants to broadly paint Jesus as a huggy pacifist. Jesus knew very well the difficulty his message would cause the world and those who follow it. I don’t think self-defense is Scripturally precluded, but regardless of our point of view we need to be very careful about drawing Jesus into our corner on things. It didn’t work very well for the religious and political leaders of his day, either!

  2. Lois Says:

    I just keep remembering the remark to Pilot, “my kingdom is not of this world.” That’s still true and we still tend to forget it.

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