I have been mulling over this question for quite some time (even blogged before about it here). It is an increasingly significant one particularly since Jesus is frequently used to prop up political agendas from all over the spectrum.
“Support me (or my cause). Jesus is on my side!”
Then there are the theologians and biblical scholars who also make various claims as to the politics of Jesus. Some deny that he had any direct political involvement while others support a highly political Jesus.
Who are we to believe?
Well, you could say it is complex.
In any attempt to sort through this, I think we must first look at the term “political.” If we frame it just in our current cultural usage, then to me it appears that Jesus was not really into politics at all. He could not run for any office. He did not lead any public political protests; make any overt political demands for himself or his followers; try to create an organized political party; or attempt to ingratiate himself to the political powers-that-were during his lifetime. In fact, when an effort was made to draw him into a potential political discussion he deflected it (Mark 12:16-17).
During his life he seemed content to live under the existing Roman political system even advising his followers to not fight against it (Matthew 5:41). This certainly does not paint a picture of a radically political Jesus.
So from this view of the Christ, I personally cannot picture him marching in some rally for or against something now; or leading a political party or movement; or seeking a political office. Would this Jesus even vote? I honestly do not know.
Could he be considered more political within his own Jewish community?
Perhaps this is the better question. He certainly challenged the existing political ruling structure in and around Jerusalem. He posed such a threat to their regime that they manipulated the Roman system to have him killed. Turning over tables and turning out the money changers could certainly be considered a bold political move.
But what kind of politics? Again, he desired no office. He did have followers but even within the Jewish community they never sought political power. Amazingly, just the opposite was true. Jesus specifically taught his disciples to not grasp for the kind of power that defines politics (Matthew 20:25-27). He obviously lived his teaching. So what are we to make of this?
Don’t you think that if the King of Kings so desired, he could have called upon legions of angels, swept the Romans and the Sanhedrin away and taken up residence on David’s throne fulfilling the Zionist Messianic dream?
But he didn’t. That was not his brand of politics.
And I think this is exactly where we end up confused. Jesus is not an American. He is certainly not a Republican or a Democrat and neither does he belong to any political party anywhere. He is not into this kind of politics. Actually embedded within his teaching and that of his followers in the New Testament is a basic ethic, which subvert this brand of politics.
Ever heard of a politician stumping for votes on a platform including “love your enemies” or “turn the other cheek” or “love your neighbor as yourself?” How about “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought” or “bless those who persecute you and do not curse” or “do not repay evil for evil?” Or what about “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another?”
Didn’t think so.
To see the political Jesus just read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It captures perfectly his brand of subversive politics. It undermined the accepted norm—the practice of power politics from both the Roman and Jewish perspective.
Asked to carry a Roman’s bag one mile—make it two. Trying to manipulate the Torah to your advantage—think again! Those “blessed” are not the strongest; the richest; the most advantaged; the most politically placed. No, those truly blessed are the poor; the mournful; the meek; the merciful; the pure; the peacemakers; and the persecuted.
No wonder “the crowds were amazed at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). They had never heard anyone speak such things—especially politicians and people in power.
Jesus’s politics demolishes business-as-usual-politics. Recall Matthew 20:25-27 again:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.
Jesus first followers took all of this to heart. Their grass-roots movement changed the world but not through power-politics. They sought no office nor engaged in any political lobbying or posturing (unless you count Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship for a trial before Caesar).
Instead they were taught to obey and pray for whatever form of political government they happened to be under and to live “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” and not to rebel against such authority (See 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). And these statements were made to Christians living under anything but a democratic form of government.
So how did they change the world then without a political machine; without accumulating power and position?
The answer is the politics of Jesus; the subversive nature of his teaching; and the power unleashed by the Spirit in the Kingdom of God.
This kingdom knows no boundaries; has no nationality; is not limited by any particular form of government; is not beholden to the whims of politicians; does not depend on any nation; and is quite unstoppable.
It has thrived in such hostile environments as totalitarian states and communist governments as well as friendlier democratic and republic forms of governments. Those in this kingdom have their citizenship in heaven and are to be “aliens” and “strangers” in whatever place they may find themselves on the map (1 Peter 2:11).
What primarily guides them; shapes their goals; defines their behavior is not found in any constitution or government document or political platform.
It is the politics of Jesus—subverting the callous; loveless; power grasping; brutal; unforgiving; unmerciful; deceptive; self-seeking; intolerant; murderous; dehumanizing culture through quiet but purposeful kingdom living and teaching.
It was once said of his ragtag group of followers—who without power or any political advantage—“turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
They accomplished this without any ballots or bullets. Rather it was by faith.
Faith—not in any form of government, political party, politician or country, but in the Most High God and his eternal plans for his unstoppable kingdom.
By faith history is changed (see Hebrews 11).
By faith power politics looks puny.
Faith—it seems to me that this is the radical politics of Jesus.
*Note: A while back I wrote another related blog post that might be of interest entitled Christians, Civil Responsibilities and Politics.