On April 8, Jesus showed up on the cover of Newsweek magazine. That doesn’t happen every day so it’s worth examining. The article, written by Andrew Sullivan, makes the point that Christianity is in the midst of a crisis. People under 40 are leaving the church, and the church has done little to deal with this issue.
Sullivan argues that one of the primary problems is that the church has (from the beginning) politicized Jesus, and our culture has taken this to extreme. Thomas Jefferson attempted to deal with the problem by creating a Bible which contained only the sayings that could be attributed directly to Jesus. Of course, Jefferson himself was the arbiter between the “diamonds” and the “dunghill,” as he put it. Sullivan’s answer is not to edit the gospels but to use Francis of Assisi as a model for understanding the character and ministry of Jesus once again. Francis’ ideals become Jesus’ ideals. Best of all, Francis was, like Jesus, apolitical.
That’s an interesting statement. The question is whether Jesus was apolitical. Certainly, Jesus was not political in the way conservative Evangelicals tend to be political. He (and none of the NT authors) didn’t call the Roman Empire to become a Christian empire, and he didn’t attempt to bring a new morality to the Empire. However, to claim that Jesus was apolitical is to misread him.
It all begins with Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. Mary has just learned that she will bear the Messiah, and she sings of him bringing down the powerful and raising up the weak. The second half of her song is all about politics, at least in its largest sense.
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus uses a parable about workers earning the same wages regardless of how long they worked. Labor unions would have risen up against him had there been any. In Mark 10:17-31, he tells a successful young businessman to sell all that he has gained in the free market and give it to the poor. Rush Limbaugh would hardly approve. In Mark 12:13-17, Jesus tells his disciples to give to Caesar what belongs to him (taxes) but nothing that belongs to God. In Matthew 26:55-56, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom was not about violence.
Jesus spoke frequently about politics, just not the kind of politics to which we are accustomed. I don’t think we can ever read the gospel without seeing Jesus’ political side.
What does that mean for us? It doesn’t necessarily mean that we align with one party or one cause. What it does mean is that we understand that the word “politics” comes from the Greek word polis, meaning city. The city was the building block for ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta were hubs of the culture. What is interesting is that for the world of Jesus, one city claimed to be the hub: Rome. The early church didn’t see it that way. The church was the polis. The church was political. They didn’t put signs in the church yard for one candidate or another. No. The church didn’t take political stands for or against the emperor. the church was the life of the people. It was their community, their polis. Their lives were organized around the life of the church. What mattered to Jesus mattered to the church.
We have determine what mattered to Jesus and allow it to matter to us today. And we have been too quick to focus on one or two issues and forget the rest.