I’ve never met a Will Rogers quote I didn’t like, and that is especially true about his thoughts on politics. For instance,
- “Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”
- “Congress meets tomorrow morning. Let us all pray: Oh Lord, give us strength to bear that which is about to be inflicted upon us. Be merciful with them, oh Lord, for they know not what they’re doing. Amen.”
- The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.
Most of my life, I have thought that politics was a disaster and it was best to not get too seriously involved. I was into casual politics. I would vote and pay some attention to what was going on, but I was committed to not getting too serious about anything and just playing the field. Now, it true that a few times I got swept up by the Christian hysteria and thought that a particular election was going to seal our nations’ fate or be the stepping stone to a new great awakening. But for all the hoopla and the rhetoric, it turned out that nothing much changed. And since none of these elections brought in a new great awakening, I decided I would go back to sleep, politically speaking. I decided I would watch from the sidelines, do my good citizen thing and hope that whoever was elected, they would do nothing when they were in office (my philosophy is the less a president does, the better off we are). And I was fine with this political philosophy, but now I see that I was terribly wrong. We have to be involved, deeply involved in politics, but not in the way that you might think. To say we must be deeply political means we have to be the church.
Now, let me give credit where credit is due here. Much of my thinking in this has been shaped by Scot McKnight, specifically in his book, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. Scot is a careful thinker and biblical scholar and has a great grasp on our calling as God’s people living in this day and age and in our culture. All that to say, A Fellowship is well worth reading and would be great for a small group study, as well. But we’re not here to talk about Scot. We’re here to talk politics. And to say we ought to be involved deeply in politics sounds almost blasphemous, so I had better support my statement. So here’s my support: Jesus was deeply political; and so if we want to follow him, we need to be political. Now granted, we don’t often think about Jesus in political terms. After all, he never said, “In my father’s house are many voting booths” or “Blessed are the Democrats for they shall inherit the White House.” But nevertheless, Jesus was very political.
When Jesus first came on the scene, he announced the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Now, we often think of the Kingdom of God as being either the church (not very political) or a private spiritual reality within us (again, not very political) or as the new heavens and new earth when we will worship Jesus and sing hymns all day (again, still not very political). But in Jesus’ day, to talk about any kingdom was to talk about a king reigning over his people in his land with his law. Basically, Jesus was saying (and remember these were some of the first words out of his mouth): “Look around. The kingdom that you see everywhere you go, the kingdom that is advanced by military force and held in place by fear, this kingdom is soon going to be swept away and a new kingdom is going to take its place; and I am its king.” Now, some people would certainly be thrilled to hear such a message (for instance, Mary—she was so excited, she broke out in song! See Luke 1:46-55). But there were others who would be very, very upset. Rome did not allow anyone to be in competition with them, and the power brokers in Jerusalem hated to have their status questioned. But regardless, here comes Jesus and his kingdom platform. He was calling for the Kingdom of God to come and that was a political threat. He was calling for a new reign of justice, of freedom, and of hope for the oppressed. And all of those things are deeply political.
Even the word “church” has political overtones. In the Roman world people used the word “church” all the time, but they never had in mind a big white house with a steeple poking out of its top. “Church” for them meant “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” In other words, to Romans everywhere, the word “church” always carried with it a political connotation. But then Jesus comes along and, after him, Paul. And they both used the word “church” to refer to a new gathering of citizens. But this time it was a gathering of God’s people. It was a gathering of people called out of their culture to be citizens of God’s Kingdom. Jesus actually preferred the word “Kingdom,” whereas, Paul preferred the word “church”; but it really didn’t matter. They both meant the same thing. They both referred to God’s new creation people, a people who would follow King Jesus. And that was a political statement.
But while Jesus was political, Jesus’ politics were unlike anything the world had ever seen before. In fact, they were so different, people had a hard time figuring out if what Jesus was saying could actually be correctly labeled “politics.” Even Pilate, one of the most politically-sensitive people of his day wasn’t so sure. At Jesus’ trial Pilate kept asking Jesus if he was a king because he saw no evidence for it (no army, no power, no money). And so he pushed Jesus to define his political intents until Jesus finally says (Jn. 18: 36): “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” But even then (!) Pilate doesn’t really believe Jesus is a political threat because he goes back to the people and says (Jn. 18:38), “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Believe me, if Pilate thought for a split second that Jesus was truly a legitimate political threat, a king of a band of revolutionaries, he would have crucified him right then and there. He would never had offered to release him. But Pilate did offer to release Jesus. Why? Because he was sure that Jesus’ “kingdom” was just an amalgamation of words and dreams and Jewish hopes, things that had no place in the real world and posed no threat to Rome.
And Pilate wasn’t the only one confused about Jesus’ politics. The disciples were often left scratching their heads trying to figure out what Jesus was doing. Case in point: Mark 10. When the disciples started acting all political, acting like the power-craved, status-driven, authority-riddled rulers of his day, Jesus stepped in immediately and told them in no uncertain terms to stop it (this incident was one of the few times that we see Jesus coming close to blowing a gasket because he was so upset). Jesus glares at his disciples and says: “You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all.” Let me paraphrase this. Jesus says, “I don’t know where you learned to do your politics, but in my kingdom we don’t act like that. And you have been around me long enough to know the difference. You are thinking only in terms of greed and power and prestige, qualities that the world values. But in my kingdom we value things like self-sacrifice, mercy, justice and peace. But in your behavior you are acting like you belong to the kingdom of the world. And I will have none of that.” Bottom line: Jesus was political, but his politics are of a completely different kind. His politics embodied the values and the perspectives of the Kingdom. His politics were the Sermon on the Mount.
We too are called to be political, because we have been called as God’s kingdom people, the church, called to be citizens of God’s kingdom, called to advance God’s kingdom everywhere we go. I love the way McKnight says it: “The primary relation of the Christian to the state is to live under King Jesus in the church, the body of Christ, in such a way that we embody Christlikeness in a way that witnesses to the world. . . . Paul’s political theory, in fact—God’s kind of politics—is the church” (187). And when we define politics that way, there can be no standing on the sidelines. There can be no casual politics. There can only be God’s people being salt and light in their world. How’s that for a revolutionary political idea?