The Politics of Jesus

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. These were the political parties of Jesus’ day, and it’s interesting that his disciples were made up of a hodge-podge of nearly all of them.

You had James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon the Zealot, who advocated the violent overthrow of Rome. You had Levi, who had been a tax-collector—a Roman collaborator! You had Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who may have been Essenes (along with John the Baptist). Jesus was a crossover figure, someone who managed to connect with many different social and political groups. Even Greek-speaking hellenized Jews wanted to see Jesus.

Jesus used rhetoric common to several different parties. He used the apocalyptic language of the “Kingdom of God” and “the resurrection” which many people interpreted literally, though it’s pretty clear he gave it his own unique twist. He took the hot-button topics of his day, like divorce and taxes, and managed to navigate the complex policy positions of disparate political groups.

Preachers often say that Jesus is not the property of any modern political party, but they seldom talk about the way he dealt with political factions himself. I think what is impressive in these gospel stories is how deftly and rationally he handles complex political and religious issues: the competing religious schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shimmei had definite opinions on things like divorce and other matters of religious law, and Jesus takes a position on them. He does so in a way that is rhetorically brilliant and grace-filled.

But he is not a wimp. Matthew’s Jesus even uses polemic, a rhetorical full-scale assault on one’s ideological opponents. In Matthew 23 he spends an entire chapter ripping them up one side and down the other:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them!
(Matthew 23:13)

Keep in mind, this is the same Jesus who in Chapter 5 told his followers not to call someone else a fool, yet in this chapter he does that and worse.

Most readers of the Bible figure the Pharisees were a monolithic group that opposed Jesus, but actually there were plenty of Pharisees who followed Jesus. Pharisees emphasized living a lifestyle of holiness and ethical behavior in relation to God, much like the early Jesus movement. Naturally, some Pharisees became Christians. The main point of contention between the Pharisee-Christians and the others was whether or not circumcision and food regulations would be binding on non-Jewish converts.

The “liberal”-leaning early church decided that such regulations would not be binding. So when this early church told the stories of Jesus in the gospels, they made sure to include Jesus’ polemical rant in Matthew 23. It became natural to think of all Pharisees as people who “locked others out of the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s why his criticisms still sound so relevant today.

I’m not saying that the gospels cannot be trusted, or that the authors were practicing revisionist history. I’m just pointing out that polarization affected how they told the story. Although Jesus occasionally said nice things about the scribes and Pharisees (as in this story), those sayings didn’t get the same amount of air time.

We can also see polarization happen in John’s gospel. Again and again, John points out how Jesus’s words and actions divided the people around him:

Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. (John 9:16)

…For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ Again the Jews were divided because of these words. (John 10:17-19)

For John, people either got Jesus or they did not. Those who understood the character and personality of God recognized God’s character and personality in Jesus. Those who claimed to know God but did not, on the other hand, rejected him as being from God. John attributes polarization to the character of people’s hearts.

When I hear modern people complain about polarization and hear them wish for greater unity among Christians of different political persuasions, I am reminded of the polarization that happened in the early church. Had that polarization not happened, most of us bacon-eating, sabbath-defying, foreskin-wearing (or not) Gentiles would not be followers of Jesus. These divisions were deeply theological and reflected how differently people thought about God. They also reflected people’s character: plenty of haters wrapped their hatred in holy language. Polarization can happen for either reason.

Many Christians’ contemporary political disagreements likewise reflect deep theological differences in how we understand 1) the character, purpose, and personality of God, 2) the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and 3) the nature, purpose, and destiny of humankind and all of creation. The polarization we experience in our political lives is seldom about which policy best matches our theology or achieves our common goals: It’s about whether we have common goals and theology at all. If we do not delve deeply into our disagreements and honestly talk about what’s at stake for us in our positions, we will never have those important conversations about what our faith actually means. Of course, as I noted in my last post, I’m someone who likes arguing. I find such stuff philosophically stimulating. I even like being wrong occasionally.

I do have hope that people of diverse political opinions can come together around Jesus, just as his disciples did. When I workshopped my book, I was pleased that people of very different views could have excellent conversation around some controversial ideas. People on all quadrants of the political plane were able to have conversation about the Bible, which they held in mutual esteem. But I’m strongly opposed to minimizing those differences, and I remain committed to the idea that it is entirely possible to argue without being acrimonious, that it is important to call out dishonest rhetoric and name polemic and ad hominem attacks, to insist on data and good scholarship, and to lay all of our cards on the table. It is important to say, “This is what is at stake for me.” Only in this kind of context does the word “unity” have any meaning.

I like to imagine how Jesus would navigate the political rhetoric of our day. A lot of preachers seem to think that he wouldn’t choose sides, but I believe part of his mass appeal was about articulating a divine, paradoxical mix of common sense, unconventional wisdom, and religious zeal while he did stake out his position. How would Jesus talk about our own tax system, or health care system, or foreign policy? Is Jesus okay with drone attacks? How would Jesus deal with the woman caught in the act of abortion, or the faction of people who want to legalize marijuana? How would Jesus talk to the tea party, or to the Occupy crowd? Where would his political sympathies lie? They had “gotcha” journalism back in the day, too—how would he deal with our modern rhetorical traps?

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Jesus

  1. I don’t believe the problem is that we have different views. When I speak of unity, I don’t mean that we should walk lockstep together. But what the early disciples seem to have that we don’t is an overarching unified understanding of what they are about. Nor, at their best, were they busy fighting over their differences. Yes, we should struggle with the issues you name. And yes we may not all agree. That is good. What is bad is bad mouthing, demeaning, and condemning to hell those who disagree then claiming you are doing so in the name of Christian values (whether those values are to the left or to the right).

    • I agree that civil language is important. But I think the rosy picture of church unity painted in Acts 2 is Luke’s ideal history. I think Acts 10 onward hints at the deep divisions we see in Paul’s letters and in the retold stories of Jesus’s fights with the Pharisees (I’m especially fond of Acts 15:2’s reference to “no small dissension and debate”—Luke is a master of understatement). I’m just pointing out that believers have always been polarized and that sharp rhetoric is part of our history, too—although I have yet to tell any of my ideological opponents to “go castrate themselves,” like Paul did 😉 We tend to look at polarization as if it is our failure. What if it isn’t?

      I’m actually going to do a Part 3, where I challenge people to identify with a historical group in a Biblical conflict. I think if we could do that, we could hear what Jesus has to say to our party or perspective.

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