Was Jesus Political?

by Mike Clawson

It’s not uncommon to hear Christians – especially Christians who are either fed up with the Religious Right or with the social gospel of the mainline churches, and just want to get back to keeping faith and politics completely separate – to say that Jesus was not political. That he simply preached about people’s “spiritual” needs, and had nothing to say about their immediate political situations. Or they might even say that Jesus anticipated Thomas Jefferson by eighteen centuries and preached a strict separation of church and state – that we should let Caesar do his own thing and keep our faith stuff completely separate.

To be honest, I used to think that way too. Towards the tail end of college I was so disillusioned with politics, and so fed up with the theocratic tendencies of the Religious Right, that I just thought that politics was better left alone. And I probably would have stayed there except that I started reading the Bible and realizing that if I took seriously the kinds of thing Jesus told me to care about, then I wouldn’t be able to just “stay out of it”. I realized that Jesus actually had a lot to say about issues that would necessarily be considered “political” – issues like poverty and economics, violence and power, authority and social heirarchies.

And after I read the Bible, I started reading other scholars and theologians who were dealing with the same issues; and that’s when I realized that there’s a growing consensus among biblical scholars – both among liberals and evangelicals – that Jesus’ message, and really the whole subtext of the New Testament is highly political, and that Jesus quite consistently challenged the political powers of his day – from the Temple authorities & Jewish aristocracy, to Herod, to the Romans. Let me give just a few examples:

The whole Nativity narrative borrows the language used to extol Caesar Augustus (e.g. “Son of God”, “King”, “Savior”, “God with us”, bringer of “peace on earth”). Similarly the hymn about Jesus found in Colossians 1:15-20 is strikingly similar to the hymns dedicated to Caesar. Clearly Jesus is being set up in opposition to false claims of divinity and authority by human rulers.
Also, Mary’s Magnificat is about rulers being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away. Mary certainly thought that her son’s coming was going to have some implications for the political powers of her day.
The entire book of Mark is structured along the lines of a traditional Imperial coronation biography. What is this if not satirical subversion of the dominant political narratives of the day?
Terms like “gospel” (evangelion) and “church” (ekklesia) were politically loaded terms that were co-opted by the early Jesus movement as a direct challenge to the imperial vision. The original Roman evangelion was that “Caesar is Lord” and that his “kingdom” has arrived (declared to a city after it had been violently conquered by the Roman legions); and ekklesias was the term given to those cities and communities that had freely accepted this “good news” and had submitted to Caesar’s lordship.
The earliest Christian confession of faith “Jesus is Lord” carries with it an implied “and Caesar is not”, since the term “Lord” (kyrios) is the same term used for political rulers (and especially Caesar) at that time, and the confession “Caesar is Lord” was the expect statement of fealty to the emperor. (So saying “Jesus is Lord” back then is no different than us saying “Jesus is my President”, except for maybe being even more politically subversive and inflammatory.)
Likewise, the very word “messiah” is a political word. It literally means “anointed one”, which in Jewish parlance explicitly means “king”. This would not have been heard a “metaphor” in Jesus day. This would have been a very real world, politically subversive title. To call Jesus “Messiah” is to hail him as “king” – and you can be sure the existing kings (e.g. Herod and Augustus) would not have assumed that he was merely using the term in some non-threatening “religious” sense.
Many of Jesus’ parables are challenges to the power and economic structures of his day, from the parable of the talents, to the parable of the shrewd manager, to the parable of the tenants, and many others besides. I’ve written about a few of these before.
Jesus’ advice about paying taxes to Caesar (“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and give to God what belongs to God”) is less an endorsement of the Imperial system (or advocacy of a separation of church and state), and more a shrewd way of saying: 1) “God owns all of this, not Caesar”; and 2) “don’t have anything to do with this filthy idolatrous money (after all, Roman money contained the graven image of a pagan god – i.e. Caesar), just send it back where it came from”; without actually saying anything that could get him arrested.
Jesus was constantly making covert jabs against Herod or the Romans. Keep in mind that the Roman’s symbol was an eagle and Herod’s was a fox, and then note how many times you find references to “eagles”, “birds”, “vultures” (a kind of eagle according to the Jews of Jesus day), or “foxes” in Jesus’ teachings.
Notice that Jesus and the apostles often preached a radical redistribution of wealth and the flattening of social heirarchies. This would have been a radical challenge to the socio-political/economic systems of the day.
Jesus command to “love your enemies” is fleshed out with examples relating to how the Jews were being oppressed by the Romans. I.e. this is advice for how to practice creative non-violence against a political oppressor.
All those places where Paul talks about Jesus having mastery over the “thrones, powers, rulers and principalities” (cf. Colossians 1:16) are not just metaphorical or only talking about angels and demons. These are very real-world political terms in Paul’s day. It’d be like us saying Jesus has lordship over all Mayors, Governors, Legislatures, and Presidents.
I could go on and list literally dozens more examples, but twelve strikes me as a particularly “biblical” number so I’ll stop there. 😉

To sum up, I’d characterize the politics of Jesus as anti-imperial (i.e. systems of violence, oppression and exclusion), and pro-kingdom of God (i.e. communities of justice, generosity, non-violent peacemaking, and inclusive love). Of course, Jesus’ mode of “politics” is radically different than what we typically thing of when we use that term. As he tells us, we are to exercise power through service and self-sacrificial love, not through domination or manipulation (cf. Luke 22:24-30).

Therefore I am not suggesting that Christians ought to therefore dominate the political processes of America and turn it into a theocracy. If God’s kingdom really is about service rather than domination, then our means have to match our ends. We can therefore seek to influence and persuade and even challenge our political systems at times, but we cannot seek to dominate, manipulate or control. To do so would corrupt the very thing we are trying to achieve.

BTW, if you’re interested in reading some of those scholars I mentioned, try Richard Horsley, NT Wright, Dominic Crossan, Donald Kraybill, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, or Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat. Together (and this is just a very partial list) they represent a spectrum from Jesus Seminar liberals to conservative evangelicals, and from Anglicans, to Reformed, to Anabaptists who are all making very similar points about the political nature of Christ’s message.
Mike Clawson