Monday, April 20, 2009

The Politics of Jesus

Have you ever had a nagging suspicion that the story of Jesus you may have grown up hearing was not quite the story that was originally meant? If so, read on, because what follows may confirm your suspicions. It may also surprise you in a number of ways. Over the last several months I've been looking at a view of early Christian origins that turns a good bit of what I thought I knew on its head.

I'm not talking about any of the spate of flaky popular revisionist books that have been published over the last few decades saying Jesus was a Marxist, or Jesus was a new age guru, or Jesus was whatever one's hobby horse happens to be. I'm talking about a particular scholarly point of view that is rooted in very, very serious historical research. To be sure, it's not the only view out there. But I find it compelling. If true, it has enormous implications, for politics and all areas of life.

As best I understand it, the story these scholars tell goes like this....

Jesus lived in a time of super-charged political tension. Many people today are concerned to prevent some kind of Juggernaut from taking over. Globalism, Communism, the New World Order, what have you, depending on your point of view. But in Jesus' day the Juggernaut was already in charge. The Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist. In Palestine, some responded to this by sucking up to the Romans, like the Herodians and the hated extortionist tax collectors--the complicit bottom-feeders. Others were fierce nationalists who plotted and patiently awaited the day when they would throw off the evil Romans, with God on their side. An earlier movement, the Maccabees, had successfully thrown off the Greeks, and so people were expecting the long-awaited "Messiah"--that is, the anointed national deliverer whom God would send--to do that again. (Does any of this ring a bell in modern times?) The masses generally sided with the nationalists, and there was a whole class of religious leaders of these sympathies that the masses looked up to, referred to in the bilbical gospels as the Pharisees (even if not all Pharisees were like those Jesus contended with). They were like the 1st Century equivalent of the Muslim mullahs today who advocate sharia law, decry America as the Great Satan and so forth. Then there were the Sadducees of the aristocratic priestly class, who had made a kind of delicate peace with the Romans, and were officially in charge of the Temple. The common people distrusted them, and questioned their legitimacy, but it was a dangerous thing to cross them.

There were a number of supposed "Messiahs," both before and after Jesus, who sought to rally the people around them and take on Rome. Each of these movements were crushed by the Romans.

But Jesus came along, and did something radically different. He took a handful of the fierce nationalists, along with a guy who had been one of the despised extortionist tax collectors, and brought them together into the very same group, as his closest disciples. In essence, he took the 1st Century equivalent of Democrats and Republicans, Islamicists and Zionists, somehow inspired them to all come together, and taught them a completely different notion of God's program. He taught them that Caesar was king in only a very limited, earthly, transitory sense. He also made the outlandish claim that he himself was the true King and that his kingdom of love would never end. And he told the nationalists that they were all so wrapped up in their ideological program, and congratulating themselves for being such righteous and pious patriots, that they were overlooking the things that really counted, like reaching out in practical compassion to the marginalized of society, and being a community of God marked by forgiveness and justice and mercy and love. Further, he predicted that before the people who were then living had died out, the Romans would come and put down the Jewish rebellion permanently, and destroy the Temple, the most treasured symbol of the nationalist movement. Further, he went into that very Temple, where the people in charge had a neat little financial scam operation that took advantage of poor religious pilgrims, carefully made a whip, and drove out all the crooks and their wares.

Now this managed to upset all the powerful elements of the time. The Romans were made to feel queasy about the rumors floating around about this "king." The Pharisees were infuriated at his telling the masses that their nationalist ideology was a recipe for disaster. And the aristocrats didn't take kindly to his affront to the Temple establishment. Essentially, Jesus was telling the people that the Roman agenda, the religious nationalist agenda, and the more secular-like "civil religion" of the aristocrats were all empty and corrupt and not the way of God at all. Loving God and loving one's neighbor were what really mattered. Now we have to understand that Jesus' message was NOT one that people easily understood; in fact, his own disciples repeatedly missed the point, as they later shared in the recollections that have been passed down to us. It was way easier for people to get wrapped up in one of the competing ideologies of the different classes that were competing against one another. Nevertheless, though few if any understood him yet, Jesus was winning the sympathies of the people, not least by performing miraculous healings of the blind, deaf, lame, leprous, etc. on a massive scale over a period of about three years. He even raised Lazarus, one of his friends, from the dead. At least the people were convinced, and so great masses were hailing him as the anointed king who was to come. All this bothered the Romans, the nationalist "mullah" types, the aristocrats, every power of the age. All these groups of powerful people despised one another, but there was one thing they all came to agree on: Jesus had to go.

It is at this point that Jesus made some amazing choices. After one point, he had so much popular support, he could have rallied the people around him and fulfilled every other Messiah's dream, to lead a violent revolt against the unclean foreign occupiers. Indeed, his action of clearing out the Temple likely signaled to the people that this is what he intended to do, because the celebrated Maccabean nationalists of a previous era had likewise liberated the Temple when they threw off the Greek occupation. Cleansing the temple and throwing out the foreign occupier went hand in hand in the people's expectation of what the Messiah, the anointed deliverer, was going to do. This is the sort of thing the people had in mind when they had seen the celebrated miracle worker entering Jerusalem on a donkey, and they laid a trail of palm branches in his path, welcoming the king who was coming to take power. And Jesus had the perfect opportunity at that moment. People from all over the country were in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover feast, had just seen him cleanse the Temple, and were awaiting the next step....

But he didn't. And this choice, it is argued, changed the course of history.

He refused to seize that moment, and so the masses, eager for a national deliverer, quickly abandoned him. What a fool! He claimed to be "king" yet didn't take the opportunity that was presented to him to establish his throne! He claimed to be the anointed one that God would send to deliver his people from oppression, but refused to take up arms against the oppressors! He aroused the suspicion and anger of every powerful group in the land, but blew his best chance of beating them to the top! Instead, he said, "...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) No doubt the masses who abandoned him considered him irrelevant at best, and faithless at worst, for failing to put their expected program in motion.

But if he had taken the option of leading a national rebellion, only calling down legions of angels would have prevented the Romans from massacreing him and all of the masses that would have followed him into the battle. Now he had already shown people the divine power to miraculously heal diseases. Could he not use that same power to successfully throw off the Romans, like many a hero of old? But he did not go that route. There was another kind of divine power he wanted to show to the world. He allowed himself to be arrested, and said nary a word during the illegal trial the local "good ole boys" of the Sanhedrin gave him. He died the inglorious death of a common criminal, on a Roman cross. While hanging on the cross he cried out to God for the forgiveness of the people who put him there. He maintained the way of love and forgiveness and peace to the end. And he died.

His movement came to a crashing halt. The masses, of course, had no interest in a dead national deliverer. One MORE messiah had bitten the dust. Would God's people EVER be freed? His death proved to all that he was not the one God had promised. His closest disciples, who had traveled with him for three years, were in despair, utterly disillusioned. Some who had been fishermen before were already heading back to their old business.

But on the third day something amazing happened that completely changed everything. Jesus appeared alive to his disciples, after he had been dead and buried. They didn't see a ghost. They saw and felt a physical body, a body with unusual powers, a body that seemed to belong to a new order of being, but a body that could eat and be touched nonetheless. Of course historians today debate whether this really happened.[1] The telling fact is that few historians deny that this is was what Peter and the other disciples themselves thought they were witnessing. Whatever it is that happened, it transformed the disciples' fear to boldness, and made them willing to live and die in defense of their testimony.

The resurrection confirmed to them that Jesus truly was the King, the anointed deliverer sent by God. It was this remarkable divine stamp of approval on Jesus that finally opened their eyes to understand the radically alien nature of Jesus' message, and his radical redefinition of what it means to be "king" and "deliverer." These same disciples were hiding in fear after Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. But after a series of what they claimed were resurrection appearances, they began to proclaim Jesus as the true King. The movement spread rapidly, far beyond Palestine, and came to include people from every ethnic group in the empire. And the point to highlight here is that they acted in ways just as puzzling to the society around them as Jesus had among his fellow Jews in Palestine. The apostles performed miraculous healings, which gave evidence that they were no ordinary movement. And they dared to mock Roman power by celebrating the cross. They took the very symbol of the terror by which Rome kept many nations subjugated and made it the symbol of their movement. To add insult to injury, these same early Christians refused to perform what others considered a perfunctory ritual of allegiance to Rome--to burn incense to Caesar and call him "Lord." Instead, they went around declaring "Jesus is Lord." In addition, they preached a "gospel" of Jesus as king. The word "gospel" was typically used to announce a king's military victory, the news of his rule that was going to bring peace and prosperity to all, or somesuch. So even the early Christians' use of the word "gospel" was a mockery of Roman power. We don't quite get all this today, but the political implications were not lost on the Romans. And so at various times they launched persecutions, putting Christians to death. Macabre crowds cheered in the arena as Christians were fed to hungry lions. And all they had to do to avoid this fate was recite what considered as harmless as Americans consider their "Pledge of Allegiance."

The puzzling thing is that, for all their mockery of Rome, they never took up arms against Rome in the name of their "king." Most of the new Christians were slaves, but they never even started a slave rebellion. Instead they preached an ethic of radical service, humility, forgiveness, and love. There were early Christians who went to municipal garbage heaps, rescued abandoned infants, and raised them as their own. In times of plague, Christians stayed behind in the city to care for the ill, often dying themselves. As Jesus had said, his kingdom was not of this world. And yet it was a kingdom of divine love that was very much IN this world. It truly was political, by radically undermining the validity of the pretentious claims of the political agendas of their time. And, in a sense, it really was about conquering the world, but without using the weapons of the world.

So what was the point of this movement, and its strange behavior? The message of all this, as best as I understand it, as best as I understand what these scholars are saying, was this: Our deliverer Jesus has defeated death. So we no longer live in fear. We will no longer be slaves to corruption. We will no longer consider any oppressive ideology to have true legitimacy. Nor will we put our hope in any "new boss" who claims to deliver us from the "old boss." We have power that transcends all that. And nothing, not even death, the threat of death, or any kind of earthly deprivation, will keep us from living lives of faithfulness, mercy, and love.

The early Christians believed Jesus really was the deliverer whom the prophets had foretold, in passages such as these:

"Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever." (Isaiah 9:7)

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth."
(Isaiah 42:1-4)

Even as this movement was spreading throughout the Greco-Roman world, back in Palestine the nationalist movement had grown and come to a head. In A.D. 70 the Romans crushed the rebellion, and destroyed the Temple, as Jesus had warned. Meanwhile, the apostles continued to proclaim Jesus as the true King of the world. Most of the apostles and other original eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus were put to death. Not one of them ever recanted their testimony, even though we have reports of many others, who did not have this singular experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus, who renounced their faith to avoid being put to death.

You can read this story in greater detail in such books as The Challenge of Jesus, by New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright, and The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. For me, this is quite a different story than the one I grew up with. Certainly, it has very different emphases. Personally, I find the historical arguments of these scholars compelling, and this perspective makes sense of a lot of biblical passages that previously seemed enigmatic. Not that I'm sold on everything they say, but it's compelling food for thought.

So let me close with some questions that are on my mind. I'd love to hear what you think.

1. In what sense was the movement of Jesus genuinely "political"?

2. Is the politics of Jesus the same as today's Christian Right"?

3. Is it the same as today's Christian or secular Left?

4. What are the practical implications of all this for our lives?

5. What do I live for? What am I willing to die for?



[1] For the view that the origin of Christianity is just awfully hard to account for historically if the resurrection did not really occur, see The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright, or a condensed presentation of the same arguments in Wright's lecture/article "Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?" Wright goes head to head with John Dominic Crossan, another major New Testament scholar, in the book The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan And N.T. Wright in Dialogue, edited by Robert B. Stewart. Crossan, if I recall, admits that the main reason he doesn't believe it happened is because such things simply do not occur, and proposes alternatives. The exchange is good-natured, at times humorous, and in my opinion very worthwhile. Both agree that something extraordinary happened, and that it should motivate and inspire us to combat injustice in our world. I hope in a future post to explain why I believe the resurrection really did happen and why I think this question is absolutely crucial.

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