Tuesday, September 11, 2007

on jesus and politics I

In class today, we listened to a portion of a talk of N. T. Wright gave at the 2007 Christian Aid Act Justly Conference entitled "God's Restoration Program," which is available here. Up to this point in the course we have been talking a lot about Wright's understanding of story as a vehicle for worldview and have turned specifically to Wright's telling of the Christian story and what his telling implies about the Christian worldview. One of the issues that we have focused upon is how much Wright focuses upon creation and new creation, and his point that Christians, most notably, evangelical Christians have taken one part of the Christian story and made it the whole, and in the process distorted the Christian story. In short, when the gospel is boiled down to Jesus dying for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die, what is missed, according to Wright, is God's purposes for the restoration of all of creation. Thus, Wright wants to understand not only Jesus' death but everything Jesus did within the larger narrative concerned with God's purposes for creation. Wright, of course, does not devalue the importance of Jesus' death and personal salvation but wants to understand it within its proper context. In fact, I would hazard to guess that Wright would argue that the preoccupation with Jesus' death and with heaven after we die is a distortion and devaluing of the gospel, which centers around Jesus' being the Lord of all of creation and his vocation to fulfill God's purposes for all of creation.

Anyway, in Wright's talk he spoke a lot about the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25 and how Israel was to be the the Jubilee people and how Jesus embodied the Jubilee program (cf. Luke 4). Near the end of class, one of the students, who always asks such good questions, raised the question about the relationship between Jesus and politics today. As I recall, the question was basically this. In the Gospels, we don't see Jesus really addressing political issues; Jesus didn't seem to get involved in the politics of his day so how can he be of help to us with respect to the politics in our day. I made a few stabs at answering her question, but we ran out of time and I wasn't entirely satisfied with my response in class. And given that it is such an important question, I thought a few blog entries on the topic would be appropriate and helpful. So here is the beginning of a response.

First, it makes complete sense to me that for many Christians when they sit down to read the gospels or hear the gospels read, they do not see Jesus really engaged in the politics of his day. I say it makes complete sense to me because that has been one of the most exciting areas of growth in my own understanding of the New Testament and the gospels in particular, namely, becoming increasingly aware of the political (not to mention the cultural, social, economic, etc.) dimensions of the gospel narratives. And so now, at this stage in my life, I would say that the gospels are almost thoroughly political from start to finish. Of course, this does not mean they are not also thoroughly religious (or any of the other dimensions mentioned above), simply that just like the world of Jesus' day the gospels do not operate with a split between the political and the religious, between the religious and the economic (and neither do we really despite our rhetoric of separation of church and state, but more about that anon). Consequently, I think Jesus did and does have a lot to say regarding politics. But before I begin to provide specific examples of how and to what extent a particular word and/or action of Jesus is political, I want to address this question: If, as many scholars would argue, the gospels have a significant political dimension and that Jesus' words and actions often had political implications, why is it that many of us in the church who have read these gospels over and over and are quite familiar with them have not seen this political dimension? Why does it appear to us that Jesus only talks about religion and not politics? I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this situation, let me offer a few of them.

(1) First, in the United States our religious and political discourses have been influenced and shaped by an overarching narrative or story (to use Wright's language) in which the separation of church and state is a principal value (Wright might suggest that the concept of the separation of church and state functions as one of the principal symbols of the United States). Thus, we have been taught to regard religion and politics as belonging to two separate spheres and so we often think about religion and politics as being quite distinct from each other, if not in all respects at least, in many respects. In part, this reality is reflected in the fact that the religious and political discourses have developed a vocabulary and a way of talking about things that is quite distinct from one another. For example, the word gospel is used in religious discourse but not in political discourse, but as I shall argue later, in the first-century Mediterranean world, gospel was a term that was employed in both political and religious speech (at least as we make those distinctions today for in fact the ancients did not make the same distinctions between religion and politics that we do in the United States today). In fact, I don't think it be wrong to say that gospel was a word that belonged primarily to the political sphere of the first century and that Christians appropriated this term. (Notice that I did not say that when the Christians appropriated the term they used it religiously whereas everyone else used it politically because the Christian usage, as we shall see, is decidedly political and religious.) The separation of the religious and political spheres can also be reflected in certain habits (what Wright would refer to as praxis). For example, many people would be offended if a pastor preached sermons that endorsed a particular presidential candidate or that argued that one should vote a certain way. Likewise, many people are offended if those in a political office make political decisions based upon an appeal to a particular religious tradition. We like our religion and our politics separate, thank you very much.

(2) Second, there are many church traditions past and present who, independent of the American ideal, have made and make a radical distinction between the Church and the State, that these are two separate spheres of authority, one religious and one secular, one private and one public. These realms are both ordained by God and each has its own distinct purpose and might we say ethics; consequently, we should not confuse these two realms. Thus, many who make such a distinction, would argue that Jesus concerned himself with the private sphere not the public sphere such that Jesus' sermon on the mount, which calls on people to love their enemies is directed at and describes how the Church should be in the world but that this is not a directive for the State.

As you can see, (1) and (2) reinforce one another.

(3) Another reason why we often miss the political aspects of the gospels is that they are almost exclusively read or heard in religious contexts, be it worship, Sunday School, small group Bible studies, youth group, private devotions, etc. Conversely, the gospels are rarely experienced in a political context. Thus, in our experience those stories are connected to a religious context and so their words evoke the religious dimension for life for us not the political. This, of course, is made even more pronounced by the separation of church and state, of the religious and political spheres of life described in (1) and (2).

More could be said about why we have missed the political dimension of the gospels and the political dimension of Jesus' life, but it is now time to identify those places in the gospels that exhibit a decidedly political dimension. See the next post.

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