In a few months two nations on earth will be visiting the ballot box at almost the same time. The world is watching keenly as one of the most peculiar presidential races, in the most peculiar of times, is going on in the United States. The US used to consider itself the paragon of global democracy but clearly in recent months and years this has not been the case. From my standpoint as a foreigner they are hardly what a country like mine needs to aspire to. However, my own country Ghana falls short in probably more places. I believe many people like myself, Christian and non-Christian alike, both at home and in the US, see the political options that are being offered us and are not impressed either way. For the Christian how do we honestly but practically deal with these challenges?
Our first course of action naturally is to go to the Bible. Beyond Joseph and Daniel and a few other examples the Bible seems to be largely politically neutral. If our first point of call seems to ignore the subject, it is no wonder that Christians feel left at sea and do not know how to approach the matter with a strong biblical conscience. In recent years in New Testament scholarship it has come to light that it is actually the opposite. The Gospel is itself a very politically charged message. There is a lot to be learnt from the Bible as to how the early Christians handled politics and how it is relevant to us today.
There are three examples in the New Testament which I wish to highlight but first we must take note. In the ancient world, politics was not separated from other facets of life in the way modern Western societies tend to do. Politics was integrated with religion and other aspects of public life and discourse. As a result how they understood religion and politics, as we call it today, was actually quite different. It was not really till the enlightenment era, which is very recent in world history mind you, where we see the blip in the course of human affairs called the separation of Church and State. We need to bear these things in mind as we quickly consider politics in the New Testament.
In Matthew 22:15-22, as well as in Mark and Luke, we have the famous incident where Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. (The recent Panama papers scandal goes to show that taxes, no matter which era you are in, are always a thorny issue.) The Romans were basically running a protection racket where if you were good and paid your taxes they would not bother you. Those who refused to pay the tax felt the full force of Rome’s military might. In fact oppressive tax regimes were often the cause of revolt in the Roman Empire. For the Jews it was particularly offensive because they were paying for a foreign power to occupy them, which was in direct contradiction to what God had promised them. The Exodus was about freeing God’s people and bringing them into their own land as he had promised so they could worship him faithfully. Now a foreign pagan power was ruling in the land where YHWH was meant to be Lord. It was a direct affront to their national identity as God’s people. Now many people think Jesus’ answer was a cop out, a compromise to get out of a sticky situation. If it really was why did the people rejoice when they heard it? You see Jesus’ statement was actually alluding to an old revolutionary slogan used during the Maccabean revolt two generations before him. The revolt against the Ptolemais led by Judas Maccabeus (his last name means “the hammer”) resulted in the Jewish people enjoying a brief period of national sovereignty before the Romans came in. To this day faithful Jews commemorate it with the Festival of Lights, otherwise known as Hanukkah. Jesus was not telling them to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. Every person in that culture would have understood he was actually reaffirming that Caesar was not their true lord and YHWH was still on the side of his people.
That particular episode appears at a place in the Gospel narrative where political and religious tensions between Jesus and the powers that be had really heated up. Jesus is eventually arrested by the Jewish leaders and brought before Pilate (John 18:22-19:16.) The first question Pilate asked Jesus was if he was a king. The Jewish leaders had brought Jesus before the might of Rome because he preached he was the Messiah, a king. If they had understood his proclamation of a kingdom to be some private inner spirituality they would have left him alone. If Jesus was talking about some inner spirituality he definitely would not have used the language he did.
Jesus lived in a period in Jewish history where there were “wars and rumours of wars.” After the short lived Maccabean dynasty Rome took over and installed Herod as a client-king. The majority of people did not accept Herod because he was essentially a Roman puppet and enforcer, and also he was an Idumean and not a Jew. He therefore could not be the Lord’s Messiah, God’s chosen king over his chosen people. Though Herod was a brilliant leader and a skilled politician, he was also a ruthless man, even killing his own family to secure power. (This helps explain Matthew’s account of Herod killing all the children to protect his vassal throne.) The reign of the Herods was not really stable and there were minor uprisings here and there. Pilate could not afford another would be king, other than the one Rome had already installed, stirring up trouble. Palestine was on an important trade route that supplied much needed resources to Italy. Political instability in that region was therefore a serious concern to the wellbeing of the Republic.
Kingdom is a political word and we should never mistake if for some ethereal future destination. Jesus’ response to Pilate was very counterintuitive. He admitted to being a king but his kingdom was not of this world. Earlier on in John, Jesus taught his disciples that rulers of this world lord it over others but among them that would not be the case. If anyone of them wanted to be the greatest they had to be the servant of them all. When he encountered Pilate he was on the brink of making the ultimate sacrifice. In both situations he was saying that he and his followers were going to “do power” in a different way. This meant they were not going to immediately rise up in rebellion and tear down the corrupt power systems of the world by brute force. In fact he warned his people not to take military action against Rome or they would suffer like never before (Matthew 24.) He however in no wise condoned the antics of Rome. God ordained power structures in human society so we would at least not collapse into anarchy. When Pilate flexed his political muscles, Jesus told him he would have no authority if God had not granted it. Therefore even Rome was still accountable to God.
As we can see Jesus had a nuanced understanding of power but also had a sharp critique of our motivations to have it. Power in itself is not a bad thing but if our hearts are not pure and humble, we will constantly abuse it. Jesus’ insistence on moral purity before God was not simply for the sake of having a private sense of absolution from guilt. In my own country where we have seen successive leaders plunder the nation through greed and selfishness, you can see ethics in politics and other areas of life has real world consequences. He also did not uncouple power from responsibility and accountability. This sense of duty is ultimately to the God who made the world and expects humans to help ensure that it flourishes. Our third and final example is from none other than Paul.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (Rom 1:1-4 ESV)
What is interesting about this passage is that even though he is preaching a very Jewish message about the kingdom of God, he is using terms like “gospel” and “son of God”, which were also being used in imperial propaganda. For instance Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar who had been deified, making Augustus the son of god. When Augustus ascended to the throne it was said to be good news, “gospel”, for the whole world. On his coronation the empire had entered an unprecedented time of so-called peace i.e. Pax Romana in Latin. The Jews also spoke of God taking charge and bringing peace, shalom, to the world. Famous passages like Micah 4:3-4, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and everyone is under their vine and fig tree quickly come to mind. The Christians proclaimed the good news that God had already brought peace to the world through the death and the resurrection of the messiah Jesus. They claimed God had fulfilled the national aspirations of the Jewish people through Jesus, but in an unexpected and radically different way, even though their own sacred texts were pointing to it all along. The Gospel did not only subvert the narrative of Rome, which was only a poor parody of the kingdom of God, it also challenged Jerusalem as well.
The Christian proclamation was that Jesus is Lord. The faithful Jew would immediately recognize they were somehow calling Jesus the one God of Israel because in the scriptures it is only YHWH who is Lord. In fact it was a prayer faithful Jews recited every single day called the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:6.) However to Rome it was also a play on the imperial greeting Caesar is Lord. Though Christians did recognise and submit to the power of Rome, they said it was not the real deal. The simple maxim of Empire studies in New Testament scholarship becomes apparent: if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Jesus was in charge of the world and even Caesar had to submit to him. In verse five of Romans chapter one, Paul continues to say he had been specially commissioned to “bring obedience to the faith among all nations.” From this we can see Paul’s motivation to preach the Gospel to Caesar. Even the most powerful person in the world needs to know and acknowledge he has a “boss” and must submit to him.
We can see Jesus, Paul and the early Christians were not afraid to tackle politics. This was because their message, that God was in charge and has chosen Jesus of Nazareth as king of the world by raising him from the dead, had real world political consequences. However the Christian New Testament approach to power and politics was very different. Like Paul was doing in Romans 1 they were incepting society with this subversive, counter cultural message. The early Jesus movement had an incarnational understanding of power. Instead of completely abandoning the power structures of the world or forcefully reforming them, they acted from within society to transform it in the same way God came into the world to save it. The Gospel is still a radical message today.
Politics is about leading people in society. The Gospel has the right narrative and ethic for the Christian to be a true light for people. This sometimes means we have to use formal systems of governance to achieve our goals of fulfilling God’s agenda for the world. Some of us have to take up public office and bring the light of the Gospel there. Christians, myself included, often complain about the evils of government but we are not willing to involve ourselves actively in politics. Salt is no good if it remains in the shaker. God in Jesus descended into a corrupt world to redeem it. The political world is also not beyond redemption and God wants to transform it through believers who are filled with his spirit in integrity, wisdom and goodness.
In today’s world politics is understood to be the job of the professional politician or those involved in a political party. It is rather much bigger than that and I believe the Church has not really grasped this. Ironically, the politicians whom we love to call corrupt or ineffectual do get this. That is why during elections or when they wish to implement policies they try to get opinion leaders and influencers in the society on board. Politics is a form of leadership, and leadership is about influencing others to achieve a purpose. Though we might not call them that, people who are able to influence society are also politicians in their own right. The beauty of an incarnational theology of politics is that we are not restricted to only formal systems. We can recognise the broad role and nature of politics in society and participate in it in whatever form we can, as long as it is to the glory of God.
For us our model of leadership is by example, and our example is service and sacrifice, which is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. If the Church is going to be relevant in society we must also have political currency. I am not saying we need to establish a formal theocracy. (We all know how well that went.) It is a theocracy nonetheless where we live according to the will and example of our King Jesus. The compassion and concern Jesus had for the weak and marginalized in society must consume us. One of the things the early Church insisted on was taking care of widows and orphans, something the official government at that time (and some will argue still) was not concerned about. Apart from issues regarding social justice there are challenges in our individual communities that local churches need to rise up to.
Far from being apolitical we have seen that the Bible is steeped in the political issues of its time and urges us to do the same. There are so many challenges in the world that only the Gospel has the solutions to. We must be willing, courageous and wise enough to use the avenue of politics, both formal and informal, to responsibly confront these issues and shine light on the darkness in the world. The Church has historically been doing this and we need to make sure we continue this tradition.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:14-16 ESV