“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)
“Jesus isn’t political.”
I’ve heard that declaration all my life. It’s come from my own mouth often enough. In a Christian fellowship that doesn’t particularly encourage organized political engagement, it’s a phrase that allows us to keep our politics personal.
There are good things about the “Jesus isn’t political” stance.
For one thing, it might keep one political ideology from being conflated with the gospel. Not that any church or any Christian would do that intentionally, but sometimes it’s best if we guard ourselves against our unintentional mistakes, and it’s hard to deny that large sections of the church in our world have been co-opted and compromised by extreme adherence to a party line. (Sadly, much like the state churches in some formerly Communist countries, which were only legal if they had a member of the Party on the church board. Only, in our case, we’ve chosen this for ourselves.)
Based on what we think “politics” means, “Jesus isn’t political” might even be correct. Jesus was neither Republican or Democrat, nor Libertarian, nor Green. You can’t sum him up — or dismiss him — by calling him Conservative or Liberal. (It’s interesting how political persuasions across the Conservative/Liberal spectrum all find something about Jesus to love — and something about him to ignore!) You have to do some twisting and editing of Jesus to get him to fit completely onto any party platform.
There were political parties in Jesus’ day, and he didn’t fit well into any of those, either. The Pharisees thought he was too liberal. The Sadducees thought he went too far. The Zealots and Essenes wouldn’t have thought he went far enough. (Yes, those were political parties as well.)
Sometimes, though, what we mean when we say “Jesus isn’t political” is more like this: “I don’t want to think about what my faith has to do with my politics.”
Or, “I’m too invested in my political philosophy to seriously consider what Jesus might have to say.”
Or, “I prefer huddling with those who are like me politically over engaging with people whose experience might force me to rethink my positions.”
Or, perhaps, even something like this: “My political positions mean more to me than does following Jesus.”
We sometimes argue that the church should be about preaching the Gospel. Hear, hear. The gospel — the “good news” — that Jesus came preaching was regime change: God’s kingdom is near, and it will supplant the schemes by which the rulers of this world attain and hold power. It’s only because we’ve twisted “kingdom of God” into something other than the obvious meaning of those words that we can think he wasn’t being political. He told his hearers they should “believe the good news,” not in a “Huh, isn’t that interesting” sort of way, but by repenting of all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t line up with God’s rule of the world.
Look at the text Jesus used to declare his mission in the world, from the book of Isaiah. He found in that text a light that illumined his own priorities: to, by the Spirit of God, bring good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed. He came to announce “the year of the Lord’s favor” to those who need a year like that most. He wasn’t shy about it all: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In any other context, we’d say Jesus was being political. He’s talking about dealing with poverty, imprisonment, health care, and human rights. But because we hear those words in church we sometimes say Jesus was talking about the spiritually poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. We gather to thank him that he saved us when we were spiritually in that condition — and somehow manage to think that he’s a “no comment” on political questions that most impact those who are literally poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed! (Even though he did, literally, spend his life ministering to exactly those people!)
I’m not talking about whether the Republicans or Democrats have the right answers as to how we should deal with these problems: I’m saying that Jesus cares about them and expects his people to do something. I’m not making a statement about how much government should be involved: if the church was doing its job, maybe the government’s role wouldn’t be such a big issue one way or the other.
Jesus is political. The things he taught and did should push those of us who follow him out into the world to teach and do the same things. Following him will, inevitably, have political ramifications. It should make us consider our votes carefully, and for the right reasons. It should make us care about those who haven’t managed to get the kinds of breaks in this world that we have. It should make us inclined to take the side of the powerless over the powerful, and it should make us instantly suspicious when anyone demands loyalty to a country or a system or a party or a platform over human beings created in God’s image.
We haven’t always done well with everything on that list.
Jesus is political. If you still doubt it, then look at how his life ended. He wasn’t crucified because most people felt his message was comfortable and non-threatening. “We have no king but Caesar,” they cried out as they demanded his blood. They didn’t say that because they missed the point. They said that because they got the point. Better, perhaps, than those of us who wear his name sometimes do.
So, let us do what he says: let us “repent and believe the good news.” Not the good news that Jesus died to save me — I mean, that’s good for me, but what about everyone else? No, the gospel Jesus preached is the gospel that God’s kingdom is kicking down the door and renewing and restoring all the damage that Satan has done to the world and the people he created and loves so much. It’s the gospel that, through his death and resurrection, we are set free to live new lives as instruments of God’s righteousness in our world. That, dear reader, is most definitely political; it was in Jesus’ day, and it will be in our day too, for as long as those on top in our world would enrich themselves at the expense of those on the bottom.
The church’s answer to the political division in our world shouldn’t be that Jesus isn’t political; it should be that he is, and it should be to invite others to come to know him.
It should be to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, with our words and with our lives.