I believe that if you asked most Americans what does Jesus have to do with politics you would receive one of two answers: everything or nothing. Those who declared Jesus has “everything” to do with politics would most likely subscribe to the so-called “Religious Right” and would say Jesus as the Son of God and the Bible as the Word of God instruct us how to live. Proper living would include opposition to abortion and probably birth control, opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage, opposition to pornography and sexual imagery in popular media, along with a commitment to laissez faire capitalism, limited government, gun rights and a strong military. Those who stated Jesus has “nothing” to do with politics may be simply reacting negatively against the Religious Right, but many truly take a position that religion is a private concern and not appropriate for public issues of governance. This latter group would most likely find their grounding for a “common good” in a secular understanding of individual and community “rights” rather than in anything particular religious understanding of society. I feel sure there are other answers to the question besides these two—my own for instance—but as far as I can see these two responses are the most common.
From my perspective, the response of “nothing” is inadequate, because as a Christian I believe Jesus has to fit in there somewhere. On the other hand, the response of the Religious Right, in my opinion, merely uses Jesus to promote a particular ideology that oppresses women, views sexuality in only negative terms and justifies violence. One view doesn’t really care about Jesus, and the other view merely uses Jesus in order to control others.
For people of faith who do not identify themselves with the Religious Right, the choice seems obvious; better to have a secular view of politics that at least works for a “common good” than a theocracy. This point of view among moderate to liberal Christians has been helped along by some movements within the academic study of Christian Ethics. I can remember being surprised in graduate school when I heard one of the doctoral candidates in Christian Ethics declare that Jesus’ teachings were all geared towards an imminent end of the world and since that didn’t happen Jesus’ ethical teachings aren’t suited for the real world. I don’t really know how widespread this view is in the academic world, but I suspect among left-leaning Christians some form of it is common. In other words, the Golden Rule is a nice way to live, but Jesus’ call to nonviolence and sacrifice on behalf of the poor is just not suited for the real world. Thus, most mainline churches preach an ethic of congeniality rather than one that demands much of their members.
Trying to figure out what Jesus has to do with politics is all the more difficult, because Jesus doesn’t explicitly say much about them. Jesus didn’t speak about government or laws, so any discussion of Jesus and politics necessarily involves interpreting Jesus’ teachings and actions in light of politics in our time. If we can admit the fact that our efforts to apply Jesus’ ministry two thousand years ago to our current political situation are possibly wrong, then we can honestly and humbly try to say something about what Jesus has to do with politics—something other than Jesus hates gays and abortion or Jesus just wants us to be nice. If we dare, we can read the Gospels and see that although Jesus doesn’t talk about politics per se, he does talk about money, power and violence—each of which has an awful lot to do with politics.
We are human, after all, and apt to screw things up choosing what is in our own self-interest rather than what is in the best interest of all and what benefits us in the short term rather than in the long term. Also in the world we live in, people of good will can be forced to accept laws and governments that offer a lot of gray area rather than clear rights and wrongs, and they often must choose not between good and bad but between bad and worse. Yet, when we are lost in the midst of our own confusion over what is right for our society and world, Jesus does offer us some landmarks to guide our way. Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed reminds us that humanity is at its best when those with the least power are seen as having worth and dignity. Jesus’ warnings about the accumulation of power and money guide us away from the delusion that profit is the highest good or the fallacy that those with power are inherently superior to those without. Jesus’ call to share what we have with others is not only a call to private charity but also societal justice; it is a reminder that the earth belongs to God and not to those who claim ownership of it for their own exploitation. Jesus’ rejection of violence reminds us that even though violence may be necessary, it can never be more than a lesser evil. Even violence under taken with the best of intentions leaves behind unforeseen negative consequences. Most of all, Jesus’ declarations that we are to be a part of the “Kingdom of God” mean that our ultimate loyalty must and cannot be to any human government or nation but rather to a spiritual community that transcends the borders of parties and nation-states.
No, Jesus did not speak directly to politics, but he did speak about many things that should undergird our approach to politics. As we celebrate our freedoms as Americans this weekend, let us remember that the demands of following Jesus go even deeper than our patriotism.
Grace and Peace,