With the first Presidential debate in the books, the response from those in my circle has been a mixture of embarrassment and disappointment, seasoned with a bit of disgust. I watched a replay and just kept being reminded of the movie, Grumpy Old Men. One friend of mine suggested debates might have run their course, since the participants seemed unaware or incapable of reasoned, measured, coherent, and substantive argumentation.
It caused me to ponder when I’d last witnessed a political debate that ended with people being amazed … in a positive sense?
I’m still pondering …
Yet time and again, when Jesus of Nazareth was faced with seemingly impossible questions, his answers amazed both his fans and his foes. What can we learn from Jesus that will help us understand how to engage with the political and cultural structures of our time? What would an “amazing” Christian political witness look like?
The answer begins within the question posed to Jesus in Mark 12:13-15, Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
The tax here is a particular tax, not taxes in general. This was a “Head Tax” collected once per year for being a subject of Caesar. About 25 years earlier, when the tax was implemented, an armed revolt led by Judas the Galilean, who
- Cleansed the Temple
- Declared the establishment of God’s Kingdom
- Called Jews to refuse to pay the tax
Do a couple of those sound familiar?
At this point in Jesus’ ministry he’d been preaching the kingdom and had just cleansed the Temple, so the people wanted to know about his view on the tax. The tax was not the real issue here. What they really wanted to know was whose political side was Jesus on? What was he really about? Did he line up with their expectations or not? Would they take him seriously or not?
This tax controversy was intended to bait and trap Jesus by either pitting him against the state, against the people, or making him irrelevant to both. It’s the same trap of binary (either/or) thinking many Christians walk into, and a trap many Christ-followers set for each other.
Jesus will show us a better way, but first, let’s look at three approaches to the political realm that continue to tempt and trap people today.
1. Domination – Often seen in language of warfare and aggression. “Fight for our values” or “take back America,” it’s an overall approach that motivates uprisings meant to overtake another group. If Jesus had done as Judas the Galilean, and told people to refuse to pay the tax, he would have been calling for open revolt and, like Judas the Galilean, would have been crushed by the state for sedition.
But Kevin, aren’t we supposed to stand up and fight for what’s right?
Yes, we are indeed called to stand, but how and against whom we make that stand makes a difference. The recent Presidential debate was between two people who claim faith in Jesus Christ, yet it sounded no different than any other disrespectful verbal exchange. Scripture calls Christians to another way,
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
This passage is about discipline, self-control, reason, measured strength, precision, and discernment. Hardly the stuff of dominant aggression, by which we make enemies out of those Jesus defined as our neighbor.
But Kevin, why are we called to put on the armor of God if not to engage the enemy? Yes, but remember the primary enemy is not flesh and blood,
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6:10-13
While we face opponents in this world, our true enemy is supernatural. Jesus has already secured victory in himself, so our stand is in him and the work he’s already done, not in our strength. Remember who the real enemy is. As we’ll see next week, Jesus calls for a different kind of revolt.
2. Assimilation – This is an effort to “go along to get along.” In a cultural context, assimilation makes one culture’s values and convictions indistinguishable from another. For people of faith, it often comes by separating and minimizing faith from public life.
When presented with the question about the tax, if Jesus had sad, “yes, just pay it,” he’d have been seen as a sellout, would have put himself at odds with the people and been charged with treason against God.
Assimilation and compartmentalization aren’t viable options for Christian political witness because our faith sets us apart from the world.
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. – John 17: 14-18
3. Fortification – This is seen in responding to tough issues by withdrawing, retreating, disconnecting, or otherwise disengaging from the conversation. In Jesus’ day, a group called the Essenes took this route and created a fortified and isolated community focused on keeping the world and its influences out.
And the group died out.
A large portion of the Christian community in the United States took this approach in the 1920’s following the Scopes Monkey Trial. An entire subculture developed as Christians started their own schools and colleges and began to create “Christian” versions of everything from music, to clothing, and even breath mints. Current manifestations are seen in Fundamentalist churches that focus internally, some (but not all) sectors of homeschooling, and in writing like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option.
While this approach carries a wide appeal and has a long history, it is not what Jesus modeled. Had Jesus responded to the tax question with silence he would have become irrelevant to both the people and the state. Followers of Jesus are not called to irrelevance. Ours is a mission of faithful presence. As Jeremiah wrote to the Jews exiled in Babylon,
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7
Our personal peace and prosperity are linked to our concern for and promotion of the peace and prosperity of the place we live. Kingdom faith was never intended to be a weak, private, passive spiritual inner peace, nor was it to be a faith that manifests in domination, assimilation, or fortification.
4. Incarnation – Jesus came into the world for the world. His Kingdom is a movement of people who oppose the kingdoms of this world through a practical, tangible, redemptive, compassionate, and intentional presence in this world for the people of this world.
This is the ministry of Immanuel, God with us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14
We are witnesses of his “withness,” when we, by his grace, are present in and with this world. When we are not in and with the world, we oppose and deny the way of Jesus.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ – Matthew 25:34-45
The passage above names external actions as indications of internal belief. The book of James echoes this, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead … For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2:14, 17, 26
Jesus’ love was demonstrated in his incarnation. We as his followers are called to no less.
What’s the point?
Citizens of God’s Kingdom are intended to be present in addressing socio-political issues of poverty, injustice, hunger, other issues, while also being present to address real spiritual bondage, and the freedom and flourishing available in Jesus. You can’t do that by bowing up and making enemies out of neighbors, blending in and becoming no different than the system, or hiding out and becoming irrelevant to everyone other than those in your bubble. Jesus’ witness of “withness” is a better way.
How to do that? Next week, we’ll examine how Jesus teaches us to think about political realities, how to value opportunities for political engagement, how to recognize the limits of politics, and how to do so as both faithful Christians, and active citizens.