Centuries before Jesus’ birth, Jewish apocalyptic writers, struggling to understand the theological meaning of Israel’s exile in Babylon, concluded with paradoxical audacity that pagan oppression was the result not of YHWH’s weakness but of his actual justice and strength: Israel was being punished by the Creator God for its failure to keep the covenant. (28) Things would grow progressively worse, Jewish eschatology predicted, until a final, decisive moment when God would at last send a warrior-prince to restore his Chosen People to their rightful place among the nations. Jewish apocalyptic literature used cosmic and fantastic images to describe this future event, but Jewish hopes were firmly rooted in the realm of concrete, earthly politics. When God’s kingdom arrived, it would be plain for all to see by three material facts: 1) the Davidic monarchy would be restored in Jerusalem with unparalleled justice and prosperity; 2) the Temple would be rebuilt with unsurpassed splendor; and 3) the downtrodden Jews would emerge a triumphant superpower with their pagan enemies humiliated and defeated beneath them.
Jesus shared many of the basic assumptions of this traditional Jewish eschatology. He declared that oppression would increase before finally being overcome by God’s saving activity (Mark 13.7-13). He urged his disciples to be steadfast and courageous in the face of evil (Matthew 10.16-42). And he taught them to pray not for a “spiritual” kingdom somewhere in the sky but for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10). When Jesus talked about the kingdom, though, he did not talk about it in the future tense. Israel was still suffering under foreign oppression, economic injustice and religious corruption. Jesus talked about the kingdom like it had already arrived. Even more shocking, the Gospel writers record, Jesus talked and acted like the kingdom was happening in him and through him. “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God,” Jesus said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11.20).
Jesus’ kingdom announcement implied that conventional Jewish eschatology, with its vision of two successive historical ages, was either deeply flawed or had been gravely misread. Hebrew apocalyptic literature had depicted the coming of YHWH’s kingdom as a dramatic, earthshattering event that would radically divide the old aeon from the new. But Jesus declared, against all of the seeming evidence, that the kingdom of God was an already present, in-breaking reality, manifest in his own life and program of miraculous healings, and best grasped through metaphors of secrecy, simplicity and subversion. The kingdom, Jesus said, is not like a conquering army but like a mustard seed that inexorably consumes the garden (Luke 13.19). It is like the yeast or leaven that invisibly causes bread to rise (Matthew 13.38). It is like a pearl of great price hidden in a field so that only the passionate seeker will find it (Matthew 13.46).
In first-century Palestine, anyone talking about “the kingdom” was, by this fact alone, treading on perilous political ground. Caesar Augustus had already staked out Rome’s exclusive claim to kingdom vocabulary, and the cult of the emperor brooked no rivals. Caesar was, according to one public inscription, “the beginning of all things”; “god manifest”; the “savior” of the world who “has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times”; the one whose birthday “has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news (euangelion)”. (29) We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus encoded his kingdom politics in parables, metaphors, riddles and cryptic sayings that did not explicitly defy Roman rule. But for those who had ears to hear, mustard seeds and pearls of great price were the rhetoric of a revolution. Jesus—the true Savior of the world—was calling for his followers to embody YHWH’s actual kingdom of compassion and justice as over and against Lord Caesar’s blasphemous parody. He was telling them to incarnate God’s reign in history by building a new kind of community—a countercultural “polis on a hill” (Matthew 5.14)—that would stand in nonviolent but subversive opposition to all those forces responsible for grinding down the poor, the weak, the ritually unclean and sinners of every kind. The fact that Jesus calls for his followers to incarnate or embody God’s kingdom as a social reality in the present does not contradict but defines and animates Christian hope in the Parousia as a future event in space-time. According to John Dominic Crossan, Jesus proclaimed a sapiential as opposed to apocalyptic eschatology. Sapientia is the Latin word for “wisdom”, and according to Crossan Jesus offered human beings “the wisdom to discern how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present…rather than a hope of life for the future” (my emphasis). (30) But the Jesus of the New Testament—the only Jesus we know—offers his disciples both a Way of living that manifests God’s kingdom in the midst of the present reality and a hope for the future that invests this Way with its power and meaning. It is precisely because of their confidence in the Parousia that believers are free to live out the dangerous and demanding politics of the Gospel. Conversely, it is only the social witness of believers that manifests Jesus’ life and lordship over history to a watching world.
Absent such a witness, Martin Luther King Jr. saw, there can be no authentic Advent hope. “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
“The Favorable Year of the Lord”: Economic Justice In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first action at the start of his public ministry is to enter the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor…to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4.18-19). Only real debtcancellation would have come as real good news for real poor people, Ched Meyers points out. (33) When Jesus claims the “favorable year of the Lord” as central to his vocation he is therefore not assuming a “spiritual” as opposed to a political messianic role. He is, rather, directly alluding to a powerful vision of social justice contained in the Law of Moses that had been systematically suppressed and evaded by Israel’s ruling elites for hundred of years, an economic ethic that would have come as welcome news indeed to the impoverished and exploited peasant masses ofGalilee and Judea.
The “favorable year of the Lord” in Luke-Isaiah, Andre Trocmé and John Yoder show, is the Sabbath year or year of Jubilee commanded by God in the Hebrew Bible (particularly in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15). Every seventh year, according to the Covenant, Israel was to enact a program of radical debt forgiveness, and in the fiftieth year land redistribution to benefit the poor. Among God’s people, there was to be a systematic leveling of wealth on a regular basis and dismantling of what we would today describe as oppressive financial and banking institutions designed to maximize profits for creditors. Jesus does not attempt to instate these Jubilee commandments in a rigid or programmatic way, but he does reclaim the basic principles, metaphors and imagery of the Sabbath Jubilee for his followers. He has more to say in the Gospels about issues of wealth and poverty than any other topic—and his message remains as challenging for those of us who live in affluent countries today as it was for the wealthy Herodians and Sadducees in first-century Palestine.
Against the assumptions of laissez-faire capitalism—which posits a world of unlimited human needs, individualism, and competitive rivalry for scarce resources—Jesus declares that we are stewards rather than owners of property, that God’s creation is abundant and our earthly needs limited, and that God’s liberation of Israel from slavery is normative for how we should treat the poor among us. His warnings against capital accumulation and “Lord Mammon” are unrelentingly severe (Matthew 6.16-24; Mark 10.23-25). He tells his followers to live lives of dangerous generosity, giving and expecting nothing in return (Luke 6.30). He tells them to forgive each other’s debts (Matthew 6.12), to not worry about their own material needs but to live out a lifestyle of trust and simplicity (6.25-34; 10.9-10). And he instructs them to actively pursue justice (23.23). Material care for the poor, the oppressed and the hungry, Jesus declares, is the primary mark of discipleship—and the only question at the final judgment (25.31-40).
Jesus’ radical economic teachings were epitomized among his early followers in the practice of “breaking bread”, which was not originally a rite of sacral liturgy or mystical symbolism but an actual meal embodying Jesus’ ethic of sharing in ordinary day-to-day existence. When the Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost in the book of Acts, the practical result is that believers voluntarily redistribute their property. “And all those who believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need…breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2.44-46). The Apostle Paul also emphasizes the socio-political nature of the Lord’s meal, delivering a blistering rebuke to those upper-class Corinthians who excluded poor believers from their table fellowship and sated their own stomachs while other members of the community went hungry (1 Corinthians 11.18-22).
“You Are All One in Christ”: Equality in the Body of BelieversWe can begin to see, then, why Jesus’ message had such an electrifying effect on the impoverished and socially marginalized peasants of first-century Palestine who flocked to hear him speak—and why he so frightened and angered those guardians of public “order” for whom divisions of wealth and class were a useful rather than an oppressive reality. But Jesus challenged not only structures of economic injustice and inequality in first-century Palestine. Hechallenged patterns of social inequality, hierarchy and domination of every kind. In his treatment of women, of children, of Romans, of the ritually unclean and sinners of every stripe, Jesus repeatedly and provocatively overturned deeply ingrained cultural and religious assumptions about who was “first” and “last”, “above” and “below” in the eyes of God.
There is no place in God’s in-breaking kingdom, it turns out, for “great men” or “rulers” who “lord it over” others through the exercise of political or religious authority. Such, Jesus tells his disciples, is the way of the “Gentiles”, i.e., the pagan unbelievers and Romans occupiers. But among his followers, Jesus declares, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20.25-28; Mark 10.43). Jesus goes so far as to command his followers to avoid using honorific titles of any kind, including the title of “leader”. The only title Jesus permits is an address of familial equality and solidarity: “brother” (Matthew 23.6-10). In the polis of Jesus, the New Testament suggests, there simply are no individuals in positions of status or hierarchical control.
Instead of offices, the earliest Christian communities appear to have been ordered along quasifamilial lines and according to the idea of spiritual gifts, including gifts of teaching, preaching and stewardship. Spiritual gifts are charismatic, functional, provisional and divinely rather than humanly bestowed. They are not restricted to special classes, genders or tribes; for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3.28). The most prominent functionaries in the early church, the “elders” or presbyteroi who helped to preside over the households where the early Christians gathered, were to lead by humble example rather than by “lording it over” the younger believers (1 Peter 5.1-3). The title of “priest” or hiereus (the root from which the English word “hierarchy” derives) is not applied to any Christian in the Gospels or Pauline corpus (although in Romans 15.16 Paul does describe himself by way of metaphor as a minister who works “as a priest” presenting God with “my offering of the Gentiles”). Jesus is the only person who is described (in the book of Hebrews) as a priest for the church; but he is the final priest who makes all priesthood obsolete—not merely the performance of ritual sacrifice, but the office, pomp and circumstance of priestly authority and hierarchy itself.
“Do Not Resist an Evil Person”: Nonviolent Enemy LoveIt was the fatal error of many Latin American liberation theologians to conclude from Jesus’ concern for economic justice and his summons to radical, non-hierarchical community formation that the Way of Jesus may be harmonized with the way of violent revolt against oppressive social, economic and political structures. But Jesus of Nazareth, unlike Judas the Galilean, taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, to put away their swords and to love their enemies as themselves. Perhaps the most important hallmark of the politics of Jesus lies in his teaching and example of nonviolent enemy love.
Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence finds its fullest statement in the Sermon on the Mount, which is presented in Matthew’s Gospel in a programmatic fashion as the new Torah, a definitive moral charter to guide the community of believers. Jesus does not seek to negate or overturn the Law of Moses with his own novel teaching but to reclaim the deepest meaning of the Law by intensifying and internalizing its demands. The Law forbids murder, Jesus forbids even anger. The Law forbids adultery, Jesus forbids even lust. When it comes to the matter of violence, though, Jesus does not simply radicalize or intensify the Torah. On this point, and this point alone, he decisively alters and actually overturns the teaching of the Hebrew Bible: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5.38-45).
The lex talionis—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—is spelled out in several passages in the Hebrew Bible but particularly in Deuteronomy 19.15-21. If in a criminal trial a witness gives a false testimony, the Law declares, that person must be severely punished in order to preserve the social order. “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v.21). Political stability is the goal and fear is the mechanism by which it will be achieved. Jesus shatters this strict geometry, however, with a startling injunction: “Do not resist an evil person.” This does not imply passive capitulation to violent people but physical nonretaliation as a dynamic and creative force in human relationships. By exemplifying the courage and forgiveness of the Beatitudes, the believer confounds and shames the aggressor, creating an opportunity for the hostile person to be reconciled with God. By absorbing undeserved suffering and not retaliating in kind, the disciple destroys the evil inherent in the logic of force. Instead of an endless cycle of bloodshed, fear and recrimination, there is shalom, there is peace. There is nothing sentimental, naïve, meek or mild about Jesus’ Way of dealing with enemies.
When we recall the concrete historical realities of Roman occupation in first-century Palestine, the shocking and scandalous political implications of Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence immediately becomes clear. To grasp the forces now arrayed against Jesus and his fledgling kingdom movement we have only to imagine the fate that would befall a charismatic young man from a rural village in present day Iraq should he travel to Baghdad with a band of followers and begin publicly announcing that God, through him, was about to free the land from the yoke of foreign occupation—and that prominent imams and respected government officials were vipers and hypocrites—and that the insurgents should lay down their weapons and love their enemies as themselves. Subversive? Disturbing? Dangerous? Clearly. Yet this was precisely the path that Jesus followed in his perilous journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem.
Whether Jesus’ Way of nonviolent enemy love leads to an ethic of strict pacifism, as John Yoder convincingly argues, or whether it allows for Christians to engage in what Glen Stassen calls “just peace-making” (preventive or “policing” actions that involve use of force in exceptional cases but remain sociologically and morally distinct from the calculus of war-making), the presumption of the New Testament is therefore overwhelmingly against believers killing their fellow human beings for a “just cause”, whether as social revolutionaries (on the “Left”) or “just warriors” (on the “Right”). There is not one word in the New Testament to support Linda Damico’s claim that Jesus’ concern for the liberation of the poor led him to embrace “the violence of the oppressed”. We must ponder whether disciples can even legitimately serve as military chaplains insofar as chaplains are not allowed to fully proclaim Jesus’ teaching and example to soldiers but must ensure that “all efforts…maximize a positive impact on the military mission” and “enhance operational readiness and combat effectiveness.”
Against the above reading of Jesus’ kingdom announcement—as essentially subversive of political authority, involving concern for matters of economicjustice and social equality and giving rise to a community of nonviolent nonconformity with power—some scholars have quoted Jesus’ aphorism, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). According to Geza Vermes, the saying indicates that Jesus was not concerned with the burning political matters of his day but remained a wandering, apolitical sage who only accidentally and somewhat naïvely stumbled into conflict with the Jerusalem authorities.43 Did not Jesus also say “My kingdom is not of this world”? Vermes’s reading of Jesus as apolitical rustic rabbi fails, however, to account for the historical and narrative contexts for Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels. When Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world he does not mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world; he means that his kingdom does not derive its tactics, platform or goals from any of the competing political movements of his day, and particularly from the zealots: “If my kingdom were of this world my servants would fight…but my kingdom is not from here” (John 18.36 NKJV, emphasis mine). Nor is “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” an abstract teaching about the separation of political and religious matters. The aphorism is Jesus’ answer to a specific, historically-inscribed trap devised by a group of Pharisees and Herodians, whose goal is to force Jesus into one of their rival camps. The trap comes in the form of a question that appears to admit only one of two answers: Should Jews pay the poll tax to Caesar? If Jesus says they should pay the tax, he will have compromised with the Roman occupiers and betrayed his people. If he says that it is not right to pay the tax, he will have openly defied Caesar’s authority and be guilty of sedition along the lines of the zealots. But Jesus’ does not take either path in this false dichotomy. Instead, he deftly transcends and subverts the question.44 His reply contains irony, non-cooperation, indifference and even scorn.45 Bring me a denarius, he tells his inquisitors (Mark 12.15), showing that he is not himself in possession of “Lord Mammon” while at the same time forcing his questioners to reveal that they are the compromised bearers of Caesar’s image and divine title. Whose image and inscription is this?, Jesus then asks, as if he did not know. So it is the Pharisees and Herodians, not Jesus, who are forced to bear recognition to Caesar in the story. When told that the image is Caesar’s (v.16), Jesus at last declares that Caesar can keep his idolatrous scraps of metal: “Render to Caesar the things that Caesar’s”. But what are the things that truly belong to Caesar? Does Caesar have the right to wage wars, to impoverish nations and to inflict violence on God’s people? Not at all, Jesus’ listeners would have understood. Lord Caesar has no claim whatsoever on any human being; for human beings, unlike coins, are made in the image of God.
But what about the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 13 that God has ordained secular rulers as agents of his will, as “avengers” who do “not bear the sword for nothing” (v.3)? Do Paul’s letters—the oldest texts in the New Testament canon—in some way contradict, invalidate or “balance” Jesus’ seemingly more radical words and actions in the Gospels, which were written some 40 years later? According to Martin Luther, the book of Romans is the New Testament’s definitive statement on Christian politics, and it shows that we must serve God “inwardly” and the secular authorities “outwardly”. “Therefore, should you see that there is a lack of hangmen,” Luther wrote in 1523, “and find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the place”.46 Protestants have been offering their services ever since. Yet Romans 13, Luther failed to see, is part of the same literary unit as Chapter 12, which ends with these words: “Repay no evil for evil...Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12.17-21). Next come the instructions about submitting to earthly authorities. But, lest there be any doubt on the matter, Paul returns to the theme of Christian nonviolence, driving his point home with systematic rigor. First, he instructs believers to render to all their due (13.7). Then he says that believers should owe no one anything except love (13.8). Next he defines what love is: “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (13.10). Read carefully, and in historical context, Paul is telling the early Christians in Rome, in the face of increasing persecution by a brutal and tyrannical pagan regime, to assume a nonviolent, nonrebelliousstance as their reconciling ministry. He is also telling believers to trust in God’s controlling power over history. God can use the secular authorities and their pagan armies for his own redemptive purposes and, ironically, even as instruments of his justice. That is God’s power and prerogative. But there is not one word in Romans—or anywhere else in Paul’s writings—to suggest that believers should volunteer to serve in Assyrian, Egyptian or Roman legions, or that violence is an acceptable tool for followers of the Way. Quite the opposite, Romans 13 makes clear: Christians are called to a different path. And it is precisely the political character of this path that explains the regularity and persistence of both Roman and Jewish persecution of the Jesus movement during the first three centuries of its growth: “Mere belief—acceptance of certain propositional statements—is not enough to elicit such violence. People believe all sorts of odd things and are tolerated. When, however, belief is regarded as an index of subversion, everything changes. The fact of widespread persecution, regarded by both pagans and Christians as the normal state of affairs within a century of the beginnings of Christianity, is powerful evidence of the sort of thing that Christianity was, and was perceived to be.”
Resurrecting the Life of ChristWhen we strip away the layers of ritual, culture and abstract theology that have accreted to the Gospels over the past two thousand years, we thus find that although Jesus did not fit into any of the rival political categories or ideologies of his day—although he did not “run with the hares or hunt with the hounds” in Wright’s words—he was nevertheless deeply, in fact centrally, concerned with politics: with questions of power, money, allegiance and violence, and with the liberation of human beings from all forms of oppression, social and political as well as individual. For Jesus, the things that are God’s are not otherworldly things—the heretical, earth-denying claim of the Gnostics—but precisely this-worldly matters—matters of justice, mercy and community. Jesus’ political stance, Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller convincingly argue, may best be described as that of an anarchist—not anarchist in the popular sense of advocating destruction of property or the violent overthrow of governments (as in Damico’s reading), but in the root sense of the word: an arche: no rulers, no dominion but God’s alone. The anarchist dimension of Christian discipleship does not remove but in many ways heightens the demands of citizenship in a secular polity since service to God cannot be separated from loving service to humanity, and because violent resistance to “Lord Caesar” is no longer an option. Still, “We must be faithful in our own way,” Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “even if the world understands such faithfulness as disloyalty.” A church that does not stand “against the world” in fundamental ways, Yoder points out, “has nothing worth saying to and for the world.” Followers of Jesus are not called to defend the ramparts of “liberal democracy”, or any other political system or ideology. Nor are they called to create a “Christian nation” in which Christian leaders assume control of the means of violence and power and exercise them for righteous ends. Rather, they are called to incarnate the kingdom of God by modeling an alternative or “remnant” community of economic justice, equality and peace, with Jesus at its center. They are called to bear witness, amid all of the ambiguities and ironies of history, to the “minority report”: the good news that Jesus’ creative weakness is still God’s saving strength.
If true to their calling, followers of Jesus may expect to pay a high price for their political witness and their refusal to play a part in the mechanisms of violence and coercion that lie at the heart of every social order, including the project of American democracy (the imperial “beast” of Revelation 13 marked by its powers of shock and awe—making “fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men”—and by its control of the global economy—dictating who is “able to buy or to sell”). They will at times be charged with being unpatriotic, ineffective or irrelevant. Like the Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation, they may face ridicule, social ostracism and even persecution for their nonconformity with power. In some times and places, they will lose their lives as a result of their obedience to their Master. For the Way of Jesus, is ultimately the Way of the Cross. “To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice,” writes Yoder. “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”
Because the Way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross, the politics of Jesus only fully make sense to those who see the dilemmas of power in “cosmic perspective”, to those who are living in the light of Jesus’ resurrection as the historical fact upon which the once-hidden meaning of the universe hinges. “As a mundane proverb, ‘Turn the other cheek’ is simply bad advice,” Richard Hays points out. “Such action makes sense only if the God and Father of Jesus Christ actually is the ultimate judge of the world and if his will for his people is definitely revealed in Jesus.” Put another way, because following Jesus—not simply as a matter of individual spirituality but as a matter of concrete community formation—may involve real sacrifice, suffering and even martyrdom, and because there is no guarantee that this suffering will be politically effective as the world measures effectiveness, there is no reason to follow the Way of Jesus unless the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same. If Roman brutality left Jesus buried somewhere in the hills of Palestine alongside all the other messianic revolutionaries of his day, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32). But if Jesus is who the New Testament writers say he is—the suffering Savior of the world who has overcome the principalities and powers and has defeated the final tyranny which is death—then let us “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5.1), bearing a more faithful witness to the Way of Jesus and the political shape of his life.
Ron Osborn is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Southern California. This article -- with restored footnotes -- will appear in a forthcoming issue of Spectrum.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4219