Did Jesus have a political philosophy?

October 11, 2007

I ask this question, not because I pretend to know the answer to it, but because it is, for me, a genuine question. If I knew the answer to it, it would presumably make the act of voting much simpler for me than it has been for many years. I would know how to think about things which weigh upon my mind and cause my head to ache — about democracy, about war, about oil, about Islam, about the State of Israel, about the Church, about the future of this country…. I would know how to differentiate clearly between political good and political evil, simply by referring all things to the political philosophy of Jesus Christ. Did Jesus have, and does Jesus now have, a political philosophy, one that offers some guidance to those living at the present time, trying to make sense of their lives and of a world that appears increasingly as though it were standing at the brink of an apocalyptic catastrophe?

Since I don’t, in fact, know the answer to this question, and since the attempt to answer it would only lead me into long theoretical meanderings, and perhaps into tirades of which I would later be embarrassed, I think it best for me to leave my question here as a question, and let others try to answer it. But let me be a little more precise about what I am asking. I am not asking whether or not Jesus possessed political wisdom — as he is the Wisdom of God, that goes without saying. I am asking whether Jesus’ more-than-political wisdom can be expressed, at least partly, in the human terms of a political philosophy, so that those of us who attempt to follow his teaching may know how to act in the political sphere, and know how to differentiate between the false and the true — in particular, between false and true representations of Jesus himself.

For there are many political Jesuses. There is Jesus the pacifist (John Howard Yoder). There is Jesus the warrior-king (Fr. Alexander Webster). There is Jesus the laissez-faire capitalist (Michael Novak). There is Jesus the revolutionary socialist (Gustavo Gutierrez). There is Jesus who blesses imperial order (Eusebius of Caesarea, Dante Alighieri, etc.), and there is Jesus for whom empire is, at best, a scarcely redeemable outpost of the kingdom of darkness (St. Augustine). There is Jesus the Zionist (Edward Irving, most Neoconservatives). There is Jesus the anti-Semite, or at least, the militant anti-Zionist (Fr. Denis Fahey, Fr. Charles Coughlin, virtually the whole Arab world). There is Jesus the papal absolutist (Augustinus Triumphus, Joseph de Maistre, Opus Dei). There is Jesus the conciliarist (Nicholas of Cusa, Vatican II). There is Jesus for whom Rome remains the Whore of Babylon (the monks of Esphigmenou). There is Jesus the red-blooded American (Hollywood). There is Jesus the Slavophile (Dostoevsky). There is Jesus the apolitical liturgist (Fr. Alexander Schmemann). There is Jesus the trendy social reformer (contemporary Episcopalianism). There is Jesus the solitary individual (Kierkegaard). There is Jesus the personalist (Pope John Paul II). There is Jesus the environmentalist (Patriarch Bartholomew, Al Gore). There is Jesus the communal ontologist (Metropolitan John Zizioulas). There are many other political Jesuses besides those here mentioned. It seems to me that, while some of these political images of Jesus can co-exist with each other, not all of them can be simultaneously true.

Some points which I think need to be taken into account in any assessment of Jesus as a political thinker are as follows:

(1) Jesus is Lord. That confession had political overtones when it was made in the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., and it carries political overtones now. It implies that Jesus, who judges the living and the dead, judges also nations, societies, economies, governments, businesses, churches, schools, and every human enterprise. To translate it roughly into American English, “Jesus is Boss.” He is the demanding employer who pays his workers as he sees fit, and he expects results (Mt 25:14-30).

(2) Jesus is Messiah. He is the “anointed one,” the one upon whom the Holy Spirit abides (Mt 3:13-17; John 1:33), the promised son of the Davidic house (cf. 2 Sam ch. 7). Israel is his own proper inheritance. St. Paul says that “Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15:8f.). Anti-Semitism is a symptom of residual paganism in the human heart (Rom 11:18).

(3) Jesus preaches a kingdom. He speaks of it as “the kingdom of God,” “the kingdom of heaven,” “my Father’s kingdom.” He depicts this kingdom in many ways, often through parables. He frequently represents life in the kingdom in terms of a feast, to which people are invited, though many refuse to come. He also says that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36), nor is it ordered in the way the kingdoms of the world are (Mt 20:26; Mk 10:43).

(4) The kingdom Jesus preaches is in opposition to another kingdom. There is a “strong man,” whose house Jesus enters, and whose goods he despoils (Mt 12:29; Mk 3:27). The works of healing Jesus performs are usually represented as the casting out of demons which have taken abode in people and subjected them to slavery in various ways (cf. Mt 8:28-34; Lk 13:16). There is something called “the gates of hell” (Mt 16:18), in revolt against God and in everlasting opposition to Jesus and his kingdom. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

(5) Jesus appoints twelve men to be his apostles, to preach the kingdom of God, and to them, he says, it shall be given “to sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30). Jesus has human feeling; he calls his disciples his “friends” (Jn 15:15). He evidently remembers favors people show towards him (Lk 23:43); he also, evidently, remembers acts of spite, though he is capable of forgiving them (Lk 23:34).

(6) As Jesus understands himself to be the Father’s ambassador, so he understands his apostles to be his own ambassadors to other people. “Peace be unto you; as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (Jn 20:21). The acts of mercy or spite shown to Jesus’ followers, even to the least of them, Jesus accounts as acts of mercy or spite done to himself (Mt 25:40). These acts of mercy or spite enter into account in Jesus’ judgment of the living and the dead.

(7) To one of his disciples, Jesus gives the name “Rock”; he says he will build his church upon this rock, and he gives to this disciple “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:16-18). In the language of “keys,” and of “opening and shutting,” there is an echo of Isaiah ch. 22, which speaks of a servant named Shebna, who is thrust out of his office of treasurer of the house of David, and of one Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who is clothed with this office in Shebna’s place. “And the key of the house of David,” it says, “I will lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). This is testimony, if any were needed, that Jesus understands himself as the legitimate heir to the Davidic throne. It is also testimony that Jesus grants to Peter some sort of governing, judicial authority over, or within, his Church. (Cf. Mt 24:45-51.)

(8) I also think that this passage, Matthew 16:16-18, needs to be read in connection with the Book of Daniel. When Jesus calls his friend Simon “Rock,” he is giving him a name that already carries a heavy biblical significance. In Daniel ch. 2, King Nebuchadnezzar dreams a dream in which he sees an immense statue, reaching up into the sky, with a golden head, silver shoulders, brass belly, iron legs, and feet of mixed iron and clay. Only Daniel is able to interpret the dream; he tells the king that the dream-image of a statue represents a succession of empires. “Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” (Dan 2:34-35). The stone cut out without hands is, in one sense, Jesus himself, born of a virgin. In another sense, the stone is the kingdom Jesus is preaching: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Dan 2:44). There can be no doubt that Jesus sees himself, and the kingdom he is preaching, in connection with this stone (cf. Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17). But this makes all the more significant the fact that Jesus gives his friend, who confesses him, the name “Rock.” It is as though, in return for Peter’s confession of Jesus’ divine identity, Jesus gives to Peter a new identity, partaking of that very invincibility belonging to Jesus himself. (Cf. Lk 22:32.)

(9) Peter’s identity is not unambiguous (cf. Mt 16:23: “Get thee behind me, Satan”). Among other things, he denies Jesus during his passion, although he repents of this, and Jesus later confirms him in his office (Mt 26:69-75; Jn 21:15-17). In any case, the fact that Jesus appoints this man as “Rock” says something about Jesus’ political thinking. Given the connection between the “rock” image and the image of the stone that smashes the political idol of universal empire, one would be forced to say that, far from being a deluded man who died in despair upon finding that the imminent kingdom he had preached didn’t come (one of the more pathetic tales of twentieth-century biblical scholarship), Jesus knew exactly what he was doing: he knew that he was founding a Church, and that it would have to stand against the floods of hell for a very long time. He doubtless also knew that the Church that he was founding would face internal disputes. Anyone who questions whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (only biblical critics, grown fat and fatuous with tenure, do) has to reckon with the undisputed facts that Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples and gave one of them the name Peter; these facts cannot be explained otherwise than in the way the New Testament itself explains them: that Jesus accepted the titles “Christ,” “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” though he understood these titles differently than most people around him did; that he knew himself to be the promised Redeemer of Israel; that he sent men to preach his coming to the twelve tribes; that he knowingly and willingly founded a new covenant and a new community in his own blood, and appointed over this community shepherds, to govern it until his return; and that, for the sake of the unity of this new community, in the event that disagreements should arise among these shepherds, he appointed one of the shepherds as Rock, a name which more properly applies to Jesus himself (cf. 1 Cor 3:11).

I do not think that, in saying all this, I have gotten very far towards describing a “political philosophy of Jesus.” There is much that I have scarcely mentioned here, e.g., Jesus’ attitude to the Mosaic law, his commandment to love one’s enemies, the question of the poor, paying taxes to Caesar, and so on. As mentioned already, I don’t claim to know the answer to the question, “Did Jesus have a political philosophy?” I have only tried to outline some of the points that seem to me necessary to keep in mind when one begins to try to answer that question. And as for the question of what relevance any of this has for the problems people face in trying to live a Christian life amidst the growing political darkness of the twenty-first century, I have not said anything at all.


5 Responses to “Did Jesus have a political philosophy?”

  1. frgregoryj Says:

    Thank you. There is much in your post for me to think about.


  2. Petra Says:

    Finely outlined text. It is especially interesting how close you get to the Catholic position on the Petrine office… :-)

    BTW, you wrote that Opus Dei hat a stance of “papal absolutism”. I don’t know exactly what you mean by that, but when I think of De Maistre’s position, I can hardly put the two on the same plane (especially as the Work does not have a stance on its own on any doctrinal matters). As a wannabe member of Opus Dei myself, I must confirm that love towards the Holy Father coexists there very well with love for the Second Vatican Council…

  3. bekkos Says:

    Dear Petra,

    In the list of characterizations I gave, I was being fairly slipshod and impressionistic. I’m sure many Episcopalians would want to dispute the claim that the Jesus they worship is a trendy social reformer, that Schmemann, if he were alive, would dispute the claim that the Jesus he worships is an apolitical liturgist, and so on. In lumping in Opus Dei among those for whom Jesus gives the Church a teaching of papal absolutism, I am simply registering the impression, as a non-Catholic, that, among contemporary Catholic orders and organizations, Opus Dei shows probably the greatest resemblance to the position that used to be known as Ultramontanism, a position which I think I am right in saying that the Second Vatican Council sought to moderate and put in perspective. It may well be that, as you say, the Work does not have a stance on its own on any doctrinal matters; since you clearly have a deeper acquaintance with it than I do, you probably know better than me.

  4. Sophia Says:

    I’ve also thought of this question and would offer that Jesus who is married to the Church would, I think, live His political philophy which best suited the sanctity and survival of His “offspring.” Political good or evil may in fact be oxymorons; to no extent should we seek guidance from those who purport to wield “political authority.” As children of our Church now grown, we possess the truth as taught and should seek to in turn “parent”, or authorize, the system and their representatives, who by definition, are simply there to do just that.

  5. […] still do not know if Jesus had a political philosophy, or if this is even a legitimate question to be asking about him. The text of Luke 2:22-40, the […]

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