Vote for Jesus? [Darrell Dow]

I’m taking a week away from the blog this week, and I’ve asked my friends to post in my absence. This post is by Darrell Dow, a friend I made last year on my trip to Sri Lanka. Darrell blogs at Stuff Fundies Like and My Obama Year. I think his post will challenge you — and look for him in the comments.

American politics is religious in its fervor. American religion is political in its function.

Darrell Dow

No matter how tall the wall that our Constitution has built between the church and the state, you’ll find some people from every political persuasion who will invoke Christian thought as the basis of their convictions. Every agenda has its religious texts and scriptural narratives informed by biblical images. An embattled union is David to the corporate giant’s Goliath. Those seeking social change cast themselves in the role of prophet or Apostle by turns speaking uncomfortable truths to the powerful and spreading the gospel of equality and justice. Most of all, Jesus gets quoted by everybody.

Who doesn’t own Jesus in an election year? Jesus is a Democrat. Jesus is a Republican. Jesus would want more social programs for the poor. Jesus would strike abortion providers dead in their tracks. Jesus would outlaw assault rifles. Jesus would institute the death penalty. Jesus has a seat on every side of every issue. It’s a good thing he’s got divinity on his side because anyone else would likely crack under the strain.

During the last election cycle I even began noticing Vote for Jesus as a slogan on bumper stickers and signs. This campaign to elect the Lord is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m pretty sure Christ doesn’t have a US birth certificate. I can only imagine what Donald Trump would have to say about that.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve never voted for Republican Jesus but I did admire him as I pictured the muscular man who favored free enterprise, led an ear-chopping posse of swordsmen, and taught the poor that the path to happiness was hard work as a cog in the capitalist machine. I imagined that someday he would lead troops into a bloody final battle against the forces of Communism, atheism, and pretty much anybody else that didn’t go to my church. This image of a conquering right-wing Christ was very satisfying stuff in my youth but I’m happy to say that my Jesus isn’t like that anymore and hasn’t been for many years.

Even though my Christ had grown kinder and gentler over the years, however, he was still pretty darn conservative so when I started a new project last month that I’m calling My Obama Year, I realized that spending twelve months of listening, empathizing, and trying to understand those who live to my political left would mean understanding their Jesus as well. That takes a good deal of doing. Jesus is pretty personal.

The process of rediscovering Jesus comes with a warning: It’s good to be cautious when you start to reconstruct Christ. It would be easy to slip into the path of simply switching out Jesus the Iron-Jawed General for a Jesus that drinks free trade coffee, carries a union card (Carpenters Local 316, perhaps?), and has a Free Tibet sticker on the guitar case he carries to protests. Unfortunately, a liberal caricature of Christ is no more helpful than the extreme right-wing version because it robs us of the main focus of his teachings which were largely personal not political.

Jesus was not a general nor was he an activist. Not only did he never run for election, he never even voted in one. Other than some cutting words about the spiritual conditions of some of the Jewish leadership, his largest political statement was a martyrdom during which he didn’t even bother launching a defense at his own trial. As politics goes, that’s not exactly a great way to have a career.

Maybe Jesus isn’t really anything like the political images painted of him. Perhaps the time has come for all parties and political persuasions to stop claiming to have exclusive rights to Jesus and instead think about what he did teach us — lessons that are bigger than our issues or agendas. He taught outlandish love for our enemies. He taught unthinkable grace toward our neighbors. He told us that the kingdom of heaven is now here. It’s here! It’s here in publicans and in Pharisees; in prostitutes and in preachers; in Democrats, in Republicans, in you, and in me.

What would happen in our country if the kingdom were right now fully realized and grace and graciousness ruled our politics? What if the greatest commandment in our law was love? I can’t really imagine it — which I suppose just means that there is a lot of work still left to do for all of us.

In the meantime should we vote for Jesus? Why would anyone need to? I think that to do so would be as superfluous as it is insulting.

When you live in a kingdom there’s no vote need to vote for the King.

  • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    Nicely done Darrell. I acknowledge your work on “getting to know those to your left”. My first impetus for studying theology was to try to understand how “The Right” had managed to claim the moral high ground while acting in ways I considered very NON-Christ-like. This led me to liberal churches, but I found they were just as uninterested in being charitable to anyone who didn’t share their views as anyone else. I agree, it’s time to stop building these “Jesus is on MY side” clubs.

    • http://www.myobamayear.com Darrell

      Thank you, Lausten. Reading your experience I had some quote about being the change we want to see in the world come to mind. :)

      • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

        Got that one on a T-shirt. It always gets good comments.

  • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

    Perhaps the kingdom of God is fully realized now? Or, more accurately, perhaps the kingdom of God is not a destination, but a process that we are in the middle of right now?

    You say the kingdom of God is full of grace. You say the kingdom of God is full of love. True enough. But what purpose does grace have when there is no sin? What purpose does love have when there is no hate, or no loneliness?

    We are in God’s kingdom, the process of God’s kingdom, fully realized, right now. Voting is one of the more peaceful ways that man has invented to resolve conflict, but voting does not remove conflict. God’s kingdom does not remove conflict. We are in God’s kingdom right now.

  • http://culturemonk.wordpress.com culturemonk

    Its a tad bit sad that so many on the right wing side live such insulated lives that they have to go out of their way as yourself in order to “understand those who live to my political left” as you say.

    The Jesus of the biblical narratives spent much of his time condemning the conservative religious hypocrites of his day, and spent next to no time (that I can see) arguing conservative Pharisaical politics with the non-conservatives.

    We look at the biblical Jesus and there he is at a 1st century keg party, listening to raunchy jokes, hanging out with the people the conservative pharisees despised. This is not to say all the non-conservative pharisees told raunchy jokes, only to point out that Jesus did not lead an insulated conservative life.

    Jesus didn’t need to “understand” those who lived to the political left, right, or center because he did not insulate himself from any of those social groups; he not only understood them all: he lived among them all.

    Kenneth

    • http://www.myobamayear.com Darrell

      Kenneth,

      I’m not sure that being insulated is really the preserve of either right or left. Wherever we stand the tendency is to hang around people like ourselves. It’s just easier that way.

      Has it been your experience that those who are left of center tend to have a lot of right-wing friends that they hang around? And would not that in itself also mean that those on the right would then commonly have left-wing friends?

      I tend to think that the door of understanding tends to be locked on both sides.

      • http://culturemonk.wordpress.com culturemonk

        Hmmm, it was Mark Noll who wrote “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind” and who then went on to chronicle the near total abscence of (conservative) evangelicals at all the various disciplines such as academics, science, the fine arts, film, etc.

        Evangelicals have insulated themselves from all of the major elements of Western culture, and they ceased long ago to yield any relevance in the culture whatsoever.

        There are no evangelicals like Francis Schaeffer who spent his Saturday nights at the bar in his early pastoral days as a way of being a friend to the unchurched.

        Consider conservative pastor/ president of Gordon Conwell’s new book in which he argues that evangelicals have ceased being relevant within the culture.

        Darrell, Liberals, moderates (like myself) are apart of the culture and have not hidden ourselves away and only hang out with “people like ourselves”.

        Do we hang out with evangelicals? Well, generally evangelicals are not interested in “hanging out” dude. That’s the problem, they are too busy going to church meetings. Haven’t u read anything by the late Michael Spencer? Your questions seem a tad strange given the multitude of writings on this concept; D. Sider, Noll, even the famous Christian (conservative) psychologist Larry crabb has covered the sad concept I’m referring to as evangelical insulation.

        sadly, evangelicals quit imitating the Jesus they say they serve a long time ago.

        Kenneth

  • V

    Darrell –

    “a liberal caricature of Christ is no more helpful than the extreme right-wing version because it robs us of the main focus of his teachings which were largely personal not political”

    Very much of the entire Bible is political, as well as personal and communal.

    • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

      I don’t see much point in adding up scores of how much is political or personal or loving or commanding or works or grace or whatever else we might have divisions about, but this one deserves a little more examination. Would you agree V, that in the case of political stories, the message is still personal? The Book of Ruth addresses the political situation of immigration and foreigners, but speaks to how the individual acts.

      Jesus has several stories that show how to question authority and to embrace those that are officially shunned, but he doesn’t say anything about developing an organization or plotting political overthrows, in fact he tries to avoid shaming or blaming individuals, he treats tax collectors, adulterers and his loyal followers equally. At least most of the time, that’s the gist of it for me anyway.

      • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls cwgmpls

        But isn’t one big reason for Jesus’ crucifixion is that his message was disruptive to an entire political system? Jesus spoke to individuals, but spoke a message that advocated for change of a system. That is what made him threatening to those in power.

        By empowering individuals, Jesus was causing the overthrow of a political system, even if only indirectly.

        • http://Www.culturemonk.com Culturemonk

          Ewgmpls,
          Disruptive for what political system? The resurrection was barely a blip on the Roman government radar.

          It was disruptive for the Jewish religious system. It literally tore the veil in two.

          Kenneth

          • http://287reuse.wordpress.com/ cwgmpls

            But the Romans are the ones who put Jesus to death. The resurrection didn’t seem to phase the Romans, but the living Jesus pissed some of them off.

            The Jewish political system was not too happy with him either.

            • http://www.adayinthejourney.com RenéeD

              The Romans put Jesus to death because the Jewish religious leaders could not put anyone to death under the Roman occupation. They paid false witnesses to create the impression that Jesus was a zealot threatening Roman rule. Prior to that, the Romans couldn’t have given two rats tails about Jesus.

              As far as the Jewish political system not being happy with him, it’s important to remember that the Jewish political system was the religious leadership. It was all one and the same. He upset the politicians because they were the Pharisees, the arbiters of the religious system He was busy shaking up, not because He was making specifically political statements in a modern sense.

    • nick

      Yeah… “the main focus of his teachings were largely not political”…? Really? The gospel that Jesus preached was that the kingdom of god is in the midst of the roman empire. Kind of political. The gospel that Paul preached was “Jesus is Lord” not caesar. Kind of political.

      Also, the dualism of poltical versus personal I don’t find very helpful. Dow seems to suggest that we need to take the message of Jesus as being something that effects our lives communally. I understand by saying Jesus is not political, he means, Jesus didn’t care about governmental function, but saying his message is personal perpetuates the evacuation gospel or self-help 7 steps to a better you christianity. The message is political because it involves a body of people, even if you think “politics” don’t matter.

      Because of so much dualistic thinking, from Plato, to Descartes, to Luther (distinguishing the heavenly and the earthly) our culture views the New Testament through a lens that has pre-separated church and state. Reading the gospels in a 1st and 2nd century context, the message of Jesus is heavily political. But since Luther said Jesus isn’t political, I guess he isn’t.

      • nick

        Euangelion (gospel), ekklesia (church), epiphany, parousia (coming), these and dozens more examples of use of language in the NT are heavily political. You can say the NT writing were merely subverting political language of the empire in order to point to a “spiritual” or “heavenly” or “personal” (or however you want to say it) reality, but you cannot so easily create that dualism of personal political without robbing the scriptures of its potency.

      • http://www.myobamayear.com Darrell

        So let’s bring those philosophical observations back down to their practical implications.

        Is there a party that owns Jesus? If we cannot draw any distinctions between the heavenly sphere and the machinations of political parties here and now then what effect should that have on our politics?

        I would suggest that tying the Scriptures to a political philosophy is just as prone to robbing it of power (or worse yet subverting its power to a human cause) than claiming that its principles transcend the incessant political wrangling we see around us today.

        • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

          Thanks for reeling that back in. The “is or isn’t political” argument really doesn’t lead to anything does it? I don’t care if a politician says they get their philosophy from Jesus, Hume or 50 Shades of Grey, we all need our sources of power, our anchors, and who am I to judge which is best? But when you bring that into politics, into the arena of other philosophies, where easy answers aren’t presenting themselves, where real forces of evil and nature are requiring that we act now, you have to justify how your philosophy is better than the other choices, and does it apply the actual situation.

  • Nick Gotts

    When you live in a kingdom there’s no vote need to vote for the King.

    Actually, you don’t have any opportunity to vote for, or against the king. Nor, unless the king is just a figurehead, any say in how you are governed. Christianity, and indeed religion in general, is fundamentally anti-democratic. Notice that it was precisely as the hold of Christianity on European and Euro-American culture declined that democracy began to take hold, the liberation of women from subjection began, free intellectual enquiry became possible. And the most significant threat to democracy in the USA comes precisely from the religious right.

    • http://gravatar.com/wanabefree wanabefreee

      You are assuming that democracy is always a good thing. Sometimes, democracy can be the least efficient way of solving a problem if it ever gets around to solving it (see our current government).

      Anyway, I think that Darrell is just pointing out that Jesus’ kingdom is not a political kingdom but a spiritual one.

      • Nick Gotts

        I do indeed consider that democracy is always better than the alternatives, but I admit Mussolini and Stalin would have agreed with you about its “inefficiency”. I don’t know what you mean by “our current government”, because I don’t know where you’re from. The line I quoted is exactly the kind of thing defenders of one kind of tyranny or another would say – see, we can relieve you of this tiresome necessity of deciding for yourselves what should be done. As for “spiritual kingdom”, what do you think you mean by that phrase? The only kingdoms we have any actual experience of are political ones.

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  • Megan

    Does anyone else find it ironic that the Pharisees and Jews in general waited for a king to come and take political control. Jesus was very much different. They crucified Him with their own intent to kill him. We should be careful making Jesus into a political figure – we will only crucify Him.

    • Nick Gotts

      According to the Bible, neither Pharisees nor “Jews in general” crucified Jesus: the Roman authorities did. Still, “blame it on the Jews” is a hallowed Christian tradition, with support from the NT.

      • Warren

        Meh. The Romans didn’t really care too much one way or the other about what Jesus was doing until the priests brought Him to their attention, with the allegation that He was attempting an insurrection. The Jews couldn’t have anyone executed — that was one privilege the Romans reserved for themselves. But Jesus was, by and large, a Jewish leadership problem.

        But honestly? We all crucified Christ, so the question really is moot ;)

        • Nick Gotts

          No, we did not “all crucify Christ”. That’s just nonsense: no-one alive today could possibly have been in any way involved, because they weren’t alive then. And I see that you are also following the “blame it on the Jews” Christian tradition.

          • Megan

            Ah, the ever-so-haughty let’s-get-really-technical-about-something-that’s-not-even-the-point-of-the-original-post technique.

            • Nick Gotts

              I was simply responding to your antisemitic remark; and I see you have no answer beyond a content-free sneer.

          • Chris

            “I was simply responding to your antisemitic remark”

            “And I see that you are also following the “blame it on the Jews” Christian tradition.”

            Accusations, name-calling, and assertions with zero justification or rationale. Nice.

            • Nick Gotts

              On the contrary: I was not name-calling because I did not call anyone anything. Anyone can make an antisemitic (or racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist…) remark, because we live in cultures where these prejudices are deeply embedded. And there’s every justification: according to the Bible, Jesus was not killed by “the Jews”, but this accusation has served as the basis for Christian persecution of Jews every since Christians gained state power. If you don’t know this, do some reading.

              • Megan

                I repeat:

                Ah, the ever-so-haughty let’s-get-really-technical-about-something-that’s-not-even-the-point-of-the-original-post technique.

                Look Nick, I was simply making a parallel between what the Jews were waiting for (a king that would make governmental changes) and what Darrell is talking about. My post was far from “antisemetic”. I don’t really care *who* crucified Christ so much as the fact He was crucified. Honestly, looking back at what I said, it doesn’t really add to my main point.

                • Nick Gotts

                  Intent is not magic. Your comment was antisemitic, whatever your intention, because it reinforced the long and vile Christian tradition of “blame it on the Jews”. Moreover, you’re not being honest in your latest comment; if you don’t care who crucified Jesus, why say it was “the Pharisees and Jews in general”? As it happens, most of the “Jews in general” living at that time would almost certainly never even have heard of Jesus – by that date, Jews were living throughout much of the Roman Empire, and beyond.

                  • http://www.adayinthejourney.com RenéeD

                    The Romans were the only legal executioners. The Pharisees are the ones who brought Jesus there in order to arrange his execution. They are just as responsible. If you hire a hit man, you still go to jail for murder. The fact that this was used to persecute Jews is really irrelevant to the whether or not the Pharisees were the instigators, and the ones ultimately responsible, for the crucifixion. Powerful people wanted an excuse to oppress a minority–they found it in religious scapegoating. It’s an old story that isn’t limited to the Jews. Heck, the Puritans used it to persecute the Quakers. Those who have used it display a fundamental misunderstanding of the crucifixion and their salvation: Christ was clear that He gave up His own life, and without that sacrifice their is no salvation, therefore persecuting the Jews over it is irrational and antithetical to the Gospel itself. This ^ argument you’re having over it, and that accompanying accusations of “antisemitism” is dumb and beside the point.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      The accusation was not made just against “the Pharisees” (actually, those said to have handed him over to Pilate are the Sanhedrin): it was against “Jews in general”. It’s even made in the NT itself, most obviously in:
                      Matthew 27: 25 Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
                      If you think objecting to Christians making antisemitic remarks is “beside the point”, you’ve evidently learned nothing from the last 2000 years of history.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    Darryl, your post reminds me of the conversation that Matt Mikalatos raises in his book Imaginary Jesus (http://www.amazon.com/Imaginary-Jesus-Matt-Mikalatos/dp/1414335636). I would highly suggest reading it if you haven’t; it’s not only incredibly impactful, and follows the lines of thinking that you’ve laid down here, but is incredibly funny, too boot.

    • http://www.myobamayear.com Darrell

      Thanks for the recommend, Eric. I’ll try to check it out.

  • http://gravatar.com/jilowe Jared

    I’d say rather that Jesus is political on an eternal scale – in a way that is so big that it doesn’t even translate to our 24-hour news cycle.

    All in all, love the post. And that fact that you’re cross-posting for someone with whom you have real disagreements and differences – as well as friendship – is great.

  • Christian Socialist

    Dear Darrell:

    There is some good material here in both your post and responses. Incarnation, realized eschatology, and more. What I first expected to see [and apologies if I missed it] is that once God made us in his image, we began efforts to refashion God in our image. Can we smell the idolatry?

    Christian Socialist

  • http://fromdarknessintolight.tumblr.com Andrea

    While everyone with an agenda tries to box up God and make him the poster-boy for their party, my favorite line is from the Narnia books. Aslan is not a tame lion, but he is good.

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