Some say that Christianity by nature is political.
To a great degree, that’s absolutely true– though I think we must be careful to not simply leave it there as if Christianity is political in the way the world is political– because it’s not.
Christianity is political precisely because it declares that “Jesus is Lord.”
When the first Christians began to utter that now central confession of the Christian faith, it was absolutely a political statement. Originally the popular saying was “Caesar is Lord,” so to replace Caesar with Jesus was not just political in nature, it was actually an act of political rebellion from the system these early Christians found themselves in.
Another famous term Jesus used was “Kingdom” which is also political– it’s hard to flip a page of the Gospels without Jesus referring to it, and some of the central teachings of Jesus are directly related to how things work in his political world.
While one of the very first acts of Jesus was to categorically reject political power (something as an Anabaptist I completely affirm), there was certainly a political edge to his ministry.
The word politics itself refers to “policies” that impact the general public, and while neither Jesus nor the early Christians told the government the best way to do things, they most certainly spoke out on how people ought to be treated. Thus, as we revisit Christian origins and those who founded our religion, here’s 5 ways to be political the way Jesus and early Christians were political:
5. Critique the political landscape in as much as you are attempting to show the world that the principles of God’s Kingdom are radically different.
As Christians we must not engage the political arena out of loyalty to a nation or political party. We must not become people who blindly carry the water for a political group. Jesus and the early Christians avoided this entirely– they were focused on building God’s other-worldly Kingdom that operated on a completely different set of principles than any nation then or now.
Instead, when we critique policies or rebuke leaders, may we do it out of loyalty to Kingdom principles and a desire to show the world that so many national political values do not line up with Kingdom values. We must critique in as much as we’re showing a difference between the two. (This principle is exactly why I, a non-voting Anabaptist/Mennonite type, still speak out on some political issues– I want to illustrate the difference between the two Kingdoms.)
4. Don’t confuse the calling to prophetically rebuke power to that of wanting/attempting to assume power.
The quest for power has the ability to suck you in– and once it does, it re-wires your brain to a degree where you’d be lucky to ever get it back. We must remember that even though Jesus and early Christians spoke out on policies that impacted people (politics) they did not get caught up in a quest for political power or positions.
Politicians may be able to make sweeping changes in policy, but we are the ones who are able to make sweeping changes in culture– and changing culture is what brings the most effective and longest lasting change to the world. This is precisely why Jesus and the early Christians focused on being culture changers instead of culture rulers.
3. Don’t wait for government to solve problems– get busy participating in solutions.
Certainly the Bible prescribes certain functions/responsibilities for earthly rulers. Throughout the Old Testament God commanded kings to tend to certain things, such as ensuring redistributive justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, and welcoming immigrants. However, and I’ll admit, we on the left are good at this: we must not wait for government to solve problems. Government is exceedingly slow and often inefficient.
The early Christians didn’t wait for government- they got busy thinking of solutions. For example, early Christians dealt with poverty by sharing their wealth in-kind, rejecting personal ownership of property, and redistributing wealth to the poor and needy. While government can– and I say, does, have a legitimate, biblical mandate to ensure such things– we must not wait or place hope in that. Instead, we must get busy working toward solutions all on our own.
2. Speak loudest not on the issues most important to you, but those which impact the marginalized, forgotten, and the thrown away.
Jesus and the early Christians didn’t get involved politically to speak for themselves. They didn’t argue for lower taxes so they could have more money left at the end of the year. Instead, they spoke out on the issues that most desperately impacted the marginalized, the forgotten, and those that culture had thrown away.
Jesus spoke forcefully on caring for the hungry, the naked, for immigrants, for those in prison, etc. Early Christians also focused heavily on those issues, in addition to issues such as vocally opposing capital punishment (which was universally believed by Christians to be abhorrent).
Want to speak out politically? Fine– but speak out primarily on the issues that impact culture’s forgotten and thrown away.
1. Rebuke the religious leaders who collude with political power-holders to oppress people in the name of religion.
Speaking out politically is primarily an issue of speaking to secular government. However, all throughout history there have been religious leaders who colluded with government powers for either money, fame, power, influence, or other non-Jesusy desires (think Franklin Graham).
While I believe speaking out on politics and even criticizing political leaders is part of the Christian tradition (John the Baptist was a political prisoner who was executed for rebuking the King’s sexual immorality), Jesus held his sharpest rebukes for the powerful religious leaders who tried to oppress others by enforcing their rigid religious rules on everyone else (again, think Franklin Graham).
In fact, Jesus spent most if his time rebuking this particular group because he was far more concerned with how religious leaders were treating people than how secular political leaders were treating people. It got so bad that– not to spoil the ending of the story for those who haven’t seen the movie version yet– but these religious leaders don’t just block Jesus on Facebook; they actually used their influence with secular political forces to have Jesus tortured and murdered.
No one hated Jesus more than conservative religious leaders who were knee-deep into secular politics.
Is Christianity political by nature? Most certainly– but it’s not political in nature the way the world is.
As Christians, I hope we’ll continue the tradition of being “political” but in as much as we are political the way Jesus and early Christians were political. When we speak, may we do so in order to demonstrate the Kingdom of Jesus is totally different. When we rebuke power, may we resist the the allure to become power. When we identify needs, let us be the first in line to offer a solution and support. As we speak on issues, may we speak the loudest on the issues that impact those with less privilege than ourselves.
Most of all, for those of us who want to be political the way Jesus was political, may we save our harshest rebukes for our own religious leaders who collude with the powerful in order to coerce others in the name of “religion.”
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.