Let’s talk about politics – but let’s do it Jesus’ way and not the polarized and dyspeptic way we seem to be going about our politics.
Let’s avoid the dangerous assumption that true faith can lead in only on political direction, the dangerous assumption that our political opponents are bad people, the dangerous assumption that God has a single plan for our nation (or any nation) and that religion must do whatever it takes to bring about that plan, and the dangerous assumption that fervent faith confers political rights and privileges not available to others.
In fact, let’s avoid all assumptions grounded in pride and self-serving. Let’s shed load – which was, after all, Jesus’ first instruction to his apostles – and let’s do it Jesus’ way.
First, Jesus wasn’t a political innocent. he knew about Caesar’s side of the coin. He knew of the political danger of stirring up the religious establishment and threatening their cozy alliance with Rome. He knew that power corrupts, and that when political power, wealth and religious elitism join forces, people will die.
An estimated two-thirds of his teachings concerned power and wealth. Not one of them would encourage our so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or our bland assertion that right and might walk hand in hand.
Second, even though Christians have pursued extremes—the extreme ambition of wanting to rule the world, or at least sit within whispering distance of the king’s ear, the extreme opposite of abandoning politics, fleeing to the desert and gathering safely behind walls, or the lazy extreme of segregating Sunday from Monday—Jesus himself took a more down-to-earth, common-sense approach, which was more revolutionary than any extreme.
Third, Jesus did politics in a different way – a way that Christians rarely try to emulate, because it is so unsatisfying to the power-hungry and so difficult. He didn’t promulgate rules. He didn’t establish hierarchies. He didn’t create elites. he didn’t launch an institution.
Jesus told stories – which are more disturbing than rules. He formed circles of inclusion – more life-changing than hierarchies and elites. He focused on meaning – more enlightening than definitions. He taught love and peace – more radical than judgment. No one remembers his wearing special clothes, cultivating an image, affirming a lifestyle, or deploying personal charisma. He lived what he taught, not how he looked.
Our concern for rules, hierarchy, definition, judgment and appearance seems shallow. And when we try to impose our shallowness on others, we become dangerous.
How did Jesus do politics? I’d like to address that question in light of Luke’s account of sending seventy apostles. I ask you to trust I don’t have a partisan agenda in mind. Yes, I do have a partisan side – I am, after all, a citizen, voter and political animal. But I want to attempt a conversation about faith and politics that leads us beyond partisan agenda to the deeper and more difficult level where faith tames the savage beast, where ideals like freedom and justice are worked out.
Rather than view politics as a top-down phenomenon, where the critical question is who holds the throne, or as a mass movement, where the critical question is which way the mass is flowing, Jesus seemed to proceed in this order: individual person, home or family, local community, larger community.
He started by calling individuals, teaching them, giving them new names and new directions, telling stories about decisions and behaviors, and commissioning them to make a personal difference.
He sent them into homes, where they would encounter actual human needs.
He saw towns as having an aggregate personality – but one that emerged from persons, not from institution or history.
He saw larger communities – the concept of nation came 1,500 years later – but didn’t start there, for that is where Caesar rules, and a pallid and shallow faith won’t withstand the blandishments and weaponry at Caesar’s disposal.
Therefore, the starting point of Christian politics is persons.
Despite polarization and code language, it still comes down to personal choices. Hatred happens one person at a time. So does kindness. We choose to bristle at code-speak. We choose to vote pocketbook or faith. We choose to discern leaders’ character, and if clever handling has shielded them, we choose to demand more.
The critical political venue is personal. Healthy politics depends on the formation of responsible and moral persons. Institutions matter, too, but healthy persons can overcome institutional burdens, and unhealthy persons can dismantle even the finest institutions.
Christianity isn’t the only player in formation of persons. Nor should we be. But we have a unique and critical role to play. For while we have a sorry history at the institutional level ourselves, we do have an opportunity for personal formation.
Jesus called individuals, taught them God’s ways, and commissioned them to serve. “Go on your way,” he told the seventy. That was a personal mission: the application of personal faith to the personal needs of others.
This article was written on July 4, 2004 by Rev Stina Pope published in Tom Ehric’s “On A Journey”