Let me start by putting a disclaimer first. I’m not a bible scholar but rather a lay Christian whose education lies in the discipline of political science. Having been a Christian for quite some time now, I notice that whenever the question of Christian involvement in politics crops up, it would inevitably lead to the question “Was Jesus political?” It is not my intention here to give a detailed answer to this question as many heads more knowledgeable and wiser than mine have attempted to answer it.1 But I personally find this question unhelpful.
Let me elaborate what I mean. To ask this question means that we accept the assumption that our world has a public/private dichotomy. This assumption is a modern invention which traces its origins back to the period of European enlightenment during the 18th and 19th centuries. More specifically, this assumption gave birth to the modern political doctrine of the separation of church and state and its corollary political doctrine which places religion in the private sphere. This political doctrine became the norm of political practice in modern Europe and has spread to the rest of the world in recent times. Such an assumption would have been unintelligible in the biblical world.
Therefore, when we ask whether Jesus was political or not, we have inadvertently refracted this assumption in our understanding of the relationship between God and politics. Looking at scriptures as a whole, it cannot be denied that the Bible does contain God’s claim towards the political world of man. For example, in the Old Testament, we observe the events leading to the exodus and the founding of the nation of Israel. These events do not only reflect God’s saving grace towards humanity (with Israel being the first of many steps that would eventually culminate in the passion of Christ) but also what God has to say about the politics of man. This is just one of many incidences which show God’s claim towards the political sphere in the Old Testament.
Of course, when we turn to Jesus in the New Testament, i.e. the Gospels, we tend to read Jesus as being apolitical, standing aloof from the political machinations of the Jewish elites and the Roman Empire. Such a reading is basically a misreading of the Gospels. It is grounded in accepting the idea that religion can make no claim in the political sphere. In fact, Jesus did not shy away from making political claims, e.g. his reply to Pilate, among others, which led to his eventual death at the hands of the Romans. In short, the life, death and resurrection of Christ did not only lead to the salvation of humanity but also lay hold God’s sovereignty towards the political.
For me, the questions that need to be answered are (i) what are God’s political norms and (ii) how are we to be faithful witnesses in the body politic of the nation. These questions are the more needful in our times rather than “Was Jesus political?” Otherwise, how can we address the major issues of our day as faithful witness to the one who called us?
1 The classic work on this subject is John H. Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”. I also recommend Alan Storkey’s “Jesus and Politics” as a more contemporary reading of the same subject.