As the Body of Christ, Christians are commissioned to carry-on the mission Jesus inaugurated in Palestine 2,000 years ago, so it only follows that as we chart our course from season to season we should model our work on His example. Jesus lived out his earthly life at a time in Israel’s history that was as contentious and even more perilous to his nation’s fortunes than our own. Rome had been dominating Israel for almost a century when Jesus began his ministry, and the Jewish people were chafing under burdensome taxation, repressive enforcement of Roman law, corrupt and anti-Semitic Roman rulers, and ruthless military occupation. The High Priesthood had become a political pawn controlled first by the Greek rulers and then the Romans while the Temple had also become a source of revenue for whatever empire held power over Israel. The integrity of their national institutions was at stake, and Greco-Roman culture was diluting the native Hebrew identity.
Rival factions among the Jews clashed over the proper course the people should take in response to the situation. The Essenes, convinced that the entire system was corrupt, had retreated to the wilderness, where they lived communally in strict ritual purity while they waited for God to act on Israel’s behalf. On the other end of the spectrum the Sadducees, a group of wealthy families that had won the favor of the Romans through political maneuvering, enjoyed control of the High Priesthood and the temple. They advocated cooperation with Rome since they were benefiting from Roman dominance. The Pharisees loved their nation, the Law of Moses, and the institutions that defined Israel, and many of them had suffered and died as they opposed Gentile domination and the influence of foreign customs. They were the religious and political conservatives, allied often with the Zealots who, inspired by Phineas, Elijah, and Judah the Maccabee, believed that armed resistance to Rome was faithfulness to God and the mark of a true son of Abraham. A number of Zealot bands had sprung up during the 1st century and caused some trouble by ambushing Roman military units before eventually being captured by the Romans and crucified.
The Politics of Jesus
Jesus pursued his ministry in the midst of this powder keg of religious, political, and racial tensions (sound familiar?), but he didn’t align himself or even endorse any of the competing factions. He announced and then inaugurated the “kingdom of God”, or as many have suggested “the reign of God”, a phenomenon that transcends and ultimately dissolves all earthly power structures. The profiles of the 12 men who made up Jesus’ inner circle of disciples testified to Jesus’ disregard of the agendas of the various Jewish factions in the work of the kingdom of God (Luke 6:12 – 16). Among the Twelve were at least two Zealots (ultra-patriotic, right-wing militia types), a business man and some of his employees (who likely distrusted the Zealots for the disorder they created), and a tax-collector (the Zealots hated traitorous tax-collectors because they worked for the Romans while the business owner would have disliked him for obvious reasons). Jesus was able to assemble such a diverse crew because in allying themselves with him they abandoned their own agendas and took up his. And he continues to demand the same of his disciples today.
Furthermore, though Jesus attracted large crowds throughout his ministry, in the end the nation at large turned on him because he managed to offend the sensibilities of each faction over the course of his ministry. He stubbornly refused to adopt the nationalistic concerns of the Pharisees and Zealots even as Roman legions continued to tramp across the “Holy Land” exploiting the people and enforcing the will of Caesar. Jesus even commanded his disciples to cheerfully carry the weaponry of the occupying army for two miles though the Roman policy dictated that the soldiers could only compel the locals to go one mile (Matthew 5:41). Nor would the patriots have been happy with Jesus’ exhortations to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” (Matthew 5:38 – 48) This ethic of non-retaliation didn’t seem to be in the best interests of the nation nor did he offer any hope of reestablishing the Law of Moses (the Constitution of Israel) as the supreme law of the land. His one goal seemed to be to proclaim the “kingdom of God,” which in his conception didn’t appear to have a whole lot to do with the narrow political interests of the Jewish people or the nation of Israel.
The Better Way
However, when this apparently innocuous itinerant Rabbi presumed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5), warned that wealth and luxury were dangerous to one’s soul (Matthew 19:23 – 24), and foretold the destruction of the Temple while accepting the title of King, Herod and the Sadducees began to see him as a threat as well. What’s more, his affirmation of a bodily resurrection on the last day, an allusion to Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37), was pregnant with revolutionary overtones that implied that Roman rule (and all human government) was temporary. But when these inveterate foes conspired together to destroy him, he countered their violent designs by surrendering to them. He allowed himself to be crucified like thousands of rebels before and after him and then altered the course of time and human relationships by rising from the dead. His crucifixion and resurrection disarmed all earthly oppressors by transforming death into a gateway to life and modeled for his disciples the strategy that they are to follow in carrying forward his work of supplanting all human power structures with the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5). And lest we try to limit the meaning of the cross to atonement, Jesus commanded each of his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) The way of the cross, self-sacrificial love, in big and small ways is what transforms society, not the coercive power of human government.
Three years before his death, Jesus stood on a mountain with Satan, who offered him the nations if only he would bow down to him(Luke 4:5 – 8). The Devil was offering Jesus something that the Father had already promised him. In Psalm 2 God promised the Messiah, “Ask of Me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” So, what was tempting about Satan’s deal? By bowing before Satan Jesus could acquire authority over the nations while avoiding the shame and suffering of the cross. Jesus refused, but the entire history of the church since Jesus’ ascension has been a series of attempts by Christians to take the Devil’s offer, to use the force of government to establish God’s kingdom. Think of Constantine, the Crusades, Medieval Europe, and the last 50 years of Evangelical political activism in the U.S. Jesus called us to “take up our cross,” which means a willingness to put aside our personal agendas and suffer personal loss for the good of our enemies. The cross is a repudiation of force as a means to an end. The way of the cross is counter-intuitive which is why it is an act of faith.
Jesus’ life is what believers in all times and places are to emulate, so as we think about our role in this election year, Jesus’ example must loom large. After all, we are the Body of Christ, ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and though voting is not a sin, living out the Gospel takes discernment. What is fitting in one moment may not be judicious in the next. As our nation becomes more polarized on the right and the left and the political climate grows more and more contentious, would Jesus have us align ourselves with one side and contribute to the acrimony? The current contest is about which side wins the right to impose its agenda on the other. This can only foster more bitterness in the losing side, and exacerbate the tensions that threaten to tear the nation apart. If our ultimate hope is a peaceful and just America, why not pursue the one course that offers any hope of realizing that goal? Seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Embrace the cross.