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The Politics of Jesus…

January 24, 2008

romney.jpgs.jpgWhich side wins—Democrat or Republican, East or West, elite or bourgeois or proletariat, Herodian or Zealot—may be considered news within the system, but until someone brings into the system resources from outside it, unless someone kicks a hole in the wall of the system so we aren’t trapped within it, there is no real good news.  The dominant system is at its most powerful when its covert curriculum has taught us that it is all there is; there is no outside.           

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  — Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change

I picked up The Politics of Jesus yesterday.  I don’t know why it has taken me this long to engage directly with John Howard Yoder, it just has.  I also picked up The Lord’s Supper in Anabaptism, John Rempel.  Looking forward to reading that as well.  In recent years I have had a renewed interest in engaging my own Anabaptist stream.  The Emergent conversation and the conversation with Orthodoxy have stimulated a deeper engagement with my own Anabaptist tradition. 

The Anabaptist stream is my immediate ecclesial context.  I am a member of a Mennonite congregation that is a part of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, which is a participating member of MCUSA.  I have also been engaging other voices in this tradition.  Voices such as…

            Tom Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

            Myron Augsburger, The Robe of God

            C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology

            James McClendon, Systematic Theology:  Doctrine

            Curtis Freeman et. al, Baptist Roots

            Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism:  Neither Catholic nor Protestant

            Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today

            Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition


Careful observation (as C. Wess Daniels has provided—see my last post) of what is happening in certain corners of the Emergent conversation will uncover a convergence with Anabaptist theology.  There is a resonant critique of generic Evangelicalism which becomes defined by the cultural values of consumerism and individualism more than an authentic engagement with the biblical Jesus.  So we bring a production of High School Musical to the church because it is popular.  The pragmatic rationale being that it will bring more people to church where they can hear the Gospel and meet Jesus.  The question is—What gospel?  Which Jesus?  We make the Gospel apolitical so that it does not offend the sensibilities or the vested interest of the middle class. 

ap_john_mccain_070429_ms.jpgI look forward to engaging Yoder’s thesis that presents a political Jesus—at least a Jesus with political implications.  I have been sitting at table in the Emergent conversation with disenfranchised post-evangelicals.  I have heard their skepticism toward the way mainstream popular Evangelicalism has been co-opted by the political game.  Co-opted as a special interest group of the political Right.  Have you noticed how Evangelicals are mentioned frequently when parsing the results of the political primaries this season.  How did Evangelicals vote?   

I am thinking about the way my desire to follow Jesus might impact my participation in the political arena.  I was thinking about what issues are important for a follower of Jesus.  One issue that I have been fixated on recently is the disparity between how the candidates define the middle class.  I am still trying to grasp how Mitt Romney considers those who earn up to $200,000 as a part of the middle class.  The U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2005 Annual Social and Economic Supplement shows that those households with an annual income of $157,176 are in the top 5% of the population.  That means that I could be in the top 5% of the population in terms of my income and still be considered middle class in Romney’s book.  Hard to believe! 

I suppose I should say that I lean left in politics. Not because I think the Democratic Party is worth a hoot, but its historic commitment to the poor and to oica0ngeh8cak071pccaox3pkbca7tp2wrca6jybmxcaztwuv6cax5aphmcao38j11calop3shcajeb3f9cakpdk6vcanyclm1caox15j7caujc0z0ca22fw82caczfqvucaetu2coca68tgy0cake1kao.jpgcentralizing government for social justice is what I think government should do.  Less government works for those who already find themselves on good socio-economic footing.  But what about the poor?  I do think the private sector (the Church included certainly) should be involved in caring for the poor.  However, the private sector does not set policies such as the minimum wage.  The private sector does not determine an equitable tax system.  The private sector does not have an obligation to provide free education for every citizen.

I know that many Christians resonate with the GOP’s core ideology—lower taxes, stronger defense, conservative social values.  I see many self-identified Evangelicals uncritically embracing all three pillars of this ideology as emanating directly from a Biblical worldview.  I wonder how Jesus would define the middle class?  Would Jesus lower taxes?  Would Jesus advocate for a stronger defense?  Would Jesus endorse the script of Righteous Empire meting out justice against the axis of Evil?  Who would Jesus bomb?  I will admit that I find it difficult to justify a stronger defense from a careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). 

I believe Yoder would question this reading of Jesus–the one that sanctions righteous violence.  Yet, many Evangelicals (even many Mennonites) have become quite cozy with this symbiotic relationship between church and state—church as chaplain to the state endorsing the script of Empire.  The Empire which ultimately is guided by the supreme value of individualism—a script of individual pursuit of happiness without concern for the common good.

I get a bit nervous when voices such as those of Huckabee seek to totally blur the line between church and state.  I agree with the substance of his position that we should care more about what God thinks on issues of morality than the Constitution.  However, when we start applying the law of God within a civil order normatively–what is the difference between Washington D.C. and Tehran in terms of system.  They both become a theocracy.  I really don’t think that is where the Church should stake it’s identity and mission. 

As far as conservative social values go, I don’t support abortion—in fact, I think it is immoral. I believe in civil rights, but I don’t believe homosexuality is God’s design. So how do I reconcile leaning toward the left when there is an apparent tension between my position on these issues and the predominant views of the left?  I suppose this is where I concede that government is not the moral authority in society.  It is the Church. 

Like many in the emerging movement, I think the Religious Right doesn’t see what it is doing. Books like Randy Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books, 2006) and David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Free Press, 2006) make their rounds in emerging circles because they say things we think need to be said.

All this being said, I believe it is important to say that the primary mission and vocation of the Church is not to be a pawn in the political chess game.  Our true identity and calling is not to serve as the moral plank in the platform of Democrats or Republicans which will help push them over the top and get elected.  Such a view of our role in society as salt and light is far too flat. 

To be the peculiar people that God is calling us to be means embracing our status as aliens and strangers.  It will mean embracing a communal identity that is first of all defined by our citizenship as Kingdom citizens, not by our citizenship as Americans.  A careful reading of Scripture will call us to be an alternative community living in the way of Jesus.  May we have grace and courage to live into this calling. 

(I want to acknowledge my debt to Scot McKnight for giving me the language to talk about how I view my relationship as a follower of Christ to the political system.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2008 7:51 pm

    I want you to know that I really enjoyed your post.
    Politics, I struggle with when it comes down to party’s.
    It is like Paul, there are contrictions, struggles, issues to think okay Jesus doesn’t say anything on this issue but; you stop and ask your self, as a Christian what would Christ do? No party’s are perfect. Each has moral flaws. So, I find myself an independant, voting for the person. What does he or she believe, stand for, think about when it comes down to issues that Jesus would care about and want us to do as Christians.

    I want you to know I love your blog and have added it to my favorites. I love for you to visit mien anytime. Keep up the great the posts that matter.

    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    January 25, 2008 6:22 am

    Thanks for your visit. I agree–no party is perfect. The Church needs to hold that clearly in view at whatever level we engage in the political process.

    If we lose site of our calling to be an alternative community, we lose our flavor. The way of Jesus incarnated in the Church should challenge conventional wisdom and political pragmatism. I am not suggesting there are easy answers. We should wrestle with the tensions that exist between the values of the Kingdom and those expressed within the civil order.

    Our greatest witness comes as we make visible a different way within the communities of Jesus. It is much easier (in some ways) to sit back and expect government to carry out our mission as the people of God. We would do well to reject Civil Religion. To embrace our identity and mission from the margins, from weakness, from living the way of sacrificial love. Our highest value is not hyper-individualism, but rather what will lead to the greatest common good.


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