I’ve never been very politically-minded. Politics bore me, and the kind of posturing, rhetoric and high-minded denouncement of “the other” all reek to me of a sort of arrogance. Politics breed divisiveness in its mildest form and bloodshed in its most violent. But as allergic as I feel toward politics, I am growing more convinced of the Governorship of Christ in the social, economic and yes, even the political sphere of life.
As I reflect this Good Friday on Jesus’ crucifixion, I am struck with just how political the story of Christ really is, though I confess to being influenced this Easter in my reading The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder, during Lent. The dawning government or kingdom of Jesus is meant to encompass all aspects of life, including all ways in which power and authority are exercised.
From the very start of the story of Jesus there are political ramifications. Herod attempted to rid himself of a political rival by slaughtering the baby boys of Bethlehem (the city of the King). Messiah was not understood strictly in religious terms. He was taken to be a threat to Herod’s political rule.
And Herod was right to feel threatened. The great prophet Isaiah said of Messiah, “… and the government will be upon his shoulder … Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. Isaiah 9:7 (KJV).
I do not believe the kingship of Messiah was solely understood in eschatological terms either, otherwise Herod would not have been threatened, nor would the disciples expect as they did the overthrow of Roman rule. The fact that Jesus did not bring about regime change violently or in the ways that most every other change of political rule has come about on earth does not diminish the political implications of his kingship.
Every well-versed Jew would understand Messiah as an all-encompassing Governor – religiously, socially and politically. Or put another way, Messiah would be priest, prophet and king. If Jesus had come with only religious implications he would simply have been stoned for heresy. The fact that the Romans were roped in (albeit at the instigation of the religious authorities) suggests there was some validity to Jesus’ threat of installing a competing kingdom to Rome. The charge nailed above his head on the cross was political, “King of the Jews.” This was a charge laid before Jesus directly in each gospel account and one which he did not deny. A charge that the crowds understood to be political as they shouted "We have no king but Ceasar," sealing Jesus' fate as an insurrectionist and his execution as State sponsored. If there were no grounds whatsoever for crimes against State, Pilate would not have bothered with interrogating Jesus or ultimately executing him.
Jesus used a political designation– that of kingdom – as the best way to describe his mission. His claim in his inaugural address in Luke 4 was that he was ushering in Jubilee, a “hard reset” of social and economic imbalances. Poverty, sickness, slavery and oppression would be redressed.
The term “good news” from where we get our word “gospel” was described in Isaiah 52:7 as news about a reign of peace and salvation – the terms peace and salvation would have been understood by exiled Israel politically. Most any news worth employing a messenger to cross great distances would have been news of regime change or of a battle outcome.
Paul was in trouble at least as often with political leaders as he was with religious leaders. Jesus promised his disciples would get in trouble with both State authorities and religious authorities. In fact, for the first two centuries of the Church most of the Christian martyrs were executed for pledging allegiance to a different Emperor. I would probably not be far off the mark to suggest that the majority of Christian martyrdoms in history have been spawned by the threatening allegiance to Christ over and above allegiance to existing rulers.
Let me state my conviction straightforwardly. The rule/domain/kingship/governance of Christ is not only eschatological but present here and now (Matt 12:28). This rule is best understood in the political notion of “kingdom” in which God’s royal purposes and will are accomplished here on earth in every respect (Matt 6:10). The coming of this realm through the agency of her citizens will serve as a threat not only to competing religious authorities but to political powers (Matt 10:18). And the expansion of Christ’s governance will increase over the course time (Is. 9:7).
I concede, however, that I do not fully understand how Christ’s citizens are IN but not OF this world (Walter Wink convincingly establishes that the Greek word cosmos or “world” can mean the demonic system of domination, control and “power over” used by most earthly rulers). Nor do I clearly see how the pre-second-coming kingdom of God will be worked out practically in time and space. I simply know there is more to Jesus’ rule than can be safely sequestered to the personal, private or religious realm (though his rule certainly exists in those places as well).
Ultimately I believe that Jesus means for his followers to be salt, light and leaven in a corrupt world. And “all things,” whether thrones, dominions, rulers and powers (Col 1:16), have been created and established to serve Christ – both today, tomorrow and forever. So until we see all things, including our systems of governance, operate under the Prince-hood of Peace ushered in by Jesus, we must labor on as citizens of a coming dominion, working to see all things under his rule.