In the 1970’s conservative Christians in America began to get heavily involved in the political process, a movement that has been called the rise of the religious right. This movement arose in response to what they perceived to be the government using its power to publically subvert values that they held dear. Confident that Jesus was on their side, they waded into the world of power politics.
This heavy politicalization of some branches of conservative Christianity lead to a reaction especially among some of its younger generation. At first it seemed to be a protest against the church’s involvement in politics, but at least in some elements of this counter movement, these young evangelicals begin to advocate for liberal political positions, Ironically, some of them begin to say Jesus was on the side of their political agenda. In other words, they begin doing exactly what they had despised in their forefathers.
Thus we have two sets of evangelicals confidently believing God is on their side politically, advocating opposite political positions: the Christian right and the Christian left. There are biblical scholars and theologians who encourage this sort of thinking, teaching that Christianity and Jesus are about politics. Who is correct? None of them.
One of the clearest facts of the New Testament is that the people of Jesus’ day were expecting a political messiah. They wanted someone to set up a political kingdom on earth. And what is also clear from the New Testament is that Jesus kept rejecting that understanding of messiah.
This is the origin of the messianic secret where Jesus would tell people not to tell others about his miracles. He knew they had the wrong idea about his mission, and he did not want there to be a popular uprising to force him to be a political messiah. He was managing expectations among the people so that his death would not happen until he was ready.
This why Jesus rebuked the demons and told them to be silent when they would accurately proclaim him to be the holy one of God. The demons were trying to get people to think of him as the messiah before Jesus was ready. The demons knew the popular opinion was in favour of a political messiah and they were trying to get the crowds to ruin Jesus’ mission by promoting him as such. Jesus thus silenced them for telling the truth, a truth that would be misunderstood by the crowds.
When the crowds, upon seeing Jesus’ miracles, would get excited about him possibly being the messiah, Jesus would often slip away. Why? Wasn’t he here to be the messiah? Yes, but not the kind of messiah that they wanted. Their political expectations would ruin his mission. That’s not who God called him to be.
When Jesus was on trial before Pilate, Pilate asked him if he was a king. Pilate was asking, “Are you a political king?” Jesus responded that his kingdom was not of this world and that his people should not use earthly power to spread his kingdom. In other words, Jesus directly stated his kingdom was not a political one.
Looking at why the early Christian writers of the New Testament chose to emphasize this theme in the Gospels, they were trying to stay under the radar of Roman persecution. Jesus had been crucified as a political rebel even though that charge was not true. They were trying to emphasize to the early Christians and to the Romans, we are not about politics. We are not a threat to you. Do not persecute us.
If one turns to the epistles, one finds no teaching about political action, no teaching about community organizing, no teaching about changing laws, no teaching about changing the political structure or leaders. There is nothing in the New Testament that would make you think Christianity is about politics and what inferences there are speak against this idea.
The early Christians were a very small group living in the midst of a mighty dictatorship. They had no hope and no plans of changing the world politically. Today we live in modern democracies where common people can have some role in changing their political system. These modern biblical and theological scholars who say Jesus is about politics are reading the modern world back into the New Testament.
Shouldn’t Christians be involved in politics? We must distinguish between the organized church which is the visible expression of the kingdom of God on earth and individual Christians. The organized church is to be a spiritual kingdom that does not spread by earthly power and thus should not endorse political candidates, laws, parties or movements. The church should be reaching out to all people groups including all political ones. They all need Jesus. They all need the gospel of God’s grace. The church should not identify itself with any one group, less it tell the people in other groups, Jesus is not their saviour.
Of course, the church teaches values and ethics that will affect the political positions the Christian takes. But how those values get worked out in the complex world of modern politics can be very complicated. Christians of good conscience can end up supporting different candidates and parties. Church should be a safe community where Christians can talk about how to work out their faith in the political world without judging one another, realizing Christ is the ultimate reality, not any political movement. The Lordship of Christ relativizes all politics for they all fall short of his glory and thus come under his judgment. Individual Christians thus take their political positions in humility, following their own consciences the best they can.
They are also willing to question whatever movement they choose to work through in this world. They don’t just drink the kool aid their political leaders are serving. They question all things under the Lordship of Christ. At times they will defy their own political party because they believe Jesus demands it. This will make their party mad, for political leaders want unthinking stooges to do their bidding. Christians will not yield to such group think and will always critically think for themselves under the reign of Christ.
Christians will also refuse to demonize their political enemies the way politicians want their followers to do. Instead, Christians will love their enemies as Jesus calls us to do. The Christian will treat members of other parties with love and respect, never distorting their positions. The Christian will be willing to work with members of other parties for the good of society.
Our society tells us politics is the ultimate power. If we are not involved in politics we are not doing anything significant. The New Testament says the gospel is foolishness to society, but that it is the power of God for salvation. The kingdom spreads by the foolishness of loving people and sharing the gospel with them. We must not turn to more pragmatic and what seem to be more effective means to change the world.
CS Lewis says the church must not be allowed to become a means to an end. Politicians want to manipulate the church to get its people to vote for them. Then we give up the mission Jesus gave us and just become a religious outreach wing of political parties. Our ultimate end is to love, serve, trust, worship and adore Jesus and Jesus only.
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua in the Old Testament, Joshua thinking the angel was an ordinary soldier, asked him, “Whose side are you on?” The angel replied he was not on anybody’s side but his own. Even though he was about to fight for Israel, God asserted his radical independence from earthly powers. God cannot be domesticated to be the cheerleader for any political movement.