I entered 1967 as an innocent, carefree, twelve year old boy and emerged from it as a politicized, opinionated teenager. I spent the first part of that centennial year celebrating Canada’s history and culture, then during the summer our family moved south of the border into a country at war, both militarily in Vietnam and politically at home.
As a burgeoning teenager I found myself fascinated with American politics and can remember watching with elation the next year as Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. It was obvious to me that Nixon was the only logical choice for president because of his conservative views and anyway, word on the street was that he was a christian.
Sooo… I may have swung and missed on that one…
If you listen to certain American well-knowns, today’s midterm elections in the U.S. are the most important in a generation. They might actually be right but these days that’s not my primary concern and neither is the politics on our passive-aggressive side of the border. Am I interested in elections? Yes I am. Do I care about elections? Yes I do. Do I vote in elections? Yes I try.
However, for many of our citizens, Christians included, our hope for mutual protection and enforcement of our moral values is the government. Ironically some Christian leaders believe that cozying up to political leaders is the way to accomplish this (I’ve whined about that before). Used to be I thought the same way: politics was important to enforce cultural rules and morality and Jesus was more interested in personal spiritual stuff like purity and saving souls and clean living.
Now however, I’m in a different place. I don’t want you to go thinkin’ I’m a saint (and just to be clear I’m not a saint – yet) but a lifetime of observation, experience and examination has pushed me to a different perspective. These days I don’t pay much attention to what I’m being told by either advertisers or politicians. Now I primarily wonder what Jesus thinks about these things.
For the early church who followed Jesus, their true hope for goodness in the world was living out God’s Kingdom on earth. While it’s true Jesus showed little interest in the politics of his day, it is also clear that the implications of his words and actions were political.
In fact the gospel, was an ancient Roman term proclaiming the good news that Caesar was a benevolent god who had brought peace and prosperity to the people under his rule. As one city state proclaimed it, ‘Providence … by producing Augustus [sent] us and our descendants a Savior, who has put an end to war and established all things.’ Any place that Rome held under its thumb was going to be a place of peace because they would slaughter anyone who wasn’t peaceful…
When Jesus came along he proclaimed a gospel that came from a different kingdom (Luke 4:43) and the idea that he was a saviour put him in direct competition with Caesar. Speaking of kingdoms, when Jesus suggested that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Matthew 4:17), he was stating direct opposition to the powerful political regime they were living under and drawing people’s attention to a better way of living than the Emperor could provide.
References like ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’ were literally terms used around the empire to describe Caesar but believers began to use them freely to describe Jesus.
Ultimately we need only to look at how Jesus was executed. Crucifixion was the preferred form of political punishment which the Romans had perfected and was used to punish treason and opposition to the Emperor. It was a vulgar, public torture that was designed as much to threaten their enemies as it was to degrade, torture and kill the victim.
But Jesus wasn’t about image or power or rebellion or legislation, rather he was about bringing God’s Kingdom to earth which put the state in its place. God’s Kingdom was an invisible empire that crossed borders and races and sexes and classes but it was also a visible empire concerned with love for the poor, sick, slaves, women, prisoners, outcasts and anybody else who was downtrodden or powerless. The Emperor was simply a symbol of the larger problem of power and Jesus was confronting the exploitation, oppression and mindless violence used by some to maintain it.
Jesus wasn’t a politician. But he was political.
And of course that’s still a problem for the powerful today.
For awhile now there has been a war in Yemen, the world’s poorest country. In addition to the thousands of displaced and killed civilians, there are currently fourteen million people starving simply because the opposing sides won’t let aid into the region. Yeah, 14 million. Oh, and Canada and the U.S. are continuing to honour their contracts supplying armour and weapons to the Saudis who are the major players in the conflict. How is that humanly possible? Statecraft: the craft of managing and idolizing the state.
I survived the ’60s quite well thank you, but now when I see a king or president or political figure of any kind I can’t help but question their real motives. On the other hand, the hope of the world is contained in the concepts of Jesus and the willingness of the people who are called by his name. He ushered in a new age of his Kingdom and now our task is to carry it forward, in spite of opposition to it.
What would it look like for us to live out the Kingdom of God today? How would our politics and policies look different if the average and the lowest person were to be treated as royally and equally as the most wealthy or powerful? How would our ’emperors’ respond if God’s Kingdom put them in their place? How would our religious leaders who are in bed with the emperors respond?
Ask yourself those questions and imagine the kingdom of God functioning around us where every person is loved and cared for.
The cost of bringing the kingdom that Jesus imagined is not (will not be) easy or popular (Acts 16:16-40). But as history continues to unfold we would do well to put into perspective that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is now just a salad.