In times of crisis and upheaval, a chorus of voices will rise to assert their support or their critique of the state of affairs. This chorus will involve commenting on protests, legislative solutions, governmental actions, and so on. Into this chorus of voices, the clergy will often try to speak to the present moment from the perspective of faith.
It is precisely at that moment that they will receive pushback—usually from their own parishioners. “You’re getting political.” “I don’t like politics in the pulpit.” “The church shouldn’t get involved in politics. We should just focus on becoming better people or on prayer.” The problem with the position that the church should stay out of political matters is that it is inauthentic to the very origins of Christianity.
Now, before continuing, it is important to note that there is a difference between partisanship and politics. It is one thing to say that God wants you to vote Democratic or Republican; it’s another to say, for example, that God cares about the poor and the marginalized and that our public policy ought to do likewise.
But an honest appraisal of the origins of and the tenets of Christian faith require us to acknowledge that the religion of the disciples of Jesus is inherently political.
Conflict & Controversy
The gospel accounts portray a number of conflicts that Jesus has with his antagonists: healings on the sabbath, claims of authority, differences over opinion as to ritual requirements, and interpretations of the law. But there is one controversy that is attested in all four gospels that looms larger than the others: the cleansing of the temple.
In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, near the beginning of his final week in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple and there drives out those buying and selling in the outer courts:
They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.” The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. —Mark 11:15–18 CEB
This story is also told in John’s gospel, although it happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than at the end:
It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me. —John 2:13–17 CEB
New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders sees a lot more in this passage than Jesus’ simple disapproval of selling objects in the temple. In fact, given that changing money and selling doves and other animals for sacrifice were essential to the sacrificial system—a sacrificial system his disciples continued to participate in after his death—he concludes that Jesus must have been making another point beyond disapproval with religiously affiliated commerce. For Sanders, Jesus’ overturning the tables at the temple is an act of symbolic destruction of the temple itself—prophetic street theater designed to represent the eschatological destruction of the temple to make way for the new Temple of God.
This interpretation is reinforced by a detail in John’s telling. In that account, Jesus has a conversation with the temple leadership after his cleansing of the temple:
Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. —John 2:18–22 CEB
In the course of asking him about his authority to chase the moneychangers from the temple, Jesus responds “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
This statement about destroying the temple is not limited to John. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels, it is reported that such statements were part of the charges made against Jesus at his trial:
“We heard him saying, ‘I will destroy this temple, constructed by humans, and within three days I will build another, one not made by humans.’” (Mark 14:58)
“This man said, ‘I can destroy God’s temple and rebuild it in three days.’” (Matt. 26:61)
Further, this charge is repeated at his crucifixion:
People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself and come down from that cross!” (Mark 15:29–30)
Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.” (Matt. 27:39–40)
What this shows, as Sanders points out, is that the accusation that Jesus had threatened to destroy the temple was made both at his trial and repeated at his crucifixion—suggesting that his behavior in the temple and his perceived threats against the temple were reasons for his arrest and crucifixion. In fact, John’s gospel makes the connection between the two events explicit, as we have seen.
Now, some will no doubt respond, “But the gospels themselves say that Jesus was concerned about dishonesty and corrupt business practices.” That is true—but it may be the case that the stories as we have them in the gospel reflect a much later reflection on Jesus’ actions, trying to make sense of them decades after the events took place, and after the temple had been destroyed.
But let’s consider that Jesus was making a point about business practices and not an eschatological point about the coming Kingdom of God. Would that make his statement less political than if he were simply talking about end-times prophecy? No, of course not. Economics and politics are intimately connected.
Now, there might also be those who point out that Jesus was talking about his body, not the actual temple, when he made his statement about destroying the temple in three days. He may very well have or that may also have been a later post-Easter theological interpretation of the events.
But here’s the thing: however Jesus might have meant his statements and actions—moral lesson, end-times prophecy, or theological statement about the resurrection-we know that they were taken politically.
It is easy to be tempted to think that Jesus’ conflicts with others were primarily religious. Indeed, given the number of disputes that Jesus has with the scribes and the Pharisees in the gospels, and his trial before the religious council—the Sanhedrin—it’s easy to conclude that his ultimate demise was also over religious matters.
But the Sanhedrin was more than a religious body of temple leadership; it was the de facto local government for Roman administration of Jerusalem. In Galilee to the north, Rome ruled through its client king Herod Antipas, but in Jerusalem, order was kept directly by a Roman governor, with the temple leadership as his appointed local agents. Indeed, the High Priest was appointed by the Roman procurator as a de facto local ruler, whose job it was to keep the local population in line. As a result, the leadership of the temple, primarily of the priestly sect of Sadducees, owed its authority-and therefore its loyalty-to Rome.
This is an important point: Jesus’ religious conflicts are primarily with the Pharisees or the scribes, but it is the Sadducees, the priestly temple leadership, who are the ones who try him and hand him over to Rome. Indeed, it is before this council that the charge of threatening the temple is made. It is by this temple leadership that the decision is made to hand Jesus over to Rome in order to keep the peace:
Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council and said, “What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs! If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” —John 11:47–50 CEB
It should be noted that this decision, is an entirely political decision—a decision that is restated later in that same gospel when it comes time to try Jesus before the high priest. (John 18:14)
At that trial, charges of blasphemy are made and it is clear in the accounts that the council takes offense at Jesus, but it is telling that at the end of the day, the council had made the decision to hand Jesus over to spare the populace Roman retribution and that the charge of threats against the temple is the one that emerges clearly from the trial.
That these were political considerations appealing to political motivations is made all the clearer by the participation of these folks:
If the Sanhedrin’s objections to Jesus had been entirely religious—he heals on the sabbath, he offers different interpretations of the Torah, he claims to be our long awaited messiah—there is no reason why the Romans would have cared. In fact, the Roman Empire, especially in the East, was predominantly Hellenistic in its religious worldview, seeking to blend together various religious traditions, allowing for differing religious practices without insisting on any kind of uniformity. (Indeed, it was the Jews, who were stubborn monotheists, who were the exception to this rule.) As a result, the Romans would never have gotten involved in purely religious or theological controversies. Had the Sanhedrin’s complaints about Jesus been restricted to matters of religion alone, Pilate would have remained as uninterested as he appears to be in the painting below.
But Pilate did crucify Jesus. And for good Roman political reasons.
Now, the gospels sometimes present Pilate as a reluctant executioner, finding no blame in Jesus and seeking to release him. In fact, there is a progression over time in the gospels that shifts the blame from the Jewish leadership and Pilate together (Mark) to one that presents the Jewish leadership as almost entirely culpable (John). This presentation of the reluctant Pilate is likely the result of a need to serve certain theological and apologetic ends in the narrative and, in some cases, to avoid outright provocation of the Romans by presenting them as Christ-killers, especially in light of growing persecution of Christians by the Empire. In any event, the gospel portrait of Pilate does not comport with the Pilate of history who was far more bloodthirsty and was eventually recalled to Rome for his excessive cruelty.
Religions that are simply about otherworldly salvation, that are about perfecting one’s inner self, that are about humble acceptance of the ills of the world—those are perfectly compatible with the status quo. And the Empire will never suppress a religion that supports the status quo.
But it is instructive to note that even in John’s gospel, the gospel account that places the highest degree of blame on the Jewish leadership and presents Pilate as the most reluctant, the turning point is still this:
“From that moment on, Pilate wanted to release Jesus. However, the Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!” When Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench at the place called Stone Pavement (in Aramaic, Gabbatha). It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover. Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, “Here’s your king.” The Jewish leaders cried out, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate responded, “What? Do you want me to crucify your king?” “We have no king except the emperor,” the chief priests answered. Then Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.” —John 19:12–16 CEB
The Jewish leaders’ objections that Jesus had identified himself as God’s Son, or was falsely claiming to be the messiah, or that he had healed on the sabbath, or whatever other religious objections they’d had failed to sway Pilate. That’s just religion. Mentioning a claim to kingship, however: that’s politics.
This evidence and that of the inscription over the cross—“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”—makes it clear that Jesus was not crucified for breaking the sabbath. He was not crucified for teaching that you ought to love your enemies. He was not crucified, as one friend of mine likes to say, for teaching that “niceness is nicer than nastiness.” He was crucified for political reasons. Jesus’ ministry had political implications and that’s what led him to the cross at Roman hands.
In John’s gospel, it is also recorded that the charge “King of the Jews” posted over Jesus’ cross was written in Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. As one friend notes: “Jesus was crucified by the religious, cultural, and political powers of his day.”
The Romans didn’t care about things that were strictly religious or spiritual. In fact, the Empire in any age never cares about spirituality or abstract theology per se. And there’s a very good reason for that.
Spiritualized Faith Serves the Status Quo
Under the system of American slavery, a concerted effort was made to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity. The belief was that giving them a religion that was all about love, forgiveness, “slaves obey your masters,” and the promise of a heavenly reward in the next life for sufferings in this one would make the enslaved populations more docile.
While the institution of slavery made one of the most perverse uses of the Gospel, it was not alone in seeing Christian faith in this way. Serf populations in Imperial Russia were likewise told that their reward was in the next life. Indeed, all manner of oppressors have sought to buy off their oppressed with this promise of heavenly reward.
And so, religions that are simply about otherworldly salvation, that are about perfecting one’s inner self, that are about humble acceptance of the ills of the world-those are perfectly compatible with the status quo. And the Empire will never suppress a religion that supports the status quo.
But Christianity is not such a religion. Christianity has this-world consequences. Christianity has political implication.
In fact, so ingrained is this reality in Christian faith that enslaved Blacks were able to figure this out in spite of their masters’ insistence to the contrary. They understood that God was a God of liberation from oppression-there it was in Exodus. They understood that God called for justice—there it was in the prophets and in Jesus’ teaching. They understood that God would hold all peoples to account and set up a reign of justice and righteousness in the last days known as the Kingdom of God—the very Kingdom that Jesus had been proclaiming in his gospel. In spite of the slaveowners’ insistence that Christian faith was limited to personal salvation and internal spiritual self-improvement, they understood that at the heart of Christian faith was a resistance to evil, unjust, and oppressive structures, like that of slavery, that demanded resistance and political action.
They have not been alone in this. In their own day, enslaved Blacks were joined by free Blacks in seeking radical abolition and sympathetic whites who were persuaded by their presentation of the Gospel. A generation later the Social Gospel movement led by Walter Rauschenbusch, among others, would call for systemic structural change in labor rights, children’s rights, housing, and so on, as part of living out the Gospel. In the Civil Rights Era, Black faith leaders and white allies saw the political causes of desegregation, equality, and voting rights as those called for by their Christian faith. Today, movements for social and racial justice are supported by appeals to Christian faith.
It cannot be otherwise. Christian faith has always been political. From Jesus’ advocacy of disruptive (not passive) non-violence, offering subversive teachings about fidelity to the state, and crucifixion for sedition as a pretender-king, to the early church’s refusal to perform their civic duty by offering sacrifices to the emperor, who proclaimed loudly that it was Christ who was Lord, not Caesar, to the resistance to abuses of church and imperial entanglement during the Reformation, to the opposition to the slave trade and the work for abolition, to the tenement and labor reform movements, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the Civil Rights movement, to today’s Black Lives Matter and racial justice movements—the Gospel has always been political.
In every generation, there is an Empire that seeks to maintain its status quo. In every generation, there are Sadducees, religious leaders with privilege and power invested in that status quo who quickly quash any faith expression seen as disruptive. But in every generation there is also an authentic church, witnessing to the one who himself was a victim of Empire, testifying to his message, bearing the scorn of those whose power they would disrupt, and, in so doing, seeking in his name the transformation of the world itself.
Originally published at http://sometheologica.com on June 11, 2020.