Here’s my hot take today:
To say that Christianity is not political is to completely miss the point of Christianity.
As my friend, Luke Bretherton says, “politics is ultimately about the public negotiation of how a society cares for its people.” And the church is in this business of caring for people within a society. But it must not just care for its own people – it must influence the structures of a society that affect people’s lives. Some do this more overtly than others, but if we are part of this movement of Jesus – we are political.
This is highlighted in its deepest sense during Holy Week. As we follow the last week of Jesus’ life we are struck (in the face) with the political nature of the work of Christ. On Palm Sunday he marches into Jerusalem to chants of “Hosanna, Hosanna” – this is an overtly political message. If you were part of those crowds, you were most likely hoping that Jesus would initiate a messianic coup and overthrow Rome and the Temple system, and establish a Davidic kingdom of peace. Seriously. This is most likely what the disciples thought Jesus was doing as well. This is literally what Messianic movements were designed to do – they were rogue political movements that built power by garnering the support of the people in the countryside and used that power/support to change the political environment.
For me, this gets real at the Last Supper. It was Passover. The city was on edge. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims were there to offer sacrifices. The people were oppressed and hungry for a revolution, and both the Roman officials and the Jewish religious leaders knew it. Scripture tells us they had already showed their hand- they intended to kill Jesus. He was threatening their balance of power and had far too much support of the people.
One of my favorite Scriptures that sets this mood is from Mark 14:12-15. It says,
“On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
Do you see what’s going on here? This is like a spy movie. Jesus had pre-arranged this somehow, and “a man carrying a jar of water will meet you…” are codewords. They needed to operate carefully and meet in secret because the authorities were looking for them. They wanted to kill Jesus. This was incredibly dangerous for them all, and the disciples themselves were on edge. When Jesus told them that someone sitting at the table would betray them, they had no idea who it might be and many asked, “Is it I?” I just can’t even image the amount of fear and tension at that table.
But in the midst of all of that, Jesus does something remarkable that we celebrate on Maundy Thursday – he washes their feet. He knew their hearts – that they would disperse; that Judas would betray him; that Peter would deny him – that all of this was going sideways very soon – but yet…Jesus got down and washed their feet – taking on the role of a servant, a slave – on the eve of the biggest moment of all their lives. Then, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, love one another.”
Well, this is not really such a new commandment is it? But maybe it is.
In the midst of this danger and revolt, Jesus is giving them a new politic: Self-humbling Love that puts the needs of the other above our own. This was a new sort of command, a new sort of politic, a new sort of public action.
As the disciples were gathered at the Last Supper with Jesus, celebrating the Exodus – the liberation of the people of Israel from the oppressive regime of Pharaoh, Jesus was birthing a new movement of liberation for all humanity – one that translated the spiritual values of love, justice, compassion, and hope into the public realm in order to bring about the liberation of people from any oppressive force that death could muster.
The early movement of Christianity was radical, gritty, overtly political, and fueled by love in the public realm – and all of it was made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He overcame the powers of death and injustice and empowered His followers to live out this radical message of liberating shalom (The Kingdom of God) in every local municipality in the world.
One of the first things the early disciples did was enact Jesus’ social policy of Jubilee, debt forgiveness, and lessening inequality in their first communities by commanding the rich to sell their property to ensure that the poor have enough. This was the heart of communion, as it reflected the policy of liberation for those who were locked out of the wealth of empire. You see, communion (as originally intended) is not just a spiritual practice or a means of grace – it is a mechanism of establishing economic and social equality. This became the center of the church’s liturgical practice and formed the early Christian imagination toward social principles of justice and equality – principles that they worked to establish in the public realm. This is why most of the early Christians found themselves in jail or martyred. The state doesn’t imprison and kill those who proclaim a new religion unless that religion is fundamentally casting a bright light on the oppressive practices of the state.
As Cornell West rightfully proclaims, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And if there was no resurrection, then the early Jesus movement would have lost all steam – the disciples would have been scattered and given up – seeing their movement as a failed Messianic attempt. But the resurrection gives this movement its validity, and thus, its power. “Jesus is Lord” is a political statement saying the policies of Jesus are true and life-giving because Jesus is alive and enthroned on the throne of all creation, and Caesar (and his policies) are not.
During this season let’s remember that the movement of Jesus is not just about a private love between church members, or between other Christians, or the rush of a fantastic day of music and celebration at our local church – but rather, is a political movement of public love. That we, as followers of Jesus, have been given the command to love one another in the public realm with a self-humbling love that compels us to put the needs of others above our own – the needs of the immigrant above our own; the needs of minority communities above our own; the needs of the socially vulnerable above our own. That we are to still engage the public forces for the common good.
This is our new command friends – to love as Jesus loves – publicly, radically, humbly – and always pursuing justice for the oppressed and marginalized. And so then, Easter is not just a day but rather a way of life lived out in public. This year, maybe we can spend the next 40 days allowing this to penetrate our souls, so that when Pentecost (May 31) gets here we can emerge from our isolation with this revived message of hope for the world. With the revived implications of the Kingdom of God.
Hang in there y’all. You are strong. You can do hard things! And the Lord knows, all of this is hard.