Jesus and Politics

Developing a Christian Worldview: Part 1 by GKC

I received a request a couple of weeks ago to talk about “Jesus and Politics,” namely, what sort of politics we ought to take from Jesus’ teaching. It’s a good question, but a tricky one – it being all too easy to topple over the side of a sound argument and crash into the abyss of self-delusion and nonsense. So how do we answer this question?

With a bit of metaphor and philosophy, some straight-talk, and an honest, real-world take.

We are going to circle the idea before we strike at it, so dive in with me as we begin to examine this quandary.

Metaphor and Philosophy

When the Book of Proverbs says “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him,” (Proverbs 26:4) and “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes,” (Proverbs 26:5) – it is not a contradiction that destroys the Bible. It is a common rabbinical technique for teaching. To understand a deep or difficult concept, you often need to look at something from two different perspectives. If we have our eyes open, we will see that we all do the same exact thing when we speak and give advice.

You might say in January, “When someone is testifying before Congress, they should clam up and only answer direct questions!” and then come March, you might hear yourself saying, “When someone is testifying before Congress, they need to make sure they’re offering up information that the panel might not be aware of. This is too important!” That is contradictory advice, isn’t it?

It is, and it isn’t, because the situation may change. Maybe the congressional panels were on disparate topics, or the speakers were in different positions. The advice is good in certain circumstances, and in others, you need, well, the opposite advice.

Truth has a right hand and a left hand. Fail to see that, and you won’t understand many deep truths. Confuse which hand is dominant and which is supporting, and you’ll miss that mark as well. Give up and call all truth arbitrary, and you can’t know anything at all.

All of this is to say, I’m going to tell you two seemingly contradictory things about Jesus and politics during the course of this article:

1. Jesus has very little to do with politics.

2. Jesus has everything to do with politics.

We have to understand both of these statements if we want to be wise and make good, Christian political decisions as the enfranchised populace.

Now, let’s vacation to Greece for a moment to visit a metaphor that will introduce us to the argument:

The Tortoise and the Hare

You all know the story – one of Aesop’s famous fables. (Paraphrased)

A hare (rabbit) is making fun of a tortoise one day, telling him how slow and useless he is compared with the swift rabbit. The tortoise plods along, ignoring the mockery, until the rabbit says, “You could never beat me at anything. You’re too slow! Let’s have a race, and I’ll prove to you how easy it is to defeat you.” The tortoise, surprisingly, agrees. On race day, the rabbit takes off and the tortoise is going slow. The rabbit sprints ahead almost to the finish line, when he decides that a great way to really make the tortoise feel inferior would be for him to take a nap by the side of the racecourse and wait for the tortoise to plod by. Then, within sight of the finish line, he can pass the tortoise easily and still win. Well, as we all know, the rabbit didn’t wake up when the tortoise went by, slow and steady, until he was nearly across the finish line. The rabbit woke up and ran for all he was worth, but he was too late to stop the tortoise from winning the race.

Now, if I were to ask you what the moral of this story is – what essential truth we can all take from it – we would all have the same answer, right? Say it with me:

Rabbits are cruel, immoral, and lazy.

Alright, maybe that isn’t what popped into your mind at first. But why not? Tell me that I am wrong, judging from the details of the story. Why can I not say that the moral of the story is about how terrible rabbits are, and you ought to dissociate from them?

While we’re thinking about that, let’s do one more from Aesop (also paraphrased):

The North Wind and the Sun were having an argument about who was stronger. Seeing a traveler coming by, the North Wind proposed that they ought to try and get the traveler’s coat off. Whoever succeeded in getting the coat off of the man would be the strongest. The sun agreed, so the North Wind took his turn. He blew with all of his might, a fierce, cold, whipping wind, but no matter how hard he blew, the man below only pulled his coat on tighter, leaning against the gust. Then it was the sun’s turn, and the sun sent down gentle rays of light to warm the traveler from the cold, gradually getting hotter to a pleasant, balmy heat, so that the man, starting to sweat, removed his coat by himself.

Maybe this time we’ll get the same answer. What is the moral of this story? Say it with me:

Whenever you see a vagrant, get that man’s coat off at all costs.

Again, we may have had different answers, didn’t we? But how can you tell me that my moral is wrong? What force of argument do you have against my ridiculous proposition? Isn’t it in the story? Whoever gets the coat off of the man is the strongest, and you want to be strong, right?

Naturally, we are engaging in reductio ad absurdum, in a sense – taking something to its absurd conclusion to prove a point – namely, that people can take information out of an account and completely miss the point. But how do we know that I’ve missed the point in these fables?

Don’t miss this.

It is because at the bottom of the page, on each of these stories I’ve related, is a little sentence written in italics. For the “Tortoise and the Hare,” it says, “The race is not always to the swift.” For the story of “The North Wind and the Sun,” it says, “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

These fables have A STATED PURPOSE. We ignore that to our peril in any examination. Context will often give us the PRIMARY PURPOSE, but even better is a stated purpose, such as we have at the bottom of each page of Aesop.

Now let’s talk about Jesus.

Some Straight Talk

Jesus did not come to teach you about politics.

Sorry.

He certainly cares about your political viewpoints, and to equivocate all forms of government and all laws would be naive. Some things are generally in line with God’s revealed will, and some things are rebellious, ineffective, and stupid. Faith does affect politics, but we need to come to the work of Jesus first understanding His stated purpose.

He told us why He came, what He was doing His ministry for. Not only do we have Jesus on record speaking about His own purpose, we also have record of his apostles teaching us about why their Teacher came. Here are a few of examples:

“Jesus said, ‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost.’” (Luke 19:10)

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

“Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.’” (Mark 1:38)

“Jesus said, ‘I did not come to abolish [the Law] but to fulfill.’” (Matthew 5:17)

“God put [Christ] forward… to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness… so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 5:25-26)

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

There are many other scriptures on this topic. You can read John Piper’s compilation of many of them here if you want to dig further.

So what can we take away from Christ’s stated purpose, as well as the supporting testimony of those who knew Him best?

Jesus came so that the righteousness of God might be demonstrated in His obedience, to preach the truth to us, and to die for the sins of the world.

If politics are among the first things you find in there, then you are woefully misled.

Jesus came with a spiritual purpose, not a political one. In fact, the few times that we see Him interact with political questions, He sort of seems to avoid them, doesn’t He? At one point after a particularly impressive miracle, Jesus has to hide Himself away to avoid being crowned king of Israel (John 6:1-15). When asked about taxes, He gives us a beautiful, helpful answer that we can learn from: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Yet even this answer is sort of evading what they were really asking. The Jews who came to Jesus, ostensibly, were trying to get Jesus to comment on Jewish liberation versus submission in regards to their Roman overlords.

Jesus came to demonstrate the goodness of God, to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), to preach the truth to us, and to save us from our sins.

Now, keeping His primary purpose firmly in mind, we are able to glean some principles on politics from things that Jesus said. For instance, when Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s,” it necessarily implies that the government has legitimate authority over us in some areas and not in others. When Jesus says that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law (and in many other places where He quotes and draws on the Law), we can see that Jesus affirms the Old Testament laws, which implies we can learn from them. Also, when Jesus stood before various authorities falsely accused and mistreated, He was respectful and quiet, so we can learn that we ought to do our utmost to show respect for authority in our lives, even when that authority is doing a bad job or acting against our interests.

So, with those caveats made, here is some straight talk: the ministry of Jesus should probably not be the primary place you look in the Bible to inform your politics. Jesus affirms the Law, so going there makes a lot of sense. Jesus trained the apostles, so going to their instructional letters (whose primary purpose was… to instruct) is a good idea too. And while there are some things we can learn about politics from Jesus’ ministry, the direct takeaways are few, in my opinion. He came for something else.

Now, here is the other hand of the argument – the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to inform everything that we do. As followers of Christ, Christians ought to strive to emulate the love, sternness, compassion, wisdom, discipline, obedience, mercy, and justice that Jesus embodies. But when you hear someone say that you have to vote for more entitlements or an increase in the minimum wage because Jesus was compassionate – you ought to call “foul.” We can agree on principles (such as compassion) while disagreeing on proper methods of distribution, effectiveness of certain policy, etc. After all, that’s what politics is: Making policy, and policy is mostly a business of “how?”

A Real World Take

I teach writing workshops from time to time, and in some of them I play memory games with my students. It never ceases to amaze me that I can read off a list of seven things (Rock, Boat, Sock, Tiger, Pacifier, Screwdriver, Pen), and after the exercise when I ask people to repeat the list I gave them earlier in the class, invariably people forget some of the items. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But strangely enough, people also add to the list. They’ll list things with confidence which I never said.

Here’s the point: Transferring information is complicated as it is, without even going into the limits of language itself. Human beings have a tendency to both miss what was there and to add to it what never existed when we are drawing solely on memory. So when people use Jesus’ authority to legitimize their political viewpoint or to shame you for disagreeing, oftentimes they aren’t actually quoting scripture – they are drawing on a poor memory of a certain story, which naturally colors toward the point they were trying to make.

“Jesus hates capitalism! Remember that he drove all those businessmen out of the city because they were making people buy stuff! He turned those tables over and chased them with a whip. Clearly, Jesus was a socialist.”

A short reading of the actual account in John 2, as well as some background knowledge and biblical literacy, will make short work of the foolish quotation above. The speaker is telling a confused, muddled, inaccurate version of the story that both leaves out and adds, making it unrecognizable to the original text – and it also, conveniently, ignores that part where Jesus states His purpose in driving the moneychangers from the Temple.

“Jesus would have voted for Donald Trump!”

“Jesus destroyed the patriarchy!”

“Jesus would have lowered your taxes.”

“Jesus was a communist.”

A short breeze through social media during an election year will yield these and other such claims. People have been trying to co-opt the authority of God for their own ends for a long time. Don’t buy it. Jesus came to reveal how sinful you really are, how righteous God really is, and to teach you how to be reconciled to God.

If you want to learn about what Jesus taught, go to the source. You’ll see that politics doesn’t make the top ten.

Check Out Part 2 in this series: The Bible and Politics, in which we delve into specific social and economic issues.

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