Over the years the common understanding of the separation between church and state has led to a massive disengagement between real Christian faith and sincere political practice. The very mention of Jesus and politics in the same sentence sounds strange in itself. Certainly, it is widely believed that the Gospels never speak of Christ engaging in any kind of political exercise; rather, the only slight political reference we get is from the often quoted “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25), and even then that particular scripture is often used to argue for Christian disengagement from the political world anyway.
So what is the deal? Well, let us first define the word “politics”. The word gets its root meaning from the Greek “politikos” (of which derives both politēs ‘citizen’ and polis ‘city’). Throw aside the impression of President Obama or Kevin Spacey in House of Cards; politics isn’t just about governmental power. To be political is essentially to play an authoritative, defining role in the shaping of society (or as the Greek definition suggests: to play a definitive role as a citizen in the city). This includes the shaping of not just government but also education, the arts, transport, social welfare and other such aspects of society.
With this refined definition of politics in mind, let us now ask the question: did Jesus play an authoritative role in shaping society throughout the Gospels? If we agree that He did, then surely we are forced to bring Jesus and politics together into the same sentence? This bringing together into the same sentence isn’t just for grammatical effect; their association opens up a whole new way of seeing the scriptures and also challenges us as to how we follow Jesus in our political context. This new way of seeing things brings new light to various aspects of the New Testament; like the fact that amongst the various misfits chosen to be Jesus’ close disciples, there were two characters who represented two extreme factions of the Jewish political world: Matthew the tax collector – representing something of a political sell-out from within the Jewish world, as his line of work solely reinforced the oppressive rule and domination of the Roman empire; and Simon the zealot – representing a far-left, radical sector of Jewish society that considered it their duty to God and Israel to take part in violently overthrowing Roman rule by any means necessary, even murder. With Jesus choosing these two men to follow Him, one can only wonder the political conversations had by the group as they travelled through the land; yet even more significant is the fact that it gives us insight into the possibility that Christ was a bit more “political” than we give Him credit for.
Yet let us not lose the train of thought here: politics involves authoritative action that influences society – not just on a government/state level, but in every area of society. So when we see Jesus challenging the ethics of His day through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), when we hear of the accusation levelled against Paul and the early church of Acts: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here… and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7), and when we learn from historians that, on many levels, the church has often led the way (yet regrettably not always) in the advancement of science, medicine and art; there is a deep sense that God has always had a keen interest in authoritatively influencing the society of mankind. And let us not forget the title of King that Jesus is given throughout the scriptures; it’s a very authoritative, almost governmentally political title: King Jesus.
If what has been said here is fully understood, it obviously throws out the common objection: “I’m just not really that interested in politics”. The thing is: if we dare to let Jesus step out of the nice and cozy, middle-class, white-picket-fence suburb we’ve put Him into; then we can no longer give those kinds of objections because Jesus no longer gives us license to do so. His legacy is founded upon not only the transformation of society, but also the transformation of intricate, messy human lives that the scriptures equate to “raising the dead to life”. We can’t escape it; this King has always been political, even in our very lives.
So if God puts us or others into places of influence within the government, then lets get political; if we’re put into the education system, or the finance sector, or the art scene, or the IT industry, then lets get authoritatively political. After all, we’ve been taught to pray: “let Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Written by: Michael van Niekerk