Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is the human activity of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. . . . All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices have been cancelled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death of resurrection of a Galilean nobody.
— Robert Farrar Capon
Politics is like rugby. Opposing party members meet on the field of play and seek to move their ball (policy) to the goal line. To achieve this end they engage in power struggles (a scrum) and sometimes brutally maim each other.
Not a game of rugby
But the kingdom of God does not come in this way. Yes, Jesus is fully competent, and impeccable in character, but he does not and would not run for office. That is not because he despises politics; it is because the use of power is not the means required to bring the kingdom of God to be.
Jesus way of conquest upends all human thinking about how to achieve the renovation of persons and the creation of a new society. His actions counter our ideas about where the problem lies and what is to be done about it.
Let’s begin at the end and work backwards.
The work of Jesus: death
To understand the four accounts of the life of Jesus, you have to accept something that applies no where else.
To our way of thinking, great leaders accomplish their goals and then they die. Few things are more tragic to us than a charismatic person who dies before their time (take John F Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln). We say of such tragedies that they waste the person’s potential.
But for Jesus, his greatest work was not his life (as magnificent as it was). His greatest work was his death. He came to die. Dying while still a relatively young man was not a waste of his abilities; it was his greatest work.
All his wonderful works and powerful words were of no effect without his purposeful death. The Gospels accent this by devoting almost one third of their words to the last week of his life: his rejection, betrayal, trial, and murder. He came to give his life for us. But why?
The means is determined by the problem
All the political theories of human history are based on a diagnosis of a problem. Marxism believes the problem is class structure. Capitalism believes the problem is lack of freedom. Anti-racialism believes the problem is whiteness. Absolute monarchy is grounded in a belief about inevitability of chaos if we allow people freedom. Power, money, program, policy, education, and social engineering are proposals based on a diagnosis. They are the fruit of ideology.
Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within. (The warrior identity that their ideology gives them covers over that chaos.)1
Ideologues are all hypocritical
There is some consistency across all systems of thought. Everyone believes that the problem is someone else, or some other group. It’s the corporations, the wealthy, the authoritarians, the whites, the ignorant masses. We can be sure of this: the person proposing the solution is not, by definition, part of the problem.
There is truth in every ideology. The problem is that not one of its advocates has the humility to admit that they themselves are part of the problem. They act as though they are on the side of good and their enemies are on the side of evil.
Moral clarity is good. Hubris and self-righteousness are a fraud. As long as leaders act like the problem with evil is “them” and not “we” they are lying.
Christ is not an ideologue
Not so with Christ. His diagnosis is clear: we are the problem, all of us. No reform movement or legislation can fix us. We must be reborn. Jesus drew the line between good and evil and placed every person, every policy, every political system of mankind on the side of evil. Only he was the exception. In him was no sin.
Am I saying that there are no good people or bad people? Not at all. In daily life, there are differences in behavior. Self-control and social conditioning may make us appear to be different. However, that is an illusion. Jesus said so.
It is also not a denial of the many good things people can do. Christianity believes in infinite human dignity — that each person is worth more than the whole world. But that is why human corruption is so tragic.
Why didn’t he?
We are so caught up with our diagnosis of the root of our problems, that we try to co-opt Jesus. People assert that there is a Christian view of government, which, if followed, will fix things. No such thing exists. There are no “christian principles.” If there is no redemption there is no Christianity.
If all we need is to apply moral principles, why didn’t Jesus gather an army, including angels, to take out the Roman oppressors? Why didn’t he train his cabinet to develop and execute policy that would end injustice and put the world to right? Should he not have used his skill at moral clarification to rid society of systemic evils through better education? Why didn’t he fund raise and use the money to mobilize public service?
Band-aids not cures
He could have done all that, but those actions would have been as relatively ineffective at his hand as they are at ours. They are not cures, they are band-aids. The root of all evils is in us, in each and every one of us. We are the problem. By choice and nature we are alienated from God, rest beneath his opposition, and are hopelessly under the power of evil within us. Power alone cannot remove guilt.
Weakness versus Power
Jesus made the right diagnosis. And he had the cure. But how he cured it was utterly unexpected.
Unlike the power mongering leaders of human history, Jesus took up the position of weakness. Read the four gospels. Review the record of his rejection, betrayal, and trial. Many people react to these accounts with something like horror and anger. Why? because the One who commanded waves to cease appears to be in over his head. In the face of the powers that be he appears powerless. He who always spoke with wisdom and answered every objection with clarity seems tongue-tied. There was silence before his accusers. No threats. No fighting fire with fire.
If power was the solution, he would have shown his power. But power could not solve the problem. His purposed to show us exactly that — that our worship of power is idolatry.
Paul the apostle says he was crucified in weakness. He goes on to say that by his weakness he has put to shame all the world’s idea of power. It is put to shame because in his weakness, the Son of God conquered all the sin and evils that never yielded to power. That was the point: God brings the kingdom of God through weakness to strip us of the arrogance and worship of our powers.
Sacrifice versus Coercion
Here is another angle: Read the record of his last days and you will find he is willingly, freely laying down his life. He is sacrificing himself for us. He did it for love of God and his people.
Someone has quipped that people love to gain access to government power and other people’s money to accomplish what they themselves would not lift a finer to do. When human power-brokers use power to coerce change, and they usually do so with no personal sacrifice.
Not only does Jesus not aspire to power to do what he would not personally do. He relinquishes power to serve and give himself for us. He is no hypocrite. He expends himself for us.
The problem of injustice
History is marked by injustice. Of late we have focused a great deal on the past and present injustices of or own society (and they are many), it must be clearly stated that injustice is endemic. Those who have been oppressed would have been oppressors if the tables had been turned (remember, we are all on the side of evil). Both their ancestors and ours have been guilty of foul injustice against others.
But what are we to do about injustice? What to do about abuse?
Conventional wisdom in our day is that we fight injustice by force and legislation. I will grant that provisional actions can mitigate the problem 2, but how can the actions of unjust people against other unjust people solve the problem of injustice?
Jesus had a very different way.
Injustice suffered versus justice demanded
Jesus, the only truly just One, brought about the end of injustice by suffering injustice. He bore false accusation. The power brokers of their day abused him. In the end they engaged in political machinations to sentence him to death for crimes he did not commit. He faced this willingly and with silence. But how could this do any good? Because it struck a blow to the root of all our evils.
The unjust suffering he absorbed at the hands of the powerful was a visible representation of the invisible suffering endured. Scripture says he died, the righteous for the unrighteous. What does that mean? His death was not about him, it was about us. God put to his account all our guilt. The Father brought punishment to him for us, though he had never sinned. He accepted all this for love of the Father and for us.
It was by suffering injustice, by suffering for crimes we had done though he was innocent, that Jesus struck the death blow to guilt and power of sin.
Shame versus honor
There is one last component. In recent years I have reflected on the humiliation of Jesus in his death.
The whole of the human race adores fame. We honor celebrities. We give influence to the renowned.
Here is what is remarkable about Jesus. He held fame beyond measure in his hand. Crowds swarmed him wherever he went. As he entered the city of Jerusalem to die, massive numbers of people hailed him as their King. His popularity could have been leveraged to lead a revolt on the streets of Jerusalem.
But he exchanged his popularity for shame. There was shame of weakness, the humiliation of injustice, and the exposure of his naked body on the cross. Crucifixion in itself was considered the most shaming of deaths. He, the truly glorious one, bore immeasurable shame, so that he might clothe us with true honor.
I began this series on Jesus by speaking of the kingdom of God. He announced the coming of that kingdom. We like to co-opt his idea of the kingdom and read our ideologies into it. That is a non starter.
God defines the kingdom. It appears to be a kind of the utopian world we all hope for: persons living in freedom and love and integrity together in a just and equal society. But unlike all ideologues and power-loving leaders, Jesus had the character and competence to make it happen. But he did so by repudiating and shaming all the ways we think we can create an ideal world. By choosing such means he struck a death blow to the root of all evil.
The Real Jesus
That is the real Jesus – not a great teacher or even leader of a moral cause — but a Redeemer and Savior of those who live under the power of darkness and alienation from God.
But, what difference does that make? I think is shapes and defines how Christians and the church are to function in this world. It defines our message and our methods. How we relate to the State and what expectations we have of her are shaped by Christ’s method of bringing the kingdom of God.
My last post will wrap all this together.