Is Following Jesus Political?

The question of the role of the church, and the follower of Jesus, during seasons of great disconnective energy has always been an urgent question for the church in every age, and asking this question of itself is a most necessary requirement for its self-understanding, and for its flourishing, in its journey through history. And so, in these times of great disconnective energy in our culture and society, we ask again the abiding questions.

What do we do? How can we, as followers of Jesus, live prophetically in the current political and cultural climate of our time? These essential questions behooves us to construct a sound biblical Christian theology of politics. In my own pastoral journey, I have learned that the scaffoldings of this theology were – and are – formed by both personal experience and the stories of the faith that found profound resonance in my spiritual journey. Allow me to share a few of those stories.

I am a 4th generation Filipino Baptist, having received my Baptist faith from my ancestors who were converted to the Baptist faith by missionaries to the Philippines from the American Baptist Churches, USA. My maternal grandfather was one of the first graduates of the theological school built by these missionaries. When WWII broke out and the Japanese Imperial Army invaded and colonized the Philippines, they arrested all Americans that they could find, and many ABC missionaries were sent to POW camps. But 11 missionaries decided to flee up to the foothills of Panay Island where my grandfather had founded a church. He helped them find a hiding place that they then called “Hopevale.” They hid there for almost two years, cared for by the congregation led by my grandfather and other local residents, until their location was discovered by a Japanese Imperial Army platoon. The Japanese Army was in retreat at that time from Gen. McArthur, and there were orders not to take any American prisoners alive. A missionary couple captured with those 11 were former ABC missionaries to Japan and spoke fluent Japanese. They pleaded for their lives on behalf of the group, trying to convince their captors that they were missionaries and not part of the war. It was futile, and the orders to execute stood. They then asked for a time to pray and to say goodbye to each other. After that precious moment, they went to their executioners, holding hands and singing a hymn, and their leader said, “We Are Ready.”

I was a senior in high school at the Central Philippine University (a school founded by ABC missionaries in 1905 as a vocational school for orphan boys) when Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, and ushered a period of repressive dictatorship and one-man rule for almost 20 years. in 1978 my father was called to be pastor of perhaps the most prominent protestant church in the country. Its prominent members included the president of the opposition party in the Philippine Senate on the one hand, and the Chief of Staff of the Philippine Armed Forces of Ferdinand Marcos on the other. Within that pastoral crucible, my father had to come to terms with his pastoral identity. I watched that pastoral identity come to life when he courageously preached the gospel of Jesus, developed a ministry to the political detainees, and organized free legal services for them. Every Wednesday evening, a diverse group of people from all walks of life came to church to study the Bible, and struggle with its meaning in light of the oppressive regime we were all living under during that time. I would see every Sunday a new face in the pews, and invariably a bulge around their waist that obviously was shaped like a firearm. I then knew that my father was being monitored. My father left the country in 1982 to serve as the Associate Executive Minister at the American Baptist Churches of Metro New York. When he arrived in the US, a newspaper editor and close family friend living in exile in Chicago told him that, through his contacts in Manila, he has learned that my father was already on the list of people scheduled to be arrested by the regime.

After serving on the pastoral staff at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago for 9 years, I was called to serve at the American Bible Society in New York in 1990. It was during the years of serving there that I discovered a profound, yet largely unknown, history of our English Bible. I learned that the English Bible that we now cherish and hold in our hands, are soaked in the blood of martyrs. Three names stand out: William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, and John Lambert. John Wycliffe was an English scholar who was the first to translate the Vulgate into English in 1382. His followers were called the Lollards, considered the precursor of the Reformation beginning in the 16th century. He was followed by another English scholar, William Tyndale,  who was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from the original Hebrew and Greek in 1529-30, and the first to take advantage of the printing press. The spread of the Tyndale Bible resulted in the death sentence for possession of the English Bible, which was considered a direct challenge to the hegemony of the medieval Catholic Church and its unholy alliance with the monarchy and the laws of England. He was arrested in 1535, tried and convicted for heresy in 1536, and executed that same year by strangulation and burning. His last words were: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

John Lambert, another English scholar and theologian, was a contemporary of William Tyndale, and together with the other scholars who translated the Bible into English and discovered its liberating message when it came to them in the language of their hearts, was convicted of heresy in 1538 by the Duke of Norfolk, who ordered him executed by burning at the stake. Henry VIII etched his doctrine against liberality in Lambert’s own blood. As John Lambert was being burned at the stake, and as the flames were rising from his feet engulfing his body, he kept on shouting, “None but Christ, none but Christ” until he could speak no more.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of Germany’s famous pastors and theologians, was one of the founders of the Confessing Church during Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer believed that Germany will survive the Nazis, but it will need to be rebuilt. He also believed that Germany will need a new church. The state church at that time had completely sold its soul to the Third Reich, and had become collaborators of Hitler’s regime. This was the task of the Confessing Church. He, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich organized seminaries and began to teach and train the future leaders of the new church of Germany. Bonhoeffer believed that obedience was a necessity of faith, and that there is a costliness of God’s grace, a price that a disciple will have to pay. As their work began to be made known in the regime, danger began to follow these leaders and they were all advised by colleagues and friends to flee for their safety.  Karl Barth went to Switzerland, Paul Tillich to Chicago. Bonhoeffer went to New York. When he arrived in New York, he was stricken with the burden of responsibility for the Confessing Church of Germany, and in the span of a month he had returned to his beloved Germany. Because of this work Bonhoeffer was arrested, and later executed. As they were preparing him for his death, he preached a final sermon to his fellow inmates. He ended that sermon by saying, “For me this is the end, but the beginning of life.”

I share these stories because the practice of our faith does have political implications – in many instances momentous and transformative ones. Charles Peguy, the French philosopher and theologian, once said, “All religion begins in mysticism, and ends in politics.” The word “politics” finds its root in the Greek word, politiká, the “affairs of the cities.” This was the title of Aristotle’s book that became a companion to his philosophical inquiry into ethics. Aristotle discovered that delving deeply into moral principles necessarily followed into politics – the affairs of the cities. The practice of the Christian faith, based on the moral mandates of God as revealed in Jesus, indeed has political implications. But the practice of the faith has been at its most transformative and powerful self when it has stood against the principalities and powers of the world, and not in collaboration with them. These include the partisan ideologies that have emerged in the midst of people who strive to live together, but which have instead deepened the tribalisms among them.

If we are to construct a biblically sound Christian theology of politics, or any theology for that matter, we need to begin with the grand perspective of the biblical story of God’s redemptive act in history which begins in Genesis, where God creates life and pronounces it as good. Scripture then tells us that humanity wanted to be like God and distorted this relationship, and now has given it the proclivity to mess up everything it touches. Then our grand story moves through Moses and the freeing of the Hebrew slaves, the Judges and the Kings of Israel, the wise counsel of the Wisdom writers, and then the Prophets. Then we enter the NT, where we encounter the greatest mystery of our faith – that God lovingly “became flesh and dwelt among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose suffering and death on the cross completes God’s loving intention to reconcile the world unto himself. This is the contextualization of God that sets forth the ontological responsibility of the church to be present in the world. If the grand mystery of the Incarnation, that God, out of love, became flesh and blood like us in order to decisively and ultimately be present with us, then the destiny of the church on earth is to incarnate the presence of Jesus and the reign of God in every space it inhabits. The faithful church is commissioned not only to be preoccupied with its individual salvation, but to be a corporeal presence living out its life in the world, in its neighborhood, as light unto the nations – light that must not be hid under a bushel.

God’s personal participation in history is grandiosely political, liberating a slave people from bondage and commissioning them to be a separate people. And then God decisively enters our humanity through Jesus, who proclaims his ministry in unequivocal and concrete political terms in Luke 4. But what kind of politics? This brings us to the issue at hand.

Secular, earthly partisan politics is a contest for power and hegemony. Because it is that, it is innately antithetical to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus who revealed God’s reign of love. This reign is not coercive nor violent. Rather, it is a reign that invites us to willingly enter into a deep relationship with God who seeks to reconcile with us through humble, sacrificial, love. But the cause of Jesus is not a private matter, as it has become in modern religion. In fact, the cause of Jesus is provocatively a public one. The ministry of Jesus took place within and during the reign of emperor Caesar, who was deified as son of God. Jesus’ ministry and message of God’s kingdom became a disruptive and dislocating presence to the hegemonic rule of Caesar. For this, Jesus was executed as a seditionist. 

The first democratic elections recorded in the Bible was held in the wilderness of Sinai, when the freed slaves of Egypt led by Moses became impatient over the long time Moses took to come down from Mt. Sinai. They elected the Golden Calf, and we know how that went. Idolatry is the most mentioned sin in the Bible. God is a jealous God, hence the first commandment. Matthew 22: 15-21 became a pivotal and decisive hermeneutic in how the politics of Jesus subordinates earthly partisan politics as an extension of the audacious claim in Psalm 24:1, that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” God’s reign on earth is political because the consequence of the redemptive power of the Holy Spirit in the world dislocates and transforms all human relations and all human structures, including earthly partisan politics. 

To “give unto Caesar…” means that as followers of Jesus we are in the world but not of the world, which is to say, that while we are ultimately citizens of heaven, we still live in the land of Pharaoh and Caesar. But we cannot be modern day Pharisees and Herodians, religious collaborators of the empire. Jesus strictly prohibited that as a danger of blasphemy. As followers of Jesus we must maintain our prophetic distance from earthly dominions so that we can exercise our responsibility to speak truth even to power. We cannot do this if we have sublimated our prophetic role to the dominion of Caesar and Pharaoh.

Scripture announces that God’s reign is already here, but not yet – here, but not yet consummated. When Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world, he was also saying that until it is finally fulfilled and completed on earth, God’s reign still inhabits the land of Caesar. In this, the faithful church – as a visible sign of Jesus’ presence – will always be in a dialectical struggle against the principalities and powers of the world, exposing counterfeit beliefs and eliciting truth. To the degree that the church abrogates this innate task, it falls short of its role in society and the world. Jesus describes the kingdom as like new cloth sewn onto old cloth, or new wine put inside an old wine skin. The former always causes turbulence in the latter, deconstructing and rearranging its very essence. The work of transformation is like this, and it is always hard. It signifies the “losing” of our lives for the sake of Jesus, yet it is in this crossing of the poison river of fear and enmity through obedience, that the church, the follower of Jesus, finds its life and its joy. The faithful church, living out the presence of Jesus, will always be about this work. It is its signet.

The first words heralding the decisive coming of God in Jesus were, “Fear not!” God’s love – by its very nature – brings hope, joy, healing, radical hospitality, solace in grief, beauty, the repair and rehabilitation of creation; it stands in solidarity with the poor, the weak, and the oppressed; it brings justice, and redemption. This is the charge of the church in society and culture, to be bearers and embodiments of God’s reign of love on earth, and to be in faithful submission to the capacious and sovereign leadership of the Holy Spirit who always disrupts our complacency to point and urge us to the future of God. Any thing else that robs her of this task is an offspring of fear.

The church, if it is to flourish in its context as a sign of Jesus’ living presence, needs to heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “But just as we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ – we too believe, and so we speak” (2 Cor. 4:13).

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