Friday, January 9, 2015

Reclaiming Jesus (2)

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is another part of the chapter on Jesus. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at
I recall growing up in church and always seeing various portraits of Jesus hanging on the walls.  As a child, I assumed that Jesus was a white man with flowing locks of hair, who always wore a white robe and always had a look of calm on his face.  More often than not, Jesus would be pictured with little children and young animals around him in a representation of peace and tranquility.  A confrontational Jesus would never have crossed my mind.
But over the years that I have spent reading the Gospels, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was a confrontational person, who was vastly concerned with the social injustices of his day.  Jesus was not simply a teacher of spirituality as we like to make him out to be.  Nor was he some divine figure who went about Galilee healing people.  He was certainly both of these, but Jesus was also a political figure, whose words and deeds challenged the unjust political powers of his time.
This is not to suggest that Jesus was a politician in the way we think about politics today, nor is it to suggest that Jesus advocated a religious form of government.  Such already existed in the ancient world as no known civilization existed apart from religion having an indivisible relationship with the state.  Nor should we think of Jesus as seeking to involve himself in any political power system, whether the secular power of Rome or the religious power of the temple leadership.   Indeed, we know very well that Jesus worked outside and in opposition to the standing power of both Roman authorities and the religious leadership of Jerusalem.
What I mean by saying that Jesus was a political figure is that his message and his mission confronted the social structures of his day with the politics of God.  In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we need to take very seriously that Jesus’ message was fraught with challenges to the politics of his day; his was a subversive politics.  While eventually crucified in an act of cooperation between the two power centers he confronted, Jesus’ teachings were not primarily about sin and salvation, heaven and hell.  His central message was a new politic, a new way of existing in human society. His politics were the politics of compassion and justice, and central to his political message was his belief and his proclamation that God’s kingdom was coming into the world; a kingdom that was a subversive revolutionary resistance to the Roman Empire and the religious ruling elite of Judaism.
Thus, instead of seeking worldly political power through violence, domination, and oppression, which Jesus and others witnessed first- hand from the Roman Imperial power, and instead of acquiescing with the practice of violence, domination, and oppression as the religious leaders of Israel did as a way of satisfying Rome enough to keep their places of religious power,  Jesus called for a new politic, one that was shaped by the character and presence of God’s rule and one that was manifested in the radical living of his disciples.[1]
While most scholars do agree that the central theme of Jesus’ teaching was the rule of God, there is much disagreement about what Jesus meant by this term.  Again, the scholarly debates on this issue are too complex for my purposes here.  But, before we seek an answer to the question about what Jesus meant by the phrase “kingdom of God”, it might be helpful first to dismiss assumptions we might have about the character of God’s kingdom. In other words, these are the understandings we commonly have about the kingdom that are uninformed and incorrect.
First, the kingdom of God is not primarily a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ.  Second, the kingdom of God is not primarily about personal spirituality. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally and in our Christian living we live as individuals who are in a personal relationship to God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal spirituality.
What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, as Jesus used it, is that the term itself is politically charged. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. He viewed the rule of God as coming into the word as the dynamic presence of God’s love, compassion and justice.  In calling people to enter the kingdom of God and follow him, Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the Empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community with others.
What Jesus was doing through his ministry was calling people out of an existence that focused on the power of this world into a community over which God ruled as king.  And he was calling them to offer their allegiance to God and not Caesar.  This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence, and injustice. Confession of Jesus as Lord was not just a conversion experience in the way that we think of today as an individualized spiritual transformation; it was much more. Confessing Jesus as Lord was a transformation of the person from allegiance to one way living to another way of living.  It was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice.
Yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was ushering into the world could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers of Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities. In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death. From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement, and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom, would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross?  So how does the rule of God, which Jesus proclaimed as near, continue to come into the world, since the bearer of God’s rule was put to death?  God’s kingdom continues to manifest itself in the world through the followers of Jesus who seek a different way of living and relating to others, both neighbors and enemies.

          The classic text on the politics of Jesus is John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.  Various other scholars have approached Jesus as a political figure, including John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

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