To Re-Imagine a Political Jesus

by Mike McKinniss

As I write this, the conventions of both major American political parties are still fresh in my memory.  The 2012 election is less than 60 days away.  We are chest-deep in the mixed blessing that is political discourse in the United States.

The events of this waning summer reminded me of a Newsweek cover story from the spring, which bemoaned the political involvement of the American church.  You’ll find below my reflections written six months ago on my own blog.  The significance of these issues for the church today are undiminished in such a short time.

Just out in Newsweek is a cover story from Catholic author Andrew Sullivan.  His piece seeks to highlight what he sees as a crisis in (especially) American Christianity: too much politics.  Go ahead and read it.  It’s provocative, if fundamentally flawed.

How flawed? you ask.  The first and most basic is Sullivan’s love affair with Thomas Jefferson’s word-only Jesus, where the United States’ third president had carefully trimmed Christ’s teachings from a copy of the New Testament and recreated his own more pure, apolitical document.  This is the classic modernist folly.

By ignoring Jesus’ actions, as Jefferson did, we ignore the massive political implications of Jesus’ whole life.  The very things that Andrew Sullivan says we must embody as followers of Christ (nonviolence, service-minded ethics, a passionate devotion to the Creator) are themselves bursting with political power.  Not, we must warn, political power after the manner of the kings of this world (Mk 10:42-45), but after the model of Jesus himself.  Jesus did, after all, topple the greatest and most violent embodiment of imperial political power ever devised up to the first century.  Following Jesus should not make us less engaged in this world, but more.  (To demonstrate the political implications of Jesus’ actions, we might reference the Triumphal Entry, just celebrated in churches around the world not two days ago.  See Mark 11 and parallels.)

The apolitical religious vision of Jefferson (and Sullivan) is, as Patrol Magazine’s David Sessions has better articulated, a natural outflow of 18th century Enlightenment thought.  This has given us what amounts to little more than a closet Christianity, content to concern itself with its own dainty ecclesial affairs while the rest of the world goes on about its business.

There are plenty of other flaws in Sullivan’s piece.  We could take, for example, his mistaken arguments about Jesus’ lack of concern with abortion or homosexuality (Jesus traveled and taught almost exclusively among Jews for whom these were non-issues).  And nevermind Sullivan’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ anticipation of the end of the world (Jesus foresaw much, but not this).  And although Sullivan is keen to point out the church’s recent (and very real) troubles (not least of which are the child molestation scandals within, but not limited to, the Catholic Church), he overlooks the worldwide church’s vast, unpublished good works great and (mostly) small.

Still, the church is probably in some sort of crisis.  We do need to learn how to articulate in word and deed the message of the peaceful and yet powerful Christ become king over the whole of creation.  We need to do this in genuine ways that do not succumb to the normal ways of doing “political” business.  But this will not make us apolitical; it will make us political in a different way.