Jesus was deeply political, meaning that he cared greatly about the systems of injustice that lead to people starving, not having enough clothing, and being cheated in the marketplace. He cared greatly about how the religious and political powers in Jerusalem, which were really one in the same, were taking advantage of people and oppressing them with burdensome rules, regulations, and taxes. He cared greatly about how Gentiles and women were mistreated for simply being of the wrong gender, ethnic, or religious class. Make no mistake about it, Jesus was deeply political.
For example, he says in Mark 12:38-40, “Beware of the scribes . . .They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Luke 4:18, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Consider also the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Rich Man and Lazarus. These parables have deep political undertones having to do with economics and identity politics in the first century.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is about how a dying man lying on the road is ignored by fellow Jews, and not just fellow Jews but two religious leaders, a priest and a Levite. Eventually, a Samaritan comes walking by, sees the man and helps him. The parable is scandalous because Samaritans were considered by Jews to be heretics for practicing a false religion and racially impure for being a mix of Israelite and other ethnicities. So Jesus made the Samaritan the hero in the story in order to breakdown the identity politics of first-century Judaism.
Likewise the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, was meant to critique the way the rich mistreated the poor in that day. In the story, an anonymous rich man ignored Lazarus, a poor beggar starving outside his front gate. It came to pass that both of them died and Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell. The parable was meant to not only critique the way the rich treated the poor but show that the rich were not godly just because they were rich. Back then it was assumed that they were because the socio-economic and political order was thought to be divinely ordained. Thus, the rich were rich and the poor were poor because God wanted it that way. To try and change or upset the social/political/economic order, was seen to be a kind of blasphemy and working against God. And yet that’s exactly what we see Jesus doing in this parable and throughout his ministry.
Consider also the sermon on the mount where Jesus talks about how to treat your enemies, how to handle divorce, how to live in right relationship to others. Make no mistake about it, Jesus was extremely political. In fact, one could say that his entire concept of the kingdom of God was political.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God being near or at hand, he’s not talking about heaven, a place we go to when we die or this invisible spirit world all around us full of angels, but he’s talking about a new world order, God’s reality breaking into our own. He’s talking about living according to God’s will and ways (i.e., justice, compassion, mercy, etc.).
So the kingdom of God is what we might call a theopolitics. But what’s interesting is that while Jesus was political, he wasn’t partisan in any way. He wasn’t pro Israel and anti Roman. Nor was he pro Roman and anti Israel. After all he told people to pay their taxes to Caesar. He healed the Roman Centurion’s servant. He prayed on the cross for his Roman executioners. He told his disciples to carry a soldier’s pack two miles when they tell you to only carry it one. His politics transcended such simplistic binaries of being pro Roman and anti Israel, the two warring political parties back then. And I think our politics should transcend partisanship too. I am deeply discouraged by Christians who try and reduce theopolitics down to one of the particular parties. I mean, we really only have a two party system and I’m supposed to believe that God’s party is one of the two? Maybe if we had like a 15 party system, but even then I’d be extremely skeptical.
So let’s try and transcend partisanship and instead talk about the theopolitics of Jesus. In order to do that we’ve got to first understand that Jesus’ politics was grounded in him identifying with the outcasts and the oppressed. Jurgen Moltmann, a fabulous 20th century theologian said , “Jesus revealed his identity among those who had lost their identity, among the lepers, sick, rejected, and despised, and was recognized as the Son of Man amongst those who had been deprived of their humanity.”
This is the heart of theopolitics. The question of course is, how do we apply into our lives today? How do we identify with those who have been deprived of their humanity, the oppressed and the outcast? You know, it’s easy to talk abstractly about love and say that Jesus calls us to be merciful, compassionate, and just and to care for the oppressed and outcast. But what does that look like in real life situations? It’s easy to be abstract and speak in generalities because no one is going to disagree with someone who says, “We should love others and care for the marginalized and poor.” No one is going to say, “No, how dare you sir!” However, it gets dicey and provocative when we start talking about what love looks like in specific situations. But I think this is the deepest meaning of theopolitics. It has to be incarnational otherwise it’s not theopolitics but just nice thoughts.
The word, “incarnation” means to enrobe something in flesh and it’s a fancy theological word used to say that Jesus was somehow God in the flesh, God incarnate. The ultimate meaning of the incarnation was that God became not just an abstract concept or being somewhere out there, but became a real person with real ideas and who dealt with real issues. There is no such thing as a disembodied theopolitics for us Christians. It has to be incarnated and so we’ve got to talk about what it looks like for us today to practice theopolitics –to incarnate Jesus for today.
In order to do that, consider the meme at the top of the page. This was created as a response to the All Lives Matter point of view that is itself a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The point here is that Jesus was speaking on behalf of a particular oppressed group of people. He was not in fact saying here, “Blessed is everyone” and that’s important to understand. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to bless everyone, he does. But sometimes to say, “Blessed is everybody,” is to diminish or erase the plight of the oppressed, to not take it seriously. In the same way, to say, “All lives matter,” is a subtle way of diminishing or completely ignoring the story of African Americans in this country who have been oppressed and are still experiencing oppression.
There was an article posted on The Gospel Coalition website last week (which is a very influential Christian blog) and the article is a perfect example of how racism is still alive and well in 21st century America. The article has since been taken down because it attracted so much negative attention but it was titled, “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband.” It was all about how to cope, from an evangelical point of view, with such a seemingly difficult challenge (yikes).
What’s fascinating about the article is how it unintentionally, and with exquisite irony, reveals the blind spots within white Christian America and how racism is still alive and well underneath the surface so to speak. The author, who is a very well intentioned woman, set out to explain how she was able to cope with her white daughter marrying a black man. Here’s a quote from the article and one of her pieces of advice to other white Christian parents facing similar challenges, “Remember Your Theology: . . . Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”
The whole idea that Glenn went from being a black man to her brother in Christ, should make us all say, “But Glenn is still a black man and why does he need to go from being a black man to your brother in Christ?” What if he wasn’t a Christian? Would he then just be a black man marrying her white daughter and why wouldn’t this be ok? Why does she need theology to keep her from being racist? And let’s be honest, it’s obviously not working.
The article also included a story about what happened when she took her daughter and future son-in-law to her church. During the service, one of her friends leaned over and asked her, “Is your daughter dating him?” Upon answering yes, her friend shook her head and said, “I just feel bad for their future children” (implying that they’ll face a lot of discrimination). This happened in a church in modern America. The author, and I’m sure her friend at church, would never think they were racists or harbored any bigotry in their heart. And yet there it is. It exists unconsciously in the fabric of their worldview. Like malware on our computer, you don’t actually see it but it’s producing what’s seen. It causes the machine to crash, run slow or otherwise not function properly. You don’t actually ever see the virus or the malware but it makes its presence known. It’s hidden within the operating system. This is what systemic racism does.
We’ve come a long way since the 1960s but lets acknowledge that there are some deep seated problems still. And let’s acknowledge how those problems weave their way into the criminal justice system, our churches, and other major institutions. This article and other similar examples are why we need to say, “black lives matter” and why we don’t need to say, “all lives matter.” Again, do all lives matter? Of course. To say, black lives matter isn’t a way of saying *only* black lives matter or black lives matter more than other lives. It’s a way of saying black lives *should* matter more than they do. Just by putting the word should in there can help us understand what’s going on.
This is what I think it means to embody the theopolitics of Jesus in a very practical way today — to join Jesus in solidarity with the outcast and oppressed. But I don’t mean to oversimplify things. The conversation around race in this country and how it intersects with law enforcement and the criminal justice system is an extremely complex one. I should know because I’m a police chaplain and have been so for the last four years.
And to be honest it’s been hard for me lately to have one foot in the police department and the other in the church. It’s hard because it can look like I’ve chosen a side in the debate and that I’m on the side of the police as opposed to the side of BLM. But that’s just not the case and I think the idea that one has to choose one of those two sides and reject the other is deeply flawed and part of the problem we’re having in our country.
I think a great example of how deeply flawed that idea is can be seen in the Facebook post of Montrell Jackson, a Baton Rogue police officer who was shot and killed a few weeks ago for simply being a cop. Here’s a post he made just before his death:
Here is a man who straddled the two worlds of BLM and law enforcement and he did it with grace and humility and a sense of moral clarity. That’s what we need. It’s not about choosing sides, because in this case both sides have a point. I think both law enforcement and BLM have some points to make and apparently so did Mr. Jackson. This is what I think theopolitics looks like today.