The Political Nature of Christianity

Charles Kiser —  July 21, 2008 — 5 Comments

I began my reading on politics and spirituality last week with Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. One section I appreciated in Jesus for President (JFP) was a comparison of the language used of/by the Roman Empire and the language of Jesus’ conversations. It opens a window into the political nature of Christianity.

 

The way of Jesus is not just religious; it is also political. In fact, such a distinction was unfamiliar in first century culture: “Divinity and politics [weren’t] two separate things to be combined but…were, to a great extent, the same thing” (JFP, 67).

 

For instance (adapted from JFP, 67-69):

  • Basilea (“empire” or “kingdom”): a term used for the Roman Empire, ruled by Caesar. It was also Jesus’ most common subject of preaching—the kingdom of God, ruled by Yahweh, the one who delivered Israel from Egypt.
  • Gospel (evangelion: “good news”): in the Empire, “an imperial pronouncement, usually accompanied by flags and political ceremony, that an heir to the empire’s throne had been born or that a distant battle had been won”; for Jesus, this was the good news of the kingdom of God.
  • Son of God: A common title for kings and emperors, like Alexander the Great and Octavian (or Augustus, in the lineage of Julius Caesar); also a name given to Jesus in the New Testament.
  • Ekklesia: “A local public assembly within the greater Roman Empire, much like a town meeting. These assemblies bestowed citizenship, discussed local political concerns, assigned ‘elders,’ and offered prayer and worship to Caesar. There was no separation of religion (cultic sacrifices, etc.) and secular political business”; also the word used for the early church (translated “church”). The early church “bestowed alternative citizenship and assigned elders. Though it discussed its own political and religious concerns, it was understood as separate from, and in contrast to, the state and the other ekklesiai, their politics, and their religion.”
  • Savior: “Caesar Augustus, as Savior, was seen as the one who healed the chaos of Rome and brought it into a new golden age”; also a common title for Jesus in the New Testament.
  • Faith: “A term used for trust in, allegiance to, and hope in the Pax Romana”; also “a term used for trust in, allegiance to, and hope in Jesus.”

Consider also the language of an inscription found at the ruins of a government building in Asia Minor, dated 6 BC — the resemblance to the language of Jesus and the early church is striking (shown in JFP, 70):

The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all…the beginning of life and vitality…all the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus…who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (evangelion=gospel!) concerning him….

Fascinating. Jesus adopted familiar, politically-charged language from the prevailing cultural warehouse of the day as a way of describing who he was and what he was about. It must mean that the message of Jesus was/is inherently political. Jesus spoke of a kingdom that challenged the kingdoms of humanity.

 

So the question is not, “Is Christianity political?” Rather, the question is, “How is Christianity political?”

 

How would you answer this question?

 

Is it possible that Christianity is political in a way drastically different than the American political system?

Charles Kiser

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Dallas, TX. Church Planter with Storyline Christian Community. Equipper and Coach with Mission Alive.

5 responses to The Political Nature of Christianity

  1. 

    what? now you are messing with the way people are living. politics?
    i remember reading brennan manning’s “signature of Jesus”, hoping for some deep challenges in my daily walk. he didn’t hold back… manning was insistant in our discipleship aligning with everypart of our life. i was a little offended at one point and thought of trashing the book, then i read on, and he was just being consistent. when God’s power touches our lives, all of our life is transformed, not just our sunday morning schedule.
    i think it’s political because it has to do with people. and people get caught in the system (politics) of each society. although every four years caesar promises to save the world, … Christ is redeeming society, especially those that get lost in the cracks of the system and become the people that caesar forgets. Christ’s body should be following the example “our Savior” left us.

  2. 

    I think it’s very possible.

    I’ve read a few books similar to Jesus for president, and all of them have challenged me in new, very difficult ways. I think it’s true that a lot of the language Jesus used was interpreted differently then than it is now, as Shane says in his book JFP. It would have been interesting to be around back then to hear and understand what was being said.

    I think the question I’ve been asking myself is this; how do you act on these political things?

    Much love Charles.

  3. 

    Yes, Chad. I think you are right on. That is the question I’ve been asking myself as well.

    What does it look like for Christians to be political?

    If the kingdom of God is political in a drastically different way than our current political system, then a high level of participation by Christian people in the current system doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    But what is the alternative?

    I hope to post more about this question in the future.

    Love you bro. Talk to you soon.

  4. 

    It is a challenging question. I’m sure I don’t have it all figured out but I see it kind of like I see my responsibility to help usher in the reign of God in my community. I cannot accomplish God’s will and purpose for my community with my hard work and involvement. Only God can ensure that his reign is established. But in following Jesus I an convicted to obediently represent his reign in my community regardless of progress. I think American politics is a similar situation. There is no way the American political system can fix all the problems of our country. Only God can do that. However, I think my participation is a responsibility I have regardless of the progress. I’m still wrestling with it.

  5. 

    The message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God is political in that it subverts the language of Rome and offers a new kingdom, based on completely different principles, no longer is power and violence the way to rule, but compassion, love, selflessness is the way of the Kingdom of God, it is how we rule and reign, it is how we are victorious, it is how God does it as well. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

    The problem is America is based almost entirely on the roman principles of using violence to keep peace and bring prosperity, Rome accounts for much of what the founding fathers were trying to emulate even in how the county is run on a practical level.

    So for me to participate in american politics hoping to bring change, even in a small way, is coming into agreement with the roman ideals of governance which is in complete enmity with the Kingdom of God.

    Render unto Caesar what is Caesars, I will obey the rules and pay my taxes but my allegiance is to another king that is breaking though into this world and will be another kind entirely.

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