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?