Thursday, 29 September 2011

Was Jesus political?

For many people Jesus is a politically neutral figure and for them, Christianity should itself be apolitical, concerned more with salvation than with society. Was Jesus therefore himself apolitical? Did he see himself as coming to redeem the soul, but not to change society?

For me the answer has to be a resounding ‘NO’. Having been brought up in the Anglo-Catholic Radical/ Socialist tradition, Jesus is a radical figure – one who comes to change the world, both in terms of human hearts, but also in toppling unjust structures. For me the Bible is a political manual and the Christian tradition one which is both counter-cultural but also profoundly anti-establishment. Such anti-establishment acts including the clearing of the money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem and Mary’s song of triumph ‘The Magnificat’ in which ‘the starving are fed and the rich sent away  hungry’; a settlement in which the mighty ‘are put down from their thrones and the lowly raised up.’ Truly a vision of the world turned upside down!

Yet Jesus does not just come with a radical agenda for change. He comes in the Israelite/ Levitical tradition of the Jubilee year in which the land is restored to its owners, debts cancelled and slaves released. The Levitical Law also demands that the poor and alien be fed, that the earth not be abused by agriculture, but respected and allowed to rest.

For those whom this is not enough, then Jesus enters Jerusalem as Israel’s King, ‘riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’. This is a profoundly political act, both anti-empire – he is proclaiming himself as rightful ruler of Israel, but also profoundly anti-violence – he is riding into Jerusalem in peace (without weapons), not in war. He challenges and parodies the entrance of the Governor (Pilate) into Jerusalem, riding with his Praetorian Guard, come to rule and judge a subject and subjugated nation.

The linking of the clearing of the Temple with the triumphal entry is an important one – Jesus and his followers cause a riot, this time challenging the power of the Temple authorities (collaborative political power), a group whom along with the Pharisees Jesus has continually challenged, both on oppression of the people through the implementation of the Jewish religious Law and taxation.

Then we come to the post-resurrection, post-ascension Jesus. The Jesus of the Book of the Apocalypse/ Revelation. Rather than being a guidebook to the end times as Tim LaHaye and others have tried to argue, rather it is a polemic against Empire – the Roman Empire in particular, showing the victory of God over Empire.

Historically, it is only after the time of the Emperor Constantine that Christianity and establishment politics become intertwined and then indistinguishable, forming what we now call ‘Christendom’, a political settlement in which the Church becomes a department of State and in which power is justified through Christian theology. (The Church in Christendom does not challenge the State, rather it supports it and in turn receives power and patronage from it). However, if we go back to earlier times we find that Christianity is profoundly at odds with Empire and many of its saints martyrs, killed by the Empire and its supporters. The Christendom settlement is currently in its death throes (if you follow the thesis put forward by the Ekklesia think tank). We are entering a post-Christendom (and therefore a post-Christian) age in which the Church is freed from its Babylonian captivity to the State. (This is a profoundly unsettling time for many people, esp. conservative Christians who are finding that they no longer ‘call the shots’ and are being challenged with regards to the wearing of religious symbols).

Finally, for many during the Second World War and latterly in places such as the dictatorships of Southern America, Christianity has been shown to be a profoundly radical religion, at odds with the powerful, an over powerful military and their supporters. Priests and Bishops such as Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Gustavo Gutiérrez (the father of Liberation Theology),  Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Oscar Romero, Pastor Martin Niemöller, Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara have shown through words, actions and martyrdom that Christ’s concern is with the poor and the oppressed, hence Câmara’s statement:

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
“When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.”
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara

For them, in the face of oppression, Christianity (and the Mass) are profoundly radical and political acts, ones which are profoundly challenging to those in power. For some of them making this link meant death.

There are also those Anglo-Catholic slum Priests of the Victorian era, who lived out their lives amongst the poorest in the land, bringing them the beauty of heaven and educating them in the faith – much as Fr. Trevor Huddleston did when he was Priest of Christ the King, Sophiatown in S. Africa. To quote Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar:

"You cannot claim to worship
Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum."

This is not to say of course that there aren’t Christian Conservatives, or Christian Lib Dems – how can one person judge the faith of another person?! Rather what (for me at least) it says is that the Christian faith is profoundly orientated towards the poor – it does not sanctify poverty, rather it asks ‘why are the poor, poor?’ and ‘what are we going to do about it?’ (Thus it fits more into a ‘One Nation’ Toryism that say Thatcherite or Monetarist Conservatism).

The question then becomes: ‘How does the Christian Socialist Priest live out his/her life and calling?’

First off, I don’t believe it’s possible to live an apolitical manner – we are all political beings and will live out our lives with reference to that politics. If we are not strongly political then we may tread lightly with regards to politics, but we cannot live in an apolitical manner.

The Priest is called ‘to preach Christ crucified’, that is to be honest about the faith and to preach the full faith, not cutting corners. The Priest must also be honest to themselves – they cannot preach a Gospel in which they do not believe, or will not own. Not only will they be liars (to themselves, to their congregations and most importantly of all, to God), they will also be quickly found-out as they are not being honest.

The Anglican Priest of course has ‘the cure of soul’s for those in his parish. He cannot abandon those who do not follow his theological or political viewpoint, not can he compromise the faith or preach an easy Gospel – the Gospel has always been offensive, because it challenges accepted norms and philosophical assumptions we take for granted. It is against the Christendom settlement, because it is against power and against empire. It is for the poor, because God is for the poor. Rather the Priest must care for and pray for those with whom he disagrees; he must also be honest with them, without seeking to alienate them from the Church. (The Church, after all belong to God, not to the Priest).