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Jesus and political power

I have been giving a series of talks on "Jesus and the Other" in our church gatherings.  You can read the introduction here and some thoughts on Jesus and sexuality here.  This past Sunday I tackled the subject of Jesus and political power.  Basically, politics is "the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs." To cite a shorter definition, it is "the use of strategy or intrigue in obtaining power, control, or status."[1] And this is what we usually associate with politics (many times in a negative way): power, control, and status.  However, when we look at governance in the kingdom of God as exemplified by the leadership of Jesus, we get quite a different picture.

Ontario's Provincial Parliament buildings in Toronto
In the pivotal scene of Jesus' baptism, we see him beginning his public ministry from a place of beloved-ness (A voice from heaven says, "You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased" Luke 3:22 NIV). This means that Jesus never sought to find his identity in how well he was being received publicly or how "successful" his leadership was.  His was simply acting as a beloved son.  Immediately after this incident, Jesus is subject to several temptations which serve to set the tone for his leadership.  Will he pursue status, power, and control?  He is tempted to use authority to serve his own needs; he is tempted to use authority to impress others, and he is tempted to trade authority (make a deal) to improve his status/leverage.  He says a firm 'no' to all of them.  Early on, then, it becomes clear that Jesus does not have his sights set on becoming a powerful world leader. So what is he trying to accomplish?

A brief look at Luke 4 gives us the answer.  After Jesus says 'no' to self-serving power (the perks of leadership), manipulative control, and status-seeking, he returns to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit."  This is a key phrase because it indicates where his authority resides; it is not in any system or resource found in this world. And what is this power for? "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  Basically, this power is meant to be good news for the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and those who live in lack.  Good leadership should always be good news for others.

The next question is, how does Jesus accomplish this?  In Mark 10 when some disciples jockey for positions of honor, Jesus replies that greatness is found in serving.  He states, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus always stays on the "serving" side of this equation, and it is much harder than it seems. This means that he never sends people away without offering them help.  It means that he cares if people are hungry, tired, lonely, sick, confused, overlooked, or ashamed.  It means that he answers a lot of questions and teaches the same things over and over again, even when it seems to be pointless.  It means that when his life is in danger, he responds in kindness to his enemies and does not command his followers to protect him or take the fall for him.  He states that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18) which means that he does not use or pursue temporal status or influence. The change that Jesus is implementing is not top down change; it is a transformation of the heart, and that cannot be legislated, bought, or forcefully implemented. Good leadership serves others instead of demanding good service.

So let me summarize a few observations about authority/power from Jesus' teaching and life.
1. True authority comes from the spirit of God, not people's votes or one's abilities, resources, or position.
2. True authority is good news for the poor, brings freedom for people who are stuck, provides clarity, makes people's lives better, and proclaims God's love and favour.
3. True authority cannot be destroyed by others.
4. True authority seeks to serve, not be served, and does not ask anyone to do something that he/she is not willing to do him/herself.
5. True authority does not seek a place of honour, but considers others as equals.
6. True authority is not based in this world's systems, does not fight to ensure its own preservation, and willingly lays down its life for others.
7. Only true authority has the power to produce lasting transformation.

Practically, what does this mean for our interactions in the political world of today?  How do we respond to the crazy, changing, often corrupt politics we are surrounded by (and inadvertently participate in) in our world?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Avoid empty criticism.  When the topic of politics comes up I inevitably hear a lot of complaining,  name-calling, accusations, and critiques of various politicians and the system in general.  Overall, this is neither helpful nor godly.  It is empty.  Let's look at two examples of how Jesus confronts bad leadership. Jesus criticizes the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in Matthew 23, and some pretty harsh words come out of his mouth.  However, right after he calls the irresponsible, hypocritical leaders "snakes" and a "brood of vipers" he goes on to the reveal the heart of his message:  "How often I have longed to gather you (children of Jerusalem) together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." Jesus' criticism is an expression of his longing to have these leaders (and the people they were leading) draw close to him, to gather them to him like a protective mother keeping her children safe.  Jesus relates his own words to those of the prophets of old whose message was always an invitation to return to God, to come back into a covenant relationship, to live in the truth of "I will be your God and you will be my people."  Though Jesus' critique points out their shortcomings, it is ultimately meant to serve as an invitation to transformation.  A second example is when Jesus clears the temple in quite a boisterous manner. Again, the point of this incident is not the physical aggression, but that Jesus is calling the people in the temple back to the intended purpose of the place: prayer. Jesus' criticism is always a way of clearing the arena of what is unhelpful and destructive in order to make way for something far more important: a call to return to God, a call to prayer.  Likewise, our criticisms must not be empty, but always end with a call back to the important things: to serving, to loving, to freedom, to transformation.  And we must be willing to be the starting point of the solution.

2. Avoid getting on the wrong side of the "serving equation."  Even though most of us have heard the directive often (to serve instead of be served), we are constantly tempted to jump onto the "being served" side of things in our daily life.  It is only normal to expect the customer service person on the phone or on the other side of the counter to give me prompt service, to provide what I need, to solve my problem.  And if not, I will insist on talking with the manager or pushing the issue until I am satisfied. I demand that my member of parliament represent my views and interests or I will not vote for her again.  I expect respect and responsive compliance from my employees, for them to contribute to my profitability, or there will be consequences (a good example of bosses serving their employees can be found on this episode of Undercover Boss.  The first segments are not very strong, so I suggest you start at 9:17.  No, these people are not perfect, but we can learn from them.).  We are so prone to jump over to the wrong side of this equation on a daily and hourly basis.  Jesus never did.  I believe it has a lot to do with having an identity as the beloved and living in the power of the Spirit.

3. Don't expect to get eternal/godly results by temporal/earthly means.  Often we have high hopes to change our world, but we believe that this can only be accomplished through the systems we have in front of us.  We try to get our voices heard by the powers that be (political, financial, corporate) in order for them to implement the changes we feel powerless to address.  Jesus lived in a world where there were many influential groups and political currents in play, yet he never aligned himself with any of them and did not try to harness their influence to accomplish his purposes.  Though Jesus was not an avoid-er (he would talk to anyone), he mostly liked to hang out with every day, simple folks, and bring them hope by letting them know that the kingdom of God is not far away, not in the hands of powerful men and women, but very close, right beside them, as near as the Spirit/breath of God.  This is not to say that there are not times to take a decisive stand, but it must always be in agreement with the words Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and done without using coercion or force, without manipulation, without lording it over someone. We are to be people who are catalysts for transformation by serving, loving, and praying with Jesus, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

[1].Both definitions taken from:


Jackson said…

I really appreciate what you've written here.

Thank you for your service in writing this.
Anonymous said…
'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Basically, this power is meant to be good news for the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and those who live in lack. Good leadership should always be good news for others.'

Jesus did not recognize the legitimacy of political leadership. His Kingdom is one lead by God, where all are equal. This is not a kind and loving message for political leaders. It is a threatening one. Jesus does not recognize the legitimacy of any political or economic force, and he dies for this message.

"Give unto Cesar what is Cesar's". Often this is trotted-out to support the idea that Jesus held the view that there is righteous political leadership. But what this is, is a complete rejection of political-economic authority. Christians should not submit themselves to Cesar or his authority.

The freedom offered by the Kingdom of God is completely threatening to political authority by the nature of its otherness.
Anonymous said…
"We are to be people who are catalysts for transformation by serving, loving, and praying with Jesus, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Yes, and this transformation involves recognizing the illegitimacies and transgressions of political power (recognizing what is Cesars) and asking for revelation in order to incarnate the Kingdom of God.

Christianity is fundamentally revolutionary, and its revolutionary war is one that completely rejects the systems of power (religious, economic, political, social).
Anonymous said…
Jesus means to bring-about a powerful revolution of non-power.

When Jesus says "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." He means something very specific. He means the elimination of all monetary debts.

For a detailed history on this issue, please see Michael Hudson's "The lost tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations"

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