Church and Politics, Part Three

Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. – Isaiah 1:23

Our Christian roots grow in the soil of the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Old Testament proclaimed God’s judgement upon the rulers (political structures) of their day, especially when those rulers abused their power and exploited the poor and the powerless. Let me give you just a couple of examples.

In 2 Samuel 12 the prophet Nathan convicts King David of abusing his power by taking another man’s wife, and then arranging for her husband to be killed. Let me put that another way: Nathan, a religious leader, criticizes a political leader for an act of profound injustice.

Or how about this proclamation from the prophet Micah:

Listen to me, you leaders of Israel! You hate justice and twist all that is right.
You are building Jerusalem on a foundation of murder and corruption.
You rulers make decisions based on bribes; you priests teach God’s laws only for a price;

     you prophets won’t prophesy unless you are paid.

Yet all of you claim to depend on the LORD. “No harm can come to us,” you say,

     “for the LORD is here among us.” Micah 3:9-11

Once again, a religious leader criticizes political leaders for acts of injustice. It was this prophetic tradition that inspired religious leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest the injustice of segregation. If you’re a Christ-follower, this is our tradition.

This prophetic tradition also inspired Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was quite public in his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had the power to govern life in Jewish communities (eg. Matthew 23). And while subtler, he also condemned the Romans for their abuse of power. For instance, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was nothing less than a political protest. On that first Palm Sunday two processions entered the city of Jerusalem. On one side of the city Pilate entered on a stallion with a Roman garrison, symbolizing imperial power through force. At the same time, on the other side of the city, Jesus entered on a donkey with a parade of peasants, symbolizing God’s power through submission. Both Jesus and Rome promised peace. Jesus’ entry was intended to enact God’s condemnation of oppressive power.

Finally, the early Christians understood that their profession of faith in Jesus had profound political implications. The first recorded creed of the Church is “Jesus is Lord”, but that was spoken in the Roman empire where loyal subjects proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord.” In other words, proclaiming Jesus as Lord was also saying, “Caesar is not my lord; Jesus is.”

The Gospels proclaim that Jesus was virgin-born and is the Savior and Son of God. In the Roman empire, the Caesars were said to be virgin-born, and bore the titles “savior” and “son of god”. In the Gospels, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are told against the backdrop of an oppressive Roman government. Why? Because the Gospel writers wanted to reveal that the values of the Roman empire did not reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.

Our faith tradition is rooted in politics. We are part of a long tradition of condemning oppressive power and injustice wherever it is found. That’s why politics belong in the Church. Will God love you if you’re not politically active? Of course. That’s grace. But I also believe that following Jesus is a journey that leads us to speak out against hatred, oppression and injustice because they do not reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.

Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN

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  • Alice Maung-Mercurio
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    Hi, Pastor Jeff – You have reiterated the first “theological” concept of St. Paul, according to the book, “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon”: ‘Jesus is Lord’. I had never really understood Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament, until I read this book. I used to read Paul’s epistles, getting lost in the convoluted sentences and (to me) scattered concepts or insights of this strange new religion of Christianity. (Have you read this book by Borg & Crossan?)– Now what I see is a few “main ideas” under and behind all those texts. What remains a constant for me is a call to re-think much of what seems to make up our modern culture, and ask, “What if all the laws and customs of our nation and its states, counties, cities and rural communities were based on the Law of Love?” A radical concept!
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Alice

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