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Jesus for Emperor

July 8, 2013

Every once and a while I see a “Jesus for President” bumper sticker or see the phrase used in other ways.  I always find the thought rather incongruous – I simply can’t imagine Jesus stooping so low as to run a campaign, smearing opponents and making tactical moves dictated by opinion polls.  For these same reasons I can’t imagine Jesus winning the vote.  Instead, I suspect he’d be outmaneuvered by brutal political strategists willing to throw the truth aside and do whatever worked.  But there’s another reason I find it hard to imagine Jesus as a politician: unlike a number of other religious figures he was never any sort of political leader.

Moses led the tribes of Israel.  David was a king.  Abraham might not have governed a nation but it’s clear from the story of him defeating the four kings who attacked Sodom and captured his nephew Lot (Genesis 14) that the group he led was a bit larger than an extended family.  In fact, a number of important Old Testament figures are leaders (kings or judges) or prophets with pointed political things to say.  Further afield, some other religions have central figures who were clearly political leaders at one point.  Islam, for instance, was founded by a man who governed a city and laid down laws.  This is one reason it is much easier for Muslims to decide what Islamic government means than it is for Christians to agree on Christian government: Muslims are updating a set of rules while Christians are arguing about what set of rules to update.  The complete absence of New Testament figures that combine religious importance with clear political goals makes figuring out Jesus’ political agenda tricky.

Perhaps odder still Jesus and some other New Testament figures become important to politicians without ever really using that power.  Herod rather famously worries about both Jesus and John the Baptist (who has become political in the sense that he criticizes Herod’s private life).  Pilate clearly regards crucifying Jesus as a political act and later on a number of Romans governors of various levels worry about how Paul’s imprisonment or release will alter the political scene.  Perhaps even more importantly the gospel in koine Greek sounds remarkably imperial – “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior” sounds religious to us but to a Greek-speaking Jewish audience this same sentence declares that Jesus is Israel’s King (Christ) and uses two titles used by the emperor (Lord and Savior)1.

Our world has strong boundaries running between all sorts of areas of life.  We divide out private and public life, religion and politics, our careers and our social lives, and so on.  Even in this short description of the political landscape of Jesus’ day it should be clear that the ancient world did not use many of these boundaries.  John the Baptist comments on what would now be seen as Herod’s private morals and it becomes a political statement (probably about Herod’s legitimacy to rule the Jewish people).  Jesus’ religious titles are simultaneously the titles of power used by political rulers.  It would have been very easy for Jesus to have reached across the nigh-invisible divide between popular preacher and religious authority with political clout but for some reason he did not.  Why?  Why instead does even that very anti-Imperial language of the gospels turn into injunctions to respect the emperor and pay your taxes?

One answer is that the rift between religion and politics (and perhaps between religion and most of the rest of life) is real and deep.  Religion deals with spiritual matters which are non-physical, irrelevant to almost all that is physical, and are mostly important after you die and stop interacting with the world as we here on earth know it.  I think this is an exceptionally bad answer.  The gospel does not present an incorporeal faith that touches nothing but some invisible and intangible soul but rather an active faith that changes the world.  In fact, despite the general statements to respect laws Paul is willing to break them and tell others to count their national leanings as nothing when these things interfere with the gospel.  Clearly the throne of God and earthly thrones can offer contradictory rulings on the same matter so why doesn’t Jesus just take over and physically run the show?

I think the answer might start with considering what makes democracies work.  Democracies do not work because every person in a democracy is better than every person under an autocracy.  Instead, democracies work because a person who is power-hungry must get votes to have and hold power.  Unless they willingly use their power to benefit other people they will lose that power.  In autocracies, of course, there is no such requirement and autocrats need only keep their armies and security forces happy.  The basic idea of a democracy isn’t to make politicians into morally good people but to create incentives so that even morally rotten people will act outwardly like good people.  This is actually the purpose of most laws.  We don’t assign harsh penalties for murder because it will wipe out the desire to kill but because people who know that they will be harshly punished for murder are far more likely to restrain those impulses.

This gets us to the central problem of laws: the best they can do is make you act nice.  They can’t make you be nice inside.  Indeed, a system of laws that took our current model to its furthest limits would be one in which a society of people with no morals whatsoever would still act properly towards one another.

Jesus isn’t out to make people act nice towards one another but to be the right sort of people.  Don’t hear me wrong, Jesus wants you to act nicely towards others.  However, Jesus is not out to get those actions out of you.  If you were the sole survivor of a shipwreck and lived for years alone on a tiny island your inability to have any human interactions good or bad would not prevent you from becoming the right sort of person inside.  Jesus would not pass you over because you were physically unable to be nice to anyone.  What this means, though, is that Jesus could have taken the throne of Rome, passed an infinite number of wise laws, and still not accomplished his goals.  Emperor Jesus could have ended Roman slavery, gladiatorial combat, torture, instituted economic policies that lifted people from poverty and provided safety nets for when bad things happened, outlawed prostitution, punished idolaters, and yet still had an empire full of desperately wicked citizens.  Their wickedness would just have a different form.

Now, obviously, wicked people will eventually dismantle laws that prevent them from being wicked.  There is clear feedback between the realms of public life and private life (perhaps because the distinction is an Enlightenment convenience more than it is a description of reality).  I’ll even allow that this feedback goes both ways – if you live in a society where murder is not really on the table to solve interpersonal conflicts you probably don’t develop a taste for it.  However, I think the reason that the New Testament does not give us the sort of striking political (and generally theocratic) figures that we see in the Old Testament is because transforming people from the inside out is a full-time job and not one that can be done effectively by political means.

This article started for me as a funny take on “Jesus for President” with a good first-century spin.  Then it became a real question – given that Jesus could have been born anywhere to do anything why did he not take a path of earthly power or at least pick up the power that became available to him as he became famous?  Oddly, I think this article ends with policy recommendations for the 21st century citizen of a democratic republic: policies, even the best policies, won’t get you all that far.  Jesus is Emperor and it’s instructive that he has not seen fit to participate in our political systems.

[1] I have covered this in significantly more detail in my article on Romans 13.

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