Jesus Was Political and So Are You

The church I grew up in called itself “seeker-friendly.” Far from the high church liturgies and choirs that seemed irrelevant to modern life, this church wanted people to see that Christianity could be fun, and more importantly, cool. That the judgmental pulpits and Sunday attire weren’t required on this corner. That in this movie-theater-shaped cathedral, twice Saturday evening and three times Sunday morning, Christianity was good for anyone.

I first fell in love with the place because they would show movie clips during service, and I’m not talking Veggie Tales. While my friends sat in hard pews and sang hymns, I was watching clips from Braveheart, or Lord of the Rings, or a film fresh on the shelves at Blockbuster. I found myself in that place, learning a new way to be Christian.

But when I went to college I suddenly realized that the suburbs I was from had been created during white flight. That the crumbling inner city we sent Thanksgiving meals to and sometimes prayed for was systemically connected to suburban indifference. The good I’d experienced in my church was tested and shown to be a relative good, superficial beyond my inner experience. For the millions of dollars the church brought in, and the people power it controlled, the church I loved was suddenly part of the problem.

It runs counter to US cultural mythology, but all evidence shows that nothing is isolated, that everything is connected. The church I was raised in, along with my school and my neighborhood, all participated in the plight of black neighborhoods in downtown Detroit. We pretended like we were far enough away for it not to be our problem, but political and economic apathy is only ever closing your eyes to the sun. The approachable, rock show, movie playing Jesus was still a political Jesus, it just wasn’t the type of political I could call “good.”

With the Trump presidency, a lot of Christians are waking up to a similar realization. I’m seeing this on social media, and at Christian websites, and even from Christian friends and family I suspected would never wake up. People are agitated, and although I hate what it’s taken to get here, I’m thankful for the results in the church.

It’s here we need to be the most awake. For over a century, Christian scholars have been digging up information within our holy text that was either deemed too radical to preach, or was otherwise ignored for not fitting into particular lifestyles (I’m looking at you white US church). Jesus was surprisingly political for his time, calling out the powers he saw as changeable, but I only learned about this after entering seminary.

So it was with no little frustration this week that I read an article on Patheos from a theology and missiology (missions) scholar about ways in which he saw Jesus exemplifying “political” Christianity. Admittedly, I appreciated the author’s later points about caring for the marginalized and rebuking oppressive religious leaders, but he still promotes a form of political inaction that is both absent in the ministry of Jesus and useless to the oppressed and marginalized.

For starters, political avoidance is as unradical as it is uninformed. How can we get at the fundamental nature of injustice without taking into account political and economic factors? None of us choose where and how we’re born, so conditions that make life difficult for certain people as soon as they’re born must come from something other than choice. Anyone who puts in a modicum of research will find immediately how every “ism,” including capitalism, is connected and touching each of us, requiring solutions that strike at political and systemic roots

Yet Jesus, as it turns out, saw with remarkable clarity the economic and political web perpetuating the marginalization and oppression of his people. While his explicit rebuke of the Roman Empire was rare, it’s important to note that Jesus’ death on the cross was a Roman execution reserved for political criminals (bandits, the popular second category for crucifixion, qualified as enemies of the state because they disregarded Roman systems of law). Jesus’ most frequent message, while seemingly anachronistic to our political climate, bore a shocking economic and political weight for his context. He was radical.

Plenty has been written on the theological implications of this side of Christology; I recommend researching liberation theology, mujerista theology, womanist theology, queer theology, and postcolonial theology. For the next few weeks, I’m going to show you some of the things exegesis into the social-political context of the gospels reveals in Jesus’ character, how he was intensely political, dangerously radical, and good for everyone. An example worth our time, intelligent as it is relevant.

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