Monday, November 9, 2009
The Myth of the Apolitical Jesus
This weekend, the LA Times published an interview with Sheila Schuler-Coleman, the daughter and heir-apparent to Robert Schuler's Crystal Cathedral Ministries in Orange, CA. When asked if political issues have a role in what the Crystal Cathedral is doing, she responded:
God calls each of his churches to a different vision. He made it clear to us that we're to remain apolitical. We are criticized by some for not taking political stances, but Jesus Christ was pressured to take a political stance against the Roman Empire, and he went to the cross remaining apolitical, and that's what we have based our decision on.
Although sincere and well-meaning, EasyYolk fundamentally disagrees with Schuler-Coleman on the very nature of Jesus' life, ministry and death, as interpreted by the Gospel-writers, as well as Paul and the other authors of the New Testament documents. As John Howard Yoder so compellingly argued almost 4 decades ago in The Politics of Jesus , Jesus was consistently pressured to inaugurate the Kingdom of God with violent solutions: this was the expectation of his disciples and countrymen culminating in his last temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Taking up arms to defeat the Romans was always an option throughout the rugged history of God's People, Israel. From Joshua to the Maccabbees, many Jewish leaders clung to this false hope. When Jesus, however, carried his platform to the cross, it was 'political' through and through.
When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courtyard, it was street theater, a protest over socio-economic policies that oppressed the poor and filled the coffers of the powers-that-be (Mark 11:15-19).
When Jesus told his political opponents to "render unto Caesar...and render unto God" (Mark 12:13-17) he was prophetically critiquing Caesar's idolatrous image on the coin, compelling his hearers [who bear the image of God] to give it back and to give themselves completely back to God. No more political compromise was acceptable for Jesus' way.
When Jesus bantered with Pilate during his trial-- "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36)--he continued with, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" [italics mine]. It wasn't that Pilate's kingdom was here on earth and Jesus' was in sweet heaven by and by. It was that Pilate's kingdom thrived on fear, domination and manipulation and Jesus' compelled followers with gentleness, healing, justice, equality, tender mercy and unconditional love (even for enemies like the Roman Empire).
When the Thessalonians fought back the 'Jews for Jesus' cult in their hometown by appealing to the authorities, they knew it was political: "They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:7b). After all, the strange Christians had a platform committed to forming new intercultural families of Jews and Gentiles, subverting the hierarchical Roman paterfamilias where Caesar became the head of each and every Empire household. They knew what most American Evangelicals don't, 'If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.'
Of course, setting aside all of this biblical exegesis, the 'apolitical' stance of Evangelical churches of all flavors is, in fact, thoroughly political. To be apolitical is inherently to vote and campaign for the status quo. Evangelical churches from the Crystal Cathedral to Calvary Chapel to Compass Bible can afford to claim political neutrality because the American Empire's policies, by and large, support their prosperity and growth. These churches can afford a laissez-faire approach to the government's mostly laissez-faire economic policies that bolster American suburbs (the social location of these churches). Theological notions support socio-economic agendas. This is why people of color, here and abroad, mostly favor liberation theologies that unveil (quite correctly) God's consistent fight for the poor, oppressed and marginalized in Scripture. This is why white suburban Evangelicals read the text through the lens of spirituality (the heart) and escapism (eternal life in heaven after we die).
Ultimately, the notion of an 'apolitical Jesus' is mythical on two counts. First, a study of the New Testament, while considering historical context, simply does not support the claim. Secondly, 'apolitical' means 'political.' The Enlightenment project from 1650 to yesterday, with its quest for certainty and 'religious toleration,' convinced the Western World that religion and politics and economics and food and leisure were all different categories, that they could be separate from each other. The Enlightenment taught us that we can worship Jesus and 'stay out of politics.' The only problem is that when Jesus himself ate with tax collectors and sinners or ate on the Sabbath or ate without washing his hands, these were all politically subversive acts in his day. After all, these actions angered the power-that-be so much that they had to kill him. Indeed, the Gospels compel us that we can't even eat without being political.