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The Politics of Jesus 3: Lessons Learned from Radical Church History

The Politics of Jesus 3: Lessons Learned from Radical Church History

In my last post, I shared a very brief sketch of the history of those communities that embraced a radical reading of Jesus’ life and teachings. I want to take a little time to reflect on those movements before moving on to engage in a few of the most revolutionary passages in Scripture.

So, what can we learn from this stroll through history? How does it inform our own lives in this season? I’d like to raise six insights from my brief history lesson:

1) Every one of the groups listed has been considered heretical, in some way, by the dominant religious groups of their time. This may seem obvious, but if a religious group is dominant, they won’t like anti-authoritarian tendencies among its religious adherents. Given this history, we shouldn’t expect mainstream Christianity to naturally shift towards radicalism.

2) Many of these groups are “heretical” (or at least flirted with “heresy”) in more than one area. If we are intellectually honest, our radical impulses will affect more than just our view of politics. When we challenge political power, it can lead us to rethink every relationship, including our relationships with spiritual authority (which may also include the Bible, Jesus, and God). And vice versa. Mysticism (which often challenges religious authority) can lead to political action.

That doesn’t mean we have to open up the doors of every classical “heresy”. It does, however, suggest that radicalism doesn’t play safely with every expression of mainstream Christianity. When a belief is deemed a “heresy” it often accompanies the marginalizing of a group of people who have gathered around that belief. It is difficult to discern whether the group is ostracized because it is heretical, or deemed heretical because it is a beneficial tactic of the dominant group to eliminate a threat. 

3) Most radical Christian groups either die out or lose their distinctives as they become mainstream. We should try to learn from those groups that still hold onto some aspects of their strangeness. And we should take note how radical speech is twisted to reinforce the status quo (like how the mainstream parades around with MLK quotes on MLK day. 

4) Oppressors usually control what is remembered. You’ll notice a large gap from the early church to the  Bogomils. This doesn’t mean that there were no radical Christian groups between the 4th and 10th centuries. It is likely that many “heretical” groups (Novations, Donatists, Pelagians, etc.) or early monastic expressions could have made the list. However, there isn’t as much information about fringe groups during those centuries. What we do know about these groups is largely offered by their religious/political enemies. This isn’t to say that all such groups were nifty and worthy of emulation. However, we simply do not know how much such groups could inspire us in our own messy efforts to live faithfully in the midst of civilization. This is why radical communities need storytellers, and enough of them to keep our stories alive.

5) While some groups influenced later groups, there isn’t a successive chain of radical Christianity. A radical understanding of the Gospel isn’t passed down through the ages like a baton. Rather, it emerges and re-emerges. I believe that the Spirit of God creates spiritual revolution. We should be open to new expressions of faithful resistance emerging from unexpected places. This should be cause for hope: even in the most unlikely of places, life breaks out like a weed sprouting through a crack in a sidewalk. 

6) Most movements mentioned above had early founders and influencers who were mystics. I’ve alluded this already, but it is worth emphasizing.  In her book The Silent Cry, Dorothee Soelle points to the mystical nature of liberation. We would be wise to ground our politics in mysticism–a mysticism that embraces a sort of divine wildness that can empower us to love in an unloving world. One that gives us a glimpse of a reality that we can’t yet see. When we experience a direct connection with God, one another, and the rest of creation, we can find the clarity and power to challenge all of those forces that seek to breed alienation and death.

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The Politics of Jesus 1: Introduction

The Politics of Jesus 1: Introduction

Traditional kingship (with absolute power, hoards of wealth, and power over the weak) has nothing to do with Jesus; it’s something Jesus rejected.  

Traditional kings demand allegiance and servitude, but Jesus offers liberation—from suffering, sickness and death, exclusion, persecution, and sin. Jesus is a “king” who serves the “least of these” and who finally receives torture and execution to bring freedom to others.

As we see in the Gospels, Christ’s kingship is inconsistent with traditional structures of power. And for this reason, Jesus tells Pilate that “my kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). Passages like these have, unfortunately, fostered an ineffectual other-worldliness among Christians. And they have been used to legitimate “real-world” kingdoms. Jesus rules some magical sky-kingdom, while princes and emperors can dominate flesh and land.

But Jesus’ reign isn’t other-worldly. It isn’t apolitical. It’s just political in a radically different way. Rather than taking Caesar’s throne (or any throne—including the one Satan offered him),  Jesus is saying that Caesar’s days are numbered. By saying “my kingdom is not from this world” he isn’t saying “my kingdom is only spiritual, so you don’t have to worry.”  

Jesus’ kingship renders Caesar’s obsolete. It isn’t a mere “trumping” as though Jesus is simply greater than Caesar; it is an entirely different sort of kingship. 

As heirs to Jesus’ kingdom, we are ambassadors of the new reign, privileged to share the mercy, love, peace, and justice of Christ with the world. In the early days—the first century of the Jesus movement—the church was invisible to most people in the Roman empire. However, they had a growing reputation as an alternative and seemingly anti-social community that lived in the nooks and crannies of Empire.

Christians were thought to be extreme, subversive, stubborn, and defiant. The Roman writer Tacitus called them “haters of humanity.” They rejected the central facets of Roman religious and political life. In his view they actively undermined society with their indifference to civic affairs. Some critics even blamed Christians for the fall of Rome.

So, when Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t of this world, he wasn’t understood by Pilate or by the Jews or by his earliest followers as talking about the afterlife or some abstracted spiritual truth. Based upon the lethal response to Jesus (and the early reactions to Jesus’ movement), the “Kingdom of God” was understood as a challenge to Caesar and his reign. Their two kingdoms clashed.

The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. As we read the Gospels, we are invited to imagine what it would be like if God ruled the nations.

But in order to imagine that, we’d need to recognize that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t the sort that one holds with an iron fist. Rather, it is an unkingdom. We may have inherited a cruel and domineering of God, but Jesus us reveals to us a God who rejects hierarchy or control.

Where the President of the United States insists on a troop surge, Jesus calls people to love their enemies. When he demands a wall, Jesus calls us to embrace strangers and aliens. Where dictators seek to secure their own power and prestige, Jesus calls people to serve one another and lay down their lives for friends. Since Jesus is (as Christians believe) the truest revelation of God, then he defines for us what the reign of God looks like.

The social, economic, political, and religious subversions of such an reign (or un-reign) are almost endless—peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice not subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, embrace rather than exclusion.

In a very real and disturbing way, Jesus is calling for a loving anarchy. An unkingdom. Of which he is the unking. 

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Jesus Broke the Law

Jesus Broke the Law

mxKFBasOften, when talking to someone about the radical implications of the way of Jesus, my conversation partner will say something to the effect of “Jesus said ‘Love thy neighbor’ but he also was very careful not to break the law.” In other words: “Yes, I’d love to show hospitality to an undocumented person, but they are here illegally” or “Yes, I’d love to protest at the bank the same way Jesus cleansed the temple, but it is against the law.”

But was Jesus really law abiding?

Let’s say Jesus did indeed observe all of the teachings of the Law and the Prophets. I don’t believe he did…but we’ll get to that later. Nevertheless, Jesus broke other sorts of laws. Jesus’ action in the Temple was almost certainly a violation of civil law. For Jesus to be crucified, he had to be arrested and convicted of something. We may quibble over the justice of his sentencing, but the conviction held up in the highest court available to Jesus. The arrest and crucifixion of Jesus should, at the very least, tell us that sometimes the courts condemn blameless men.

So then, to argue that Jesus didn’t violate Torah isn’t to say he wouldn’t break US laws…or even Minneapolis city ordinances. There are more laws in play during Jesus’ times than the Hebrew Scripture. To say otherwise is like saying that the only federal laws in the US can be found in the constitution.

However, it is clear Jesus also violated the Law and the Prophets. Jesus broke the Sabbath laws…the Pharisees were pretty much interpreting things in a straight forward manner. In Matthew 12, we read that Jesus was walking through a field with his disciples during the Sabbath. They got hungry and ate the grain. In Luke 6:1 we read that the disciples not only harvested the grain but also began to “rub them in their hands and eat the kernels.” The pharisees saw it and got upset and accused Jesus of breaking the law.

This accusation isn’t at all far fetched–Jesus was clearly breaking the law. Exodus 16 gives a precedent for neither harvesting nor preparing food on the Sabbath. The disciples did both.

Jesus also scandalized the pharisees by healing on the Sabbath and asking the healed man to rise up and carry his mat (John 5).

Jeremiah 17:21 states: “Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors.”

We can say Jesus kept the Law and the Prophets and just had an interpretation that varied with the Pharisees. But it seems that Jesus isn’t just interpreting them differently…he is violating them. Jesus doesn’t even argue with the Pharisees regarding interpretation. Instead, he points them to the more important principle. For Jesus, the Law of Love trumps the particulars of the Law and the Prophets.

Ultimately, Jesus was crucified in an entirely legal fashion. He was crucified for his strict adherence to the Law of Love–putting the love of God and neighbor above all else. Why then, do we allow our own laws to constrain our ability to love. Is this the witness of Jesus? Of John and James? Of Paul? Of Dr. King?

If a law prevents you from loving your neighbor, then to hell with that law. Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself…on these two commands hang all the law and the prophets. And by these two commands you are freed to commit humble and glorious acts of civil disobedience.

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