It’s election season. Again. Sigh. In spite of the posturing, imprecations, dissemination and generally bad behavior, I did vote in the primary election. For whom and in which party’s primary is known to God, to me and to my wife. I wasn’t happy about a couple of votes cast, but you go with the options you are given. What depresses me most about election season is neither the flawed candidates (for I am as flawed in my own way as any of them are in theirs), nor the flawed platforms of the parties (I know many of both parties who object to elements of their own party’s platforms). What disturbs me most is the “Christian” component of the political struggles.
I have no objection to people of faith or issues of faith in the public square. Indeed, without that voice much justice and much mercy might never have been seen in our society. On the other hand, our present day cacophony so often invokes the word Christian in support of disparate causes and people that we are faced with a terrible communication problem. That is to say that the word “Christian” can mean so many things that it almost means nothing at all.
The term Christian appears only three times in the New Testament and each use refers to followers of Jesus, people who believed that Jesus was the God-anointed messiah (Christ) and therefore rightful Lord of the world. These early Christians, known as followers of “The Way” had a wealth of material in oral tradition about what Jesus said about himself and about how his disciples were supposed to live. These traditions were compiled in four different accounts, the four Gospels, and can offer us some insight into how Jesus viewed the politics of the world in which he lived and what he expected of his disciples in that context. Two episodes in particular offer a measuring rod in assessing the competing claims of Christians in our political climate. I’ve written about both in the past, but want to look at them again in the light of the current political context.
The episodes are out of sequence and the first of the two I wrote about last November in A Tale of Two Kingdoms. That article started with examining kosmos, the word in the NT most often translated as world. Briefly, kosmos refers to an orderly arrangement, whether that arrangement is physical, social or moral. The NT uses the term in a variety of ways, but in the first episode it refers to the values and assumptions in human society, the values and assumptions from which our world is ordered. Here then is an extract from that entry:
In John’s Gospel there is a recounting of a conversation between Jesus and the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. When Pilate challenges Jesus about the accusations the Jewish authorities have lodged against him, the most common translation of Jesus’ reply goes like this: Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36) But taking the term kosmos as orderly arrangement, a paraphrase called the Complete Jewish Bible gives this rendition: Yeshua answered, “My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things. If it did, my men would have fought to keep me from being arrested by the Judeans. But my kingship does not come from here.”
The paraphrase contrasts the divine order from which Jesus operates and from which his authority is derived with the human order in which Pilate operates and from which his authority is derived. In short, this scene is a confrontation between Caesar’s kosmos and Christ’s kosmos. Within Jesus’ statement is a prime example of that contrast. Jesus notes that if he operated in Caesar’s world then his followers would have fought to prevent his arrest. That is, after all, standard operating procedure for Caesar’s world: meet force with force, threat with threat, power with power, manipulation with manipulation. Authority in Caesar’s world comes from being in charge, gaining control. Whether it is by election or coup or conquest, whether it is motivated by a desire to build and bless or a desire to conserve and protect or a desire to hold power and control, the methods are ultimately Caesar’s methods. And that methodology Jesus rejects by observing that his authority isn’t derived from that S.O.P.
So if Jesus rejects the one universal human methodology of gaining leadership, does he offer an alternative? That brings me to the second episode which occurs shortly before the conversation with Pilate. In this case, Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem and for his final confrontation. He has warned his disciples that rejection, arrest, mocking and execution await him at the end of the journey. Then the brothers, James and John, come to Jesus, jockeying for position when he comes to power. Jesus rebuffs their attempt, telling them that such exalted positions they desire are not his to grant. Needless to say, when the other 10 disciples find out about this bit of power politics, they are furious. Then Jesus calls them all together and gives them the methodology of the Kingdom of God.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Try selling that to a political consultant! However, if that is Jesus’ criteria for leadership, does that exclude Christians from seeking leadership roles in human society? Not necessarily. Assuming the earliest meaning of the term “Christian,” a disciple of Jesus is excluded from the normal methods of pursuing paths to power in our world. A disciple of Jesus may indeed apply for appointment or even run for office. It is how that disciple treats those in the campaign – supporters, staff or opposition – that reflects the Jesus world or Caesar’s world. Nor is it enough that the disciple in such circumstances personally refrain from treating others like so much road kill on the path to power. To comply with Jesus’ rejection of the methods of the gentiles, the disciple will also have to repudiate the tactics of purported supporters and allies who resort to Caesar’s methods.
This is obviously no solution to the toxicity of our electoral politics. But it is an alternative. If a disciple is called by God to run for office, then that campaign is to be waged by Jesus’ methods. If the disciple is defeated in the election, he or she will still have preserved their soul and honored their Lord. Jesus did not promise us victory in every battle, only that he has won the final victory. Or as an old Pentecostal preacher cried: “I took a peek in the back of the book – and Jesus wins!”