Note: Due to technical difficulties, there are no audio or video recordings of this teaching.
Part 7 of 12 of Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity
“Don’t talk about politics or religion.” That’s how we avoid fisticuffs in social settings. Luckily, reading this blog or listening to the podcast or watching this teaching on YouTube isn’t social, so we can talk about both.
At what point in your life were you able to clearly articulate the political position of your parents? At what point were you able to (as objectively as possible) recognize the differences between your positions and theirs? My kids took a Political Science/Government class in High School. One of their earliest assignments was to take a brief survey, and then have Lynne and I take the same survey separately. I knew what was up as soon as I heard what was being asked. The teacher wanted to discover to what extent his students reflected their parents’ political leanings. As you might guess, nearly every student was closely corelated to their parents. Of course. Parents are the primary influence for the first 18 years of their kids’ lives. How they see and articulate the world is passed along to their children. And, unless something causes the child to seriously evaluate those positions, they are likely to be held well into adulthood – perhaps their entire life – without serious reflection.
So, I ask again in another way: when did your political opinions become your political opinions and not just a parroting of your parents?
Jesus, Son of Man. Jesus was human, if you haven’t heard. He was born at a particular time in history, in a very specific geographical location, into a demographic none of us would choose. He was raised in rural northern Israel while it was under Roman occupation. Very, very few (like .1%) of Jewish people were living what we might call a Middle Class existence where they had more than enough to live on. 99.9% were poor, very poor, or extremely poor. The poorest were day laborers, which likely included people with carpentry skills. Jesus, like his father who trained him, was a carpenter by trade. He was very poor like most of the people around him.
Like his contemporaries, Jesus struggled throughout his life to get food on the table and avoid debt – two chief concerns of normal everyday folk in first century northern Israel. Like all others around him, Jesus undoubtedly had strong opinions about Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – which made sure peace was kept by strong military presence and action. Rome called it keeping the peace. Israelites like Jesus and the vast majority of others called it oppression.
Two Kingdoms. If you ask biblical scholars what the chief themes of Jesus’ teaching would include, at the top of the list will be the Kingdom of God. When Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, he was really talking about what things would be like on earth if God were in charge. These teachings would, by their very nature, stand in sharp contrast to the Kingdom that wielded power of their lives every day: Rome. Rome led by domination. They were politically oppressive – allegiance was mandatory. They were economically exploitative – someone had to pay for the Roman Road and Caesar’s excessive pageantry. And unfortunately, as it seems to always go for humanity, since they were the dominant “Super Power” in the world at that time, it surely must have meant that the gods were smiling on them, legitimating everything they stood for and the actions their stance led them to take.
Except for the Jewish aristocracy leading in Jerusalem and a few Jewish people who were in the right place at the right time, everybody agreed that Rome was ripping them off, making it harder and harder to live. Everybody knew that being poor sucked, and that the Roman system made sure they stayed poor by over taxing those they oppressed. If you couldn’t pay the taxes, you owed a debt. If you couldn’t pay the debt, you went to jail, which made it harder to pay the debt, which led to a cycle of generational oppression which carried with it a hopelessness that is hard to overcome. All of this while you wonder if God sees you through the same lens as Rome? And, at the end of the day, while Rome gave plenty of room allowing for people to continue Jewish cultic practices, when you were asked to pledge allegiance, it had better be to Rome and her Caesar. Or you may be put to death under certain circumstances (like on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or other days ending in “day”). Nobody in the first century needed a history lesson on the politics of the Roman Empire because they all lived it.
When Jesus spoke of the way things would be if God were in charge, everybody knew he was drawing a contrast and implicit criticism of the Roman Empire. They knew it because they were living it. Jesus’ rhetoric, lifestyle and ministry were boldface challenges to those who held power – political and religious – and everyone knew it. When Jesus was inviting people to “Follow me!”, it was an invitation to pledge allegiance to a different Kingdom that operated in sharp contrast to Rome. Just because you and I don’t readily recognize it doesn’t change a difficult-to-swallow reality: Jesus was extremely political.
Politically Speaking. There are words attributed to Jesus that we float on by and even quote that were direct challenges to Rome and we probably didn’t realize it. We have sanitized and sanctified some words and phrases so much that they only now refer to matters of heaven. But when Jesus used these words, and especially when he said that the power of such words is sourced in God and not Rome, he was giving the finger to the Empire. Evangelism. Salvation. Peace. Savior. Lord. Cross. Bread. Debts. Resurrection. All of these were deeply meaningful words used in Roman rhetoric before Jesus used those same words to speak of God’s Kingdom. The Good News (evangelism) that Rome came to declare was that the Empire was the source of salvation for all who pledged allegiance to the Savior and Lord, Caesar, who would in exchange provide peace. For those who did not comply, the cross was provided as a symbol of Roman dominance. Of course, the oppressed knew the taxes such allegiance required would not be adequate to provide daily bread, and would usher them into servitude as their debt to Rome climbed. Rome legitimated itself with direct proof from the gods: when an emperor would die, they would look to the heavens and behold: a shooting star would eventually appear: a sign that their Lord had been resurrected to life in heaven among the gods who ruled from on high.
Jesus challenged all of that. Since the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were charged with keeping the Jewish people in line with Roman politics, Jesus’ threat to Rome was also a threat to them, their position, and their authority. Of course, plenty of things Jesus said and did threatened their authority in myriad ways; the politically-charged, insurrectionist vibe was just the icing on the cake. Jesus was a threat.
Pledging Allegiance? When Jesus invited people to follow him, he was asking people to pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God, to strive toward the things God would strive toward if God were running the show. This meant that life on earth would be lived differently because the world and the people in it needed help now, not just after life on earth was over. Why? Because, as New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan explained, “Heaven is in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” Marcus Borg (The Heart of Christianity) continues: “Seeing the political passion of the Bible and Jesus calls us to a politically engaged spirituality that affirms both spiritual and political transformation. What we see in Jesus and the Bible answers our deepest personal longing, to be born again, and the world’s great need: the Kingdom of God.” The systems of the world throughout history has failed. The ones who it has failed the most are the most vulnerable in the world – the poor, the suffering, the immigrant, the outcast. Those who pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God are pledging to care for them, because the systems of the world can’t, don’t and won’t. Regardless of what lips are saying.
As Jesus followers, this means we are called to follow in his political footsteps. You may reel at this, shaking your head as you shout: “I refuse to be political!” Well my friend, I have some potentially unwelcome news for you: you already are, and you have been your entire adult life. Whether or not you realize it, you have been pledging allegiance all along with your words, your time, your wallet, your behavior, your passion, your gifts and skills, your dreams, everything. Perhaps you already understand this to a degree as you have seen the lack of potency the various world systems have offered in their failed attempts at leadership. For some of you it’s personal: you are a woman who realizes that it is not right that you are not treated equally to men. Or maybe you’re among those in the LGBTQ community or love someone who is. Or you’re an undocumented immigrant or love someone who is. Or you are poor and know you’re stuck. Or you’re facing health challenges and can’t afford treatment even with “affordable care” that still isn’t for so many. Or you’ve taken an Alaskan cruise and seen for yourself the retreating glaciers caused by global warming. Or you’re beginning to become numb to the horror of school shootings because they are so frequent and you realize that is problematic and something has to be done. Or a hundred other scenarios. Jesus is saying there is another way, another Leader who is calling for allegiance that will help bring about the healing the world cannot do on its own (and won’t).
This means you and I need to wake up to the fact that this is bigger than a Republican v. Democrat issue. That our pledge has to be higher than the American Flag. That our vision has to be broader. That our love has to run deeper. That our hopes need to soar higher. Because God is behind God’s own Kingdom, and it is everlasting. Pledging allegiance to this Way means at times you are going to challenge whatever the Republicans are saying. And at other times the Democrats. And at other times you will be called to take issue with U.S. stances on who knows what. Because the United States is not God, even though we feel like we rule the world at times. The Kingdom of God is globally focused and not simply nationalistic. It is deeply personal and individual and yet is about all people everywhere, and the entire creation not just for now but for the future as well.
You already are political. The question is, to which Kingdom are you pledging your allegiance?
Before you click out of this, I have a dare for you. Now that you know that Jesus was deeply political in his life, ministry, and teaching, I dare you to read and pray the dangerous prayer Jesus taught, but with new eyes. May it challenge you to consider your politics and get your butt in gear to help do your part in bringing the Kingdom Come. By the way, it’s hard. If it’s really easy for you, you’re probably not paying attention. It was meant to be a model to riff on, not just something we recite like programmed minions. “Our Father (our Identity), Who art in Heaven (not Rome), Hallowed be Thy Name (may you be revered and seen as holy). Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (as Crossan pointed out, ‘heaven is in great shape; earth is where the problems are’). Give us this day our daily bread (because we’re not sure we’ll eat today otherwise), and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (which is an economic mechanism that is used to control people into submission). Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. For Yours is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever (again, not Rome). Political, political, political.
The Lord’s (Dangerous) Prayer: Our Father Who Art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever. Amen!