[This is the second of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 12, 2013. The first lecture was “The Old Testament as a peace book” and may be found here.]
Let me start with a bold claim. The New Testament presents a political philosophy. This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism (by pacifism I mean the conviction that no cause or value can override the commitment to treat each life as precious). This commitment is based on the belief that Jesus Christ as God Incarnate reveals the character of God and of God’s intention for human social life.
Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Luke
In talking about the New Testament as a peace book, I will look first at how the gospels present Jesus. I will focus on the Gospel of Luke. At the very beginning, from Mary, upon her learning of the child she will bear, we hear that this child will address social reality. He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder. This child, we are told, will bring hope to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort. From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms.
Later, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice speaks words of affirmation, “Thou art my Son” (Luke 3:22). These words should be understood to name Jesus’s vocation more than simply emphasizing his divine identity. “Son of God” was a term for kings (Psalm 2:7). It states that this person is the leader of God’s kingdom on earth, he has the task of showing the way for God’s will for God’s people to be embodied.
Jesus’ baptism was a kind of commissioning service for this vocation. We see that in the events that following shortly afterward. Jesus retreats deeper into the wilderness and there encounters Satan, the tempter. Satan presented Jesus with temptations that all had at their core seductive appeals to his sense of messianic or kingly calling. He could rule the nations, he could gain a following as a distributor of bread to the hungry masses, he could leap from the top of the Temple and gain the support of the religious powers-that-be through his miraculous survival that would confirm his messianic status. That is, Jesus faced temptations concerning how he would be king. He did not deny that he was called to be “Son of God”—that is, king or messiah. But he did reject temptations to be king in ways he knew would be ungodly.
Jesus’s ministry—an upside-down kind of king
Luke then tells of Jesus’ entry back into the world in which he was called to minister. In his home synagogue, Jesus spoke prophetic words from Isaiah that directly addressed social transformation. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah’s prophecy referred to the installation among God’s people of the provisions of the year of Jubilee, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” that would restore in Israel the socially radical tenets of the Old Testament law: social equality and the empowerment of the oppressed, prisoners, and poor.
Jesus’ verbal proclamation was accompanied by works of healing. He drew great crowds and acclaim. However, from the beginning he attracted opposition. His townspeople sought to kill him when they realized that his message of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy meant to welcome Israel’s enemies. It was for everyone—Jews and Gentiles. As his ministry gained traction, Jesus began to run up against opposition from defenders of the status quo who angrily schemed against him (6:11). The scribes and the Pharisees “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do with Jesus.”
In face of this opposition, Jesus created a more formal community of resistance. He realized that his teachings and actions alone would not bring genuine transformation. He knew that if he himself were removed from the scene, his message would end with him unless he had created social structures that would continue and that would provide a critical mass to embody the message of Jubilee that he proclaimed.
So, Jesus taught those who joined his community. In Luke 6, we have a summary of this teaching. He started by saying, “kill your enemies!” No, of course not, that is exactly not what he said.
Jesus structured his social ethic around the call to imitate God’s expansive love. Break free from the conventional “commonsense” ethics of mainstream society. “I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask them again.”
In his teaching about a willingness to “take up the cross” as a part of being in his community of healing, Jesus conveyed a clear message. To follow Jesus meant, without qualification, a willingness to share his fate—the fate of one labeled an enemy of the Empire and an enemy of the Temple hierarchy. To follow Jesus meant to accept the (accurate) designation of a social radical. “He said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Jesus takes up his cross
With his counter-cultural community learning more and more his messianic agenda (that is, his “kingly” agenda), Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and entered the final phase of his ministry. Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of his life. He met with adulation, then headed to the Temple where he successfully challenged the standard operating procedures. By driving the money changers out he heightened the sense of conflict with the guardians of the social order.
For those around Jesus who had retained a hope that this social change agent would violently overthrow the present political and religious order, things seemed to be coming to a head. Jesus clearly did have a political agenda. He had organized a vanguard movement, calling his followers to clarity about their willingness to make the effort and bear the consequences of revolution. Of course, Jesus had not directly been preparing his community for a violent takeover, but with his own power and close connection with God, he would seemingly not be requiring overwhelming human firepower to overturn Rome violently. He could call on angels for this work.
This final step of pulling together the crowds and wielding the sword of the Lord in a coup d’etat is precisely, however, the step Jesus refuses. Only later did his followers figure out that his agenda was never a violent revolution but rather a different kind of revolution, no less social and political—but a revolution based on love for all, all the way down.
In chapters 19–22, Luke tells of confrontations Jesus initiates with the existing social system. The obvious example is when Jesus is challenged about paying taxes to Rome. He poses two options, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s—you can’t do both when they conflict. In real life these two “kings” demand loyalty in ways that require a choice, one or the other. Jesus’s teaching in several places here heightens the conflict between Caesar’s kingdom and God’s kingdom.
When Jesus drove the money-changers out from the temple he was warned that the religious leaders now plan to do him in. As his time of crisis approached, he prayed on the Mount of Olives that God would “take this cup” from him. Such a prayer, in this context, only makes sense in terms of one final temptation on Jesus’ part to think again of violent overthrow.
Satan tempted him with this in the wilderness at the beginning. Peter tempted Jesus with this after confessing Jesus as Messiah. The crowds tempted him with this after he miraculously fed them. The crowds again tempted him with this when he entered Jerusalem to their acclaim. Such a temptation had been fundamental throughout Jesus’ ministry because, indeed, it was close to his calling. He did have the vocation to head a political revolution, to bring about a transformation in relation to Roman domination and the Temple hierarchy.
Thus, as the forces aligned against Jesus close in, he faces one more time the option of channeling his divine power toward violence, to use the sword of “justice” forcibly to overthrow the oppressors of his people and set them free.
In the power of the Spirit, Jesus resists that temptation. He resists even when Peter draws his sword in an act that could have set the battle off. Legions of angels could have cleansed the land and restored David’s kingdom. Jesus says no, not because he was apolitical and only interested in escaping from history into heaven. Jesus says no because the true enemy of the kingdom of God, the true enemy of the social order God called Jesus to inaugurate, is the sword itself. Jesus the king, the leader of God’s kingdom on earth, brings peace not war.
So, Jesus accepts his arrest. He goes first before the religious leaders then to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The story makes clear that it was indeed thinkable that Jesus would be seen as a genuine threat to the Roman Empire. Throughout the story of Jesus’ final hours, the charge that he set himself up as “king” rings clearly. The story the gospels tell of Jesus public ministry makes apparent the bases for such a charge. Jesus did pose a political threat.
We read, the religious leaders “began to accuse Jesus, saying ‘we found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king. Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’”
Rome executes Jesus. He dies a revolutionary’s death. Rome makes an example of him. He meets his end labeled “king of the Jews,” following the affirmation of the religious leaders that they recognize no king but Caesar. Such a public, painful, and decisive death awaits all who set themselves over against Rome.
Victory over death
Jesus’ followers had been had been told this would happen. However, when the events unfolded they proved not quite ready. They continued to the bitter end to hope for a new king David who would bring in the kingdom with force. A few days after Jesus’ death, several of his followers recounted the tragic events to a stranger they met on the road to Emmaus. They said, “Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified. We had hoped he was the one to liberate Israel.” They had expected a violent revolution to drive out the foreign empire and its collaborators.
To their shock, these disciples discover that their companion was Jesus himself. He confronts them, not because they had hoped Jesus would “redeem Israel” (that is, not because they had been looking for a new kingdom). Rather, Jesus confronts them because they had not truly recognized that in his life and teaching, including especially his rejection of the violent revolution option even while directly challenging the status quo, this new kingdom was fully present in the self-giving love of the Messiah.
When God raised Jesus—and utterly amazed Jesus’s followers who had scattered in fear after his arrest—God provided a powerful reversal. Jesus was not defeated. Jesus’s message of the presence of God’s kingdom was not an idealistic moment in the end crushed by the forces of domination. God placed the most powerful endorsing blessing possible on Jesus’s way of life. Indeed, Jesus did show the world what God is like and what God wants all people to be like.
Jesus’s words of peace
Let’s look quickly at what Jesus had to say. His teaching reinforced the message of his practice—love the vulnerable, forgive the broken, resist domination, band together in solidarity to witness to all God’s ways of peace.
I’ll just mention two key teachings that express Jesus’s theology and ethics. First, his great sermon—Matthew’s longer version is called the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s sometimes is called the Sermon on the Plain.
The message is straightforward—follow the path of peace and generosity, not retaliation and hoarding. Love, even your enemies. Imitate God by being merciful. This is about political life—the alternative to Rome’s politics of empire is Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the king’s politics of compassion.
The second great teaching is one of Jesus’s most familiar—and radical—parables. He is asked a deep, deep question—one, actually, with profound political significance. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Not simply, what must I do to go to heaven, but more, what must I do to be a full citizen of God’s kingdom?
What do you say? responded Jesus. Well, how about this: Love the Lord your God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. This summarizes all the commands. You’re right, affirmed Jesus—love of God and neighbor go together—and that is what it takes.
Great, says Jesus’s questioner. But one more thing: Who exactly is my neighbor? Or, rather, what he meant was, who is not my neighbor? Who don’t I have to love? This is where it gets political. Jesus answers with a story. A man on his way to Jericho is mugged and left for dead. A couple of religious leaders pass by and don’t stop to help. Who does help him? A Samaritan. What Jesus doesn’t say, but everyone would know, is that the Samaritan would have been a sworn enemy to Jesus’s questioner—who was a mainstream Jew. Not only is the Samaritan, the enemy, the one who is to be loved, he actually models the love Jesus wants his listeners to practice. A profound challenge to politics that separate us from our supposed enemies.
So, the social ethics of the New Testament have at their heart a call to follow the way of Jesus, especially the aspects of Jesus’ ministry that led him into conflict with the powers that be. The New Testament presents Jesus’ cross as the norm for his followers. This cross is understood as the consequence of standing against the status quo of power politics. Jesus’ cross represents his call to reject tyrannical politics in favor of a politics of servanthood and his refusal to take up the sword even for seemingly legitimate purposes.
Jesus proclaimed a message of the presence of God’s kingdom. As the metaphor “kingdom” makes clear, his concern centered on political and not purely religious or spiritual elements. When Jesus disavowed Peter’s attempt to defend him with the sword at the time of his arrest, he did so not because Peter got in the way of Jesus’ non-ethical vocation to be a perfect sacrifice for sin. Rather, Jesus rejected Peter’s efforts because he understood his calling as the Son of God to include turning from the use of the sword to further what are claimed to be necessary ends.
Following Jesus’ resurrection and the reinstitution of his community as the vanguard of the coming kingdom of God, his followers looked back at the whole of his ministry, death, and resurrection, and confessed him to be the unique manifestation of God in history. Language of incarnation, divinity, and Trinity emerged to name Jesus’ actual identity as God-in-flesh.
Confessing Jesus as God Incarnate speaks to God entering history and defining authentic humanness in terms of this exemplary, Spirit-filled life. Confessing Jesus as the “second person” of the Trinity speaks to the unity of all manifestations of God as harmonious with the life and teaching of this person confessed as God among us.
At the heart of Jesus’ message we find clarity that people in power do not represent the divinely endorsed definition of what it means to be “political.” Jesus’ message about politics is clear. Those in power tend to misunderstand the true meaning of politics. If we understand “politics” to have to do, most fundamentally, with how human beings order their social lives, Jesus presented a clear alternative to politics as domination. The politics of domination is a perversion of the intention of God for how we are called to be human beings socially.
Paul’s witness to Jesus’s way of peace
Let’s now consider a major early Christian interpreter of Jesus. The Apostle Paul echoed Jesus’s core concerns. Before he met Jesus, Paul himself had been a persecutor of the followers of Jesus—he was a violent man who believed God wanted him to punish those who threatened his “true” faith. Paul changed when Jesus revealed himself to him. After that, Paul presented the work of Christ in terms of creating a new community made up of former enemies.
For Paul, the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be seen in the breaking down of the wall of hostility that had separated Jew and Gentile. The very wall of hostility Paul had tried to enforce. Jesus had placed the formation of a counter-cultural community of Jubilee generosity and mercy at the center of his proclamation of the presence of God’s Kingdom. So too did Paul present the presence of God’s Spirit in this reconciled community of former enemies.
Paul’s meaning of “justification” emphasized “making right,” or “making just.” We see in Paul’s thought concerning “justification” the clear sense that God’s “making things right” centers primarily on establishing faith communities where former enemies are reconciled. As he wrote to the Ephesians: “Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both Jews and Gentiles into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Paul confirms Jesus’s words that God is a God who loves God’s enemies. In Romans, he states: “God proved his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us….While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” Paul emphasizes the concrete application of these words in the joining together of Jew and Gentile in these Jubilee communities. The gospel of Jesus has no clearer or more powerful expression than that insider and outsider are united in one fellowship, tearing down walls of enmity.
Paul applies Jesus’ message to his discussion of power and social structures. For Paul, human social structures and their spiritual dimension (the “principalities and powers”) are both part of God’s good creation and fallen. They often fail to serve their created purpose of ordering social life for the sake of human flourishing. In fact, they often seek to separate people from God by demanding loyalty due to God alone. Paul believed Jesus entered directly into the world of power with its fallen social structures. Jesus’ distinctiveness may be seen in his freedom from bondage to any of the powers. He lived freely in relation to laws, customs, communities, institutions, values, or ideologies. He remained free even to the point allowing the powers to put him to death rather than give them his loyalty. And God vindicated Jesus. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes: “Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in his cross and resurrection.”
Jesus’ confrontation with the powers and their efforts to destroy him serve to bring to the surface their true nature in fallen creation. As the agents of death to the Son of God, they make clear that their claims to be God’s agents for the good of humanity are misleading. When the true God enters directly into history, these “servants of God” (the state, the religious institutions, the cultural mores, et al) turn out to be in rebellion against God. Jesus’ life of freedom from the powers’ domination system, his willingness to remain committed to the way of peace even when they committed acts of horrific violence and injustice against him, and God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection make clear that loyalty to the fallen powers contradicts loyalty to the true God.
The main weapon the powers wield in seeking to dominate human existence is deception. They seek, all too successfully, to convince people that they are God’s agents for order and justice in the world. They persuade people to give them loyalty and trust, thereby enhancing their dominance. To those who truly perceive the significance of the life and teaching of Jesus, this demand the powers make for loyalty is recognized as an effort to usurp the true God. Staying close to Jesus empowers his followers to see truthfully.
The existence of fellowships of followers of Jesus (called “churches” = ekklesia, a term for an assembly of citizens) proclaims to all with eyes to see that the unchallenged reign of the powers in human culture is coming to an end. Portraying the church this way, Paul follows Jesus in conveying an ethics of social engagement, not an ethic of withdrawal. Paul means for the church to be a community of free citizens of God’s kingdom, each bringing gifts and abilities to the work of the church. Here we find the “new humanity” that expresses power through service rather than domination and that resolves conflicts through forgiveness and reconciliation rather than the sword. When the churches imitate Jesus’ style of politics, they embody the transforming work of God to make the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Creator.
The Christian witness to the state
Paul’s thinking about the relevance of Jesus’ way for the political life of his followers also finds expression in his notorious statements in Romans 13, but not in the ways the mainstream Christian tradition has assumed.
The first step in understanding Paul’s political thought here is to see Romans 13 as part of a larger framework. Early Christians believed that the state is one of the fallen powers; they portrayed the state as under Satan’s dominion. In Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry, when Satan tempted him with political leadership, the story does not question that it was Satan’s to offer. We may assume that Paul has this suspicion of the state in mind when he wrote Romans.
In Romans, we see other elements of Jesus’ own basic stance toward power and social ethics expressed. Romans 12:1 beings a new section of the book. The first word that Paul offers here is a call to nonconformity to the ways of the world. Paul begins with a confession of God’s transforming mercy. He follows that with a call to the community to reject the ways of domination. They must practice persevering love that will reveal the character of their liberating God.
Paul concludes his Romans 12 summary of Jesus’s way with a call for non-retaliation toward enemies. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
Then, skipping ahead to 13:8-10, we see that Paul emphasizes (quoting Jesus) that the law itself is summarized in the call to love one’s neighbor. The only debt that matters is the call to love. “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
In between the call to non-retaliation that conclude Romans 12 and the affirmation of the true meaning of God’s law in 13:8-10, Paul elaborates his thoughts on how the Roman Christians ought to relate to governmental authority in 13:1-7. He surely could not have had in mind in 13:1-7 a validation of a blank check attitude toward secular government that authorizes Christian participation in violence. Paul speaks to how non-retaliatory, neighbor-loving Christians might remain true to those convictions.
Paul’s broader thinking about the powers helps us understand what he means early in chapter 13. Paul calls not for “obedience” in 13:1, but for “subordination.” The key motif here is how Paul understands God to order the powers. This ordering dynamic reflects both the sense that the powers retain some sense of independence over against God and the sense that nonetheless God uses the powers even in their rebellion to serve God’s ultimate purposes.
Paul’s language in 13:1-7 includes several words that connote this kind of ordering. He does not mean literally “obey the state.” He is not implying that one is obligated to do tasks the state calls for that violate Jesus’s expectations for his followers (including those expectations named elsewhere in this Romans 12–13 section such as non-retaliation and neighbor love). Christian witness includes respect for the realities of fallen governmental power. The authentic subordination of Christians to such a government would include respect for the ordering function of government (when it ministers for people’s “good,” government provides for social services and social stability) even as Christians also refuse to give their ultimate loyalty to such governments.
When Paul asserts in 13:7 that readers should “render to each his due,” he echoes Jesus’ call for discernment (render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s). This “rendering” includes respect and taxes to Caesar; however, loyalty is due only to God. This loyalty leads directly to the affirmation that love is due everyone (13:8). So, Paul’s message in Romans 12–13, rather than being in tension with Jesus’ call to persevering love in the Sermon on the Mount, actually restates that call. Both these passages instruct believers to practice non-retaliatory love. Both call upon believers to renounce vengeance. And both challenge believers to respect God’s ordering work through the powers in ways that include a refusal to take up the sword. The end point in Romans 13 is this call for discernment. All actions Christians take and support should have as their goal love of neighbors (which means love for everyone).
A “revelation” of the way of Jesus
The New Testament concludes in the book of Revelation with one more restatement of Jesus’s political message. Revelation, chapter five, the key vision in the book, portrays the slain and resurrected Lamb as the one who can open the scroll, which means he’s the one who will bring history to its fulfillment. The Lamb is worthy to receive praise and glory and power. It is the Lamb’s self-giving love, the cross (and the life that led to it and the vindication of it in resurrection) that reveals the meaning of history—not the sword of power politics. God’s people are called to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and, like him, they “conquer” due to their politics of persevering love, not to their politics of coercion.
This is the Lamb’s victory: John heard: “The Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered, so that he can open the scroll”—a mighty warrior. John saw: “Between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne”—a suffering servant. This is the victory of the Lamb’s followers” “They have conquered the Dragon by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” And this is the consequence of these victories: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. On either side of the river is the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Revelation echoes Jesus’ approach to effectiveness. Truth wins out in history not due to its superior firepower but due to its faithfulness to the One on the throne. God’s people participate in transforming the kings of the earth from enemies of God to worshipers in the New Jerusalem through their willingness to join the Lamb in his style of life and his style of confronting the powers. The Jesus who is worshiped in Revelation as the one worthy to receive power is precisely the Jesus who accepted his fate as a political rebel executed by the Empire with the sign next to his cross, “King of the Jews.”
Paul’s affirmation of Jesus as “equal with God” in Philippians 2 follows from Jesus’ renunciation of power as domination. When Jesus asserted that only those willing to take up their cross and follow him and his true disciples, he pointed in precisely this direction concerning the exercise of power. God’s kind of power, the power that ultimately goes with the grain of the universe, underwrites a politics of compassion and self-giving love.
The New Testament throughout portrays Christian politics in ways that directly link with the life and teaching of Jesus. What matters is to form communities that reject violence and embody inclusive Jubilee-shaped economics. Jesus’ own cross becomes the political model, the style of life that leads to the social transformation the New Testament portrays with the coming down of the New Jerusalem.