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The Christ of the Fifth Way: Recovering the Politics of Jesus, Part III: Kingdom Come

Centuries before Jesus’ birth, Jewish apocalyptic writers, struggling to understand the theological meaning of Israel’s exile in Babylon, concluded with paradoxical audacity that pagan oppression was the result not of YHWH’s weakness but of his actual justice and strength: Israel was being punished by the Creator God for its failure to keep the covenant. Things would grow progressively worse, Jewish eschatology predicted, until a final, decisive moment when God would at last send a warrior-prince to restore his Chosen People to their rightful place among the nations. Jewish apocalyptic literature used cosmic and fantastic images to describe this future event, but Jewish hopes were firmly rooted in the realm of concrete, earthly politics. When God’s kingdom arrived, it would be plain for all to see by three material facts: 1) the Davidic monarchy would be restored in Jerusalem with unparalleled justice and prosperity; 2) the Temple would be rebuilt with unsurpassed splendor; and 3) the downtrodden Jews would emerge a triumphant superpower with their pagan enemies humiliated and defeated beneath them.
Jesus shared many of the basic assumptions of this traditional Jewish eschatology. He declared that oppression would increase before finally being overcome by God’s saving activity (Mark 13.7-13). He urged his disciples to be steadfast and courageous in the face of evil (Matthew 10.16-42). And he taught them to pray not for a “spiritual” kingdom somewhere in the sky but for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10). When Jesus talked about the kingdom, though, he did not talk about it in the future tense. Israel was still suffering under foreign oppression, economic injustice and religious corruption. But when Jesus talked about the kingdom he talked about it like it was going on then and there. He talked about it like it had already arrived. Even more shocking, the Gospel writers record, Jesus talked and acted like the kingdom was happening in him and through him. “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God,” Jesus said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11.20).
Jesus’ kingdom announcement implied that conventional Jewish eschatology, with its vision of two successive historical ages, was either deeply flawed or had been gravely misread. Hebrew apocalyptic literature had depicted the coming of YHWH’s kingdom as a dramatic, earth-shattering event that would radically divide the old aeon from the new. But Jesus declared, against all of the seeming evidence, that the kingdom of God was an already present, in-breaking reality, manifest in his own life and program of miraculous healings, and best grasped through metaphors of secrecy, simplicity and subversion. The kingdom, Jesus said, is not like a conquering army but like a mustard seed that inexorably consumes the garden (Luke 13.19). It is like the yeast or leaven that invisibly causes bread to rise (Matthew 13.38). It is like a pearl of great price hidden in a field so that only the passionate seeker will find it (Matthew 13.46).
In first-century Palestine, anyone talking about “the kingdom” was, by this fact alone, treading on perilous political ground. Caesar Augustus had already staked out Rome’s exclusive claim to kingdom vocabulary, and the cult of the emperor brooked no rivals. Caesar was, according to one public inscription, “the beginning of all things”; “god manifest”; the “savior” of the world who “has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times”; the one whose birthday “has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news (euangelion)”. We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus encoded his kingdom politics in parables, metaphors, riddles and cryptic sayings that did not explicitly defy Roman rule. But for those who had ears to hear, mustard seeds and pearls of great price were the rhetoric of a revolution. Jesus—the true Savior of the world—was calling for his followers to embody YHWH’s actual kingdom of compassion and justice as over and against Lord Caesar’s blasphemous parody. He was telling them to incarnate God’s reign in history by building a new kind of community—a countercultural “polis on a hill” (Matthew 5.14)—that would stand in nonviolent but subversive opposition to all those forces responsible for grinding down the poor, the weak, the ritually unclean and sinners of every kind.
The fact that Jesus calls for his followers to incarnate or embody God’s kingdom as a social reality in the present does not contradict but defines and animates Christian hope in the Parousia as a future event in space-time. According to John Dominic Crossan, Jesus proclaimed a sapiential as opposed to apocalyptic eschatology. Sapientia is the Latin word for “wisdom”, and according to Crossan Jesus offered human beings “the wisdom to discern how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present… rather than a hope of life for the future” (my emphasis). But the Jesus of the New Testament—the only Jesus we know —offers his disciples both a Way of living that manifests God’s kingdom in the midst of the present reality and a hope for the future that invests this Way with its power and meaning. It is precisely because of their confidence in the Parousia that believers are free to live out the dangerous and demanding politics of the Gospel. Conversely, it is only the social witness of believers that manifests Jesus’ life and lordship over history to a watching world. Absent such a witness, Martin Luther King Jr. saw, there can be no authentic Advent hope. “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
“The Favorable Year of the Lord”: Economic Justice
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first action at the start of his public ministry is to enter the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor…to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4.18-19). Only real debt-cancellation would have come as real good news for real poor people, Ched Meyers points out. When Jesus claims the “favorable year of the Lord” as central to his vocation he is therefore not assuming a “spiritual” as opposed to a political messianic role. He is, rather, directly alluding to a powerful vision of social justice contained in the Law of Moses that had been systematically suppressed and evaded by Israel’s ruling elites for hundred of years, an economic ethic that would have come as welcome news indeed to the impoverished and exploited peasant masses of Galilee and Judea.
The “favorable year of the Lord” in Luke-Isaiah, Andre Trocmé and John Yoder show, is the Sabbath year or year of Jubilee commanded by God in the Hebrew Bible (particularly in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15). Every seventh year, according to the Covenant, Israel was to enact a program of radical debt forgiveness, and in the fiftieth year land redistribution to benefit the poor. Among God’s people, there was to be a systematic leveling of wealth on a regular basis and dismantling of what we would today describe as oppressive financial and banking institutions designed to maximize profits for creditors. Jesus does not attempt to instate these Jubilee commandments in a rigid or programmatic way, but he does reclaim the basic principles, metaphors and imagery of the Sabbath Jubilee for his followers. He has more to say in the Gospels about issues of wealth and poverty than any other topic—and his message remains as challenging for those of us who live in affluent countries today as it was for the wealthy Herodians and Sadducees in first-century Palestine.
Against the assumptions of laissez-faire capitalism—which posits a world of unlimited human needs, individualism, and competitive rivalry for scarce resources—Jesus declares that we are stewards rather than owners of property, that God’s creation is abundant and our earthly needs limited, and that God’s liberation of Israel from slavery is normative for how we should treat the poor among us. His warnings against capital accumulation and “Lord Mammon” are unrelentingly severe (Matthew 6.16-24; Mark 10.23-25). He tells his followers to live lives of dangerous generosity, giving and expecting nothing in return (Luke 6.30). He tells them to forgive each other’s debts (Matthew 6.12), to not worry about their own material needs but to live out a lifestyle of trust and simplicity (6.25-34; 10.9-10). And he instructs them to actively pursue justice (23.23). Material care for the poor, the oppressed and the hungry, Jesus declares, is the primary mark of discipleship—and the only question at the final judgment (25.31-40).
Jesus’ radical economic teachings were epitomized among his early followers in the practice of “breaking bread”, which was not originally a rite of sacral liturgy or mystical symbolism but an actual meal embodying Jesus’ ethic of sharing in ordinary day-to-day existence. When the Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost in the book of Acts, the practical result is that believers voluntarily redistribute their property. “And all those who believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need…breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2.44-46). The Apostle Paul also emphasizes the socio-political nature of the Lord’s meal, delivering a blistering rebuke to those upper-class Corinthians who excluded poor believers from their table fellowship and sated their own stomachs while other members of the community went hungry (1 Corinthians 11.18-22).
“You Are All One in Christ”: Equality in the Body of Believers
We can begin to see, then, why Jesus’ message had such an electrifying effect on the impoverished and socially marginalized peasants of first-century Palestine who flocked to hear him speak—and why he so frightened and angered those guardians of public “order” for whom divisions of wealth and class were a useful rather than an oppressive reality. But Jesus challenged not only structures of economic injustice and inequality in first-century Palestine. He challenged patterns of social inequality, hierarchy and domination of every kind. In his treatment of women, of children, of Romans, of the ritually unclean and sinners of every stripe, Jesus repeatedly and provocatively overturned deeply ingrained cultural and religious assumptions about who was “first” and “last”, “above” and “below” in the eyes of God.
There is no place in God’s in-breaking kingdom, it turns out, for “great men” or “rulers” who “lord it over” others through the exercise of political or religious authority. Such, Jesus tells his disciples, is the way of the “Gentiles”, i.e., the pagan unbelievers and Romans occupiers. But among his followers, Jesus declares, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20.25-28; Mark 10.43). Jesus goes so far as to command his followers to avoid using honorific titles of any kind, including the title of “leader”. The only title Jesus permits is an address of familial equality and solidarity: “brother” (Matthew 23.6-10). In the polis of Jesus, the New Testament suggests, there simply are no individuals in positions of status or hierarchical control.
Instead of offices, the earliest Christian communities appear to have been ordered along quasi-familial lines and according to the idea of spiritual gifts, including gifts of teaching, preaching and stewardship. Spiritual gifts are charismatic, functional, provisional and divinely rather than humanly bestowed. They are not restricted to special classes, genders or tribes; for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3.28). The most prominent functionaries in the early church, the “elders” or presbyteroi who helped to preside over the households where the early Christians gathered, were to lead by humble example rather than by “lording it over” the younger believers (1 Peter 5.1-3). The title of “priest” or hiereus (the root from which the English word “hierarchy” derives) is not applied to any Christian in the Gospels or Pauline corpus (although in Romans 15.16 Paul does describe himself by way of metaphor as a minister who works “as a priest” presenting God with “my offering of the Gentiles”). Jesus is the only person who is described (in the book of Hebrews) as a priest for the church; but he is the final priest who makes all priesthood obsolete—not merely the performance of ritual sacrifice, but the office, pomp and circumstance of priestly authority and hierarchy itself.
“Do Not Resist an Evil Person”: Nonviolent Enemy Love
It was the fatal error of many Latin American liberation theologians to conclude from Jesus’ concern for economic justice and his summons to radical, non-hierarchical community formation that the Way of Jesus may be harmonized with the way of violent revolt against oppressive social, economic and political structures. But Jesus of Nazareth, unlike Judas the Galilean, taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, to put away their swords and to love their enemies as themselves. Perhaps the most important hallmark of the politics of Jesus lies in his teaching and example of nonviolent enemy love.
Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence finds its fullest statement in the Sermon on the Mount, which is presented in Matthew’s Gospel in a programmatic fashion as the new Torah, a definitive moral charter to guide the community of believers. Jesus does not seek to negate or overturn the Law of Moses with his own novel teaching but to reclaim the deepest meaning of the Law by intensifying and internalizing its demands. The Law forbids murder, Jesus forbids even anger. The Law forbids adultery, Jesus forbids even lust. When it comes to the matter of violence, though, Jesus does not simply radicalize or intensify the Torah. On this point, and this point alone, he decisively alters and actually overturns the teaching of the Hebrew Bible:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5.38-45).
The lex talionis—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—is spelled out in several passages in the Hebrew Bible but particularly in Deuteronomy 19.15-21. If in a criminal trial a witness gives a false testimony, the Law declares, that person must be severely punished in order to preserve the social order. “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v.21). Political stability is the goal and fear is the mechanism by which it will be achieved. Jesus shatters this strict geometry, however, with a startling injunction: “Do not resist an evil person.” This does not imply passive capitulation to violent people but physical non-retaliation as a dynamic and creative force in human relationships. By exemplifying the courage and forgiveness of the Beatitudes, the believer confounds and shames the aggressor, creating an opportunity for the hostile person to be reconciled with God. By absorbing undeserved suffering and not retaliating in kind, the disciple destroys the evil inherent in the logic of force. Instead of an endless cycle of bloodshed, fear and recrimination, there is shalom, there is peace.
There is nothing sentimental, naïve, meek or mild about Jesus’ Way of dealing with enemies. When we recall the concrete historical realities of Roman occupation in first-century Palestine, the shocking and scandalous political implications of Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence immediately becomes clear. To grasp the forces now arrayed against Jesus and his fledgling kingdom movement we have only to imagine the fate that would befall a charismatic young man from a rural village in present day Iraq should he travel to Baghdad with a band of followers and begin publicly announcing that God, through him, was about to free the land from the yoke of foreign occupation—and that prominent imams and respected government officials were vipers and hypocrites—and that the insurgents should lay down their weapons and love their enemies as themselves. Subversive? Disturbing? Dangerous? Clearly. Yet this was precisely the path that Jesus followed in his perilous journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem.
Whether Jesus’ Way of nonviolent enemy love leads to an ethic of strict pacifism, as John Yoder convincingly argues, or whether it allows for Christians to engage in what Glen Stassen calls “just peace-making” (preventive or “policing” actions that involve use of force in exceptional cases but remain sociologically and morally distinct from the calculus of war-making ), the presumption of the New Testament is therefore overwhelmingly against believers killing their fellow human beings for a “just cause”, whether as social revolutionaries (on the “Left”) or “just warriors” (on the “Right”). There is not one word in the New Testament to support Linda Damico’s claim that Jesus’ concern for the liberation of the poor led him to embrace “the violence of the oppressed”. We must ponder whether disciples can even legitimately serve as military chaplains insofar as chaplains, according to U.S. military manuals, are not allowed to fully proclaim Jesus’ teaching and example to soldiers but must ensure that “all efforts…maximize a positive impact on the military mission” and “enhance operational readiness and combat effectiveness.”
“Air Force Policy Directive 52-1: Chaplain Service” available through the Publishing Distribution Office and on the web at:
Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
Linda H. Damico, The Anarchist Dimension of Liberation Theology (New York: Peter Lang, 1987).
Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements At the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986).
Ched Meyers, “Jesus’ New Economy of Grace: The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics”, Sojourners Magazine, July-August 1998, on the web at:
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997)
Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
Andre Trocmé, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution (Farmington: Plough, 2004)
Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York: Penguin, 2005)
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Pennsylvania: World Press, 1992).

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