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No. 99: Repoliticizing Jesus

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 99
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons
November, 1997

During the past two decades, the "quest of the historical Jesus" has entered a new phase. The first incarnation of the quest was rudely shaken by the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s classic Quest of the Historical Jesus, easily the most devastating and funniest work of New Testament scholarship ever written. In the wake of Schweitzer, skeptical Bultmannians dominated the field. For Rudolph Bultmann, very little could be known of the historical Jesus; but that hardly mattered, since whatever He said or did, all of it was just a call to decision and authentic living, however bound Jesus Himself might have been to the mythological categories of apocalyptic and Torah. History and faith were as far apart as Kipling’s east and west. Surprisingly, a "new quest" was launched among Bultmann’s own disciples, especially among postwar German scholars who had seen first-hand how an ahistorical Jesus could be coopted for ideological and bloody purposes, but this movement never really removed itself completely from the long shadow of Bultmann.

The current "third quest" holds more promise. Like most such scholarly movements, the "third quest" is amorphous, but among its defining features is an effort to place Jesus in the context of first-century Judaism, and a corresponding emphasis on the political dimensions of Jesus’ life and teaching. This is implicit in the work of the late Ben Meyer and E. P. Sanders, who both describe Jesus’ mission as an effort to restore Israel. Defining "politics" broadly as a "concern for the structure and destiny of an historical community," Marcus Borg argues explicitly that a political concern for the destiny of Israel, including its destiny vis-�-vis Rome, was a basic dimension of Jesus’ mission. In his recent, superb, Jesus and the Victory of God, N. T. Wright portrays Jesus as an eschatological prophet, but, against Schweitzer, contends that the essential content of Jesus’ eschatological preaching did not have to do with the imminent end of the cosmos but with the Roman threat to the existence of Israel. For Wright, Jesus’ eschatology, like that of Old Testament prophets, is itself political.

Traditional believers may react to these scholarly trends with some trepidation, fearing the specter of liberation theology or the reduction of Jesus to a social reformer, and certainly not all of the proposals have merit. In Borg’s portrait, Jesus comes off as a leader of a first-century peace movement, which, apart from the dubious implication that Jesus had pacifist tendencies, drastically undermines Jesus’ messianic claims. In general, however, the evidence is massively in favor of a politically interested Jesus, particularly if politics is broadly defined. For starters, it goes beyond the borders of absurdity to suggest that any teacher of first-century Judaism, or any child of Abraham, could be unconcerned about the "geopolitical" question of the standing of God’s Israel among the nations; in a fundamental sense, to repoliticize Jesus is merely to take Him seriously as an historical figure.

Moreover, the gospels indicate that Jesus did address some of the burning political concerns of the day: He refused to countenance whatever violent resistance movements then existed, a stance that, then as today, was not "apolitical" so much as a proposal of a different politics. Along these lines, He specifically urged His disciples to "render to Caesar" whatever taxes were due him. Whether or not Borg is correct that Jesus’ teachings about "turning the other cheek" and "going the second mile" were intended as instructions about relations with occupying Roman troops (the "enemy"), these teachings delineate a particular posture for Jesus’ disciples in the face of oppressive powers. Finally, with a frequency that is only now becoming apparent to professional New Testament scholars, Jesus, like Jeremiah before Him, warned of the disasters that awaited stubborn nationalists in Israel.

Given the weight of evidence, the interesting problem is not whether Jesus should be "repoliticized" but why He was ever "depoliticized" in the first place. In fact, the whole vocabulary of politicization, with whatever prefix, rests on assumptions wholly foreign to Jesus and to the Judaism of His day. One is in danger of "politicizing" religion, after all, only if religion and politics are first considered separable areas of concern, only if they can be set side by side so that one can "influence" or "distort" the other. And one can make this separation only if one defines religion’s essence apolitically, whether as private devotion, as "encounter with the numinous holy," as good will, or as ultimate concern. The roots and branches of this conception of religion are complex, but it is worth noting that here modern philosophy of religion corresponds perfectly with modern political practice, both fencing off a region of privatized religion and protecting the public square from its influence. It occasions no surprise that an enemy of the faith such as Nietzsche should claim that an aversion to the external world, including politics and culture, was of the essence of the religion of Jesus. More surprising is the fact that Christians should want to play along. Yet, every time a Christian attributes the current malaise of the church to "social" or "political" factors – and such attributions are legion – he accepts the autonomy of the political. Like a man who lays bricks while cursing the separating wall, Christians thus reinforce the very marginality that they, with the next breath, denounce.

In the Old Testament, politics is internal to the religious covenant that Yahweh made with Israel: Crime and punishment were extensively treated in the Torah revealed at Sinai; Samuel, a prophet and "seer," warned Israel that in choosing a king they were rejecting Yahweh as their true king, and that they would pay dearly for their transfer of loyalty; the prophets insisted that reliance on foreign alliances for security manifested at bottom a distrust of Yahweh’s willingness and power to save; to ask whether David was a "religious" or a "political" figure is palpable nonsense. The early church’s preaching and activity also carried political freight: the claim that "Jesus is Lord" involved the inevitable corollary that Caesar was not, and there has always been a sharp political edge to the claim that the church is the new human race, the true polis and ekklesia, both of which terms had a prominent place in Greco-Roman politics and political theory. For the Bible, there is no "political" separable from "religion," nor is it true to say that religion has political "implications," for that too implies that religion is, at least in its pure state, private and apolitical. To depoliticize Jesus one has stand outside the world of the Bible. Liberation theologies have been denounced, rightly, for forcing Jesus into a Marxist mold, but an apolitical Jesus is just as much an optical illusion created by projecting modern prejudice on the screen of the gospels.

This indicates that the stakes in the "third quest" go even further than the laudable and necessary effort to recover a more accurate account of the life and work of Jesus. What is at stake is the liberation of the gospels from the modern straitjacket of privatized religion, a liberation that will enable the gospels to be heard as a word of life spoken to the modern world, rather than a mimicry of modern talk in ancient accents.