By r. scot miller
The cross has gone missing from the politics of the church. We don’t like to think of Jesus, or the church, as being political. Yet, It is Thomas Mann who rightfully stated that “everything is politics.” Faith is a big part of our political selves, and the church, yet a larger question looms regarding the question of how Christian politics reflect the cross. Evangelical and progressive Christians are experiencing a rapid political boil fueled by a long-simmering electorate. If faith is to be the driving force of the choices we make, we need to ask ourselves, how do political actions fueled by anger reflect the mandate to love both neighbor and enemy, and, how does our insistence on controlling political outcomes reflect the cross. The cross and the early church reflect a faith committed to serving neighbor and enemy from a position of powerlessness. The faith was that God would vindicate Christian humility and servanthood in resurrection just as Jesus was said to have been resurrected.
Once we get past the wild visions of dragons and such that jump at us from the pages of the Revelation, however, we see that for some churches in the first three centuries, giving up social and economic power had a negative impact on faith. John’s Revelation judges against the assembly at Laodicea for being lukewarm in its faith, instead trusting in its collective wealth to take care of needs. Our immersion in election politics and our use of democracy as a means of controlling outcomes is having a similar impact on the churches of the United States Christendom is guilty of the Laodicean sin. Though we are a simmering-to-boiling pot of political rage, I suggest that Americans are guilty of acting as though the “are rich… have prospered, and need nothing,” but fail to realize that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind,” and like the fabled King of a now faded empire, “naked.” (Rev. 3:15-18)
John warns that the Laodiceans’ are placing faith in their prosperity and privilege instead of the gospel. Similar circumstances in the United States have overwhelmed the message of the cross. While the poor are often said to have a greater faith, and the gospel says plenty about what the future hold for those who enjoy wealth, Americans refuse to empty ourselves of such privilege. We seek politically to maintain stability and wealth in favor of hope and faith. In order to maintain stability and privilege, the church seems to have place more faith in economic and political power than a self-emptying servanthood in the manner of Jesus. Our politics are of the world, and not of the gospel. Jesus explicitly rejected the political option of power and control. The cross is how God chose to witness against evil. Americans have chosen to crucify others.
Many Judeans rejected servanthood and non-violence. In the Gospel of John 6 (John 6:1-15), we learn a bit Jesus’ own politics, as well as the politics of the region. Jerusalem had been under pagan Roman rule and the Jerusalem religious establishment. History indicates that there were plenty of Jews prepared to revolt against the ruling classes. There were a lot of “political style” rallies in the wilderness, like those launched by John the Baptist, who lost his head for his troubles.
We know from the Hebrew Bible, any time spent in the wilderness is a predictor of sweeping change, of God preparing to act through or on behalf of, Israel. It is in the wilderness that God comes through when all seems lost, to provide manna, or water, or a great military victory, according to the stories of Israel. Just such a group has come to hear the message of Jesus who is preparing for the annual Passover in Jerusalem. Any Jew in the region who could was going up to Jerusalem. Passover is not just a big holiday feast, it is a time when the natives, as Rome knew, got restless. Rome sent extra troops during Passover to keep order. During Passover 66 AD, the Zealots launched an insurrection that ended in the destruction of the Temple. With John’s gospel being written with fresh memory of the fall of Jerusalem, it is not hard to imagine just the kind of group John is writing about. An angry mob of Jews who are fed up with the exploitation and politics of the day, and, the unfaithfulness of the religious and ruling classes. The simmering was coming to a boil.
The wilderness crowd is inspired healing, which indicated to them that Jesus might be the messiah they had been waiting for to lead them to victory against Rome. They soon get hungry, as well as angry, and Jesus has a grand opportunity to lead of force of supporters into Jerusalem to cast judgment on the Temple. However, we read in all four gospels that Jesus does not enter Jerusalem with an army of rebels. He instead feeds them. He sits them down (in military formation; groups of 50), yet he tells the disciples there is no need to buy food. As happens in the wilderness, it is a matter of faith that God will provide. Jesus has faith that God will supply food for the crowd, from the scarce resources of the community, and not from the six months of wages they had. In such action, the wealth and resources of the empire have no use. No power is retained by anyone. A community of God is able to feed the entire crowd from what appeared to be limited resources because of their faith, not their wealth.
The feeding fires up the crowd. Is Jesus the Messiah? Will he restore power to Israel? They made sense of Jesus’ signs and they made known some extraordinary intentions. John tells us that Jesus saw the crowd was convinced of their own resourcefulness and faith in God’s provision, but that “ perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.” (John 6:15) The wilderness rebels were planning to go to Jerusalem with Jesus and revolt in order to make him the King of Israel. This, of course, the preferred option through history, and a favored option of people today. Yet, Jesus entirely rejects it. There is no use of force, power, or controlling others in the gospel. Jesus walks away from that option.
The option Jesus chooses is to go to Jerusalem to preach the truth knowing he will be crucified for his trouble. Jesus rejects power and force in favor of bringing a public challenge to the establishment. We know there was an impact related to Jesus’ teaching, otherwise, he would have never been arrested, let alone crucified for being an insurrectionist. We also might surmise that the option of reform Jesus chose was rejected not only by many Jews, but some of his disciples as well. It may be in the story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus that we can relate to the crisis of faith in Laodicea.
Jesus seems to indicate that, because the crowds are not accepting of a non-violent option, they are rejecting the call to reflect God’s will through non-violence. As for the disciples, it appears that after the event that sees Jesus rejecting the militant option, Judas beings to doubt Jesus’ agenda. At the end of John 6, Jesus foretells the betrayal of Judas Iscariot (John 6:62-71); Iscariot being a transliteration of sicarrii (little sword), a name for militants who became the Zealots. Judas envisioned the military option, and betrayed Jesus to keep him guiding militant Jews from the militant option. Perhaps the crowds had faith that Jesus might be a messiah until he rejected their militancy. Then, he was denounced as a rather uppity son of Joseph the Carpenter. Even his family rejected him. (John 6:41-42)
The faith of most of us has been placed in the military option for centuries. The progressive minds of the church have failed to develop creative opportunities for others to reject it. We have not successfully created alternatives to war or voting for the lesser of two evils, nor, have we rejected the benefits of militarism. While Jesus looked for resources outside of the economy of empire in faith to feed the wilderness rebels, today’s church has no such faith, nor does it have the political courage to trust God’s provision. We insist on continuing to benefit from wealth obtained and protected by military might, racism, and low earning “wage slaves” across the world. Such favoring of unjustly collected “stuff” and reliance upon military might for stability is an utter rejection of the cross, and a maintenance of privilege. Indeed, we have become the church of Laodicea.
But the problem is significantly deeper than that. While our faith is lukewarm due to our levels of comfort and privilege that is produced on the backs of the “other,” we are boiling over in rage politically, and failing to consider that our behavior in electoral politics in making enemies and is an attempt to force others to follow a morality that is entirely related to faith, and, faithfulness. Election politics is not evil, nor is is anti-christ, but it has tended to sway the church more toward government as the acting right-hand of God. The church is instead called to be a community of self-sacrificing economics, non-violence, and faith as the godly alternative to both militarism, and winning elections at all costs. Even democratic outcomes are ensured only by the threat of violence. The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is completely voluntary, and entirely “other.”
r. scot miller asked to contribute through DunkerPunks.com to introduce a new level of bible-focused original content about peace and nonviolence for our friends at On Earth Peace. You can read more of his word at his blog, Gospel of the Absurd. Thanks Scot!
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