Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Request Wednesdays: The Gospels and Politics

Last week was the first of "All Request Wednesdays." This week's question comes from Seth Cotton. How do different ways of reading the Gospels end up with different perspectives on politics? I hope that's the question you were asking. :-)

1. Albert Schweitzer pointed out a century ago that even top Jesus scholars generally create Jesus in their own image. There is diverse enough material in the Gospels, there is enough critical ambiguity that you can make Jesus into the person you want him to be.

So among scholars, pictures of Jesus generally coalesce into two basic types--the apocalyptic Jesus and Jesus the sage. The first picture of Jesus, which is currently the dominant one, sees Jesus as a preacher of "end times" or at least a radical in-breaking of God into history. The second sees Jesus more as a Solomon type who went around spreading wisdom.

In our current political climate, there are a number of popular portrayals of Jesus, some of which overlap: 1) Jesus the pacifist, 2) Jesus the liberal, 3) Jesus the in-your-face, anti-government type, 4) Jesus the in-your-face, anti-sin type. Some are used more to serve Democratic types and others more Republican types.

2. How do these relate to critical theories (part of the initial question)? In their own way, the Gospels themselves emphasize different aspects of Jesus and so suited different "political" purposes originally.
  • Matthew is the "anti-Pharisee" Gospel, one of whose original purposes may have been to make it clear that the post-70 Pharisees were not the true heirs of Israel.
  • Luke is the "good news to the poor" Gospel, which is hardest on the wealthy.
  • John is the "in your face" Gospel, meant to lead to faith in Christ.
  • Mark accentuates the limitations of the disciples and the human struggles of Jesus.
3. So it's not too hard to see which Gospels will be the favorites of those with different political agendas. Jesus' anti-Pharisee rhetoric in Matthew 23 or Jesus' hyper-clarity in John has easily served those who want an "in-your-face" Jesus.

So all you need to do is identify the type of person you want to condemn with the Pharisees or Jerusalem leaders. Do you want to resist education? Then accentuate Jesus against the Pharisees. Do you hate the government? Emphasize Jesus kicking money changers out of the temple or Jesus smarting off to Pilate.

Luke will be the favorite of the hippie Jesus. Jesus condemns the rich and emphasizes "good news for the poor" (Luke 4:18). Matthew 5 is the favorite for the pacifist, where Jesus says to turn the other cheek.

So there's something for everyone. Since all these Gospels are Scripture, you might argue that in themselves they give legitimacy to all the different political approaches at particular places and times.

4. Is it hopeless? I don't think it is. But only because of the scholarship of the last century and a half.
  • John does bring some unique historical insights, but it is a highly symbolic Gospel. It's goals are much more theological than historical. We look to the Synoptics for more of the feel and tone of Jesus in history.
  • Once we know the theological and political thrust of each Gospel, we can try to triangulate back to the original Jesus feel.
  • So sparring with Pharisees was probably not a dominant aspect of Jesus' ministry. And Jesus did not come to Jerusalem prepared to take over by force. His message seems to have been, "God will take care of the Romans."
  • Luke-Acts may remove Jesus' words on the poor and the rich to some degree from their context in Israel. It was especially the poor of Israel to whom he gave hope.
My own sense of Jesus is that all of these dimensions capture elements of Jesus' earthly ministry. He came across as a prophet who, like John the Baptist, preached that the kingdom of God was arriving in history. His "social justice" dimension resulted from an emphasis on the fact that this good news was for everyone, not just the upper crust. This could lead to anti-establishment overtones because the leadership excluded so many of the marginalized from Israel. He did not emphasize law-observance, in my opinion, for such a focus in itself tended to marginalize the everyday Israelite.

5. I started a Jesus novel last week because of this problem of interpretation, even before Seth posed this week's question. And of course if you want to know my general conclusions, you can always check out my two books on Jesus (also in Kindle).

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