The Politics Necessary for a More Perfect Union

The one verifiable, historical FACT of the Gospels is what we recite in creed, that Jesus of Nazareth “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” I’ve long held that the fact we remember the crucified name of Jesus, unlike the thousands Rome crucified whose names we do not know, is reason to believe we do so because God did indeed raise him from the dead. 

 Crucifixion was a punishment reserved exclusively for crimes of sedition against the state. 

If Jesus died for religious reasons, he would have been stoned. 

The seditious mob that stormed the Capitol last week, many of whom carried Christian flags and banners and articulated their participation in theological terms, were correct on one level. 

Jesus was— and is— a political figure. 

Jesus was— and remains so— subversive. 

The Jesus who is without beginning or end will always be revolutionary.

You don’t suffer the first century equivalent of a lynching for being a spiritual guru or teaching the golden rule. 

However, many Christians, especially those we saw on the mall last Wednesday, misunderstand the manner in which Jesus was a political revolutionary. They miss the subversive message the evangelists intend to show us. 

It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. This is why, don’t forget, Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example— 

On the liturgical calendar, last Sunday was Baptism of the Lord Sunday. In Mark’s Gospel,  as Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus.

Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence.

Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different.

And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle. 

A collision of kingdoms. 

That’s what Mark wants you to see.

And that’s not all. Because the very next verse has God declaring: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a Psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you “Beloved Son.”

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. 

Not soldiers but the poor.

Not by force but suffering love. 

From the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith, “Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not),” the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Only political revolutionaries wound up on Rome’s crosses.

But the mistake Christians have so often made, including the mistake those who call themselves Christian made last week, is in assuming that the only effective revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one. 

When Christians believe might (be it, political strength or violent force) is the only way to change the world, they all too often outsource their witness to the kingdoms of this world. 

In doing so, we miss how politically-charged and radical are the Gospels and we forsake the vocation to which we’ve been baptized; that is, to bear witness to a Kingdom that defeats its enemies by loving them. To believe in this Kingdom with sufficient conviction to suffer for it requires faith and faith, scripture tells us, is not our own doing but a gift from God. What does not require faith, however, what strikes me as self-evident, is that just as we will not become a more perfect union through conspiracy theories, lies, or violence, neither, as my friend, Father Ken Tanner, says, will we become a more perfect union by anathematizing one another— shunning and shaming those who do not agree with us. 

None are righteous. And Jesus, the friend of sinners, is ever ready to eat and drink with them. The keys to the Kingdom he’s given us is the “office of the keys;” that is, the authority to forgive sins. In a culture sick with its political affections, this is the politics necessary for a more perfect union, the politics of Jesus. 

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