Part 1: the politics of the domination system
The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to the polis.” Polis literally means ‘city’ in Greek. It can also mean ‘citizenship’ and ‘body of citizens.’ Pete Seeger once said that politics happens whenever we bring people together.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote an eight-volume book called Politiká, a dissertation on governing and governments. In his case, he was concerned with the Greek city-state. He saw politics as our “social relations involving authority or power.” Aristotle classified a number of real and theoretical states according to their constitutions. On one side stand the true (or good) constitutions, which aim for the common good, and on the other side the perverted (or deviant) ones, considered such because they aim for the well-being of only a part of the city.
Here are his opening lines: “Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community (in Greek, koinônia, pronounced koy-nohn-EE-ah) and that every community (koinônia) is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community (koinônia) aims at some good, and the community (koinônia) which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority.”
Politics has to do with how we structure our life together as a society—either for the sake of the common good or for the sake of a privileged few. This includes our overarching economic system, taxation policies, governing budgets, the rights of citizens, social justice, and human equality.
When we discuss the politics of Jesus, we must first understand the political structures of first-century Roman Palestine, which was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Rather than Aristotle’s city-state organized for the common good, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the vast majority. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by Herod Antipas. After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning ‘the ruling few’) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink has referred to these societies as manifestations of an enduring “domination system” that had been part of the human story since the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. Wink describes the domination system in this way: “It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.E.”
The ruling style of most governments throughout history has favored an elite group of very wealthy and powerful families at the expense of the majority of less-fortunate inhabitants. For thousands of years, these elites have rigged society in their favor by crafting laws and rules which would benefit their prosperity and ensure their control over the nation’s political and economic affairs. They have historically used the system to extract wealth from the sweat of slaves, peasants, and laborers, while contributing little to the common welfare. These societies have also invariably been patriarchies where the authority and desires of men were placed over the lives and needs of women and children. And they frequently favor one race, tribe, or ethnic group over others. In the past, they often used the religious authority of church or temple to justify their laws, their economic systems, their power, and their male domination. And they maintained their control with military might.
People living under the oppression of a domination system generally respond to the situation in one of four ways. They may become part of the establishment; but that course is only available to a few with the most wealth and power. They may simply try to cope or compromise to some degree with the ruling authorities—go along to get along—in order to survive. They may emigrate or withdraw from society in isolated communities. Or, they may take up arms and revolt. The people of first-century Palestine certainly fit this pattern of multiple responses. There were several different influential groups or parties active in the culture: Sadducees (establishment), Pharisees (compromise), Essenes (withdrawal), Zealots (revolution). Except for the Sadducees, the other three groups all hoped for a political savior to drive out Rome and set up a new rule.
These parties were notable factions with various political impacts, but they represented only a small minority of the population. They were mostly composed of more-or-less literate elites who had the luxury of engaging in overt positions of political and religious cooperation or opposition. The majority of the people were subjugated and defeated peasants who were buffeted by political winds and degraded by poverty. They just tried to survive until events pushed them to the point of subversive action and rebellion. According to the Talmud, these uneducated peasants were commonly known as ‘am ha′aretz’ (ahm hah-AHR-etz), meaning ‘the people of the land.’ This was a derogatory term suggesting that they were ignorant and uneducated rubes. In John’s gospel, they are referred to as the “rabble who know nothing about the law.” The peasants found it hard to make any significant response to oppression when they were trying to eke out an existence from the land. But as some saw their lives spiral out of control and they lost lands, homes, and employment, violent rebellion must have been a tempting option.
So, in this tense political situation, in which the poor suffered at the hands of the domination system of their time, was Jesus just a teacher of grand spiritual ideals, or as the gospel ‘about’ Jesus declares: an instrument of God’s desire to forgive humanity’s sins and take all believers to heaven? Or was Jesus a political prophet who engaged his life and the lives of his followers in a struggle for economic justice for the poor? It all depends on which gospel message you derive from the New Testament.
Part 2: a political vision and movement
If we take our spiritual blinders off for a moment, we can begin to see Jesus in a new light. Imagine him in the context of a struggle for social and economic equality similar to the struggles of Gandhi and M. L. King as they addressed their respective domination systems.
Mark’s gospel describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in these words, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:14-15) The dominant theme in the gospels and the center of Jesus’ proclamation was a political vision that he described as the ‘kingdom of God.’ This one phrase sums up his whole ministry and his whole life’s work. Every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of the God of love within human society.
The Greek word which we have translated into English as kingdom is ‘basileia’ (bas-il-EH-ah), meaning: kingship, kingly rule, reign, or sovereignty. The expression kingdom of God—‘basileia tou theou’ (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) points to the ruling activity of God over human relationships. It is the quality of this ruling activity that is important, because it is often diametrically opposed to traditional political establishments. Herod the Great had the title of ‘basileus’ (bas-il-YOOCE) or king. So ‘basileia’ has to do with who governs the common life and what kind of government they establish.
When Jesus used the term ‘kingdom of God’ it expressed a vision of the kind of government God desired for God’s people. What would life be like if God and not Herod or Caesar ruled this land? Biblical scholar Walter Wink says that the teachings of Jesus, particularly his vision of the kingdom of God, were a prescriptive remedy to the domination system. Jesus declared that this new form of government was rapidly coming into being. However, it would not come from violent revolution. Instead, it would be the result of subversive noncompliance with the domination system by a people committed to nonviolent resistance. He urgently cried out to his contemporaries, “The kingdom of God is at hand!”
Jesus clearly rejected the roles of king or priest, because he wanted no part in being a militaristic ruler or the leader of a hierarchical religious institution. However, Jesus did not withdraw from politics or from religion. If Jesus accepted any messianic role, it was that of the social prophet—one who is called by God to voice God’s demand for justice to those who hold economic, political, and religious power. As such, a social prophet opposes the politics of selfishness and self-interest of a society. It is a decidedly political task. That is because the pursuit of justice is always political. Jesus worked to fulfill the hopes and dreams of his people but not in the way many imagined or expected. Make no mistake, even though Jesus was filled with the spirit of God—the spirit of love and compassion and justice—he was not offering a solely spiritual solution. He developed a political platform for a new social movement, one which would lead to a more just and equitable society.
According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus began with an inaugural speech in Nazareth—his “I have a dream” speech.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the captive and recovery of sight for the blind—to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus announced that he had come to establish the ancient Hebrew concept of the Jubilee year in which the economic debts of the poor were forgiven, debt-slaves were released, and land that had been taken in foreclosure for peasant indebtedness would be returned by rich landowners to the dispossessed. Jubilee offered an economic amnesty for the poor who had lost everything to debt.
When Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God, he was announcing a social revolution. Jesus saw himself as the messenger chosen by God to deliver the good news of God’s powerful new activity in the world. God’s kingdom of justice was coming to replace the authority of ingrained systems of domination. The kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Jesus, was clearly political. Its very name implies the politics of God. So, at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announced he was launching a political movement to bring relief to the suffering and dispossessed peasants and to re-establish God’s reign of justice in Roman Palestine.
Jesus was not naïve. He knew that the call for Jubilee restoration would be rejected by the rich and powerful. It had little chance of succeeding if it required the willing participation of those at the top of society. So he addressed the domination system in a different way—a revolutionary way of living by those at the bottom of society that would try to mitigate suffering through radical generosity and sharing of resources. Jesus rejected the politics of violent revolution. Instead, he developed a nonviolent approach. He would not try to overthrow the kings and oligarchs. Instead, he and his followers would create alternative communities—modeling a new social order in the midst of the old. And, Jesus taught, the kingdom of God was beginning immediately, starting with powerless groups at the bottom of society. The poor and the outcasts would model life in the kingdom of God for the wealthy and powerful. The least would be the greatest in the kingdom, the last in this world would be the first to arrive. The poor would welcome the change, but the wealthy would not.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’ (Luke 6:17-25)
Jesus quickly formed a political movement to create this alternative social reality. The coming of God’s new social order requires a committed people with a new vision and new values. The founding of a new social reality is not a threat to the status quo when it is only a vision in the head of one person. Jesus knew that his call for Jubilee economic redistribution would threaten the rich and powerful, and would likely result in a violent reaction. He also knew that it would be relatively easy to silence a single voice. But a movement empowered by a shared vision is much more difficult to stop. When a movement galvanizes the hopes and aspirations of a larger community, authorities begin to worry. Movements can quickly get out of control.
Jesus gathered a core team of 82 disciples, with twelve in a leadership role. (Imagine King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council.) Then he sent 70 of them out to the villages and towns of Galilee to prepare for his forthcoming political campaign tour to engage the peasants in a grassroots effort. In Luke’s gospel we read, “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them… ‘Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:1-9) Sharing food, healing the sick, and announcing the kingdom of God: these were the three assignments to the disciples as they carried the Jesus movement to the villages and towns of Galilee.
The message they shared was that God’s economic justice was arriving, and it was important for every individual to get on board. How? By living out the vision of a new economic and political reality immediately! Jesus taught his followers to trust God, to create a compassionate community to provide for each other’s needs, and to respond when called upon to care for and share their resources with their brothers and sisters. He taught his followers to reject selfish concerns and to pray for sufficiency—just enough for tomorrow, “our daily bread.” The kingdom of God is intended to build a social safety net for the poor, hungry, and homeless. The community that gathered around Jesus left everything to follow him. They formed what is known as a ‘fictive family,’ not connected by blood ties, but by a common vision. Jesus claimed that they were now his new brothers and sisters.
Jesus began to model the new society for his followers and critics. For Jesus, the beginning of community was the sharing of food. But Jesus emphasized that the sharing of meals was intended to go beyond close family and friends. His table fellowship was for the least, the lost, and the lonely. It was to include the outsider and the marginalized, the despised and those who are socially-defined enemies. Since Jesus had no home, no wealth, no banquet table, no food to offer, he modeled inclusive table fellowship by publicly accepting invitations to dinner from others—often from those considered ‘sinful’ people.
Jesus began to teach others the ways in which the kingdom of God would be radically different from normal society. Love and compassion were at the center of his political reality.
I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)
Part 3: political engagement
According to the synoptic gospels, sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He would interrupt the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a popular demonstration for peace through economic justice. (Imagine King’s ‘March on Washington.’)
Jesus clearly understood that arrest and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by common people. It was a time of decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life.
Jesus’ entry into the city on the Sunday before Passover was a noisy nonviolent demonstration that attracted wide attention. According to Mark’s story, Jesus was hailed as a messiah with leafy branches cut from date palm trees and strewn in his path.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ (Mark 11:9)
Hosanna was originally a Hebrew cry for help meaning ‘save us now!’ As an exclamation of adoration it became more of an expression of thanks— ‘our salvation has arrived!’
On Monday morning, Jesus headed straight for the Temple and created a public disturbance in the Court of the Gentiles in full view of the Sadducees and the Roman garrison in the Antonia Fortress. On the surface, Jesus seems angered about commerce in the Temple precincts. Some interpreters think that Jesus disapproved of the Temple’s use of animal sacrifice. Still others believe that his demonstration was against the Temple as a symbol of the Jewish religion itself, as if Jesus was rejecting the religion he was raised in and was replacing it with a new one based on himself as the center of devotion. But most likely, this demonstration at the Temple was a demonstration against the people who managed it and benefited from it—the wealthy and powerful Sadducees.
In essence, the demonstration was a symbolic way of shutting down the Temple. Modern readers must realize that Temple was not just a religious site. It was the center of government for the Sanhedrin council of the ruling Sadducee party. It was also the site of the national treasury and the place that debt records were stored. In a temple-state, it represented all aspects of the domination system—religious, political, and economic.
All of the objects of Jesus’ anger in his demonstration were legitimate operations in the huge Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the central areas reserved for Israelite women, men, and priests alone. The Temple required bird and animal sellers on site so that pilgrims would be able to offer sacrifices that were ritually acceptable. Money changers were required to change foreign currencies into the approved coinage for payment of the temple tax. Jesus upset these operations by driving out those who were selling and buying and not allowing “anyone to carry anything through the temple.” But the real objects of his protest were not low level functionaries.
We are told that Jesus addressed the crowds in the Temple with these words: “Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’? But you have turned it into a hideout for crooks.” (Mark 11:17) Jesus was not condemning the Temple as a ‘place’ of robbery, but as a ‘hideout’ for the robbers. A den of robbers is not where the robbers rob, it is a place where they go to hide out after the robbery, the place where they count their ill-gotten gains, the place where they congratulate themselves for their cleverness, and the place where they plan their next big scheme. It was not a few money changers or dove sellers that were the target of Jesus anger, but the thieves, robbers, and brigands at the top levels of society who perpetuated a system of economic injustice, who robbed people of their land, their wealth, and their livelihoods. But the governing Sadducees understood his message clearly.
The Sadducees had decided that they needed to shut Jesus up before he instigated a rebellion, either violent or nonviolent.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ …So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11:47-53)
When Jesus was arrested late on Thursday night and brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah, a political label for a warrior king. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusation back on the accuser and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. Later, the early church gave Jesus very political titles—‘messiah’ (Christ) and ‘son of God,’ a challenge to Caesar. (When Augustus’ father Julius Caesar was declared a god by the Roman Senate, Augustus was lauded as a ‘son of a god.’) The earliest Christian creed was also a challenge to the state—‘Jesus is lord’ countered the Roman creed ‘Caesar is lord.’ Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all executed by the state for charges of insurrection. None led a violent revolt against Rome, but all intended to subvert its domination system with alternative communities dedicated to love, compassion, peace, shared resources, and social equality. Jesus and the movement he created were profoundly political.
So, did Jesus have a particular political stance? I think that if one reads the gospels in the context I have just described, the answer is ‘yes.’ The kingdom of God is a political reality that was meant to be lived in the present and it was clearly the central focus of Jesus’ public ministry. This is the core of the gospel ‘of’ Jesus. But the gospel ‘about’ Jesus declares all of this to be irrelevant. For in that gospel, it is only what followed on Friday in Jerusalem that really matters: Jesus was crucified for our sins.
It is wrong to simply view Jesus as a spiritual savior with a heavenly goal. The gospels show that he was political. He was concerned about our lives in the here and now, not in the hereafter. He had a political vision for how society should be structured and what values it should embody. He taught about the coming new reality and he modeled it in his own life. He created a movement to carry it on after his death, and the early church continued to live out his vision of close communities of sharing and equality for many decades after his crucifixion.
The question for all of us should be ‘how do we make the kingdom of God manifest in our own political reality, our own domination system, our own democracy that is rapidly being transformed into a new oligarchy by the rich?’ Gandhi, among others, declared that a society’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. On local, state, national, and international levels we are called to be prophetic voices for the vision of Jesus. When Jesus announced the kingdom of God, he was putting forth a vision of a society governed by love—more peaceful, more compassionate, more equitable, and more just. Planted deep in our hearts, this dream defines our mission as followers of Jesus. We are called to transform the hearts, minds, and politics of our cities and towns, our states, our nations, and the entire global community so that children everywhere will be fed, clothed, healed, and educated.