Anabaptism and the truncated politics of Jesus

A few days ago I raised some questions about how well the characteristically “neo-Anabaptist” emphasis on the cross as the lens through which we must now view God—he is the “crucified God”, the “Jesus-looking God”—works within the overall narrative of the New Testament.

My argument was, on the one hand, that the New Testament does not really bear out the idea that the weakness and suffering of Jesus is to be projected on to God, and on the other, that the core political-religious narrative does not stop at the cross: it makes Jesus judge and ruler of the nations. The Anabaptist critique of Christendom and the exercise of power has much to be said for it. But if we are to read historically—rather than theologically—I don’t think we can get round the fact that the New Testament envisaged exactly the sort of political-religious transformation of the ancient world that came about with the conversion of Rome.

Since then I came across (thanks to Mundus Reconciliatus Ecclesia) a First Things article by Peter Leithart on the place of the cross in Christian political discourse called “Truncating the Politics of Jesus”. It didn’t go quite where I thought it would go—I thought we would get something more like his argument in [amazon:978-1608998173:inline]. But it gives us another way of approaching the basic problem, which is the isolation of the cross from the whole narrative.

Leithart starts with a quick account of the ousting of Jesus from Western political discourse and then argues that the church’s current enthusiasm for Christian activism—for which we must, of course, thank John Howard Yoder—operates with a badly truncated version of the politics of Jesus.

The problem, in Leithart’s view, is that the model is too thoroughly cruciform. It is grounded in the weakness and submissiveness—and we should add non-violence—of Jesus in the face of the unjust, self-serving brutality of the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem. But this is not the whole story in the Gospels. It is only the end of the story.

What preceded Jesus’ silence in Pilate’s Praetorium were several years of inflammatory non-silence. Jesus condemned Pharisees and scribes as hypocrites who sought glory from men rather than God and neglected the weighty matters of the very Torah they claim to revere. He called them sons of hell and children of the devil, white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones, murderers of the prophets. He told clever stories that always slotted pious Jews in the role of villain or stooge—the surly older brother of the prodigal son, the prissy Levite and priest of the good Samaritan, the murderous tenants in the parable of the vineyard.

A politics of Jesus must take into account the whole ministry of the “folk hero” Jesus, the trouble-maker Jesus, who offended the religious leaders of Israel at every opportunity, who ate with the outcasts, who touched the unclean, who ran amok in the temple, who attracted huge audiences of ordinary people, who drew people after him, and so on.

This all ended in his arrest and trial, and at this point we see Jesus submit in weakness and humility; and “in weakness and humility he won his greatest victory”. But if we separate this final emblematic moment from the preceding narrative, Leithart maintains, we “miss the politics of Jesus altogether”.

Submission comes at the end of a life of very public proclamation. To follow Jesus from the beginning, we need to be faithful in exposing the idols of our world, and joyfully accept whatever consequences come. If we don’t follow Jesus at the beginning, we’re unlikely to have an opportunity to follow him to the end.

I’m not sure I entirely recognize Leithart’s analysis. It seems to me that most Christian social-political activism these days draws its inspiration from the life of Jesus, the friend of the marginalized, the social progressive, rather than from his trial and execution. But we may be looking at different things, and in any case, the basic point is right: the weakness of the cross cannot be understood apart from the narrative of proclamation that precedes it.

Leithart has his own purpose here, and I don’t want to quibble over it. He leaves us with a rewriting—or to use Micah Redding’s term, translation—of the political narrative for our own purposes. That seems to me apparent when he says that “we need to be faithful in exposing the idols of our world, and joyfully accept whatever consequences come”. He is addressing the question: “How do we make Jesus a model for political engagement today?”

But if our task is to understand the “politics of Jesus” in the New Testament, in a more restrictive sense, I think that, even with Leithart’s correction, we still have a misleadingly truncated narrative, in two respects.

First, the cross cannot be separated from the proclamation, but the proclamation is made to first century Israel and presupposes the story of first century Israel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15).

I’m sure Leithart wouldn’t disagree with this. But I think we have to ask whether Jesus’ activism as a prophet-messiah within first century Israel under Roman occupation facing the wrath of God constitutes a proper model for Christian activism today. It is natural enough to rewrite our own sense of purpose and mission in the language of the Gospels: we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we bring good news to the poor, we take up our own crosses, and so on. But this can easily become little more than a pious romanticism that blinds us to the realities of our own historical context.

Secondly, Leithart’s corrective runs backwards but not forwards. It reconnects the cross with what went before but not with what came after.

The phrase “the politics of Jesus” is ambiguous. The “of” can be understood subjectively: the politics which Jesus espoused. But it can also be understood objectively: the political significance that Jesus had for others, particularly for the early church. [pullquote]The central meaning of the resurrection-ascension was precisely that Jesus had been elevated by God to a position of active power and authority.[/pullquote] For Paul and the early church that was the politics of Jesus.

In the widely used language of the Old Testament, he had been given the nations as his inheritance, the ends of the earth for his possession; he would break them with a rod of iron; he would rule in the midst of his enemies; all peoples and nations would serve him rather than serve the destructive, beast-like imperial powers (Ps. 2; 110; Dan. 7:14). He would be the judge of the oikoumenē which had been turned on its head by the preaching of the apostles (Acts 17:6, 31).

In this respect, I find Leithart’s quick review of Western political thought interesting. For centuries, he writes, “Jesus’ lordship had been foundational to Western political thought.” But by the 17th and 18th centuries Jesus had become irrelevant, and it hardly surprises us now that Jesus barely gets a mention in the foundational texts of Western political theory.

This is, in effect, an account of the future dimension of the “politics of Jesus”, only Leithart has constructed it historically rather than apocalyptically. How did Jesus’ lordship become foundational to Western political thought? The God of history judged the pagan Roman world and the nations came to confess that Jesus Christ was Lord, to the glory of God the Father. New Testament eschatology flows directly into the history of Western Christendom. Apocalypticism becomes historiography—merely another mode of story-telling.

So the main point I want to make here is that if we are to respect the whole of the New Testament, our reconstruction of the politics of Jesus must reconnect the truncated cross not only with the preceding prophetic mission of Jesus but also with the apocalyptic aftermath, which becomes—and remains—the historical existence of the church.

It is not the preaching of Jesus that we have inherited—we are not first century Israel. Nor is it the cross. What the New Testament has bequeathed to us is the lordship of Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father. This is the basis on which we have to deal with history.

But given the repudiation of Jesus as Lord by the nations over the last three hundred, how do we now speak credibly about that apocalyptic future? Does it help at this point simply to retell the abstracted story of Jesus as the friend of the weak and marginalized? It seems to me that we will not rebuild a viable biblical political vision until we find a credible way to reaffirm the lordship of Jesus in a world now ruled by the forces of liberal humanism.

This to me is the challenge of encountering your work. What now? How do we being to work on that last sentence? So much of what you write resonates with me but I have a real hard time seeing how the current church can morph into something different.

Evangelicalism does not seem prepared to change either its perspective or its tools for this period of transition away from Christendom. Conservatives want to double down on doctrine and theology while liberals want to push, well, liberalism (a sort of Christian liberal humanism). And there is a host of others in the middle who just want various version of therapeutic deism or self-help Christian moralism.

Reaffirming Jesus as Lord is difficult in this context because it gets drowned out by culture wars thinly disguised as disputes over scripture and doctrine or undermined by new age moralism and political correctness.

It seems to me the path lies in challenging our culture’s idols but doing so with some humility and a willingness to live with the consequences.  

Most challenging of idols today either comes off as harsh and uncaring or mere political liberalism dressed up in Christian garb. The right seems reactionary in wanting a dying Christendom to continue or be revived while the left seems unwilling to consider the idols of liberal humanism in its consumerist form.

So how do we being to wrestle with what “Jesus as Lord” means today? What steps do we need to take in ecclesiology and worship?  What about cultural interaction and politics?

Chris Jones | Wed, 01/08/2014 - 09:53 | Permalink

Where do you find in the NT narrative a church after the pagan Empire was defeated? Didn’t the church fulfill its role ? Where does the biblical narrative tell us that after the conversion of the Empire there would be any need for a community to worship Jesus, devote themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, prayer, meet to break bread and take up a collection for those in need?

It’s a good question, and I don’t have a complete answer for it. The emphasis in the New Testament is on the suffering church, which will be vindicated when Christ comes or is revealed to the nations. The reward for the suffering church is that it will be with the Lord throughout the coming ages, and it may simply be taken for granted that the community of God’s new covenant people continues on earth.

In Romans 4:13 Paul speaks of the descendants of Abraham inheriting the world. I think he means by this that the people of God, which had previously been confined to the Land—or had existed as scattered diaspora communities—would in some sense at least take possession of the empire. What New Testament eschatology describes is the process by which this would come about—through the faithful suffering of Christ-like communities, which would be vindicated and rewarded at the parousia.

I think the expectation may have been that the nations as ethnic-political entities would, from that point on, confess Christ as Lord in the way that they had previously confessed Caesar as Lord (this is Daniel 7, in effect), with the church operating as prophetic-priestly body intended to facilitate and safeguard that arrangement. But that’s more an extrapolation than an interpretation.