As a nation in which no president has identified himself as anything other than Christian, the name of Jesus still holds great political currency in the United States. Thus, as we venture deeper into election season, Christianity is sure to appear in political discourse with relative frequency.
As this frequency increases, American Christians are faced with several interesting and perplexing questions: As a Christian, am I obligated to vote for a certain party or candidate? How does one apply faith in Jesus in the political sphere? Was Jesus a conservative or a liberal?
Though many bumper stickers have sought to answer these questions for us (and what could be more knowledgeable than a two-by-eight-inch sheet of adhesive paper?), answers to these questions are more elusive than they might seem.
Jesus, contrary to popular perception, lived in a very complex, politically polarized society. In Judea, Jesus’ marginal homeland, there were no fewer than four major political “parties”: The Pharisees, a widely respected group of moderate scholars; the Sadducees, a more conservative group of urban elites; the Essenes, a disgruntled separatist community; and the Zealots, a loosely organized collection of political revolutionaries. Each of these groups held radically different views on the first-century political landscape and engaged in polemics against opposing groups. Sound familiar?
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In Jesus’ day, Jewish culture had become so fragmented that even the dominant party, the Pharisees, divided into two sub-parties, which often entered into sharp dispute with one another. The school of Hillel, the “liberal” wing of the Pharisees, employed a flexible form of Biblical interpretation focused on making the ancient scriptures culturally relevant. The more “conservative” school of Shammai, by contrast, adhered to a more rigid interpretive lens, emphasizing preservation over innovation.
Jesus’ world was littered with “political” parties and special interest groups, which leads to the all-important question: Which of these parties did Jesus belong to?
Interestingly, Jesus appears to have defied all the available categories. In one instance, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… soul… and mind…. And love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jewish rabbinic tradition recounts a story of an analogous question posed to Hillel and Shammai. A man came and said, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot,” implying he wants to learn the essence of the Bible in the brief time he can balance on one leg. Hillel responded with an almost identical response to Jesus’, whereas Shammai chases the man away with a stick, militating against the notion that the Scriptures can be reduced.
In other words, when asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus gave the liberal response.
However, in another context Jesus was asked whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. After a nuanced response invoking Moses and Genesis 2, Jesus concludes, “What God has joined together, let no man separate” (Mark 10:9). (NOTE: Filing for divorce was an exclusively male privilege in the first century.) The school of Hillel had taken a very liberal approach to divorce, allowing it for a wide variety of reasons, some as trivial as disapproving of a wife’s cooking. Conversely, the school of Shammai placed a very high threshold on establishing grounds for divorce.
In other words, when asked about the sanctity of marriage, Jesus gave the conservative answer.
Was Jesus a conservative or a liberal? The simple answer is yes, no, both and neither. According to the New Testament, Jesus was a political enigma, at times affirming the values of the political parties in his culture, at others subverting and critiquing them. The record of his life found in the New Testament reveals a figure who found himself at odds with all of the political groups of his era.
To use Jesus’ self-description in another context, it seems that, politically, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.
Thus, a truly Biblical pattern of political participation is not one of spectral politics, pre-defined packages of issues and polarized polemics, but rather one of thoughtful engagement. For Christians to follow Jesus in the murky waters of 21st century American politics, they will have to do what Jesus did in first-century Palestine: think for themselves, seeing each political party with sober, critical judgment and providing appropriate critique and challenge.
Jesus stood outside and above the reductionist political landscape of his day, and for Christians to follow Jesus in our increasingly volatile political climate, we will have to do the same.