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Reading the Bible Politically

By Berry Friesen (March 10, 2015)

It’s very important to read the Bible with its political context in mind.  That’s one of the reasons we wrote If Not Empire, What?

The earliest biblical texts described Israel’s attempt to organize itself according to the imperial model.  That failed disastrously.  Later texts, written during and after the trauma of exile, described how the Jews recovered some features of statehood by combining centralized religious rigor with a stance of collaboration vis-à-vis the empires that seemed to rule Earth.

Jesus lived during this era of collaboration and was a critic of it.  He described an alternative—a Kingdom of God—that drew upon the power and resilience of common people hungry for righteousness and committed to making peace (see Matt: 5:1-12). Though his alternative was radical, Jesus’ worldview was thoroughly Jewish.  Thus, his understanding of “salvation” was grounded in history (not metaphysics) and his understanding of “a good society” was rooted in the Law of Moses.

Jesus conveyed little respect for the accommodations Jewish religious leaders had made with the empire.  Apparently, he regarded the Romans as a demonic force, one that brought horrific violence into the lives of the people it ruled (see Mark 5:1-20). Jesus refused to answer the questions of Pilate, the Roman governor.  Though there were important Roman towns near the places where Jesus lived and circulated (Sepphoris, Tiberius, Caesarea Philippi), it seems Jesus never went there.

Jesus specifically warned his disciples against “the yeast of the Herodians” (Mark 8:15), which we take to mean the collaborators’ way of sucking up to empire and turning its methods to one’s own advantage.  Twenty years after Jesus was executed, his followers had to decide whether to admit Gentiles into their Jewish movement.  They answered with a “yes” so long as the Jesus-following Gentiles also renounced the suck-up behavior of collaboration with empire (see pages 255-261 of If Not Empire).

No, Jesus did not shun Roman officials or Jewish collaborators.  In Capernaum, Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion, saying he had found such “in no one in Israel” (Matt. 8:8-10).  Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector and presumably a collaborator with the Romans, to be a disciple.   And Jesus accepted support from Joanna, the wife of a key official from the court of King Herod (Luke 8:3).

Yet Herod saw Jesus as the political threat that he was and wanted him killed.  Jesus responded defiantly to the news that Herod was hunting him, calling Herod  “that fox” and promising to continue his work of healing and opening people’s eyes to the deceitfulness and death of Herod’s way of serving and feeding off of imperial power (Luke 13:31-33).

The gospel accounts portray Jesus as fully aware that his presence in Jerusalem would create a dangerous political crisis.  Indeed, by the street theater of his arrival, his disruption of temple operations and his encouragement of the rumor that he was a tax resister, Jesus made certain the climactic encounters would be framed on his own terms. To the end, Jesus remained steadfast, confident that the One he called “Father” would use human faithfulness to change the world.

Certainly we need to ask whether the world actually changed because of the way Jesus lived and died.  Most people—including most who identify as Christian—say “no, the world did not change, but a new religion was born, one that promised a sure salvation in another and better world than the one Jesus came to save.”  Yet that is not how the early leaders of the Jesus-movement—James, Peter, Paul, Priscilla—viewed the matter.  As they saw it, Jesus had exposed the illegitimacy of empire and changed the direction of history.

From that conversation a second political discussion will naturally flow:  whether people of faith should be collaborating with the US-led empire now ruling the world.  If Jesus rejected that approach, why do so many Christians follow it today?