Among those likely to embrace a political reading of the Bible are dominionists, Zionists, Wahhabi Muslims, sundry power- trippers eager to use religion for personal gain, and violent revolutionaries.
We don’t agree with any of those perspectives because each seeks the kind of power that demands compliance, punishes the unpersuaded, and regards the threat of violence as the guarantor of its authority. That’s not the kind of power we see in Jesus or his followers.
The Bible describes Jesus’ power as the capacity to attract an audience, unmask deception, speak with authority and inspire people to repent and align their lives with God’s truth. His exercise of this power was often passionate, sometimes confrontational and always grounded in a First Testament, Jewish understanding of righteousness and justice. The healing of physical, emotional and spiritual wounds was another aspect of his power and seemed to merge with his ability to imagine and inspire another way to run the world.
Most importantly, Jesus’ kind of power reflected humility and a willingness to suffer loss, including his own death at the hands of those who held conventional power. Chapter 19 of If Not Empire, What? focuses on this radical difference.
The Second Testament is unabashed in claiming Jesus’ kind of power will multiply and spread. The prophecy of Joel—fulfilled so remarkably at Pentecost—is the clearest example with its proclamation of the Spirit’s abundance poured out “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). It resulted in the formation of a new community known for its communal ethos, generosity, subversive rhetoric and willingness to confront the authorities.
Biblical writers were well aware of the kind of oppressive power that coerces, humiliates, steals and destroys. They understood it to be part of what they called “the power of sin.” But what most distressed biblical writers was the way the oppressed came to embrace the worldview of their oppressors and thereby legitimize and empower those oppressors.
Thus, we see in the writings of the Apostle Paul (chapter 22 of If Not Empire, What?) an emphasis on a new worldview, new social identity and ethic, and a repudiation of the assumption that the coercive power of the empire inevitably rules the world.
So does a political reading of the Bible support the seizure of coercive power? No, not at all. Instead, it points to the faith of Jesus, a faith that compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance are the way God wants the world to be run.