Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “People say that it is utopian to regard the Sermon on the Mount as a basis for historical-political action . . . However, it is not difficult to prove that this view is in conflict with reality . . .”
Though I risk being voted off the island by good sisters and brothers I’ll brave it nonetheless. I believe it’s inaccurate to portray Jesus as an apolitical preacher with nothing to say to his socially prejudiced and politically charged context. In fact, he was and is deeply political, but on his own terms with his own political priorities that fit no one party. Nevertheless, it could be said that his disruptive politics are antithetical to the interests of superpowers who rightly see him as a clear and present danger to the status quo which they take (and give) great pains to preserve.
He wasn’t, in the classic sense, a political leader and he only sparingly directly addressed political issues. Instead, he taught and acted in ways that reflected his upside-down Kingdom, which, rightly understood, informs all of our interactions with the world, including our politics.
We can’t allow ourselves, in the interest of separating Church from State, to segregate our moral values from public life. “Those Christians who try to avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo,” says Timothy Keller. “Since no human society reflects God’s justice and righteousness perfectly, supposedly apolitical Christians are supporting many things that displease God. So to not be political is to be political.”[i]
It’s political when we say that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. It is in that sense that the Church is a political community. “Finally and fundamentally politics is about justice,” writes Peter Wehner, “and justice always matters. You can’t be indifferent to politics because politics is about human lives, and if you get your politics wrong there’s a huge human cost. And if you get your politics right, you can create the conditions for human flourishing and human dignity.”[ii]
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the New Testament gives us a blueprint for an ideal government, but the oft repeated command to love our neighbors as ourselves has clear social and political consequences.
Though his kingdom can’t be defined by a party or by a certain form of government, it most certainly does affect the kind of political convictions we form, policies we support, and politicians we choose to represent us. Among other things, politics matters to God and should to us. He didn’t set us free from our personal sins so we could keep our social transgressions for ourselves!
Therefore, a good place to begin framing our sociopolitical opinions would be to put ourselves on the hillside and, along with his spiritually famished and politically curious crowd, listen intently to Jesus’ words. What we hear should do more than pique our spiritual interest. It might just overturn some of our notions about how we should conduct ourselves politically. Jesus didn’t live or preach in a vacuum. We understand his Sermon best in light of the oppressive context of Rome, staggering taxes, a nearly non-existent middle class, and rampant race prejudice. This was no cute homily meant to charm the masses, but a mandate designed to do more to disturb the comfortable than comfort the disturbed. And as Catherine Booth, Co-founder of the Salvation Army said, “If we are to better the future we must disturb the present.”
[An excerpt from my book; WHAT ON EARTH? Considering the Social Implications of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – from the chapter called “The Disruptive Politics of Jesus”]
I welcome all comments or questions presented in a civil way.
[i] Keller, The Prodigal Prophet, 163.
[ii] Wehner, The Death of Politics, 126.