‘Jesus Is Lord': A Political Statement?

At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10).  N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.

In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement.  I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.

Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized.  This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.

However, despite vague sentiments to the contrary, it is very difficult to tie the notion of Jesus as political activist to any passage in the Gospels.  Yes, he boldly addressed the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders and called upon them to repent of their mistreatment of the sheep of Israel, but the Pharisees, Sadducees, et al. are hardly analogous to modern day senators, mayors, presidents, or prime ministers.  Yes, he called Herod a ‘fox’ (Luke 13:32), but in the context the point is only that Jesus refuses to abide by Herod’s directives on where or how to go about his ministry.  Yes, Jesus came to fulfill the liberating promise of the Isaianic prophecy and proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the captives (Luke 4:17-19), but he undertook no specific measures to modify the civil government of the day and he never instructed his disciples to do so, even when given the ideal  opportunity  (Acts 1:6-8).  There is a conspicuous absence in the Bible of dominical or apostolic instruction for the church as an institution to labor for the transformation or redemption of the civic realm as such, and believers must await the true transformation of the kingdoms of this world at the coming of Christ (Rev. 11:15).  Does this mean that there is no place for Christians (and others) to advocate governmental or social reform?   No at all, for believers, under God’s providence and in their various callings in this age, still can and should be involved in the public realm for the common good, but this is less a matter of naively seeking to transform contemporary society into the kingdom of God than of simply loving one’s neighbor in this life, which is no mean endeavor.

There is also the question of how it would actually look to bring the lordship of Christ to bear in public policy.  Naturally one thinks of the urgency of securing justice in society, not least for the vulnerable and oppressed, but the exigency of justice is already made known to humanity by way of general revelation and natural law.  In addition, the importance of justice, impressed upon us by nature and reiterated in Christ’s teaching, does not deliver any concrete political agenda.  Beyond the fundamental dicta of natural law, from which one can make pronouncements about murder, theft, equal treatment, and so on, much is simply left to close research and judicious planning in the areas of education, economics, etc.

All of this is to say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ can be called a political statement only in a very general sense.  It does provide great reassurance in the travails of life.  Yet, because it must be qualified with the acknowledgement (1) that the church is not meant to redeem government or society as such, (2) that the moral judgments that government must uphold are not peculiar to Jesus’ teaching (unless one wishes to go beyond the basics, as it were, and Christianize the society from the top down with legal requirements to take the Lord’s Supper, for example, and do other properly Christian things), and (3) that ‘Jesus is Lord’ contains no fleshed-out political agenda.  This might not be as exhilarating as trying to deduce from  ‘Jesus is Lord’ that we ought to supplant current  civil government and usher in the kingdom of God ourselves or that we ought to take the world by storm with a certain political tack, but it seems to me that it does have the advantages of not claiming too much from this statement, of not hyper-extending the Great Commission, and of corroborating that Christians serving in politics can’t operate on the basis of Christian axioms alone and must be diligent in studying history, weighing potential outcomes for policies, etc., just as a firefighter cannot learn to rescue a family from a burning house simply by knowing the Bible well.

Thoughts?

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11 thoughts on “‘Jesus Is Lord': A Political Statement?

  1. There are of course now well over 35,000 different and differing Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects in the world, all competing for market share in the Barnum and Bailey market-place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religion.
    So which of the 35,000 differing “lords” is the correct one?
    Remember too that ALL of the many “god” and “gods”, whether male or female in their descriptive gender, and whether mono-theistic or polytheistic are creations and projections of the individual and collective ego of those who create/subscribe too them, with NO exceptions.
    Therefore isnt it completely obvious that any and every “Jesus is Lord” statement/claim IS a power-seeking political statement.

  2. Nor would most people want a priest or a minister, of this church but not that one, as president of the United States.

    It’s therefore easy to see lots of good reasons why we might want to continue at least the classic “separation of Church and State”; an iron wall or partition between conventional religion, and political power. Or it is possible to see why many might even want to continue the kind of philosophical dualism in effect, that we have today; the dualism that separates “religion” from day-to-day life.Most people don’t want religion (which one?) intruding itself too much in science, or everyday life.

    On the other hand though: wouldn’t it be nice to see the reverse? To see some mechanism by which practical sense or experience, progressing secular knowledge, could somehow enter into religion? Some way for religion to deal with science, other than proudly proclaiming itself infinitely superior? And proclaming its right to trump all other suits. Some way religion could learn from Science? The same as any practical “lord.”

    That’s what I working on, with my Science of God project by the way; looking at the hundreds of places in the Bible where God acknowledges the importance of in effect, science (Dan. 1.4-15 KJE; 1 Kings 18.20-40; 1 Thess. 5.21; etc.). And where the Bible even seems – like a real politician, or scientist too – prepared to make concessions to material realities.

    If Jesus is “Lord”? Then maybe that wasn’t just a grasp at raw, self-assertive political power. But a humble awareness of the importance of even seemingly non-religious knowledge and day-to-day responsibilities, even to Jesus. The need to expand beyond conventional religion per se, and look at things a lord should know; like say, science. The need for classic religion to be prepared to learn new things; with science and practical experience.

    The conventional dualism that separates spirit from “world,” religion from politics, has great utility. But the simple partition of apparent opponents, was never quite an ideal resolution of conflict. Nor was it theologically or philosophically tenable. Nor was it good, to be sure,to follow the frequent presumption,in the religious world, that the only way to resolve the conflict … was to by simple coup; to put this church or another at the head of the state. Probably the better answer will be … for religion to learn to take on some “secular,” or “lord”ly but humble common sense; and science. For religion to be prepared, like any practical man or lord, to learn from experience.

    To be sure, working out the interconnections between word and world, religion and science, is not easy. And many gross mistakes have often been made; especially in the world of religious politics. But what about say, Jon Edward’s attempt to deal with, incorporate “atoms,” say? What about religion not imposing its preconceptions on, but learning from, experience? The same as any practical lord or boss.

  3. Jesus himself was said to “grow” in understanding or “spirit” and so forth (Luke 1:80, 2:40).

    Note also that Jesus elsewhere also seems to change his mind at times. In his conversation with the woman over the “crumbs” of bread, for example.

    There is apparently room for growth, progress. Even in our Lord.

    We might hope for similar progress in our clergy.

  4. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the interesting post…I think that you’ve given over the political to the reality of secular politics and then said that Jesus is not political because he’s not political in that way. It might just be that Jesus’ politics are political in a different way, but it is still political–more truly political because he is more truly human. Yoder wrote about this in the 70s and NT Wright is just now catching up…

    • Hey Sam,

      Thanks for stopping by. I hope all is well with you guys!

      I’m wondering what it actually means to say that Jesus is ‘political in a different way’. Unless we’re talking about church polity, it seems to me that civil government (which is secular in the sense of ‘common’ and not necessarily in the sense of ‘evil’) is the locus of political activity and responsibility. To remove politics from that sphere would be, I think, to ask the meaning of the word to flex to the point of being unhelpful. Maybe you’re after something different here, though…

      • Steve,

        All is well! I hope the same for you…

        I’d say that Jesus undermines the logic of political efficacy and responsibility that determines the political in the ‘secular’. This just means that there is no authority out there that doesn’t come under his lordship. (For one example, in his explicit teaching he undermines the–very political–lex talionis with the command to turn the other cheek). His lordship relativizes our loyalty to Caesar or any other political authority. One needn’t play by the rules, so to speak, to be considered political, but rather politics is about the ultimate legitimacy of the authority upon which the rules are founded. The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ challenges all such authorities.

        Your fifth paragraph is the most troubling to me. I wonder if what you said would contradict something like the Barmen Declaration by appealing instead to a natural law and general revelation that is available to all and is sufficient to organise human community apart from the lordship of Christ. It seems that the Barmen Declaration was rejecting just such a claim and, given its historical context, suggests that the stakes are very high indeed!

        • Sam,

          Thanks for elaborating on this. I think I would largely agree with your first paragraph, with the caveats that (1) in light of Romans 13 I’m not sure the command to turn the other cheek is something that’s meant to be implemented as a governmental policy and (2) that, while ‘Jesus is Lord’ does relativize all human authority, it still doesn’t give us a fleshed-out agenda on how to go about laboring for the common good in the public arena, which (it seems to me, anyway) is an implicit and naive sentiment in some of what various social justice enthusiasts have to say. It also doesn’t mean that human political rulers are now ‘out of a job’ because Jesus is revealed as Lord.

          With regard to your second paragraph, in light of natural law’s reality, goodness, and efficacy in revealing humanity’s moral accountability in Romans 1 and 2, I just don’t buy that an appeal to general revelation and natural law automatically leads to something like what happened in Germany around WWII. We can obviously agree that Hitler’s agenda was completely wicked, but the problem there was not in the book of nature but in the sinfulness of those misreading the book of nature. (And I think natural law will be misread given human fallenness, but it seems that in Romans 2 human beings still ‘get it’ enough that they can, like those who opposed the Nazi agenda, oppose murder, genocide, etc. We could of course discuss how a Christian understanding of reality helped English, Americans, Germans like Bonhoeffer, et al. to see more clearly what natural law requires, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Also, what you said (at least in the way that it appears here), actually seems to lift nature out from under the lordship of Christ, whereas I would want to emphasize that God the Son is the Father’s mediator in both creation/nature and redemption/grace and therefore that appealing to natural law is not to step outside the bounds of Christ’s lordship. The stakes are of course very high, but I don’t think that Barth’s Nein does justice to the legitimacy of natural law, divine providence, and common grace.

          -Steve

          • I guess the problem comes when you attempt to read natural law apart from Christ who gives us the eyes to see…I see no reason for confidence in our ability to read natural law apart from Christ and no reason to do so. If Christ is indeed the mediator, then it is precisely not to the natural that we look. Natural law apart from Christ’s lordship is open to the possibility of being read correctly but only by accident and never with certainty since the criteria are given only in Christ. Even if all this works according to a common grace and a natural law can it ever be known as such? And is saying that Jesus is not Lord in a political way simply a way of freeing the political as a separate sphere apart from him? Why would we want that?

            As for Rom 13, read Rom 12 as the alternative Christian politics. And, no, there is no fleshed out political agenda in terms of current political regimes. Rather, we are given a missional community given in witness and service to the poor, outcast, lost, oppressed, etc. That is a politics. That Jesus rejected the “zealot option” is a politics, too (see Yoder, Politics of Jesus).

            My concern is that you are carving out a sphere of life that is not under Christ’s lordship, but rather autonomous according to a natural law, general revelation, and common grace. Apart from Christ these are all subject to the human heart turned in on itself, the cor curvum in se. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

            A bit rambling, but…

            Sam

            • Sam,

              I don’t want to free the political sphere from the lordship of Christ, but I do want to challenge the idea that the lordship of Christ pertains only to the sphere of grace (and/or the idea that nature is no longer a a proper theological category). What I’m arguing is that, as the one through whom all things have been made and in whom they all hold together, Christ is Lord over nature as well and that his lordship over this dimension of reality is what ought to ground a believer’s pleas for change and progress in the political arena. To deny that and to go further is, I think, implicitly to legitimize a Christianizing of the state. Yes, natural law (and at this point we’re still talking about that which is under Christ’s lordship) can be neglected or misread by the fallen mind, but to say that it is only rightly apprehended now by accident is, in my mind at least, to truncate God’s providence and to deny the ongoing reality of the sensus divinitatis and conscience in humanity. I would, though, agree that in order to understand general revelation more fully and with greater clarity and certainty one needs the ‘spectacles of Scripture’ and the illumination of the Spirit.

              I’d enjoy having a discussion on this over a pint in St Andrews at some point.

              -Steve

              • Steve,
                I look forward to that pint!

                I am most concerned that if we reject the political claims of Jesus’ lordship (which has quite a bit of exegetical support, by the way) then we are left with a political sphere that looks to the triumvirate of general revelation, common grace, and natural law for guidance–given human fallenness, each of these is subject to anthropocentric interpretation and abuse. Therefore: Barmen. To claim Christ’s lordship in the political sphere is not to Christianize the state, but rather to bring the revelation of what it means to be truly human to bear in political matters. The political is not some extra sphere of life that is discernible apart from human life as a whole, therefore Christ’s lordship is relevant to the political as well. It is, however, the right interpretation of Christ’s lordship that takes its pressure of interpretation FROM Christ TO politics that prevents the “Christianizing” of the state, but also looks less like politics as we know it. This political vision would take more fleshing out that is allowed here, which makes that pint in St Andrews seem all the more necessary!

                very best!
                Sam

  5. Thanks, this is an interesting post. Recently I heard a fairly well known and influential liberation theologian say that nearly all of Jesus’s statements are political. For example ‘love your enemies’. Everyone would have had the Romans immediately to mind. Well, maybe. In fact I’m sure many of Jesus’s listeners did. But I genuinely think Jesus was saying we shold love our enemies whoever they may be. I came away feeling a little uneasy about what this particular theologian had said. He accused the church of over-spiritualising the Gospel…well I certainly felt like he over-politicised it. Surely one of the main criticisms of Jesus by his contemporaries was that he was not political enough-he had the chance to tell the Roman powers what he thought and he remained silent (John’s Gospel apart). I prefer to say that Jesus’s preaching on the Kingdom, and the life to be lived of the Kingdom, has political consequences but in many ways transcend politics. I think Jesus’s preaching on the Kingdom challenges us not to seek purely political answers to problems.

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