The Politics of Jesus (By Obery Hendricks)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)
Politics and religion have a contentious relationship in our secular, liberal democracy; even though many politicians claim to live according to personal Christian convictions. But what shapes their convictions? What sort of Jesus do they follow? Obery Hendricks Politics of Jesus gives a thick description of the way of Jesus, and analyzes the faith of Ronald Regan and George W. Bush accordingly. In the end he claims that neither conservatism nor liberalism work for a model of Christ-likeness, but something more is needed. A richer understanding of Jesus is called for.
He begins the book by describing the passive, docile Jesus of his religious childhood as a sad parody of the Jesus that the gospels describe. The (conservative) blue-eyed, gentle Jesus depicted in Warner Salman’s famous paintings was in no way political, and was primarily guilty of claiming to be the son of God. He was too mild-mannered to otherwise offend anyone. Hendricks calls this description “political docetism.” Accordingly, gentle Jesus made claims only upon the personal morality of individuals, not social systems or political orders (77-85). But, as Hendricks argues, political docetism denies important realities of the life of Jesus; it denies Christ’s compassion and concern for the victims of oppression whom Jesus described as “the least of these”, and it ultimately winds up serving the very forces Christ opposed by giving oppressed people a Jesus who is devoid of any social witness (79-80). Instead of a politically docetic Jesus, Hendricks argues that Jesus was among us as a model of obedience to God, seeking to liberate whole people—body and spirit—from the tyranny of principalities and powers, and unjust rulers in high places (10). Jesus was indeed political. His message was primarily about the kingdom of God, or malkuth shamayim, which was a traditional Jewish recognition of the sole sovereignty of God, dating as far back as the Exodus. This tradition understood God as: king of the universe, sole king of Israel, and future (eschatological) ruler. Malkuth Shamayim was both religious and political (19-20). It was John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus continued “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven—Malkuth Shamayim—is at hand.”
The expectation of the messiah began as a term to describe the anointed Jewish monarch who ruled Israel as God’s representative. Malkuth Shamayim later evolved into a heavenly destination, and messiah became an expectation of a divine liberator of Israel (24-26). The role of the prophet corresponded with the Jewish kingdom experience in a confrontational manner involving forth-telling matters of moral and political judgment, and fore-telling God’s actions in response to obedience/disobedience (28). The prophets, Hendricks argues, never uncritically gave support to the status-quo. Rather, their role was to challenge it, in favor of the sole sovereignty of God. That is, prophets were the voice of the will of God for society, challenging systems of social inequality and disobedience to God’s commandments including God’s concern for the oppressed. Thus, Hendricks argues that there has never been a conservative prophet (28). They never argued to maintain the status-quo, but to change it so that it resembles the way of the God of the Exodus who saw oppression and showed up to side with the oppressed.
Jesus was born into a nation that was familiar with oppression. Roman colonization was brutal, but not all Jews suffered from it. The Jewish priestly class was an extension of the oppressive Roman government, within the religious life and political maintenance of the Jewish society. They were Jewish agents of Roman interests (60). This presented a problem for the common, oppressed Israelite; submission to Roman domination by adherence to Israeli assimilated priests, or incurring God’s wrath by turning against the priests who were the facilitators of their faith (60). In this climate and environment, Jesus, the calculating political strategist, taught his followers to pray. That is, he taught them what it was they were to be devoting themselves to as his followers. His prayer betrayed his first of seven strategies, treat the people’s needs as holy by striving to fulfill their needs as if serving God (103). Secondly, he sought to give a voice to the voiceless by intentionally protesting against exploitation at the Temple Mount. Thirdly, Jesus told parables in order to expose the workings of oppression (132). Fourth, Hendricks claims that Jesus’ exorcism of the demon-possessed man by casting “legion” into pigs was Jesus’ way of “Calling a demon by name” (145). That is, the Roman occupation was bad for Israel, and Jesus had the demon say his name, and illustrate that there were many of them present. Thus, the action was a narrative of social protest. In his publish admonishment of the religious leaders, Jesus illustrated that we must save our anger for the mistreatment of others. That is, we should be angered at social systems, like the Jewish ruling-class collaboration with the colonizing oppressors. Sixth, Jesus advocated turning the other cheek and taking blows without returning them. But that was no mere submission in the face of evil; Jesus advocated non-violently encouraging oppressors to see their victims as equals, and to give the victims a voice in the face of abuse. This is the same argument in Stassen’s transforming initiatives (168). Seventh, Jesus not only explained the alternative kingdom, he demonstrated it. That is, when he redefined God’s kingdom as one based on gift instead of debt, he also demonstrated it by feeding thousands of people in one setting; after which, the populace sought to make him king (178).
In the midst of this argument is an understanding of God’s justice as relational; Mishpat and sadiqah are both definitions and uses of justice that correspond with relationships. At the heart of God’s kingdom proclamation in Christ, is relational, social interaction based on concern that all community members would be considered within the scope of moral responsibility. That is justice, and God’s way as demonstrated in the Exodus, and revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, the political messiah.