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Easter Politics

Easter Politics

In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).   This statement comes in the midst of the apostle's agonizing struggle to understand the status of the Jewish people who have not accepted the apostles' proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead and declared him to be the Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world.  Paul is urging his fellow Jews to both publicly state and personally believe that Jesus is the Messiah on the basis of the event of the raising of Jesus by the God of Israel.  Of course, Paul knows that to make this confession would have radical implications since the whole meaning of Israel would have to be redefined in light of the Messiahship of Jesus.  Presumably, making this confession would not bring an end to one's practice of Judaism. (Remember how James, the brother of Jesus, was renown among the Jews for his Jewish piety while he was also the head of the church in Jerusalem.)  Yet making this confession would require changes in Jews and in their Judaism, especially their willingness to sit at the eucharistic table with Gentiles who also confessed Jesus with their lips and believed God raised him from the dead.  One can only speculate how social and cultural history would have been different if the church had not become almost exclusively Gentile.

There is one detail in this statement that should be noticed.  When Paul says that we ought to confess with our "lips" that Jesus is Lord, many people think of a revival meeting.  They think of an evangelist asking people to come forward to state publicly that they have decided to accept Jesus as Lord.  While I think it is important for people to acknowledge publicly the inner conversion they are experiencing as they respond to the call of the Spirit of God, I do not think Paul was thinking of a revival meeting.  (Needless to say, the revival is a phenomenon which took its mature form beginning only in the 18th century.)  To think that Paul is saying the same thing as an evangelist at a revival meeting would be to trivialize his point.

In the 1st century, anyone who confessed Jesus with his or her lips was a candidate for martyrdom.  The little Christian community was sometimes harassed by Jews when Christians came among them to herald Jesus as the Messiah.  It was always under the threat of persecution by Roman authorities.  Do not think Paul is not highly conscious of this every day of his life.  After all, he himself participated in the killing of Stephen who confessed Jesus as Lord with his lips (Acts 6:8-8:3).  Reliable tradition is that Paul was executed by the Romans for confessing Jesus as Lord with his lips.

When Paul speaks of confessing Jesus as Lord with our lips he is not talking about pious words, but he is talking about making a public confession which is costly and very dangerous in the 1st century.

The reason this would be dangerous is because confessing Jesus as Lord is a political statement, or, to be more precise, it is a personal committment with unavoidable political implications.  To say Jesus is Lord means one does not believe and will not say that Caesar is Lord.  We know from the history of the early church that Christians were ostracized, disenfranchised, and brutally executed because they would not deny Jesus or participate in the cult of emperor worship.

If confessing Jesus is Lord had political implications in the first century, then this must have political implications in the 21st century.  The social contexts are different, but the confession of Jesus' Lordship still generates political consequences.

What the church has to do in every generation is to figure out what the political meaning of confessing Jesus' Lordship is.  To do this means that Christians must first know and believe in the Gospel that the living God is active in history and creation as revealed in the story of God's involvement with Israel and the new story of God's raising Jesus from the dead in time and space.  To understand this Gospel requires a lot of theological work in churches to offset the distortion of the Christian faith as a merely personal, pietistic faith rather than a participation in God's work in history called " the kingdom of God" by Jesus.  It also means learning to look at the world through the lens of Christian faith, which involves reflection on  current issues in light of the purpose of God for the world indicated by the Exodus, the vision of the prophets, and the teaching of Jesus.  It requires conferencing among Christians across denominational lines and national boundaries. 

I think the most difficult part of the political aspect of obedience to Jesus Christ is finding the way to witness to the divine will revealed in him without reducing the Christian message to general abstract "principles," on the one hand, and without letting the Christian message be completely identified with any particular ideology, party, or politician, on the other hand.   Also--regarding not allowing the message to be too identified with secular political agencies--this does not mean that the church never takes a stand on specific goals of administration or legislation, but it is likely that, over time, its specific stands would probably not be in tune with any particular secular agency.

When the church does not understand or develop its own political stance on the basis of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, political groups attempt to use Christians and churches for their own ends.  This has been obvious in the activities of the political right in America for decades.  The result has been harmful to the Christian witness.  Now, the political left in America is attempting to ape the success of the right in doing the same thing.   Christians are going to be susceptible to political manipulation as long as the church neglects to understand and articulate what  political implications in the 21st century are involved in confessing Jesus as Lord.

It is not for me to say how this political dimension of Christian discipleship should be discerned or articulated.  Whatever shape it takes, I expect that it would reflect a relativizing of all human authority, a committment to human life and well-being, a communitarian rather than an individualistic perspective on society, and a vision of justice and peace which transcend nationalistic interests.  I also expect that it would involve a witness to the nations that there be liberty to practice faith, ways of ordering society which manifest ecological wisdom, the eradication of extreme poverty and diseases related to poverty, and seeking long-term alternatives to war as a regular means of politics.

Cardinal Walter Kaspar has called for an ecumenical catechism, which would be a distillation of common Christian teaching about belief and behavior.  I think that his call is inspired by the Spirit, and it is likely to be one of the most important ecumenical tasks of the 21st century.  I also think we ought to have an ecumenical global social creed in the tradition of the 1908 social creed of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  This social creed would articulate a concrete vision for the future of global society.

What I do know is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Lord is a vindication of his way of life and his teaching, as well as a vindication of the promises, commandments, and hopes of Israel which were gathered up in him as Israel's Messiah.  Because he was raised in history and creation, he really is Lord, even though rulers and authorities in political and cultural places may be ignorant of his sovereignty or dispute it.    Because he is the Lord in reality, every dimension of life is transformed when it is submitted to his rule, and that includes politics.