The setting in which Jesus lived was dominated by the Roman occupation of the homelands of Israel and Judah. Rome was the latest of the vast empires to control and tax these lands. Jewish rulers, when there were any, found their safety in allegiance to Rome.
Most Jews found this lack of independence incompatible with their heritage as the people of God — the God of their ancestors, the one true God, who had committed himself to his people in covenant. There was a range of responses to the problem, from collaboration on the part of the ruling elites and their supporters, through the Sadducean priests’ acquiescence in favor of preserving the worship in the temple in Jerusalem, through a focus on promoting the purity of the Jewish people according to the law of Moses as a prerequisite for God’s intervention on their behalf, to armed rebellion. These all represent the usual varieties of the politics of any subject people.
Much of Jesus’ teachings were given over to the task of forming a community of Jews — his disciples — that followed and exemplified a particular response to the situation of their people, that is, a particular political stance. This political position was not easily understood, and it had, of course, to compete for attention and allegiance with all those other types of responses. So, along with being formed into a community following Jesus’ teachings, his disciples were also sent out to campaign for his teachings, to “proclaim that ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8). They were not sent on such missions with any optimism with regard to acceptance of their message. Rather, they were warned about name-calling, rejection, and violence and that their message would cause division in families and communities (Matthew 10:11-39).
Jesus appears to have been tempted to lead in armed rebellion (though our understanding of Matthew 4:3-10; 9:36; 23:37; and other passages has been dulled by spiritualization). But he rejected this violent option. In fact, making one’s enemies particular objects of one’s love was part of what he taught (Matthew 5:38-48). These “enemies” were not abstract: they included the enemies of his people: the Romans and collaborators with the Roman occupation.
Jesus’ nonviolent option would have been hard to understand. It could look like acquiescence to all but the acquiescent and like rebellion to all but the violent rebels. What can be accomplished by an oppressed people through nonviolence came to be appreciated in the twentieth century through Satyagraha in India and through the American Civil Rights Movement. People have attempted to utilize this force of the crowd in some late twentieth and early twenty-first-century revolutions. To what degree is any of this in accord with Jesus’ nonviolent option? It would not be helpful to claim certainty about any one answer to that question, particularly from some abstract place outside all concrete situations.
Jesus carried on a critique of his own people that shows that he was allied, to some degree, to the position of the Pharisees, which regarded the purity of the Jewish people as the essential prerequisite for their salvation. But most of his critique was, in fact, directed against Pharisees, against specific Pharisees (Luke 7:36-50) and against Pharisees in general (Luke 11:37-54; Matthew 5:20; ch. 23, etc.). He regarded their particular concerns as valid but not lived up to.
It might seem odd to most of us, and here I’m particularly addressing Americans, to think of Jesus as having a political position within the possibilities open to his people in his place and time. Perhaps it would be better to say he stood outside, not within the options offered by others. So be it, but his teaching does give a definite way of living in that particular situation. Recognizing this helps us to give up on any idea that God as a human somehow floated above humanness. If Jesus had come, instead, to America within the last half century, Christians of the future would be right to ask whether he was a Democrat or a Republican or something else. The answer would have to be “something else,” at least to some degree, because Jesus is so uncompromising, not because he is aloof from the issues other humans face.
Our own history means that we separate religion and politics. Europe’s interdenominational violence from the Reformation on till — when? — the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland? — have made us wary, and the need within our political system to form broad coalitions has further pushed religion out of politics. This is our situation, now shared to varying degrees with many other nations. It makes it all the harder to understand that Jesus’ teachings were heard as political and religious, that neither of those two realms could be addressed without the other.
So we have the task, as Jesus’ 80th-generation disciples, of finding responses to our situations shaped by Jesus’ response in his situation. But let us not overemphasize the distance. Despite the continuing lofty rhetoric of American representative democracy, our situation today is, like that of Jesus’ people in his time, one of various possible responses to the possession of power by somebody else. Our national government is largely shaped by and subject to the institutional needs of large corporations. That is what “capitalism” has come to mean. If we say that we are not dispossessed (and so can’t make much political use of Jesus’ teachings), we are fooling ourselves. We thus close our eyes to — and thus cooperate with — the reigning corporate powers. We would do better to call out their names. And we need to love creatively our enemies — including those who function as administrators and servants of those institutions — to find ways to “heap live coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20).
I first encountered the idea of Jesus as tempted by the option of violent rebellion and as teaching a political position in T. W. Manson’s The Servant Messiah: A Study of the Public Ministry of Jesus (1st ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961). John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (1st ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) and Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970) took this further by his critique of the usual exclusion of Jesus’ teachings from Christian social ethics.