Jesus in the Public Square

Preston Sprinkle

It’s no secret that Christians, especially the evangelical right, have invested much energy into moving political decisions in the direction they want them to go. For instance, historian Andrew Bacevich examines the Christian influence on America’s growing fascination to military might and concludes, “Were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in this deeply and genuinely religious country becomes inconceivable.” Many other political issues could receive a similar evaluation. Even when evangelicals lose a political battle, there’s no denying that many of them died fighting. How invested should Jesus-followers be in the politics of the nations? The question defies an easy answer, since the Bible itself offers diverse perspectives.

On the one hand, Jesus displays a stunning indifference to political matters of his day. The Roman Empire, which ruled over Jesus’ land, engaged in and promoted innumerable sins that ran against the ethical grain of Jesus’ worldview. Abortion was regularly practiced and even encouraged by philosophers as the morally right thing to do. Yet Jesus never preached against the Roman policy on abortion. Same-sex eroticism was widely practiced, accepted, and promoted in Jesus’ time, yet he never mentions it. Jesus stood against murder, vengeance, violence, and trusting in military might to rule the world. And he certainly did make this very clear in his teaching. Still, his unswerving ethical sermons were never aimed at bending Roman legislation in the direction he wanted it to go. Jesus’ only political speeches—and there were only a small few—fostered submission to the state and not cheating Rome out of her taxes.

Jesus was a public and political figure. But not in the sense that many of his followers are today.

On the other hand, the Old Testament prophets didn’t think twice about calling pagan nations on the carpet of God’s revealed law. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all reserved significant sections in their prophecies to addressing the sins of the nations. And Amos and Micah, among others, foreshadowed Martin Luther King with an ingenious blend of theology and justice in the public square. The prophets of old saw preaching as nothing but theological politics proclaimed from the roof-tops. Were they alive today, the prophets would have littered Time Square with pulpits.

The same goes for John, the author of Revelation. Though writing to churches, John reveals a vision that’s laced with scathing critiques of Roman politics. John calls Rome out for her unjust economic system that fosters greed and neglects the poor, and her inhuman military policies that muddied the soil of the Mediterranean world with innocent blood. John, it would appear, would not remain silent about America’s addiction to military power, though he would certainly be outnumbered by the myriad of voices from the evangelical right.

But there’s a third way for Christians to approach secular politics. Instead of ignoring the state or investing in the state with messianic passion, Christians can—and I would suggest, should—focus on offering a more compelling vision of an alternative kingdom.

With striking imagination, Jesus critiqued Rome without critiquing Rome. According to the gospel writers, Jesus’ spiritual truth was colored with political categories. Jesus was a king, but not a Caesar. He established a kingdom, but not an empire. Jesus critiqued the Roman (and Jewish) inhuman view of women by inviting women to follow him in his mission. Jesus revolutionized economic policy by establishing a better one for those who join his community. And Jesus mocked the hollow power of violence by confronting and destroying evil with non-violence. Rome could never have advanced her kingdom through loving her enemies. But Jesus did. And against all human intuition, the Roman kingdom lasted a few hundred years, while Jesus’ kingdom currently extends across the globe with two billion citizens. Jesus exposes “power” of militarism as a comical charade of power.

Jesus successfully advanced a kingdom without legislating it into existence.

Jesus’ followers kept the same posture throughout the book of Acts. Although they ruffled the feathers of their Jewish opponents, they never actually broke any known Roman law. They didn’t focus on criticizing Rome, yet neither did they agree with the policies of Rome. Instead, they took a third approach by embodying a better kingdom, one which in the words of Roman citizens “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17).

The church is political institution, but one which is not of this world. What matters most is that every church seeks to carry on the mission of Jesus and the apostles by inculcating the values of Jesus’ kingdom. No church, however, should be partisan, since no one secular religious party captures or promotes the holistic and countercultural ethics of Jesus’ kingdom.

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