Much of the “radical” Christian movement of the past couple decades is rooted in the idea that there is a distinct Christian politics, as opposed to just plain old politics. Christian politics are the politics of Jesus. John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas gave intellectual foundations to this perspective, and contemporary evangelicals such as Brian Zahnd and Shane Claiborne have taken up the mantle. Jesus’ politics are exemplified in the Gospels, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount and his radical teachings about loving enemies. Jesus does not merely come to save people, to inaugurate his kingdom, but to offer a contrast to the politics of this world in a counter-politics, a politics that is different from regular politics.
I used to believe in something like this. I used to believe that Jesus came to show a different politics that could stand out as a contrast politics, a politics that would be perfectly in line with the Gospel and a direct expression of the kingdom that God has begun and will complete at the end of history. I went to Shane Claiborne events and cheered when he set about bashing evangelicals for compromising with caesar. I have since given up the idea, not because Christianity doesn’t speak to politics, because it most assuredly does. Not because I am disillusioned, though I have a more profound sense of the deep brokenness of humans and human society as I grow older. Rather, I have given up thinking there is a special “Christian” politics because there is only one politics—the politics of this world—and it is imperfect. Jesus’ kingdom, when it comes in its fullness, will right all wrongs and establish a perfect and glorious peace. Until then, we are left with what God has given us, which is the politics of this age—a partial, inglorious, muddled, compromised form of God’s reign.
The Kingdom of God is not a social movement looking for activists. It is not a social program to be put into action. If it was, it’s quite strange that Jesus gave us so little guidance as to how to instantiate it. Yes, we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Yes, the church has an important role in God’s salvific plan. Yes, the church is supposed to manifest the love of God in its actions and its care for other people. Yes, it should seek justice and support justice in the broader society. But supporting these basic convictions does not mean Jesus is bringing in a new politics. Rather, the perfect love and righteousness of the kingdom stand above our imperfect politics, constantly calling us to judge and scrutinize our own imperfect and often unjust systems.
I used to think taking the high road of Jesus’ politics was more faithful to the Gospel, a closer representation to what Jesus would have wanted. But this high-mindedness papers over the radical brokenness and sinfulness of all persons and societies. It was Augustine of Hippo who stands as the best opponent of the politics of Jesus. He writes that our righteousness in this life “rather consists in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtue.” The city of God’s righteousness consists of repentance rather than moral achievement. Each Christian feels more deeply as they sojourn the weight of their own sin, the brokenness of the world around them. Even though we see the beauty of each human person as a reflection of the Creator and the created world’s wonder, we sense, at the same time, a crack through it all. In this life, both our personal and social lives are marked by a struggle against sin, not in the achievement of righteousness over sin. Likewise, politics will always only be a struggle of broken people to bind up as best as they can a broken world. Jesus’ beautiful vision of love, grace, and justice calls us forward, but not as a vision for a social project we are to undertake to build.
Politics is about power. It is about power exercised for judgment, which means that it is not a means of salvation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls disciples to give up their lives, but God’s call to political authorities is to harness power, sometimes coercive power, for the good of society. It is power exercised against wrongdoing and for the sake of preserving peace and justice. We ask people to go overseas to kill other people to preserve our peace and the peace of our allies. What the politics of Jesus promises to do is show us a purified and pure form of politics, but God’s rule is being enacted through government for sustaining order and peace. The basic theological error of the politics of Jesus is that it claims to have a clear politics derived from the Gospel. The Gospel is not something we do. It is not something we put into practice. That is heresy. The Gospel is what God does for us. The triune God alone comes to save and will accomplish that salvation without our help. We may live in light of God’s redeeming work in Christ, but it does not simply map onto a social agenda or a political cause.
Politics is practical. It sets out to establish justice, law, order, and peace so that human community may thrive and flourish. The politics of Jesus eschews the practical dimension for faithfulness. They rail against American Empire and the ways of empires throughout history, as though they have said anything interesting or theologically important. What is significant is that when Western Europe was about to fall prey to a moral monster, an American-led coalition defeated Hitler, with the help of another bad hombre, Josef Stalin.
The politics of Jesus folks have nothing to say on the matter. It’s merely prideful empires clashing in the night and nothing more. Their response is to point to a “better way,” but politics deals with the here and now and not some distant future or ideal world. Politics is practical and seeks to redress wrongs and set things right as much as is possible in this world, which is often woefully inadequate. When they scoff and criticize the sinful imperfections of politicians and politics, they act as though they have done something worthwhile. In fact, they have done little.
There are thousands of people every day in America who set about the hard task of working within federal, state, and local governments. Police officers, soldiers, diplomats, and a vast array of other people try to make government work well for the citizens of this country and other countries around the world. But the politics of Jesus crowd would have us believe that is all just giving in to effectiveness rather than being faithful to Jesus. It allows its adherents to maximize their denunciations while saying or doing little for the people who are trying to make government work well for the people.
But this is exactly what they intend. Stanley Hauerwas, the great patron saint of pacifism, is fond of saying that we are called to be faithful, not effective. That’s not politics. Politics is effective. It is intended to have an effect, and hopefully a good one.
The imperfect and impure politics of this world may look ugly and sinful to the “radical” Christians of our age, but it’s all we have. And that is how God intended it. This imperfect politics is the only politics there is, and to live otherwise is to deny what God has given us in this life.