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Tavern Talk #26: Jesus Wasn't American


In case you’ve somehow missed it, and bless you if you have, we are in the midst of an election cycle. It’s a Presidential election year in a year that is unlike any other. Maybe it’s just my Facebook friends, but it seems like there are lots of political discussions on social media. I’ve seen a few posts with themes such as, “It’s time we Christians spoke up about politics while we can” and “If you are a Christian, you’ll vote.” What exactly do my friends mean? Much of what they say could be taken more than one way. And, based on my understanding of some of their politics, I think there is room for misinterpretation – perhaps my own. Nevertheless, it seems like the right time to talk about religion and politics. Church and politics. Christianity and politics. What role should our faith play?

First, let’s look at our country’s history. The original settlers on this continent fell into two broad categories – those who were seeking the opportunity to practice their religion free from government rule and influence (and they weren’t mainstream) and those who were seeking economic opportunity. Keeping in mind, of courses, that those people weren’t the original settlers to this continent. The Native Americans, though not Christians, were closer to and had more respect for God’s creation than those who sought later to convert them (as they took their land), with Bibles in one hand and guns in the other. Our nation was founded on some radical - and at that time uncommon - principles based on individual rights and freedoms. Freedoms which allowed individual religious practices and economic and political freedoms – at least for white, land-owning men. Regardless, our founders had the foresight to separate and keep separate the government from religion and vice versa (the separation of church and state).

Despite these principles, religion has crept into many facets of our political and community life. I believe this is due, in principal part, to a tension created by our founders. While we respect and protect individual freedoms, we also have majority rule. These are exacerbated by an even more ancient tension – the tension between Christian (Christ-given) principles of love for others above self with nature’s survival of the fittest which manifests itself in terms of economics in the American free enterprise system. Existing between these tensions is the Christian church– complete with all the trappings of human leadership.

We’ve had numerous failures of separating church from state resulting in Christian values (all with Biblical justifications) being perverted into numerous bad government actions – the original taking of this land with little thought for the Native Americans, the promulgation and defense of slavery, the minimalization (and suppression) of women’s rights, prohibition (alcohol), the criminalization and civil prohibitions of sexual preferences and practices, and the need for a Civil Rights Act (due to a lack of equal treatment under the law). These government actions all had religious underpinnings and are directly counter to our governing documents and are counter to true Christian values. We have failed on both fronts.

That’s the macro perspective. What about the micro? How should our religion, individually and collectively, impact our government and our politics? Let’s face it, religion has long had an influence on our individual political decisions. Candidates have become quite adept at leveraging their supposed religious beliefs and convictions (or maybe even the lack thereof) to further their political careers. But what role should religion play? As Christians, how should our beliefs and our chosen Christian duties impact our political decisions and activities?

Well, as Christians, we are fortunate to have some guidance, right? We look to what Jesus did and what he said as the personification of God on this earth as our guide for living. Our struggle as Americans is that his views and practices are historically much different from our own.

First, we must dispel our narrow, self-centered, and short-sighted view of the world. Jesus wasn’t American. The Holy Land was not somewhere in the Midwest. It sounds silly but many talk about Jesus and think of him in the context of America today (or in the good ole days) and place him in a world much different from his own, which was 2,000 years ago. We must turn back the clock and put Jesus’ life in context in order to discern his messages, his instructions and his intentions for today’s world. Does that mean that what he said or did is any less relevant or meaningful for us today? No.

In the Judea, the Palestine, of Jesus’ time, the Jews (which Jesus was by birth and practice) lived under the rule of two regimes: the church (religious leaders) and the Romans (they had a king but he was subject to Roman rule). They had a religious governance and hierarchy with its rules, and they had a civil government (imposed by conquerors) that they had to live within. So, what did Jesus do? What did he say and do about these governments and their governing authority? Actually, not much.

Let’s look at the religious rulers first. Jesus basically said you’ve got it all wrong. He taught that they were perverting God’s rules in ways that undermined the principles and tenets that God provided – all of which were based on love. Love for each other and love for God. He did not, however, take them on directly. Did Jesus urge his followers to overthrow the church governance by force? No. Though he had throngs of people seeking him out, following him, treating him like royalty, he did nothing of the sort. Jesus did not mount insurrection. He sought to change individuals – individual minds, individual thoughts, and individual feelings. Now, he stood up to the church leaders to prove his points – he broke their rules – but he never broke the God-given principles. He healed people on the Sabbath, he allowed his followers to harvest grain to eat on the Sabbath, he touched the sick and the dead, all of which were prohibited by the rules, not God’s rules but man’s rules. And he did lose his temper with the money changers in the temple – those who profit from those who were simply trying to worship. But he honored the Jewish rules and traditions for the most part, observing ancient religious traditions (like celebrating the Passover feast when he instituted what we celebrate today as Holy Communion) and the like.

What about the civil government? The Romans. What did Jesus do or say about them and their rule? Again, not much. But there were no rebellions, revolts, or insurrection. He followed their rules for the most part. Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem because his parents were obeying the Roman law which required that they travel to their family’s birthplace so that they could be counted in a government-ordered census. Jesus paid taxes (see Matthew 17:24). And he discussed taxes when confronted with the tension between God and Roman rule. In Matthew 22:15-22 we find that passage that many know and cite where Jesus says render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. He was answering a trick question (or a question designed to trick him) with a skirting answer. He was communicating that you don’t have to pick one or the other.

And that, for the most part, is all the guidance we have from Jesus.

We have some additional thoughts and instructions from Peter and Paul to early churches and Christians regarding ruling authorities and the government.

In Romans 13:1 – 7, we read part of Paul’s writings to the Christians in Rome.

1Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

In 1 Peter 2:13 – 17 we read part of Peter’s writing to churches in other provinces (beyond Rome where he was, in present day Turkey) who were being persecuted. He is writing to urge them to remain faithful.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

The people to whom Paul and Peter were writing had no control over their governance. They didn’t have the right to vote or to elect their leaders. They were subjects. And in fact they were in the minority. So, perhaps Peter and Paul wanted them to focus on what they could change and what was most important: Their relationship with God and each other. That was the focus. That was the emphasis. The Jews had long been expecting someone to free them from their oppressors. Jesus did. And the others who were oppressed in that day and time who chose to follow Jesus did so because of what Jesus gave them – hope. He showed them how they could be free – without political or military overthrow. Jesus showed them the bigger picture. Peter and Paul filled in some details.

Though these early followers were certainly powerless when it came to government, God wasn’t. God could have done anything. But our entire relationship with God has been built from the very beginning on choice. We are free to choose him or not. We are free to love him or not. It goes back to the very beginning and the story of Adam and Eve. That ancient history is about how God has given us free will and how we continue to blow it.

God’s kingdom is not ruled by force but by love. He loves us and gives us the choice. Then Jesus, the personification of God on this earth, did the same thing. He didn’t force anyone to follow him. He gave them the choice. God gives us free choice and free will – which is similar to some of the founding principles of our nation, isn’t it?

Which takes us back to our government. It is a government of the people and by the people. It wasn’t established by force over the people. The people established it over themselves. Principally. It was created for a number of purposes.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of ...”

One was the rule of law – law and order. If we are going to practice our freedoms, then they must be protected. If we are going to have majority rule, then someone must protect the minority, to ensure their rights are equally protected. That was one of the purposes. Another was to provide for the common good of the people (“promote general welfare”). This is akin to Christian values. It’s more efficient for use to pool our resources to provide these things, which is what we do through taxes. Taxes don’t make the king wealthy but provide for the people – the common good. That is the idea. Provide for the common defense both of our collective rights as a nation and our individual rights. Defending all from whatever may threaten them.

That a much different system of government than that which existed in Jesus’ time for Jews (and the non-ruling Gentiles) in first Century Palestine and even that which existed throughout the world at the time our country was founded.

But even our government, which is by the people and for the people is a government made up of people. And people are imperfect. If we were perfectly followed the two principal commandments that Jesus emphasized – loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving God first and foremost – it would work perfectly. But we aren’t. We look out for number one – ourselves. Greed – for money, power, influence, love, adoration, and admiration – gets in the way. It makes for a robust economy but it is fertile ground for all the trappings of our inherent sinful nature.

So, what do we do?

It makes sense that religion isn’t a part of government. We cannot demand or legislate the feelings, thoughts and actions that God wants. God could have, but didn’t and doesn’t. Jesus could have and didn’t. We shouldn’t try to either. But, keeping religion out of government doesn’t mean that the values that we cherish and desire as Christians should be checked at the door. This is our government. We can do more for the greater good, for each other, through it than without it. If we are truly going to love our neighbor, what better way than by combining our resources and energies to make it happen. It is more efficient and effective that way.

We must use the power that we have – the ability to vote, to assemble, to speak – to see that our Christian mission is furthered. That mission is not to force people to walk our walk and talk our talk. It is to love our neighbors. Because majority rules, we cannot allow the majority to determine who, what, or how we worship. We have to guard and protect our freedom to practice our religion. So, the only Christian mission which our government can further is that of loving each other. Should it? As Christians, why would we not want it to? I don’t see how we can ignore our Christian values – our duty and charge that we should want to see furthered – when it comes to our government. But we cannot use government to impose our beliefs on others. We give them the choice whether to believe or not just as Jesus did, just as God has done since man’s relationship with him began. We protect and defend their right to choose, all the while loving each other regardless. Those are our Christian values.

Jesus wasn’t American. But America provides a great opportunity to live and practice Christianity. Somehow along the way we’ve gotten confused, we’ve mixed it all up. And we’ve failed to talk about it. Some claiming to be Christians have used their power in ways perverse to our (and their) stated beliefs. Or people have sought to gain power in order to do so. What about love? Why isn’t anyone fighting to have the power to do that? As Christians, we must capitalize on the opportunities that we have in the way that Christ would have us to.

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