Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Examining Jesus’ ‘incivility,’ politics

Rev. Alan Rudnick

September 19, 2018
I have spent my entire life in the church, and there has always been something that perplexed me about the statement “I don’t want to hear politics from the pulpit.” How can Christian teaching be apolitical? Following the commands of Jesus ultimately requires followers to participate in activities associated with the governance of people.

As a pastor, I have interpreted the above statement to mean “I don’t want to hear partisan politics from the pulpit.” In most Anglo-American congregations, anxiety exists around the pastor making a statement with political repercussions. Usually, congregants fear some sort of Internal Revenue Service tax-exemption loss (the famous Johnson Amendment) because of “separation of church and state,” which is about the government not declaring an official state-religion—not about church opinion in political matters. In most African-American congregations, such mixing of faith, politics and action is a regular part of the collective hermeneutical reading of Scripture. In some Latino church settings, social justice and liberation theology require a daily practice of discussing faith and politics.

Lately, it seems that some Christians are suddenly concerned with individual expressions of incivility among the governed toward members of Donald J. Trump’s administration, such as lamentations of supposed incivility of a restaurant owner toward White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders or the school teacher who denounced Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt. There have been calls from Christians to remain “civil,” “respectful” and “decent” toward Trump administration staff. This phenomenon is baffling. These same Christians supported and voted for a man who exclaimed his success in grabbing women’s genitals. There is nothing civil about that.

Such calls to mute politics from the pulpit or uphold civility from Christians who support a president who is anything but civil ignore the commands of the Gospel and misunderstand the life of Jesus.

On the Sabbath, Jesus healed a man, which was a violation of the strict interpretation of the Law of Moses in Mark 3. He created unrest among religious leaders by healing and restoring the common good for a community and by sending a message that people’s well-being should be the focus of religious priorities. Such an act was deemed sinful, offensive and uncivil by the Pharisees.

Despite the meek and mild Jesus at the Nativity, Jesus was uncivil—but for the right reasons. In John’s Gospel, Jesus fashions a whip out of cords and runs the money changers out of the temple courts in chapter 2. In Mark 11, Jesus refers to the money changers robbing the people. I cannot imagine Jesus admonishing the money changers in the most civil and straight-faced way possible.

The money changers were clearly charging enormous currency-conversion rates, thereby profiting from faithful worshipers—in God’s house no less! Jesus does the most uncivil thing possible: flip and destroy the process. Such action not only had incivility written all over it but also was disruptive for Jewish leaders. It fanned tensions with Roman occupiers and, thus, had political consequences. However, Jesus’ uncivil behavior was not for a governmental political system or a political philosophy but for God. In protesting the desecration of a sacred place, his act of civil unrest was not for personal gain. His uncivil actions were to right a wrong. Legal? Questionable. Politically and religiously explosive? Yes.

For the Jews of Jesus’ day, paying the Roman tax was a constant reminder that godless gentiles were ruling over God’s people. It was an insult. Roman taxes not only paid for roads and ports but also for the lavish image and occupying force of Rome. In paying taxes, Jews were paying for the oppressive system that was restricting their worship, faith practices and freedom.

In Matthew 22:21, the Pharisees, knowing the plight of paying Roman tax, wanted to trap Jesus into a religious and political argument. Jesus calls them hypocrites and exclaims, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (ESV).

 

Being faithful to God requires political navigation. Literally, Roman coinage bore the image of Caesar. It belonged to the political leader and the institution that he led. Jesus’ sage lesson here exposes the truth about faithfulness to God. Sometimes, politics and religion must mix it up.
By this pronouncement, Jesus coyly exposes the reality of the problem: Being faithful to God requires political navigation. Literally, Roman coinage bore the image of Caesar. It belonged to the political leader and the institution that he led. Jesus’ sage lesson here exposes the truth about faithfulness to God. Sometimes, politics and religion must mix it up.

What is the difference between Jesus’ actions and the call to be “civil”?

As Christians, we see Jesus’ action of resistance as non-personal inuring and statement-making. In other words, Jesus was willing to raise eyebrows and even politically charged issues that involve the personal welfare of people—usually marginalized ones—to send the message that God is in the business of caring for the brokenness of others. Jesus sometimes used uncivil behavior that did not injure or harm others to—dare I say—“protest” the injustice of a system.

As we hear about following and respecting U.S. laws, let us remember Jesus’ action of nonviolent resistance, protest and uncivil behavior to care and protect vulnerable people. And let us remember the words of St. Paul, who wrote, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NRSV).

As Christians, we cannot make the Gospel a message of inaction but of nonviolent, subversive and people-caring resistance of abusive policies and politics.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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