Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jesus and Politics: A Primer

There’s quite a lot of good content out there already on the intersection between Christianity and politics, whether from a more philosophical angle (eg. what is the basis of pluralism and how should Christians approach it?), or from the more recent trend in biblical studies to consider Paul’s thoughts in the context of imperial Rome. And of course, rants about George Bush. So if you’re already well-versed on these topics, nothing new here. In fact, it’s probably worth picking the brains of some of my better-informed readers; they'll know more than I do! But – maybe riffing in part on Wai Nyan’s thoughts - I thought I’ll try to offer a succinct orientation point. My purpose here is not to prescribe a particular approach to politics, but rather, to show that engaging with the political, properly understood, is an inevitable part of Christian discipleship.

It was a particularly intense moment in a trial involving political corruption. The prosecutor took a bite out of his kuih lapis, then walked over slowly to the witness. "Isn’t it true," he elongated the words, "that you took 10,000 ringgit to compromise the case?"

The witness, elbow propped on the witness stand, just stared blankly into space.

The prosecutor went on the offensive. "Isn’t it true," he repeated, louder this time. "Isn’t it true, that you, in your moment of greed, accepted 10,000 ringgit so as to compromise this case?" The witness still did not respond.

The judge finally leaned over and said, "Encik, please answer the question."

"Oh", the startled witness said in a loud whisper. "I thought he was talking to you."

Not a true story, but Malaysians reading this will probably think that it’s not too far off the mark. It illustrates too the cynicism towards politics in general, whereby the word has become synonymous with corruption, the abuse of power, lack of integrity. That such a word should be uttered in the hallowed halls of church would be anathema to many. Not that the word or concept of "religion" has fared much better. It is greeted by a similar disdain, with many equating it to lifeless dogmatism; at best an irrelevance, at worse a threat. Yet in Malaysia, more so than in a place like post-Christian Europe, where the forces of secularisation has long held the upper hand, the two often meet, even if the government prefers to try to keep the two at arms length from each other. More than a few, Christians or not, agree with such sentiments, preferring to echo the poet William Butler Yeats:
How can I, that girl standing there
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Or Malaysian. But if we think about it, we see that politics, properly understood, affects all of us. It touches on our education. How many of my generation were annoyed by the constant back-and-forth about Bahasa Baku? How many of those younger than me were affected by the decision to teach Maths and Science in English? Should I send my kid to a national or vernacular school? It touches on money, property and ownership. I’m sure taxes occupy a corner, or perhaps even a large room, in the minds of many. What would happen if the government follows Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and seizes land from one to give to the other? Is our government already doing this to the Orang Asli or the Ibans, only more covertly?

"The personal is the political" is probably a provocative overstatement, but it does capture that maybe the two are closer than we think. And so we begin to see that politics, yes, has to do with who has the right to power and the basis for such rights, but also more broadly, on the “everyday” stuff that happens if we live in a society. And so when I use the word politics/political here, I mean it, in line with a widely-used definition, as a way of life of a people who share a common life, which includes the structures of authority.

How does Jesus and following him fit into all this? The word "authority" should ring a bell. Think about some basic Christian truths for a moment. We know God is the Creator and owns the rights to his world. The world, in fact, is created by and for Jesus (Colossians 1:15ff), including "thrones or powers or rulers or authorities". So God is the supreme authority. The public arena is not off-limits to God, something we see again and again in the Old Testament. The Egyptian Pharaoh and his gods, magicians and all, face off against God in Exodus and loses. The prophets of Baal face off against God’s man, Elijah, and loses. Not that Israel was any better off; their rebellious kings earn the wrath of God, and the Jews are thrown into exile and under Roman suppression.

The Jews in New Testament times were both despairing and defiant (sounds familiar?), and came up with several solutions. One group, the Zealots, thought: "We’ve been passive too long. We obviously need a revolution, a violent one if need be." Another coalition, the Sadducees and Herodians, thought, "We need to co-operate. Playing the game is the only safe option". A more familiar group to us, the Pharisees, thought: "Actually, the only reason we’re in this position is that we’re all obviously very impure. We need to be better at keeping the law! This way, maybe God then will return to us. The Romans are so sinful, but then so are the Herodians and Zealots!"

Enter into the scene Jesus and his announcement of good news, the gospel (Mark 1:14-15). As we have just seen, the Jews were very much at home with the idea of the kingship of God; it was a fundamental aspect of their beliefs and hopes. For Jesus to proclaim the gospel would have immediately conjured up images of Isaiah and God’s promise of God’s reappearance to set the world right, when his rule would be visible once more amongst all the nations. Yet Jesus confronted and subverted all the positions of the various Jewish parties. In doing so, he was not running away from politics, but actually making a new political statement of his own by proposing a new approach to doing politics, which would be the way of the cross. Take, for example, the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24). One guest makes a pious remark, presumably because he was in religious company, but Jesus seizes the opportunity to use such religious small-talk to teach about the inclusivity of the kingdom of God. In doing so, he evokes imagery from Isaiah 25:6 (emphasis mine): "And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces of marrow, and refined, aged wine".

But even if you were not a Jew, the term "gospel" or good news still had political overtones. If you were living then, you would simply have used the term to herald the arrival of the emperor, quite similar to a “long live the king!”. It was intended not just for information, but to elicit a response. Jesus would then perform prophetically symbolic acts that demonstrated that he was the king. It was certainly unmistakable to many of the Jews, they tried to make him king by force (John 6:15)! But as C.S Lewis has illustrated so vividly through the character of Aslan, this is a king who would rescue by his death. The Jewish parties wanted to assassinate him because he was threatening their politics, and got him on the charge that he was causing a public disturbance. Jesus’ answer? "You are right in saying that I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (John 18:38). The true king demands allegiance. (For another example, see my Christmas post last year.)

Therefore, the gospel has a political dimension, in that it reaches into every area of our lives, the public and the domestic. Gospel people, that is, the church, thus are in a sense a political community, but certainly not of the kind the world envisions. Paul, writing from a Roman prison, encourages the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven (3:20), but at the same time urges them to live out their citizenships in the here and now in a "manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27), an implication of the truth that Jesus is Lord (2:11). This was during a time when Philippi was a Roman colony and many of its citizens enjoyed the privileges bestowed upon them by Roman citizenship. "They function within their society as a prophetic subculture, whose cross-shaped living offers a visible alternative to the ethos of the dominant culture" (Dean Flemming).

In other words, the way they live is distinctive, engaging with the political realities of the society they live in a Christ-like fashion. Lim Kar Yong writes:
What does this mean for the church today? As believers, Jesus not only summons us to a radically exclusive commitment and wholehearted devotion to him but also challenges us as a body of Christ to be the alternative assembly for the society. In this respect, the church is also political. This means that the church does not and cannot exist in isolation from the community that God has placed her.
It is often difficult to know what this looks like. There is no one size fits all model. Sometimes this would be demonstrated in praying for and co-operating with the civil authorities. At other times, it might mean speaking up for the marginalised. It might mean, for some of us, engaging in the frontlines in working in political parties or NGOs. For others, this might not be the case: it might be something as simple as praying faithfully everyday for the authorities.

But it is clear, if Jesus is Lord, the political is not excluded. Rather, it reminds us that politics is a very real concern of the God we worship and to ask Christians to be witnesses in the arena. If Jesus is Lord, crude nationalism cannot be our creed. If the gospel is our message, then we cannot either feel that our race, whatever that might be, is superior. At the same time, if Jesus is Lord, then we know that civil authorities are not the final arbiter. If the gospel is our message, we know that politics of whatever stripe are ultimately limited, for they cannot secure our salvation and we should not place our confidence in them. The gospel reminds us that human authority can always be abused.

But finally, the gospel reminds us that there is true hope. I think this is an important message for Malaysians in particular to hear. I am struck by how the thoughts and actions of the Saduccees flow directly from their beliefs. If you ever took my subject namesake, BK (Bible Knowledge) for SPM, you would know that the Saduccees did not believe in a resurrection. Well no wonder they chose to collude with the Romans; if there is no life after death, then of course you would want a comfortable life now! But Christians believe in a resurrection, a day when all will bow before the Lord and there will be a great banquet. And it is this hope which sustains us in the here and now and motivates us to work as transforming agents of the Kingdom. Amen.

Notable links:
Politics in Malaysia - relevant for Christians?, by Ong Kian Ming with more practical suggestions. Also in the issue of Kairos Magazine: Engaging Wider Society, I think.

'Was Jesus Political?', talk given by Lim Kar Yong at the launch of Malaysian thinkthank OHMSI.

Submission to Authorities: Pliancy at all costs?, by Ong Kian Ming, with questions for reflection.

Education Malaysia - the best blog on this issue, of which Ong Kian Ming is one of the bloggers.

Lim Kit Siang, noted veteran Malaysian opposition parliamentarian.

Rocky's Bru, blog of veteran journalist Ahiruddin Atan, and a wellspring of information.

Apologies for not being as succint as I would have liked!

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