Religion and Politics, Then and Now
Was there ever a time when religion and politics were not all wrapped up together? Maybe now and then, but mostly not. Buddhism (from my distant perspective) seems way more non-political than Christianity is or ever has been, for most of its followers. Anyway, my context and knowledge is Christianity. I’ve invested a whole lot of time in study of the New Testament and Christian origins.
What doesn’t even register to most Christian readers of the New Testament (and related Old Testament passages) is just how heavily political was Judaism at the time of Jesus and among his earliest followers in Jerusalem and environs. (This implies, rightly, a different situation for Paul and his mostly Gentile converts, well away from Israel for the most part.)
The evangelical blogger and book author, Rachel Held Evans, today has posted some interesting comments from a perspective largely different than the bulk of evangelicals in America relative to recent voting principles and patterns and politics in general. (Not surprising for her much more open and thoughtful perspective.) I couldn’t resist submitting a comment because of the openness she and many young evangelicals evidence… the drive to keep learning and trying to be intellectually consistent and a positive force, mostly aside from the political process but not ignoring it.
So pardon the somewhat “inside Christianity” terminology at a point or two. If you are not familiar with the “Emerging/ent” folks I refer to, they are a very loosely connected bunch of mostly orthodox (not referencing the Orthodox Church) believers, and mostly under 40 or so who are “shaking up” things in orthodox circles (generally conservative theologically) in their interest to rightly understand and apply “The Gospel”, having perceived that most of the Western Church has not done so. So here I will merely insert my comment, edited only in format, which was my reply to her post:
I like what you say here. I want to add another angle which, unfortunately is not one that helps simplify things necessarily. But it is important complexity and very little seen or understood by most readers of the Bible, “conservative/evangelical” (theologically) or “progressive/liberal”.
It is that a careful reading of the NT itself, bolstered by comparing Josephus and the few pertinent contemporary extra-biblical sources, shows that Jesus Jerusalem followers viewed his teaching, his messianic claims and soon-expected return completely within Judaism… WITHOUT a need to set aside or minimize Torah (law) observance. Even Acts itself makes it pretty clear they remained observant Jews, generally accepted even by “non-believing” Jews–except by Roman-collaborating High Priests and Sadducees…. within the range of typically varying sects, some of which followed a messianic claimant.
The political point of this?? It is LOADED with politics…. Especially in the sense that it was a non-violent (mostly anyway) resistance movement against Roman occupation and FOR Jewish self-determination, freedom, anti-corruption, (the point of “cleansing the Temple”–political not just ethical as against individualized price gouging), etc.
Acts does a masterful though imperfect job of disguise, getting readers then and mostly until NOW (!) to think of these observant Messianic Jews (and some “God-fearer” or “Hellenist” converts, also close to observant “Jewishly”) and Paul as basically unified and theologically in agreement. They were NOT.
Paul endorsed the Roman status quo, politically. He made the real issue identification with a descended (divine) savior, spiritually raised and soon to return. The Jerusalem group shared the last point but emphatically not the first two of Jesus’ divinity nor acquiescence to Roman rule. Their expected Messiah (dramatically shifted after his death to a returning one) would establish peace with Jewish centrality and abolish the MILITARY dominance of other kingdoms but not the existence of other nations (See Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc., and in this issue set Revelation aside, written several decades later as were the Gospels [!], after Jerusalem’s destruction by Rome.)
“The Gospel” has always had political tensions and differing views at its core. This subject seems to be of interest to Emerging/ent Christians, and I encourage them to keep studying, and beyond the typical group of such authors to additional solid scholars like Hyam Maccoby, Richard Horsely, John D. Crossan (esp. “God and Empire”), Paula Fredriksen, etc.