by George Brahm
Courting Jesus as an ally for political causes is nothing new. Every political crisis and election cycle sees folks attempt to co-opt the Son of God to their tribe, whether it be by calling him an anarchist, a supporter of universal healthcare, a socialist, or a libertarian. (I have also heard ‘environmentalist’. I know of one fig tree that disagrees.)
The formula for any attempt at Jesus-courting is the same. Once you have identified a political issue (say, a lack of access to affordable healthcare) as well as your preferred solution to it (say, universal healthcare), you look through the Gospels for Jesus’ doing something that remotely resembles your solution (say, healing the sick who came to Him). Once you have done all that, you can finally declare victory by claiming that Jesus Himself is an ally of your political cause. (“Jesus supported universal healthcare!”) And if you’re thinking to yourself that the foregoing is a straw man, think again.
There is much that is wrong with Jesus-courting, confirmation bias being the least of it. But the biggest problem with any attempt to claim Jesus’ allyship for any political cause is failing to understand the specific mission that He aimed to accomplish by taking on human form and entering into time.
Christ’s Singular Mission
The Incarnation occurred at a time and in a region of political unrest and persecution. Yet, one might be surprised to discover that Jesus Christ–widely considered to be one of the greatest moral teachers to ever walk the earth–is not recorded as having uttered a word to condemn the occupation of His people’s land by the Romans. He made no overtly political statements, condemned the works of the ‘righteous’ religious leaders more than those of political ones, and often sought to redirect political discussions back to truths about God. (For example, Lk 20:20-26.) In fact, while claiming to be the promised Messiah of Israel, He explicitly sought to overturn the Jewish expectation of the Messiah as a political radical who would save them from Roman oppression.
Why? Because His mission was to deal with the problem that lay at the root of all oppression and injustice: the universal problem of sin. The fact that this was fundamentally His mission is attested as early as Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 53, but is ubiquitous throughout the New Testament.
- In Matthew 1:21, we are told that Christ was sent to save His people from their sins.
- In Mark 10:45, we are told that He came to give His life as a ransom for many.
- In Luke 19:10, we are told that He came to seek and save the lost.
- In John 3:16, we are told that He was sent to grant eternal life.
These and several other passages (for example, see Gal 4:4-5 and 1 Tim 1:15) reveal a singular truth: the mission of the Incarnation was fundamentally a redemptive one. It was the only reason why God became man. This was why He avoided saying or doing anything that was extraneous to His mission. This was why He never occupied political positions, withdrew to a lonely mountain when they tried to crown Him king, and constantly reminded his disciples that He was meant suffer the brunt of political and religious injustice, and that He would do so without fighting back. None of this means that He excused or defended injustice; in fact, many of His teachings ended up laying a foundation that consistent Christians have used throughout history to oppose and put an end to various forms of injustice and oppression. He was merely making the point that His sole reason for becoming the God-Man was to preach the good news of the Kingdom, call people to repentance, and pay the penalty for the sins of His people that they may be saved; this was the purpose for which His Father sent Him to earth, and this was the only purpose He sought to fulfill. He made it clear that He had no political aspirations and supported no such causes, even when it seemed like He had every reason to. A clear understanding of this truth helps us understand why co-opting Him for a political cause, whether on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, is problematic.
There are two ways in people try to co-opt Jesus for their political causes, and both are equally problematic.
- The first way, exemplified through claims like “Jesus was a socialist” or “Jesus was an anarchist”, suggest that in His day, Jesus supported some form of socialism or anarchism. For the sake of argument, let’s set aside that this approach involves anachronistically reading the ideologies of socialism and anarchism into the teachings of Jesus. Suppose they just mean to say that Jesus was a proto-socialist/anarchist. Even then, such claims make the assumption that being a political activist who promoted socialism/anarchism was at least a part of Christ’s mission and identity, and to assert any such thing involves attributing to Jesus what He explicitly repudiated.
But, a Christian socialist might object, what about verses in which Jesus suggests things like selling everything one has and giving money to the poor? First, I would point out that the context of these verses matters. For instance, the verse cited above (Mt 19:21) was part of a test of sincerity from a rich young man who wished to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ point wasn’t that we must all sell everything we have and give the money to the poor, but that we must be willing to do so, if it came to that, for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Second, one is still not obligated to attribute socialistic tendencies to Jesus in the light of verses that contain more universal commands about helping the poor. Jesus never advocates for government-enforced wealth redistribution, but merely asks His followers to help those in need out of love in their hearts and a desire to treat others like they wish to be treated. It is impossible to derive socialistic principles from these verses, unless one comes to the text with socialistic presuppositions. (And before you bring it up, “Blessed are the poor” in Lk 6:20 does not mean the poor are more blessed than the rich by virtue of their poverty. As Matthew 5:3 clarifies, Jesus was speaking of the poor in spirit, not the poor per se.)
- The second way in which someone might try to co-opt Christ for their political causes is not by suggesting that Jesus was a socialist or or a free-market capitalist, but that if he were around today, He would’ve been any one of those things (or something else). For instance, they might say that if Jesus lived in the U.S.A. in 2020, He would’ve been a Black Lives Matter supporter, or that He would vote for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. This ‘way’ commits an error just as egregious as the first; it forgets that the singular mission of the Incarnation–the only reason for God taking on flesh–was the redemption of mankind from sin. So even if the Incarnation were to occur in 2020 rather than first-century AD, the God-Man would still repudiate any attempt at foisting a political identity on Him. Just as in His day, His work would not be to reconcile races or classes, but to reconcile God and man; for through that latter reconciliation, all else would become one body with Him as the Head. To suggest otherwise is to redefine God’s stated mission for the Incarnation, which God chose to undertake at just the right time.
Following, Obeying, and Co-opting
Allow me to reiterate that, simply because Christ refused to be boxed into a specific political position does not mean that He tolerated and continues to tolerate injustice. Neither does His silence on the injustices of His day–such as the Roman occupation of Israel–abdicate us of our responsibility to speak out against injustices in our day. As I mentioned earlier, the teachings of Jesus ended up becoming the foundation of many anti-injustice movements, including the one that attained the abolition of slavery. But how is this any different from the co-opting of Christ into the social justice movements of today?
The difference lies in what each group was doing with Christ and His words. In the case of the abolitionists, for instance, they did not claim that Jesus was an abolitionist; He never addressed the issue, despite the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire. Neither did they suggest that if Jesus were alive in the 18th and 19th centuries, he would’ve been an abolitionist. Instead, they looked at Christ’s teachings–that all men were created in God’s image and that we were to love our neighbours as ourselves–and recognized that the position on slavery most consistent with these teachings would be that of abolition. Put differently, their abolitionist convictions arose out of a desire to follow and obey Christ’s teachings; they had no reason to wrongly co-opt Jesus as a political activist for their cause when they could derive their ethical principles from His teachings themselves.
The same can be done by modern social justice advocates–if they so please–without claiming that Jesus was a political activist who adhered to the ideology of their preference. (Or that he would’ve, if he existed today.) For instance, the Imago Dei can be used to argue against racism, and Jesus’ teachings on caring for the poor and the hungry and loving one’s neighbour can be used to advocate for charitable works. Even today, we don’t need co-opt Jesus into the political movements of our preference, as long as our movements are for causes that are consistent with His teachings. Why then do some still believe (and try to convince you) that Jesus was or would have been an activist for their specific political movement, even though being an activist for any political movement would have been diametrically opposed to His mission?
And I’m not just speaking of those who disingenuously use Jesus as a political hammer against their opponents, or those who court Jesus for the credibility and the sense of superiority that it achieves. There are those who sincerely believe that Jesus advocated for a form of their political ideology; they read passages in the Bible and see ‘socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ or ‘capitalism’ written all over them. (“Jesus modeled universal healthcare by healing all who asked,” this article claims, citing Matthew 12:15, before citing a different verse to claim that the Bible advocates for a minimum wage.) But why do they believe so? And why do individuals of different political persuasions all manage to make a compelling case that Christ is on their side, while each of their positions contradict each other?
C.S. Lewis has the answer. As he closes a chapter on social morality, he writes:
“I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section has affected any who have read it. My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far. If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter III: ‘Social Morality’
We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or—a Judge.”
If you come to the Scriptures with a desire to confirm your own preexisting beliefs and biases–which, Lewis says, is what most of us seek to do–you will go away feeling justified in co-opting Jesus for your political agenda, even if He made it clear that He had no political mission. If you come to the text looking for something that affirms universal healthcare, and you come across Matthew 12:15 which states that Jesus healed all who came to him, you will end up concluding that Jesus would’ve been an advocate for universal healthcare today. You will not wait to ask, “But why did Jesus heal the sick?” and discover that He had reasons that were connected to his singular mission, such as verifying His claims to divinity and fulfilling Messianic prophecies. (See Mt 8:17 and Acts 2:22.) Simply put, confirmation bias has convinced you that Jesus is your ally on your preferred political cause.
But if you let Christ and His word speak for themselves, you will discover that He is not your ally; He will not be used as a mascot for one of your pet causes. Rather, as Lewis points out, He is offered to us as a Master and a Judge, and all we can do is follow and obey; co-opting Him is not an option.
None of this means that Christians ought not engage in social activism. We ought to continue speaking out against all forms of racism, defend the lives of the unborn, and give wholeheartedly to those in need. Furthermore, we must do so because Christ commands us to love our fellow men as ourselves and because our good works glorify our Father in heaven. There is nothing wrong in asking “What would Jesus do?”, as long as your search for the answer starts with going back to the Gospels and letting Jesus’ teachings and values speak for themselves. And while He spoke more clearly on some issues (such as marriage being between one man and one woman), we need to apply His words more carefully and with wisdom on other issues. Where things go wrong is when you have a preferred answer in mind and then search the Scriptures, looking for a passage that you can read your answers into. And most importantly, it is imperative that we understand Christ’s singular mission. He took on human flesh to redeem you from sin and death, not to become your political mouthpiece.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.