The Political Gospel

The Sermon on the Mount, from a 6th Century mosaic, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Source not identified)

Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover article about the crisis in modern American Christianity struck me as deeply wrong for many reasons, but certainly worse for a profound misinterpretation of an “apolitical” Christ and for a common misunderstanding of politics and the political.

Much of Sullivan’s error stems from what I have argued is a thorough-going theoretical misunderstanding of politics running like a vein in the Western canon (not Church doctrine), and I see Sullivan’s essay as another opportunity to argue for the importance and relevance of politics and the political.

Sullivan seems also to maintain the usual intellectual/philosopher’s distaste for the arena, as if watching Lions tear apart Christians in the Roman coliseum without acknowledging that he’s taking part by bearing witness to the spectacle.  The best avenue of approach to Sullivan’s confusion is, unfortunately, an area in which I admit I am no expert.  But even a cursory glance at scripture gives lie to Sullivan’s assertion that Christ’s fundamental lesson for us all was “how [Christ] conducted himself through it all — calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.” This is certainly not the Christ I know, who raged against the money-changers in the temple, chastised his apostles at Gethsemane, begged God to let the cup of fate pass from him or cried out in despair at the hour of his death.

Theological or scriptural disputes notwithstanding, Christ’s humanity helpfully leads us further into the temporal realm. Sullivan specifically calls Christ “apolitical.”  Let us assume for now that Sullivan is talking about common political activities we are familiar with: building an organization, campaigning, reaching the masses, speaking to authority.  Under that definition Christ looks very much like a modern political figure.  He gathered followers (the apostles), he traveled from city to city, sought out and spoke to large audiences. He “spoke truth to power,” as the expression would have it, directly addressing the Pharisees.  There is evidence that he knew he knew he had a political mission after the arrest of John the Baptist and fled Galilee. His entire life was fraught with political intrigue as he was eventually considered a liability by the Roman authority, pursued, betrayed, tried, and crucified as the ersatz King of the Jews.

But that is to borrow Sullivan’s own apparent understanding of politics and the political.  It is not clear that Sullivan has a more expansive view of politics as separate from organizations, the state or government bodies — politics qua politics, as I call it — or the concept of the political as I have discussed it earlier.  The notion of a normative moral vision that we would wish for others does not appear to cross his mind. Yet Christ’s entire ministry is consumed with a vision of a different world here on earth and he engages in political action to achieve it.  He was not strictly a spiritual guide, advising his followers simply on matters relevant only to them. His ministry from its very beginning had clear ambition beyond that. And that makes the Gospels inherently political, contrary to Sullivan’s argument.

Sullivan borrows from the example of Thomas Jefferson, who excised only the direct quotations of Christ from his Bible for a better, more direct, more literal understanding of him; but even without the commentary of the New Testament’s authors it is impossible not to understand Christ as a political man and a tremendous, towering figure for the moral transformation of society.  Sullivan wouldn’t be writing about him in Newsweek if he weren’t.

To take just the Sermon on the Mount — almost entirely direct quotations from Christ — we read a series of commandments, or what we would call political statements. The Beatitudes are not merely a recitation of who are blessed, but whom should be blessed under a new moral order. This is a political statement.  Christ continues with a series of edicts: “Turn the other cheek.”  “Love thine enemies.” Evil thoughts are as bad as the evil act. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  “Pray to your father in secret.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These commandments are so commonplace now that we forget how radical they were (and remain).

Sullivan would have these edicts remain strictly spiritual and personal — almost advisory, mere guidance. But at the beginning of the Sermon, Christ issues the simile of the Salt and the Light. Salt is no good that cannot be tasted, and light is no good that cannot be seen.  That is, the Gospel will do no good if it cannot be spread; the Word cannot be heard if it is not read aloud. This is a decidedly political message.  Christ is saying: go, my followers, and do my work; tell people what I have said, act on my lessons.  His words come very early on in his ministry, long before he deputizes Peter as the rock of his Church.

It is stranger still that Sullivan calls Christ “apolitical” and then attacks American Protestants for losing its purpose in the frivolity of personal achievement and the Catholic Church for abandoning its moral authority during the pedophile scandals of the last decade. He seems to hate politics but then wishes the Church would get its politics right. To right his contradiction, he should have spent more time focusing on some of the good work the Church has done, and is doing right now.

Biblical quotes from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial (Photo by the author)

It is hard to imagine, for example, the Abolitionist cause without the Church, and impossible even to articulate the Civil Rights movement without the African-American Church.  The intellectual resistance to the Nazis in Germany was mostly populated by dissident Lutherans. The Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II, is largely responsible for liberating Poland from communism — and by extension the rest of Central Europe from the clutches of the Cold War. The debate over nuclear weapons and deterrence in the United States changed unalterably after the American Catholic Bishops issued their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace in 1983.

Today the Orthodox Church leads protests against the Soviet-era practice of abortion in Russia, where access to birth control is not pervasive. Korean and underground Chinese Christian activists run an underground railroad for North Koreans escaping their prison state.  Pick a poor, resource-wracked or devastated community and you will find a Christian charity working there to alleviate suffering.  And importantly (to me, especially), Christians are engaging in the important work of interfaith engagement and understanding.

I don’t think these activists would see themselves engaged in “political” activity, but I am certain they are driven by something more than the simple, calm example of Sullivan’s implacable Christ.  Perhaps they heard Christ’s commandment to come out from under a bushel, to come down from the City on a Hill, to walk with and give to and love the least among us.  Let us thank God for it.

But I also know that the Chinese authorities would certainly consider such behavior “political” activity and would do to Christ today what the Romans did 2,000 years ago.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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