An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah

Ted Grimsrud—March 23, 2015 

 This is the sixth in a series of posts.

Christians in general do not necessarily think of Jesus as a political philosopher—or even political practitioner. However, for the past 2,000 years there have been a few who do try to take their political cues from Jesus. Of these, not many would have used the language of “anarchism” to describe “the politics of Jesus.” However, if we think of the key elements of an anarchistic sensibility, decentering the state and affirming the possibilities of self-organization, we can find a great deal of resonance linking Jesus’s message and anarchistic thinking and practice.

Our starting point, I suggest, should be to look at the gospels in the context of the story of Israel told in the Old Testament. The earlier posts in this series have attempted to highlight strands in that story that may be seen as having anarchistic sensibilities. Jesus certainly saw his message in general as being in continuity with the biblical story he had grown up with. We have no reason not to think that his political perspective reflects this continuity.

One key aspect of the politics of the biblical story that I have discussed earlier is the move from territoriality (where the sustenance of the promise is linked with a geographically bounded political entity—initially a tribal confederation followed by a kingdom with a powerful monarch) to diaspora. The story can be read as culminating with a vision of scattered faith communities living as creative minorities in nation-states that they don’t run or try to run. This may be seen as a particular political option.

Jesus spent his life within the historical boundaries of the Davidic kingdom of ancient Israel, but he can be understood as pursuing a political strategy meant to be lived in diaspora. He pointedly rejected the idea that his messianic leadership could culminate in re-establishing a territorial kingdom. Such a rejection, though, was not a denial of his messianic identity nor was it a rejection of the vocation of his followers to embody God’s kingdom on earth.

However, Jesus’s style of kingship and the kingdom he called his followers too were so different from conventional politics that his kingdom could be called an “unkingdom” (as discussed by Mark Van Stennwyk in his book, The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance [InterVarsity Press, 2013]). His politics could be called a politics of servanthood, as opposed to power politics. In what follows I will mention only a few examples from the gospels that illustrate Jesus’s political sensibility—and support the suggestion that his was an anarchistic sensibility.

The birth stories—What child is this?

From its beginning, the story of Jesus sets him up as opposed to standard power politics. Early in Luke’s gospel, we are introduced to Jesus’s message through a proclamation of the meaning of his birth from Mary, his mother. Mary sings praise to God for the gift of a new beginning for God’s people that will be accompanied by a political upheaval borne out of God’s remembrance of God’s delivering mercy to the lowliest among God’s people, a deliverance that will bring down the mighty from their thrones. As it will turn out, this breaking down of the thrones will not be an actual violent revolution but an ideological revolution where the validity of thrones themselves is overturned by God’s Messiah (that is, God’s kingly representative).

The transformation that Mary’s son will bring stems from God’s remembrance of God’s promise to Israel: to bless all the families of the earth through the thriving of the community of God’s people established to know God’s shalom and to share it with the nations. That is, this is to be a political revolution, but one where the traditional hierarchies (and hierarchical way of ordering human social life) are overturned and the greatest become servants of all.

The other version of the story of Jesus’s birth, in Matthew’s gospel, gives its critique of power politics and its sense of Jesus as an upside-down king in a different way. At the time of Jesus’s birth, astrologers from the East (“wise men”) seek him, stopping first to visit Herod, Rome’s puppet king of Judea and the surrounding areas. They tell Herod they seek “the king of the Jews.” Herod perceived this message as a direct threat to his power as he fancied himself as “king of the Jews” and knew that many in his realm questioned his legitimacy. The astrologers’ visit triggers an enormous act of bloody violence from Herod as this monarch seeks to eliminate his rival with a massacre of newborns. This vivid contrast between two types of politics—the power-hungry king and the vulnerable child—will be highlighted throughout Jesus’s life and will culminate when the Empire succeeds where Herod failed and executes the “king of the Jews” on the crucifixion cross.

A significant question that arises from the beginning with the story of Herod’s response to Jesus’s birth: What Herod wrong because he thought that this child was going to be political (with the sense that Jesus’s message was more about a future kingdom in heaven)? Or was Herod wrong because he was committed to a death-dealing kind of politics in the present, one that Jesus would utterly discredit with his teaching, practice, death, and resurrection?

Who rules the “kingdoms of the world”?

The story tells us that when Jesus had gained the clarity to take the step of beginning his public ministry, the first thing he did was go to the wilderness to serve, we could perhaps say, an apprenticeship with the prophet known as John the Baptist. John baptized Jesus, possibly to be understood as a kind of commissioning service as God vindicates Jesus’s act by affirming, “this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” “Son of God” was one of the terms commonly used of Israel’s king and had strong messianic connotations.

Then Jesus heads deeper into the wilderness for a final time of reflection and solitude, a 40-day fast to prepare for the work ahead of him. This time turns out to be one last, intense exercise in discernment. One way to summarize the encounter Jesus had with Satan, known as “Jesus’s temptations,” is that this was a time to find final clarity concerning what kind of “king” or “Messiah” or “Son of God” Jesus will be.

Satan seems to offer Jesus great power—be a mighty king along the lines of the hopes of many in Israel at the time. Jesus has already been linked with David; now he is being challenged to embrace the vocation of becoming an even more power ruler than David and preside over a territorial kingdom like none other has ever been.

The story, though, links this notion of kingship with Satan. This is not an unprecedented linkage. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation, we will see a close connection between Satan (personified as the great Dragon) and the Roman Empire and perhaps all other great empires (symbolized both by the Beast and by Babylon).

So we can see a sharp political message in the temptation story. Jesus’s big challenge will be to refuse the king-like-David lure, to make history come out right by gathering great forces and controlling a large territory. At the end of the encounter in the wilderness, we are told that Satan withdraws for the time being (Luke 4), with the implication being that he will return with the same temptation.

We do see evidence of such temptations, for example when the crowd presses upon Jesus after he feeds the multitude, hoping to make him king. Maybe more directly, we see an allusion to this temptation when Jesus has his well-known confrontation with Peter about their differing understandings of his messianic identity. Jesus had just been healing and teaching and gathering crowds. Afterwards, the disciples talk about how the people marveled. Then Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus’s response is to accept that designation, but to talk about how his vocation is to suffer and die. Peter protests vociferously, presumably because in his mind the Messiah deals death to others, not suffers death. Jesus’s somewhat shocking response evokes the temptation story: “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus is tempted to follow David’s path, but continues faithfully to resist and embody a politics of servanthood, not domination, with an entirely different sense of what God’s kingdom is to be like.

The politics of the Jesus’s Sermon

In Matthew 5–7 and in Luke 6, Jesus reported giving his long and definitive statement of his calling for his followers. The so-called Sermon on the Mount is portrayed in Matthew especially as Moses presenting Torah redux. As such, this Sermon may be seen as serving, in a way meant to complement—not replace—the original Torah, as the political blueprint for the community Jesus leads.

In thinking of the Sermon on the Mount anarchistically, we could characterize is central emphasis as a call to self-organization. Power here lies in the voluntary expression of mutual care, service, respect, and compassion. The “greatest” shall be servant of all. Forgive over an over again. Love even the enemy.

The Sermon begins with an extraordinary series of affirmations (the Beatitudes, or “blessings”) that reflect a quite positive anthropology that expects that indeed people can and do live faithfully. Throughout this proclamation, Jesus shows that he believes in human possibilities to live together in healthy communities.

There is no hint of centralized, top-down, coercive authority here. In fact, the message implies an empowering of dissent and skepticism toward authoritarian structures. The dynamics in this political vision are forgiveness, not retaliation. The roles of reciprocity, exploitation of debt, paying back wrong-doing with punishment, and getting even are diminished and replaced with generosity, servanthood, mercy, and turning the other cheek.

Indeed, Jesus’s authority is affirmed here—he challenges his listeners, why do you call me Lord and not do what I say? But there is no sword to enforce this authority. Jesus trusts that those who truly do hear what he has to say will choose to follow his path—and that this is the most naturally human way to live.

Jesus the political philosopher

At the center of Mark’s gospel (chapters 8–10), we see a series of three encounters where Jesus exercises his ministry in powerful ways and then encounters challenges from his disciples about the meaning of his ministry and identity and this kingdom of God he is proclaiming and embodying. These encounters help us understand the basic elements of Jesus’ political philosophy, and these are, essentially, anarchistic elements.

The culmination of this elaboration of Jesus’s way comes at the end of Mark 10. Here the disciples are arguing about which of them is the greatest. Jesus overhears, enters the discussion, and challenges them to reorient their thinking. He makes two points—first, that the typical way of being political is domination. “The rulers of the nations are tyrants.” This is the way of territorial kingdoms and conventional politics. Second, you must have an entirely different approach—the greatest must be the servant of all.

We should recognize how foundational this statement is. Jesus is juxtaposing two alternative ways to function in one area of life. He is not giving a two kingdom message here—one legitimate way to be political in the real world and a different way to function in the separated world of the faith community. Instead, he is saying when you operate politically in all spheres of life you should be governed by an ethic of servanthood, not domination.

In naming the rulers of the nations as tyrants, Jesus offers a fundamental critique of the way politics works in the nations. He calls for something different—but here, in this world, dealing with political issues, operating in the realm of human beings in all areas of life organizing themselves in social groups. Insofar as you participate in social groups anywhere, you should seek to be non-coercive, non-tyrannical, respectful and caring toward all.

We could characterize Jesus’s politics here as a politics of diaspora, where those who seek to be fully human do not try to establish top-down control (which can’t help but lead to tyranny), but should practice a politics of patience and servanthood “all the way down.”

Two kinds of politics—Jesus and Pilate

At the end of Jesus’s life, we learn of an encounter that illustrates the political philosophy of Mark 10:35-45. Each of the gospels tells of Jesus going before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, prior to being condemned to death. John’s gospel goes into the most detail and lends itself the best to an anarchistic reading. Jesus and Pilate may be seen as embodying the two options—a politics of tyranny or a politics of servanthood.

Jesus has been arrested and is brought to Pilate, who holds the power to decide to use the death penalty. Pilate immediately cuts to the chase and asks Jesus if he is “the king of the Jews” (18:33). This is a political confrontation about the meaning of kingship. Jesus’s response, “my kingdom is not from this world” has tragically been misunderstood. He’s not denying that he is a king who is leading a kingdom that is being embodied in history. But does not originate in the “world” of domination (which is the only world Pilate knows).

Jesus’s is a kingdom founded on “truth”—the truth that God is love. Pilate is not interested in truth. This is as profound a critique of conventional, coercive politics as there could be. Pilate cares nothing about truth or about Jesus. He only cares about power and domination. He asks the cynical question, “What is truth?” (18:38), but doesn’t wait for an answer. He walks away, gets the Jewish leaders to affirm, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15), and callously sends Jesus to his death.

The political meaning of Jesus’s death

The story of Jesus’s death places in stark relief some of the key political dynamics of his career and its meaning. The most basic point is that Jesus was executed by the state. His mode of execution, crucifixion, was reserved for political criminals, those whom the Roman Empire wanted to make a public example of. Here is a person who dared to resist the Empire and this is what will happen to those who do likewise.

Whatever else we may want to say about Jesus’s life and message, we cannot avoid the truth that the way he lived was political enough that he could be killed in the way he was. In a genuine sense, the way the state kills Jesus makes clear the two alternatives—a politics of domination vs. a politics of servanthood. And it shows that the latter is indeed a threat to the former.

The way the story is told in Mark’s gospel does not back away from the sense that this is a story about politics. Jesus is accused before the temple leaders of claiming to be Messiah (or, “king”—14:61). And then, before Pilate, he is referred to as “the King of the Jews” (15:12). A superficial reading might leave the impression that these are mocking, patently ridiculous accusations. Then, we read that the inscription of the charge against read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26), and the religious leaders who mock him as he’s dying taunt him, “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross” (15:32).

However, the final word comes from a Roman soldier who watches him die—in reverence affirming, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). The Centurion’s assertion serves to shine a different kind of light on the earlier statements about Jesus’s identity that I just cited. The soldier recognizes that indeed Jesus was the king. Jesus’s politics were the politics of the kingdom of God. It’s just that they were not the kind of politics that death-dealing religious and political leaders can recognize as truthful. In the end, it is those politics of domination that are exposed as the politics of death—executing God’s very son and revealing themselves to be, as claimed by Satan at the beginning of the story, the agents of the devil.

Resurrection and vindication of the politics of love

The conclusion to the story of Jesus comes when God raises Jesus from the dead, an act full of political ramifications once we take seriously the Roman soldier’s confession at the end of Jesus’s life. Jesus is vindicated at God’s Son (that is, as Messiah or Christ; that is, as the true king) when God refuses to leave him in the grave.

This vindication may also be seen as a vindication of a kind of politics that proves to be very close to the anarchistic sensibility we have seen elsewhere in the Bible. On the one hand, Jesus’s resurrection serves as a condemnation of the sharpest nature of the state politics that put him to death. We know from the story that Jesus’s life was a life of compassion and welcome, nonviolence and restorative justice. That such a life would be a death-requiring threat to the state exposes the state as an institution that belies is claim to be God’s agent for order and justice in the world. Instead, the state—insofar as it acts toward people as the Roman Empire did toward Jesus—is actually in rebellion against God and an agent of Satan.

On the other hand, the most practical consequence of Jesus’s resurrection was that he regathered his disciples—who had scattered in fear—and empowered them to continue his ministry of love and healing. These disciples organized themselves into on-going assemblies (the Greek word that is used of these assemblies, ekklesia [usually translated “church”], referred to gatherings of citizens who came together to do political work). These assemblies embodied Jesus’ anarchistic message of suspicion toward the way the rulers of the nations operated and of the possibilities for human self-organizing and decentralized power dynamics.

In the immediate decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection, believers came together in these assemblies to embody a countercultural kind of politics of diaspora that worked to spread the shalom of God in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that through his descendants God would bless all the families of the earth.

Two important chroniclers of the work of these believers are the Apostle Paul and John of Patmos, the author of the book of Revelation. Both writers help articulate the anarchist sensibilities of Jesus’s politics.

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