The Catholic Thing
Jesus the Politician Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Malcolm Muggeridge, still an agnostic but making his slow way toward faith and the Church, writes this about the Political Jesus in vogue during his day and, in some forward-thinking backwaters, ours:

It is curious to reflect that this concept of You as a dedicated progressive and freedom fighter is now generally approved in most clerical, and even ecclesiastical, circles.  As I have found, pointing out that You resolutely refused to attach Yourself to earthly causes like Jewish nationalism, and refrained from denouncing injustices and inequalities of the time, such as slavery, amounts almost to blasphemy today.  Nothing it seems, can save You from joining Lords Soper and MacLeod on the Labour Benches in the House of Lords.

In The Wild Orchid, Sigrid Undset’s hero, Paul Selmer, also still an agnostic, finds himself bored and disgusted with his clerical brother-in-law’s insistence that Luther did not go far enough, and that the worn-out dogmas of the Creed need to be discarded in the present age, such as that Christ was the only-begotten Son of the Father, God from God, Light from Light.  What use is there for such a Christ, he thinks, other than to coat current moral notions and state affairs with the patina of blessedness?  He too, like Muggeridge and Undset herself, will halt and stagger into communion.

Recently, a secular Muslim named Reza Aslan – no relation to the Lion – has written a book called Zealot, claiming that the “real” Jesus was a failed Mohammed, a political insurrectionist.  The mass media, delighted to hear the news, seem unaware that the claim is old and tired and dull and absurd. 

We wait for the next New and Improved Shakespeare Scholar, who isn’t a Shakespeare scholar at all, to discover that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Somebody Else, even (in the case of the Earl of Oxford) somebody so committed to his craft that he actually wrote several plays after he had been buried in the cold cold ground. 

These are all efforts to turn Jesus into our puppet, to make Him dance to our tunes and sing what we like and can understand.  What’s most risible about it is the notion that anybody could ever have mistaken such a figure for the Son of God.  That is, I may believe, against all evidence, that Jesus was somebody like Senator Robert LaFollette; but then I cannot dream up anything that explains the Church. 

Nobody in Wisconsin, to my knowledge, ever claimed to see the late senator broiling a fish on the shores of Lake Superior, enjoining his disciples to feed his liberal Republicans.  I may affirm, against all evidence, that Jesus was somebody like Catiline or Jack Cade or John Brown, but faster than rats flee from a sinking ship do political devotees flee from a crushed – crucified! – leader.  It is grimly amusing to consider how few Stalinists remained in the Soviet Union, once their beloved uncle had gone to his eternal reward.

          The Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov (1872)

But the most miserable thing about this casting of Jesus as Most Favored Politician, as Muggeridge saw with wonderful acuity, is just that Jesus boldly puts all earthly polities in their very much subordinate place.  When the Pharisees lay a trap for Him, asking Him whether they should pay tribute to Caesar, Jesus denies the terms of the question. 

He does not indulge in one of man’s principal idolatries, the worship of the big State – see, for example, His stunning words to Pontius Pilate: “You could have no power at all against me, if it had not been given to you from above.” (Jn. 19:11) 

Nor does he indulge in the Jewish hope, which would fold the worship of God into a theocratic state – see his words about Jerusalem, the holy city, to his sightseeing apostles: “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone shall be left upon another.” (Mk. 13:2) 

Nor does He go the route of the easy anarchist, denying the legitimacy of all earthly kingdoms.  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He says, “and unto God what is God’s.” (Lk. 20:25)

We will never understand anything about Jesus if we insist upon asking Him our questions, rather than allowing Him to ask us His questions.  He is at once too great and too small for our stages. 

Consider the incident that occurred on the way to Capernaum, after Jesus had told His disciples that He would have to go to Jerusalem to be crucified.  The disciples began to argue about which one of them would wield the most power when Jesus came into His kingdom.  Who will get to be Vice-Gerent?  Who will be the Keeper of the Seal?  Who will be Chancellor of the Exchequer?  Who will be Secretary of State, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or the Caliph of Cordoba, or the Procurator of Egypt, or the Great Eye of the Emperor, or Sheriff, or Town Clerk, or Dog Catcher?

And Jesus sat down, and called the apostles to Him, and, with infinite patience, and who knows what slight and sad smile, said, “If any man wishes to be first, he must be the least of all, and the slave of all.” (Mk. 9:35) 

Then He did something that, to my mind, is more shattering than when the devil offered Him the kingdoms of the world, and He told the devil what he could do with that offer.  He took a little child and set him in the midst of them, “and when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one of such children in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me, but Him who sent me.” (Mk. 9:36-37)

So much for the worship of power.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
 The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by JefZeph, August 28, 2013
I'm reminded of St. Gemma Galgani when she lamented, "If you could see how priests drag Him [Jesus] with ropes, here and there!"

We have an entire world doing exactly that. How much longer will He endure it?

Brilliant as always Dr. Esolen.
written by Manfred, August 28, 2013
Some thirty years ago, my children were being taught from a textbook "Jesus of History, Christ of Faith" which implied the two could/should be separated. I argued its merits with the Christian Brother principal and asked that my children be excused from the class. They eventually were.
In his recent book, Ross Douthat of the N.Y. Times (can you imagine?) stated by name that very concept was a heresy!
Let's be clear. The massive push by the US hierarchy at this very moment for amnesty is meant to signal they are capble of doing something. They are NOT Catholic, it is NOT a Catholic issue but, like Rotary or the Shriners, it gives the rank and file as well as the leadership the satisfaction they are doing something. All religions, except the Roman Catholic Church of the Ages(Sacred Scripture,SacredTradition and the Magisterium) are MAN-MADE.
written by Sandy O'Seay, August 28, 2013
This is a powerful, thoughtful essay, and is the reason that I subscribe to this wonderful site. Thanks for this . . . it is strength for the journey.

written by DS, August 28, 2013
Insightful and also a cautionary reflection for believers: the worship of power does not stop at the Church door.
written by John McCarthy, August 28, 2013
Ditto to Sandy!
written by Craig, August 28, 2013
Thank you for standing for true Catholicism with such great articles and inspiration.
written by Proteios1, August 28, 2013
A failed mohomed? Seriously?
So the worldwide expansion of Christianity, the rise in living standards, education, healthcare and all that occurred under the auspices of Christendom and some indecisive fool claims the cult of mohumed exceeds that? The deviancy inherent within islam alone should negate it from ever being taken as a serious religion.
written by Deacon Jim Stagg, August 29, 2013
Another excellent article, Mr. Esolen. Thank you!
written by TeaPot562, August 30, 2013
Is it a common effort for politicians and activists of many stripes to try to remake the understanding of Jesus to an activist sharing their values?
This was a frequent effort in the 1930s (making Jesus a Marxist) and the 1960s (making Jesus a supporter of LBJ's Great Society).
We, individually, need to read the Gospels and accept Jesus on His own terms. After all, as He responded to Pilate, His kingdom is not of this world. And to belong to it, we need to follow His values, not those of the prevailing political ideas of the day. Strive to enter the narrow gate.
written by Romy1, September 01, 2013
Ditto, Sandy! This is my go-to site, Catholic or otherwise.
written by jrf, September 01, 2013

Dr. Esolen, please know that you and this site have contributed much to my growth in the Catholic faith. Thanks!

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