Jesus the Politician

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.