Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that ushered a prophet call to American Evangelicals to understand the radical, political nature of the gospel and to take it seriously. At the same time, the media is presently interested to see what the “Evangelical” voting block will do in the 2016 Presidential race. Which raises the question, what is the relationship between the gospel and politics?
For some Christians, the gospel and politics are like oil and water – they don’t mix. They see the gospel as the information which individuals need to believe to have their souls saved, and politics is a rough and tumbled world where carnivorous politicians will say and do anything to get and maintain power. In this vision, the common life, the body politic does not really matter, but what matters is saving souls.
For some Christians, the gospel and politics are like a foundation and a house – one builds upon the other. They see the gospel as the way for individuals to get saved and then develop a moral life, and politics is the arena where the newly moral individual can vote for the “correct” persons and policies. According to this vision, which is very Constantinian, the Christian moral vision is the template for the State. Christians need to gain and maintain political power to ensure this vision is enforced through the State’s power.
But, Dr. Moore seems to be talking about a different kind of relationship between the gospel and politics. He seems to be hinting, ever so slightly, at the earliest Christian’s conception of the relationship – namely a gospel that creates an alternative political reality.
The earliest Christians thought about the gospel and politics in a very dissimilar yet parallel context as our current political and cultural climate. The Roman Empire promulgated the evangelion, or good news/gospel, that peace to the world through the ascension of Caesar Augustus ( this title means Exalted One) had taken place. Caesar’s peace was by means of total subjugation and slaughter of those barbarians that brought unrest to the Empire, and the good news is also that prosperity was secure and Rome would be great again.
Also, Caesar Augustus was, in the east, worshiped as a god, maintaining his own temple cult, eventually throughout all of the Empire. No matter their familial god, each citizen or subject was required to offer a tax to Caesar and confess him as Lord. Since his adoptive father, Julius was posthumously declared to be a god, Augustus was thus declared to be the son of god. The temple cult of Caesar was the means of unifying the Empire, creating a civic religion. Towns that were sufficiently loyal to Caesar could be granted legal right to rule somewhat independently, deciding local matters in their own jurisdiction, and these local, ruling bodies were known as an ekklesia.
In this context Christians burst upon the scene and establish their own polis (city/body politic) and they called their communities ekklesia – or as your Bible translates it church. It was none other than a body politic term for communities loyal to the Lordship of Jesus, the son of God, rather than Caesar. Christians thus declared that Caesar was not Lord by implication, and they refused to engage in emperor worship, committing treason. The gospel (evangelion) they brought was not of Caesar’s birth and victory over the evil powers, but it was of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension to the throne, making him the true Exalted One who established peace. Remember, this is why Jesus said, “Peace I bring to you, but not as the world (Rome) brings.” For early Christians, the gospel life itself was a protest against Empire, power and violence.
Israel, by the time of Jesus, was long waiting for a new prophet, a New Moses, an end to Exile, a New Exodus, and a New Law to be written on their hearts. Jesus clearly played upon these set of expectations and narratives when he went up upon the mountain to deliver the new law to form a new community and gave us The Sermon on the Mount. He cast a vision of a deeply political gospel, declaring that a King has been born, a victory won, a new community formed, a new vision and way of life for the community has been established. This community was to be none other than the poor, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It was to be an alternative political reality – the Kingdom of God breaking through.
And, when we declare ourselves to be the poor, sitting among the poor, serving the poor, we by implication declare that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. We declare the gospel that the idols of materialism, individualism, consumerism, power and wealth are deaf, dumb and dead because there is only one King. Serving the poor is not one option among many in the consumeristic practice of the Christian life, but it is the very mission of the new citizens of the new community – the alternative polis. The good news is that the Kingdom has come, and we get to help bring about the new creation in the lives of those who need it the most.
This is the heart of Administer Justice. And, this is the very political nature of the gospel.