By Lee Karl Palo
© 2016 Lee Karl Palo
Building toward a U.S. Presidential election, political messages bombard us all the time. There are, of course, people of faith who assert the Bible’s support for the candidate they have chosen. What do we make of this? Can the Bible be used this way? It is a far more complicated matter than many people often suppose.
To be sure the Bible provides us with a lot of ethical guidelines, so we can look at the candidates’ expressed ethical values and see how they measure up. The issue can get rather cloudy however since the Bible is a rather large book that not everyone has a great deal of knowledge and experience with. Within that typically limited range, Christians are often much more familiar with the New Testament than they are the Old Testament, so more focus is often placed on what Jesus would do than what the Torah says.
What does a focus on the New Testament mean?
The New Testament was borne out of a context in which, in terms of politics, there was an oppressive occupying force (Rome). Living under a foreign power, who clearly did not share the same values as the various forms of emerging Judaism in the First Century, meant that you don’t get a positive view of government. Hence there is an ethos of personal responsibility outside of any government interference in the New Testament. Help to the poor and needy is something that individuals are to do. This comports well with a politically conservative American perspective that wishes to limit the government’s reach. Why should the government do something individuals or the Church are supposed to do?
There is more to the Bible than this. The Old Testament has its own perspectives, and part of that is how to order a society according to God’s values. Jesus was a Jew who was grounded in much of what we now know as the Old Testament, particularly the Torah (The Old Testament had not yet reached its final form by Jesus’ day, but much of it was already considered authoritative scripture, nothing more so than the Torah). So what did Jesus do with the Torah?
The Greatest Commandment
Jesus combined Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18b when asked what the greatest commandment was (see Matthew 22:35–40 and Mark 12:28–34). This wasn’t a unique combination that Jesus made, rather it demonstrated to the questioner that Jesus knew and subscribed to what was considered the best contemporary Rabbinical opinion on the matter (see Luke 10:25-28). This focus on caring for one’s neighbor reinforces it as a personal, individual, mandate (see Luke 10:29-37).
But is that the only central message of Jesus? If so, it is hard to see how Jesus would have ended up being executed for preaching love and goodness to his fellow human beings. If Jesus was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of the world, did his opponents have to be either demon-possessed (or divinely-possessed) to get him executed? Or did Jesus’ opponents need little external provocation to crucify Jesus beyond his own message? Most scholars of the historical Jesus find ample cause for Jesus to end up on the cross that has nothing to do with spiritual forces, and everything to do with what Jesus proclaimed and what Jesus did.
Death by Politics
So what was it about Jesus’ message that was so controversial that he would be executed in a manner generally reserved for political revolutionaries? There were religious opponents of Jesus who tried to get Jesus to make some sort of public remark that could get him crucified. One of the most famous examples (found in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26) prompted Jesus’ famous response “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), then Jesus’ response implied that nothing really belongs to Caesar, and cleverly avoided a treasonable charge. Is Jesus opposed to paying taxes? I’m not sure this passage and its parallels provide a good answer one way or another, just that Jesus’ focus was on doing the will of God. But what about Jesus’ message could get the religious elites, particularly the wealthy religious elites of Jerusalem, so riled up they wanted Jesus dead? It would seem that they were looking for a political charge to level against Jesus in order to get him crucified. In the end though, the title above Jesus on the cross is one such treasonous statement, “the King of the Jews,” so it would seem that Jesus’ opponents eventually succeeded.
Jesus made Isaiah 61:1-2, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, a centerpiece of his message and mission (see Matthew 11:5 and Luke 4:16-21). Jesus largely preached to rural communities, many of them poor. A message centering on that Isaiah passage would certainly have made him popular with that audience. What is the “good news to the poor” of which Isaiah spoke? The year of the Lord’s favor was part of the Sabbath laws: the Sabbath year and the Sabbath year of Sabbath years—the year of Jubilee.
At this point we are really digging into the Old Testament for its political values. Religion and politics in the ancient world were not separate. Given such an emphasis on separation of church and state in the U.S. today, it is easy for Americans to dismiss many passages as having only religious meaning when the original context also had political meaning. Thus it may be surprising to some that when the Gospel of Luke recorded people having asked Jesus whether he was “God’s Son” (Luke 22:70, and see also Matthew 26:63), that was as much a religious title as it was a political title. Caesar Augustus took the title “Son of God” (the name Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, means “Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine, the Venerable”). So anyone besides the Roman Emperor using the title, “Son of God,” could be presumed to be claiming to be an alternative to the Roman Emperor, a clearly treasonous assertion.
The Law of the Land
Law codes like that of Hammurabi were incorporated into the Torah, so that the Torah was as much about politics as it was about religion—there was no separation. As such there are not only voluntary commands for individuals in the Bible (in the New Testament), but also legally binding material in the Bible (in the Old Testament). The Bible is not just about suggesting spiritual practices for individuals, but also about how a just society was to be ordered. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). As we have seen, there were open-ended exhortations like “you must love your neighbor as yourself.” There were also commands for the Israelites to set aside part of their livelihood (their “income” in a society where not everything was monetized) for the poor (see Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22). Such commands were not some type of discretionary giving, or “as you see fit” giving, they were the law of the land.
Still, Old Testament laws like that are actually rather tame, and can perhaps remind one of government programs where income tax money is used to subsidize food stamps for the poor. There are also far and away more radical laws in the Old Testament. On the Sabbath Year all debts were to be forgiven (see Deuteronomy 15:1-3)! No matter how wealthy a person got buying up other people’s land, and often putting them to work farming the land they used to own, at the year of Jubilee the land would have to be given back to the people it was purchased from for free (see Leviticus 25:23-28)! These radical Sabbath laws were what Jesus made as a centerpiece of his message. No wonder the wealthy religious elites of Jerusalem were concerned.
Jesus, however, didn’t stop at proclaiming the year of Jubilee, he also did something so outrageous that it has echoed down through history as one of the greatest moments of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified! The Temple was where the financial records were kept, so at the cleansing of the Temple when Jesus declares it to be a “den of thieves,” he isn’t somehow implying that the thieving only occurred there, but that the “loot” is there. The thievery Jesus was referring to was the withholding of both debt forgiveness and the return of property to its ancestral ownership. In a sense Jesus was attempting to take on the role of Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club in his judgment of the failure to release the debt records kept at the Temple. [For more on this aspect of the cleansing of the Temple, see for example pp. 134-135 of N.T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus] Jesus, in driving out the moneychangers, effectively shut down the Temple sacrifices and called God’s judgment upon on the whole system. Jesus not only threatened the wealth of the Jerusalem elites, but also their religious vocations.
What does all this have to do with contemporary politics in the U.S.? Claiming God for either political party is much more complicated that we might have thought at first. There is nothing in the Bible that absolves individuals of responsibility to the poor. Surely political conservatives are correct that wholly ceding assistance of the poor to the government is not warranted by scripture. However, political liberals can also point to many Old Testament passages as proof that society should be ordered in such a way that the poor receive assistance that citizens are legally bound to provide. One can question the efficacy of government programs to help the poor, as some political conservatives do, but such programs can nevertheless find Biblical warrant. This isn’t a matter of where help to the poor should come from, be it an individual’s voluntary giving or involuntary assistance, because the answer is pretty much by any means available.
So how do we determine who to vote for?
Is it possible to support a politically conservative candidate based on Christian values? Yes. Is it possible to support a politically liberal candidate based on Christian values? The answer is also yes. The strong identification of conservative evangelicalism with conservative politics has made the latter claim difficult for many Americans to conceive of. For my part, I find it sadly amusing that many of Bernie Sanders’ liberal “socialist” proposals have come under fire from many, predominantly conservative evangelical Christians, when the Bible itself promotes far more radical laws on which to order society. Wealth redistribution was not only a prominent feature of the larger concept of Sabbath, but a major component of Jesus’ message and mission, and it may have been a significant factor leading to his death. Wealth redistribution was, of course, done voluntarily in the early church (see Acts 2:44-46). There is absolutely no reason why Christians shouldn’t continue to voluntarily provide help to the poor. According to some studies, conservatives give more to charity than liberals. Is this perhaps because liberals believe in government assistance to the poor more strongly than conservatives? Perhaps for some. In any case, given the Old Testament’s ordering of society to include help to the poor, and given citizen’s say in government, there is absolutely no reason why Christians shouldn’t push for laws to provide the poor with assistance.
To be sure there are other factors that go into determining what candidate can receive support from Christians than just the issue of how the poor can best be helped. One thing should be clear, for most Christians this isn’t an issue of whether the poor should receive assistance, but how best to do so. There are a lot of Biblical values that can factor into determining which candidate to support, and there is no easy answer. That some of Bernie Sanders values can find Biblical support does not necessarily imply that all of them can. The same is true of any other candidate—that some of their values may find Biblical support and some may not.
If you are a Christian, what Biblical principles matter most to you? Here I have touched on economic justice, but there are a lot of other principles in the Bible beyond that. Does any candidate perfectly embody the Biblical values you hold most dear? Probably not. A flipside is that you can also ask which candidate least reflects Biblical values. How will you choose what candidate to support?
When the early Christians said, “Jesus is Lord,” they were making a political statement that Caesar was not. In any case, in the history of the Christian tradition, salvation is not to be found in whatever politician we like the best. No matter how our politicians try to position themselves as a savior, salvation is found only in Christ.
© 2016 Lee Karl Palo