I brought up the subject of the historical Jesus, because I was put off by the notion of “red-letter” Christians“, who are certain evangelicals with a social justice agenda. They see the words of Jesus, which some Bibles put in red letters, as more authoritative than the rest of the Bible. They are evangelicals, so they probably didn’t have the same kind of education I had. I learned that you have to go through quite a maze to figure out what the historical Jesus really said. I also concluded that it didn’t really matter to the early church. Whether God said it through Jesus, or Paul, or a prophet ; God still said it and it was still authoritative.
Religion in America has become more and more politically motivated lately. So the motive for red-letter Christians is to use the sayings of Jesus to justify their political stance. Leading red-letter Christain, Jim Wallis, wrote a book about God’s Politics and has a blog by that title. (I wonder if he held a contest for the most self-righteous title possible, and that is what won.) His notion is that the things the gospels claim Jesus said lead to support for the welfare state and cutting defense spending. Jesus was, after all, for the poor and against violence.
I have heard people on the religious right also use things that appear in red letters to support their positions. Jesus’ opposition to divorce supports family values. His claim that the poor will always be with us makes a war on poverty futile. His saying that one who lives by the sword will also die by the sword supports capital punishment– and so on.
It seems to me that the assumption made by people on both sides is that America is the people of God. The words of Jesus and the rest of the Bible speak primarily to the people of God. You can understand this as Israel or the Church. But can you understand it as American government and society?
Our history tends to make us do that. The puritans and others crossed the ocean to get away from ecclesiastical authorities who put a crimp in the free expression of their religion. Even many Jews and Catholics came here under religious or economic pressure. The Mormons have a similar story about coming west. It is easy to see America as the new promised land, our coming here as a new exodus, and our uprooting the native Americans as a new conquest.
But what if we see America, not as Israel, but as Rome? In regard to Jesus, then the question would be this: did Jesus ever say anything to Rome? I can’t resist the temptation to be sarcastic about this. When Jesus prayed the Lord’s Prayer, did he pray it as a liberal? Did he think that when he asked that God’s kingdom come and his will be done, that this meant that Rome should provide free leeches to those who needed medical attention and that Rome should apologize to Carthage? Or did he pray it as a conservative as a request that Rome shut down the bath houses and build a fence against Scythian immigration?
Seriously though, did Jesus–the historical one or the one uncritically portrayed in the gospels–ever say anything to influence or express an opinion about Roman politics? As a Jew Jesus would have preferred an independent Israel. But even about that, he didn’t say anything to Rome. The only thing I can find is in John’s portrayal of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in 19:11. “You would have no power at all against me, unless it were given to you from above.” But I don’t see how affirming the sovereignty of God gives us any concrete political guidance about tax or health care policy.