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    by Roy H. Ryan

    The Politics of Jesus and Paul
    As we continue our consideration of the relationship of Christ and Culture, it is important to look at the life and teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul, through his various writings, to see what clues they give us on this issue.

    Jesus cannot be pigeon-holed when it comes to his "political views." He has been called by some a "Radical Rabbi" because of his questioning of many of the Jewish Laws. One has to remember that he lived under a Roman-controlled government, yet he does not have a lot to say about government. When tested on this matter by a group who wished to trap him, giving him a coin and asking who should be worshipped, Caesar or God, he said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." He knew that men have to live in two kingdoms. He was more interested in the Kingdom of God than in the political kingdoms of this world.

    Paul could rightly be called a "social conservative" because of his view of government, his strong stands against homosexuality and his subordination of women in the home and in the church (even though many women were prominent in some of the early churches that Paul founded). His view seemed to reflect the tenor of the times rather than grounded in any great philosophical or theological foundations. Romans 13 is an important statement about one's relationship to those who govern. He believed that those who govern are "appointed by God" and are God's representatives to punish the bad and support the good. That view seems rather strange to many in our day who are accustomed to a democratic society and know that people elected to office are not always good representatives of God. He seems to leave no room for civil disobedience in his scheme of things.

    Politics has been defined as "the art of the possible," "the art of compromise," or the art of governing and of influencing policies of the government. "Influencing government" seems to be more nearly the way Christians would interpret their role in government today.

    Some argue that Jesus is irrelevant as far as giving us "a social ethic." These arguments include:

        1. He was a simple rural figure in a small corner of the Roman Empire.
        2. He believed in an "interim ethic." He seemed to believe and teach that God's kingdom was coming soon and people should not be too concerned about the present time.
        3. Jesus and his disciples lived in a world over which they had no control.
        4. The nature of Jesus's message was ahistorical by definition. He dealt primarily with spiritual, not social matters.
        5. Jesus was a radical monotheist. The Will of God cannot be identified with any one ethical answer or any given human value, since these are all finite.
        6. Jesus came, after all, to give his life for the sins of man and not simply to set an ethical example. [John H. Yoder, THE POLITICS OF JESUS, pp. 15-19]

    But, if we study the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and his proclamation of his Mission in Luke 4:14ff, we find Jesus certainly does have much to say about ethical behavior.

    Can one juxtapose the Jesus of the Gospels with the present complicated world in which we live and make decisions based on his teaching? I believe in many cases we can. He may not have spoken directly to many of the hard issues we face today, because he was "a man of history" as well as the Son of God. What did he say, or would he say, about capital punishment, war and peace, human sexuality, stem-cell research, etc.? We cannot know for sure, but we can find in his teachings words that help us better understand the spiritual response to these questions -- and to help us discern the "will of God."

    We know he was not a "strict constructionist" when it came to interpreting the Jewish Law. He often said, "It hath been said by them of old time -- but I say unto you..."

    His disciples "plucked corn on the Sabbath" (against the Law) and he healed on the Sabbath (also against the Law). He said, "If a man strike you on one cheek, turn to him the other also," whereas the Jewish Law was "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

    We will be looking at Paul's theology and teachings later when we come to consider some of the "hot button issues" of our day.

    The Kingdom Jesus came to establish was based on "Love," love of God and love of neighbor. It was also based on treating others as one expected to be treated. He went out of his way to accept people like the hated Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors and others who were considered "sinners" by the standards of Jewish Law. So, in many situations and in dealing with many difficult issues, we can indeed rightfully ask, "What would Jesus do?"

    Christians are followers of Jesus and seek to follow his teachings; therefore, Christians have every reason to study his teachings and his example so that "we may follow in his steps."

    For further study:
    Manfred T. Brauch, HARD SAYINGS OF PAUL


A United Methodist Minister, now retired, and a native Mississippian, Roy Ryan lives in Tupelo, Mississippi. He is a graduate of Millsaps College, BA in Sociology-Anthropology and of Emory University (Theology), M. Div focus on New Testament studies. He is also a graduate of Southern Methodist University (Theology) STM in Adult Christian Education and Vanderbilt University (Theology) D. Min in Theological Ethics. Roy has written eight books on Christian education and numerous articles for church and secular journals. He is presently teaching this course on "Christ and Culture" in First United Methodist Church in Tupelo.


Click these links to access essays in this series:
Part I... Part II... Part III... Part IV... Part V... Part VI... Part VII... Part VIII... Part IX... Part X


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