Divided politics and the politics of Jesus

by Paulus Widjaja

From rising nationalism in many countries, to global inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to bitterly divided elections in places like Belarus and the U.S., some Christian leaders have decided churches should be a safe space apart from and above talk of presidents, regimes and political policies. Others have collaborated closely with the powers that be, seizing an opportunity to restore Christian values to their society. And still others have opted to identify their churches solely as a space of opposition.

These divided Christian approaches to politics were familiar to people in the political environment of Jesus’ life. In a time of Roman occupation, many Jewish religious leaders (such as the Sadducees and Pharisees) opted to comply with the ruling political forces. In defiance against them were the Zealots, who violently opposed the rule of Rome. Adding a different view was the large Jewish sect called the Essenes, who prioritized personal piety and purity and established separate communities away from political debate. Indeed, Jewish religious society reflected a divided spectrum with respect to political power very similar to today – unquestioned compliance with, violent opposition to, and piety and purity from.

A sign announces the Tent of Nations on the hilltop farm where the Nassar family has lived for more than 100 years. The farm is near Bethlehem and is surrounded by five Israeli settlements collectively called Gush Etzion. (MCC photo/Emily Loewen, 2017)

But what political option did Jesus choose, and what are the implications for the church in the divided politics of our time? The way of Jesus, I believe, provides an alternative political option we might call the church of the descended Christ, the crucified Christ and the risen Christ.

First, Jesus did not establish the new government for which many Israelites hoped. Instead, Jesus created an alternative community of followers who transformed society “from the bottom up” through their whole different way of living – caring for the “least of the least” and building community across divides between Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, with a shared life of koinonia between them. As Jesus was made incarnate in flesh, taking on the nature of a servant and walking alongside the outcasts and margins of society, so we are called to live an alternative within the public square of our societies as the church of the descended Christ.

The wall that cuts off Palestine in the occupied territories from the rest of Israel sits close to the courtyard at Wi’am Center, an MCC partner in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine. (Photo courtesy: Viviane Eyer, 2019)

Secondly, while Christ descended into the world, he was not co-opted or appropriated by its politics. Jesus publicly confronted the destructive spirits of the world and the systems of sin and domination, and he was crucified for doing so. Following Jesus, the church is called to humbly bear a moral and prophetic witness, to seek to discern what is right and what is wrong, and the remedy, and to give public voice to this. In the face of destructive political realties like racism, nationalism, inequality, greed and xenophobia, this requires public sacrifice and courage. This is living as the church of the crucified Christ.

Finally, Christ’s resurrection and reconciling of “all things” (Colossians 1:19-20) creates hope for a better kind of politics in our time. This is the way of prophetic imagination – of envisioning and living out new ways of life in the world not through methods of fear, violence and greed, but with love of neighbor, peacemaking and justice for all reflected in the political realm. This is the politics of the church of the risen Christ.

As Christ descended, so too does the church descend into the spaces of the marginalized, outcast and victim to affirm their holiness and dignity. As Christ was crucified for his witness, so too does the church’s witness bear judgement against the destructive spirits of the world. As Christ was resurrected, so too does the Church live as a new creation, bearing prophetic imagination in its life.

Dr. Paulus Widjaja, a Mennonite theologian and leader, teaches ethics and peacebuilding at Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he is also director of the Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace. Co-author of A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church, Paulus has served as the peace council secretary for Mennonite World Conference, a worldwide community of Anabaptist-related churches.

To learn more about MCC’s work and to find out how you can get involved in creating a better world for all, visit our website here. You can also learn more about global perspectives of the role of the church here.

This article was originally circulated as part of MCC’s bimonthly newsletter – UN Office Global Briefing. You can sign up for this newsletter here.

Banner Image Caption: A grove of Mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) outside the village of Sandalki, Sandalki, India. The Mahua is an indigenous tree. Villagers collect its flower and fruits as Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP). MCC is working with partner Disha (Hindi word for ‘finding the right path or direction’) in indigenous tribal villages in the district of Sundargarh in the state of Odisha, India. (MCC Photo/Colin Vandenberg, 2017)

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