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The Crux

Was Jesus a 'Liberal', or Was He 'Conservative'?

The vanity of reverse engineering Christ's political ideology

Older Christians with a sense of humor may remember a magazine that was published from 1971 through 2008 called The Wittenburg Door. If you're interested, the Door has recently revived itself into an online publication. You can check it out here.

Of course, I was a big fan of the Door during the 1990s, after becoming a full-blown Jesus follower. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the Door had a Facebook fan page. It brought out the Holy spirit giggles in me (just kidding).

While the fan page is, of course, a humor and satire group, I was grateful when members of the group allowed me to pose a serious question. The question was this:

Is there currently a publication in circulation geared toward Christian intellectuals without a liberal/progressive or conservative bent?

To further qualify my intent, I added this explanation:

By "bent", I mean they'll publish content of any persuasion so long as it is intelligent and in line with traditionally orthodox or heterodox Christian thinking rather than selective with regard to liberal/progressive or conservative biases.

I thought this might clarify what I was asking, and it may have ... for some people in the group. For others, it sparked thoughtful--or, in some cases, not so thoughtful--discussion on whether Jesus was a liberal or conservative. Their intent, of course, was to justify the conclusion that a Christian publication must have an ideological bent. Some said Jesus was, naturally, a progressive. Others said there is no way of reading the gospels and coming away with any other conclusion than that Jesus was conservative. Isn't that interesting? Two people reading the same text drawing completely opposite conclusions from that text. And we wonder why we don't all just get along.

My intent was not to start such a discussion, but the discussion happened anyway. I sat back and watched, only weighing in occasionally to challenge a basic assumption of one of the arguers. At times, I challenged one of the progressives. At other times, I challenged one of the conservatives. I quickly found out that no challenge would be met with a change of opinion. I was not surprised.

But what of this practice of viewing Jesus as either a "conservative" or a "liberal" by modern uses of those relative terms? Is it justifiable?

The Folly of Attempting to Define Jesus' Political Ideology

I have given this topic a lot of thought in the last 20 years, ever since I found myself, as a National Guard officer, playing participant to a war started by the U.S. president at the time--a war that was unprovoked, unnecessary, and, arguably, unjust. The war was, predictably, championed by what the press calls The Religious Right and opposed by progressives and liberals, even left-leaning Christians. Until then, I'd have called myself a Conservative Libertarian. I now no longer identify as such. Nor do I identity with those who call themselves Christian Progressives.

I have come to the conclusion that both Christian liberals and Christian conservatives read into the Bible their own biases and use their biases as justification for their political ideologies. It is a form of idolatry.

There are three reasons I feel this way:

  1. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are relative, but they are also modern constructs that cannot be applied to the Jews of first-century Palestine; these concepts would be completely foreign to anyone of that time and place.

  2. After the Roman Republic transitioned into an empire, all decisions within the empire became the province of the emperor. Voting ceased (and before that, it was limited to male citizens who were property owners). Therefore, the ability to influence political outcomes was next to nil, especially for a Jew. That makes taking anything Jesus said to the people of His time and filtering it through the lens of modern-day democracy a complete farse. Jesus simply had no intention of presenting His listeners with an instruction manual consisting of guiding principles for influencing policy decisions within a democratic republic. It would have been absurd for Him to do so since no one in His immediate audience lived within that context.

  3. Jesus said plainly that His kingdom is not of this world. That doesn't mean it has no implications for this world, but the last thing on Jesus' mind would be giving His disciples a road map to political influence. It simply wasn't what He was about.

The common practice of making the Bible a political tract can be traced historically to two modern developments. On the one hand, the translation of the Bible into modern languages was brought about by a 15th century invention known as The Gutenberg Press. For most of history, however, the majority of people did not have access to a Bible and, if they did, were so illiterate that they couldn't read it for themselves. On the other hand, the rise of modern democracy culminating in the American experience provided impetus for a broader range of persons able to participate in governance than was historically allowed. In other words, the Protestant Reformation and The Enlightenment are two recent historic developments that contribute to the idea that the Bible can be used to motivate Christians into political action.

While this can be celebrated for the positive contributions it has led to (such as the inclusion of women and racial minorities in political governance, and the abolition of slavery), it also has its drawbacks. One of the major drawbacks is that some people have used the Bible to justify slavery and other social ills.

The Bible is not a political tract. While it does contain lessons on public and private morality and ethical conduct, its primary purpose is to give modern readers a glimpse into the mind of God. That "glimpse" is simply that, a glimpse. The Bible does not tell us everything we can know about God and certainly not everything there is to know about Him. Therefore, using it to ascertain God's favorite political or economic system by which mortal men should govern themselves at all times and in all places during the church age is a fool's errand. And this is why I do not endorse nor condone Progressive and Conservative attempts to fit the Bible into a box filled with human bias.

My New Reading List

Despite the distraction of politicizing Jesus' message that His kingdom had come (and looks nothing like what His contemporaries thought it should look like), I was able to compile a list of Christian publications that have some enlightening reads. Some of these I knew about and some I had never heard of. The following list are publications that some members of The Wittenberg Door fan page community on Facebook suggested in response to my question:

Naturally, I don't have time to read every article or listen to every podcast of every publication on this list. But I am delighted to have found some interesting reads and some new publications to delve into. When the Lord returns to consummate and complete the building of His kingdom, I plan to ask Him a question:

Why weren't you more clear the first time around about what Your kingdom's presence in this earthly realm means for those who wish to enter it?

And, of course, I'll hope and pray He doesn't strike me in the head with His rod and His staff. But He probably will.

Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.

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