Was Jesus apolitical? Hardly.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Christianity in Crisis” has received considerable attention. I regularly read his blog. I find it highly intelligent, thought-provoking, and offering links to fascinating material I would otherwise not encounter. Sullivan is gay, libertarian, Roman Catholic. He writes:

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.Sullivan wants to extricate Christianity from the “christianists” as he calls them, the right-wing Christians who use their religion politically. He argues that Jesus was profoundly non-political and appeals to Jefferson’s idea of a Jesus who taught practical doctrines.

Others have offered insightful criticism, Kyle Cupp, for one, here and here.

I think the deeper problem with Sullivan’s argument lies in a series of category mistakes. Was there such a thing as “politics” distinct from religion in the Roman Empire? Not when the Emperor in some sense was responsible for assuring the performances of the rituals of Roman public religion. Not when the emperor in the East assumed titles like “Divine” or “Savior.” Not when the cross itself was an instrument of political power.

One of the problems for contemporary people is realizing that our categories of “religion” and “politics,” even the “secular” which Sullivan uses to describe St. Francis before his conversion, are the products of historical and cultural developments, that the boundaries between them, however contested they are in contemporary culture, exist in our minds. It’s not clear that such boundaries existed in the medieval or ancient world, that a term like “secular” would have made sense to St. Francis.

And of course, to assert that Jesus was “apolitical” is itself a political statement, when it is challenging the right of others to use Jesus or Christianity for political ends.

David Sessions points out that Sullivan is interpreting Jesus along the lines of liberal individualism (not surprising then that he begins with Jefferson’s Bible):

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

It reminds me of two comments I received after a recent sermon. One person congratulated me for not preaching about political topics. Another person, in response to the very same sermon, congratulated me for taking a political stance. Apparently, I confused everybody.

We Americans have trouble with politics and religion.

Initial reflections on the death of Osama bin Laden

After turning in early last night, I learned the news this morning. Like many, I was troubled by the celebrations that broke out spontaneously. Many of those most affected, whose loved ones were killed directly or indirectly bin Laden or Al Qaida had a natural emotional response to news of his death. But I wonder why a celebration of this sort turned into what one commentator called a “Frat Party.” And there were other comments and actions that put this event on the level of a sports team’s national championship. We haven’t won by any stretch of the imagination. The wars that were unleashed in response to bin Laden’s actions continue; terrorists continue to plot attacks, and our freedoms diminished in the name of these wars.

About rejoicing over the death of one’s enemies:

Susanna Brooks has some brief comments

Rabbi Schmuel Herzfeld asks: “Is it wrong to feel joy at Bin Laden’s death?” and points to the talmudic story that God rebuked the angels for excessive joy when Pharaoh’s army was destroyed while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

My Facebook newsfeed was filled with friends posting verses from scripture about loving one’s enemy or Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” There were also prayers for peace and prayers for our enemies.

I’ve been thinking again about just war theory–Nato’s actions in Libya have raised the issue again. The use of drone aircraft raise significant questions about the exercise of war. Paul Zahl asked whether their use was just in the context of Afghanistan; that they are now being used in Libya as well is perhaps more troubling.

Osama’s death will overshadow the news that Nato made a targeted attack on a site where members of Muammar Qaddafi’s family were staying, resulting in the death of family members. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this is a significant step beyond the original UN mandate.

One of the things that concerns me most, both about the bin Laden attack and the events in Libya is that we continue to abrogate human rights and the rule of law.

An appropriate, Christian (or even human) response to bin Laden’s death is difficult to gauge in light of our competing loyalties to family, friends, nation and Jesus Christ, and the real emotional responses we have to the news. James Martin, SJ, writes on America’s In all Things:

So the question is whether the Christian can forgive a murderer, a mass murderer, even–as in the case of Osama bin Laden–a coordinator of mass murder across the globe.  I’m not sure I would be able to do this, particularly if I had lost a loved one.  But as with other “life” issues, we cannot overlook what Jesus asks of us, hard as it is to comprehend.  Or to do.

For this is a “life” issue as surely as any other.  The Christian is not simply in favor of life for the unborn, for the innocent, for those we care for, for our families and friends, for our fellow citizens, for our fellow church members or even for those whom we consider good, but for all.  All life is sacred because God created all life.  This is what lies behind Jesus’s most difficult command: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The whole thing is well worth the read.