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.