Jesus simultaneously invites us to engage in politics while avoiding the political. At first read, that probably seems like a contradiction, but it is an essential distinction.
An Invitation to the Incendiary
Luke 13 opens with some people coming to Jesus and telling him about Pilate, the Roman magistrate, killing some people from Galilee while they were making sacrifices to God. It does not take much knowledge of First Century culture to see what is going on here. They tell Jesus that the Roman occupier murdered people while they were worshiping God. Could Rome engage in more offensive behavior? To add another layer to the assault, these people are from the same region of Israel that Jesus grew up in.
It is the kind of incendiary speech that intends to prompt a severe reaction against Rome. Moreover, it is purposefully invites Jesus to turn a blind eye to the bigger picture. Pilate is horrible, so any other option, including rebellion against Rome, must be good. Instead of recognizing that the lesser of two evils is still evil, it invites us to call the lesser evil good.
Incendiary Politics at Home
We see this kind of move all the time in our politics at home. Reports on the true horrors of what Russia is doing in Ukraine right now invite us to see Vladimir Putin as bad and Volodymyr Zelensky as good. Never mind that Zelensky, who ran as an anti-corruption candidate, has corruption issues of his own.
The same thing happens with Democrats and Republicans. In November of 2020, Americans went to the polls in droves to make sure that Donald Trump did not get a second term in office. Instead, millions voted for a man personally involved in much of the legislation over the past 50 years that destroyed the American middle class and gutted already ostracized minority communities. But Biden is is a different evil than Trump, so apparently, that made him good.
Yet, if things continue on the road we are currently on, in 2024, America will, despite his rabid incompetence and lack of ethos, bring back Trump simply because he maintains an anti-establishment image. Trump will be a different evil than Biden, so apparently, that will make him good.
That is the fallacy of power and the political.
Politics, the Political, and Jesus
However, Jesus refuses to take the bait and ultimately turns the entire discussion upside down. Rather than engaging in a political conversation that turns blindly partisan, Jesus turns to politics and the wisdom behind how we organize and make sense of our lives together.
Jesus’ initial move is to avoid addressing Pilate’s violence by appealing to the common First Century idea that there is a one-to-one correlation between sin and suffering. We see an example of this when Jesus and his disciples come across a blind man and ask if it was the man or his parents who sinned. The only thing they seem certain of is that someone must have done something wrong for God to cause the man to be born blind.
Following this logic, Jesus asks if these Galileans did something horrible to prompt God to use Pilate to murder them. You can imagine the confusion on the faces of those who brought the news to Jesus. That wasn’t what they were saying, but Jesus accurately points out the contradiction in their belief.
Jesus continues with a more random tragedy, a tower that fell on people and killed them. Again, was it God who pushed the tower over to get them back for something they did? Of course not. But that is the common fallacy whenever we embrace God as object instead of subject.
God as object is the God who does things. It is God as Santa Claus who gives us coal when we are naughty and gifts when we are nice. God as object is the grand chess master above who moves the pieces according to an apparently arbitrary divine plan. This God operates according to power and invites us to do so as well.
God as subject on the other hand is the God who perpetually and patiently invites us towards the good. This is the God who teaches us how to take the shit in our lives and use it as fertilizer that prompts us to grow. This is the God who invites us to repent of our use of power and instead embrace a life of love.
So how does Jesus invite us to respond to the partisan and political? With a politics of love.