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Jesus and Politics

Jesus’ premeditated entry into Jerusalem on a donkey symbolized a kingdom of peace in which the weapons of war would be banished.

Stanley Spencer
Stanley Spencer

Politics are at the center of the story of Jesus. His historical life ended with a political execution. Crucifixion was used by Rome for those who systematically rejected imperial authority, including chronically defiant slaves and subversives who were attracting a following. In the world of Jesus, a cross was always a Roman cross.

So also the heart of his message was political: it was about the coming of “the kingdom of God.” These are the first words of Jesus in Mark, the earliest Gospel, an advance summary of what the Gospel and the story of Jesus are about (Mark 1:14-15). Of course, Jesus’ message was also religious: he was passionate about God and what God was like. That passion led him, in his teaching and actions, to proclaim the kingdom of God.

In his world, “kingdom” language was political. Jesus’ hearers knew about other kingdoms—the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Rome (as Rome referred to itself in eastern parts of the empire). The kingdom of God had to be something different from those kingdoms.

The kingdom of God is for the earth. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of God’s kingdom coming on earth, even as it already exists in heaven. It is about the transformation of this world—what life would be like on earth if God were ruler and the lords of the domination systems were not.

If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political meaning of kingdom language, he could have spoken of the “family” of God, or the “community” of God, or the “people” of God. But he didn’t: he spoke of the kingdom of God.

It would be a world of economic justice in which everybody had the material basics of existence. And it would be a world of peace and nonviolence. Together, economic justice and peace are “the dream of God”— God’s passion for a transformed world.

Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God created conflict with the authorities. His public activity began after the arrest of his mentor, John the Baptizer, by the Rome-appointed ruler of Galilee (Mark 1:14). Conflict dominates his story throughout the Gospels and climaxes in the last week of Jesus’ life with his challenge to the authorities in Jerusalem and his crucifixion.

Jesus also used political means, most dramatically in two public political demonstrations. First, his preplanned entry into Jerusalem on a donkey symbolized a kingdom of peace in which the weapons of war would be banished. Second, he publicly indicted the temple as “a den of robbers” because it had become the center of collaboration with Roman imperial rule and taxation (Matt 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46).

Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God led to his passion in the narrower sense of the word: his arrest, suffering, and death. This is the political meaning of Good Friday. Easter also has a political meaning: it meant that God said yes to Jesus’ passion for a transformed world and no to the powers of domination that killed him. Of course, Good Friday and Easter have more than a political meaning—but not less.

  • Marcus J. Borg

    Marcus J. Borg (1942-2015) was Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture Emeritus at Oregon State University, past president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and author of twenty books.