The Politics of Jesus and the Determination of Reality

When we consider the world into which Christ was born, in which the emperor is worshipped as absolute sovereign, in which the state is prime determiner of reality and has universal power, we understand the threat Christ posed. The accusation of insurrection at his trial would make him the disturber of the peace, the disrupter of the pax Romana, or the challenger to the monopolistic sovereignty of imperial Rome. Given Roman presuppositions about the emperor as divine sovereign, the state of Rome as the determiner of justice and the instrument of peace, the sort of alternative truth Christ would pose would challenge the political, economic, religious, and social order of Rome.

Though the Jewish notion that the Messiah would defeat Rome through violent insurrection was mistaken, it was not a mistake to understand that the Messiah would usher in a different kingdom and a different order of truth and reality. Christ would indeed break the Roman monopoly on truth, and the way he would accomplish this would involve politics (he would be king); it involved government and power (he would rule); it would involve economics (Christians would share among themselves and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s); and of course, it would involve religion (Christ is the divine Son of God). The difference between the truth of Christ and the truth of Rome involves every sphere of what it means to be human. To be Christian will involve entering a different order of reality. The truth of Christ sets free from the enslaving, wholesale delusion that is Roman Imperialism.

 But isn’t it the case that this monopoly on truth, power and divinity claimed by Rome is the permanent condition of the kingdoms of this world. While it is true that Rome alone exercised a more or less universal power, isn’t it the case that throughout history, no matter the size of the tribe country or state that the same sort of monopoly is placed on the determination of reality. Think in our day of North Korea, Communist China, the former Soviet Union, or perhaps more difficult for us to see – the United States of America. Communism and fascism would obviously exercise a monopoly on the nature of reality, but doesn’t secularism, individualism, or capitalism, represent the same sort of monopolistic claims on reality and value as imperial Rome? We can readily understand it may be contradictory to claim to be a Nazi Christian, a fascist Christian, or a Leninist Christian, but is it any less contradictory to claim to be a capitalistic Christian, an individualistic Christian, a secular Christian, or to say the same thing, an American Christian. That is, secularism, individualism, autonomous rationalism, or capitalism, are no more accommodating to Christian truth than Roman Imperialism. Or to say it the other way round, to be grounded in fascism, capitalism, or rational individualism, is to be deluded in regard to ultimate reality (the truth of Christ). The delusion that the truth of Christ sets free from is a delusion about the nature of reality.

Many in our day imagine that Christian truth is meant to supplement other forms of truth. One (certainly not the only one) expression of this is far-right politicians in the United States and around the world advocating a church/state alliance, in which “Christian morality” (e.g., oppression of immigrants, feminists, religious minorities) would be implemented by Christian politicians. For example, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano maintains the nation should reclaim its Christian identity, and that the notion of separation of church and state is a myth. The truth behind this misunderstanding, is the apparent disempowerment of Christian faith. According to New York Times journalist, Elizabeth Dias, “Many dismiss the historic American principle of the separation of church and state.” She notes this is occurring in conjunction with the blending of Christian faith with notions of election fraud conspiracies, QAnon ideology, gun rights and lingering anger over Covid-related restrictions. According to Representative Lauren Boebert, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” At this Patriots Arise event, Jenna Ellis, a former co-counsel for the Trump campaign’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, told the audience that “what it really means to truly be America first, what it truly means to pursue happiness, what it truly means to be a Christian nation are all actually the same thing.”[1] What is being advocated is a return to a Roman Catholic or Constantinian form of the faith, in which the church is an arm of the state and Christian power is expressed in state power.

Christian nationalism is taking root, not only in the United States but the far right is currently ruling in Hungary with Viktor Orbán (who has come out against race mixing in Europe and was a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this summer) and Poland with the Christian nationalist party. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, called indigenous peoples “parasites” and promoted the burning of the Amazon basin. He called Hitler “a great strategist” and believes Brazil is “a Christian country,” and he has spent the last four years governing, as he terms it, as the “Trump of the Tropics.” His key support is among Brazilian evangelicals.  Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister campaigned with the slogan “Italy and Italians first!” Her party, Brothers of Italy, is the successor of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), and followed closely the 1926 fascist doctrine to protect the “State, family, morality and the economy.” Meloni, a Christian nationalist, has praised Mussolini and promised to “defend God, country, and family.” She has proposed a naval blockade against migrants. In a speech in a meeting with the Spanish far-right party, she laid out the principles of her neo-fascist ideology: “yes to the natural family … yes to the universality of the Cross … no to mass immigration.” This rise of the Christian right wing can be linked to both a right-wing Islamist and Hindu drive to power. In India Narendra Modi has pursued Hindu-nationalist policies against religious minorities and in Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan has imposed Islamic nationalism and ethnic cleansing against Kurds.[2]  The blending of right-wing politics and Christianity as we have it in the United States may be inspiring a world-wide movement, as once liberal democracies are turning right.

The theological problem and solution is not concerned with right or left wing politics, but with the conceding of embodied reality to the dictates of the state. The privatization of religion in liberal democracy, squeezes out the notion of an alternative kingdom or alternative citizenship (an alternative embodiment) in the church. This is the case, as death is the implicit power behind our political order.

The threat of death, in the description of Stanley Hauerwas, justifies political liberalism’s forced political arrangement of citizens with nothing in common but “their fear of death.”[3] Death in war, death at the hands of the state, or protection from a perceived enemy, lends the state something like a sacred responsibility. The secular order can presume to dictate matters of life and death, creating the equivalent of the sacred, with its presumed power over death and life in its policing power, its power to make war and its power of capital punishment. The state controls the body through the body of state, disciplining and punishing and controlling embodied reality. Yet the claim of Christ is that we are saved by becoming part of his body and making him determinative of our reality.

Jesus can only be fully known and encountered in those people who call him Lord and King and who are ordered by his kingdom. Liberal democracy (in the name of secularism), like totalitarianism, fascism, or nationalism functions like religion in its determination of the strictures and loyalties of embodied existence. Add the power of potential nuclear holocaust, and the state takes on its own metaphysical power, an eternal value directly expressed in its power for extermination.[4]  Never before has this absolute power, this monopoly on the power of death and destruction, been so literal and blatant. Set aside is any notion of serving a higher good or a law that transcends the state and the absoluteness of its survival (expressed in the power of mutually assured destruction). The law of survival, state self-determination and sovereignty, is written in the power for an assured destruction.

Christian salvation is precisely concerned to defeat the state monopoly on the power of life through its control of death and destruction. The Christian faith makes absolute claims as to the nature of truth and reality, and these claims can in no way be subordinated to the principalities and powers. By conceding that life together, political life, economic life, or sexual life, is ultimately under the control of state power, the church concedes that Christian truth serves the state. This is the lie Christ confronted in his life and in his trial and death. With the resurrection, the state monopoly on the power of death is defeated. There is no truth more determinative of reality than Jesus crucified and raised and this truth is necessarily attached to the holistic shape of his kingdom.[5]

His work is in history, yet he demonstrates God’s rule over time and history. His truth is specifically attached to his personhood, his entry into history as a Jewish carpenter, and his particular story. His truth cannot be relegated to the ahistorical, the abstract or the transcendental. It cannot be privatized or made to serve another story – i.e., the story of the nation state, the story of the rise of liberal democracy, the story of Rome or America. This is the lie not only of the secular state, capitalism, and individualism but is the lie that he confronted in both Rome and Israel. Both would obliterate, kill and control him, so that Rome could be great, or to prove the absoluteness of Israel. It is truth and reality that are in contention in his life and death.

Where his life is deployed to make America great again, or to legitimize the worst forms of oppression, there is a theological failure to recognize Christ constitutes a kingdom. Only in the living community shaped by the politics, culture and tradition of Jesus, do we encounter the fully embodied Christ. The incarnation continues through the church, but the church is only the church where his people are fully formed as part of his body. That is, the body of state, the body of liberal democracy, or the body of death, has no part in the embodiment of Christ.

[1] Elizabeth Dias, “The Far-Right Christian Quest for Power: ‘We Are Seeing Them Emboldened’

Political candidates on the fringe mix religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state.” The New York Times (July 8, 2022)

[2] Camila Vergara, “Opinion/ How Christian Nationalism Is Taking Root Across the World:

The electoral success of the far right in Italy and Brazil is a warning for the United States. Politico (October 27, 2022).

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 169. The quotations from Hauerwas and Williams are from the dissertation by David Wade Horstkoetter, “Gary Dorrien, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, and the Theological Transformation of Sovereignties” (2016). Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 632.

[4] See Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 165-166.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity,: (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) 173.