THE POLITICAL TEACHINGS OF JESUS
By Tod Lindberg
HarperCollins, $25.95, 261 pages
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM MURCHISON
Hmmm. Jesus’ political teachings. We know where this is going, don’t we? Down with Wall Street, in the name of the Gospels! Stop the war in Iraq! Ratify the Kyoto treaty! Repeal tax cuts for the wealthy! Elect Al!
Actually we don’t know at all where this is going, despite previous and painful acquaintance with social gospelers who date back at least to Walter Rauschenbusch at the turn of the last century, and who (think Jim Wallis) get their present-day jollies from chivvying the creationists and fundamentalists.
Old Washington hand Tod Lindberg, editor of the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review magazine, shows — with verve and high style (the kind of style you don’t much encounter in theological writing) — that there’s a different way of addressing the matter.
Oh, is it different. Mr. Lindberg gives us no bomb-throwing, bourgeois-whupping Jesus. Instead he shows us the one who taught us how to attain “equality in freedom as encapsulated in the Golden Rule.”
Mention of the Golden Rule makes many a modern mouth pucker. Ah, the yucky-sweet cliches of the “Jesus loves me”-prayer in schools-Norman Vincent Peale 1950s! Didn’t we get past all that more than 40 years ago?
If we got past the Golden Rule part of the equation, we should try getting that part back, on Mr. Lindberg’s lively showing, because to do unto others (rendered “treat people” in the pancake-flat biblical translation Mr. Lindberg resorts to throughout) as you’d have done unto you is to help establish the equality in love that makes earthly life other than a bed of red ants.
More of this in a moment. Regarding Mr. Lindberg’s book, a couple of stumbling blocks are worth noting. First, the confusion this enterprise could conceivably sow in minds prepared for a Jesus “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary” — a theological Jesus in short. Mr. Lindberg, whom I take to be a serious Christian, takes seriously that same Jesus but hasn’t come here to labor our understandings of him.
The second potential stumbling block: Lack of obvious context. What’s all this for, invigorating as it may be? Counterviews of Jesus’ politics — hearty and generally left-wing — are familiar enough. But which of these was the target? Was there a target? And this “political teaching” business: I waited vainly to see whether Jesus was for Gingrich or McCain. I soon got over it. Various readers may not — but they should.
Mr. Lindberg has a lot to say, and he needs hearing out. Not least because he takes the sometimes-too-familiar words of the Gospels, starting with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), burnishes those words and gives them contemporary meaning without patronizing them as sweet but hopeless ideals. If there’s anything Mr. Lindberg doesn’t think those ideals are, it’s sweet and hopeless.
“The political teaching of Jesus,” he tells us, “is a fully realized account of universal freedom … constituted by each person’s acceptance of the freedom of everyone else.” The teachings of Jesus, as connected by the discerning listener, do more than decorate stained glass windows. They make sense in the real, practical and fallen world we live in.
The Golden Rule we see, without the sticky-sweetness left by too many pastoral hands, as “the distilled essence” of Jesus’ teaching — “a principle for conduct that encompasses all interaction between two people.” To live by it is, in an unexpected sense, to win while “losing,” to succeed by coaxing from others that recognition of earthly rights at which they might balk without seeing how the whole business works. I give, you give; you get, I get. This is how it works. “[T]he only way to satisfy anyone’s desire for righteousness it to satisfy everyone’s desire for righteousness.”
Mr. Lindberg similarly walks his readers through the whole Sermon on the Mount and the Parables. It’s more of the blessed same: By assuming the other’s equality, you win for yourself recognition of your own equality — voluntarily, with no government imposing a remedy or outcome.
Even Jesus’ own, quite voluntary, death underscores the point: “[T]he freedom you have because you know the truth cannot be undone by coercive authority, even in its most flagrant form — execution by crucifixion. Jesus lived an exemplary life of freedom and died free as well.” Out of love — another word with sticky-sweet coating from long mishandling.
The great virtue of Mr. Lindberg’s book, it seems to me (apart from the rippling muscularity of the prose) is the indirectness of the appeal it makes, potentially, to those for whom the religion of Jesus Christ is the deadest of dead letters: A thing to studiously ignore from behind The New York Times’ editorial page at Starbucks on Sunday morning.
The ethereality of the Second Person of the Trinity peels away, and a real person emerges, only not the “real Jesus” for whom too many theologians have yearned. Instead, it’s the Jesus who connects the heaven to which many would consign him and the everyday, rough-and-tumble Earth where his daily business is carried on. “The Political Teachings of Jesus” offers no point-by-point agenda for the subduing of that world. It does point the way, and the value and meaning of that way.
William Murchison is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.
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