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Dave Brisbin

A Political Jesus

Is Jesus a liberal or conservative?

I’ve read many commentators and scholars over the years who see in Jesus a political ideology or social cause. Whether liberal or conservative, no surprise they generally see him on their side of the spectrum or as a political revolutionary or social justice warrior working to remake the world in ways it still needs remaking today. And good cases can be made for most if not all these claims—but that’s the point: good cases can be made for most if not all these claims... If Jesus appears to be all things to everyone, who is he really?

Recently a friend told me she heard a pastor claim that Jesus was a liberal, citing scripture passages to back his claim. After growing up in a very conservative and strict religious environment, one that had become oppressive to her, she told me how comforting it was to hear so many of her own beliefs and convictions validated—like heavenly permission being granted to simply be herself. I certainly didn’t argue with that. It’s always comforting to imagine Jesus as an ultimate authority having our backs.

But if we look more deeply, from wherever we stand—intellectually, emotionally, religiously, politically, socially—Jesus is always standing somewhere else…always beckoning from some unfamiliar spot into the unknowns of territory we’ve not yet explored. Always… Because Jesus’ Way is paradox on purpose: losing our lives in order to gain them, dying to self in order to really live, letting go of whatever we think we know and cherish in order to see what is really true. Jesus is not about investing, but divesting—not about addition, but subtraction—so the more we are invested in anything, the more we’ve accumulated, the more Jesus will be calling us to follow him somewhere less occupied.

If we imagine Jesus as liberal or conservative, social justice or ecological warrior, or even the original hippie societal dropout, those terms are meaningful only in the macro, within large social groups and political systems, as if Jesus were working from the top down to effect change to his people as a whole. But from my reading, Jesus’ ministry and focus was intensely micro—that is, he worked one-on-one with individuals, trying to free them to relate to God and each other with fearless vulnerability and a complete sense of oneness.

Every time political power or even political commentary was thrust on him, he shook it off and returned to a micro focus. He tells Pilate his kingdom is not of this world, he refused to take sides when asked whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome, and when his followers berate a woman for pouring expensive perfume on his feet because the money could have fed the poor, he berates them back saying they will always have the poor with them, but not always himself—a hard-slap reminder not to let big causes, as important as they may be, keep us from intimate relationship. He looks like a liberal or social justice warrior as he elevates women and children, cares for the poor and outcast, and cleanses the temple, but he looks conservative as he defends the law and practices the age old rituals and principles of Judaism. You could say he is neither liberal nor conservative or both at the same time, but I’m convinced that all of this misses Jesus’ point.


Jesus’ message is all about losing the conscious sense of ourselves as separate from each other and our world—dying to ourselves, denying ourselves, losing our lives in order to find them—so that nothing stands between us and seeing our own identity in each other’s and our Father’s presence. Politics reinforce a sense of identity in principles and goals, causes, race, or gender, pitting one group against another by highlighting the differences between them, not the connections. In the macro, in large groups and systems, politics are a necessary part of trying to govern and ensure that everyone has a voice, but they move exactly opposite to the micro, difference-defying direction of Jesus.

Truth is, both have to happen at the same time.

When asked if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus asks for the coin that is the method of payment and asks whose likeness is stamped on it—Caesar’s. When he says to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s but to God what is God’s, it’s a beautiful balance between macro and micro. Jesus is saying that living within the current order is not what enslaves us; true freedom comes only from within. Jesus says when we seek Kingdom first— the interior freedom of full connection with God and each other—all else is added to our lives. But if we’re focused primarily on outcomes, on what Kingdom will bring us in terms of success or attainment even for others or groups of others, then we’ve already lost what Jesus is trying to give us.

Losing our identification with groups and causes and even ourselves in order to find our true identity in every person we encounter, see deeper connection under surface diversity, and live the unselfconscious freedom to be and act graciously is what Jesus knows will complete us in the micro and make us the best possible politicians everywhere else.

Viktor Frankl said that there are only two races of humans—the decent and indecent. I think he’s right. Jesus is teaching us to be decent humans from the inside out so that from the outside in, whatever group to which we attach will be left better than we found it. If we’re liberal, let’s be decent liberals. Or decent conservatives or social justice warriors.

If we’re decent first, all else is added.

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