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The Politics of Jesus: a review December 11, 2006

Posted by publicpolitics in Reviews.
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December 11, 2006
The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering The True Revolutionary Nature of
Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted
. Obrey M. Hendricks,
Jr. Doubleday,2006. ISBN-10:0-385-51664-9. Hardcover, 370pps.$26.00. SPL Call #261.70973 H3845P 2006

When Senator Barack Obama spoke about AIDS before a recent gathering
of evangelicals at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church,
something boyh new and old was happening in American politics.
Warren and his congregation are an audience not prone to liberal
politics, and in fact Warren risked the wrath of his fundamentalist
congregation and his fellow evangelists by inviting Obama in the first
place. A pro-choice liberal, Obama is regarded by some as the devil
incarnate, and what he had to say was grounded in a different vision of
Christianity than the faith of many of his Orange County audience, who
were overwhelmingly Republican, supposedly the very bone and sinew of
the conservative followers of George W. Bush. The evangelicals, for
their part, signaled that the faith vote was no longer certainly
entrained to right wing politics. Obama, on the other hand, brought a
reinvigorated spirit of Christian liberalism, a reminder that all
Christians subscribe to the interpretation of doctrine most convenient
to Republican politicians. Unimaginable even five years ago, the Obama
speech before an audience of fundamentalists might indicate a new
openness on both sides of that perennial American conversation about
religion. Arguing against that interpretation, however, is the
indisputable fact that a speech by a liberal Democrat before an
evangelical audience is big news, and that kind of big is associated
with both breakthroughs and freak storms in politics.

Popular wisdom dictates that the conversation about religion and
politics is not one we should have with our neighbors, not if we wish
to keep the peace. Yet , one group of politicians has found to its
electoral sorrow that the purely secular point of view will not suffice
to win over critical constituents of a highly religious polity, while
another group has found that a severe and exclusionary rhetoric of
holiness has not done much to explain the human diversity, with all its
strengths and weaknesses, of American life. Nor have the self-styled
representatives of Christianity in our political life merited that
appellation. Something is wrong with the intrafaith dialogue. One side
has drifted too far from the conversation, while the other has
identified itself too rigidly as the guardians of the truth, and
claimed without sufficient warrant to be the political representatives
of God on earth. In short, now is the time when some liberals are
seeking to find a Christian voice, and some Christians are
disillusioned with the political status quo. It is the perfect time for
Obrey Hendricks Jr. and The Politics of Jesus.

The Politics of Jesus is an erudite,
scholarly jeremiad, in which Hendricks outlines a portrait of
Christianity’s founder as a liberator of the oppressed and advocate of
the poor, and Christianity as a religion of more or less permanent
discontent with the motives and roles of established and powerful
institutions, not at all content with the present representatives of
Caesar in America, and signaling its intent to challenge any such
power, whether it be incarnated in conservative and largely evangelical
Republicans, as it is presently, or in some future regime of the
another party. The book’s message is that all the people who call
themselves Christians are under an obligation to read the Gospels
critically and closely, to look at what happens to the least in their
own time, and to compare the goals and pronouncements of the powerful
to their continuously revised readings, readings which take into
account the place of Jesus in history, the numerous attempts to
neutralize and appropriate the movement, and the ultimately subversive
nature of that movement. For while Hendricks’ version of Christianity
does not always make power uncomfortable, he certainly believes that
the ability and duty to do should always be present.

The book is organized along three closely related lines. The first
situates Jesus and early Christianity in a the historical context of
Jesus as imperial subject, a member of an oppressed and colonized
people . The second part elaborates the political nature of
Christianity through close readings of some key terms and passages from
the scriptures. Finally, Hendricks compares the Christ that emerges
from the readings to the one presented to the public by today’s
politicians and evangelicals, and urges the reader to stop and consider
whether the exclusionary, status-quo favoring Jesus of the evangelicals
and recent administrations has anything whatever to do with the
historic Jesus. That figure, Hendricks tells us, was a political
revolutionary whose advocacy was for the poor and whose message has
nothing to do with ruling elites, inspiring the Iraq war, or
legislation that increases to unprecedented proportions the gap between
the rich and the poor.

According to Christians, the miracle of the Christ is that its
principal figure was born into history but brought a doctrine that
transcended temporal constraints. According to Hendricks, the Jewish
experience under imperial Rome had much to do with both the
transcendent, lasting elements of Christianity and the day to day
experience of Jesus,his political importance, and his strategies for
resistance. Hendricks outlines several of these, all based close
readings of well known scriptures. He considers, for example, what
happens when the recurring word “righteousness,” is replaced by
“justice”,which is , according to Hendricks, the correct translation in
several important passages. What emerges is a religion much less
focused on interior guilt and much more on the kingdom of social
justice and the ongoing plight of the poor.

Beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion,
Christianity became a state religion, and according to Hendricks, this
seemingly desirable historical stage was anything but: instead of the
beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, it was the start of a
centuries’ long corruption of the Christian message. Hendricks believes
that the most recent expression, and the American culmination of , this
long bowdlerization is the appropriation of Christianity to the
politics and goals of the Bush administration, with its famous
identification of sanctity with its own versions of patriotism.
Critical to the process has been a kind of personalization of the
message, with an ever growing emphasis on the state, personal guilt,
and cultivated disdain for Christ’s messages about social justice. The
result is a figure that is vapid, and vacuous, empty at best, and of
use for any politician’s identification of a current ideology with
divine will. Hendricks cites the musical anodyne “Silent Night” , where
the Christ child appears as “warmly ensconced in an uncomplicated
setting of total and everlasting peace.”(Hendricks, p. 95) . This is
the empty baby , father to the patriot, whose thoughts are one with the
powerful. According to Hendricks,the conversion of Constantine to
Christianity was soon overshadowed by a much more important
development: the conversion of Christianity to Constantine, the
appropriation by the state of an inherently subversive religion, a
process that has reached its American nadir under George W. Bush.

Hendricks does believe that it is possible to bring politics more
into line with true Christian principles, but not as long as the
faithful align themselves with wealth and power. He believes that
Martin King’s movement represented something more akin to the kind of
resistance Christ typified, but the King movement as well as its
Christian background have, in Hendricks’ telling, any of the empty
arrogance of triumph or complacency so commonly accepted in America
today. Although he admires Johnson’s Great Society Programs, Hendricks
deplores the lamentable history of the Vietnam War. But Hendricks
reserves his true fire for Ronald Reagan, G. W. Bush, the Moral
Majority, and others who have explicitly assumed the mantle of Christ
while pursuing imperial wars, increasing the wealth of the strong, and
impoverishing the weak. Hendricks accuses, but as he does so is careful
to support everything he says, and his command of recent political
movements and statistics is impressive, learned, and seasoned in
detecting the politics of deception. For those of us with a more
secular turn of mind, the insistence on holding the state strictly
accountable to religion might be more disturbing, were that
accountability more disturbing and the author less willing to question
and support his own readings. Such critical thinking rarely assumes
that it cannot be mistaken, and that ever present hesitancy is all that
secularists can ask of the religious, short of not bringing their
perspectives to bear in the first place, a development not likely in
the United States anytime soon.

This book is scholarly Christianity militant. While it excoriates
the present faith based government, let no aspirant Caesar be confused.
Hendricks has the kind of theological and critical imagination to
inspire wariness in anyone who seeks to appropriate Christianity to
power. As the dialog between liberal and conservative Christians begins
to unfold with more vigor than we have seen in many years, Hendricks is
positioned right where he should be: always a friend of the poor,
sometimes a friend to the party, a theologian deeply engaged with life
in this, our present world.

Tags: Warren. | Romans. Bush | Jesus. politics | fundamentalists | Evangelicals | Obama | Culture