It’s here! Election day.
Many in our country can’t wait for it to be Tuesday, November 5, as they have been bombarded with political ads and solicitations in the mail, newspapers, on TV, and even phone calls. The big question is, how does Jesus engage politically? Who would Jesus vote for? Would Jesus even vote?
But maybe these are all the wrong questions. How Jesus engaged and engages may be different from how he wants us to engage. He’s King after all, and we’re not. He engages by sovereignly orchestrating history and setting up and putting down rulers as he wishes.
Everybody wants Jesus on their team
Both sides of the aisle claim Jesus as their own. Democrats claim him. Rockers Everclear have a song called “Jesus was a Democrat” with a line from the song saying, “I think Jesus would have been a card carrying liberal, if he was a young man born in the USA. He would not be fiscally conservative, and he wouldn’t vote for John McCain.” Also, Stephen Colbert did a piece titled “Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat,” where he satirically spoke about Jesus’ redistribution of fish and loaves and joked that while Jesus was always talking about the poor he never advocated for tax cuts for the wealthiest Romans.
Republicans love claiming Jesus as well. One former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate went so far as to claim that, “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.” Even new groups like the Tea Party have staked a claim to Jesus with mottoes like “Tea Party Jesus”.
As a pastor in a city that is passionate about both religion and politics, I see this all the time. What would Jesus do? Where does he side on issues—the left, the right, or somewhere else entirely? Is he a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, apathetic, or something else? What does Jesus think and say about politics, and why does that matter to us as Christians?
What team does Jesus want to be on?
Appealing to Jesus for answers regarding controversial political issues isn’t new by any means. In fact, Matthew 22 records an instance where the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus by asking for his stance on a controversial Roman tax in the presence of a very pro-Roman political party, the Herodians. The specific tax in question was called the poll tax. This was a flat tax everyone living under Roman occupation paid. If you were alive and breathing on Roman soil, you paid this tax so that you could continue to enjoy that privilege. This wasn’t just a political issue—there were theological implications. The Jews anticipated the coming of their true king and the kingdom of God, but every time they paid the Roman tax they were acknowledging that everything, both life and breath, belonged to Caesar’s kingdom.
Jesus had been teaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God and making all things new. The Kingdom of God in this sense meant more than just individual forgiveness and salvation, he was talking about making all things new, including society. The coming kingdom Jesus proclaimed was one with no illness, no poverty, no injustice, no oppression. The Pharisees’ question runs deeper than just the issue of a tax, they are asking Jesus where his true allegiance lies—is it with the Kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Caesar? If Jesus sides with Caesar’s oppressive tax, he negates all he had taught about the Kingdom of God and would give them a great excuse to dismiss and hate him. Going against Caesar would be signing your own death certificate.
How does Jesus respond?
Jesus’ response is surprising and nuanced and speaks volumes to how we as Christians engage politics. Jesus asks to see the coin used to pay the tax and asks the Pharisees whose image and inscription is on it. They respond that it is Caesars—he created it and it bears his image and likeness. Jesus’ response is incredible. He tells them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Do you see the nuance in what Jesus is saying? Jesus is making an important distinction here that we need to be aware of. There are things that belong to Caesar and there are things that belong to God. The coin may be made in the image of Caesar, but people are made in the image of God. He tells them to honor civil government and government authorities and give their share in taxes—but not to give their allegiance.
If you are in Christ, your allegiance belongs to God and not your political party. So often we advocate only those things that work to our advantage and help us build our own kingdom. But God has invited us to be a part of proclaiming his kingdom as he builds his church. The gospel frees us to do both evangelism and, if we choose, politics. When we stop trying to put Jesus in our neat box and are enabled by grace to love God and love our neighbors, we are free to engage politically on either side of the aisle (if we choose to engage politically at all) and work together to advance the gospel in both word and in deed.