The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan recently passed a resolution on gun control. It was a symbolic resolution, with no real power, other than to serve as a statement (or perhaps model) that innocent lives lost in gun violence matter, and the issue of guns shouldn't be forgotten simply because it is such a hot potato in our current political climate.
A friend of mine noted that perhaps the reason the Episcopal Church is struggling to retain members is because they're so busy worrying about politics or "telling the U.S. gov't what to do" that they're not spending enough time on discipleship. Perhaps a fair criticism. After all, if the church isn't about making disciples (i.e., followers of Jesus), what is it doing?
Yet what does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is a churchy word for student. A student is someone who learns. From a teacher. So before we get to what a disciple or student should be, we have to ask whom they are learning from. In the church, we are seeking to be (and make) students of Jesus.
What was Jesus like?
Jesus was a religious figure. And that means he was nonpolitical, right? Because that is generally our assumption of religious figures.
Richard Horsley notes that there are at least four major factors in our modern, Western construction of a depoliticized Jesus:
1. The modern Western assumption that religion is separate from politics and economics. We then project the modern Western assumption that religion is separate from politics and economics in ancient societies. Assuming Jesus is appropriately categorized as a religious figure, we more or less ignore the political-economic aspects and implications of Jesus' preaching and practice.
2. Integrally connected with the assumption of religion as a separate sphere is modern Western individualism. Individualism is a relatively recent and peculiar social development, distinctive to modern Western societies, and especially strong in the United States. Again projecting a modern Western assumption onto ancient society, we think of Jesus as an individual figure independent of the social relations in which he was embedded. And we think of Jesus as having dealt mainly with other individuals, not with social groups and political institutions.
3. Many biblical scholars feel constrained to be scientific in their criteria and procedure for investigation and interpretation of Jesus. "Data" from the Gospels must be isolated, analyzed, and brought carefully under control in order then to be used in historical reconstruction. The net effect is to reduce Jesus to a religious teacher who uttered isolated sayings and parables relevant only to individual persons.
4. Some recent interpreters have further depoliticized Jesus by eliminating anything uncomfortably judgmental from the "database" of his "authentic" sayings, thus portraying a depoliticized individual teacher uttering isolated aphorisms that pertain only to an individual counter-cultural lifestyle in no particular political-economic context and with no political implications. It is difficult to understand why the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, would have bothered to crucify such a figure.
The result of these four (and other) factors is that we have an incomplete picture of who Jesus was. There was no such thing as a 'purely religious' figure in the ancient world. It is also very difficult to explain the historical reality of Jesus being crucified by the Roman Empire, a form of execution reserved for political dissidents and insurgents. If Jesus had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, notes William Herzog:
A master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as part of their rural pacification program. That was exactly the kind of religion that the Romans wanted peasants to have. Any beliefs that encouraged magic, passivity before fate, and withdrawal from the world of politics and economics into a spiritual or inner realm would have met with official approval.
Yet this is not what happened at all. Herzog notes as much:
Narrativity and metaphoricity were not capital crimes in the Roman Empire, and the one thing about Jesus that can be known with certainty was that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the Temple. He was crucified between two "social bandits" on the charge of subversion because he claimed to be "king of the Jews".
Even if Jesus were a poet, or wordsmith or storyteller, "poets are not executed unless their work turns political." Even if Jesus were a theologian, theologians are not imprisoned or killed "unless their theology challenges the powers that be and subverts their idolatrous claims."
There is much more to be said on this, but we do know that Jesus was killed as an enemy of/threat to the state. If that is not political, then the word has no meaning. So if a student wants to learn from the teacher, he will take note of what is taught. Of what is demonstrated. Of what is modeled. One cannot be properly religious, or at least, religious the way Jesus was religious, and be ignorant of or irrelevant to the ruling powers. And not only does being religious in the style of Jesus mean to be relevant to the powers that be, but to be a threat to it, a threat to its way of being, either in what one is teaching or living. If we are to consider discipleship then, perhaps we might take a cue from theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder: "to be a disciple is to share in that style of life of which the cross is the culmination," where discipleship "constitutes an unavoidable challenge to the powers that be and the beginning of a new set of social alternatives."
And so with all due respect to my friend -- Episcopalians (and any other Christians) who call to account the powers that be, who offer up a prophetic vision of society where justice and peace are central, who refuse to stick to merely private, individual religious activities -- are doing precisely what we might expect disciples of Jesus to be doing. One may disagree with their conclusions, but one cannot say they are not doing such things precisely as disciples of Jesus. And I would guess my friend wouldn't encourage Christians not to vote, which is, of course, a political act. Christians can (and should) vote! And many other things besides.
Even the pastorally-minded, inner-life-focused teacher and priest Henri Nouwen knew as much:
You are Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in, so long as you emphasize the need of conversion both for yourself and for the world, so long as you in no way let yourself become established in the situation of the world, so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come. You are Christian only when you believe you have a role to play in the realization of the new kingdom, and when you urge everyone you meet with holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled. So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order, a new structure, a new life.
Tired of the status quo? Then don't be afraid to say, or do, something about it. The teacher wouldn't have it any other way.