Church and Statesmanship

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Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, October 1, 2006


Rediscovering the True Revolutionary

Nature of the Teachings of Jesus

And How They Have Been Corrupted

By Obery M. Hendricks Jr.

Doubleday. 370 pp. $26.

"It is," the Anglican Archbishop William Temple once remarked, "a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion." The prelate's words would resonate with Obery M. Hendricks Jr., who, in the beginning of his new book The Politics of Jesus , recalls a childhood spent in the church. He was, he puts it, "a son of the Christian Church. Raised in the Church. Nurtured in the Church." His family was thick with ministers and lay elders; he started singing in the choir at age 5, and accepted Christ five years later. The Jesus he offered his life to was a messiah drained of controversy, a kind of air-brushed savior. "I was raised on the bland Jesus of Sunday School and of my mother's gentle retellings," Hendricks writes, "the meek, mild Jesus who told us, in a nice, passive, sentimental way, to love our enemies, and who assured us that we need not worry about our troubles, just bring them to him."

As it turned out, this Jesus was too gentle and too serene -- and Hendricks left the church as a young man, only to return once he discovered what he calls "Jesus the political revolutionary." Now a minister and professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary, Hendricks found that, for him, the figure of Jesus resonated powerfully when understood through the prism of politics. "To say that Jesus was a political revolutionary is to say that the message he proclaimed not only called for change in individual hearts but also demanded sweeping and comprehensive change in the political, social, and economic structures in his setting in life: colonized Israel," Hendricks writes. He goes on to argue that the proper Christian posture in political life should be one of loving one another as Jesus loved us, feeding the hungry, comforting the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, tending to prisoners.

Hendricks's Christian manifesto for a politically liberal vision of America and of the world arrives at an especially rich moment in the long-running debate over the role of religion in the nation's public life. After roughly three decades of largely ceding the language of faith to political conservatives, liberals are mounting an aggressive and often intellectually stimulating counterattack. The Politics of Jesus joins John Danforth's Faith and Politics and Jim Wallis's God's Politics as essential reading for Americans trying to move beyond the corrosive standoff between the religious right and the secular left. One need not agree with Hendricks's liberalism to appreciate that his book is a useful contribution to a conversation that seems ever more urgent: how to manage and marshal religion's influence over our public lives.

Some secular extremists will probably object to Hendricks's argument on the grounds that we ought to keep Jesus out of politics altogether, but in my view such an absolutist stand is not really helpful. We are a nation full of religious people, and faith has been interwoven with our politics from the start. Yes, church and state are rightly separate, but it is impossible, I think, to separate religion from politics, for both are about what people value. Religion may not be the only thread in the tapestry, but is a significant one, and to argue that religion is a fairy tale and believers are dupes does virtually nothing to lead us forward.

Hendricks is right to use the gospel as a way of measuring the gap between the words and deeds of openly religious presidents. Or at least of openly religious Republican presidents: He treats Bill Clinton very kindly while sternly taking Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to task.

There is no doubt that America falls far short of the kingdom of God, and it is nearly impossible to argue with Hendricks's bottom line, that "in the politics of Jesus, then, every policy and policy proposal must be judged by Jesus' yardstick of love and justice." (What reasonable person would dispute that love and justice are useful standards?) Yet such admonitions, while commonsensical (at least for Christians), raise profound theological questions. Jesus does not vote; God is neither Republican nor Democrat.

It can do no harm to ask the question Hendricks suggests when we are pondering policies and politics, but there is always a danger that we may come to think our own answer to the "What Would Jesus Do?" test is not merely our own best effort, but is in fact the only answer. We need more humility in our public life, remembering that, for now, we see through Saint Paul's "glass, darkly." To practice the politics of Jesus means practicing humility, an exercise that might well begin by bearing this story from the gospel of Mark in mind: The disciples had been traveling to meet Jesus, debating among themselves "who should be the greatest" -- a classically political undertaking. Learning of the bickering, Jesus would have none of it, saying: "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." And so may our politics, whether connected to the examples and words of Jesus or of Plato or of Machiavelli, be informed by charity and grace, not by self-righteousness. Then, and only then, will we come close, I think, to anything like "the politics of Jesus." ยท

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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