JESUS GOES TO WASHINGTON: His Progressive Politics for a Sustainable Future. By Douglas J. Miller. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013. 215 pages.
Years ago Jimmy Stewart starred in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the story of an idealistic young man appointed to the Senate. Although he runs into political corruption, he doesn’t back down, and fits the good fight for what is good and right. Truth is, of course, that more often than not idealism quickly turns to realism. After all, politics is the art of the possible, and that requires a good deal of horse-trading. Indeed, one of the reasons why very little gets done these days in Washington is that too many people refuse to “compromise.” Besides that, with the elimination of earmarks, there’s not much to trade. Politics isn’t necessarily dirty, but it’s also not for the faint of heart!
What would happen if Jesus went to Washington? How would he engage the political sphere? Would he be corrupted, or would he stand on principle? Many have tried to envision Jesus as a politician or at least speaking to political themes. There is enough material in the Gospels to provide the foundation for a number of political platforms, including progressive ones. As one who embraces a mostly progressive political agenda, I’m always pleased when I think I’ve found support for my views in the Gospels!
But what kind of politics did Jesus embrace, and how does that translate into modern contexts? After all, Jesus’ ministry took place in the midst of a series of client states that owed their ultimate allegiance to Rome. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom was clearly not the same thing as Rome’s empire. So, what was Jesus’ political agenda?
Christian ethicist and retired Baptist pastor Doug Miller (a colleague of mine when I was in Santa Barbara) has written a challenging and complex book that seeks to answer that question. Doug forthrightly declares that Jesus preached a notion of the kingdom that offers us a progressive political platform that foresees a sustainable future for humanity. In his view, Jesus was very much a political person. So, utilizing an interpretive scheme that makes use of the imperial ethic understanding of scholars such as Richard Horsley and John Dominic Crossan, Doug envisions Jesus offering us an eco-spirituality. Miller’s understanding of ancient reality assumes, I think correctly, that religion and politics were not separate entities. Therefore, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, he was offering an alternative politics. If so, then how does that translate to the present?
In the ancient world the dominant political system was that of monarchy. If Caesar ran one empire, Jesus was in essence setting up an alternative empire. Bringing that vision into the present, Doug takes the Greek word basilea, which we usually as kingdom and reinterprets it as Good Governing. It’s an intriguing idea, and yet there is something troubling about this usage. In fact, as we progress through the book, at times it’s difficult to decipher the role that God plays in this vision. While he makes it clear in the end that he doesn't see any government, including the United States, fully embodying this vision you get the feeling that what is expected of us is to put our eggs in the nation’s political basket. If somehow we can elect enough Mr. Smiths, who are incorruptible, and embrace Jesus’ “eco-spirituality” all will be good.
While I was reading Doug’s book, I started reading Scot McKnight’s newest book – Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014) – which argues that kingdom mission is church mission and therefore social justice activism, though good and right isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God. While I have my problems with Scot’s vision, I find Doug’s equally troubling but for completely opposite reasons. In Scot’s vision, kingdom and church are essentially synonymous (I’ve yet to finish the book, so these are preliminary thoughts). In Doug’s book there really doesn't seem to be much of a role for the church. Kingdom work appears to be largely political in nature.
So, although my own politics are similar to Doug's and my theology is similar as well (I base this judgment in part on my conversations with Doug during our years serving together in Santa Barbara), I must confess to finding the starkly political language to be distracting. It’s not just the translation of “kingdom of God” as “good governing,” it’s also the attempt to contrast too starkly Progressive politics, which is almost always portrayed in positive light, against Conservative politics, which is almost always portrayed negatively. For one thing this plays into the contemporary American political divide and forces Jesus to choose sides, rather than seeking to understand the vision of Jesus and choosing his side. In this portrayal, everything seems too black and white. Jesus is a Progressive and his enemies are Conservatives. There’s no room for gray here. My sense is that these terms have become so polarizing they will make Doug's message of justice, peace, ecological concern, unattractive to those who might otherwise embrace them. In other words, though Doug doesn't want to identify Jesus with the Democratic Party, it will be difficult for many readers to distinguish the two.
So, what should we make of a book that explores ecology, affirmative action, living wages, judicial activism, health care, and many other topics in spiritual terms? In as much as Doug has lifted up the key issues of our day and has called on Christians to consider how their faith relates to it then Doug has done us a great service. He has outlined a political vision that calls for compassion and grace, while pursuing the common good. I embrace this platform. At the same time, I’m concerned that he has enmeshed the message of Jesus in partisan politics. The point that he makes here is that for Christians Jesus’ message is politically relevant! The question is: how will Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God be present in our world? With this book, Doug offers a provocative suggestion as to how he sees it, and it is worth considering.