Friday, July 28, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 5.2

Here's the final post on the use of Scripture in political situations in the Bible itself. I'll be out of town for the weekend, and will begin our lesson on theological perspectives on the use of the Bible in politics early next week.



As a story about the expansion and dispersion of early Christian communities, Acts is as explicitly political as the Gospels. Christians are constantly coming into contact with political officials, and their discourse is often recorded (or ‘created’) by the author. The speeches of Peter (4:8-12) and Stephen (7:2-53) before the temple council are preeminent examples of the use of scripture in political situations. Drawing on the shared narrative of the Jewish scriptures, both Peter and Stephen retell parts of that narrative, naming Jesus as its culmination. Paul continues this pattern of scriptural debate in synagogues around Turkey and Greece, and in his prison cell in Rome. Interestingly, in Paul’s own trials before Jewish and Roman leaders, he argues more out of his conversion experience than out of scripture (22:1-21; 24:10-21; cf. 26:2-27 where Paul urges King Agrippa to believe in Jesus out of a shared belief in the Jewish prophets).

The Epistles

Since the epistles were written to encourage and guide specific churches in their communal life, there are no examples in them of scripture used to directly address political situations outside of the churches. Nevertheless, many of the epistles seem to counsel churches on how to act within their political settings. Hebrews is an especially interesting example, as it is basically a commentary on Old Testament scripture. Jesus is depicted both as the great high priest who opens up the inner courts of the tabernacle to us, and as the exalted Lord who rules the world and judges its rulers, just as portrayed by Psalms 2 and 110. These meditations are to strengthen the community’s resolve to be a kind of alternative political community that is ‘receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ (Hebrews 12:28). This community is to be marked by the welcome of strangers, care for prisoners, peace, and detachment from money, among other things (see chapters 12-13).


Though Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret, I understand it as a political document denouncing the authority of the Roman Empire in favor of the authority of Christ. There are few quotes from the Old Testament in Revelation, but the book’s form and genre draw heavily upon Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Daniel. As in Daniel, the great empires of the world are portrayed as violent beasts that are overcome by God, but in Revelation it is specifically the slaughtered Lamb that overcomes the beast. By lifting up the Lamb as the paradigm for Christian political engagement, Revelation teaches us the centrality of non-violence in our political action.

Reflect on the various ways the biblical authors use Scripture in political situations. Are the authors consistent? Are there multiple ways to use Scripture in political settings? Do the uses change with the context?

As always, think about how political situations in biblical times are similar and different to our own (see past posts for questions).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 5.1

The Gospels

Today we turn our attention to the use of Scripture in political situations in the New Testament, specifically in the Gospels. Again, since only the briefest of surveys is possible, please fill these ‘lectures’ out with your own thoughts.

From the coming of John the Baptist to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gospels place Jesus’ life and ministry firmly within the world of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each of the Gospels regards John the Baptist’s coming as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3—John prepares the way for the Lord who comes to gather and feed the people of God. Jesus’ mission is thus framed as ‘political’ from the start, a mission to gather a people and provide them with some basic social services (e.g., feeding and healing). As far as I understand it, a body that administers social services for a gathered people is one way of defining ‘government.’

Jesus does begin to gather, feed, and heal people in Israel, and he does so in a way that brings him into direct conflict with the political and religious authorities of his day. Choosing an official group of 12 disciples was likely part of the problem, as the number references the 12 tribes of Israel. ‘In my ministry,’ Jesus seemed to be saying, ‘the political unity of the 12 tribes is restored’—and Jesus was at their head. So the numerous debates in the Gospels over the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures cannot be seen merely as debates over the role of ritualized religion, but as conflicts over who had the authority to lead the people of God. Of all the Gospels, Matthew is perhaps most explicit on this point, as he orders Jesus’ teachings in 5 blocks to reflect the 5 books of the Torah; Jesus, for Matthew, was the ‘new Moses’ who leads and orders God’s people through his authoritative teaching.

Perhaps the most overt use of scripture for political purposes in the Gospels occurs in the temple action near the end of Jesus’ life. Upon entering the Jerusalem temple—headquarters for Jewish religion and politics—Jesus physically and verbally attacks the temple’s economic and ritual systems. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus quotes Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7, echoing the prophets’ condemnations of the unjust and exclusive temple system. Lest we think this critique is solely ‘religious,’ let us recall that Jeremiah was critiquing the oppressive treatment of ‘the alien, the orphan, and the widow’ (7:5). The political consequences of Jesus’ temple action become obvious in the trials that lead to the cross: one of the main charges brought against Jesus is that he claimed to replace the temple (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61).


1) Again, think about the similarities and differences between the political structures in Jesus’ day and our own. What would be the location of a ‘temple action’ in our day? How appropriate would it be to quote Isaiah and Jeremiah in a political speech at the capitol building?

2) Here we begin to get into the idea of the church as a political community—if Jesus’ mission was ‘political’ in some sense, what is the political role of the church now? What role does the Bible play in the church’s politics?

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 4.4

Here’s the last Old Testament lesson. Later in the week I’ll post two sections on the New Testament, dealing first with the Gospels and then with Acts-Revelation.

Old Testament Writings

The section of the Old Testament known as the Writings covers all the books not in the Torah or Prophets. They are books of history, poetry, song, and story. Because the Writings are so varied, I will make no attempt to cover all of them here. For our purposes, a quick look at Psalms will suffice.


There are two primary ways the Psalms reference Scripture: through discussions of the ‘commandments’ (or ‘law,’ ‘decrees,’ ‘teaching,’ etc.) and through stories that retell significant events in Israelite history. Good examples of the first can be seen in Psalms 19 and 119. Both speak of the commandments as guides to follow to achieve the ‘good life.’ Far from being purely ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious,’ these psalms point to the political life of the people of God—measured by the commands found in the Torah—as the locus of faithful worship. The psalms themselves indicate the political nature of following the commands: Psalm 19 is ascribed to King David and is addressed ‘to leaders,’ and the voice behind Psalm 119 is an exile who is persecuted by princes, but who nontheless speaks God’s decrees to kings (119:19, 161, 46).

Several psalms retell significant narratives from the Israelite past, especially the creation and the exodus. Psalm 136 is one example that tells both stories in order to remind God’s people that God is the one that delivers us from hardships—God’s faithful love vanquishes enemies, feeds the hungry, and ‘remembered our low estate’ (136:23-25). Though it’s hard to tell when any of the psalms were written, it’s feasible that story psalms like this one were especially important in the exile and at other times in which the political life of the people of God was imperiled. Singing the Lord’s songs in foreign lands was hard, as Psalm 137 tells us, but it also seemed to be a vital part of maintaining a distinct political identity.

Other Writings

As a guide book of wisdom, Proverbs admonishes rulers and all God’s people to a life of obedience to the commands of the Torah. The history books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about leaders who exemplify such obedience in their quest to restore Jerusalem after the exile. (Among other things, Nehemiah restores the practice of Jubilee commanded in Leviticus.) Alternatively, Job and Ecclesiastes depict rich and powerful people who have found that the path from obedience to success is not as direct as it may seem.

In summary, the Writings, like the Prophets, uphold the Torah as the basic template of political life for the people of God. Even when God’s people are in exile—having little or no political sovereignty—they are called to live out God’s commands within their communities.


1) In what ways are our political situations similar or different from those of the Israelites in exile? Are we ‘at home’ in a Christian nation? Or are we ‘in exile’ in a foreign land? Do you think the answers to those questions affects how we use the Bible in American politics? Why or why not?

2) Are there Bible stories that shape your own approach to politics? What are they and why?