Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Jesus Wasn't a Conservative (but He Wasn't a Liberal Either) - Part 2.

Yesterday we looked at attempts by the German Christian movement to reinvent Jesus in order to support Nazi ideals, mainly by recasting him as a Gentile or a destroyer of Judaism. Today we will look at an influential theologian who fought against this movement.

Karl Barth  Wikimedia Commons

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), in response to these attempts to redefine Jesus, emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness, writing:

“A Jew, an Israelite, a Hebrew, Jesus is the Christ – that is the bit of earthly history, which takes place on the way from Israel to the Greeks, that is, to the whole world. We cannot split Jesus Christ and seek to retain only one of the two components. Jesus Christ would not be what He is, were He not the Christ, the Commissioner who come out of Israel, who is the Jew Jesus.”[1]

For Barth, it was essential that Christ was Jewish because of his place in the Salvation history. God had made a covenant with the people of Israel that He would save them. In antiquity names and titles carried a significant weight and meaning; they expressed an idea, revelation. The name Jesus and Christos carry significant weight. Jesus, or Joshua, means “Jehovah helps” and Christos is the Greek translation of the Jewish messiah, the one who would save Israel. The fact that the Jewish people had survived into modern day times when so many others crumbled was the greatest testament to Barth of God’s faithfulness in His covenant. Israel was by no means faithful to God. The Old Testament constantly portrays them as screwing up and running away from the God who calls them. But by sending Jesus, Israel becomes an example of God’s grace. Barth writes:

“Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead. By His appearing, over against the verdict comes into view, to remove all human self-condemnation. God’s faithfulness triumphs in this sea of sin and misery. He has mercy on man. He shares with His inmost Being in this man. He has never ceased to lead by cords of love this people which to His face has behaved like a whore. It remains true that this man of Israel belongs to God and again and again, not by nature but by the miracle of grace, may belong anew to God, be rescued from death, be exalted to God’s right hand.” [2]

Barth was concerned that by denying this reality; we deny God’s revelation and end up with a philosophical, Greek, German, etc. Christianity that was removed from the revelation we have received.

While the example of the German theologians may be seen as extreme, it illustrates the problem of marrying Jesus to a political ideology. Far too often rather than the political ideology taking on the characteristics of Christ’s teachings, Christ’s teachings take on the characteristics of the political ideology. Jesus’ non-violent teachings suddenly get discarded in the name of a war which “God supports”. The spiritual needs of the poor and oppressed suddenly become irrelevant in relation to their physical needs.

So what are we to do? Do we disengage from politics all together? Of course not, as followers of Christ we are called to be salt and light to the world. Mahatma Ghandi once said:

“You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”

I would suggest that whatever political ideology we choose to adopt should always be viewed in light of the teachings of Christ and scripture. I’m sure Jesus would have things he doesn’t like about conservative politics and I’m sure there are things he doesn’t like about liberal politics. Christ’s message transcends partisan politics and is just as counter-cultural today as it was in first century Palestine. In the end we have to remember that, like the church in Philippi, our citizenship is primarily of heaven.

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline by Barth, Karl 1st (First) Edition [paperback(1959)) (Harper Perennial, 1958), 72.
[2] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline by Barth, Karl 1st (First) Edition [paperback(1959)) (Harper Perennial, 1958), 80.

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