Book Review: Jesus Untangled
Posted on April 23rd, 2017
“Are we willing to lay aside our lust for political power and influence in order to humble ourselves and take up the cross of Jesus?”
This is the question Keith Giles asks in Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb. This was a good book that I would encourage anyone to read.
Like those who have written on the topic before (such as Brian Zahnd or the foreword author Greg Boyd), Keith demonstrates how easy it is to make an idol of our country of residence, placing it above our faith in God. He demonstrates how we fall into the trap of bowing to Caesar and wielding the sword, rather than following Jesus and carrying the cross. Through examinations of history, scripture, and current events, Keith admonishes us to seek first the Kingdom of God.
One of the challenges with the book, however, is trying to unpack precisely what Keith means by politics. Certainly, he spends much of the book advocating against nationalist politics. I am glad he has, as the world is in dire need of this warning.
Keith also appears to be advocating against using political “power and influence”, which he seems to mean as influence to get what we want in electoral politics and governing. See some examples, below:
“Jesus never suggested that His followers should attempt to control people using political means. In fact, it was Satan who offered Jesus that same opportunity during those 40 days in the desert, and Jesus refused to advance His Kingdom by political means. Why in the world would we decide to start giving in to Satan’s temptation now?” pp. 74-75
“The sort of political entanglement the Church finds herself in today is more about advancing the agenda of a specific party, not about helping the weak, the poor, the immigrant, the outcast, the orphan or the widow.” p. 79
I would certainly agree with Keith’s challenge to the “power” side of the “power and influence” equation. As Keith says:
“Being a member of the Body of Christ, by definition, is to be someone who does not use violence, or dominate others, or seek to put down other people, or take joy when others fail.” p. 158
I agree! But I’m also not not sure it necessarily precludes a Christian from influencing electoral politics in a defensive, rather than offensive, way (i.e. harm reduction). A Christian could advocate for a state to perform less violence, less stealing, less exploitation, etc. and still be a faithful follower of Jesus. Now, I imagine Keith’s response to this might be to say that this is hard to get right and is a less-valuable use of our time than other actions (and I would be inclined to agree). But this brings us to the next discussion point on “politics.”
After we get outside of electoral politics, Keith seems to allow for political action. He admits, for example, that we can work towards justice:
“True progress is made when the people move towards justice. If their vision and passion for truth do not waver, then and only then do political leaders feel compelled to respond. This involves becoming involved in the pursuit of Justice, which may run parallel to politics but is nonetheless quite distinct from mere politics.” p. 76
In addition, without using the word “politics”, he frequently refers to the highly political nature of Jesus’s reign. Of how it is at odds with the principalities and the powers, Of how calling Jesus “Lord” is a political act saying Caesar (or any governor) is not. Keith reminds us that in Revelation:
“Jesus is at odds with the kings of the earth, and…the nations come together to make war with Him.” p. 149
The church is a polis that will run counter to the kingdoms of the world. Living out Kingdom values is ultimately political, whether we intend it to be directly so or not.
Keith also sees a need for a strong separation of the church and the state. I agree on this separation, and I also agree that many functions of the state cannot be faithfully performed by a Christian. But when Keith goes on to say the following, it goes too far for me.
“Jesus never meant for his commands to be obeyed by national governments. He was speaking to His followers—the Church. So, if someone identifies themselves more with the State than with the Church, they have placed themselves in a group that is by definition immune to the teachings of Christ.” p. 138 (emphasis added)
Though the institution of the state may be collectively immune to the teachings of Christ, specific agents of the State are certainly not. We know Jesus may call people to lay down their swords and pick up the cross. In fact, we are told that eventually “[Jesus] hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.” (1Cor 15:24)
Perhaps the best example of this challenge around church & state begins in “Our National Identity Crisis” (Chapter 11). Keith brings up how the church has confused itself with the state. Questions such as “What should we have done about Hitler?” he contends, are for the state to answer, not the church. The church, he says, should stay out of such affairs. And yet, a bit further on, in “Just War?” (Chapter 15), Keith reminds us that Standard Oil, General Motors, Du Pont (sic), Ford, and other companies would have made a huge impact if those involved had not enabled the Nazis through machinery, fuel, and toxic gas. I would add, also, that we must not forget that many (if not most) of the soldiers in the German army professed to be Christians. What if those soldiers had remained loyal, instead, to the teachings of Jesus (being called to faithfulness, as we discussed, above)? Keith also mentions how the Nazis had a relatively easy time dealing with counter-violence, but an incredibly difficult time dealing with surprising nonviolent resistance. So, yes, the church does have a role in resisting evil, and these types of questions are appropriate to ask of us, not just the state.
So, yes, I agree Christians should not engage in nationalist politics. I agree we should not use political power to control others. I agree electoral politics is hard to get right and not a good use of our energy. I agree we should pursue justice. But I think that pursuit is often inherently political, just in the different, countercultural, subversive way that Jesus was political.
Echoing Richard Beck in The Slavery of of Death, Keith reminds us that “Jesus died to remake us into people who are no longer swayed by fear, violence, pride, anger, jealousy, or war.” p. 160. Keith also reminds us that “no nation on earth is ‘Christian’ because to be a Christian nation is to be ‘like Christ.’” p. 167.
This is a politics, one of calling people into love, mutuality, and nonviolence. A politics that acknowledges that states cannot do the work of the church. A politics that encourages the subversive behaviors of forgiveness and sharing. A politics that refuses to wield power over people, but rather serve under them. This politics, it has a name: anarchism.
Even so, like Hauerwas, Boyd, Yoder, and others who have come before, Keith seems loathe to actually use the term. Why? Certainly, it can be possible to elevate even Kingdom-oriented politics above the Kingdom itself. Yet, following Jesus in the ways Keith describes is ultimately anarchic. Hopefully someday we will be able to be more forward about such things.
P.S. The primary audience in this work is setup to be American Conservative Christians (or previous ones). This is obviously a good start, because we need to work on not wielding power over others, especially when the goals do not align with the vision of the gospels. But in my context/world, we have lots of people wanting to wield power over others for ends that are more aligned with the sermon on the mount/plan. While this may arguably better in some ways, we still must put our means in harmony with our ends. So I hope that someday we will also have a book targeted more at the progressive left, rather than conservative right. Update: Richard Beck just talked about this in Experimental Theology: The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology.
Note: I received a review copy of this book as part of a giveaway, with the agreement to publish a review, but with no stipulations on the content of that review. (I also purchased the ebook.)