In the first century, around the time of Jesus and the early Christian moment, there were at least ‘parties’ representing four types of Jewish response to the occupying presence and rule of the Roman empire. Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees.
Zealots and Violent Resistance
The Zealots were an expression of angry resistance to Roman rule. They were the guys with the daggers. This kind of posture gave rise to revolts like the Maccabean revolt and that of Simeon bar Kochba.
Essenes and Pure Isolation
The Essene solution was to distance and isolate. Remain pure and Messiah would come. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls may well have been Essene.
Sadducees and Compromised Collusion
Sadducees were focused on Temple worship and were involved with political affairs, collecting taxes and seen to be compromised.
Pharisees and Strict Religiosity
Pharisees saw Law observance as everything, so they made sure they didn’t miss a single thing to do with kosher, sabbath or purity. Messiah will come
The Alternative Path of Jesus
The way and teaching of Jesus seems to avoid these violent, isolated, compromised or religious ways. Like the Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots the way of Jesus is opposed to the Roman way of life at many points. But unlike them it does not find the answer in religiosity, separation or violence. Like the Sadducees, Jesus seems to approve of participation in world affairs, but unlike them this is to be done in the context of faithfulness to God’s kingdom.
The Relevance for Contemporary Politics
As Christians who live and vote in countries where Christian influence is not as strong as we would like, and not as accepted as it has been. Elections seem to be a time where this is felt acutely in the Christian community. I reckon there are some interesting parallels with the first century situation.
Our anger may not get as violent as the Zealots, but it’s really evident in the way we attack politicians in media and social media.
Our isolation may not be as physical as the Essenes, but we often disengage – often choosing not to vote or critiquing from a distance.
Our compromise may be different from the Sadducees, but some are far too comfortable supporting certain parties and candidates.
Our religiosity may not be as exacting as the Pharisees, but we do not hesitate to point out how immoral and sinful the culture is.
What would the way of Jesus look like?
Jesus knew it was going to be difficult. So difficult he prayed for us to know his life and sustenance as we strive to be in the world, not out of it, and not of it. Isolation may be the answer in a crisis but not the default posture of the Church. He also gave some really relevant teachings. He said we’d be like sheep among wolves, and told us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. He also knew that if we ‘give’ or ‘cast’ our holy pearls to pigs and dogs, they will not treat us or our pearls with respect. Perhaps we should be cautious in trying to get the nations laws to reflect our values.
We get some glimpses of this balance in Acts and the Epistles. Paul’s posture and language at Athens and before Felix, Festus and Agrippa is markedly different from what he includes in his letters to fellow believers who share his values. We are told to fear God and honour the Emperor. Nowhere do we see the Church clamouring to change Roman law. Rather, in season and out of season, with great political influence or with little or none, the way of Christ seems to be more about word and action than position or status. The Early Church was profoundly affecting society with its care of orphans and widows long before Emperor Constantine converted (and later Christianized the Empire). In fact, you can argue that Constantine’s gift of power actually weakened the Church’s witness. Love and Political power are a tough mix.
So Christians should vote, should discuss issues and should seek to influence the world. But we have to be so careful about political power plays. It is so easy to do more harm than good.