Politics from Parables

Notorious atheists like Christopher Hitchens try to convince us that the world would be a more humane place if we could give up on the idea of God, but Tod Lindberg provides a cogent argument in The Political Teachings of Jesus that the modern world’s most cherished liberal values — religious tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy — ultimately depend on the global spread of the teachings of Jesus.

Tod Lindberg, HarperCollins, 260 pages, $25.95
Notorious atheists like Christopher Hitchens try to convince us that the world would be a more humane place if we could give up on the idea of God, but Tod Lindberg provides a cogent argument in The Political Teachings of Jesus that the modern world’s most cherished liberal values — religious tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy — ultimately depend on the global spread of the teachings of Jesus.
Lindberg, a research associate at the Hoover Institute and editor of Policy Review, is hardly the first to attempt such a reading of history, but he has succeeded in writing one of the most extensive explorations of that thesis by drawing comprehensively on the words of Christ in the Gospels.
Minimally, Lindberg should be applauded for the sheer audacity of looking to Jesus Christ as a source for liberal political theory. And yet he accomplishes this thorny task with dust-jacket praise from both the Catholic political left (E. J. Dionne) and right (Michael Novak).
There is much to praise about the book. Lindberg’s biblical analysis is refreshing and approachable; he does not engage in higher criticism or textual skepticism. Instead, he takes the Gospels at face value, treating them as accurate recollections by the men who knew and heard Jesus directly. A less confident writer would have felt the need to go toe-to-toe with professional biblical exegetes, but Lindberg offers straightforward and largely incontestable interpretations of Jesus’ words in light of political questions.
At its best, the book can be read as a political devotional, a this-worldly supplement to one’s weekly spiritual reading. At worst, however, Christianity’s critics will conclude from the book that they can appropriate Jesus’ political and moral teachings and leave aside His religious message as so much dross.
Although Lindberg assiduously seeks to avoid repeating the mistake of social gospel Christianity, which reinterpreted and replaced Jesus’ message of individual salvation in the Gospels with a merely social and political one, at times he seems to fall into the same trap simply by having left the "other-worldly" out of his discussion.
Lindberg’s reason for doing this is strategic. He explains at the beginning of the book that in order to reach the broadest possible audience for his thesis, he will treat only the political and social implications of the teachings of Jesus (what he calls throughout the book the "Jesusian" teachings), setting to one side the religious teachings (what he calls the "Christian" teachings) that deal with salvation, the soul, and divine judgment. {mospagebreak}
By sticking to this strategy, he is able to spend the bulk of the book mining the Gospels for thought-provoking political interpretations of well-tread passages. Lindberg deals with the political implications of Jesus’ most famous teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and most of the parables. By themselves, these gems of analysis justify reading the book and taking it seriously as a contribution to political philosophy.
For example, when Lindberg discusses the passages in Matthew 5 and Luke 6 that discuss "turning the other cheek," Lindberg suggests that this is not a sign of passivity, but an assertion of one’s human dignity. To respond in kind with violence to an unjustified blow would concede that the world is an inherently lawless place, one in which one’s rights and property are insecure, a Hobbesian world of power and force. Offering one’s other cheek asserts one’s freedom and defies that view of the world by rejecting the striker’s lawless power to make us victims.
None of Jesus’ teaching is more thoroughly and provocatively mined for its political implications than the Golden Rule. Lindberg shows how the Golden Rule brings with it a "revolution in the idea of freedom" and a "new type of freedom . . . grounded in equality." If a person truly believes in treating others as himself, then that person will learn to give others the same amount of freedom to "pursue righteousness." In so doing, one will come to consider others to be our equals, despite differences in wealth, birth, and class, and deserving of liberty.
In addition, the liberal values of freedom and equality embedded in Jesus’ teaching have led to our modern preference for democracy over monarchy, the practice of religious tolerance, and the general reduction of cruelty, none of which was substantially evident in the Greco-Roman world at that time. Lindberg argues that as people have come to follow the political teachings of Jesus and treat each other as neighbors rather than enemies, the world has been slowly and inexorably transformed into a place with less war and savagery and greater social concern for the least among us.
If there is a central flaw with Lindberg’s thesis, it is whether the ethical, social, and political effects of Jesus’ teachings can be as fully achieved as he seems to propose without embracing the religious content of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ central message, which underwrites the political implications that Lindberg develops, is that of soul transformation. While Lindberg is entirely correct to propose that "hearing, knowing, becoming" are at the center of Jesus’ method, he neglects an essential element that makes it possible to turn our wills toward "becoming": divine grace. The freedom that Jesus offered is not the freedom that Lindberg asserts is "constituted by eachperson’s acceptance of the equal freedom of everyone else," but the freedom granted us by Jesus’ work on the cross.
Lindberg’s underlying thesis is probably correct that the modern world would be a less free, less equal, and less humane place were it not for the political teachings of Jesus, but much of the credit for the spread of those teachings goes to the many Christian believers who put their faith into political and social action. It might be pointed out that where the political values Lindberg touts are most strongly in evidence in the world today, the Christian faith has taken hold most deeply and widely. Where these values are threatened, the Christian faith is endangered or is in decline.
While it is unlikely that Lindberg will convince Christianity’s critics that we need Jesus’ teachings if we wish to preserve precious liberal values such as equality and freedom, his book should provoke Christians to consider whether the Gospels are the source-text for our modern political values.

Jason Boffetti is a research associate at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.

Benjamin D. Wiker


Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.

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