Jewish intellectuals frequently say that the continuing politico-economic oppression on earth is proof that Messiah has not yet come. The meaning of messianic realization is such, they argue, that to dissociate the Gospel from an end to political oppression annuls the case for Jesus’ divine sonship.

Radical activist theologians have insisted that Jesus’ gospel was centrally political, that its very essence is liberation of the oppressed from socio-political injustices. But it is impossible to square this emphasis with the fact that Jesus’ program involved no direct challenge to the political system of the Romans, whose oppression was the source of the social, economic, and political grievances that dominated Jewish life in his day. Moreover, Jesus’ ministry was more concerned with personal spiritual relationships than with any forcible alteration of socio-political structures. Those who consider socio-political liberation to be the essence of the Gospel should ask themselves, furthermore, where and when the proclamation of their message has achieved such utopian results.

The New Testament does indeed emphasize—as in the Book of Revelation—that oppressive powers will ultimately be overthrown. But are we to infer that the real Messiah has not yet come because evil has not yet been wholly subordinated? Does Christianity proclaim messianism wholly without politico-economic liberation?

To make socio-political liberation the criterion of Messiah’s presence blurs the biblical picture of Messiah. Such a criterion is too open-ended, since one can intend the cessation of exploitation and oppression—that is, an improved economic and political outlook—without intending love in community. Even where nourished by noble intentions, revolution has often begotten more revolution as projections of a better future have succumbed to human passions. Those who are economically and politically liberated, even for a season, often fail to sense how truly enslaved they remain. In the Bible, liberation has in view man’s moral and spiritual plight, the need for meaningful selfhood, the problems of sin and guilt and identity and destiny. To deal with freedom only in relation to either external structures or internal considerations parochializes messianic meaning.

The Exodus story is often made paradigmatic in a way that oversimplifies the redemptive message. Political liberation is not the sole or even central theme of biblical redemption. The covenant at Sinai and God’s choosing of a people stands much nearer the center. The Gospels notably mention that Jesus went to accomplish his “exodus” in Jerusalem, a text hardly congenial to the notion of a master political program. The weakness of all motif-research is that it tendentially orients the evidence and overlooks what falls outside its purview.

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The Bible does indeed have a message for all the afflicted and oppressed—widows and orphans, the poor and destitute, the downtrodden and exploited. This theme is progressively reinterpreted as features of the Exodus are expanded, but without jettisoning the original elements. The message is still addressed to the poor and needy, but as R. K. Harrison notes, “the Hebrew term ‘poor’ took on an additional, non-economic meaning … the poor, harrassed remnant of spiritual fidelity in a vast morass of Hellenistic paganism. Thus ‘the poor’ also meant ‘the faithful’.… Christ used the term ‘poor’ in Matt. 5:3, Luke 6:20 in this same sense, promising the Kingdom to the “spiritually loyal,’ not to the economically or spiritually deprived” (“Poor” in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, pp. 515 f.).

The New Testament does not, however, ignore the socio-political question, even if it does not begin with it. The discussion of redemption and reconciliation is put in a profounder context, however. It tolerates no total depoliticizing of the Gospel, even if it does not put Jesus Christ in the primary role of a contemporary socio-political liberator; indeed, he deliberately resisted a mob movement to make him king on a mistaken materialistic premise (John 6:15). But Jesus’ followers nonetheless owned the crucified and risen one as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Jesus had reminded Pilate that the Roman procurator’s political power was a temporary divine entrustment, and he let it be known that he considered Herod a sly fox.

The New Testament teaches that at the Lord’s return in power and glory all nations will be finally judged (Matt. 25:32) and government will at last rest upon Messiah’s shoulders. The interim dimension is not avoided, however, even if Jesus’ followers have tended to ignore it and thus have needlessly engendered questions about the relation of the crucified and risen Christ to the political scene. Church creeds have emphasized that Christ, who does not yet reign, nonetheless even now rules by his providence and governance, and the New Testament associates even the regathering of Israel with God’s purpose in Christ.

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The interim dimension has two prongs, and it is the great tragedy of the contemporary religious scene that they are so dulled, one by many non-evangelical Christians’ misconception of the nature and task of the Church, and the other by many evangelical Christians’ narrowing of their task in the world.

God’s ideal order involves a new society of transformed men and women. The Church as the body of renewed humanity was and is to exemplify to the world the principles and practice of personal and social righteousness and love in community that Messiah approves. The whole point of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus was that the indispensable beginning of the kingdom of God is a divine regeneration of sinful selves. It was therefore a profoundly misguided venture when politicized ecclesiastics sought the kingdom of God by repoliticizing an unregenerate society.

A second consideration is equally important. Although the New Testament places a temporary “hold” on the forced messianic overthrow of world-powers during the Church age, it places no “hold” whatever on the divine demand for justice in the public order. Christ’s followers are to exemplify the standards of God’s kingdom, and they are to be “light” and “salt” in a dark and rotting society where God intends civil government to promote justice and restrain disorder. The New Testament locates the Christian attitude toward the political scene not only in the future eschatological context of Revelation 13 but also in the present sociological context of Romans 13.

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