On Sabbath afternoon of January 12, 2019 a presentation and panel discussion was held at Buller Hall located at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI. The event was entitled “Jesus and Politics: Civic Lessons from the Sermons on the Mount.”
Even though the weather was quite uncooperative with heavy snow fall and freezing temperatures (typical for Michigan winters) a sizable crowd accumulated with several individuals heading over to the event from Chan Shun Hall which held an Adventist Forum discussion. In fact the Adventist Forum was held earlier then planned in order to allow attendees to attend both events.
The Jesus and Politics event was well organized and sponsored by the Lake Union Conference, Lake Region Conference, and the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Dr. Nicholas Miller, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) Director for the Lake Union Conference as well as professor of church history at the SDA Theological Seminar, served as the master of ceremonies for the event.
The event opened with a standard welcome and prayer by Dr. Miller. Following the prayer and welcome, Edward Woods III (PARL Director for the Lake Region Conference) introduced the main speaker, Dr. Timothy Golden, professor of philosophy and director of legal studies at Walla Walla University. (See below for a detailed description of Dr. Golden’s message). Following the introduction, the audience was blessed by Kelli Miller who sang a rendition of Andrew Peterson’s “After the Last Tear Falls.”
Due to the weather complications mentioned above, Dr. Golden was not able to present his talk in person. Consequently, Dr. Golden delivered his message over Skype. Thankfully there were no technical hick-ups or glitches in the audio and video feed, which allowed Dr. Golden to present his topic without issue or interruption.
After the main message from Dr. Golden, Kelli Miller shared her talents once again in a rendition of the song “Call it Grace.” Her performance was then immediately followed by a “panel discussion.” After the panel discussion the event was graced with a third musical performance by Leanne Miller who sang a version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that was also sung at one of the inaugurations of President Barack Obama. Finally Dr. Miller gave a few last remarks and then closed the event with a brief prayer. A detailed description of the main speakers message is as follows.
Jesus and Politics?
Dr. Golden began his message by addressing his title, “Jesus and Politics.” First Golden explained why the title “Jesus and Politics” could cause discomfort for Adventists. Golden conceded that politics, especially in our current national climate, is stigmatized with negative connotations, but this, Golden says, leads many Christians, including Adventists, to try and separate Jesus and his holiness from the world of politics. However, Golden proposes we as Adventists need to look at politics differently, specifically, we need to see politics as relationships and how we as people function together within the state.With this lens, Golden suggests that as Christians and Adventists we would be surprised at just how political Jesus actually was.
Dr. Golden explains that in doing theology, Jesus is often separated and understood apart from his cultural milieu because of unbiblical definitions of holiness that we have constructed and attempt to apply to Christ. Golden then emphasized the fact that Jesus was born into and inherited a Hebrew culture that was extremely political. Golden pointed out that every Jew during the time of Jesus was aware of this political tradition steeped in Jewish culture. Golden gave a few examples:
- God’s choosing and deliverance of the Israelites in a highly political situation (enslavement to the superpower of the world at that time, Egypt)
- Daniel and his three companions in regards to the lion’s den and fiery furnace incidents
- The book of Daniel which is filled with references to kingdoms, authorities, and the oppressive behavior of those authorities directed at God’s people
It is in this context, Golden asserts, that Jesus performs his ministry. Golden then pointed the audience towards Jesus inaugural declaration of His messiahship in Luke 4 in which Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 and declares that the prophecy described there was fulfilled that very day in their hearing. These actions (healing and preaching) were in a sense political and especially Jesus’ custom to break rabbinic tradition and actually reach out and touch the spiritually and physically infirmed.
Golden claims that Christianity has not kept a proper balance in regards to politics. Golden states that Christianity has made a mistake in one extreme in trying to separate Jesus completely from politics but it has also gone to another extreme and fully embraced politics, including wanting to force individuals to convert to Christianity or practice it in a particular way. Golden suggests that we should try to avoid falling into either ditch and points out what he deems as hypocrisy in many Adventists who vigorously advocate the position that Adventists should maintain total separation from politics and political issues but on the other hand are eager to receive and utilize Sabbath employment exemption letters for their own personal (and political) benefit.
Dr. Golden states that the church has always been political, even from the time of Christ, because Jesus warns the church that those who ignore the stranger, the incarcerated, the sick, widows, orphans, and the impoverished and hungry (social justice issues) have been deluding themselves in regards to their claim of being Christians.
Golden then attempted to deconstruct the argument that Christians should not be involved in politics because we have no record from the gospels, of Jesus ever going to Rome to organize a protest against the establishment in favor of his people. Golden contests however that even though we have no record of Jesus organizing a protest, we do have on record that God the Father ensured that Jesus was born into the most vulnerable of circumstances. Thus Jesus was able to identify, not just with humanity in general, but with the most impoverished, oppressed and colonized people of Judea and Galilee. Golden also pointed out that though Jesus didn’t protest against Rome he certainly critiqued and challenged the oppression of the religious leaders who had twisted the Scriptures to such a degree that justice and attentiveness to the poor was forgotten. This, Golden claims, was the reason Jesus went to the Temple and cleansed it of all the moneychangers (i.e. oppressors), who Golden sees as the precursors to the indulgence sellers in the medieval age. It was a socioeconomic stratification of the people based on what sacrifices they could afford.
Golden then suggests that based on the triumphal entry in combination with 1 Peter 4:17, “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God…” we can see that when Christ judges he begins with His own people. This is due to the fact that God’s people have access to the fullest revelation of God’s will (the Scriptures) and thus they are held the most accountable. Based on this inherent accountability, when the church does not use its power to carryout the work of the Messiah recorded in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4, of delivering captives and doing good to others, it incurs the wrath of God.
Be Like Jesus
The final points of Golden’s message were made by way of analogy. Golden states that if we are truly to be like Christ, and if Christ inherited and upheld the tradition of condemning injustice from political authorities, than we have an obligation to do the same.Golden emphasized this point with two final thoughts.
And the Word Became Flesh
Golden hinges his argument for Adventist involvement in justice issues and politics around the concept of the incarnation, specifically John 1:1, 14. Golden argues that salvation is based on the work of the incarnation, which he describes as Christ’s act in taking his “disembodied eternal self and making it human, to become flesh and bones.” In this biblical model of salvation the WORD becomes FLESH. However, Golden argues, we often work at cross-purposes with God in our endeavor to make the FLESH become WORD. In other words, we take the real, historical, in-the-flesh Jesus and separate him from his historical condition and the issues he addressed in his incarnated 3.5-year ministry. By abstracting Jesus from the flesh we are no longer compelled to live the life that he lived, and thus we don’t have to claim social responsibility for any of the conditions that exist today (poverty, hunger, injustice, etc.). This leads us to philosophize and wax eloquent on the finer points of theological debate and discussion instead of taking up the issues that Jesus actually addressed and engaged with in his earthly ministry. Christ decided not to save us from a distance but to come down to our level and be one with us; He subjected himself to the trials of humanity so that he could identify with us. But we prefer Jesus as an abstraction, and thus we separate him from politics and the effect is that we fail to fulfill Jesus’ mission for us.
At this point Golden’s presentation took an interesting turn when he asked a seemingly unrelated question, “Why does God condemn fornication?”
The answer according to Golden is that fornication is condemned because it is essentially sexual activity without love. Elaborating on this point, Golden states that sexual intercourse is permitted under God only between 2 persons of opposite genders in a marriage relationship. If we were to seek to separate sexual intercourse from a love relationship (marriage), we would in effect be simply seeking pleasure without responsibility.
Golden argues that a similar dynamic occurs when we attempt to separate theology from justice; we attain comfort and pleasure for our own soul salvation, which becomes a neurotic egotistical obsession at the expense of the larger community of persons that God demands that we take an interest in and be a blessing to. According to Golden, the separation of theology from justice is the same as the separation of sex from love.
Golden emphasized this analogy by emphasizing that one of the categories of sinners mentioned in the book of Revelation to be cast into the lake of fire are fornicators, those who seek pleasure without responsibility. He then clenched this argument by pointing the audience to “the other sermon on the mount” Matthew 25:31-46.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left…Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25:31-46)
Golden suggests that the judgment is not so much about one’s doctrine as it is about whether one can see Jesus in the face of the poor and downtrodden. The real issue then is not politics as typically think of it, but rather Jesus and justice.
Golden then made the point that we should definitely separate Jesus from the politics of the Russia Investigation for example, but we should never separate Jesus from justice. Elaborating, Golden stated that since the time of Constantine the gospel was used as a pretext for powerful men to gain even more political power. This is the type of politics that Adventist should shun. But there is another type of politics that seeks justice, for example Title 7 of the Civil-Rights Act, which deals with employment and conscience. If this law was done away with, Golden states, the church would be on the front lines of the political battle to make sure it would be reinstated. It is wrong then, Golden concludes, for the church to reap the benefits of political involvement (Title 7 provisions) but then say we shouldn’t be involved in politics. We definitely should NOT be involved in the politics of Constantine, but we definitely should be involved in seeking justice. According to Golden, God throughout salvation history has “interfered” in human affairs because he was and is concerned about kingdoms, political authorities, and principalities and how they treat people. Thus we should do the same.
Golden’s final statement and call-to-action was “Justice is at the intersection of politics and morality.” Let us make the word, flesh instead of making the flesh, word. And let us stop fornicating, by seeking doctrinal pleasure and the certainty of our own salvation at the expense of justice and serving others.
You can watch the full “Jesus and Politics” program below.
The panel was composed of several Adventists from southwestern Michigan engaged in a variety of social justice causes including: immigration, education for underserved areas, and human trafficking. Although this section of the program was entitled “Panel Discussion” in reality the panelists were given 5-10 minutes to explain their particular passion for a social justice issue and invite the audience to get involved. This portion of the event was a great addition to the program which allowed the audience to go beyond contemplating and learning about social justice but also provided an opportunity total action and engage.
Isaiah 61 contains a declaration of the future Messiah and his work including: preaching the gospel, healing the brokenhearted, delivering the captives, healing the blind, etc.
The full title of the presentation was “Jesus and Politics: Civic Lessons from the Sermons on the Mount.” Here Golden is not referring to the sermon delivered in Matthew 5-6, but rather the “other sermon on the mount” Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives which begins in Matthew 24:3 and continues through Matthew 25.