As a pastor and chaplain, I am often asked about Jesus’ view on politics. What would Jesus think about this? How would Jesus vote on this? Would Jesus vote at all? Everyone, it seems, is curious about Jesus' voting habits.
Both sides of the aisle claim Jesus as their own. Portland's liberal band Rockers Everclear has a song called “Jesus was a Democrat.” “I think Jesus would have been a card carrying liberal, if he was a young man born in the USA," they croon. "He would not be fiscally conservative, and he wouldn't vote for John McCain.” Meanwhile, the Tea Party has also staked claim to Jesus and one former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate went so far as to claim that, “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God.”
There is a historical precedent for Jesus' involvement in controversial political issues. In Matthew 22, the Pharisees (a Jewish social and political group) tried to trap Jesus by asking for his stance on the controversial Roman poll tax in the presence of a very pro-Roman political party, the Herodians.
Regarded as oppressive, the poll tax forced everyone, rich or poor, to pay the same amount. And there were theological implications: The Jews anticipated the coming of their true king and the Kingdom of God. By paying the Roman tax, they felt they were acknowledging that everything, both life and breath, belonged to Caesar’s kingdom. That discord led to revolt. In 6 A.D. patriots and insurgents began to refuse paying the poll tax.
Enter Jesus. At the time he was confronted by the Pharisees, he had just arrived on the scene preaching about the Kingdom of God — a place he described as without illness, poverty, injustice or oppression. What they were really asking him wasn't so much about taxes as his political stance: Are you a revolutionary? Where do you stand? Is your allegiance with the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of Caesar?
So he found himself faced with a tough choice: If Jesus sided with Caesar’s oppressive tax, he would negate all he had taught about the Kingdom of God, giving his critics a great excuse to dismiss and hate him. On the other hand, going against Caesar meant signing his own death certificate.
And so he did something both surprising and nuanced. He asked the Pharisees whose image and inscription was on the coin used to pay the tax. It is Caesar's, they responded. He created it and it bears his image and likeness.
“Therefore," Jesus responded, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (Matthew 22:21).
The coin may have been made in the image of Caesar, Jesus was saying, but the people are made in the image of God. Though they should honor civil government and give their share in taxes, their allegiance should be to Him. In a narrow sense, his words say, “I’m not political”, but in a broad sense, they say, “I’m very political.”
This is a revolutionary response, but Jesus isn’t looking for money, power or recognition. His moment of political victory is his execution, not his election.
The reality is that Jesus is far too compassionate, forgiving and liberal for anyone on the right, and far too confrontational and conservative for anyone on the left. Which leaves the rest of us with one important lesson: When we stop trying to put Jesus in a neat box, we are free to engage politically on either side of the aisle.