Did Jesus have political aims? Of a certain kind, yes. Let’s talk about it.
In his book Politics, Aristotle wrote:
“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.” (Book 1.2.9).
Human beings are endowed with reason and speech, and these powers cannot be brought into full actuality apart from human community. Human nature is so rich that it cannot be realized fully by one individual, but when many people over centuries contribute their gifts, each individual can enjoy the work of all. The products of reason and speech become common property and enrich everyone. In the first paragraph of Politics, Aristotle made this significant claim: “If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims, and in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good” (1.1.1).
Aristotle grounds the state in human nature. A being that is stateless by nature is either a god or a beast. The political order encompasses all other communities within its sphere. Unlike subordinate communities, it aims “in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good.” A family, a guild or a school will aim at the welfare of its members, a partial good. The state aims at the welfare of everyone, so that everyone may enjoy to the fullest degree the full flowering of human nature.
Let’s compare and contrast Aristotle’s thinking about the political community with the New Testament’s teaching about the church. Surely Aristotle is right that the state is an outgrowth of human nature and that a being stateless by nature is not human in the ordinary sense. The church is a human community, and Aristotle would number it among those subordinate communities that aim in a less comprehensive way at the highest good. But Christianity understands this community to be composed of a “new humanity,” “born again,” a people endowed with the “Spirit of the living God” and having under gone “the transforming of their minds.” They are in Aristotle’s words “above humanity.” A divine power is at work in the church to raise it above normal human life.
Aristotle is also on target when he asserts that every community aims at a good that gives it purpose, unity and identity. However, Aristotle’s “highest good” is limited to this world, this life. Christianity asserts that human beings should aim at a goal higher than the common good of the whole community within this life. God created human beings in the image of God, and human nature, empowered by the grace of the Spirit, can participate in the divine nature and attain eternal life. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, the church’s aim is off target; it aims too high and it demands too much of mere mortals. It is bound to fail.
The New Testament presents the church as the community founded by Jesus Christ. It is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit and directed to God the Father. In analogy to Aristotle’s view of the state, the church is based on the nature of the new humanity and is necessary for the full flowering of this new human being. Christians are not “birds that fly alone,” but they really do fly. The Christian is not only a human being endowed with reason and speech but also someone united with Christ, who dwells in heaven and yet fills the universe. The Christian has received the life-giving Spirit and has been freed from the power of sin and death. Unlike Aristotle’s natural human being, the Christian lives by faith and not by sight.
The church is the community whose threefold purpose is (1) to enable the new powers and virtues that have been given to believing and baptized human beings to come into full use and benefit the whole church and through the church the whole world; (2) to embody as far as possible in the present the perfect community of heaven, the Father, Son and Spirit and the coming Kingdom of God, which is the union of human beings and God in the perfect divine/human fellowship; and (3) to call the whole world to rise up not only beyond the beastly nature of the stateless one, the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one.’ It also calls human beings beyond the best political order human beings can create. She serves the whole human race by calling it to its final destiny and revealing its true dignity.
Hence to normal human beings, Christians will always appear to have their heads in the clouds. Their values are a bit askew. They are always rejoicing but never take pleasure in evil. They are serious about everything but in despair over nothing. The Christian is as courageous as a lion but as gentle as a lamb; they have wills as hard as steel but hearts as soft as wax.
The church will never subordinate itself to the political community because the good it seeks is higher than the good sought by the state. The virtues she promotes—love, faith and hope—are better than those the state values. She seeks heaven while the state grasps at earth. The state is built on violence and coercion, and it seeks wealth, power and worldly security; the church is built on freedom and love and seeks treasure in heaven. The church is the temple of God, the city of God, the body of Christ. The state is human nature writ large, with all its strengths and weaknesses.
For Aristotle, human beings are “political animals” whose destiny is achieved, if at all, only in this life. For Christianity, human beings are more; they are ecclesiastical animals whose destiny lies in eternity, in the divine life.
I find the concept of the church calling humanity beyond the best political systems to be an interesting one. I am wondering whether the church might be, in some sense, a microcosm of an institutional body that surpasses and is inherently superior to the best system that Politics has to offer. I have in mind passages in 1 Corinthians in which Paul instructs believers not to take each other to suit in a secular court of law. “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” If the Christian body cannot transcend politics and show itself to be more effective and more transcendent, then we have already lost. But it does not just mean that we are wholly different from a political system, but that we have the wisdom and discretion to settle our disputes and controversies in a more glorifying way than judicial proceedings. I only fear that—for the Protestant church at least—our history of church splits and high-profile pastor wars has fallen far short of Paul’s calling for us.
How short we fall of our high calling! Yet, sometimes the kingdom breaks in and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven!