Jesus Was Not a Zealot: Good Friday and the End of Political Religion

The Crucifixion by Nikolai Ge

At several different points in his monumental three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, the late Pope Benedict XVI contrasts the kingdom that Jesus preached with that of the ancient Zealots. According to Ratzinger, Jesus “left no room for political or military interpretations of the Messiah’s activity” (II: 181). Jesus’ cleansing of the temple signals his fight against “a politicization of the faith that would see God’s constant protection of the Temple as something guaranteed” (II: 20). Jesus comes not as a revolutionary but with the “gift of healing.”

Ratzinger knew all too well the dangers of confusing the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world. As an adolescent, he saw it firsthand in the terrors of the Third Reich. As a young professor, he saw a different kind of political idolatry in the Marxism of the student movements. As Prefect and Pope, he continued to battle the religio-political syncretism of Liberation Theology.

And so Ratzinger sees the kingdom of Christ–a kingdom of suffering love–as a direct confrontation to all attempts to bring about God’s work by dint of political action. Indeed, he sees the cross as the definitive end of every unholy alliance of religion and politics. “Through the message that he proclaimed, Jesus had actually achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world: this is what truly marks the essence of his new path” (II: 169). The cord was decisively severed at the cross: “Only through the total loss of all external power, through the radical stripping away that led to the Cross, could this new world come into being” (II: 171).

This separation of the religious and the political does not mean, of course, any kind of quietism in the face of injustice. Benedict quite obviously continued to defend the Church’s social teaching and to proclaim it prophetically and courageously to the world. The faith has political implications, to be sure. But Ratzinger’s point is that the kingdom does not advance by political means. Its work is of a different order, that is, an heavenly and eternal one. “My kingdom is not of this world,” our Lord confessed on this sober day of trial and suffering.

Too many today seem to miss this point. As B.B. Warfield once remarked, one of the most pernicious errors in the history of Christian thought is the notion what when Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” what he actually meant is that it is. But Jesus was not a Zealot. That option was open to him in first century Judaism. But he didn’t take it. He proclaimed and embodied a completely different sort of kingdom: a kingdom of self-giving, suffering love. He subverts our natural assumptions. Power is found in weakness. Victory is found in defeat. Life is found in death. And that is how he brings healing to the world on this Good Friday. Transformation cannot be coerced from without. It must be established within the heart of man: the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The change we needed couldn’t be effected in Pilate’s Praetorium nor on the Palatine Hill, where the emperor Tiberius reigned, nor on Washington’s Capitol Hill, for that matter. It could only be founded on the hill of Golgotha, with all of its shame and ignominy and all of its glory and grace.

Leave a Reply