Does Jesus recommend political activism?

Book Review

Fingerprints of Fire . . . Footprints of Peace: a spiritual manifesto from a Jesus perspective

by Noel Moules

There is much to like about this book: Moules’s universalism, i.e., his belief that in the end everybody and everything will be “made part of the final wholeness of all things”; his acknowledgement that there are important differences among the world’s major religions; his clear expression of why he favors the message of Jesus, coupled with his good-hearted respect and openness towards other views, including humanistic atheism; his appreciation for the goodness of creation; his recognition that loving God and neighbor requires love of self as well. Here is one sentence that particularly rings true to me: “One thing seems quite clear: however certain any of us are about what we believe, the final outcome will be filled with more surprise and astonishment than any of us can ever anticipate.” (p. 194)

In the spirit of reaching towards that final outcome, I offer the following criticism: Moules recommends political activism, but I don’t believe he has given a convincing answer to the question: If Jesus was recommending radical political engagement, as Moules claims (p. 54), then why did he say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36)?

Moules tries to make a clear distinction between violent and nonviolent political activism, but I don’t think he succeeds. He gives a quite broad definition of violence: “Violence is emotional, verbal, or physical behavior that dominates, diminishes or destroys ourselves or others.” (p. 132) And he writes the following about shalom, which he says is “the center of a Jesus-focused hope,” (p. 29): “Shalom has to be crafted out of raw and often resistant materials; this requires wisdom soaked in perspiration, shaped by a commitment to love and gentleness and hallmarked by a total absence of violence.” (p. 45) But he also writes that “there are times when wild nature is threatened,” and that when that happens, “we have the responsibility to stamp on the threat and eliminate it. This is part of what it means to be with creation; this is a call for us to be guardians.” (p. 86) He also makes it clear that he thinks we are currently facing an ecological crisis (p. 92) On its face, I’d say, talk of stamping on a threat and eliminating it certainly at least sounds violent. Moules goes so far as to claim that when Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple with a whip made of knotted cords, he was exercising, not violence, but “assertive meekness.” (p. 137) But didn’t Jesus dominate the moneychangers by physical behavior that day?

So here is where I disagree with Moules, though I think he has written a valuable book concerning topics of the utmost importance: Rather than trying to imagine there could be a kind of political activism that doesn’t aim at the goal of someone forcing someone else to do or stop doing something, we should make a distinction between 1) actions according to the worldly principle that force is justified in self-defense or defense of the innocent and 2) actions according to the divine principle that in the kingdom of heaven everyone freely chooses to act according to love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. Political activism, then, can only ever be justified by that worldly standard. Then what about Jesus’ action that day? Perhaps he would answer with a question, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone.” (Matt. 19:17, also Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19)