“Treat the people’s needs as holy,” Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. said at an event at the Center for American Progress last Thursday. Hendricks is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and author of the new book The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. Hendricks suggests in the book that Jesus used seven political strategies—including “treat the people’s needs as holy” as well as “give a voice to the voiceless” and “expose the workings of oppression” —to challenge the established order of things.
“To say that Jesus was a political revolutionary is to say that the message he proclaimed not only called for change in individual hearts but also demanded sweeping and comprehensive change in the political, social, and economic structures in his setting in life: colonized Israel,” Hendricks writes. At the CAP event, Hendricks also addressed another thread in his book: his disappointment with political leaders who profess to be Christian but do not act in ways that reflect Jesus’ teachings. Christianity is about “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, protecting the most vulnerable,” Hendricks said on Thursday, but some elected officials are “only concerned with their own interests.”
The Center’s event for Hendricks coincided with the 39th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. —a leader who, Hendricks argued, applied Jesus’ teachings and tactics to his political ideology and actions. Hendricks compared King to Jesus because of the radical nature of both men’s beliefs. “There’s no question in my mind that [King was] one of the foremost practitioners of the politics of Jesus. … He was selfless, he maintained the ethic of love, but that love was taking down the pillars of oppression.”
Hendricks said that both King and Jesus were “fighting against the exploitation of people.” Hendricks argued that such work is what really led both to King’s assassination and Jesus’ crucifixion, which Hendricks referred to as a “political punishment.”
“He was crucified for speaking against the authorities… He was fighting against the way they exploited the people,” explained Hendricks. “[Jesus was] revolutionary in the sense that he worked to make a very radical upheaval in society.”
Hendricks bemoaned how far much of American Christianity has strayed from these principles. “There is no real way to use the teaching of Jesus to oppose or to put focus on same-sex marriage… I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself,” Hendricks argued. “It’s hard for me to turn my back on [a gay person] trying to do right.”
Hendricks also addressed what he perceives as the church’s focus on abortion at the expense of the moral element of other issues that greatly affect people’s lives, like the U.S. government’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The church, Hendricks said, has largely become “more concerned with the unborn—who may never be born—than with the already-born.”
He also maintained that those who argue against the pro-choice side of the abortion debate are contradicted by scripture. “In the book of Exodus, it makes it very clear that an unborn child, or a fetus, is not on the same level as a human being.” The punishment the Bible dictates for harming a pregnant woman is far harsher than that imposed for injuring her unborn child.
Hendricks’ bottom line is that followers of politics—and politicians themselves—should use Jesus’ teachings as a way of evaluating the government’s work. “In the politics of Jesus,” Hendricks writes, “every policy and policy proposal must be judged by Jesus’ yardstick of love and justice.”