A Closer Look: Holy Week as Political Comedy
It is impossible to divorce religious faith (or lack thereof) from political commitments. While legislators and judges might try to keep religious and political institutions distinct from one another—to build Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between Church and State”—belief (or unbelief) is a necessary factor in the way all people formulate their political positions.
But while this is simply a description of how people reason about politics, we must take care to avoid reducing our faith to political identification. The comedic narrative of the events of Palm Sunday through Easter gives us an account of how to recognize the political meaning of Christianity while avoiding the temptation to identify our faith with particular politics. The story is “comedic” not in the sense of being funny, but rather because it concludes in an unexpected, satisfactory resolution to a seemingly intractable problem.
Act One: The Gathering Storm
Palm Sunday begins with what looks like a parade to celebrate impending political triumph. Jesus is treated as the conquering king, coming to establish his earthly political reign and throw off the shackles of Roman political oppression. Jesus, the people thought, was a political revolutionary, bringing social, political and economic change. And, indeed, Jesus spoke a great deal about a new kingdom!
But the sermons and interactions in the days following Palm Sunday were increasingly concerned not merely with the immediate time, but with some eschatological future. The rules of this kingdom were peculiar and strange, concerned with things like virgins trimming their lamp wicks; men disappearing from fields; keeping watch for burglars; and talk of some future glory. While Jesus spoke a great deal about how lives should be ordered, it was always in reference to some seemingly distant reality; something greater than earthly politics to which his disciples’ lives were to be directed.
And most importantly, it soon became apparent that Jesus was not interested in overthrowing Caesar. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” he told the crowd in Matthew 22:21. And in Matthew 24:9 he warned his followers, “They will hand you over to persecution, and will kill you.” But how could this be? Did you not come to conquer Caesar; to bring social revolution, and to liberate us from political bondage? Repay Caesar? This is not what we signed up for! And so, within a few days, Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, denied and indicted.
Act Two: Trial and Execution
Jesus’s appearance before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod is steeped in irony. On the one hand, the people who had hailed him a few days earlier as their new king, now rejected him. Wanting Jesus to be convicted as a traitor, the crowd brought dubious charges against him: “We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.” On the other hand, however, Pilate did not take Jesus or the charges seriously.
But, of course, Pilate conducted a show trial. And, on direct examination, Jesus refused to deny that he was the King of the Jews – and this is the subversive message of Jesus’s trial. His refusal to deny his regency was a refusal to recognize Caesar as the ultimate source of political and legal order and social orientation. All life was ordered by Roman citizenship or subjectivity. And, thus, with Pilate succumbing to the pressure of the mob, Jesus was sentenced to death as a traitor.
Jesus’ death was a political execution. Sometimes, in our proper concern to emphasize the salvific nature of the death of Christ—the substitutionary atonement, as it is sometimes called—we feel that we should deny or downplay the political nature of his death. But the political aspect of the trial, sentence and execution of Jesus cannot be separated from his role as the Savior and Lord of our lives.
Act Three: Unconditional Surrender
This is because the political death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection, the subversion of all politics. Jesus is not defined by the authority of Caesar to execute him. Rather he is defined by his defiance of that sentence. And thus, the resurrection is not just the proclamation that life has prevailed over death; it is also the declaration that Christ has triumphed over political identity. It is God’s “No” to the claim of any politics having ultimate purchase on our lives.
Politics is not the end; and Jesus’ political death was not the end of his reign. It was the beginning. And the resurrection is the demand for unconditional surrender of all politics of the earthly city to the politics of the City of God. But that is fully effected only by our own submission to Christ as Lord over our politics as well as our souls; by our diligent refusal to reduce transcendent faith to temporal politics, or to define Christian identity in terms of political commitment.
This is the political meaning of the narrative of Holy Week and Easter: Jesus’s emphatic “No” to all politics as having final claim on our lives. Christian faith cannot be separated from political commitments; but the death and resurrection of Jesus tells us that the latter must always be subordinate to the former.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.