Since I’m a historian (sort of), sometimes people like to ask me if certain historical figures would have been like today’s Republicans or Democrats. When Charlemagne ordered fewer supplies for soldiers in order to fund schools, was that like creating government programs the way Democrats do? Was Alfred the Great’s military ingenuity a sign that he would support the troops like modern day Republicans? Was Constantine’s method of growing the Roman empire similar to modern Libertarian economic models? (OK, no one but me has ever asked that last one.)
I could make a grand case displaying that these great minds were in the same political tradition as myself, and, in doing so, seemingly strengthen the dignity of my position. (Believe me, many students in the humanities are busy doing this. They will lucky to get work at a community college after they graduate.) But this sort of comparison doesn’t really work.
Even today, most people don’t adhere completely to their party line (most Democrats I know are against abortion, and the Republicans I know hate seeing the government take land via eminent domain rulings) and historical figures rarely fit into our current two-party system. Furthermore, if you look just a little ways back in American History you’ll see that the Republicans and Democrats of the old days were very different from their modern-day counter parts, so you can’t even make that comparison without finding problems. Naturally, if you try to attach a historical figure to your political agenda, you’ll find that you will have to fill in the blanks in most areas (just how would Edward I make decisions about red light cameras?) and the few things we can know about these people just won’t fit into any convenient political party’s pattern.
So, when it comes to the King of Kings, things are even more complex. Jesus didn’t comment on how a nation ought to be run, but on how a person ought to run their own life. He did ask us to obey the government, even a government that was going to kill him, but he didn’t give us his opinion on the Roman political system or the cumbersome centralized method of ruling that was in place until the reforms of Diocletian which gave people little representation outside of the big cities. He could have discussed a lot of injustices in the government of His day, but, instead, He told his followers to love their neighbors and honor His Father.
Would this man be a Democrat or a Republican? Thankfully, the Bible leaves all of that out in place of spiritual guidance. We can fill in the blanks all we want, but in doing so we are missing out on the point of the Scriptures.
“Look, he’s holding up three fingers! He wants us to support proposition 3!”
What is even worse is the way people will hate each other through this. It is absolutely unacceptable to look down on someone and say that Jesus wouldn’t have voted as they did. A person who does this is using Jesus Christ as a weapon in their own political mudslinging, and that is a depressing misunderstanding of God. (More on that, here.)
It is best for us to avoid trying to place any historical figure into our own narrative. Such moves always oversimplify the truth of that person and keep us from understanding who they were. I’ve heard plenty of historians try to compare medieval Europeans and Muslims to Republicans and Democrats (respectively); this method will always tell me a lot about the speaker, but very little, if anything, about medieval history.
Let’s allow these people to live in their own time while we live in ours.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)