The political gospel of Jesus Christ
During the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology was at the fore in the struggle against right wing governments throughout Latin America.
Its architect, Peru-born Gustav Gutiérrez, a theologian and Dominican priest, was deeply influenced by his experience ministering to the most marginalised neighbourhoods in Lima.
His book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), advanced that Christian virtue is rooted in combating poverty and hopelessness; and that political, economic and social isolation of large sectors of nations was antithetical to the core of Christian principles
Its implications were broad and viewed as veiled attacks on the status quo. Many priests at the time sided with rebel groups and, in the process, blurred the line between armed struggle and passive resistance.
At his speech at the 1979 Puebla Conference, Pope John Paul II slammed liberation theology, stating: "This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechesis."
Four years later, Cardinal Ratzinger, who, at the time, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticised what he called Gutiérrez's temporal, and more specifically, his political interpretation of Jesus' message.
However, Gutiérrez's philosophy found favour with international socialist and indigenous movements. Questions followed: Is liberation theology synonymous with socialism? Would Jesus have sided with the insurgencies that challenged centuries-long oligarchic rule?
To ably respond to this enquiry, we must examine the political and economic dynamics that existed in Judea during the time of Jesus.
Regrettably, the New Testament has primarily emerged as a gospel bearing a mystical, other-worldly, and apocalyptic theme. But religion, unlike today, was inextricably bound with politics.
The coming of the messiah in Jewish was very much political as religious. It signified manumission from political oppression. It meant the fulfilment of God's promise to his people in this life.
The concept of vicarious atonement through a god-man and that of a cosmic paradise is inconsistent with Jewish messiahship. The term messiah, before Jesus, applied to a king or prophet - someone ritualistically anointed with oil and known for wisdom and leadership.
It took on a more political strain at the time of Jesus' birth when Judea was under the thumb of imperial rule. This role of the messiah assumed a Moses-like quality, a leader charged with overthrowing the yolk of subservience and re-establishing stability and peace among all Jews.
Note here, the very worldly task of the messiah. This is understandable, for outside the ruling aristocracy (the priestly class or Sanhedrin who ruled at the behest of imperial Rome), the masses or peasants lived an arduous, tortuous life.
This gave rise to discontent, anger and open resistance against the rabbinical class, as exemplified by Jesus' outburst in Matthew 21:13. "My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers."
Here, Jesus' stand was nothing short of political.
In the book St Paul: The Apostle We Love To Hate, Karen Armstrong writes: "For 500 years, Judea had been ruled by one empire after another, and the temple, the holiest place in the Jewish world, had become an instrument of imperial control. Since 63 BCE, the Romans had ruled Judea in conjunction with the priestly class, who contested the tribute, extorted in kind from the populace and stored it in the temple precincts."
We should also be aware that during this period, an insurgency brewed, only to be violently checked.
In Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus (b. 37 CE), the most notable historian of that era, wrote that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a graphic, poignant message to radical elements, especially Sicarii (Dagger-men), a 'terrorist' group that included Simeon, Jesus' disciple.
We now begin to understand why Jesus was tried along with Barrabas, a member of Zealots, a more violent 'terror' network that escalated their attacks on the Romans by 66 CE.
Crucifixion was also directly aimed at Jewish religious lore, where burial was a solemn, swiftly performed ritualistic act. That scavenger birds gorged the entrails of the crucified person was sacrilege.
Historiography and religo-cultural research, more than blind faith, offers some insight into the life of messiahs and the existentialist framework in which they functioned.
The mid-20th century Qumran discovery lends support to Jesus as belonging to a Jewish sect called the Essenes, a group that challenged the priestly collaboration with Rome.
First century writer, Philo, presents a picture of the Essenes as a communal group, a kind of social justice movement that adopted non-violent methods of social transformation, challenging the overbearing ritualism of the Pharisees and their abuse of power.
The message of the Essenes - a political one - fomented discord. That crucifixion was used to combat the Jesus movement is suggestive of the group's political character.
We can easily draw parallels between Jesus, Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King - leaders of passive but unmistakably political causes.
Here, we should note that the kingdom, of which Jesus spoke, was very much temporal as it was spiritual.
The Essenian communities represented a kingdom divorced from the wretched hypocrisy of worldly rulers - one that was essentially "not of this world."
They promoted that the worth of a man is not based on his material standing; and that all honest work is the work of God. We can now fully make sense of Luke 17:21, "The kingdom of God is within you."
Self-sufficiency, hard work (even the simplest and most ordinary of tasks), compassion, justice and a communal spirit characterised this kingdom.
We must note, though, that Jesus' communalism - to which each contributed according to his innate and nurtured ability - is at odds with state controlled collectivism, as we know it.
While we cannot in certainty say when Jesus' kingdom took on a purely eschatological (afterlife) meaning, we can speculate that His death led to His deification - not uncommon among religious groups - known and nondescript - throughout history.
When Christianity emerged as a distinct religion after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD, the Second Coming doctrine and a celestial Kingdom were irrevocably amplified.
Today, we see a Church cautious in embracing liberation theology. But there is a growing feeling that the political movement of Jesus is being revisited by the Church as Pope Francis stakes his reputation as a defender and cultivator of the poor.
There is no doubt that Francis is moved by the messiah's very counsel: "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" 1 John 3:17.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Now available as an audio book. Email feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby