Robert F. Shedinger Speaks About Jesus as a Political Figure

The mainstream media would have us believe that there are only two schools of thought: liberal and conservative. Conservatives are religious, they insist, and liberals are secular. Further analysis reveals that things aren’t so simple. There are hyper-liberal Christian anarchists, and even Christian atheists like Robert M. Price.

While there are some who insist Jesus never even existed, and others who think the bible should be taken completely literally, the mainstream academic consensus lies somewhere in between.

I had the honor of speaking with Robert Shedinger, a professor at Luther College, Iowa. With a doctorate of religious studies from Temple University, he has written a book with a seemingly controversial title: Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion. He argues that Jesus was as much a political figure as a religious one.

In fact, despite identifying himself as a Christian, he believes that people can abandon religion without abandoning God.

The Interview

I’d like to thank you for speaking with me, Robert.

It is a pleasure to be able to share my work with you and your readers.

I’m happy to hear it.

So you’ve written a book called Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion Now, obviously, religion is a touchy subject for many people, and I would expect this to be one of those questions that sparks controversy. Would you say you encounter offense or intrigue more often when you talk about this subject?

This is an interesting question. You would think that a book with this title would spark controversy. In fact, the publisher was originally quite nervous about the title and wanted to change it, thinking that people would answer the question “Was Jesus a Muslim?” with a resounding “No!” and not buy the book.

But the reaction has actually been quite different. Muslim readers really like the book and don’t find the idea of Jesus being a Muslim at all controversial. The Muslim identity of Jesus is a standard article of faith for Muslims.

What does surprise them is seeing such an idea coming from someone who identifies as a Christian. But overall Muslim readers have embraced the book and I have had the opportunity to speak in nearly a dozen mosques from North Carolina to California as a result.

By contrast, the Christian reaction has been quite muted. I have received no invitations to speak in churches outside of my local community where people know me, nor have I received any emails or letters expressing concern about or objection to the book. The Christian reaction has been mostly silence, something that my Muslim friends find surprising.

I am grateful for the interactions with the American Muslim community that the book has made possible, but I would welcome more dialogue with Christians, who were, after all, the intended primary audience for the book.

I hoped the book would create renewed energy for positive Christian-Muslim engagement even though I realize its major premise can be a heavy lift for Christians. I know there are many open-minded Christians out there who could positively engage my ideas.

I’m a bit surprised by that. I would expect stronger reactions and more interest in the subject from Christians. Would you hazard a guess at why this is the case?

I know the thesis is provocative for Christians, and instead of responding maybe they are more inclined to just ignore the book and hope it goes away. But I really don’t know. The book has been adopted for use in a number of college courses, so students are reading it, some of whom are undoubtedly Christians. But without any significant response from the wider Christian community, it is hard for me to know how it is playing. This may simply be a sign of just how difficult it is to engender fruitful interactions between Christians and Muslims in this time of very public Islamophobia.

That’s an unfortunate state of affairs. I hope that this doesn’t hinder your efforts, and that you will be able to make some ground.

It seems to me that this type of reaction (or lack of) is as much about politics as it is about religion. I’d like to hear about your opinions on religion versus politics. They clearly intersect with each other, but they aren’t the same thing. What do you consider to be a religion, how does that relate to politics, and what is the status of Islam as a religion?

It is common to hear Muslims say that Islam is not a religion, it is a way of life. In fact, I first encountered the idea that Islam is not a religion from a young Muslim student who challenged the way I was teaching her tradition in a class at Luther College. In the West, we conceive of religion as a unique and distinct aspect of human experience that can be conceptually separated from other aspects of our experience like politics and economics.

When we call Christianity or Judaism or Islam a religion we mean to indicate that these things possess a unique essence all their own that clearly distinguishes them from political structures, and so we try to maintain a separation between religion and politics or church and state.

However, no universal definition of religion exists. It is actually an indefinable term. The idea that religion constitutes a unique sphere of human experience is a comparatively modern and very Western construction. The idea is based on our dualistic Western worldview that makes a clear separation between the sacred and the profane. Religion is the way we interact with the sacred while politics is an aspect of the profane realm.

Most people throughout history in most parts of the world have not adopted this dualistic sacred/profane worldview. They view all human experience as an integrated whole such that a distinction between a sacred realm and a profane realm would be meaningless.

Such is the case with Islam. The most important concept in Muslim thinking is what is known as tawhid, which means unity. It speaks to the unity and integrity of all lived experience such that it makes little sense to make a conceptual distinction between religion and politics.

As such, Islamic thought provides a powerful challenge to basic aspects of our Western worldview and exposes concepts like “religion” and “politics” as modern Western linguistic constructions, not as descriptions of the way the world really is. This is the reason Muslims are so often accused of being too political, of mixing politics and religion.

What we need to understand is that from their perspective they are not mixing religion and politics because they do not recognize religion and politics as distinct conceptual entities.

It’s always interesting to me when I learn about how ideas we think are ancient are really modern inventions. Where do you think this concept of religion came from, and why?

This is a very complicated question. The development of religion as a distinct
concept has a very long and complex history and I’m not sure anyone can put their finger
on an exact time and place for its creation. But this has not stopped scholars from offering
proposals, some of which I outline in the book.

One scholar believes the concept “religion” was invented by Christians during the fourth or fifth century as a way to fully distinguish the emerging Christian movement from what became Judaism. Christianity was a religion, Judaism was not.

Other scholars look to the period of the enlightenment for the origin of religion. These scholars believe religion developed as a separate realm of moral values since enlightenment scholars were engaging the world from the perspective of a supposed value-free rationalism.

There probably is not one time and place for the origin of religion. It most likely developed slowly due to a variety of factors. One thing we can say is that in more recent times the concept “religion” has been employed in some ethically problematic ways.

For example, it appears that when European colonialists moved into southern Africa in the 18th century, comparative religion scholars concluded that the people of Africa had no religion because they could not find anything in the African culture that looked like their own definition of religion, which was based on a Protestant Christian outlook. At the same time, they believed religion was a defining feature of humanity and separated humans from animals. So the denial of religion to Africans led to the conclusion that they were less than human which then legitimated their colonial oppression.

Later, during the period of apartheid in South Africa, the government tried to dissuade Muslims from engaging in anti-apartheid politics on the grounds that the Muslim community was granted complete freedom of religion. Constructing Islam as a religion was a strategy for pacifying an oppressed people. So whatever its origin, we need to be aware that the concept “religion” has been used, and I think continues to be used, as a political weapon.

This is an interesting perspective. You’re arguing that the distinction between religion and politics is what allows religion to be used as a political weapon. This might sound contradictory at first, but with closer analysis it makes a great deal of sense. The word religion can be used to divide people into categories that don’t necessarily need to exist, drawing lines where they don’t have to be drawn.

You’ve written extensively about Jesus as a political figure. Do you feel that Jesus had a political “agenda,” or were his goals entirely spiritual?

This is the right question to be asking. There is no evidence that the society in which Jesus lived—first century Palestine—made the conceptual distinction between sacred and profane, or religion and politics. In fact, there is no word in either Hebrew or Greek—the languages of the Bible—that means anything close to what we mean today by “religion.” A separate religious realm simply would not have been part of Jesus’s worldview.

The surprising conclusion from this is that Jesus’s contemporaries could not, almost by definition, have understood him as a religious figure in the way most Christians do today. But what was he?

In recent years, New Testament scholars have begun to recognize the level to which Roman imperial domination and exploitation determined all aspects of life for Rome’s Jewish subjects. Rome claimed absolute sovereignty over all aspects of life, but the Gospels portray Jesus as proclaiming the coming of the sovereignty of God. Any such proclamation would have been heard as a rejection of Roman claims to sovereignty, so Jesus was clearly preaching a message that had profound political implications.

Virtually all his teachings and actions can be interpreted as a reaction against Roman imperial power and exploitation. It makes little sense to try and distill out a specifically “religious” or spiritual message. The spiritual aspect of Jesus’s preaching—proclaiming the coming of the reign of God—was at one and the same time a political message—rejection of the sovereignty of Rome—with all the political, economic, and social implications such rejection entailed.

This is an understanding of Jesus that we have forgotten today, as Jesus has been turned into an apolitical religious figure relevant only to the spiritual lives of individuals. But to the extent that Jesus viewed human experience as an integrated reality like Muslims do, I conclude that in this limited sense, Jesus was in fact a Muslim. But the implications of this are really quite profound.

So people in Jesus’ time wouldn’t have considered his ideas to be a religion. Instead, they would have thought of him as a revolutionary with a message that was both spiritual and political. With that in mind, what insights can Islam bring to an understanding of Jesus?

I firmly believe that the Muslim understanding of Jesus as a prophet of the Islamic message of justice and equality is more consistent with what we can know about Jesus as an historical figure than the Christian understanding of Jesus as a spiritual savior of individuals.

As such, Muslims may be able to help Christians recover a Jesus who has relevance for life in this world. This is not to say that the Christian tradition has been devoid of this more “political” view of Jesus. Just in the last fifty years, the development of Liberation Theology and Black Theology has articulated a Jesus relevant for issues of economic and racial injustice.

My hope is that this “political” Jesus could become a focal point for a Christian-Muslim movement of resistance against the kinds of social and economic injustices that continue to plague our world today.

I realize that this might be a far-fetched hope. In this time of rampant Islamophobia, the mere suggestion that Muslims might be able to teach Christians about Jesus will be hard to swallow for many Christians. But the very fact that I as a Christian am now regularly engaging fruitfully with Muslims on these issues stands as a faint ray of hope that such a movement may not be impossible.

I sincerely hope that your vision of the future comes to fruition. All of this talk about Jesus having a revolutionary message makes me wonder what messages he would have today. As long as we’re mixing religion and politics, what do you think his modern political beliefs could be?

Well, when one grasps the level to which Jesus resisted the brutal and exploitative empire of Rome, it is hard not to believe that Jesus would stand against those same kinds of practices today. I don’t think Jesus would be a fan of global capitalism and the kinds of massive economic inequalities it authorizes. Jesus’s politics would probably run to the liberal or progressive end of the spectrum.

At the same time, he would not be a secular liberal since Jesus’s rejection of Roman claims to sovereignty was couched in terms of the coming of the sovereignty of God. So in today’s terms, Jesus might actually be a combination of liberal and conservative, connecting his belief in God to a call for just political and economic relationships.

This is, incidentally, another way that Jesus was more like a Muslim. The economic ideas of even the most “religiously” conservative Muslims tend to be more in keeping with the liberal end of the political spectrum, placing social welfare over individual liberty and eschewing the concentration of large sums of money in the hands of a few. Conservative Christians are mostly on the side of free market economics.

I’ve always found the alliance between individualist economics and charitable religions to be a strange one. Your portrayal of Jesus as promoting a liberal “religious” ideology does make more sense to me.

Undoubtedly, Jesus would have wanted people of all backgrounds to coexist peacefully. Religion, in all its forms, has done great and terrible things to the world. Do you feel there is a way for religions to coexist peacefully, even if they propose contradicting views of reality?

I certainly hope that adherents of different religions can come to coexist peacefully. This is the world I want to live in. But it will require that people come to understand that religion itself is a contrived category and doesn’t really exist as a thing in the world.

Moreover, it is a contrived category that really doesn’t serve our interests very well both because it divides us into mutually exclusive categories and leads us to engage in apolitical spiritual practices that reify the unjust political and economic status quo.

If God is real and omnipotent, then by definition God has relevance for political, economic, and social affairs. A God who does not have such relevance would not be God. So “religious” people do need to understand the way this linguistic construction “religion” serves to trivialize the very God they claim to worship. We need to transcend religion and religious identity.

I believe so strongly about this that I am devoting my next book entirely to this issue. I am in the latter stages of completing a manuscript for a book tentatively titled Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety. I want to explore why American society which is so religious also has epidemic levels of anxiety and depression. I argue that we are anxious because we are so religious. We need to get beyond religion for the world to become a better place. Islam and Muslim understandings of Jesus can be a real help in this.

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