Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I Judge No One:
A Political Life of Jesus

by david lloyd dusenbury
oxford university, 312 pages, $35

Who am I to judge?” asked Pope Francis in 2013, when questioned by a reporter about an alleged “gay lobby” within the Vatican. The rhetorical question became a flash point—both for those who hoped that it signaled a new approach toward those with homosexual attractions, and for those who feared that it represented an abdication of the Church’s authority to rule on moral questions. It also reflects a deeper ambivalence in modern Christian attitudes: Is judgment an inherently hypocritical act, naturally turned to cruelty and abuse, or is it a necessity to protect society?

The question of judgment is inseparable from the question of mercy, and the tension between the two has been debated by the Fathers, the schoolmen, the Reformers, and more recent thinkers. Any resolution of such debates, of course, will require a close study of Christ himself: his teaching, his example, and the trial at which he was unjustly sentenced to death. Such a study is precisely what David Lloyd Dusenbury has undertaken in his brilliant new “political life” of Jesus.

Dusenbury’s previous book, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, is a refutation of Giorgio Agamben’s claim that the Roman governor never actually condemned Christ. Dusenbury argues that Pilate’s judgment of the Son of God cleaved a decisive rift between the secular and the spiritual: Human government cannot legitimately touch on divine things or employ them for its own ends. I Judge No One carries on this argument by rejecting the tradition—running from H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century to Reza Aslan in the twenty-first—that Jesus was justly condemned for his revolutionary opposition to the Roman state. Dusenbury’s exploration of the Gospels in the context of fleeting first-century extra-evangelical references to Jesus’s life demonstrates clearly that Christ was no insurrectionist.

Dusenbury sees in Christ a realist, even to the point of quietism. Unlike the communist, Christ acknowledges that poverty is a constant feature of human societies; far from leading the People’s Front of Judea, he counsels the payment of Roman taxes. Even when faced with the prospect of being condemned to death, he says nothing to his accusers, as if to demonstrate his contempt for human pretensions to justice in general and for this sham trial in particular. Early non-Christian testimonies such as Josephus, Celsus, and Mara bar Sarapion likewise acknowledge Jesus’s essentially peaceful nature.

The revolutionary impulse of Jesus’s life, Dusenbury argues both here and in his earlier book, was in his establishment of the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual. Christ’s cleansing of the Temple is driven by his desire to divorce the Temple, as a place dedicated to the worship of God, from the state, as represented by the currencies exchanged in the court of the Gentiles. He does not revolt against the subjection of his “religion” to a foreign power, but rejects the fusion of worship and power. Jesus stresses this decoupling when he rebukes the use of violence by his followers in Gethsemane. For Dusenbury, Christ is, in his delimitation of the spiritual, a herald of the secular.

No life of Jesus is ever just a biography. It is always and necessarily, given his claim to be the Son of God, an indication of how we—or at the very least, Christians—ought to live our lives. Just as Dusenbury finds the idea of the secular in Christ’s appearance before Pilate in his previous book, Jesus’s renunciation of judgment here has ramifications for the way Christians practice politics. Dusenbury does not provide a prescription for these politics, but his critique is implicit throughout. His analysis of Jesus’s trial as a cynical process serving essentially political calculations under cover of legal formalism is perceptive, illuminating, and fresh, for all its familiarity. Indeed, in an echo of St. Augustine, Dusenbury goes further and understands Matthew 7:1–2 (“Do not judge. . .”) and Jesus’s appearance before Pilate as condemnations of all human judges, all the more so as their decisions are so inherently fallible. The Christian is to abhor judgment, especially political judgment.

But proof texts are never as simple as they appear. In the same Gospel as the famous injunction not to judge, though it goes unmentioned by Dusenbury, Jesus provides his disciples with a process for judgment:

If thy brother does thee wrong, go at once and tax him with it, as a private matter between thee and him; and so, if he will listen to thee, thou hast won thy brother. If he will not listen to thee, take with thee one or two more, that the whole matter may be certified by the voice of two or three witnesses. If he will not listen to them, then speak of it to the church; and if he will not even listen to the church, then count him all one with the heathen and the publican. I promise you, all that you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and all that you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(Matt. 18:15–18)

One might object that Jesus is here speaking of judgment in a moral sense, not the political (and secular) sense with which Dusenbury is concerned. But this distinction quickly breaks down: How can expulsion from the community not be political, given its impact on human relations? Jesus may be a realist, but he is nevertheless engaged with the quotidian challenges of human society and offers not only an eternal, but a temporal solution. This is where Dusenbury’s analysis of Christ’s rejection of the temple-state, though cogent on its own terms, is incomplete. Christ came not only to tear down the Temple, but to rebuild it. Its successor would not be a new state, but something that transcends it while remaining in the world: namely, the Church.

Dusenbury’s reading is vast, and he has an impressive command of the tradition from the classics to the modern day. Amelius Gentilianus, Lactantius, Hierocles, Bahrdt, Kant, and Nietzsche are only a few of his interlocutors. But there is a notable lacuna in his tour of Christian political philosophy: the fifth century through the seventeenth, a period of perhaps the most intense intellectual ferment on precisely these questions.

There was no such thing as a monolithic “medieval mind.” But throughout the Middle Ages, theologians grappled with Christian attitudes to politics through the question of the “two swords.” First formulated by the reforming St. Peter Damian in the eleventh century, but elaborating on the ideas of Pope St. Gelasius I at the end of the fifth, this political theory derived from Luke 22:38: “See, Lord, [the disciples] told him, here are two swords. And he said to them, That is enough.” These swords—approved of here by Christ, despite the fact that one of them will presumably be used in the act that earned Peter his rebuke in Gethsemane—symbolized the separate powers of the spiritual and temporal authorities: censure and excommunication on the part of the former, coercion, even violence, on the part of the latter.

Thus the blow that temporarily deprived Malchus of his ear was wrong not in itself, but only because it was delivered by the wrong sword—that is, one wielded by an apostle. (Admittedly, this does not entirely remove the sting from the reminder in Matthew 26:52 that “all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”) This interpretation gained wide currency, though the relationship between these swords was a source of much contention. The idea of the superiority of the spiritual sword was often advanced to justify its guiding the temporal, a conclusion challenged by some princes and their partisans. When Pope Innocent III claimed in 1204 to be entitled to rule on the conflict between France and England ratione peccati—if one party had wronged the other, this would be a sin that fell within his competence as universal pastor—the French king was thoroughly unimpressed. However, we need not approve of this (possibly cynical) papal intervention to recognize the essential truth behind Innocent’s reasoning: that human actions, whether committed by ourselves or others, almost always involve a moral dimension and therefore require judgment.

This need for judgment is in fact clear from many of Christ’s own sayings and actions. Dusenbury deftly attempts to avoid or soften the force of these passages. He correctly points out that Christ often chooses not to exercise his right to pass formal judgment, as in John 8 (which provides the book’s titular claim). In this same chapter occurs the episode of the woman caught in adultery. But Christ does not entirely abdicate his judicial authority. Instead, Dusenbury argues, Jesus has here replaced a political judgment with a mystical one, applied not only to the woman accused but also to her accusers. It is a judgment marked by a lack of punishment. Though Dusenbury does not deal with either the Apocalypse of St. John—unsurprisingly, given his framing of the historical figure of Jesus in the Gospels—or the Little Apocalypse of Matthew 24–25, the Last Judgment of the Son of Man in these passages can perhaps be harmonized with his interpretation of Christ’s attitude: that an eschatological judgment has been substituted for a temporal one. This interpretation would fit nicely within the lesson of the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24–50, though Dusenbury does not make the connection.

In fact, Dusenbury does not deal at length with any of Jesus’s parables, save that of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1–8. Yet these stories offer repeated examples of at least eschatological condemnation to the outer darkness, with its weeping and gnashing of teeth. They also hint at more temporal judgment: Christ invites and approves the condemnation by the Temple aristocracy of the wicked tenants (and, ironically, themselves) in Matthew 21:33–41 (cf. Mark 12:1–9; Luke 20:9–16).

Dusenbury’s case, though well argued, is therefore not finally convincing. It is possible to interpret, as Dusenbury does, the cleansing of the Temple as an exceptional act cutting at the root of the temple-state, but it remains an obvious example of a judgment with temporal consequences. Even in the pericope of the woman caught in adultery, Christ does not abstain from temporal judgment. Instead, he tempers judgment with mercy: “Go, and do not sin again henceforward.” Rather than seeing Christ’s refusal to condemn—or even his refusal to participate in his own trial—as a rejection of political judgment, it is better interpreted as a reordering of the political to its proper place. This transformation is related to Dusenbury’s insight into the creation of the secular, but it is more subtle. The tearing down of the temple-state does not deny the necessity of judgment, even political judgment, but insists that it must be understood in a wider economy of divine mercy, without which none of us can stand.

Thus Christ came not to abolish judgment, but—as with all the created order—to redeem it through his example of mercy. The Church is not a new temple-state, as Andrew Willard Jones has recently argued in The Two Cities. Dusenbury is correct that something dramatic has happened in the Christian separation of the spiritual and temporal orders. But neither is the Church silent—nor can she be silent—when it comes to the political: She has an essential role in harmonizing the two swords toward the eternal Good, no matter in what polity she finds herself.

Of course, even at the height of the Christian political order, this harmonization was an ideal more often than a reality. Ironically, though the drama of Christ’s life sees two competing temple-states—the Judaean and the Roman—working in conjunction to bring about his death, the Middle Ages saw the two swords he instituted to bring about his peace frequently in conflict: Emperor Henry IV against Gregory VII, Henry II of England against St. Thomas Becket, Philip IV of France against Boniface VIII. If the medieval world could not get this harmony right, there is little hope that our current secularist order, in which faith is marginalized to the private sphere, will achieve it. But, as Pope Benedict XVI realized, this marginalization contains within it an opportunity: that the Church, shorn of her temporal trappings and support, may more courageously and credibly speak truth to power, just as the Truth once spoke to a power that could not recognize him.

Dusenbury has given us a fascinating and challenging study of the life of Jesus in relation to the politics of his time and, implicitly, of ours. He convincingly demonstrates that Jesus’s political character was fundamentally different from that of Caiaphas, bar Kokhba, or Muhammad. However, in his selective handling of the evangelical evidence, Dusenbury leaves us with a picture of a Christ too far removed from the world to save it. Christ’s admonition in Matthew 7:1–2—“Do not judge others, or you yourselves will be judged”—is a warning not to usurp the final judgment reserved to God. But the work of Christians is not to reject judgment and, consequently, engagement with the world. Instead, we are called to participate with Christ in his merciful judgment: first and foremost of ourselves with the help of our consciences, and then of the world. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Christ tells his apostles, “With you it is not to be so”; nevertheless, “you shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:25–26, 30).

G. E. M. Lippiatt is a lecturer in history at the University of Exeter.

Image by Wikipedia / Shakko licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines