All four Gospels note that Christ was crucified along with two others. These two are described as ‘thieve’ or ‘robbers,’ though this is sometimes rendered ‘revolutionaries’ or simply ‘criminals.’ One was crucified on His right, the other on His left.
Viewed from a modern perspective, the designation of right and left is a little interesting, especially if we take the interpretation that they were revolutionaries. If we follow it out, it could be taken as an interesting perspective on Our Lord’s relation to politics.
First of all, the linking of the terms ‘revolutionary’ with ‘robber.’ Apparently, the same Greek word ‘Iestes’ was used for both. I’ve heard several reasons for this, from the idea that revolutionaries were attempting to steal from the Romans to the notion that it was a way to avoid letting the Emperor know of revolutions. For our purposes, the background doesn’t really matter, provided the two terms were linked.
It is a quality of both a thief and a revolutionary that his focus is on the here and now. The thief wants a certain object so much that he takes it regardless of the law, the revolutionary wants a certain social or political state so much that he fights for it. Either one may or may not be justified by circumstance, but both have the quality that their aim is a change in the material world.
This is also a quality of politics: that its focus is entirely upon the here and now, or at the very least what the future here and now may be made to be. It is the science of organizing human society in the way thought best. Even if this is done for the purpose of establishing justice, liberty, or other abstract values, it is still establishing them in the present world and by the means of social organization. Politics, thus, is a fundamentally earthly practice.
Now, let us take the two criminals as revolutionaries (this interpretation is supported by the fact that crucifixion was generally associated with acts of sedition rather than more typical crimes). Again, the fact that one is on the right, the other on the left is interesting, though obviously it carries a significance to us that it wouldn’t have for St. Luke. We needn’t fear reading it thus for that reason, though; there are no coincidences in revelation.
The right and left revolutionary, therefore, may be taken as images of political movements in general. One on this side, the other on that. If we take it thus, what does the image imply?
First that politics ultimately comes to nothing. These revolutionaries fought for their particular cause and ended up crucified. In the end, their efforts were futile and led to nothing but death and disgrace. Politics, though it may be important in the short term, is ultimately a dead end. The promise that this or that political system will solve the ills of mankind is a lie.
Note that they are being crucified along with Christ, who is bearing the sins of the world. They suffer the same fate, but without the salvific character. It is Christ who can save them, if they will allow it, not the other way around. Politics, thus, always must be subordinate to Christ.
Now, the reactions of the revolutionaries to Christ are instructive. One of the two blasphemes Christ, demanding that He save their lives if His is the Christ. The other – traditionally called St. Dismas – rebukes him and begs that Jesus remember him when He comes into His Kingdom.
Again we see the focus on the here and now. The one revolutionary, even in the process of dying, still has his mind fixed upon earthly things. He is, in effect, standing in judgment over Jesus, setting his material well being as a condition for belief. One recalls how certain political movements have done similar things: from Communists taunting Christians to pray to God for bread to moderns attacking prayers offered in the wake of national tragedies. Politics of a certain sort has always claimed the right to stand in judgment of God over the material state of the world.
St. Dismas’s rebuke shows another approach. Though he’s given his life in a political cause, he yet retains a perspective on where politics stands relative to God. He admits that his punishment and that of his companion is a just one; they have indeed committed the crimes they are accused of and must suffer for it. Upon the cross, he lets go of his political motivations and speaks only of justice and fear of God. He subordinates his political concerns to his piety, merely begging Jesus to have mercy on him.
Thus we have the place of politics relative to God: the evils done in its name are done on all sides, whether for a good cause or an ill. The righteous politician or revolutionary is the one who sees that God is beyond all such things and places himself under the mercy of Christ. The unrighteous is the one who tries to subordinate God to his own interests.
In summary, politics cannot save but itself needs salvation, politics leads men to do evil, for which they are justly condemned, and all politics is subordinate to the claims of Christ.