Archive | John Howard Yoder RSS for this section

The Politics of Jesus

YoderThe phrase, the politics of Jesus, is somewhat peculiar to most contemporary evangelicals because it is assumed that Jesus did not have anything to say about politics and perhaps if he did, it is only for his age and has no relevancy for today in our cultural milieu. Jesus is predominantly dismissed as having no social ethic so we fault by going to other sources, such as natural law, to answer political questions. Therefore Jesus is limited to effecting the individual believer rather than societies. Jesus only dealt with spiritual and personal matters, not social matters it is argued. But what isn’t political about the word kingdom which Jesus used so regularly and without accident?

“Jesus’ concept of the coming kingdom was borrowed extensively from the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year,” Yoder argues (36). It is a social and political reality where people are freed from oppression and suffering in this age. The parables and prayers of Jesus stem from this theme of Jubilee. Slaves are made free, debtors are forgiven monetary debts, and land is returned – all social realities of jubilee. Jesus was killed for the political implications of the gospel he preached and he didn’t correct people when they accused him of such. It is for these reasons that the “Gospel record refuses to let the modern social ethicist off the hook. It is quite possible to refuse to accept Jesus as normative; but it is not possible on the basis of the record to declare him irrelevant” (99). Jesus had a lot to say that has political implications for us Christians today. By looking to the early church, prior to Constantine coming to power and establishing Christianity as the religion of the empire, we see this sort of political implementation evident.

Unfortunately the gospel has been influenced far too greatly by individualism which has limited Jesus to the “heart” and it is assumed then that we have to go to other sources for social ethics and political insight. So what is the social political reality that Christ called into existence through his life? It is the church. The church is to be an alternative kingdom that stands in contrast to the rest of the world. This is often not the case though because in reality the church often ends up mimicking the surrounding culture with its own Christian version (much like the Christian music industry). Our sanctuaries look like theatres, our messages are therapeutic to help you have the best life now full of happiness and cash, and our presentations are slick, polished, and timely just in time for you to get home in order to catch the kickoff of that day’s game. But the gospels and epistles present a different reality of the church. The world teaches individualism but the church teaches self-sacrifice, discipleship, and a shared life. The world teaches power and coercion, even violence, but the church teaches peace and reconciliation. Not only does the church teach these truths and virtues but it embodies them as well.

How then are we to regard the government placed over us, for aren’t we to recognize that authority? As Yoder puts it, “What is ordained [by God] is not a particular government but the concept of proper government, the principle of government as such” (201). We are therefore called to subordination but not necessarily obedience. “Subordination means the acceptance of an order, as it exists,” but not unreflecting obedience. “Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying” (212).

What is also important for Yoder is the use of law in the Bible. Law is not primarily intended to strike our hearts with fear of failure, as commonly perceived by Protestants, thus leading us to an inevitable and necessary redeemer who takes away our individual sin and granting us a personal secure spot in heaven. Rather the law, both in ancient Israel and for the church post-Pentecost, is primarily for the purpose of distinguishing God’s community as a different social reality in the world. “The work of Christ is not only that he saves the soul of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ, the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, is itself the constituting of a new community” (223). For the early church this was most evidenced by the inclusion of both Jew and Greek, male and female in the church – a new social reality. Do we have the courage today as the early Christians did then to live into an alternative community and an alternative story in contrast to the rest of the world?

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur – Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.