The Politics of Jesus

biographical sketch:
Born: 1927, Smithville, Ohio to Christian & Ethel Yoder
Died: in his office at N. Dame – 1997 after suffering an aortic aneurysm
Studied: Goshen College, BA; PhD. Univ. of Basel in Switzerland, 1962
Married: Anne Marie Guth in 1951 while in Europe
Taught: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, in Elkhart, IN 1960-1970; President of Goshen biblical Seminary 1970 – 1973; Notre Dame 1977 – 1997
“one of the problems with the book is our inability to locate it in a recognizable genre. It is not a commentary, though it consists primarily of comments on scripture; it is not theology, though Yoder makes extraordinary theological asides of a systematic nature; it is not ethics, though it challenges and perhaps changes our very idea of what ethics might be.”
– Stanly Hauerwas, “When the politics of Jesus makes a difference,”
Christian Century, October 1993, p.982
Book Review: The Politics of Jesus
Christianity was much easier for me before I read this book. In some ways I think that John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus serves as a potent, challenging answer questions concerning the reality and shape of Christian ethics. I think perhaps it has ruined things for me…in a good way. Yoder begins by asking whether or not there is really a Messianic ethic. The question is, can we read the New Testament and find some sort of social ethic which we should follow? Here he is rejecting the ideas of the Niebuhrs and others who suggest that Jesus isn’t a norm as a moral model. Yoder’s approach is first, to sketch an understanding of Jesus such that we see him as the norm on social ethics among the first Christians. Then to make the case that the ethics of Jesus should be both relevant and normative for contemporary ethics.

The bulk of Yoder’s argument is rooted in his reading of the gospel of Luke. Its basic assertion is that Jesus’ actions were overtly political and everyone knew it. Jesus meant to signal that he intended insurrection (the temple is the obvious place), and Jew and Romans alike knew it. But, he intended non-violent insurrection which he knew would end in his own death. Thus the death of Jesus was not simply limited as a “ritually prescribed instrument of propitiation, but as the political alternative to both insurrection and quietism.”[1]

Yoder points out that Jesus inaugurated his ministry with the Jubilee passage in Luke, but that many people miss the obvious reality that Jesus meant this literally – he wanted to reorder the political structure and encourage the people of God to stop taking advantage of the poor. Interestingly, Yoder walks through the translation of the Lord’s Prayer and specifically the word aphiemi which is literally translated “debts” and signifies monetary debts. This is obvious Jubilee language in his opinion, and the translation as sin or trespasses confuses this allusion. Jesus is recommending not a symbolic Jubilee, but the real thing.

Yoder turns his attention to the non violence of Jesus and the common notion that the Old Testament advocates violence. He argues that what was essentially retained in the memory of the people was not their victory in battle, but that their victories were won by YHWH alone. Whereas we might look at the Old Testament and see a recommendation of violence, the Jewish people would see that God alone can conquer. Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries knew this to be true. In light of his Jubilee agenda, they wanted nothing of his teachings. “Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom was unacceptable to most of his listeners not because they thought it could not happen but because they feared it might, and that it would bring down judgment on them.”[2]

Again, Yoder wonders whether this non-violent insurrection was a possibility or not. Chapter five shows that the idea of non-violent resistance existed as a category of thought or practice in Jesus’ culture. Josephus actually records a powerful historically verified act of non-violence among the Jews concerning Pilate in Caesarea a few years after Jesus’ death. This was an option they would have known about,[3] and a possiblity which is highly realistic.

Next Yoder asks the question: if everything up through chapter five is true, then does it make its way from the gospels (from Luke especially) to the rest of the New Testament? Obviously Yoder thinks it does exist in Paul and the other writers. He focuses on Paul and John as well as the disciples to examine the ethics of the early church. He’s looking for imitation or following after Christ as a discipleship response from the 12 and others. He’s asking the question, “if we are to imitate Jesus, how might this need to happen?” He flies through a multitude of verses with a mind toward eliciting the descending/ascending pattern which he believes is normative for Christian ethics. This pattern is the pattern of the cross. He calls the cross the “political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”
[4] Thus this cruciform life, characterized by the suffering servant, should be normative for Christian life.

In chapter eight Yoder explores the concept of “The Powers” in the New Testament. He is asking how Jesus and his contemporaries would have viewed this idea of powers and principalities. He asserts that powers are not some sort of esoteric force or demonic presence that possesses people, though he doesn’t just dismiss that. He just says that the powers which Jesus and Paul are dealing with are more like systems which God set up to order the universe but that are twisted by the fall and attempt to usurp the sovereignty of God. This chapter constitutes a sharp critique of the sort of nationalism found in most American protestant churches.

In chapter nine, Yoder delves deeply into the concept of Haustafeln. The Haustafeln are a group of New Testament ethical instructions which are found in: Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. Haustafeln is a German word meaning literally “house tables” or “household tablets” but is generally rendered “household precepts.” I took it to mean something akin to “house rules.” Some scholars have believed that these were a kind of makeshift substitute ethic which was created by the early church out of necessity because of the failure of Jesus to present a clear ethic and the failure of the kingdom to come right away. Yoder obviously rejects that notion. His view is that the pattern of mutual submission subverts the powers and reorders creation the way it was supposed to be. In other words, subordination or subjugation is actually the only proper use of power in the life of a human being.

Yoder goes on to explore the verse from Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul seems to encourage everyone to be subordinate to the state which is instituted by God. Yoder says that Romans 13 is not the only place we are taught how to deal with the state and that it is not really even the norm. Drawing from the context of that passage, Yoder contends that the entire passage is really a call to be subject to God’s ordering of the powers. It does not mean Christians should serve in the military. He thinks verse 7 is the key to the interpretation: give “respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

Yoder he rejects the reformation view of Paul on justification. He rejects the idea that justification can be thought of as an abstraction from the social realm. Paul wasn’t racked with guilt and seeking a gracious God in a Lutheran way. He didn’t conceive of faith as a movement from self-trust to god-trust. Paul viewed justification as setting things right. This included Jews and Gentiles, and all areas of life. But the old reading of Paul has really thwarted Christian ethics. It held that only transformed individuals will behave differently, so preaching the gospel to individuals was the only way to change society. This, we know, hasn’t happened.

The final chapter is truly an amazing chapter. Yoder stops footnoting and citing sources and just writes from the heart. It’s quite poetic and moving in parts. He draws John’s Revelation into the conversation and really makes an argument for Christian pacifism. He says that regular pacifism really just tries to obtain everything it wants but just through non-violent means. But Christian pacifism is first a renunciation of the compulsiveness of purpose which leads the strong to violate the dignity of others…taking what you want because you can. Violence is just a part of that. We must renounce anything desire which cannot be attained by legitimate means. This is how we suffer with Christ.

It’s difficult to attempt to write some sort of response to my reading of this book. I read it for the first time this summer and it has become my major preoccupation since then. The nature of my faith seems to be undergoing a cleansing, Yoder being one of the primary agents of that change. I find his argument completely compelling and challenging on may levels. The primary challenge is to the individualism, nationalism (or militarism) and materialism which plagues our culture and my life. Not only that, Yoder conceives of the ethical response of the Christian in such a way as to mandate resistance. One isn’t allowed to silently resist, but the rejection must be active and resolute. If it is not, it calls into question the very faith of the person. Christianity truly was much easier before I read this book. For the first 31 years since I became a Christian, my primary angst was the struggle against sin and the struggle to walk with God consciously and consistently. The fight was to keep my relationship with God in the forefront of my mind. Since reading this book I’ve become haunted by the reality of the presence of God and the importance of every single action I take. I will be forever indebted to John Howard Yoder for what I believe to be a seminal book in my theological studies.

[1] Yoder, 36.
[2] Ibid. 85.
[3] Ibid. 90.
[4] Ibid. 129.

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  • Tim,

    I really hope this post is going to be discussed for a bit. I started reading this book a few days ago and am having trouble getting my arms around it. I find it actually quite disturbing, and I mean that literally.

  • Hey Scott,

    I agree that it is disturbing – but I think of it as disturbing in a good way. Were you reading it as disturbing in a bad way? Either way, I’m just trying to get a feel for how it is hitting you. My review is a pretty quick overview and doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Yoder’s work, so I’m glad you are reading it for yourself.

    I have been wrestling with Yoder for the past few months. I’ve also discovered that I’ve been wrestling with Yoder via Hauerwas for several years now. There are far reaching implications should one decide to take Yoder seriously. The most challenging part in my context is the obvious correlation between the Roman Empire and the sometimes imperialistic actions of my own country. I don’t mean to fully equate the two, but merely to point out that just as Jesus found it necessary to resist the powers bent on violence and control, so must we if we mean to follow Jesus.

    I’m a weenie at heart. I’m an orthodox guy. I’m not comfortable being a boat rocker. Yet I’m beginning to see that Christian identity, following Jesus, taking up one’s cross will sometimes put one at odds with his/her own country. It puts one at odds with one’s own family. It demands an allegiance which is more serious, more pervasive than even those connections.

    I used to view America with this sort of religious-right Christendom ideal – I used to believe we were founded as a Christian nation. But as I’ve studied the history of the church, especially as it intersects with the age of reason and the enlightenment (deistic) thinking of those who invented America, I no longer hold this view. That argument aside, whatever we once were, we are now a pluralistic society. This makes the reality that we are to be resident aliens all the more important. Our primary citizenship should be in the kingdom of God – not in the United States of America. I do not argue that we should not be good citizens, but rather that our being good citizens depends first upon our allegiance to God. We keep the first three commandments (and all of them) sacred above any other race, creed, nationality, etc. Pretty interesting to think of that together with the words “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”

  • Interesting quote I read today from Thomas Merton:

    “Very often people object that nonviolence seems to imply passive acceptance of injustice and evil and therefore that it is a kind of cooperation with evil. Not at all. The genuine concept of nonviolence implies not only active and effective resistance to evil but in fact a more effective resistance… But the resistance which is taught in the Gospel is aimed not at the evil-doer but at evil in its source.”

    – Thomas Merton
    from “Passion For Peace”

  • Anonymous

    It disturbs me both in good and bad ways, and it is all the same. Much of what Yoder talks about I completely agree with. Not only do I agree, but at some level I’ve know this all along. I’ve managed to suppress certain thoughts and positions, keeping them just below the epidermis. It is much easier to continue to be the happy idiot. Yoder exposes my weaknesses. This truly disturbs me. I have this visceral reaction to my own weakness.
    You stated that it was easier to be a Christian before this book. I have a different take. I’ve long felt (to steal a phrase from someone else) that I am becoming a Christian as apposed to being one. I wonder if I can authoritatively even say that. I’ve bought into the very easy system of Christianity that is based on American culture, individualism, consumerism, et al. I think I need to read Yoder again because there are so many other thoughts that I have regarding this book.
    If I’ve strayed to far off the reservation, please feel free to correct me. Do you think that Christ was not looking for followers in the way we’ve constructed the notion. That he didn’t want sheep that just follow, but believers that will act and respond to the social injustice that is before them.


  • Hey Scott,

    I’m with you man. I guess I haven’t really considered the idea that I might have known this all along, but sort of suppressed it because first, everyone else did, and second, because it felt good to do so. I think you are on to something there.

    “Becoming” as opposed to “being” is a really good distinction. I have a prof. who says that he fully expects that all of eternity is a growth experience of becoming more and more like God. I think I can buy that. Either way really think that some arbitrary line we might step across and then we are good w/God is sort of naïve. A copied prayer in which we “accept Jesus as a personal Savior,” (a concept by the way which is extra-biblical), cannot be what Jesus means by follow me.

    I think you are onto something. One of the things that Yoder and the Cavanaugh book which I also reviewed (you should read it to, you’d dig it) beckon us to do is extricate our faith from our American nationalism. That’s a very difficult thing to try to do. It means parting with some allegiances we’ve held our whole lives long.

    Give me some favorite parts/quotes from your read.



  • gr

    Tim and Scott:

    Your exchanges here highlight a dilemma for me.

    On the one hand, although I share Yoder’s social/political affinities, I question whether his progressive reading of the gospels threatens to make Jesus captive to contemporary ideological debates. I worry that translating the gospels in terms of contemporary political and social issues cheapens Jesus—i.e. Jesus as liberal policy wonk.

    On the other hand, Jesus has already been cheapened. In particular, American Christianity has so uncritically wrapped Jesus up in self-congratulatory nationalism, consumerism, and personal “salvation” that I don’t want anything to do with it. Quite frankly, I hesitate to publicly identify myself as “Christian” for fear that it might be construed as giving assent to the embarrassing, childish theology that has become predominant in contemporary Christianity. So, Yoder, and blogs like this, are a welcome corrective.

    Of course, as I write this I realize that maybe the real problem is that I’m the one who is captive—to the limited, contemporary prism through which I understand what the gospels mean, and what it means to follow Jesus.


  • Hey Gary. Thanks for the post. I’m glad you got this thread going again. Here’s my take – as you know i’m not short on opinions.

    Moltmann says the moment Christianity became legal it ceased to function in its revolutionary character and became a cult which existed in support of the state. The eschatological nature of Christianity forces us to deal with the future of God in the present time which is characterized by the presence of a world full of pain. The trajectory of Christianity, from an eschatological perspective, forces us to deal with the present state of our world. The hope of God, which is our future, creates this tension between the way things shall one day be and the way they are now. The Christian task is to embody the way they will one day be and to do so right now. Christianity is characterized by hope through and through, from beginning to end. Its engagement with the present world is part of its essence. It cannot do otherwise. What we’ve been taught is that the Kingdom of God (KOG) is the church. It’s not. The KOG is the world, the creation of God. Theology must be a part of public discourse. Our faith necessitates interaction with the public sphere because the public sphere is the KOG. The separation of church is really misunderstood and misapplied – Christian hope is for the world, not just the church. Most of the church has been co-opted by the state anyway (as you point out).

    This is one of the reasons that non-violence is so important for the identity of the Christian. We are to actualize a future where there is no violence, and we are to do so in our present time. We do this full-well knowing that our fate will likely be that of Jesus. In other words, the reason that this isn’t popular among Christians is that it will never sell. Not only do we absorb violence without fighting back, but we do this while being completely full of hope about the future of God. The reason this won’t likely be the “next big thing” is because you can’t market it and get the warm fuzzy feeling from it…narrow is the way, right? Jesus will never be captive to the contemporary ideological debates. But to not allow Jesus into the contemporary political and social issues cheapens Jesus. Jesus is ultimately relevant. The Hope of Christ is the reality of the church and it speaks to every issue of contemporary life. Barth always said do theology with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I think he is right.

  • gr

    “Jesus will never be captive to the contemporary ideological debates. But to not allow Jesus into the contemporary political and social issues cheapens Jesus. Jesus is ultimately relevant.”

    I could not agree more. I think that’s the heart of the problem for me. I want to bring Jesus into the conversation as well. But I live in a world that is mostly non-Christian—in fact, I can safely classify most of my friends and acquaintances as “anti-Christian.” And I understand why. As a gay man, an academic, and someone who values civil liberties, Christians do not exactly feel like my strongest allies in the world.

    However, my more recent understanding of Christianity makes me want to bring Jesus into the conversation; NOT in the ‘Will you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?’ way, but in a way that challenges me, and everyone I know, to take seriously the gospel’s call to justice and non-violence and to place that call front and center in our lives.

    But lately I’m feeling pessimistic about my ability to make any contribution to such a conversation. Perhaps my courage is flagging. But it seems that most of the people who want to talk about nonviolence and justice are largely uninterested, if not repulsed, by any talk about Jesus. They would prefer that Barth (and, by extension, I) discuss the newspaper and shut up about the Bible.

    Meanwhile, the people who are comfortable talking about Jesus are largely uninterested, if not repulsed, by a conversation that, say, challenges the idea that Jesus is a white, middle-class Republican (to steal a phrase from a recent song). And, given who I am, it’s particularly easy to dismiss my efforts to join such a conversation.

    Sorry…as I read back over this I kind of sound like Debbie Downer. But I’m curious, especially as you get more into writers like Yoder, Moltmann, and Rauschenbusch, if you experience some of these tensions. I realize that you’re coming at these issues from an entirely different background, but I imagine that Johnson County can be a tough place to raise these issues.

  • gr,

    Now I get what you are driving at. As a gay man and an academic you are running in two circles in open conflict with at least some form of Christianity. Academia, for sure, has a hard time taking Christianity seriously, and Christians are so energized by the words “gay” and “marriage” that I’m not surprised that you have trouble making those two worlds fit together. But the fact that you live in a world that is mostly non-Christian is a great opportunity to be Jesus to a bunch of people who don’t expect it to happen.

    I wouldn’t be pessimistic about your contribution. If all they want you to do is talk about the newspaper, then do that. Just do it while you are filled with the Spirit of God and speak as a Christ follower. When I say things like “I follow the teachings of Jesus so I’m committed to non-violence in any form. That means I wish we’d stop the war, outlaw abortion AND capital punishment,” people sort of think it’s a hoot.

    Following the actual teachings of Jesus is a great way to navigate a third way between secular pluralism and the religious right.

    I’m learning more and more that people who are hostile toward Jesus have usually been hurt by Christians somewhere along the line. You could be the one to change that. There is tension to be sure, but that’s the whole idea. The Christian project is always hopeful because it is called into existence by the reality of the end of the story – where everything gets put back together. Christian hope and current events will always be in tension. I’m learning that one of the most difficult things about actually living out the faith of Jesus, as opposed to just calling myself a Christian, is that I’m forced to bear the tension between the reality of the future of God and the reality of my current context. I’m the one who feels the tension. Most others just think I’m a dork.

    One glaring thing here is that acting as an individual Christian is such a hard way to live this story. Everything you are trying to do can only succeed if it is rooted in a community of faith somewhere…know what I mean? You can’t do this alone. You have to have church somewhere. At least that’s my take. Sorry I feel like I’m trying to fix your issue – I don’t mean to fix it. I just think you are poised in an enviable position. God can really use you. That’s my take.

    One thing that’s really trivial, but it might be something. Wolfhart Pannenberg’s conversion to Christianity was an intellectual one. He was intellectually convinced (after a serious study of philosophy like most American Philosophy professors have never done) that Christianity was the only story that could make sense of the world. He might be someone to read??

    Peace, Gary…thanks for contributing to the blog!

  • gr

    Thanks for the response, Tim. It’s useful to be reminded that following Jesus means that we all, in various ways, must experience a conflict between our present reality and the promise at the end of the Christian story. The future is both an inspiring ideal and a maddening promise. Hmmm…that sentence sounds like it came from a fortune cookie. Thanks for the tip about Pannenberg, too. I’ll try to check him out. Take care! Gary