“The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder first published in 1972 greatly influenced subsequent Christian ethical thinking, especially with regard to social justice. (Image credit: Eerdmans Publishing Company)
In The Politics of Jesus John Howard Yoder aims to reorient the ethical teaching of the churches around the words and deeds of Jesus. That seems odd. Haven’t the churches always inculcated the moral teachings and example of Jesus? Not really. (See Postscript at the end of this post.) When you look with Yoder at what Jesus said and did, you find a lot there that is missing in the conventional, individual morality that the churches have usually taught. In fact you find social justice.
What would Jesus Do?
A footnote (p. 15) references the common question, “What would Jesus do?” The right thing, of course. But usually we know what’s right without thinking about Jesus. As Yoder points out, most Christian moral teaching is like that. Follow the rules that make living together possible, plus a few more around sexuality and an appeal for love. Nobody would kill you for teaching that kind of morality.
Yoder redirects that teaching around something that could put a Christian in danger. First, he explains why Christian moralists have paid little attention to Jesus. Among his reasons:
- Bible scholars often said Jesus thought this age of the world would end soon. Consequently, Jesus’ ethical sayings didn’t address the long term. Example: “Don’t store up riches. Give away your possessions; you will have treasure in heaven.” This is Jesus’ “interim ethic.” Actually, Bible scholars today debate whether Jesus foresaw the end of this “interim” age.
- Jesus was a rural, small-town figure. He knew the ethical issues of that setting, but not “problems of complex organization, of institutions and offices, cliques and power and crowds.” (p. 16-17) Yoder would deny this claim. In posts on “The Gospel of Mark” I show how concerned Jesus was about power relations between groups.
- Jesus dealt with spiritual matters. Miracles of bodily healing are signs of a more important healing of souls. Feeding the multitude symbolized the spiritual food of the heavenly banquet. But when Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” he meant God’s reign on earth. Our spiritualizing bias leads us to downplay Jesus’ concern for people’s material, daily lives.
- Jesus’ death on the cross saves us. Even if Jesus did have ideas about how to live, that wasn’t his main concern. Other sages have taught morals just as well or better.
Yoder brings Jesus’ cross and ethics together.
“Why did Jesus die on the Cross?” “Why did Roman execute Jesus in the way it did, a punishment for terrorists and revolutionaries?” Long ago my religion lessons taught me the answer to the first question. They never even entertained the second. That’s odd. Whatever Jesus was doing that merited death in Roman eyes must have something to do with the meaning of Jesus’ death in Christian eyes.
That is the burden of Yoder’s next chapter. Chapter Two is a quick survey of the Gospel of Luke, the “social justice” gospel. There we’ll see that a spiritualizing reading of passages like Mary’s Magnificat is a lot of effort that doesn’t pay off. “
He has cast the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. (Luke 1:52)
That’s just what it sounds like—a call for revolution. Turning the pages to near the end of this Gospel, we find Jesus in an act of civil disobedience in the Temple. It’s not just a cleansing aimed at some economic shenanigans that worked its way into Temple proceedings. It’s “a symbolic takeover of the Temple precinct by one who claims jurisdiction there.” (p. 49)
Both groups of the high and mighty, Roman occupiers and comfortable Jewish leaders, had reason to fear Jesus.
Postscript: Did Yoder exaggerate?
Have Christian Churches really ignored Jesus’ moral teaching to the extent that Yoder claims? Yoder’s book is now 50 years old. I thought it best not to rely on my memory of what I was taught back then. So I went to the most authoritative source on pre-Vatican II Catholicism that I possess. It’s a massive, leather-bound two-volume work I inherited from my maternal grandparents. Printed in 1906 and with endorsements from archbishops from all around the country, The Manual of the Holy Catholic Church would seem to typify Catholic catechesis in the first half of the 20th century.
I looked at the sections where I expected to find the Church’s moral teachings. There was copious quoting of both Old and New Testaments, but very little of Jesus’ own sayings. Jesus’ most specific statements on the moral life are in The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Here Jesus voices radical ideas about anger, lust, oath taking, revenge, love for enemies, judging others, storing up treasures, and not worrying. But these are missing in the “Manual.” There’s a section (disappointingly small) on the Ten Commandments. The great majority of statements of moral ideals is in a section of quotations from the saints.
The Church legitimately uses a variety of sources for its moral teaching. Natural law, discoverable by human reasoning, was a big one I remember from my training. The authority of Jesus did not seem to hold a very special place. If it had, the Church might have seen social justice as a major theme for Jesus and the Bible earlier than it did. Thank God, and thanks largely to John Howard Yoder, the Church sees it now. The hope of these posts is for more of that vision in Sunday homilies and weekday catechesis.
Postscript 2: Publisher’s description of The Politics of Jesus
Tradition has painted a portrait of a Savior aloof from governmental concerns and whose teachings point to an apolitical life for his disciples. How, then, are we to respond today to a world so thoroughly entrenched in national and international affairs? But such a picture of Jesus is far from accurate, argues John Howard Yoder.
Using the texts of the New Testament, Yoder critically examines the traditional portrait of Jesus as an apolitical figure and attempts to clarify the true impact of Jesus’ life, work, and teachings on his disciples’ social behavior.
The book first surveys the multiple ways the image of an apolitical Jesus has been propagated, then canvasses the Gospel narrative to reveal how Jesus is rightly portrayed as a thinker and leader immediately concerned with the agenda of politics and the related issues of power, status, and right relations. Selected passages from the epistles corroborate a Savior deeply concerned with social, political, and moral issues.
In this thorough revision of his acclaimed 1972 text, Yoder provides updated interaction with publications touching on this subject. Following most of the chapters are new “epilogues” that summarize research conducted during the last two decades–research that continues to support the insights set forth in Yoder’s original work.
Currently a standard in many college and seminary ethics courses, The Politics of Jesus is also an excellent resource for the general reader desiring to understand Christ’s response to the world of politics and his will for those who would follow him.