Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

Posted: March 4, 2012 in New Testament
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How might we interpret Jesus’ life and ministry that is inscribed in the New Testament?  One tendency has been to take Jesus’ ministry in purely spiritual context.  However, this viewpoint becomes extremely conflicting with Jesus’ death.  Why would anyone be put to death over purely spiritual matters?  In juxtaposition, John Howard Yoder proposes that Jesus’ ministry was very political in nature.  In other words, Jesus’ life and death have real life meaning and application for today, not just mere implications for one’s soul.

Another point of contention among scholars is in the understanding of the “kingdomofGod.”  Many have posited that Jesus understood thekingdomofGodto be a future, apocalyptic reality that would be enacted at a certain point in time.  This future reality would be revealed at the second coming of Jesus.  Again, we must ask if death by crucifixion would be justified due to some future, spiritual reality.  It does not seem to be the case that Jesus did not understand thekingdomofGod.  Nor do we want to say that Jesus guessed incorrectly when the kingdom was truly coming.  In fact, Jesus called his listener’s to repentance because the kingdom was near.

We must also keep in mind that we stray dreadfully close to the line of Gnosticism if we relegate Jesus’ ministry to the spiritual only.  In fact, Christ’s humanity is as evident as his divinity.  Jesus did not divorce himself from the politics and social structures of his day.  Rather, he worked in them without becoming subjected to them.  Neglecting the reality of a political Jesus demeans the nature of his life and deeds.  Yoder writes, “No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life” (53).  In Yoder’s understanding, Jesus asserted a new politic for life as the community of God: forgiveness.

The year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor is the centralizing theme in the Gospel of Luke.  After Jesus has been baptized in the Spirit, led by the Spirit into the desert, he returns full of the Spirit and begins preaching.  The first episode of Jesus’ preaching in Luke 4 finds Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Luke sets Isaiah 61 up to be the purpose guiding Jesus’ works and deeds.  There is a very specific group to which this passage speaks, namely outcasts.  Moreover, there are political implications found in Jubilee.  It is an equalizing practice.  It is the forgiveness of debt and the release of the slave.  It is looking after the welfare of all in society.

This, of course, posed a major threat to those in power.  Yoder poses that Jesus’ political activism led to his eventual death onCalvary.  It is not simply Christ’s words and teachings but his actions that escalated into conflict with the powers.  Once again, we are confronted by the fact that Jesus’ life and ministry are the norm for living: “The Jubilee is not simply a theological concept providing insight into the nature of God; it is a guide for living which is to be observed in normal daily practice among believers” (74).  As such, Jubilee is not simply a future reality but must be presently embodied by the Christian community.  Through the life-giving politics of thekingdomofGod, death and deception that result from the “powers” are revealed.

Yoder understands that the present battle is not simply against flesh and blood.  It is not simply human conflict that is involved, although it is a catastrophic result.  Powers, spirits, and principalities play an intricate part in understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection.  First, the powers were part of God’s good created order.  However, due to the fall, the powers are now broken and demonic in many fashions.  They had been meant to give organization and structure for life.

Now, however, they structure systems of oppression, inequality, and death.  These institutions have become gods which the people worship.  Jesus lived by subordinating himself to the powers.  He did this willingly and it ultimately led to his death by crucifixion.  Rome, Judaism, and Pharisee piety were all structures and powers in which Jesus lived responsively, politically opposing while remaining subordinate to them.  Jesus death on the cross, which is overseen by the various powers, leads to the resurrection, which subordinates all things under Christ.  By subordination himself to them but not being enslaved by them, Jesus showed the powers for what they were: deceptive.  For this reason, we are no longer under the Law of sin and death when we too take up our cross and die.

What does this mean though?  So often, we have spiritualized our cross.  We have related any kind of suffering to being a means by which we “bear our cross.”  However, this viewpoint diminishes the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which was not merely spiritual.  This is a contemporary form of Docetism.  Rather, the cross has a very physical component.  It is living subordinated to the powers without being enslaved to them.  In other words, living in this world but not of this world is our modus operandi.  It is a new politic of forgiveness and redemption that dictate our interaction with the world and its structures.  However, this is not simply an individual call or endeavor.

The Church is to be the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry and mission in response to the powers, systems, and structures.  As the body of Christ living into the politics of Jubilee and submission, we expose the powers and their falsehood.  We expose the empty grave that is falsely promised.  Not only that, we also extend the reconciliation and redemption that we have found in Christ.  Our cross is very political in nature.  It is thekingdomofGodlived out in the present, inviting the outsider to come in.  Freedom is not to be used to extrapolate ourselves from life, drifting away into acetic abandonment of the world.  No, it is rather embracing our lot in life while enacting the year of the Lord’s favor.  At the same time, violence is not to be the means by which we achieve our goal.  This would be succumbing to the powers’ broken system.  The politics of Jesus might very much mean we find ourselves opposed to the very powers to which we have subordinated ourselves.  The result might also lead to our calling, our death, and our cross.

Paul calls for Christians to submit themselves to the governing authorities.  This has traditionally been understood to mean that we must obey our government without question.  But in the instance of evil government policies and practices, must we submit ourselves unequivocally in obedience?  Yoder writes (210):

Christians are to be nonresistant in all their relationships…  (Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7) both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls ‘vengeance’ or ‘justice.’  They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.

The overarching concern for obedience becomes the Law of Love.  It is about the community being in right relationship with one another, negating division and violence.

How can we live into a different politic when violence is often used against us?  How might we find ample power to live as Christ lived despite opposition.  The imagery of Revelations helps us to see the fruitfulness of non-violent resistance.  The lamb, a picture of weakness and meekness, is the conqueror.  Jesus comes again as victor over the powers and the death they hold.  As such, we are free to live as Christ lived because he has already achieved the victory.  So, what then must be our purpose as the Church in this present age?

Justification has been seriously debated.  However, it is right-relatedness which is exhibited amongst the people of God.  In essence, holiness is not an individual endeavor but must be a social reality.  Division no longer is a reality for the people of God.  Justification is not simply the transformation of the person, although this does result, but is the unifying of people into a community.  Justification “…should be thought of in its root meaning, as a verbal noun, an action, ‘setting things right,’ rather than as an abstract noun defining a person’s quasi-legal status as a result of a judge’s decree” (224).  This is not only extended to the insider but must be embodied for the outsider as well.

The politics of Jesus are concrete, social ways to live our lives as the body of Christ.  We are to live radical lives that expose the sinfulness of our world.  We must be engaged relationally, seeking to reconcile the outsider and insider.  Additionally, the Christian life is not an individual endeavor but a social reality.  Perhaps, we have spiritualized everything that Jesus and Paul taught.  The result has been an existence that, at times, does not reflect the life of Jesus.

Works Cited

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus 2nd Ed.Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.



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