Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.4

[Unpublished paper, July 2008]

Christian pacifism stems directly from the biblical story of God’s revelation to humanity of the normative pattern for human life.  We see this revelation most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus.  One of our most sophisticated interpreters of this story has been John Howard Yoder.  This essay presents a summary of Yoder’s argument in his classic book, The Politics of Jesus.[1]

The New Testament, centered on the story, presents a political philosophy.  This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism, a commitment based on the normativity of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s intention for human social life.  Christians have tended to miss the social implications of the New Testament story because of assumptions about both politics and Jesus.

Christian ethicists and theologians have generally posited that Jesus’ thought as expressed in his teaching and practice could not have intended to speak in a concrete way to social ethics.  Jesus, it has been said, spoke only to the personal sphere or (more recently) he articulated his ethical expectations in the extreme forms he did because he (mistakenly) expected history to end very soon.

Because Jesus does not speak directly to our social ethics, Christian theology has concluded, we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

We must ask, though, whether, given Christian belief in Jesus as God Incarnate, should we not rather begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics?  We at least should look at the story itself and discern whether it indeed might have social ethical relevance.

Jesus’ identity

We will look first at how the gospels present Jesus, focusing on the Gospel of Luke primarily for simplicity’s sake.  At the very beginning, the song of Mary in 1:46-55 upon her learning of the child she will bear, we learn that this child will address social reality.  He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder.

This child, we are told, will bring succor to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort.  From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms.

At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the voice speaks words of affirmation, “Thou art my Son” (Luke 3:22).  These words should be understood as naming a vocation more than bestowing some metaphysical status on Jesus.  “Son of God” was a term for kings (Psalm 2:7).  It has messianic connotations, being used of one who is now being called forth to work in history to bring about a kind of social transformation that will reflect God’s will for God’s people.

That Jesus’ baptism was a kind of commissioning service may be seen in the events that following shortly afterward.  Jesus retreats deeper into the wilderness and there encounters the tempter.  The specific temptations Jesus faced all had at their core seductive appeals to his sense of messianic (kingly) calling.  He could rule the nations, he could gain a following as a distributor of bread to the hungry masses, he could leap from the top of the Temple and gain the support of the religious powers-that-be through his miraculous survival that would confirm his messianic status.  That is, Jesus faced temptations concerning how he would be king.  He did not deny his calling as “Son of God;” he did reject these temptations to fulfill this calling through what he knew would be ungodly means.

Luke then tells of Jesus’ entry back into the world in which he was called to minister.  In his home synagogue, Jesus spoke prophetic words from Isaiah that directly addressed social transformation.  Isaiah’s prophecy referred to the installation among God’s people of the provisions of the year of Jubilee that would restore in Israel the socially radical tenets of Torah: social equality and the enfranchisement of the oppressed, prisoners, and poor.

When Jesus affirmed, “these words are fulfilled in your hearing,” he made clear that the eschatological fulfillment he had in mind was not an ending of history but rather the transformation of social life within history.  Jesus brought into the present of his time and place the hope for renewal that Isaiah prophesied.  This renewal would find expression in a concrete transformation of social relationships in the community of God’s people.

Jesus’ identity at the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Christ, is linked from the beginning of his ministry with the powerful presence of the Spirit of God (4:14-21).  This outpouring of the Spirit linked with Israel’s hopes for the healing of the world in history, in social and political concreteness.

Jesus’ verbal proclamation was accompanied with works of healing.  He drew great crowds and acclamation.  However, from the beginning he attracted opposition.  His townspeople sought to kill him when they realized that his message of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy meant to be inclusive of Israel’s enemies.  As his ministry gained traction, Jesus began to run up against opposition from defenders of the status quo who angrily schemed against him (6:11).

Creating a counterculture

In face of this resistance to his message, Jesus moved to create a more formal community of resistance.  He realized that his teachings and actions alone would not bring genuine transformation.  He knew that if he himself were removed from the scene, his message would end with him unless he had created social structures that would continue and that would provide a critical mass to embody the message of Jubilee that he proclaimed.

In Jesus’ proclamation, at the center of numerous of his key statements captured by Luke (e.g., the opening proclamation in his hometown, the Lord’s Prayer, and his “sermon on the plain” in 6:17-49) lay a focus on debt as the core expression of structural evil in his world.  In response to this evil, Jesus articulated a message of God’s boundless love that canceled debts in true Jubilee fashion, replacing debt bondage with forgiveness.

Jesus spelled out this message to the community he was calling into being—both to core group of his disciples (the “sermon on the plain”) and to the broader listening crowd (see 7:1).  He structured his social ethic around the call to imitate God’s expansive love (Luke 6:35-36) and to break free from the conventional “commonsense” ethics of mainstream society (“what credit is that to you?  Even sinners…,” Luke 6:32-34).

This transformative ethic flowed from a conviction that the promised age of the Spirit indeed had been inaugurated in this community.  This community founded on voluntary commitment would provide the resources needed to stand strong in face of the inevitable opposition of the powers that be in the broader society.

Jesus’ message did meet with more hostility; the likelihood of opposition loomed larger.  So he began to prepare his followers for such consequences.  He sought to form them into a community that would embody a way of life that would, on the one hand, embody Jubilee and overcome bondage to the debt-centered culture of which it was a part, and on the other hand, cultivate the inner and outer resources that would empower them to face the likelihood of the cross.

In his teaching about a willingness to “take up the cross” as a prerequisite for sharing in the Messianic Spirit-endowed community of healing, Jesus conveyed a clear message.  To follow Jesus meant, without qualification, a willingness to share his fate—the fate of one labeled an enemy of the Empire and an enemy of the Temple hierarchy.  To follow Jesus meant to accept the (accurate) designation of a social radical.

Jesus established a community of disciples clearly intending to transform his social world.  This community self-consciously organized itself with a clear mission.  Those who joined understood and accepted the expectations and likely consequences of their participation.  They accepted expectations for a defined set of practices that set them apart from their wider society.  These distinct practices did not stem from a simple desire to be different for the sake of being different, but rather from the profoundly humane characteristics of their social ethics.  These distinctives overtly set the community of Jesus’ followers over against the values and practices of the powers that be, creating an alternative consciousness and social context for political life.

Taking up the cross

With his counter-cultural community emerging with increased self-awareness of his messianic agenda (that is, his “kingly” agenda), Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and entered the final phase of his ministry.  Luke tells of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of Jesus’ life.  He met with adulation, then headed to the Temple where he successfully challenged the standard operating procedures.  By driving the money changers out he heightened the sense of conflict with the guardians of the social order.

For those around Jesus who had retained a hope that this social change agent would violently overthrow the present political and religious order, things seemed to be coming to a head.  Jesus clearly did have a political agenda.  He had organized a vanguard movement, calling his followers to clarity about their willingness to make the effort and bear the consequences of revolution.  Of course, Jesus had not overtly been preparing his community for a violent takeover, but with his own power and close connection with God, he would seemingly not be requiring overwhelming human firepower to overturn Rome.

This final step of pulling together the crowds and wielding the sword of the Lord in a coup d’etat is precisely, however, the step Jesus refuses.  Only later did his followers figure out that his agenda was never a violent revolution but rather a different kind of revolution, no less social and political.

In 19:47–22:2, Luke tells of the confrontation Jesus’ initiates with the existing social system.  The obvious example is when Jesus is challenged over the payment of taxes to Rome (20:20-25).  He poses two alternatives, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.  He is not proposing a two-kingdom theory where life is compartmentalized between the sacred and the secular.  Rather, he is emphasizing that in real life these two “kings” demand loyalty in ways that demand a choice, one or the other.

When Jesus’ authority is challenged (20:1-8), when he tells the parable of the unfaithful vineyard-keepers (20:9-18), when Luke alludes to the Messiah as David’s son (19:41-44), when Jesus speaks of rich scribes in contrast with poor widows (20:45–21:4), and when Jesus alludes to tribulation and triumph (21:5-36), the heightening conflict between these two mutually exclusive social orders is in mind.

The night after Jesus’ driving the money-changers out and the warning that the religious leaders are now planning to do him in, he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would “take this cup” from him.  Such a prayer, in this context, only makes sense in terms of one final temptation on Jesus’ part to think again of violent overthrow.

Satan tempted him with this in the wilderness at the beginning.  Peter tempted Jesus with this after confessing Jesus as Messiah.  The crowds tempted him with this after he miraculously fed them.  The crowds again tempted him with this when he entered Jerusalem to their acclaim.  Such a temptation had been fundamental throughout Jesus’ ministry because, indeed, it was close to his calling.  He did have the vocation to head a political revolution, to bring about a transformation in relation to Roman hegemony and the Temple hierarchy.

In the Garden, as the forces aligned against Jesus close in, he faces one more time the option of channeling his divine power toward violence, to use the sword of “justice” forcibly to overthrow the oppressors of his people and set the prisoners free.

In the power of the Spirit, Jesus resists that temptation.  He resists even when Peter draws his sword in an act that could have set the conflagration off.  Matthew, in his version of the story, clearly imagines that at this point God could indeed have set upon the Temple police and perhaps also the Romans the angelic hosts and the crowds.  These legions of angels could have cleansed the land and restored the Davidic kingdom.

Jesus says no, not because he was apolitical and only interested in escaping from history into heaven.  Jesus says no because the true enemy of the kingdom of God, the social order God called Jesus to inaugurate, is the sword itself, not the national identity of the sword-wielder.

So, Jesus accepts his arrest.  He goes first before the religious leaders then to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  The story makes clear that it was indeed thinkable that Jesus would be seen as a genuine threat to the Roman Empire.  Throughout the story of Jesus’ final hours, the charge that he set himself up as “king” rings clearly.  The story the gospels tell of Jesus public ministry makes apparent the bases for such a charge.  Jesus did pose a political threat.

Rome does execute Jesus.  He dies a revolutionary’s death.  Rome makes an example of him.  He meets his end labeled “king of the Jews,” following the affirmation of the religious leaders (mentioned in John) that they recognize no king but Caesar.  Such a public, painful, and decisive death awaits all who set themselves over against Rome.

Jesus’ followers had been prepared for this.  However, when the events unfolded they proved not quite ready.  They continued to the bitter end to hope for a David redux who would bring in the kingdom with force.  Hence, a few days after Jesus’ death, several of his followers recount the tragic events to a stranger they met on the road to Emmaus.  “We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  That is, they expected a violent revolution to drive out the foreign empire and its collaborators.

To their shock, these disciples discover that their companion turns out to be Jesus himself.  Jesus confronts them, not because they had hoped Jesus would “redeem Israel” (that is, not because they had been looking for a new kingdom).  Rather, Jesus confronts them because they had not truly recognized that in the life and teaching of Jesus, including especially his rejection of the violent revolution option even while directly challenging the status quo, this new kingdom was fully present in the self-suffering of the Messiah.

Because Jesus’ cross was a direct consequence of his confrontation with the social status quo, it actually in a genuine sense reflects the presence of the kingdom of God.  Jesus loved his enemies, embodied a justice greater than the scribes and Pharisees, identified directly with the poor and oppressed, and forgave even his killers.  In doing so, Jesus displays the core values of this new social and political order he had been commissioned to bring into being.

Yoder summarizes Jesus’ ministry. “Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.  His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.”[2]

Jesus as model

The social ethics of the New Testament have at their heart a call to follow the way of Jesus.  This motif of imitation, though, focuses on specific aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching, not a general sense of seeing him as a model in all areas of life.  The specific point of imitation has to do with the aspects of Jesus’ ministry that led him into conflict with the powers that be.

The New Testament presents Jesus’ cross as the norm for his followers.  This cross is understood in its historical concreteness as the consequence of standing against the status quo of power politics and social hierarchicalism.  Jesus’ cross represents his social nonconformity, his counter-cultural sensibility, his renouncing of noninvolvement in the needed social transformation, and his refusal to take up the sword even for seemingly legitimate purposes.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not truly tempted to withdraw and stay in the wilderness—he understood from the start that he had been called to engage his culture directly and confrontationally.  He was not truly tempted to side with the religious powers, the Sadducean establishment and its sense of conservative social responsibility.  This path was too strongly implicated in the social injustice Jesus stood foursquare against.

Jesus faced only one genuine social-political temptation.  The actual temptation had to do with the lure of transformative social responsibility exercised through the sword, through the use of the means of “justifiable” violence for the sake a valuable ends.

Jesus proclaimed a message of the presence of God’s kingdom.  As the metaphor “kingdom” makes clear, his concern centered on political and not purely religious or spiritual elements.  When Jesus disavowed Peter’s attempt to defend him with the sword at the time of his arrest, he did so not because Peter got in the way of Jesus’ non-ethical vocation to be a perfect sacrifice for sin.  Rather, Jesus rejected Peter’s efforts because he understood his calling as the Son of God to include turning from the use of the sword to further “legitimate” ends.

Following Jesus’ resurrection and the reinstitution of his community as the vanguard of the coming kingdom of God, his followers looked back at the whole of his ministry, death, and resurrection, and confessed him to be the unique manifestation of God in history.  Language of incarnation, divinity, and Trinity emerged to name Jesus’ actual identity as God-in-flesh.

Confessing Jesus as God Incarnate speaks to God entering history and defining authentic humanness in terms of this exemplary, Spirit-filled life.  Confessing Jesus as the “second person” of the Trinity speaks to the unity of all manifestations of God as harmonious with the life and teaching of this person confessed as God among us.

Jesus did not (mistakenly) proclaim the end of historical existence.  His message of the jubilee made present centered on an actual embodiment in time of structured communal life that would shape historical existence.  Jesus’ message was not that history was soon to end; he spoke to why history continues.  He proclaimed and embodied a way of embracing real life and transforming how it is lived.

The kingdom of God, for Jesus, had to do with visible social life, not invisible “spirituality.”  Shaped by Jubilee, confronting injustice, bondage, and oppression, empowered by the presence of God’s Spirit, the actual Kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed as present shows those who become its citizens why life in time matters,

At the heart of Jesus’ message we find clarity that people in power do not represent the divinely endorsed definition of what it means to be “political.”  The actual Jesus of the gospel story utterly contradicts the assumptions of mainstream ethics that relegate his concerns to the non-political realm of otherworldly religion.  Jesus’ message about politics is clear.  Those in power misunderstand the true meaning of politics.  If we understand “politics” to have to do, most fundamentally, with how human beings order their social lives, Jesus presented a clear alternative to politics as domination.  The politics of domination is a perversion of the intention of God for how we are called to be human beings socially.

Paul as disciple of Jesus

The Christian theological tradition has tended to see a significant gap between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.  For the mainstream tradition, this alleged gap has reinforced the inclination to look elsewhere than Jesus’ life for ethical guidance.  However, a careful look at Paul’s theology actually provides bases for seeing in Paul echoes of Jesus’ core concerns.

In contrast to the stereotype concerning Paul’s “quest for a gracious God” as seen through Augustinian and Lutheran eyes, Paul actually was not focused on assuaging his personal guilt.  Rather, reflecting Jesus’ own emphasis on the present accessibility of God’s mercy for all who trust in it, Paul presents God being accepting towards people at all times.

For Paul, like Jesus, the Law first of all expresses God’s grace.  Certainly, in Paul’s view, the presence of the law clarifies the presence of sin; however, the focus on sin is not the law’s main purpose or main effect for followers of Jesus.  Paul quotes Jesus in summarizing what the main content of the law is: Love of neighbor (Romans 13:8-10).

Paul did not present his message of God judging justly and forgiving mercifully as providing something different from Judaism.  The point of contrast between Paul’s gospel and the message of mainstream Judaism had mainly to do with the identity of Jesus.  Paul understood Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises to Israel, not as the founder of a new religion.

Paul’s sense of his own sinfulness stemmed not out of a deep sense of guilt and inability to measure up to God’s commands.  Rather, Paul’s own sinfulness found its expression in his initial inability to recognize in Jesus the revelation of God and, even more pointedly, his sharp hostility toward Jesus’ followers.

Emerging from Paul’s own experience as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, he presented the work of Christ in terms of the creation of a new community made up of former enemies.  For Paul, the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be seen in the breaking down of the wall of hostility that had heretofore separated Jew and Gentile.  Just as Jesus placed the formation of a counter-cultural community of Jubilee generosity and mercy at the center of his proclamation of the presence of God’s Kingdom, so too did Paul present the presence of God’s Spirit in this reconciled community of former enemies.

In using justification language to describe what happens in the creation of this new community, Paul has social realities in mind more than individualized legal/spiritual realities.  “Justification” has to do with “making right,” or “making just.”  We see in Paul’s thought concerning “justification” the clear sense that God’s “making things right” centers primarily on the establishing of faith communities where former enemies are reconciled, where genuine shalom finds expression.

Paul wrote of these social manifestations of God’s right-making love decades after Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee and founding of a community to embody that Jubilee.  That he did so provides evidence that Jesus’ message was heeded and embodied, at least to some degree.  Paul confirms the thrust of Jesus’ words that God is a God who loves God’s enemies—and emphasizes the concrete application of these words in the joining together of Jew and Gentile in these Jubilee communities.  The gospel of Jesus has no clearer or more powerful expression than that insider and outsider are united in one fellowship, thereby tearing down walls of enmity.

Paul extends Jesus’ message in his discussion of power and social structures.  For Paul, human social structures (the “principalities and powers”) are seen both as part of God’s good creation and as fallen, thereby often failing to serve their created purpose of ordering social life for the sake of human flourishing.

Paul understands that Jesus entered directly into the world of power with its fallen social structures.  Jesus’ distinctiveness may be seen in his freedom from bondage to any of the powers.  He lived freely in relation to laws, customs, communities, institutions, values, or ideologies.  He remained free even to the point allowing the powers to put him to death rather than give them his loyalty.

Jesus’ confrontation with the powers and their efforts to destroy him serve to bring to the surface their true nature in fallen creation.  As the agents of death to the very Son of God, they make clear that their claims to be agents of God for the good of humanity are profoundly misleading.  When the true God enters directly into history, these “servants of God” (the state, the religious institutions, the cultural mores, et al) turn out to be in rebellion against God.  Jesus’ life of freedom from the powers’ domination system, his willingness to remain committed to the way of peace even when they committed acts of horrific violence and injustice against him, and God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection make clear that loyalty to the fallen powers contradicts loyalty to the true God.

Paul’s analysis of the powers emphasizes that Jesus’ social ethics specifically address the “real world.”  Jesus models a social ethics of freedom, courage, and trust in the creator God who made those powers and desires that they too be transformed.  Jesus’ confrontation with the powers reflects that he meant it when he spoke of the presence of God’s kingdom (kingdom = political order).  God’s kingdom is present when servanthood replaces domination, even when the cost of witnessing to this new order leads to conflict.

The main weapon the powers wield in seeking to dominate human existence is deception.  They seek, all too often successfully, to convince people that they are God’s agents for order and justice in the world.  They persuade people to give them loyalty and trust, thereby enhancing their dominance.  To those who truly perceive the significance of the life and teaching of Jesus, this demand the powers make for loyalty is recognized as an effort to usurp the true God.

Paul sees the fellowships of followers of Jesus spreading throughout the Mediterranean area as being in directly continuity with the counter-cultural community Jesus himself established.  The existence of these fellowships (called “church” = ekklesia, a term for an assembly of citizens) proclaims to all with eyes to see that the unchallenged reign of the powers in human culture is coming to an end.

Portraying the church this way, Paul follows Jesus in conveying an ethics of social engagement, not an ethic of withdrawal.  Paul means for the church to be a community of free citizens, each bringing gifts and abilities to the service of the collective—and ultimately to the service of the entire world.  Paul’s ekklesia is the farthest thing from a “parenthesis” awaiting later opportunities to seize power through the sword (be it in history in the fashion of post-Constantinian Christendom or beyond history in the dispensational “millennium”).

Paul had in mind, as did Jesus, the ekklesia as an expression of God’s kingdom transforming social life in the present world.  Here we find the “new humanity” that expresses power through service rather than domination and that resolves conflicts through forgiveness and reconciliation rather than the sword.

Paul presents the victory that Jesus won over the powers through his death and resurrection as something concrete and historical.  Jesus’ victory was not a cosmic transaction outside of history or the fulfillment of a mechanistic requirement for a blood sacrifice.  Jesus’ victory over the powers came through the actual life he lived free from their dominance, his faithfulness to the ways of persevering love even to the point of death, and God’s vindication of this life as the embodiment of the Kingdom come.

The victory of Jesus then becomes a model for the ekklesia in its common life and its own witness to the powers.  In Jesus and his life amidst actual human political life, God’s sovereignty finds expression.  When the ekklesia imitates Jesus’ style of politics, it embodies the transforming work of God making the kingdoms of the nations into the kingdom of the Creator.

Paul’s thinking about the relevance of Jesus’ way for the political life of his followers finds expression in his notorious statements in Romans 13, but not in the ways the mainstream Christian tradition has assumed.

The first step in understanding Paul’s political thought is to see that Romans 13 is part of a larger framework.  Early Christians recognize that the state is one of the fallen powers; often the state is best seen as under Satan’s dominion.  The Gospel writers make this clear in their accounts of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry, when Satan offers him political leadership.  We may assume that Paul has this context in mind when he wrote Romans.

In Romans, we see other elements of Jesus’ own basic stance toward power and social ethics expressed.  Romans 12:1 marks a transition from Paul’s reflections on the promises to Israel to his discussion of concrete ethical practices in the churches of Rome that takes up the rest of the book.  The first word that Paul offers in this new section is a call to nonconformity.  Echoing Exodus 20, Paul begins with a confession of God’s transforming mercy.  He follows that with a call to the community to reject the ways of empire and to practice the kind of persevering love and concern for social justice that will reveal the character of their liberating God.  In chapter 12, Paul elaborates on the nonconformed way of life Jesus modeled for his followers.  Paul concludes his summary of Jesus’ message in chapter 12 with a call for non-retaliation toward enemies.  Then, in 13:8-10, Paul emphasizes (quoting Jesus) that the law itself is summarized in the call to love one’s neighbor.  The only debt that matters is the call to love.

In between the call to non-retaliation that conclude Romans 12 and the affirmation of the true (and binding) meaning of God’s law in 13:8-10, Paul elaborates his thoughts on how the Roman Christians ought to relate to governmental authority.  He surely could not have had in mind in 13:1-7 a validation of a blank check attitude toward secular government that authorizes Christian participation in violence.

Paul’s broader thinking about the powers helps us understand what he means early chapter 13.  Paul calls not for “obedience” in 13:1, but for “subordination.”  The key motif here is how Paul understands God to order the powers.  This ordering dynamic reflects both the sense that the powers retain some sense of independence over against God and the sense that nonetheless God uses the powers even in their rebellion to serve God’s ultimate purposes.

Paul’s language in 13:1-7 includes several words that have the connotation of this kind of ordering.  He does not mean literally “obey the state.”  He is not implying that one is obligated to tasks the state calls one to that violate the Jesus’ expectations (including those named elsewhere in Romans 12–13 such as nonretaliation and neighbor).

Paul understands Roman Christians to be in a crucial position with responsibility to witness in the heart of the Empire to Jesus’ new political order.  This witness would include respect for the realities of fallen governmental power.  The authentic subordination of Christians to such a government would include respect for the ordering function of government (when it ministers for people’s “good,” government provides for social services and social stability) even as Christians also refuse to give their ultimate loyalty to such governments.

When Paul asserts in 13:7 that readers should “render to each his due,” he echoes Jesus’ call for discernment (render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s).  This “rendering” includes respect and taxes to Caesar; however, loyalty is due only to God.  This loyalty leads directly to the affirmation that love is due everyone (13:8).

So, Paul’s message in Romans 12–13, rather than being in tension with Jesus’ call to persevering love (see Matthew 5–7), actually reiterates that call.  Both these passages instruct believers to practice nonrretaliatory love.  Both call upon believers to renounce vengeance.  And both challenge believers to respect God’s ordering work through the powers in ways that include a refusal to take up the sword.

The way of the Lamb

The New Testament concludes with one more reiteration of the political message of Jesus.  The key section for understanding the book of Revelation, chapter five, portrays the slain and resurrected Lamb as the one who can open the scroll.  The Lamb is worthy to receive praise and glory and power.  It is the cross (and the life that led to it and the vindication of it in resurrection) that reveals the meaning of history—not the sword of power politics.  God’s people are called to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and, like him, they “conquer” due to their politics of persevering love, not their politics of coercion.

Revelation echoes Jesus’ approach to effectiveness, asserting that truth wins out in history not due to its superior firepower but due to its faithfulness to the One on the throne.  God’s people participate in transforming the kings of the earth from enemies of God to worshipers in the New Jerusalem through their willingness to join the Lamb in his style of life and his style of confronting the powers.  The Jesus who is worshiped in Revelation as the one worthy to receive power is precisely the Jesus who accepted his fate as a political rebel executed by the Empire with the sign next to his cross, “King of the Jews.”

Paul’s affirmation of Jesus as “equal with God” (Philippians 2) follows from Jesus’ renunciation of power as domination.  When Jesus asserted that only those willing to take up their cross and follow him, he pointed in precisely this direction concerning the exercise of power.  God’s kind of power, the power that ultimately goes with the grain of the universe, underwrites a politics of compassion and self-giving love.

The New Testament throughout portrays normative Christian social ethics in ways directly linking with the life and teaching of Jesus.  This stance centers on the formation of communities characterized by the rejection of violence and the embodiment of inclusive Jubilee-shaped economics.  Jesus’ own cross becomes the political model, the style of life that leads to the social transformation the New Testament portrays with the descent of the New Jerusalem.

 

Yoder concludes The Politics of Jesus: “To follow Jesus does not mean renouncing effectiveness.  It does not mean sacrificing concern for liberation within the social process in favor of delayed gratification in heaven, or abandoning efficacy in favor of purity.  It means that in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord (‘sitting at the right hand’).”[3]



[1] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).  The first edition was published in 1972.

[2] Yoder, Politics, 52.

[3] Yoder, Politics, 246.

5 thoughts on “Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

  1. Pingback: The Academy and the Eclipsed Christ – Mark Rich | Ecclesio.com

  2. Pingback: The Church and the Eclipsed Christ – Mark Rich | Ecclesio.com

  3. Pingback: Breakthrough – 60 days to encounter Jesus – introduction to Luke’s gospel | All Nations

  4. Pingback: Just War vs. Pacifism. What is the Christian Position? – Christian Talour

  5. Pingback: Just War vs. Pacifism. What is the Christian Position? – Christian Talour

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