Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yoder's Politics of Jesus: 40 Years Later


...the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers not the avoidance of political options but one particular socio-political-ethical option.
John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus (1972)

This year EasyYolk will be celebrating the 40-year anniversary of John Howard Yoder’s classic The Politics of Jesus with a series of posts connecting it to current issues and events. For those unfamiliar with his work, Yoder was an ethicist and theologian (1927-1997) who did the bulk of his teaching and writing at Notre Dame, a Catholic institution. Yoder worked closely with his Mennonite denomination, but seemed far more interested in dialoguing with other Christian leaders from a variety of traditions. He passionately advocated for a radical option that he believed ought to be normative for all Christians—a conviction that he never apologized for. Truly, his voice was received by many as confrontational and thus controversial, audaciously calling followers of Jesus to a gospel that was adamantly political (transcending personal piety and heavenly salvation), pacifist (rejecting violence no matter what) and participatory (following, not believing, Jesus’ teaching).

In the first chapter of The Politics of Jesus—-which was named the 5th greatest theological work of the 20th century by the mainstream Evangelical periodical Christianity Today—-Yoder laid out his 6-fold claim of Jesus’ irrelevance. These were the various ways Christians “set the authority of Jesus aside” in regards to political matters, the arguments that sincere Christians had learned to shelve the political Jesus altogether. Yoder posited that these claims replaced the political Jesus of the New Testament with a spiritual Christ of Western civilization, transferring him presently to the heart of the “believer” and into the future in a disembodied heaven where he transferred the soul of every believer when they died. This turned the gospel into a game of personal piety and individual salvation, blind to the systems of (in)justice that Jesus came to expose and confront, leading to his torture and death.

Here is Yoder’s list of typical Christian apolitical claims for Jesus:

1. The ethic of Jesus is an ethic for an “Interim” which Jesus thought would be very brief. The world was passing away soon, so Jesus believed.

2. Jesus was a simple rural figure, living in a completely different kind of society where knowing everyone and having the time to treat everyone as a person was culturally an available possibility.

3. Jesus and his followers were minorities living in a world they had no control over and exercising social responsibility was not on the agenda.

4. His message was spiritual, not social.


5. Jesus pointed people away from concrete issues of this present world to a focus on worshipping God.

6. The purpose of Jesus’ life was his death…so that sins would be wiped away and relationship with God could be restored (atonement).

Ultimately, Yoder penned Politics to debunk of all 6 of these counterfeit claims. His hypothesis was “that the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option.” What that particular option is can be found in the teachings and actions of Jesus in the Gospel stories.

Indeed, Jesus was gathering around himself a sort of political party (think of church as a townhall meeting or caucus) that would model and advocate for a consciousness and lifestyle that reflected what the world would be like if God was in charge ("the kingdom of God"). This campaign compassionately energized the poor and marginalized while nonviolently criticizing (“as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”) the mainstream parties that were just as political as they were religious: the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Herodians (“sheep among wolves”). Each of these parties displayed a unique platform of how to be God’s People in the face of the Roman Empire.

In short, Jesus campaigned for Israel to return to the Deuteronomic and prophetic (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos) call for social and economic justice. This meant an overturning of tax policy that favored Temple elites and locked everyone else in the economic basement. This meant a seat at the table regardless of gender, family of origin, ethnicity or disability. This meant resisting the temptation to embrace strategies of violent revenge. This meant that God’s will was accessed and enacted apart from organized religion. This meant that dismissing “politics” and “economics”—while embracing “religion” and “personal piety”—-was not an option.

As it turns out, Jesus did not come to this earth to get more souls into heaven. He came to bring heaven to this earth so that every soul might experience the God who created everything, liberated Israel from slavery and is still determined to heal all of creation through a People committed to that redemptive vocation.

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