Sabbatical Report #12: Book Review

John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus

For the last three weeks, in between various conferences, seeing my family off back to Canada, and doing a bit of tourism, I have been pondering John Howard Yoder’s seminal book The Politics of Jesus. I must be the last Anabaptist in England to read this book; Stuart Murray Williams told me that it (along with The More-With-Less Cookbook!) is one of the two books most frequently cited as influential in moving people toward Anabaptism in England, and it was first mentioned to me by my old friend Richard Avery as far back as 1983! Furthermore – even more shameful – it has actually been on my bookshelf for at least a decade! But I’ve finally caught up with the rest of the Anabaptist world (and a good portion of the non-Anabaptist world as well); I’ve read the book twice through, and am now ready to pronounce it brilliant.Not that I caught the significance of it right away. For about the first quarter of the book I found myself thinking, “What’s all the fuss about? Shouldn’t it be a bit more revolutionary than this?” I think this is because Yoder has largely carried his case, at least to a sizeable enough portion of the Christian world that a good number of subsequent authors have simply assumed the truth of what he has to say – in other words, I’ve been reading Yoderian truth for years without actually reading Yoder, and have already been persuaded by it!Yoder has a basic point he wants to make in this book. He is determined to refute the view that the life and teaching of Jesus has no relevance for social ethics, and that Christians looking for ethical guidance on social issues need to look elsewhere. His method is to consider biblical (and especially New Testament) texts, doing careful exegesis in order to investigate whether, in fact, Jesus might have something to say about social and political reality after all. Not surprisingly, his conclusion is that the message of Jesus is in fact all about social and political reality; hence the title of the book.He begins by describing the reasons mainstream Christendom has developed for not using Jesus as the norm for Christian ethics: Jesus thought that the time between his ministry and the end of the world would be brief, so his ethic has no relevance for the continuation of history; he was a simple rural figure and his ethic is difficult to apply to town life; he lived in a world in which he and his followers had no control, so his teaching can’t help us much in our modern democratic political realities; he came to die for us, not teach us proper behaviour, etc. Because it is assumed that we can’t be guided by Jesus’ teaching on social ethics, Christians have turned to common sense and ‘the nature of things’ for guidance instead.Having sketched out this background, Yoder then sets out what he wants to do in the rest of the book:

  1. ‘I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such a Jesus would be of direct significance for social ethics…
  2. I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus, when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic’.

He then proceeds to take us on a hop, skip and a jump through the Gospel according to Luke, pointing out passages which are relevant to his thesis. He particularly highlights the fact that the ‘Zealot option’ (violent rebellion against the oppressors) must have been a continual temptation to Jesus, and points out moments in the story when Jesus was specifically rejecting it. His conclusion is:

Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. 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…No 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.


Yoder goes on to examine the idea of the Year of Jubilee, which included (1) leaving the soil fallow, (2) the remission of debts, (3) the liberation of slaves, and (4) the return to each individual of his family’s property. He traces elements of these ideas in the teaching of Jesus – particularly the remission of debt, which is resent in the Lord’s Prayer and in several of the parables.

In his next chapter Yoder looks at the violence of the Old Testament. He points out that the question of whether or not it is legitimate to use violence would not have occurred to the Old Testament authors, so it is not appropriate to use ‘the wars of Yahweh’ as an argument for the legitimacy of war, as this was not the issue being addressed. The real issue, he argues, is the number of times in which Israel is promised that ‘God will fight for you’ – sometimes without their participation at all – and the times in which they are rebuked for trusting in their own military prowess (or that of others) rather than in God’s defence.

And so Yoder’s argument goes on. He leads us through passages in the epistles which show that concern for Jesus’ social ethic continued in the early church. He asserts (overstating his case somewhat, in my opinion) that the concept of ‘following the example of Jesus’ in the New Testament is never applied as a general principle, but only in the context of following his nonviolent acceptance of the cross rather than resistance and retaliation.

In a particularly brilliant chapter he considers the subject of ‘Christ and Power’, examining the language of ‘Principalities and Powers’ in the New Testament and applying it to the powers and structures of society – structures which were created by God for our blessing, but which have rebelled and tried to become autonomous absolute rulers. Jesus’ Cross has ‘made a public example of them’ (i.e unmasked the evil that they do), ‘triumphed over them’, and ‘disarmed’ them of their weapon of illusion, the illusion that they are in control. The work of the Church, Yoder says, is not to attempt a frontal assault on the Powers (Jesus has already done that), but to live in joyful freedom from them, proclaiming that they have been defeated at the Cross.

In an especially controversial chapter entitled ‘Revolutionary Subordination’, Yoder examines the ‘house tables’ of Ephesians, Colossians and elsewhere, which are often asserted to show the essential social conservatism of the time, and shows that they are radically different from similar tables in the writings of the Stoic and others. He points out that if women and slaves were tempted to rebel against their accepted social position, it can only be because the preaching of Paul had taught essential equality. He notes that Paul takes the revolutionary step of addressing both sides of the structure (the Stoics only addressed the men in power, not those under their authority), and that Paul addresses women and slaves as free moral agents making the choice to accept a certain order ‘out of reverence for Christ’. Paul’s directions to those in power (husbands, fathers, masters) also point in the direction of equality, not dominance. In all of this Paul is moving in a completely different direction from the social conservatism of which he is often accused.

In a brilliant chapter on Romans 13 (which has often been used to show that Christians should submit to the State when it calls on them to serve in war), Yoder points out that this chapter is only one of the places in the New Testament in which the subject of the state is considered, and that if we hold it in balance with the others (places in which the state is seen as the province of the sovereignty of the devil, for intance, or as one of the Powers, or even as a Beast) we might get a very different view. He shows how Romans 13 should be interpreted in the context of the whole letter to the Romans, and concludes:

Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or in tension. Theyboth instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social. They both call the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls vengeance’ and ‘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.

Yoder’s chapter on Justification is perhaps the least controversial in the book; the work of many fine scholars since The Politics of Jesus was written (notably N.T. Wright) have underscored the social dimensions of justification, which was not just about the curing of the neurotic consciences of troubled individuals but the restoration of right relationships, the ‘removal of the dividing wall’ between Jews and Gentiles and the making of one new humanity (Ephesians 3).

In his final chapter Yoder examines the liturgical passages embedded in the Book of Revelation and discovers there that the Lamb who freely offers himself in suffering love – who submits to death at the hand of Power and thereby triumphs over it – turns out to have the key to history. ‘Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow’.

And so Yoder sets out his case for a Christianity which is social relevant, without being comfortably integrated by and into society as a whole. His vision of the Christian community is of a countercultural movement which challenges the Powers, neither by direct revolution nor by collusion in the unjust structures, but by being true to its own identity as the new people of God. He traces this pattern of thought directly back to Jesus, who announced the Kingdom of God in all its revolutionary distinctiveness, and who refused both the path of cooperation and the path of violent revolution. The community that follows this Jesus will be marked by social justice, radical equality (extending to the forgiveness of debt), nonviolence and love for enemies, revolutionary subordination, and a visible unity in which people groups which have traditionally been at each others’ throats are seen to be reconciled through the cross of Christ. This is a high calling, but Yoder has shown that faithfulness to it is essential if (to use the title of one of his other essays), the church is truly to be the church.

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