He’s Not a Republican: John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”

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The diverse and manifold strains of contemporary Christian theology seem to all be bent on convincing you of one thing in particular: Jesus is not who you think he is. Saints and denominations of many places and times all have their takes on who Jesus is or was, and that’s not counting the rival viewpoints offered up by Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, etc. So whenever a scholar tries their best to get to what Jesus must’ve meant to his immediate contemporaries, first-century Jews and Gentiles, it comes as a welcome repose from the endless barrage of revisionism. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an eye-opening look at what Jesus and the other New Testament writers meant socially and politically to their initial audience.

Jesus, even more so than Moses, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha, is an historical figure regularly invested with timelessness, sometimes at the expense of losing his identity as a first-century Jewish historical figure. No one’s at fault for perpetuating this way of thinking about Jesus; the Christian doctrine of Christ’s preexisting eternality can find its root in the early letters of Paul and his compatriots. It remains ironic though that we lose the historical Jesus so easy when the Four Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, are so hung up on certain space-time details of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Their theological points are made through their historical storytelling and analysis.

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What Yoder brings to the table seems obvious once stated but stays hidden in plain sight for so many. The theologically charged, historically rooted stories and letters of the New Testament were meant to bring about change in this world, which is to say at least a significant part of Jesus’ message could be considered social and political. His life and teachings were revolutionary for their era and remain revolutionary now. And surprise: Jesus isn’t a Republican! Or a Democrat. Or (sigh) a Libertarian. His sociopolitical message is, instead, something far more radical and inspiring than anything you’re likely to see on Capitol Hill.

While Yoder is most known for his appeals for Christian pacifism, I found them a bit underwhelming here. It wasn’t to say he did a poor job defending a “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus-was-anti-war position. You’ll find ample support for them in the book but his thoughts on the issue are drowned out by some more poignant statements on the nature of both power and servitude, as redefined by Jesus’ life, death and teachings.

Chapter Eight, “Christ and Power,” is one of the most succinctly and simply put explanations of the Christian idea of “principalities and powers” I’ve ever read. Yoder suggests that the “principalities and powers” Christ is now ruling over, as we are told by Paul the Apostle, shouldn’t defined so medievally as angels and demons. Instead, the text and context are speaking about the powers which drive reality, the wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.

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In other words, the “powers” referred to by Paul are the social constructs which surround us that end up taking on a life of their own. Are humans responsible for the creation of politics, economics, religious life, sexual norms, etc.? Contemporary sociology would say so and Yoder agrees, in part. We created money, for instance, but in some unknowable way, money has taken on a life of its own. Even the atheist Karl Marx conceded to this sort of ideology. There were intangible forces behind the tangible ones. It’s refreshing to hear such a clear thinker make a case for a world beyond materialism that can still be rooted in a pragmatic and empirical view of reality.

His chapter on “revolutionary subordination” is even more intriguing. Long have there been arguments about Christianity’s supposed pro-slavery, anti-women stance. Yoder highlights Paul the Apostle’s stance on women and slaves in the light of his cultural context. The Roman stoics weren’t even paying attention to women and slaves. Paul makes claims which, out of context, seem to be subjugating to women unless you realize Jesus’ main political message was “strength to servitude.”

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Were slaves and women encouraged to be “subordinate” then? Yes, but so were men and masters. The only reason Paul encourages slaves and women to remain in their position was because he was also encouraging an ethic by which everyone would serve each other. Women and slaves had a head start. The playing field would become level and, if Jesus is right in saying “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” then Paul’s admonitions to women and slaves are actually very respectful and even empowering. Unlike the pervasive Greco-Roman culture, Paul and Jesus respected women and slaves as actual people worthy of admonition, encouragement and dignity.

The Politics of Jesus is a breath of fresh air, even forty years after its publication. Why most of Yoder’s ideas haven’t gained traction in the Christian church are beyond me. He makes a pretty compelling case for his views being the very same as those which belonged to the early church, the apostles and Christ himself. One would think Christians would like to align themselves with such a worldview.

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