UTS Review Essay: The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

A neo-Lutheran review of John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1994; first edition 1972). Part of UTS’ exploration of contemporary Christian politics.

  1. Yoder’s Argument
  2. Yoder’s Method
  3. What I Love About This Book
  4. Nevertheless…
    1. What Exactly Does Yoder Think Christianity Is?
    2. The Cross…?
    3. Sin?
  5. Back to Scripture? Unfortunately, Yes.
  6. Back to Politics.

This is in many ways a great book.

At first, it does not impress. It is not particularly well written. The scope of the work is odd, built around an idiosyncratic selection of scriptural texts. It contains numerous annoying caveats about its own limitations, of the type normally reserved for doctoral dissertations or other junior research projects. The second-edition chapter “epilogues” are a bit self-indulgent.

But once you get to the end of it, you realize that this is a book of unusual power.

Yoder’s Argument

Yoder’s shocking thesis – already evident in the title of the book (The Politics of Jesus) – is that there is one consistent and well-defined ethical-political vision in the New Testament. This vision can be formulated succinctly, and it is obligatory for all Christians.

He makes this argument against a phalanx of contrary opinions (Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic – basically everyone’s) that hold that, for one reason or another, the New Testament contains no definitive ethical or political “recipe” for the Christian community.

Many Christians, Yoder notes (ch. 1), have come to see the ethics of Jesus as restricted to his specific time and place, and not meant to be a serious model for later Christians. Jesus’ ethics were perhaps only intended for a short “interim”, or for his specific cultural context. Or perhaps they were intended as an unreachable ideal that could only be understood by later generations as a means to bring us to repentance. Or maybe they function as an image of the world to come.

Most commonly, Yoder notes, Christians have tended to “theologize” the New Testament, to see the Christ-event as only a metaphysical or ontological change wrought by God (e.g. new creation, redemption, deification), and not the beginning of a new legal-political reality. Jesus’ message is understood as primarily spiritual or mystical, not ethical. In this view, the political and ethical rules of Christian community must serve and cohere with this spiritual truth, but they are subject to it, and can change, evolve and even mature. The theology of the New Testament is timeless and obligatory; the politics or ethics – if we can speak of the politics or ethics – are not.

Against such concepts, Yoder argues that the Gospel is political. Jesus’ central aim and purpose was precisely to inaugurate a new and definitive political-ethical reality. In fact, the whole point of Christianity is to establish a new socio-political community.

What does this new community look like?

For Yoder, it has a very distinct form. Christians must form separate counter-cultural socio-political communities that are characterized by strict pacifism, socio-economic egalitarianism/justice, and an ethic of suffering non-resistance. Christians must, in effect, form communities similar to the classical Anabaptist communities from which Yoder emerged. These polities are the beginning of the messianic kingdom here on earth.

These communities are very unique, because they do not represent the inauguration of kingdoms of victory or glory, or even of conventional “social responsibility”. They are instead communities of the cross. Here”cross” is not a cipher for any type of hardship or experience of psychological struggle or guilt, but is the ongoing reality of persecution inflicted upon those who imitate Jesus in his very concrete politics of creating communities of non-conformity and non-violence.

Yoder’s Method

Yoder’s method for arguing his thesis is exegetical, i.e. he develops his theology as the correct reading of the canonical scriptures.

He starts by drawing his core argument from the Gospels (chs. 2-3), specifically Luke. He contends that if we drop our “spiritualizing” reading habits, we see everywhere that Jesus’ teachings are overwhelmingly about promoting a new socio-political reality.

For example, when we hear the Magnificat, we should hear a Maccabean1 sentiment: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (pp. 21-22).

Or when Jesus speaks in the Lord’s Prayer of forgiving debtors, he means it literally (p. 62).

Everywhere Yoder sees the Gospels as permeated with the language and ideas of the Jubilee, the great event of socio-economic liberation and restoration in Israelite history, with its various institutions (ch. 3).

The crucifixion itself is ultimately the political event par excellence of the gospels. On the cross, Jesus definitively rejects violence and the politics of domination and provides the ultimate model and directive for radical non-violent resistance and suffering. More than anything else, the cross inaugurates his new earthly kingdom (pp. 48-53).

Yoder goes on to argue that this reading of the Gospels is coherent with the Old Testament (ch. 4), and that there is no major discontinuity or rupture between the ideals expressed in the Gospels and those of Paul, the later Pastoral letters, or Revelation (chs. 5-12). He contends that throughout the entire Bible God’s actions are always fundamentally political – i.e. God always works through concrete socio-cultural intervention. With Jesus, this socio-political realism/interventionism takes on its final, universal, and most radical form as the Christian community receives its final and definitive socio-political charter. But there is no rupture between Old and New Testaments: “The Gospel is an organic prolongation of the original early Israelite experience and vision, and not its rejection or reversal.” (p. 87).

What I Love About this Book

What I love about this work – and Mennonite/Anabaptist theology generally – is how it brings to the fore the radical and counter-cultural character of New Testament ethics. It recognizes that at the very core of Christian ethics is something radical, almost crazy, unworkable: turning the other cheek, giving without receiving, loving the enemy, not returning evil for evil, radically suffering for peace, giving up survival itself for sheer love, embracing real powerlessness, etc. I think virtually every Christian tradition, on some level, expresses this radicality, and recognizes it to be a key element of Christianity, however much we are tempted to forget it, hide it, or tame it.

What makes the Mennonites and other Anabaptists so special is that they’ve tried to live this radicality in a way that few others have. They have formed themselves into distinct communities that have visibly lived out a pattern of political non-conformism, particularly through radical pacificsm. As a result, they’ve suffered constant persecution, frequently at the hands of other Christians. In a very real, “political” way, they’ve walked the talk in a way that few others have. This demands respect.

Nevertheless…

Nevertheless, there is a lot in this work – and the vision of Christianity it promotes – that needs push-back.

I suspect that most responses to Yoder have taken him to task on points of exegesis. This is clearly the type of response he himself expects.

This isn’t the tack I want to take, although I will say that I don’t find his univocal reading of the New Testament convincing. I think there are more things going on in the New Testament than non-conforming, non-violent political messianism – and, more importantly, I think there is simply a lot less coherence of any type, period, than Yoder cares to admit. More specifically, I think the Jubilee references are often a bit of a stretch, and the contortions he gets into to demonstrate the continuing “radicality” of the later Pastoral material severely strain the credulity of even the most sympathetic reader.

Still, many of his critiques of the spiritualizing bias of mainstream exegesis are well taken. It is remarkably easy to elide the socio-political implications of the New Testament, particularly the gospels. Having read Yoder, I think I have begun to read the New Testament with a distinctly more “political” eye than previously – so on some level I’ve taken him to heart.

What Exactly Does Yoder Think Christianity Is?

My real concerns about Yoder’s vision, however, are more fundamental, and in a sense prior to his exegesis.

What exactly is Christianity for Yoder? What, in particular, is the Gospel? What is the key message or Good News of Christianity? The central point?

Luther tended to view the “radical” reformers, like the Anabaptists, as new versions of the Catholics. After reading Yoder, I begin to see Luther’s point.

For Yoder, Christianity is par excellence a new and improved law – and one centered, in particular, upon the creation of a new socio-political reality. For Yoder, the whole point of Christianity is to receive, obey and enact this specific law.

This law is learned in Scripture, which is itself understood as a sacred revelation of God’s law and will. Thus, Christianity is basically an exercise in (constitutional) exegesis.

“Good News” is not a particularly prominent concept in Yoder’s work, but inasmuch as it is present, it seems to be the idea that God has opened up a new possibility for humans to share in a new law. It’s the “Good News” of Jesus enabling us to fulfil God’s vision (cf. the old Catholic idea of grace as a kind of energy that enables us to do good works). In effect, the great “gift” of God – God’s grace – is the task of this new holy community, and so the church itself, as a project, is God’s great gift to us. The church therefore has a kind of divine nature – its gradual realization, here and now, is the opening of salvation itself.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. It’s basically the old Greco-Roman synthesis in a nutshell!

The only difference is the centrality, for Yoder, of a very specific socio-political vision: a communitarian non-violent non-conformism. The older synthesis had a broader but perhaps less radical horizon: a metaphysical vision of the transformation/deification of the individual (vice/virtues) as part of a gradual eschatological transfiguration of the whole cosmos.

But ultimately this is only a change of emphasis. The structure is the same. Christianity = new law, grace-enabled-works-that-save, synergy, exegesis. The Gospel = this law itself, the church, and the Scriptures.

I would therefore respond to this much as I would to the older Greco-Roman synthesis. In short:

No, Christianity is not a new law. It is the Good News that, despite the fact that we will always fail and corrupt any law of God, God still loves and forgives us. Christianity is the message of God’s radical grace and mercy, which is God’s sheer gift of holiness and salvation without any input from us, including, of course, our realization of this or that socio-political vision. The fundamental point of Christianity is to proclaim this message of radical grace to sinners, not to demand holiness from sinners as a prerequisite for salvation. Our “holiness”, of any kind, is in fact totally irrelevant when it comes to salvation: only God’s holiness matters. (Of course our holiness counts in our relations with other humans, but that is basically a secular concern.) And the church, in any form, is most certainly not God’s central gift to us or divine realization of anything– it’s just us, collectively, in our sad, sinful selves, in need of forgiveness and grace, and struggling, in our sinful way, to hear and live out the Gospel. And the scripture? Well, more on that in a bit.

There are two places where the weaknesses in Yoder’s theology emerge with particular force.

The Cross…?

The first is his treatment of the cross. For Yoder, the cross is primarily the inauguration of a new kind of community characterized by suffering for social non-conformity (pp. 52-53). He’s very suspicious of any other type of understanding of the cross that does not make socio-political claims on Christians (pp. 96 ff., 129ff.). The cross only has meaning inasmuch as we move to enact and realize “cross-communities” (my term) – other interpretations are cop-outs, collapses into individualism, pietism, romanticism, or philosophical fancy.

But as a result, Yoder has almost no sense of the unique and exceptional value of Christ’s cross. For Yoder, Jesus’ cross is not in its very essence different from our own. Jesus cross and our crosses blend into one since the whole point is not that Christ accomplished something on our behalf, and then gave the result to us, but that he inaugurated and modelled a process for us to participate in – i.e. the creation of this new community. Yoder writes: “…the impact of the cross upon them [i.e. the Powers of the world, etc.] is not the working of magical words nor the fulfillment of a legal contract…but the sovereign presence, within the structures of creaturely orderliness, of Jesus the kingly claimant and of the church which is itself a structure and a power in society” (p. 158, emphasis mine). The power of the cross is realized in our political living out of it as the church.

But I would understand Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as a completely unique, self-contained event which, in itself effects salvation for all of us. It is not the inauguration of something that we can accomplish, a new constitution or charter, which we have to “activate” or “fulfill”. Instead, Christ’s sacrifice is the complete and perfect event of salvation in and of itself – which is simply, and for no merit of our own, given to us. The power of the cross is realized completely and finally in Jesus’ crucifixion.

As far as salvation goes, then, our crosses don’t matter. Our martyrs are qualitatively different from the Martyr. We are saved by God’s blood, not our own. We have our own crosses, yes, but the point is to always look up and through them to Jesus’ cross, which, unlike ours, saves.

This sense of distance between Christ’s cross and ours is a classic Lutheran theme: there is an unbridgeable chasm between Christ’s work and ours, God and us. Luther was allergic to even the slightest suggestion that our works or holiness matter for salvation. He saw this as directly detracting from the sufficiency of Jesus’ works and holiness.

And, indeed, I would ask Yoder: is there some way in which Jesus’ sufferings, and Jesus’ holiness, are not enough? Is Jesus’ cross not enough?

Also, on a more pragmatic level, I would note that there is something ethically dangerous about telling people that they must suffer to be saved – as Yoder seems to strongly imply. No. Christ’s suffering is salvific. Only Christ’s. Christ does not want, nor need, our suffering. Yes, we may suffer as Christians, and for many good and noble reasons – and maybe this is inevitable (as it is for all humans, no?) but this is not in itself a good thing. And it certainly is not a part of any divine plan, nor, above all, the Good News. Suffering is a consequence of sin, which Jesus ultimately came to save us from.

And this leads to my second major concern with Yoder’s theology: his “light” notion of sin.

Sin?

Yoder understands Christian theology as the provision of a new law/order which inaugurates the Kingdom of God here and now. The Kingdom of God “is a social order, not a hidden one… it is that concrete jubilary obedience….the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which people have only to accept” (p. 105).

Yoder thus has a very realistic and concrete view of what it is to be Christian: it is simply to become this alternative, non-conforming, non-violent community. For Yoder, this is difficult, but not impossible – we just need to “accept” it. It is a feat ultimately on the same level as any other act of human society-building since (referring to the “render unto Caesar” passages) “[w]hat is Caesar’s and what is God’s are not on different levels, so as never to clash; they are in the same arena”(pp. 44-5). Our actions in the divine and secular realm are of the same order, and have the same efficacy.

In effect, then, the Christian society is a society like any other, just a more perfect one (cf. Bellarmine, for my more nerdy readers). As a result, the key challenge in Christianity is simply to recognize the right “recipe”, and then to enact it, as we might in any type of organizational endeavour.

Sin in this schema is thus a simple mistake of understanding or of implementation in the development of this new social vision – like Paul’s earlier misunderstanding about the place of Gentiles in God’s covenant (p. 217). These are errors on the level of disobeying the rules of a club or of misunderstanding an organization’s mission or policies. It’s not a big deal – and it’s easily remediable.

This “light”, social notion of sin accounts for much of Yoder’s frustration with other Christian theology (especially Lutheran, which he frequently takes aim at). Yoder can never understand why other Christians seem to want to profoundly separate our kingdoms from the Kingdom of God – and project the latter only into the world to come. He has little sympathy for the traditions of interior angst about sin. And he has very little time for the traditional theologies of atonement, sacrifice and the like – broadly, for the whole metaphysical “read” of Christ’s actions that understand Jesus’ influence as significantly extending beyond the ethical shaping of a new human community. At times he does try to be a bit conciliatory (e.g. p. 226), but generally he dismisses all of these dynamics as later deviations, emerging under the influences of pietism, subjectivism, political conformism, etc.

But these other theological currents are motived by an experience of sin that Yoder seems completely blind to. This is an experience of sin not as a light “mistake” or error, easily “correctable” with the right law, but as a deep stain within the very structure of human reality itself – a stain that is utterly pervasive and completely inescapable. This is sin which is felt to be lurking even behind our highest and best behavior and intentions: in our ever-present fear, anger, selfishness, despair or distrust. It’s in our experience of a structural “messed-upness” and pointlessness of the world. It’s in our constant hatred and resentment of not being God and having to depend on God. This is an understanding of sin where, ironically, our very belief in our own ethical performance is precisely an acme expression of sin. This is sin so deep that only God can fight it and heal it. We are totally powerless against it.

For Christians with this “deep” notion of sin, Yoder’s entire construction of Christianity is almost incomprehensible. The creation of another polity of humans, of another human order, is obviously not good news at all – it’s more of the “same old” bad news, because it’s just more of us, with our same-old sin. Every human community or society is (of course!) ultimately shot through with the same sins of greed, pride, power-seeking, domination, envy, etc. as any other. On a secular level you can distinguish better and worse communities – but as pertains to salvation, and sin, are not they all rotten, do not all disappoint, do not we always yearn for something more?

And here I need to be a bit brutal: Yoder, do you really think that your non-conforming non-resistant polities are better than other communities? Are they not as thoroughly infected by the same power- and identity-politics as any other? Are they not as pervaded by their own versions of vice, arrogance, and deception as any other? Do they not avoid sufferings of certain types, yet inflict others? Do they not have their own violences? In fact, in certain respects, couldn’t such communities be especially sinful? In their sense of superiority and self-election, are they not a particularly bad example of pride and arrogance, almost a kind of institutionalized misanthropy? What about their need to control their members? Their exclusivity? Isn’t there a temptation to self-absorption? And so on. If we want to speak in biblical terms, are not such communities ultimately as deserving of God’s condemnation and judgement as any other? Are they not as disappointing as any other?

Really, Yoder, such communities are Christ’s Good News for us?

And yet Yoder is proclaiming to us that such communities are pretty much the centerpiece of what Jesus has brought us.

He even has a very strange idea that the church just has to “be itself” to fulfill its mission: “the very existence of the church is its primary task” (p. 150).

No, I strongly disagree. The Gospel cannot be the announcement of us in any way – or of our communities. And the church most certainly needs to point beyond itself to be church! ‘The church just being itself’ is – to put it simply – sin being sin. The church just existing is sin just existing. No one needs that.

This is why our kingdoms should be radically separate from the Kingdom to come; why Jesus came to give us his holiness (different from ours) and his Kingdom (different from any of ours – thanks be to God!); why the Gospel is all about the forgiveness of sin and the defeat of death and despair, and not about the provision of yet another failed, human law, another counterfeit salvation; and why the Gospel is a gift of something that is truly beyond our reach. And this is also why individual introspection is something more than a pietistic indulgence or a Romantic flight of fancy: it’s a critical and natural part of perceiving the full breadth, depth and insidiousness of sin.

Losing track of sin is probably Yoder’s great failing.

Back to Scripture? Unfortunately, Yes.

And here we have to admit something. In much of this, Yoder can claim – rightly – to be led by scripture.

In fact, I would say that the real force driving Yoder’s theology is not, surprisingly, a conviction that the height of the Gospel is non-violent, non-conforming communities. It’s actually the idea that a careful exegesis of scripture will lead us to ultimate truth.

This “exegeticism” or scripturalism is the fundamental theological axiom of Yoder’s book, its deepest conviction. Yoder believes that the scripture is the Gospel. Scripture is God’s revelation; and Christianity is above all an exercise in exegesis.

I’ve griped many times about this concept of scripture (here, here, and here). I think it’s completely wrong-headed. The true revelation of God is the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. It is the gospel of Christ’s radically free gift of salvation. To replace this message with… an ancient book to be puzzled over (?!) is a very odd idea

No, scripture is only really “revelation” inasmuch as it inculcates this Gospel. You don’t find out what Christianity is by trying to exegete scripture. You find out what Christianity is in the proclamation of the Gospel (which might be through scripture) – and then, if it’s helpful, you read scripture. So Christianity is not an exercise in exegesis; it is not a “religion of the book”. It is an exercising in hearing, and re-hearing, the Gospel.

But Yoder demonstrates very well what happens when you approach Christianity as basically a religion of the book.

First, the Gospel virtually disappears – since, let’s face it, the Gospel is really only super-clear in Paul, and even then, mostly in Galatians and bits of Romans (yes, Paul screws up the Gospel in places, as does Luther, as do we all).

But equally importantly, you get another story, one which seems to always emerge when we try to distill a coherent theology from “the whole narrative” of scripture.

What is this?

It turns out that God is a big dude in the sky, on a throne, who is quite angry and jealous and a bit unpredictable. He functions almost exclusively through issuing law and commands (and occasionally overlooking them). He craves obedience, is fundamentally a judge, and can be surprisingly thin-skinned. He is completely obsessed with what we humans do – with our performance. Everything is phrased in terms of mutual reciprocity between God and humanity – and everything depends on us, our responses, our obedience.

And God’s basic mode of salvation? To give laws, and then randomly grant some of us, the elect, special power to fulfill at least some of them, at least enough that he can excuse the rest of our failings. And then to (maybe) reward us, granting us a share in his god-ness. Since this God is ultimately a judge, he also has to punish everyone else – eternally.

This story is a very old story. On some level, I think this is what humans always end up with. It’s our primeval human religion. It’s hard-wired into us, and so of course it rears its head in scripture.

But the Gospel exactly contradicts this story. The Gospel declares that God comes in weakness and suffering, not majesty. God is not the one who judges but the one who is sacrificed. And salvation is all about God’s actions – not ours; about God’s blood, not our blood. In fact, as far as salvation goes, God doesn’t care about law or obedience, but only about God’s mercy and grace. There is no reciprocity. And we never need to be God, or become God (“deification”), because God is God already! That’s the truly radical message of the Gospel.

So Yoder really just provides us with another version of our humanity’s “natural” pagan religion. His particular twist is simply that God’s law, God’s desires for our performance, turns out to be particularly sublime, since it is all about selfless suffering, non-violence and non-conformance.

And does this twist make it better?

In the end, I can’t quite decide.  In a way, Yoder has produced the most lofty version of this ancient, primeval religion, one that appeals to our absolute highest moral potential. But does this make it also the most seductive? Has Yoder presented us with the very greatest temptation: to believe that we really can save ourselves and the world around us, since we can, apparently, attain to such high moral standards?

Back to Politics

So, where does this leave political theology?

Ultimately Yoder’s political theology doesn’t work because his concept of Christianity doesn’t work.

Yoder basically ends up saying that Christianity is political theology – in fact, it is one specific political theology, the imperative to develop and live in specific non-conforming, non-resistant, pacifist communities.

This reduces Christianity to a new law, a project, a great new work. Jesus announces, starts, and models this new work. But he does little else. Gone is salvation as a completely “alien” gift to humans, worked entirely by God; gone is a sense of total reliance on God, and complete despair in our own capacities; gone is our realization of the total hopelessness of our works in light of sin; gone is our experience of God as essentially a God of mercy; gone is the immense enormity of God’s blood – healing, washing over, wonderfully overcoming any that we may shed; gone is the God whose own death opens up a totally new life, quite beyond anything we can conceive of here; gone is the suffering God who not only shares our suffering but actually ends it; gone is the God whose victory of life over death is truly cosmic, far transcending any earthly social program or project.

In this God’s place stands a new Moses – a suffering, non-violent Moses, true – but a Moses nonetheless. It is a Moses who commands us to attain the very highest ideals that we might strive for – far beyond anything the old imperial synthesis could have imagined, I admit. But, it is still Moses.

Ultimately, Yoder has created a powerful political theology simply by saying that Christianity is political theology. But he has done so at the cost of the Gospel itself.

There are other very troubling consequences of all of this.

First, Yoder has completely divinized politics. In Yoder’s scheme, promoting a particular political agenda is now an absolute divine command – politics must be religious, and indeed the full content of religion is at stake in our political decisions. In order to be Christian, we must directly and immediately act in the political sphere, and in a very specific way. When we do so, we have the the full authority of God behind us. Should we fail to do so, we fail to be Christians — and are not saved. So every political decision is now a religious one; and vice versa.

Further, anyone who is fully Christian must share our political vision, quite narrowly conceived. There is next to no room for alternative Christian political visions.

Next, the church itself has become, in its very political and institutional fabric, invested with an almost limitless authority and divinity, because basically it IS God’s kingdom. No other human institution is its parallel.

Finally, the Christian political vision is the only one that really matters in the public square. Yoder as much as says this a few times – see pp. 10, 152. He can’t really see any grounds for respecting non-Christian views.

Wow. I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that this is a truly theocratic, and potentially totalitarian, vision of church and politics. How compatible is this with a liberal democratic mode of governance?

This theocratic turn is a pity. I think Christian ethics (properly conceived) probably would put many of the emphases where Yoder places them: a cross-centered ethic of non-violence, suffering for others, etc.

But not like this.

Of course, as long as Yoder’s ideas stay confined within the limits of their traditional Anabaptist contexts, they’re probably harmless enough. His Christian political vision is absolute, but it is so absolutely pacifist, non-coercive, and non-resistant that its political impact (a bit ironically, actually) is probably going to be negligible. It is “sectarian,” in the neutral sense of that word – i.e. restricted to small communities that by their nature have little direct influence or contact with the broader world.

But what happens when his theological instincts are transplanted into other soils? What happens when the pacifism, non-coercion, and non-resistance slip a little?

We’ll explore these possibilities in later posts.

Next up: Stanley Hauerwas.

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  1. The Maccabeans were 2nd C BCE Jewish socio-political revolutionaries. []

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