Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, explained (at least to myself)

I just finished reading The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, the indispensable guide to Anabaptist Christian pacifism.

Yoder's central argument is that Jesus' life and teachings are a model for how Christians should act in everyday life.

As my housemate Jordan said when I tried to sum it up that way, that seems like a pretty obvious, even cliche statement. Most of us who grew up during the "WWJD?" fad would probably agree. Cliche it may be, but that doesn't make it untrue. Nor does it mean we've fully grasped the implications.

Christendom's "traditional" understanding is that Jesus' primary mission was to die for the sins of mankind, and conquer death through his resurrection. It's a nifty bonus that he was around long enough to teach us, do some miracles, and choose the apostles. His was a unique mission, and while Jesus' teachings and actions are very important as a model for us, we aren't called to literally follow him to the cross. The cross was a spiritual event. The Son of God had to die to make peace between God and mankind with his blood, something no one else could do. Jesus had to live a perfect life, otherwise his sacrifice wouldn't have counted, but it's not the life for everyone. When the Gospels say Jesus "set his face towards Jerusalem," it means he was preparing himself to die. Jesus yelled at Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" for suggesting that he shouldn't let himself die, and ordered Peter to put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane, because he knew he had to be the sacrifice, and Peter was trying to prevent that. Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish religious leaders had no idea what they were really doing. They were essentially being used by God and Satan like puppets in a larger, unseen cosmic struggle. Jesus basically tricked them into killing him. He presumably could have allowed himself to be killed in the remote forests of Lebanon, and it would have been just as spiritually meaningful (with perhaps the drawback of fewer spectators.) Jesus had no political mission. He was a king, but his kingdom was not from this world.

Jesus' crucifixion, while of ultimate spiritual significance, had no political significance, and certainly isn't a model for how Christians should live their lives.

This is what I grew up believing, at least implicitly, and this is what, I think, most evangelicals and Catholics teach, at least implicitly.

John Howard Yoder rejects this interpretation.

For Yoder, not only is all of Jesus' life a model for Christians in politics, but the cross is its centerpiece. Jesus did come as a king, and all Christians are called to participate in his kingship. When Jesus began his ministry with a sermon in Nazareth, he read from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Then he said, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

According to Yoder, this was the announcement of a political program: Jesus wanted to reinstate the Jubilee, the ancient Jewish practice of annulling all debts, returning all property, and letting all the slaves go free every fifty years. This was a requirement of God's law, but not surprisingly, it was rarely applied.

Yoder views Jesus' entire ministry as a movement for the restoration of the jubilee. In occupied Judea, this call posed a direct challenge to the Roman authorities, the Herodian monarchy, and the religious leaders who collaborated with them.

Seen in this light, the crowds of tens of thousands of people following Jesus all across Galilee and Judea, repeatedly trying to make him king, following him into Jerusalem in a giant procession, where he proceeds to basically take over the temple, take on a rather different significance, no? Jesus "setting his face towards Jerusalem" meant he was embarking on a political mission.

Under this interpretation, Jesus didn't trick the Romans into killing him and thereby fulfilling God's sacrificial purpose. The Romans had no choice but to kill him. He posed a huge threat to their rule.

However, Jesus refused to marshal his followers into an armed challenge to Rome and the Sanhedrin. He combined his demands for political justice with the universal love of God, a love that ruled out killing his enemies, even in self-defense. Jesus orders Peter to put away his sword because killing is wrong, not because Peter's about to unwittingly screw up God's plan of redemption.

Rather than adopt Rome's tactics and use their own violence against them, Jesus confronts the powers for their corruption, oppression and injustice, and then lets himself die at their hands, rather than call on armies of angels to smite them down.

Jesus' living a perfect life and Jesus' self-sacrifice aren't separate things. They're the same thing. The only way to be a witness for justice and peace in 1st-century Judea would inevitably result in execution. So Jesus did it, and through his resurrection, proved that the power of this world and its violent men is meaningless.

Therefore, Jesus' call to his followers to "pick up your cross and follow me" is in part a political call. We are to struggle against the injustices of the world's fallen political systems, even if it costs us our lives - but we are not to do so by using the devil's methods. To the crowd he had fled from when they tried to make him king by force, Jesus says, "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning." (John 6:15, 8:44) To his own followers, Jesus says, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:44).

I hope I've explained Yoder's thesis well. (Obviously he has a lot more to say than this.) I'm not sure to what degree I accept it. On the one hand, I think it coheres very well. It makes more sense of Jesus' ministry than the traditional model. It unites the human and divine missions of Jesus into one. And it reaffirms the importance of human life and human history to God. If Yoder is right, the oppressive politics of Judea were not a sideshow to him when he lived with us. It follows that oppression is not a sideshow to him now.

But I have a lot of unresolved questions. Well, two, I guess:

1) Doesn't the Bible pretty clearly teach that Jesus eventually will come with angel armies to defeat the wicked? If so, there seems to still be a division between the ethics of God and the ethics of man.

2) What tactics are acceptable to God in our struggle for justice? May we try to reform state institutions that inherently depend on violence? May we work through political parties and elected officials? Or should we abandon state politics altogether, in favor of a community that tries to embody God's justice in a fallen world?

Yoder's argumentation style is different from every other theology book I've read. With some exceptions, he doesn't spend long pages poring over select passages and proving his interpretation of them. Instead, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Jesus' ministry, placing almost every event and conversation into a political context. On the one hand, I appreciate the holistic-ness of this approach. On the other, I feel a little bit like I've been taken for a ride. I'm not sure whether I agree with him or not (though I want to); the book didn't give me time to examine any of the issues he raises in-depth. I suppose I could do it by myself, but I also work full-time, you guys.

So let me know: if you've read John Howard Yoder, what do you think of his work? If you haven't, what do you think of his ideas as I've laid them out here? And if you don't care to get that specific, what do you think about pacifism generally?

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