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Tradition has painted a portrait of a Savior aloof from governmental concerns and whose teachings point to an apolitical life for his disciples. How, then, are we to respond today to a world so thoroughly entrenched in national and international affairs? But such a picture of Jesus is far from accurate, argues John Howard Yoder.
Using the texts of the New Testament, Yoder critically examines the traditional portrait of Jesus as an apolitical figure and attempts to clarify the true impact of Jesus' life, work, and teachings on his disciples' social behavior.
The book first surveys the multiple ways the image of an apolitical Jesus has been propagated, then canvasses the Gospel narrative to reveal how Jesus is rightly portrayed as a thinker and leader immediately concerned with the agenda of politics and the related issues of power, status, and right relations. Selected passages from the epistles corroborate a Savior deeply concerned with social, political, and moral issues.
In this thorough revision of his acclaimed 1972 text, Yoder provides updated interaction with publications touching on this subject. Following most of the chapters are new "epilogues" that summarize research conducted during the last two decades — research that continues to support the insights set forth in Yoder's original work.
Currently a standard in many college and seminary ethics courses, The Politics of Jesus is also an excellent resource for the general reader desiring to understand Christ's response to the world of politics and his will for those who would follow him.
The peculiar place of Jesus in the mood and mind of many young "rebels" is a sore spot in the recent intergenerational tension of Western post-Christendom, and one of the inner contradictions of our age's claim to have left Christendom behind. It may be a meaningless coincidence that some young men wear their hair and their feet like the Good Shepherd of the Standard Press Sunday school posters; but there is certainly no randomness to their claim that Jesus was, like themselves, a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.
The equation is so glib, and so surrounded by the not-sure-I-really-mean-it indirection of the age of McLuhan, that the Christian ethicist can just as glibly pass it off as not only irreverent but also irrelevant to the real business of ethics. But is it that simple? Or might it be that in this half-spoofing exaggeration there is breaking into common awareness a dimension of biblical truth that we—precisely the reverent and relevant ethicists—had been hiding from ourselves?
This study makes that claim. It claims not only that Jesus is, but that this issue is now generally visible throughout New Testament studies, even though the biblical scholars have not stated it in such a way that the ethicists across the way have had to notice it.
This "stating it" is all the present study tries to do; to let the Jesus story so speak that the person concerned with social ethics, accustomed as he is to a set of standard ways to assume Jesus not to be relevant to social issues, or at least not relevant immediately, can hear.
Such an effort at interdisciplinary "translation" has its own set of serious perils. To both the parties whom it attempts to bring into hailing range of one another it must seem to be oversimplifying, since it begins by disrespecting the boundaries, and the axioms, of each discipline, and since the "translator" or bridge-builder is always somehow partly an alien, partly a layperson blundering beyond his depth. We may plead only that if the experts had built the bridge we need, the layperson would not have needed to.
Our study, then, seeks to describe the connection which might relate New Testament studies with contemporary social ethics, especially since this latter discipline is currently preoccupied with the problems of power and revolution. Theologians have long been asking how Jerusalem can relate to Athens; here the claim is that Bethlehem has something to say about Rome—or Masada.
By what right dare one seek to throw a cable across the chasm which usually separates the disciplines of New Testament exegesis and contemporary social ethics? Normally any link between these realms of discourse would have to be extremely long and indirect. First there is an enormous distance between past and present to be covered by way of hermeneutics from exegesis to contemporary theology; then still another long leg must be covered from theology to ethics via secular sociology and Ernst Troeltsch. From the perspective of the historical theologian, normally perched on an island between these two spans and thus an amateur on both banks, I can justify leaping into the problem in such an amateur way on only two grounds. For one thing, it seems that the experts who set out to go the long way around never get there. The Scripture scholars in their hermeneutic meditations develop vast systems of crypto-systematics, and the field of ethics remains as it was; or, if anything new happens there, it is usually fed from some other sources.
The other reason for my boldness, which would be in its own right also a subject for debate in the exegetical guild, is the radical Protestant axiom, which more recently has been revitalized and characterized as "biblical realism," according to which it is safer for the life of the church to have the whole people of God reading the whole body of canonical Scripture than to trust for enlightenment only to certain of the filtering processes through which the learned folk of a given age would insist all the truth must pass.
It is thus not unawares, nor irresponsibly, that in the present book I take the risk of synthesis in proposing to bring the Jesus of the canonical Gospels into juxtaposition with the present. This hazardous venture involves no disrespect for the many kinds of historical questions which might be appropriately asked about the link between Jesus of the canonical Gospels and the other Jesuses whom scholarship can project.
Mainstream Ethics: Jesus is Not the Norm
The classically naïve approach once could assume an immediate connection between the work or the words of Jesus and what it would mean to be faithful "In His Steps." To this there is an equally classic nonnaïve answer, which can be played back from every age in the history of Christian thought about society. Thus if we can restate the mainstream answer we will have set the stage for our argument. The first and most substantial affirmation of this classic defense against an ethic of imitation is the observation that Jesus is simply not relevant in any immediate sense to the questions of social ethics. The great variety of ways of grounding this negative statement can perhaps not unfairly be summarized in three theses, the first being the sixfold claim of Jesus' irrelevance.
It results from this consideration of the type of thinking and teaching Jesus was doing, that it cannot have been his intention—or at least we cannot take it to have been his achievement—to provide any precise guidance in the field of ethics. His apocalypticism and his radical monotheism may teach us to be modest; his personalism may teach us to cherish the values of face-to-face relationships, but as to the stuff of our decision-making, we shall have to have other sources of help.
What Other Norm is There?
The second substantial affirmation of the mainstream ethical consensus follows from the first. Since, we have seen, Jesus himself (either his teachings or his behavior) is not finally normative for ethics, there must be some kind of bridge or transition into another realm or into another mode of thought when we begin to think about ethics. This is not simply a bridge from the first century to the present, but from theology to ethics or from the existential to the institutional. A certain very moderate amount of freight can be carried across this bridge; perhaps a concept of absolute love or humility or faith or freedom. But the substance of ethics must be reconstructed on our side of the bridge.
Third, therefore, the reconstruction of a social ethics on this side of the transition will derive its guidance from common sense and the nature of things. We will measure what is "fitting" and what is "adequate"; what is "relevant" and what is "effective." We shall be "realistic" and "responsible." All these slogans point to an epistemology for which the classic label is the theology of the natural: the nature of things is held to be adequately perceived in there are givenness; the right is that which respects or tends toward the realization of the essentially given. Whether this ethic of natural law be encountered in the reformation form, where it is called an ethics of "vocation" or of the "station," or in the currently popular form of the "ethic of the situation," or in the older catholic forms where "nature" is known in other ways, the structure of the argument is the same: it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.
Once these assumptions about the sources of a relevant social ethic and about the spirituality of Jesus' own message have been made, we may then observe a kind of negative feedback into the interpretation of the New Testament itself. We now know, the argument runs, that Jesus could not have been practicing or teaching a relevant social ethics. Then the Jewish and Roman authorities, who thought he was doing just that and condemned him for it, must have misunderstood very seriously what he was about. This is an evidence of the hardness of their hearts. Matthew as well, who organized and interpreted the teachings of Jesus so as to make of them a simple kind of ethical catechism, misunderstood Jesus: from his misunderstanding arises that regrettable phenomenon which Protestant historians call "Early Catholicism."
Fortunately before long, the explanation continues, things were put into place by the apostle Paul. He corrected the tendency to neo-Judaism or to early Catholicism by an emphasis upon the priority of grace and the secondary significance of works, so that ethical matters could never be taken too seriously.
Let those who have wives live as though they had none,
And those who mourn as though they were not mourning,
Though who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing,
And those who buy as though they had no goods,
And those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.
(I Cor. 7-29ff.)
The second Pauline correction was that the apparent social radicality of Jesus himself (not only the Judaizing misinterpretation of Jesus) was clarified and put in its place. Positive respect for the institutions of society, even the subordination of woman and slavery, acceptance of the divinely sanctioned legitimacy of the Roman government, and the borrowing of Stoic conceptions of ethics conformed to nature were some of the elements of Paul's adjustment, so that the church was ready to construct an ethic to which the person and character—and especially the career—of Jesus made no unique or determining contribution.
Looking back over this hastily sketched pattern of prevalent structures of ethical thought, systematic and historical theology will need to ask some careful questions. There is the question of the authority of these hermeneutic assumptions. If the meaning of Jesus is this different from what he was understood by his Palestinian disciples and adversaries to mean, and if those ordinary meanings need to be filtered through a hermeneutic transposition and replaced by an ethic of social survival and responsibility, what then has come of the concept of revelation? Is there such a thing as a Christian ethic at all? If there be no specifically Christian ethic but only natural human ethics as held to by Christians among others, does this thoroughgoing abandon of particular substance apply to ethical truth only? Why not to all other truth as well?
As second kind of question we will need to ask is: What becomes of the meaning of the incarnation if Jesus is not normative man? If he is a man but not normative, is this not the ancient ebionitic heresy? If he be somehow authoritative but not in his humanness, is this not a new gnosticism?
There could be problems of inner consistency as well. Why should it be important for Christians to exercise social responsibility within the power structures, if what they do there is to be guided by the same standards which non-Christians apply?
But this would not be biblical study if we were to pursue those questions now from the systematic and historical end. What I propose here is rather that, once we are sensitized by those questions, we might begin at the front again by seeking to read one portion of the New Testament without making the usual prior negative assumptions about its relevance. Or let me say it more sharply: I propose to read the Gospel narrative with the constantly present question, "Is there here a social ethic?" I shall, in other words, be testing the hypothesis that runs counter to the prevalent assumptions: the hypothesis 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.
This study is then addressed to two quite discrete tasks. In substance and procedure the two will be distinct, calling for different kinds of methods and demonstration.
Let us be fully aware that the endeavor will have any meaning at all only if both of the answers turn out to be affirmative. If for general reasons of systematic and philosophical theology such as have been widely dominant in theological ethics for a long time, Jesus, whoever he was, is no model for ethics, it then becomes immaterial just who he was and what he did.
If, on the other hand, Jesus was not like everyone else a political being, or if he demonstrated no originality or no interest in responding to the questions which his sociopolitical environment put to him, it would be pointless to ask about the meaning of his stance for today.
To simplify the question and bring it within workable dimensions, I propose to concentrate largely on one document, on the canonical text of the Gospel according to Luke. Luke's story line provides us with a simple outline, and his editorial stance is often taken to have been a concern to deny that the Christian movement was any threat to Mediterranean society or Roman rule. This centering upon Luke for our scattered soundings is not meant to slant the reading; any other Gospel text could equally well have been used, and we shall occasionally observe the parallels and contrasts in the other Gospels.
Nor is our simply beginning with the canonical text meant to convey any lack of respect for the significance of the critical and historical problems which life behind the canonical text and the "historical Jesus" as he "actually was" is not the subject of my present study. The bridge from the canon to the present is already long enough.
The case I am seeking to make has to do not narrowly with the New Testament text but with the modern ethicists who have assumed that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem to Rome or to Washington or Saigon, was to leave the story behind. I shall be looking more at the events than at the teachings, more at the outlines than at the substance. The next pages present soundings rather than a thorough survey.
Nor is it the intention of this book to be exegetically original. At no point do I mean to be hazarding unheard-of textual explanations. All that I add is the focusing effect of a consistent, persistent question. It is because I claim no originality at this point that I may dispense with some of the pedantic paraphernalia which would be helpful or needful if I were making claims never heard before.
|Preface to the Second Edition|
|Preface to the First Edition|
|1||The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic||1|
|2||The Kingdom Coming||21|
|3||The Implications of the Jubilee||60|
|4||God Will Fight for Us||76|
|5||The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance||89|
|7||The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus||112|
|8||Christ and Power||134|
|10||Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State||193|
|11||Justification by Grace through Faith||212|
|12||The War of the Lamb||228|
|Index of Names||248|
|Index of Scripture References||251|
Posted May 18, 2003
When I first bought the late John H. Yoder's book, I was skeptical of the arguments to support any form of Christian pacifism. For one, the sheer percentage of Christians loyal to the nation of their birth and, thus, permissive and even supportive war by that nation, is staggering. Secondly, the biblical support cited by just war advocates seems overwhelming (though questionable when proper hermeneutics are applied). Yet Yoder does what I thought most difficult: He makes clear the understanding of Jesus' mission, and while most skeptics will perhaps dismiss his writings concerning Christ's choices as lessening Christ's divinity and focusing upon his humanity, this is simply a weak attempt to avoid the fact that Yoder has thought well through the arguments. And the end result is perhaps the most powerful book on Christ's social commands to his people. It should also be noted that Yoder does not simply focus on issues concerning Jesus' teachings and actions, but Paul's writings are also discussed, such as Romans 13:1-8. Through these arguments, Yoder reveals the obvious faults in the traditional view of church and state since Constantine (which I call the first of many 'unholy alliances' between church and state, when the church loses it's identity within itself and it's King, Jesus). This book is, as Hauerwas comments, 'the turning point' in American theology. Hopefully, you will purchase this book and realize the life Messiah has called his holy nation, his royal priesthood, to live in the presence of the world. Vicit Agnus noster, eum sequamur.
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