Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 2

John Yoder, The Politics of JesusJohn Howard Yoder. 1994. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a young person I expressed my Christian faith most publicly when I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. This stance surprised my family and many close friends, but I firmly believed that as a Christian I could take no other position on such an unrighteous war, in spite of my prior ambition to become a career military officer. Because of the military draft, every young man my age had to make up his own mind about the war. To my eighteen-year old mind, Jesus provided obvious political leadership that many others apparently missed or ignored. To me, it is ironic that John Yoder wrote the first edition of The Politics of Jesusat roughly the same time (1972) and in view of the same set of circumstances.

I surveyed Yoder’s arguments in part one of this review. Here in part two I turn to examine his core arguments in greater depth.

Jesus and a Social Ethic

Yoder asks: “Is there a social ethic” [in Jesus’ ministry]? (11) He goes on to observe:

“Jesus did not one to teach a way of life; most of his guidance was not original. His role is that of Savior and for us to need a Savior presupposes that we do not live according to his stated ideals.”(18)

For most of us who thought that “what would Jesus do?”(WWJD) is a serious template for life, Yoder’s observation is provocative. If this seems hard to fathom, consider the basic premise of any social ethic—society has a right to survive (5)—seems at odds with my own stance as a conscientious objector. To view Jesus as a serious political contender, one needs to address this dilemma. Is being a savior at odds with social survival?

God will Fight For Us

One of the core arguments for Jesus being apolitical is that both Herod and Pilate over-reached their authority and were somewhat delusional in putting Jesus to death for sedition. Why would Pilate go so far as to release a known zealot[1] and send Jesus to the cross in his place? Was Jesus a real political threat? (49)

Yoder offers two arguments for why Jesus posed a political threat to Herod and Pilate. The first argument that first century Jews believed that God would fight on their behalf, as he did in the Exodus experience (Exod 14:13; 77) and on many occasions recorded in the Books of Joshua and Judges. Unlike today when people downplay the existence and work of God in human events, Jews and gentiles like looked for and feared divine intervention. Jesus’ miracles provided interim proof of this exact sort of intervention and his claims to be a messiah (e.g. Matt 26:64) would have taken seriously.

Jesus as Advocate for Year of Jubilee

In his second argument, Yoder argues that the Gospels as a whole support the idea that Jesus advocated a year of Jubilee (Lev 25), quite likely 26 AD. This implied:

“The jubilee year or the sabbath year included four prescriptions: 1. Leaving the soil fallow; 2. The remission of debts; 3. The liberation of slaves, 4. The return of each individual of his family’s property.”(60)

In my mind, the prominence of Isaiah 61 in Jesus’ call sermon (Luke 4) and the Beatitudes (Matt 5) makes it most likely that Jesus advocated jubilee:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;” (Isa 61:1-2 ESV)

Here the phrase, the year of the Lord’s favor, is a reference to the year of jubilee.

Can you image the stir that debt forgiveness would have if advocated by a politician today? Think student loans and mortgages. The advocated would not need to advocate violence in order to be considered both an enemy of every lender and be taken very seriously by debtors. The fact that the Lord’s Prayer includes—”forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”—is not just another turn of phrase in Yoder’s eyes, but a firm reminder of Jesus’ radical theology.

What Kind of Role Model was Jesus?

Yoder goes about this task of “stating it” that proves difficult because as an academic writer he must chase down many misconceptions about Jesus’ ethics. Chief among these is the church’s traditional focus on the spiritual content of the New Testament (NT) and a de-emphasis on political elements. So Yoder asks whether NT authors, principally Luke, Paul, and the author of Revelation, understood and embraced the thrust of Jesus’ social ethic. What of Jesus’ legacy did NT authors treat as exemplary?

Yoder sees the thread running through the NT being the tension between effectiveness and obedience (233). NT authors do not see Jesus’ teaching and modeling of social behavior—hanging out with sinners—as being exemplary (unlike later Franciscans). Rather, Jesus is our role model primarily in being obedient unto death. Forgiveness, enemy love, humility, patience, charity, and servanthood all leave room for God to act decisively in our lives—a kind of mini exodus event. Yoder writes:

“We are left with no choice but to affirm that the General Epistles in which the popular thought pattern of the earliest church has undergone least reflective analysis, and the liturgical elements embedded in apostolic writings which testify to the coming age, are restatements in another key of the same kind of attitude toward history that we found first in the more organized writings of the Gospels and of Paul. A social style characterized by the creation of a new community and the rejections of violence of any kind.” (242)

Obedience does not preclude effectiveness (a cause and effect phenomena), but the priority is clearly on obedience.

Assessment

John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an intensely interesting read for an academic work. Social activists in the church will likely find this book required reading, but even evangelicals will want to be aware of the arguments being put forth.

Footnotes

[1] Zealot is the wrong term for Barabbas, as Yoder explains. The term only came into use after Menachem’s uprising in 66AD (56).

Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 2

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