Book Review (finally): The Politics of Jesus

I have been eagerly anticipating reading this book for a few years, now, ever since I first learned about it. It’s one of those books whose profundity speaks through the innumerable references from other authors in other works. With that being said, choosing to read this in the weeks leading up to, and then following, us having Clementine, probably wasn’t the best choice. My review, therefore, cannot be as coherent and complete as I would have liked.

The Politics of Jesus is one of the most significant academic works to come out in recent history in the vein of pacifist theology. Originally penned in 1972, more than 35 later, it remains one of the standards in the field.

This is definitely a dense book, with more to unpack in any book I’ve read, probably since Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. It’s not the kind of book you want to read when you are half asleep (or just had a baby).

Yoder’s fundamental assertion is to challenge the notion that Jesus is NOT the exemplar for the Christian social ethic. In churches, we typically lean upon Jesus’ teachings as important in the personal realm (think of the Sermon on the Mount: don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t divorce, etc. . . . all seen as relevant in one’s individual faith). In matters of social ethic, it is typical to lean upon the teachings of Paul and esoteric indirect theological precepts. Why should this be? Shouldn’t our WWJD bracelets have social significance as much, if not more, than personal relevance?

Yoder challenges this assumption in the first chapter, and proceeds to outline a “new” understanding of Jesus as determinative to our social ethic laying out a very systematic and biblical approach (it would be interesting to see how Yoder’s perspective fleshes out within a newer more narrative theology as opposed to his thoroughly modernistic reading).

Yoder begins his biblical argument by examining the Gospel of Luke seen through the lenses of the coming of the kingdom of God. Beginning with Mary’s Magnificat, the social implications of Jesus’ coming to earth are acknowledged. Yoder follows this biography of Jesus highlighting the significance Jesus’ life (and eventual death) in light of social ethics. “Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e. promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.” (p. 52)

There is perhaps no greater social construct in the Bible than that of Jubilee. Yoder explores Jubilee and the many social facets upholding it would bring to society. The Jubilee teachings are drastic to say the least, but what if they were kept? What if the church continued to uphold them today? Yoder states, “Many bloody revolutions would have been avoided if the Chrisitan church has shown herself more respectful than Israel was of the jubilee dispositions contained in the law of Moses.” (p. 70 – 71)

With his chapter on the Exodus, Yoder begins to paint the picture that essentially weaves his writing together – that is the direction and meaning of history. Exodus is an important story within liberation theology and is oft recited by right-wing Americans as justification for the God-nation. Yoder’s perspective is a welcome corrective to both. With the Exodus, Yoder begins to lay down the idea that God is in control of history. He is beckoning us forward into his arms and his vision and his kingdom, not is some radically disconnected existence from what we know now, but within a fuller and more complete reality, as the Israelites were to find out as they were led from Egypt.

As Yoder moves to his discussion of Pauline texts, he relies heavily on Hendrick Berkhoff’s work. Since I preempted this reading with Berkhoff’s Christ and the Powers and have already reviewed that, I will not reiterate this perspective. It is again Yoder’s concepts of history and power that are central to his teaching, “By this we mean the assumption that the forces which really determine the march of history are in the hands of the leaders of the armies and the markets, in such measure that if Christians are to contribute to the renewal of society they will need to seek, like everyone else – in fact in competition with everyone else – to become in their turn the lords of the state and of the economy, so as to use that power toward the ends they consider desirable.” (153) This illustrates just how counter-cultural Yoder’s theology stands with the vast number of churches in Christendom, especially within evangelical circles. This sounds like something out of their denominational handbooks!

Instead, Yoder believes, the Bible paints a picture where God is in total control of history. If we believe this, if we really believe this, we forsake all ambitions of power and authority. Christ has already won the victory. God is already in charge of the direction of history. The final chapter, which was for me most convicting, illustrates this most poignantly by looking at the Apocalypse. Christ is the great example of this emptying of power and influence as he is given power and authority in the act of handing it over, emptying himself of it. So key is the early Christian hymn from Philippians that states that Christ emptied himself of the great position he held . . . that is what it means to be Christ, yet in churches we continue to struggle and strive for social standing and political power and status.

I believe Yoder’s message is more needed in our churches than ever. It would be intriguing to see the implications of the current globalization of the world economy and the “shrinking world” for Yoder’s thinking. With the war on terror, globalization, international conflicts – it makes this all-encompassing picture of God’s sovereignty a welcome message for churches – particularly churches that hear more messages on man’s freewill than on God’s sovereignty.

A few quips from the final chapter:

“But the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works within us, aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.” (238)

“It is our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.” (237)

“A social style characterized by the creation of a new community and the rejection of violence of any kind is the theme of the New Testament proclamation from beginning to end, from right to left. The cross of Christ is the model of Christian social efficacy, the power of God from those who belief. Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow.” (242)

“‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ is a post-ascension testimony. The difference it makes for political behavior is more than merely poetic or motivational.” (247)

Sorry for the length of this book review . . . if anyone even made it this far. Anyone wrestling with the pacifist thoughts should read this book, though it is a challenging read. Give it a few months to digest. My thinking has been to read Berkhoff’s book which served as a foundation for Yoder’s theology (his Pauline aspects) and next I will be tackling Lee Camp, recent addition to the Lipscomb University faculty and student of J.H. Yoder, and his book (self-proclaimed as a Mere Christianity accompanying Politics of Jesus) – Mere Discipleship.

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