Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WWJD? Pt. 1 - What did he do?

At long last I have delved into John H. Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster.  And it is as good as I thought it would be.  Yoder treads carefully on ground that many of us have, unfortunately, trodden haphazardly and with little care.  Perhaps it seems obvious that a proper exegesis of the life and words of Jesus in the Gospels would come to affect the Christian’s social, economic or political ethic.  However, that is a dangerous leap to miscalculate.  That is not to say that, once taken seriously, bridging Jesus and our ethics will not bring about danger or the propensity to go about saying dangerous things.  Should we breach the status quo, we must consider first whether we are: proof-texting a homemade radicalism or mimicking the true ethics of Jesus.  The radical Christianities proffered by the ‘emergent’ and post-modern realms may very well coincide with the latter while triggering a whole generation of ahistorical ingrates to do the former.  I’ve been fired up by revolutionary talk, but without really knowing the ideas behind the ideology, I’m like a jihadist motivated by peer pressure – thrilled, killed, but not self-willed.  So what were the social, economic and political ethics of Jesus?  Should that be read as universally normative?  How would someone apply the ethics of Jesus in our context?
Read the book if you really want a good introduction to the topic.  Perhaps I’m impressed too easily, but there’s a few game changers.  Most Christians accept that the life and teaching of Jesus is normative on some level to us, whether or not that means crucifying yourself on Easter (like a few Filipino Christians do) or just following the Golden Rule.  So there are 2 questions we must consider: a) Exegetically - What exactly did he say and do?  AND  b) Ethically - On what level must/should we mimic that?  

What did he do?
a)  It’s often said that the Pharisees and the multitudes and even the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ mission on earth as political in nature, whereas Jesus single-mindedly lived his life as a working out of prophecy for the express spiritual purpose of forgiving the sins of mankind.  Yoder argues that the contemporaries of Jesus merely misunderstood the nature of his social/economic/political agenda.  However, Yoder also assents to the immaterial and spiritual agenda, so to speak, of the Incarnation.  So it is not that the message of Jesus is spiritual OR political, but spiritual AND political.  Using the text of Luke (which is often taken as explicitly rejecting the political interpretation of Jesus’ mission), Yoder shows how the birth, life, teachings and death of Jesus are inherently political.  People didn’t want to kill him because they misunderstood him.  They didn’t want to kill him because he broke the Sabbath.  They wanted to killed him precisely because they did understand him and how dangerous his political ethos was to the status quo.  In fact, from the temptation in the desert to the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is portrayed as having to come to grips with how the multitudes will implement his kingdom.  He prayed the Father would remove ‘this cup’ from him – why?  Was he only afraid of death or was there some alternative way the story could end that Jesus was not only considering but praying for?  Moments later Peter draws his sword to protect Jesus, who asks rhetorically ‘Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’  It seems Peter and Jesus may have had the same thing in mind (armed insurrection), but only one had the self-control to choose the high road.  The social, political and religious order in Judea were broken and Jesus spent most of his time talking about that and showing how that could change.  Many saw him as leading the way to massive reforms and, certainly, he intended his teachings to lead to exactly that.  He willingly entered Jerusalem as a king, drove the moneychangers from the temple to assert his authority there and even asked the disciples to carry a sword.  Still, remained true to his own ethical teachings.  His kingdom would be different.
The Year of Jubilee - AD 26
Much of what Yoder goes on to explicate as the ethical agenda of Jesus involves the concept of the year of Jubilee.  Jesus literally proclaimed a year of Jubilee in AD 26, asked his disciples to forgive others their debt as their debts had been forgiven them.  He talked about money more than any other topic – this is common knowledge – but how he talked about money and what they meant to his audience, that’s the real interesting thing.  Jesus made constant reference to all of the main aspects of the Year of Jubilee and their application in his context.  That he came to proclaim release to the captives need not be spiritualized.  That he counselled the landless peasants to make friends with their enemies on the way to debtor’s court is not without reason.  The parables about absentee landowners and wise stewards don’t just have timeless lessons to offer.  Jesus was a bit of a political pundit.
More to come…


  1. I like your point about the false dichotomy between spiritual and political. It has been a helpful exercise for me to replace 'spiritual' with 'Spirit-filled.' So the Spirit doesn't replace bodies, but fills them. Likewise, the Spirit doesn't replace politics, but fills them.

    I think Yoder helps us ask better questions. While I agree with a lot of what he says about how the church ought to live out its message, there is room for debate (for instance, Hauerwas and Yoder don't necessarily agree with each other, Yoder wrote a book "For the Nations" while Hauerwas wrote "Against the Nations"). But I think if you accept Yoder's critique of spiritual/physical, political, then you have moved beyond the question of evangelism vs. social justice. They are intimately tied together to the point where if you deny one, doubt might rightly be cast on your understanding of the other. I think the New Testament fully supports this assertion:

    "Those who say 'I love God,' and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen."

    1 John 4.20

  2. Thanks.
    And I'm not entirely convinced yet that the ethics of Jesus apply exactly to our culture as they did to the Jewish nation. But I'm glad that, at the least, the dichotomies are being questioned and that I'm reading the Gospels much more plainly (something I have probably never done)and the political and economic statements are so explicit I'm shocked I never saw them before. So that's good.