The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 1)

I have been curious about Christian pacifism since the aftermath of 9/11. “Just war theory” had always been my official view, although I had no real idea what that meant.

A few years ago the documentary, God of War, Prince of Peace was produced. (You can grab it for free on In it, Tony Campolo’s story about his inability to drop bombs while asking, “what would Jesus do” really struck me. Lately I’ve been reading Hauerwas, a pacifist theologian. (I didn’t know they made pacifists in Texas!) It turns out Hauerwas was a student of J. H. Yoder, a Mennonite theologian and popular thinker in the 20th century pacifist tradition

I’ll be honest: I want to be a pacifist. I can’t believe Jesus wants us to kill other people created in his image. Still, when I think of the rise of Hitler and the abuse of innocent people, I wonder whether Christian love doesn’t compel us to act violently against oppression. I’ve decided to study The Politics of Jesus and really consider what Yoder had to say on the topic. I’m using the second edition (1994), which is an update of the 1972 classic. Each chapter (12 total) will have its own post as I try my best to respond to Yoder’s logic and, with the help of the Spirit, form my own perspective on Christianity and war. I welcome any constructive—surely I can’t be the only Christian wrestling with this topic!

An now, on to “the simple rebound of a Christian pacifist commitment as it responds to the ways in which mainstream Christian theology has set aside the pacifist implications of the New Testament message” (x).

. . .

Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic


1972: We need to bridge the gap between New Testament studies and social ethics. Ethics is currently primarily concerned with power and revolution—but was Jesus? Modern social ethics views Jesus’ ethical teaching as irrelevant due to many reasons (only for a short “interim”, only for a small village, etc.). Therefore, they look for a concept to bridge the gap between Jesus’ teaching and today (love, faith, freedom, etc.). By trying to translate the ethical teaching of Jesus in this way, we end up accepting the current order of things as normative.

We then look to Paul who, in putting a priority on grace, reduced the need for works/ethics. In addition to this, Paul’s acceptance of society’s institutions like slavery and the Roman government make it seem like Jesus had nothing to say.

Despite the modern view sketched above, there is a genuine Christian social ethic. The rest of this book will use Luke’s gospel to discover it.

1994: Since the first edition was written, scholarship has swung to almost unanimously agree that Jesus was a political person. There are even more reasons to ignore his ethical teaching as normative (historical-critical skepticism, move from narrative and prophetic to divine wisdom). In the end, people still try to appeal to something other than the particularities of Jesus’ teaching for “Christian” ethics. Nature, reason, creation, and reality are the four classical approaches. While these four items appear to have logical priority, they in fact push the authority of Jesus aside.


When Yoder wrote the first edition the Jesus movement was exploding. Scores of hippies decided to follow the socially radical Jesus that the church had hidden from them. Yoder’s book validates the hippie view. Jesus is socially radical—very political. Yoder acknowledged scholarly acceptance of Jesus as a political figure in the 1994 material. We take this for granted now.

Scholarship and church life can be two very different things, though. We’re taught as pastors in Canada to be careful not to mix politics into our churches. Our charitable organization status reminds us to disseminate religion, not to give opinions on who to vote for. I agree that we shouldn’t tell our congregations who to vote for (mostly because I’m never 100% sure I made the right decision when leaving the ballot booth). Still, we need to get the politics of Jesus across.

Jesus’ words to the people around him need to inform the political decisions we make today. Thankfully, organizations like the Sojourners and The Simple Way are making it easier for pastors to make the connections.

. . .

I suppose our theological worldview has a lot to say about our view of politics. As many influential Christians have been emphasizing lately (N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Brian MacLaren), we pray that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As long as our goal is merely to escape this wicked world to enjoy heavenly bliss, then there’s no motivation to consider Jesus’ politics, let alone our own world’s.

Ch. 2: The Kingdom Coming >

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