The Politics of Jesus | John Howard Yoder (Ch. 6)


Chapter 6: Trial Balance


1972: We agree that Jesus had a ethical-social vision of the Kingdom. Does that vision as recorded in the gospels translate into the rest of the New Testament? Again, we will not be exhaustive, but prove that Jesus’ ethical-social vision didn’t end with the ascension.

When Paul speaks about imitating Jesus, he focuses exclusively on his suffering—his cross. That cross is “the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come” (96). Jesus suffered because he didn’t give in to the temptations of quietism, establishment responsibility, or crusade. He modeled Kingdom life with all its ethical-social aspects. We are to suffer like Jesus.

The later theological reflections in the New Testament and early church on issues like Jesus’ preexistence and the Trinity were not attempts to make Jesus known outside his ethical-social framework, but to affirm on a broader scale his kingdom vision.

We’ve already looked at ebionitic ways of avoiding Jesus’ ethic (denying Jesus’ divinity). There are docetic attempts as well which deny, divorce, or otherwise downplay Jesus’ humanity. To return to a more orthodox view of Jesus, we need to reformulate our understanding of moral choice along five lines:

  1. We don’t need to choose between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. We must not create a false dichotomy between them, but understand the revolutionary rabbi as he was and is.
  2. We must not force a choice between prophet and institution. The prophet challenges and convicts the institution and the institution is reformed.
  3. We don’t need to choose between an external catastrophic kingdom or an inward subjective one. The Kingdom of God is a social order in which grace and justice are linked.
  4. We don’t need to choose between political and sectarian. Jesus’ non-violent stance was by default political without validating existing sides.
  5. We don’t need to choose between the individual and the social. Radical individualism is a relatively recent idea foreign to Jesus.

1994: The idea that Jesus was wrong about the parousia, an element of (3) above, has been challenged often. “The not-having-come and the having-come of the Rule of God were both present in the faith of each biblical epoch” (109). To see the progression in Paul’s letters as explaining away Jesus’ belief in the parousia is to forget that they were written before the Gospels.


This was a challenging chapter to understand. It wasn’t that the vocabulary or sentence structure was particularly difficult—it took work to understand what Yoder was thinking as he approached the issues. After a couple times through the chapter I’m still not entirely certain I’ve got a handle on everything, but I’ve learned a lot.

I was fascinated by one of Yoder’s early points: Paul didn’t refer to imitating Jesus where it would have helped his case. A telling argument is Paul’s words on celibacy. He could have easily said that we need to follow Jesus in this, but he didn’t. For Paul, following Jesus was exclusively a matter of living for his kingdom vision and suffering the consequences.

The second idea that jumped out at me was the meaning of the cross. Yoder made it clear that the cross was the consequence of Jesus’ social-ethical stand for the Kingdom of God. He rightly affirms that we must resist glossing over Jesus’ life to get to the real reason he came—to die. (cf. that popular worship chorus, “Above All”: “You lived to die, rejected and alone …) While I agree with Yoder, I have this suspicion that he’s again taken his point to far. To be sure, the cross is nothing less than the result of Jesus’ Kingdom oriented life, but shouldn’t it be more?

The final light-bulb that went on during this chapter was his discussion of the (false) dichotomy between prophet and institution. There’s a tension in scripture between these two elements: Deuteronomy v. Ezekiel is a good example, mercy v. sacrifice is another. I had always assumed you had to choose your side (prophet or institution) and fight for it. Yoder helped me to see these two forces as a necessary cycle. Prophets criticize and call institutions to repent, then institutions respond and become healthier. You can’ t have one without the other.

< Ch. 5: The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance

Ch. 7: The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus >

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