“The Politics of Jesus” at 40


The one time I actually got to hear Stanley Hauerwas speak, and I forgot to bring any of his books for him to sign! Yes, it happened several years ago in Charlotte, but at least I got to speak with him for a couple minutes afterwards. It was then that I realized I had my copy of John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” with me, which I was reading through for the third time! So I asked Stanley to at least sign that, within which he wrote this:

“To Dennis- John Howard Yoder was a witness we cannot live without.”

I couldn’t agree more, and so we must celebrate this book, Yoder’s crowning achievement to his witness, as it turns 40 this year. Hauerwas and I are only two of thousands of contemporary Christianity’s scholars, leaders, and speakers that have been profoundly influenced by it. TPOJ reframed the Jesus narrative for millions of American Christians as the new world of social protest and people-powered change was carved out in the 1960’s. The polite, comfortable Christianity of a Reinhold Niebuhr just wasn’t going to cut it in the wake of a Martin King and a Cesar Chavez. This new kind of committed Christianity necessitated a new kind of committed Christology. TPOJ fit the bill perfectly.
TPOJ then transcends that specific moment in history, as all great works do. Today it becomes a theological blueprint for the Christian to resist that Constantinian reflex to accommodate the Gospel to one’s culture and context, and to all the violence and injustice that accompanies this. There are many ways Hauerwas and I would disagree on specific points of Christian thinking and living, but when it comes to Yoder’s description of Jesus’ politics, that imagine a lived Gospel proclamation of a real Kin(g)dom,

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 (TPOJ, 242, 1994 Second edition).

Well, we’ll always be on the same page! Yoder demands that we see the Jesus that rejects the violence of the status quo, and demands that the Christian resist these unjust formations of “Christendom” in all their forms, if they really want to live into this new Reign of God present in history

Yoder brings to light the Way that Jesus wants all people to follow, taking the Sermon on the Mount and God’s year of Jubilee seriously if not literally. The fundamentals of Jesus’ life are the blueprint for all disciples, not just the first generation, not just an idealistic few. The powers of empire and accommodation are to be resisted in all their forms, wherever and whenever we live, and are not to tolerated out of a mistaken obligation for liberal openmindedness. And most importantly, the war that the Lamb of God wages in the world is finally framed in a way Jesus could recognize- as a war never fought with traditional weapons, but with a patient and faithful resistance and endurance, that might ultimately lead to the sacrifice of one’s life, if not one’s own power and privilege. Just as Jesus does, so all Christians are called to open their arms to and embrace violence as much as Jesus did, so that God can transform it into the Peace of the Kin(g)dom as Jesus did in his own life, death, and resurrection.

This resistance can take so many forms–liberal and conservative, established and sectarian, and everything in between; and this Gospel is portable enough to become embodied in so many diverse expressions of Christian community. Christian resistance to all forms of empire are required, within which a Gospel simply of personal piety and transactional atonement doesn’t even begin to address. Jesus is here to embody and inaugurate a more comprehensive Kin(g)dom, that is a social order and not a hidden one. It is not a universal catastrophe independent of the will of human beings; it is that concrete jubilary obedience, in pardon and repentance, the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which people have to accept. (105)

We accept living into this new order in so many different ways- from the separatist Peace traditions of Yoder, to the transformational Protestant ethics of King, to the Catholic social teachings of Chavez, to the Evangelical radicalism of Hauerwas. Anywhere we hear the call to make ourselves and the world a better place, along with caveats on the dangers of mixing Kin(g)dom with Christendom, or Gospel with government, we hear Yoder’s echoes in the background.

I am grateful for these echoes every time I hear them, because whatever Christians are going to be into the 21st century, we must refuse to be equated with the status quo wherever we find ourselves. We can no longer be comfortable, nor captive to the seductive drag of normalcy that Christendom offers. Neither can we be neutral to the violence of Empire wherever we see it- as it kills people halfway across the world for our nation’s interest in more oil, as it kills people halfway across our city for our nation’s lack of interest in taking care of the least of these. Yoder helps us to see that if we are serious about this Gospel and this Kin(g)dom, then we need to be serious about the politics that they call us to.

That’s important to remember in this latest election cycle, as Jesus’ politics are not Democratic or Republican. But they are certainly as real, as public, and even more important. Yoder might not recommend voting in November, but I will! And when you’re done with that, or even before, pick up your own copy of “The Politics of Jesus“. Help me celebrate the 40th anniversary of a valuable resource. Read it, and when you’re done, find ways to resist the violence of empire, in all its ugly forms, and discover new ways to live into God’s Kin(g)dom, right where you are. This is a far better witness than just choosing the least bad Candidate on one day in November. Get to work!

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