Last Friday I began reading "The Politics of Jesus" by the late John Howard Yoder. I have read in a few places that Christianity Today calls this book one of the most important Christian books of the twentieth century. My only response is WHY?!
"The Politics of Jesus" starts out well enough. In chapter one, Yoder laments that many modern scholars portray a Jesus who has no relevance to contempory social ethics. The specific portrayals of Jesus targeted by Yoder originate in the movement known as "the search for the historical Jesus" which assumes that the portrait of Jesus from the four Gospels is inaccurate and therefore we must search for the real Jesus of history. Some of these scholars, such as Albert Schweitzer, state that Jesus saw Himself as an apocolyptic figure, preparing His followers for the end of the world. Because Jesus thought the world would end, he had no concern for how just a society's social structures were because those structures would disappear soon. Other theorize that Jesus was a rural figure who had no solutions to problems of complex urban settings and giant political and corporate structures. Others picture Jesus as concerned solely with spiritual matters, not social matters. Those who view Jesus in this manner believe Paul further strengthend the totally inward focus of the Christian Gospel. There are those who believe that God is so wholly other than ourselves that he cannot be identified with any human ethical system, thereby rendering human ethical systems autonomous, leading to what we would call "Situation Ethics", a state where no one's personal ethics are either right or wrong. Yoder rightly takes issue with these false portrayals of Jesus Christ and their denial of His relevance for social ethics. Yoder goes further in saying that to study the Gospels as a true portrayal of Jesus will yield irrefutable evidence as to a concern for justice for the most vulnerable within the Gospel message.
"The Politics of Jesus" goes downhill after chapter one. After warning readers against interpreting the Gospels through the lens of preconception, Yoder goes on to do just that, interpreting the Gospels, mainly Luke's, according to his own conception of what a just society should be. He views the Gospel message as purely an economic manifesto rather than a call to personal holiness. His scriptural exegesis is a disaster. He selectively interprets Biblical passages to wring from them what he wants them to say. Yes, the Church in the West has ignored the Gospel's call to seek justice for the poor and other disadvantaged groups. But Yoder tries to redress the balance by ignoring the command for us to be holy. Yoder rightly brings to light the demand for justice in the messages of Zacharias, John the Baptist, Mary's Magnificat and Jesus' reading of Isaiah in Luke 4: 16-30. Yet he incorrectly claims that these messages contain nothing concerning holiness of heart and life. He maintains that John the Baptist's audience consisted solely of tax collectors and soldiers who both tryannized the populace. For Yoder, the cross was the result of Jesus' obedience to not take power by political means: "The cross is beginning to loom not as a ritually perscribed instrument of propitiation but as the political alternative to both insurrection and quietism." Yoder believes that Jesus and his message was closely allied to the Zealots who were in revolt against Roman occupation. When Jesus told the two on the road to Emmaeus that "Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and enter into His glory" (Lk 24:26), Yoder believes Jesus was not refering to His ascention at all, but to the Kingdom He inaugurated by dying on the cross. Yoder ties the Kingdom of God to the Year of Jubilee from Lev. 25, in which all debts were wiped off the books and property sold to pay off debts were returned to their original owners. Yoder believes Jesus was innagurating a Kingdom in which debtors were released from their obligations. Yoder states that the verse "forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors" (Mt 6:12) refers to the forgiveness of debts and not personal sins. He wrongly states that the Greek word for debts that appears in this verse applies only to debt. He also believes that Mt. 5: 25-26 deals with disputes over money, ignoring the context of dealing with anger and the judge and jail imagery being symbols for the prison anger puts us in. To Yoder, the parable of the unjust steward is the representation of one who realizes that the reign of unjust mammon is over. Yoder claims things with no evidence, such as the forgiven debtor who refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to him was a real Galilean peasant known to Jesus, or that Jesus' hearers would have interpreted His message through the same economic lense as Yoder's.
I had expected to disagree with Yoder's conclusions because I knew his message was along pacifist and liberal economic lines. Yet I was not prepared with such a poor arguement as this. I know people who think highly of Yoder and "The Politics of Jesus", so I am highly disappointed by what I have read so far. Yet I will continue reading it for the next few Friday evenings. Oh the price I pay for my readers!