In 1972, John Howard Yoder set out, in his Politics of Jesus, to recapitulate a kind of “biblical realism” as an alternative to the reigning theological framework of his day. The Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey supposed that a solidly scriptural “ethic of imitation [of Christ]” was an irresponsible model for Christian politics, since it failed to account for the persistence of political states and their right to survive. Biblical realism, on the other hand, “sought to take full account of all the tools of literary and historical criticism, without… letting the Scriptures be taken away from the Church.” Politics, Yoder reminds us in his 1994 reprint, was not fresh research, but merely a summation of work that corrected mainstream Christian ethics. Against Christian realism, Yoder argues throughout Politics that Jesus must be normative for ethics to be distinctively Christian – that his life and ministry does not constitute the avoidance of politics, but are themselves inherently political. This review will briefly recount the structure of the book before proceeding to focus on three distinctive aspects of the book; idolatrous causality, revolutionary subordination, and worldly impermanence. It must be understood that, throughout this work and others, Yoder is working to undermine the accusation that pacifism, while undeniably Biblically grounded, amounts to little more than “prophetic irrelevancy.” The entirety of his Politics of Jesus might be seen as a systematic and concerted reversal of this accusation, effectively implying that for such an accusation to stick, it must also be leveled against Jesus himself. Indeed, “mainstream ethics” necessitated a conviction that Jesus was not the norm, that “Jesus was simply not relevant in any immediate sense to the question of social ethics.” Yoder would argue that the politics of Jesus must be the politics of the Church, such that any Christian politics without Jesus are no politics at all.
Over several chapters Yoder develops a Christian ethic that refuses to relegate the life and teachings of Jesus to hopeless idealism. He moves fluidly between theology and exegesis, focusing his exegetical work on Lukan themes of “The Kingdom Coming” (ch.2) and Levitical “Implications of the Jubilee.” (ch.3) The issue of war is dealt with decisively in his fourth chapter (“God Will Fight for Us”) by exegeting a number of Old Testament passages that many pacifists are all too eager to avoid, defeating accusations of Marcionism in pacifist readings of the canon. Confusingly, however, he follows his chapter on war with possibly the shortest exposition on nonviolence in publication (“The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance”), but may be excused if seen as a short transition from exegesis to theology, for chapters six (“Trial Balance”) onward explore ethical frames made possible if Jesus is taken as normative (ch.7, “The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus”), essays he admits are “fragmentary.” His eighth chapter (“Christ and Power”) quotes his own translation of Hendrik Berkhof’s Dutch text so extensively that it is difficult to ascertain what new idea/s Yoder brings to bear. A compelling concept clearly attributable to Yoder is that of “Revolutionary Subordination,” the subject of his ninth chapter, which he argues via questions around the moral non-being of women and slaves. Later chapters once again incorporate exegetical work amidst his theological reflections, especially the tenth (“Let Every Soul Be Subject”) and eleventh (“Justification by Grace Through Faith”) chapters. Yoder concludes in his twelfth chapter (“The War of the Lamb”) by illustrating how a Niebuhrian ethic of realism that dismisses pacifism for its ineffectiveness is nothing more than an idolatrous attempt to control history.
By the time of Yoder’s writing, Niebuhr had rebuked the social gospel movement inaugurated by Walter Rauschenbusch by decrying its inherent humanistic idealism in presuming that the church could affect its own salvation. Yoder is aware of a similar criticism that Niebuhrian ethics level against his own very prominent pacifist convictions. However, Yoder responds by claiming that any attempt to manage global politics and history, by any means and toward any telos, is a failure to trust in the cross as the ultimate form of salvation in history. Yoder therefore combats this secularization of American Christian social ethics by insisting upon the primacy of Jesus for any ethic the Church might embody or espouse. In doing so, Yoder turns the tables on Christian realism by claiming that if pacifism is irrelevant to social ethics, so too is Jesus, for he consistently refused to rely on violence to control his own fate. Furthermore, his fate is determinative for ours as well, which is “the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal it is to be faithful.” The problem of mainstream ethics, then, is that they sacrifice faithfulness for effectiveness; they trade the possibility of suffering for the certainty of survival.
Niebuhr, therefore, had simply reinvented the same idealism he had rejected in Rauschenbusch’s social gospel by moving the supposed locus of change from one institutional structure to another – in this case from the charitable social form of the church to the violent machinations of the state. In each case, however, the presence and future of Christ is denied; they are ethics without an eschatology. But in typical Anabaptist fashion, Yoder suggests that institutions were never the answer, whether religious or political; Jesus built not an institution, but a body that has and will suffer on behalf of others. Our end, our telos, is nothing but God, who cannot be controlled. Nothing can bring us to God but Christ in his body. However, structures are here and they are not going away; in fact, “We cannot live with them” and “we cannot live without them.” The only distinctively Christological response to the power of institutions is that of “refusing to support them” on their own terms, “in their self-glorification.” To fail to do so is to fail to exist particularly as the Church. The name Yoder gives the peculiarity of Christian ethics is “revolutionary subordination.”
Right order is centrally important for Yoder, and he contrasts “willing and meaningful” subordination against forceful subjection and passive submission. Women and slaves serve as a case study for him, as they had no moral substance or legal status in the world of the Gospels. Paul and Jesus’ overt and deliberate attention to them is noteworthy in that it presumes that 1) the Christian moral order includes those previously excluded, and that 2) men “in the superordinate position” shared equally in the command to subordination (even to such non-beings). That “the subordinate person in the social order is addressed as a moral agent” was itself revolutionary. An attitude of revolutionary subordination makes a spectacle of the powers, it shames corrupt powers by going the second mile, turning the other cheek, and loving those we have a right to hate. Yoder would agree that power per se is not evil, but “the powers,” being human and fallible, may and do suffer from corruption. Christian response to corruption is limited by the command to love, within which we have little choice but to subordinate ourselves thereto in a manner that honors the dignity of those in power.
In Jesus, even slaves enjoyed previously denied moral agency, for “The subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent in the act of voluntarily acceding to subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalistically or resentfully.” This statement garnered Yoder severe backlash and set himself apart from liberation theologies of his day. What Christ did on the cross was to save humankind from the very disorderliness that makes war thinkable. Christ stepped outside the typical power dynamics that presumed acrimony and animosity by subordinating himself to the powers over him, even to the point of death on a cross. Animosity gives power to the person we hate, for we still desire their attention. The attention Christian realism gave to statecraft represented a kind of idolatry, as it loved violence for survival more than it did suffering for salvation. For death, we will see, is particularly the realm of humans and their institutions, and any denial of its persistence by a realistic ethic is a mark of idolatry.
That the Church failed for many centuries to delegitimize slavery has offended modern people, but it ignores the truth behind Christian realist claims that Yoder admits has some merit – Jesus and Paul each saw the world’s passing away as being immanent and unavoidable. Niebuhr used this against pacifist claims, since he saw imitating early Christian ethics as being therefore inadmissible to contemporary ethical inquiry – the world has not passed away as expected, so Jesus must not have anticipated or respected societal need for survival. Far from a fatalistic assent to slavery or gender inequality, Christians may work toward their abolition because, unlike Paul, they have stubbornly refused to pass away as finite human persons and structures should. However, any work against such structures that can distinctively be called “Christian” must reflect a “freedom from needing to smash them, since they are about to crumble anyway.”
Jesus did not smash the politics of his day, nor are Christians of any day called to do so. We work within their rebellious nature as fallen structures, remembering that we too are in a similar state. Yoder’s exegetical and theological prowess have trod a path few have followed, “for the gate is narrow and the road is hard.” Jesus did not fight the politics of Rome because he knew it was passing away. The deep irony of Niebuhr’s claim is that Jesus was right! And not just because he was the Messiah; we can see that Rome has passed away, it is obvious that the world of the early Christians has died. Christians need not work toward national survival because such human structures, properly subordinate to God, will all return to dust. To grasp at power and resort to violence to save our lives or our culture is folly, but we may cling to Christ in whom our salvation is secured.
In the end (and there will be an end to everything human), any ethic that relativizes Jesus does so at the expense of bearing the title “Christian.” Yoder rightly criticizes American social ethics of the past century of having had to assume that because Jesus and the early church thought the world was passing away that they have nothing to offer the contemporary church. However, it was precisely their recognition of worldly impermanence that allowed them to worship Christ instead of Caesar. Every human person and structure is subject to death and is subordinate to Christ. Recognizing this proper ordering is revolutionary in a world that seeks to be permanently relevant (ultimately to itself). People and nations rose from the dust and they shall return thereto in due time. Yoder knew that the stubborn refusal to accept finitude by managing politics and history was a sure sign of idolatry. Attempts to control our telos reveal that our telos is not God, for God cannot be managed. Therefore, any ethic that turns its focus from Christ to Caesar has traded the cross for the sword. Christian ethics must begin and end with Christ; Jesus must be normative for ethics to be distinctively Christian, for his life and teachings do not reflect the avoidance of politics but are themselves inherently political. Our politics are not of this world – our politics are The Politics of Jesus.