The Politics of Jesus – A Review

The book by John Howard Yodar named the politics of Jesus written in 1972 was extremely influential and remains influential; anyone who wants to understand contemporary political theology should read this book. The name can be misleading given the modern concept of what politics are. Modern politics generally have to do with the State, who controls the state, what the role of the state is, what state laws are and so on, but what Yodar is talking about could be more described as a social ethic.

The world in which Jesus lived was not one where politics had a clear demarcation line. We can see from Josephus that both Judas of Galilee, who lead an armed resistance to the Roman Census, and Theudas who claimed to be a prophet who would part the Jordan River, were killed by the Roman authorities, as political enemies of the State. Both resisting a state census and claiming to be a prophet who could perform miracles were seen as political acts. Yoder’s source in mainly taken from the gospel according to Luke, and his general thesis is that Jesus was outlining a new social ethic, one based on the Jubilee, the creation of an alternative community and non-violence.

John Howard Yodar tends to follow the Gospel of Luke, for good reason, it tends to be the most socially conscious of the four Gospels, Yodar Writes:

Luke also speaks of proclaiming «the evangel of the kingdom» (4:43), yet he does not use these phrases at the very beginning of the ministry; for Theophilus they would not have the same density of technical meaning as for Mark’s readers. Luke instead unfolds the same claim in a fuller statement in the synagogue at Nazareth.

And then later:

We may have great difficulty in knowing in what sense this event came to pass (the fulfilling of the Isaiah 61 prophesy) or could have come to pass; but what the event was supposed to be is clear: it is a visible socio-political, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God, achieved by divine intervention in the person of Jesus as the one Anointed and endued with the Spirit.

This is a good short statement of Yodar’s position on the political nature of the Gospel. He goes through different parts of Luke explaining how different episodes in the gospel relate to Jesus’ socio-political message. Then comes a long discussion on the Jubilee (Which I myself have written a little about here). The discussion of the Jubilee, not as a metaphor, not as a spiritualized concept, but rather as an actual economic institution, is something that is important to fully understanding Jesus’ message and why it resonated so much with the poor and the oppressed that one cannot really grasp the gospel without understanding it. The chapter dealing with the Jubilee discusses its three aspects, the fallow year, the remission of debts and liberation of slaves, and the redistribution of Capital, these were concrete economic policies that Jesus declared, and which were central to Jesus’ social message. Yodar Writes:

It is really a jubilee, conformed to the sabbatical instructions of Moses, that Jesus proclaimed in A.D. 26: a jubilee able to resolve the social problem in Israel, by abolishing debts and liberation debtors whose insolvency had reduced them to slavery. The practice of such a jubilee was not optional. It belonged to the precursors of the Kingdom.

Then later:

Such a redistribution of capital, accomplished every fifty years by faithfulness to the righteous will of God an in the expectation of the kingdom, would today be nothing utopian. Many bloody revolutions would have been avoided if the Christian church had shown herself more respectful than Israel was of the jubilee dispositions contained in the Law of Moses.

Understanding these aspects of Jesus’ message makes it clear why the powers that be wanted him dead; it’s very likely the same would be of the powers of today. However, John Howard Yodar is very careful to say that what Jesus was doing is not the same as what revolutionaries in the twentieth century were doing; he was doing something completely different.

Overall one thing I appreciate about this book is it doesn’t fall into the false dilemma of either Jesus being a spiritual religious figure, or a socio-political one, either Jesus believed in in the power of God and Heaven, or he believed in concrete social change. The fact is, and John Howard Yodar gets this, Jesus made no such distinctions, he preached the power of God, not just as a metaphor, not just as something that inspires people, but also as a real concrete power. At the same time, he also preached of a real alternative to the economic and political powers of the time, which was possible through the power of God.

The Chapter of the Book titled «God will Fight for us» is a great example of this, and a chapter that I’m sure would make a liberal theological (who might otherwise be sympathetic to the social message of the book) cringe somewhat. He says:

We are testing whether what Jesus meant is properly to be determined under the shadow of our assumption that for him, or his listeners, or for the Gospel writers and readers, concrete divine intervention was no option, or if conceivable at all, would have meant the end of time and of social-historical process. The evidence is abundant that such a dilemma not only was not self-evident, but was unthinkable.

This is a great reminder for modern readers of the Gospel. Our modern age is one of disenchantment, where what happens here in the material realm is considered to be natural and devoid of spiritual agency, and where spiritual generally means non-material. Jesus’ age did not have this worldview, God was known to have acted in history, and was expected to act in history. The exodus from Egypt was not considered to be a slave rebellion that could be told in a spiritualized way, it was a God acting in the world, a political action no doubt, a huge social and economic shift of power, but one done by God’s hand, and experienced in space and time in this world through Moses.

It can be very easy to read back modern materialist assumptions back into scripture where it doesn’t exist. As previously mentioned two Jewish revolutionaries, Theudus and Judas of Galilee attempted a subversive activity, using different tactics, one what we would consider material, the other what we would consider spiritual, both political.

The book deals a lot of the concept of non-violent resistance tied with the idea of a revolutionary subordination. That Jesus preached non-violence shouldn’t be controversial at all, what is controversial is Paul’s attitude toward non-violence or whether some kind of violence could be legitimate. John Howard Yodar emphasizes that Jesus had the option of going the way of the Zealot, but chose another path, however what about Romans 13? John Howard Yodar dedicates a chapter to Romans 13. To give an example of Yodar’s position he says:

God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their Place.

And then:

This is true of all governments. It is a statement both de facto and de jure.


That God orders and uses the powers does not reveal anything new about what government should be or how we should respond to government. A given government is not mandated or saved or made a channel of the will of God; it is simply lined up, used by God in the ordering of the cosmos. It does not mean that what individuals in government do is good human behaviour. As we noted, the librarian does not approve of the content of a book he or she shelves; God did not approve morally of the brutality whereby Assyria chastised Israel.

Careful analysis of texts very often make the nationalist apologetics disappear. That this admonition would apply to all governments should give pause to the nationalist trying to use it as an apologetic, we must remember that Paul was writing to people under the Roman Empire, not a government friendly to Christians, not by any means an ethical government, it was one steeped in idolatry, yet one that God could use to order things so that Christianity could spread. Yodar also insists in keeping in mind the context, he says:

There is a most specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God.

He also talks earlier about other implications of the context:

Chapter 12 begins with a call to nonconformity, motivated by the memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian community and, with regard to enemies, in suffering. The concept of love then recurs in 13:8-10. Therefore, any interpretation of 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context.

To easily many nationalist apologists appealing to scripture will take Romans 13 in an overly simplistic way, and just assert that it is justifying Christian participation in state violence, Yodar’s analysis does a wonderful job showing just how silly that is.

The case given for Christian pacifism in Yodar’s book is rock solid and (thankfully) entirely based on exegesis, it is historical without being historicist, it is political without being partisan, it is ethical without being moralizing and it is faithful to scripture without being fundamentalist. Anyone interested in what the Christian’s relationship to the state and state violence should be owes it to himself to read this book.

Another great theme in Yodar’s book is that of a radical community. He Writes:

What can be called “the otherness of the church” is an attitude rooted in strength and not in weakness. It consists in being a herald of liberation and not a community of slaves. It is not a detour or a waiting period, looking forward to better days which one hopes might come a few centuries later; it was rather a victory when the church rejected the temptations of the Zealot and the Maccabean patriotism and Herodian collaboration. The church accepted as gift being the “new humanity” created by the cross and not by the sword.

What needs to be seen is rather that that primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community. Here, within this community, people are rendered humble and changed in the way they behave not simply by a proclamation directed to their sense of built but also by genuine social relationships with other persons who ask them about their obedience; who (in the words of Jesus) “bind and loose.”

Although the book seems to be a mixture of different subjects pushed together, all political in a certain sense, all ethical, when examined closely there is a theme running through. Christ declared the Jubilee, liberation, a revolution, a starting over in specifically economic terms; this jubilee was brought about not through the Zealot option, nor through the Herodian option, but rather through the suffering servant option. From that comes a new community that works out the Jubilee, through its proclamation, non-violence, subordination to one another, and a refusal to play by the rules of the nations. This theme is strongly defended, exegetically and theologically, and done so without any partisan appealing and staying faithful to scripture.

The Politics of Jesus – A Review

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