July 02, 2004
The Politics of Jesus, part 1

John Howard Yoder wrote his book in 1972 in response to theologies at the time that asserted Jesus was totally non-political, which was under challenge from some hippies and "Jesus freaks." Yoder basically makes the case for the hippies, though in a much more rigorous fashion than they did.

In the first chapter, he outlines eight reasons why mainstream Christians don't see Jesus as political. Some of them I've heard before, and in fact raised myself: that he thought the world was about to end, so making a viable social system was not his concern; that he was part of, and speaking to, a politically disempowered group that had no plan for actual rule; that the atonement was a divine transaction that only assures us that we're forgiven, and doesn't have anything to do with how we act (sort of the attitude the iMonk was criticizing here.)

But as he begins his exegesis, clearly Yoder's biggest mental opponents are people who want to "spiritualize" Jesus, making him so not-of-this-world that he would be entirely above lowly matters like human social behavior. Given the crowd I've been hanging with, I'd never really heard that position. So it's kind of amusing watching Yoder basically argue that Jesus meant what he said: when he spoke of kings, nations, wealth and poverty, he was actually talking about kings, nations, wealth and poverty and not using metaphors for some spiritual states.

Sometimes his hermeneutics get more subtle, however. I was a little thrown off by his political exegesis of the temptation in the desert. The vision of bread that Satan offers the fasting Jesus is not just about food, Yoder argues, because "one does not break a fast of forty days with crusty bread, certainly not with a field of boulder-sized loaves." I don't know, when I'm hungry enough I can have fantasies of food all out of proportion with what I can eat. I can only guess what it would be like after more than a month of hunger.

But Yoder is developing a larger point. Jesus' big temptation in life was not the Last Temptation of Christ image of running away and living as an ordinary schmo, according to Yoder. It was of becoming a powerful worldly leader. The three temptations in the desert foreshadow the three points in his ministry where the temptation is greatest. The field of bread images the miracle of the loaves, where the crowd was prepared to make him king on the spot because of his feeding abilities. The offer of the nations of the world prefigures the cleansing of the temple, when the hopped-up crowd was ready to go on and storm the palace. Finally, the temptation to jump off the top of the temple and stop his fall -- Yoder notes that this was how some people were executed at the time -- foresees a temptation to bring "twelve legions of angels" to stop his crucifixion.

Put together like that, it's a lot more convincing.

Yoder also seeks to counter some who think they see justification for violence in the Gospels. The most interesting part for me is his analysis of the cleansing of the Temple, an event I've never been able to visualize. How did the one guy drive out all those money-changers at all, much less nonviolently? Yoder argues that the whip Jesus gussied up was used to get the animals moving, but he did not whip people. Rather, Yoder says, Jesus was "riding on the crest of the crowd's enthusiasm and profiting from the confusion as the liberated cattle stampede from the court and the traffickers scramble across the cobblestones after their money."

Another instance that I've heard raised by anti-pacifists is where Jesus tells his disciples to bring two swords to the scene of his arrest. Yoder argues that this is not meant for combat, but a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that the suffering servant was "reckoned with the transgressors." I don't know, the idea that Jesus did things to explicitly fulfill prophecy always struck me as weird. It's like saying the city council met on Monday because they'd announced it in the paper. But anyway, Yoder is right that the swords clearly aren't meant for defense, since when one person tries to use it for such Jesus rebukes him and heals the soldier's wound.

So that's the first 50-odd pages. Thanks for tuning in, folks.

Posted by Camassia at July 02, 2004 05:16 PM | TrackBack

I've been thinking about your last two posts, particularly about whether there is an important distinction between police work and war. If there is a such a distinction, there might be a way for Christians to dismiss the usual "justifications for violence" and temptations to become "worldly political leaders" without having to completely renounce the use of force altogether.

In an article in America, the Mennonite theologian Gerard Schlabach (who is becoming Roman Catholic, or, in his words, a "Mennonite Catholic") suggests such a distinction. He writes that, "After Sept. 11 the best alternative to military retaliation many pacifists could advocate was to treat the attacks as a crime and to try the terrorists in international law courts." But even that sort of thing requires some use of force.

But that force can be imagined in the context of "just policing." Schlabach:

"The pacifist and just war traditions could not only achieve greater clarity about the war, but might even find this becoming less of a church-dividing issue, if they both paid more attention to ways in which war is significantly different from policing:

"Political leaders draw on the rhetoric of national pride, honor and crusading to marshal the political will and sustain the sacrifices necessary to fight wars. This routinely produces the phenomena we call 'war fever' and 'rallying around the flag,' which make moral deliberation difficult, if not impossible. Police officials by contrast appeal to the common good of the community to justify their actions, seeking to defuse the emotions that lead to violence.

"Even circumscribed warfare that meets the standards of the just war tradition is too blunt a tool to serve the police officer's task of identifying and apprehending criminals. Police officers are expected to use the minimum force needed to achieve their objective, and are judged harshly if there is 'collateral damage' of the kind that routinely occurs in warfare.

"War can never be subject to the rule of law in the way that policing is. As Stanley Hauerwas notes, in good policing the 'arresting agent is not the same as the judging agent,' but in war 'those two are the same.' If the development of democratic processes since the time of the ancient Greeks teaches us anything, it is that no rule of law is possible without separating the roles of judge and arresting agent.

"We have words like 'frenzy' and 'berserk' in our vocabulary because our ancestors noticed that in the heat of battle irrationality sets in. In this volatile psychological situation, soldiers can strike indiscriminately and draw on every emotion that Augustine's theory of "right intention" would rule out. Police officials by contrast go to great lengths to prevent this phenomenon; and when it occurs, we condemn it as police brutality."

Furthermore, Schlabach says, the process of policing, though involving force as a last resort, has also managed to incorporate the contributions of those themselves committed to non-violence - programs for victim-offender reconciliation and the renunciation of retributive justice, for instance.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on July 3, 2004 10:40 AM

Policing, and even war, are probably always going to be inevitable. The question is, therefore, whether a Christian should participate actively in either one. Policing is a profession and all professions have alternatives. Warfare is a sporadic thing to which it is possible to offer resistance, although a greater or lesser degree of martyrdom may be entailed in so doing.

Posted by: Rob on July 3, 2004 03:35 PM

Neil, I see the point you're making, and I do recognize the difference between policing and war. But even if policing is under the rule of law, the question is, what law? A police officer swears an oath to enforce the laws of his nation, state and city, whatever they may be. To lay down his life for them, if necessary. This creates a conflict if the law you are sworn to enforce goes against the law of Christ. Nobody but the Jehovah's Witnesses seem to take seriously Jesus' warnings against taking oaths any more, but that sort of thing shows why perhaps mainline Christians should pay more attention.

Posted by: Camassia on July 4, 2004 10:46 AM

Actually, Quakers and Mennonites have a problem with oaths, too.

Quaker and Mennonite positions on policing and law enforcement are various. When Quakers governed Pennsylvania, a role for policing and law enforcement was accepted, but participation in war was not. This led to some controversy when the Crown demanded taxes for military purposes, and the requests were variously refused, granted, or granted "for grain" (see http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ14-Quakers.html for this history).

Quakers have a long history of being involved in prison reform, and some Quakers are now involved in efforts for restorative justice (http://www.restorativejustice.org/).

I do, though, see a difference in principle between police work and war, for all the reasons Neil says.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on July 5, 2004 11:51 AM
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