The Politics of Jesus: The Shape of Christian Ethics

"This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
Mark 9:7

Yoder’s essential argument is that if Jesus is who the Church has historically proclaimed him to be then the example of his life and teachings should be normative for Christian social ethics. Jesus – reveals the nature of God and offers a radical new possibility for human social and political relationships, a possibility that is revolutionary if fully implemented. Jesus demonstrates the God-given potential of humanity and shows us how to become children of God once again.


Over the centuries it has been argued that Jesus is irrelevant for politics because he deals with inward and spiritual matters rather than the outward aspects of public life. Yoder argues that, if politics is define in terms of the way human life is organised and the values that underpin it, then Jesus was indeed offering a new political vision. Three examples:

Mary’s Magnificat - Upon learning of her pregnancy, Mary gives a song of praise in which she says:

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

John the Baptist’s Message - Preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist advises the crowds that:

"Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same." (Luke 3:11)

The Nature of Jesus’ Death - Crucifixion was the Roman form of execution reserved for rebels and insurrectionists (those who threatened the status quo).

As a Jewish teacher and leader living in Palestine under Roman rule, Jesus faced a number of existing options:

Realism – seeking to further ones ends by compromise and accommodation with the powers that be. This was the option chosen by the Herodians and the Sadducees.

Violent Revolution – seeking to further a righteous cause through armed rebellion. This was the option chosen by the Zealots.

Withdrawal to the Desert – seeking to keep oneself absolutely pure and uncorrupted by complete physical separation from the world. This was the option chosen by the Essene community.

Proper Religion – Seeking to maintain a distinction between proper religion (that is inward and personal) and the public world (that is outward and political). This was the option chosen by the Pharisees.

Jesus rejected all these available options and his life and teaching offered a completely new option that reveals the way in which God deals with evil.

Revolutionary Subordination – Living a new set of social and political relationships as a visible alternative that opposes evil whilst refusing to use evil means to achieve its aims. This involves establishing a new way of life within the old rather than seeking to actively control or destroy the old.

There is absolute consistency between Jesus’ words/teaching and his life/conduct (he lived the principles he taught). What are the key characteristics of Jesus’ ethics?

A. God’s Way of Unconditional Love
God’s way of unconditional love is the very foundation stone of Jesus’ ethics. Although this is a relatively simple concept to understand; in practice it is both hugely challenging and genuinely revolutionary. This principle is explained by Jesus in Matthew 5:44-48:

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus is making clear that the perfection of God takes the form of indiscriminate and unconditional love. We are loved by God despite our rebellion and should love perfectly, indiscriminately and unconditionally too in response to God’s forgiveness and love for us.

B. A rejection of the use of power and force to get results
Through his reading of Luke’s Gospel Yoder demonstrates that throughout his life and ministry Jesus is continually faced with the temptation to assert control and get results through the use of power and force. He resists this temptation to the end and chooses death on the cross rather than complicity with evil. Yoder demonstrates this with reference to four episodes in the Gospel:

The Temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13) – the devil’s testing of Jesus in the desert are usually seen in individualistic terms. However, Yoder argues that each test represents the temptation to assert power and control in order to become king (the populist politician feeding the masses, the conquering emperor using power politics and the religious showman using institutional religion). Jesus rejects all these temptations.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Luke 9:12-17) – Jesus appears to fall for the devil’s first temptation in the desert by feeding the masses through a miracle. However, he does not use the popularity this engenders with the crowds to launch a bid for power. Time and again he withdraws from the crowds who want to make him king.

The Cleansing of the Temple (Luke 19:45-46) – Jesus asserts his authority by driving the traders out of the Temple. Although he clearly had large numbers of people following and supporting him, he does not use this situation to make a bid for power by provoking insurrection.

Gethsemane Arrest (Luke 22:47-51) – Jesus resists the temptation to use force and violence to defend himself at his arrest. His final act of freedom is the rejection of a violent act by one of his follows and the restoration of the harm done.

C. Egalitarian Servant Leadership
Yoder points out that, in addition to rejecting control and force, Jesus also teaches that his is the way of the servant rather than the way of status and power. He makes it quite clear that this is to be the way of his disciples too. From Luke 22:24-27:

“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

D. Jubilee reflects the nature of God’s kingdom
In Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus announces the jubilee by Quoting Isaiah 61:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."Luke 4:18-19

The jubilee is most fully described in Leviticus 25 in which every 50th year the people of Israel are instructed to implement a ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ which interrupts business as usual with a call for debts to be cancelled, those imprisoned due to unpaid debts to be set free, the land to be given a ‘rest’ or a fallow year and the land that had been sold to obtain cash needed for survival to be returned to its original owners (from Sharon H Ringe 2006).

The principles of jubilee can be seen in many aspects of Jesus’ teaching and life. For example:

Table fellowship and the common meal – Demonstrating that economic sharing and the transcendence of class/ethnic barriers are a characteristic of the messianic age.

A concern for the poor and outcasts – clearly seen in many of Jesus’ teachings and parables.

The Beatitudes – who can rejoice in the coming of the kingdom? The poor, the meek and the merciful.

In summary

Love of enemies – not – vengeance and war

Suffering service – not – An obsession with power and control

Poor and outcasts – not – A focus on status and social standing.

No cooperation with evil – not – The end justifies the means.

Liberation of jubilee – not – The politics of greed and acquisition

The Significance of the cross

In this sense, the cross becomes the price we pay for living these ethics in a rebellious world ruled by hate. The cross is the political alternative to insurrection and quietism and reveals how God deals with evil.

Firmly rooted in the Hebrew tradition, Jesus forms a new inclusive people of God who are called out to live a way that is a foretaste of what will eventually come for all humanity/creation.

• The Hebrews were a powerless slave people and Jesus’ disciples were also drawn from the powerless and despised (fishermen, Zealots, publicans and women).

• This is a distinct community with a deviant lifestyle that makes visible the way of God within creation.

• The last supper is a Passover meal emphasising the role of God as liberator.

• This costly way is only possible in community and with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Yoder demonstrates that the early church and Paul the Apostle in particular remain true to these ethics (see the Bible references for Paul’s understanding of ‘foolishness’ and ‘weakness’). He also shows how Paul’s understanding of the ‘principalities and powers’ reinforces this position on the church’s relationship to the world.

Throughout the centuries Christians have developed a number of different ways to justify ignoring the social and political implications of Jesus’ life and teachings:

An interim ethic – Jesus thought the world was about to end and so his teachings were only meant to apply for a very short time period. So, given that the world didn’t end, the politics of Jesus are regarded as impractical for social ethics in the long term.

An ethic of simple rural life – The teachings of Jesus are only applicable to his specific historical and social context. They might well have worked within small-scale rural communities in first century Palestine but they are wholly inappropriate for complex urbanised societies.

An ethic of powerlessness – Jesus and his followers did not have to establish ethics for running society because they were in a position of powerlessness. Therefore, when Christians do face the responsibilities associated with power, they have to look elsewhere for their social ethics.

Personal spirituality – Jesus’ teachings focus on a personal and inward spirituality. They do not deal with social and political matters. Hence we must look somewhere other than to Jesus for our social and political ethics.

Radical monotheism – Jesus’ teachings reflect a God of radical transcendence and otherness. The ways of God are entirely alien to the finite values of humanity. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the two.

Jesus as a sacrifice for sins – Jesus came to give his life as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Therefore the details of his life are ethically immaterial. It is faith alone that saves not our efforts (See the Nicene Creed!).


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