Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Four Books that Changed My Life, Episode 4: The Politics of Jesus

To this point, my list of books includes one book that is a feminist reading of the Old Testament and one book that would be a radically new understanding of prophetic literature. I suppose I have saved the most controversial for last. 

John Howard Yoder's, The Politics of Jesus is the most theological read of the four books that changed my life, but in some ways, it's the most practical. Yoder sets out to develop an ethic based on a radical new understanding of the life of Jesus in the New Testament. Yoder would likely say it's more a rediscovery of exactly who Jesus was. Through his careful reading of the New Testament with special emphasis on Luke, Yoder shows that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition. Jesus is a counter-cultural prophet who articulates a new worldview--the kingdom of God. People who have citizenship in the Kingdom of God have lives and ethics that look different from the rest of the world.

Like most American Christians. I grew up in a tradition that in practice saw the Beatitudes as an eschatological ideal. The Beatitudes were what would happen in heaven when humanity is finally and perfectly reconciled to God. When I read the Politics of Jesus, I found that Yoder actually expected Christians to be influenced by the life of Jesus in the here, not just the hereafter. Yoder felt that if Christians really believe that Jesus was fully human then Jesus is the model for all humans. Jesus shows Christians what is expected and what is possible. Christians must love their enemies. They must turn the other cheek. They must pray for those who persecute them. Yoder took the Bible seriously, and he took the life of Christ seriously. When faced with that, I had to listen to what he had to say. Yoder (a Mennonite by tradition) carefully laid out the inescapable reality for me...violence in defense of justice is not the call of Christ. Yoder made pacifism cool again. It had been cool for the centuries prior to Constantine but wasn't really mainstream after 325 CE.

Ultimately, John Howard Yoder confronted me with one simple truth, if I take seriously the call to be like Jesus, then I must do what Jesus did and I must do what Jesus said. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and when he was beaten, that's exactly what he did. Jesus said to love your enemies, and when he was crucified, that's what he did. Jesus said to lay down your life for your friends, and that's what he did.

If I take seriously what Jesus said--and I take seriously what Jesus did--and I believe I am called to be like Jesus, I have no choice but to be a pacifist. 

When students find out I am a pacifist, they get confused. Students usually assume that I'm a pacifist because I want to be or that a pacifist or because I believe it's an effective method for social change. Certainly, Martin Luther King and Gandhi have shown us that pacifism can be an effective means for social change. Ultimately, however, that's not the reason that I'm a pacifist. John Howard Yoder showed me that if I want to be like Jesus, violence in defense of justice is not a position I can defend from the Bible.

Too often pacifism was/is equated with passivism. Yoder also made clear that living a life like Jesus is also not an excuse for inaction. Yoder argued for a radically active pacifism--a pacifism that works for the kingdom of God in this world--a pacifism that stands against injustice. For Yoder, Christlike pacifism loves its neighbor and defends its neighbor. It is willing to give its life for a friend. It is NOT the passive Christians who use their Christianity as an excuse to allow atrocities to take place. 

While Yoder had some difficulties in his personal life, no one can dispute he was a brilliant thinker and careful exegete. And I am not the same for reading his work.

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