As I finished my undergraduate studies and looked forward to graduate (and looked hopefully to post-graduate studies), I realized how under prepared for academia I was (am). As I said before, I took it upon myself to prepare for graduate school by reading essential works for my field of interest (pneumatology and liberation theology) and began with Amos Yong's The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh (for a review, see here). Since finishing with Yong I moved onto Yoder's classic Politics of Jesus. Here, I offer some thoughts on Yoder's argument and text.
What Yoder wants to do is show how Jesus is the example for New Testament (NT) ethics and therefore the Christian ethos. "I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such a Jesus would be of direct significance for social ethics" (p. 11). He argues against the understanding of Jesus's ethical teaching as either temporary (p. 5), too pastoral , too personal, too spiritual (p. 6), not practical or as not concerned with it at all (p. 7).
On the back-cover, there is a quote by Stanley Hauerwas that reads as follows: "I am convinced that when Christians look back on this century of theology in America, The Politics of Jesus will be seen as a new beginning." Indeed. Yoder challenged many of us. His argumentation chapters like "God Will Fight For Us" (ch. 4) can be wanting and not fully engaged with a theological interpretation of scripture as it seems him goal. This should not detract from his basic argument that ancient people had an understanding of a God who intervenes on their behalf.
Yoder does hit his stride in places like chapter ten ("Let Every Soul Be Subject") and eleven ("Justification by Grace through Faith"). In chapter ten, we see Yoder the Exegete. Moving carefully over the letter to the Romans (rightly defined as an ecclesiological letter) and especially over the thirteenth chapter. He overturns common assumptions about what is meant by "the sword" and recognition of power. This chapter is truly a must read for those interested in political theology. In chapter eleven, we see a Yoder of the New Perspective. The first edition of this text comes five years before Sanders's landmark text Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Here he argues that the "fundamental issue was that of the social form of the church" (p. 216). Paul was not, Yoder says, "preoccupied with his guilt and seeking the assurance of a gracious God; he was rather robust of conscience and untroubled about whether God was gracious or not" (p. 215). He speaks more to the point about Gentile inclusion in the proceeding paragraphs and argues quite convincingly.
John Howard Yoder weighs heavy because of the way political systems have entrenched themselves in the lives of Christians. Politics and governmental systems have long been held to be the sword of God distributing wrath and justice alike and have been found to have biblical and theological justification for the most heinous of crimes imaginable. Here we have a John the Baptist, calling a people to repent and be baptized (perhaps rebaptized in the case of Yoder). Jesus then is to "have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word...and the Lord" (p. 246).