Saturday, July 11, 2009

Walking Through The Politics of Jesus: Introduction

Several years ago, I considered myself an absolute pacifist. To make a long story short, I spent years defending a pacifist reading of the Old and New Testament to my Reformed peers. Unfortunately, I lacked a theological framework that would help me to make sense of the overall Scriptural narrative. Particularly, I had a hard time understanding how I could believe that it is always wrong to do violence, while at the same time believing that God had commanded extreme acts of violence in the Old Testament times without resorting to a dispensational hermeneutic.

I was introduced to The Politics of Jesus via the writings of Duke University professor, Stanley Hauerwas. I turned to Hauerwas because he was a prominent opponents of the Iraq war following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and most importantly to me, he opposed it as a Christian. Living in the Bible-belt and being surrounded by warmongers was starting to get to me, so his non-Americocentric perspective felt (and still does) like a breath of fresh air. Hauerwas seemed to believe that the writings of John Howard Yoder were profoundly important for understanding how a Christian could love and adhere to the complete testimony of the Scriptures while at the same time holding to a strictly pacifist ethic.

As such, I bought my own copy of The Politics of Jesus and began reading ardently through the book in hopes of filling in the missing pieces of my puzzle. I made pretty thorough notes as I read through the book, summarizing what I was reading in hopes of someday sharing my findings with others. The end of my journey (so far) was a little less dramatic than I had hoped. I ended up basically rejecting Yoder's views because I felt it required too much of a theological shift for my own comfort. Where Yoder saw politics in the New Testament, I saw personal salvation. In fact, Yoder seemed to attack people like me who favored a reading of the New Testament which understood the narrative as being more about salvation than about politics.

One of my favorite points which Yoder makes is that wars between nations prevent unity in the body of Christ since Christians from each nation end up subconsciously being nationalists instead of Christians, favoring their own country almost by default. Such biases are difficult to overcome when it comes to matters of war. Pacifism certainly seems to prevent such errors, but as we will see in my study of Yoder, I believe this to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Given my current brief conversation with Jared S. in my Unprofessional Music Review of Derek Webb's new album, I have something of a renewed spark of interest in Yoder and have decided to share what I found when reading through The Politics of Jesus. Also, it seems more and more that I am detecting Yoder's influence in theological conversations, so perhaps my timing on this "series" will be apropos.

In addition, the more I think about it, it becomes obvious to me that Yoder's views stands as a direct contrast to the Two Kingdoms model, and as such I think we all may derive a great deal of benefit from reading Yoder even if we end up disagreeing with him.

Please note that if you are a Yoder fan expecting a glowing summary, you should look elsewhere; I plan mostly to summarize Yoder's work, but I will not restrain myself from pointing out where disagreements (and agreements) occur when I cannot help myself.


  1. Sounds fun. I took a 'stab' at exploring how 2K is not necessarily antithetical to pacifism here.

    If Nick or Josh reads this, they might recall one of our conversations over pizza about something similar…

  2. Chris,

    I do recall that conversation. If memory serves me right, we were in substantial agreement in that conversation, right?

  3. I should probably be clear on something. It is not my contention that 2K is in conflict with pacifism; I think your post, Chris, makes clear that this is by no means the case. But it DOES, prima facie, conflict with Yoderian pacifism's contention that Jesus was, through and through, a political leader.

    Part of the reason I'm doing this is because I want to be corrected on my understanding of Yoder where errors exist (and they do). As such, maybe someone will straighten me out and show me why Yoder's pacifism and the 2K model aren't in conflict, after all.

  4. Indeed, Josh, you and I more than others, if I remember correctly.

    Adam, that point was left somewhat ambiguous in the post, so thanks for clearing that up. I wasn't sure if you were saying that you had "graduated" out of some kind of pacifism as a result of 2K.

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  6. Well, Jared, the discussion of the New Perspective is one that I am loosely familiar with, since those I run with theologically have spent a great amount of time discussing it. While I have not read the folks from the New Perspective personally, I have read John Piper's book which was written as a response to N.T. Wright. In my readings of this book, I had brief thoughts of Yoder (because Wright also argues that the Gospel is not primarily about getting people to heaven). I had not considered any direct links between Yoder and the NPP - mainly because TPJ was written back in the 70's and this seems to be such a contemporary discussion.

    You may recall my saying in a previous post that my main bone to pick with Yoder was this exact issue of minimizing (in my judgment) the aspect of personal salvation which Jesus came to bring to his people and bringing out the political/social elements of Jesus' ministry.

    I don't mind the one so long as it isn't a detriment to the other, but I have a feeling this is going to continue to get in the way (as I previously suspected) of my being able to take all of Yoder's argument seriously. I'm glad you made this clear for me, because I had quietly suspected a link here with the New Perspective; I just had nothing solid to go on.

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  9. Up until this point, Jared, you have been the definition of charity. Then, you figured out where I was coming from and you overreached, my friend.

    Let me back up a bit. I'm not sure how well acquainted you are with Piper, but it seems like you know his preaching well enough to know that his emphasis - moreso than many in the evangelical world - is one of the most profoundly God-centered that you can think of. This makes me believe that your characterization of him as preaching a man-centered gospel is something beyond a strawman.

    You are critical of this idea that we should be afraid of Hell, but Jesus himself warns us to be afraid of Hell and tells us just how horrible it is. Why would he do that if he didn't want us to fear it? (Or is your issue simply with the emphasis on hell in preaching?)

    You are critical of the idea that the gospel can be reduced (isn't reductionism something Hauerwas is opposed to?) to nothing more than attaining assurance, and yet the Bible is full of references to personally finding assurance of your own salvation (Phil. 2:12; 2 Pe. 1:10). It is not an either/or proposition, here. It is a both/and. There is room in the gospel for saving sinners AND social action.

    I'm really not interested in defending a man, but I'm far more interested in the ideas. I realize you're just using Piper as an example of the problems you have with the traditional perspective on Paul, but your characterization of him darkens things for me, rather than illuminating, since I don't think this interview you've read offers much clarity. Piper has written a book entitled God is the Gospel and there Piper deals quite a bit with evangelicalism's man-centered ideas about what the Gospel is. In particular, he asserts that the greatest gift that God gives to us is not reduced to salvation or assurance, but rather - God Himself. God gives us Himself, because there is no greater gift which He could share with us. Sure this saves us and keeps us out of hell; of course he believes that. But the main message Piper employs is that the Gospel is all about God, and not the gifts that He communicates. Since I have read this book and understand his ideas, I am certain it doesn't square with your contention that for Piper, "The Gospel isn't about what God has done in Jesus Christ to conquer the powers of Sin and Death, it is about how you can salve your pained conscience and avoid the fires of hell if only you can believe a certain set of doctrines."

    You may be able to see why I think your characterization is overreaching.

    I'm still looking forward to your input as I move forward in Yoder. I have really appreciated the clarity you've given me about what I'm reading through. At present, I'm very interested in a radical form of obedience to Christ that might involve nonviolence, but I'm pretty sure that Yoder's version of it cannot be made to square with the rest of my theology.

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  11. I understand, Jared. Like I said; almost everything you've said has been very charitable and not at all polemic. The tone changed with the Piper post, and I felt compelled to disagree with your assessment, which demonstrated, I think, our prima facie differences.

    In your next response, I was wondering if you could explain where this idea that what the "old perspective" is saying comes from liberalism. I mean, when I read someone like Piper (since we're using him in this example as a representative), it doesn't sound a whole lot different in many respects to something you might read from - say, St. Augustine (who far outdates the emergence of liberalism, I think you'll agree).

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  15. I appreciate what you have said, and I can even see what you are saying. I certainly don't agree with it, and I have a feeling this is ground that has been tread more ably by other better theologians than myself.

    I'm tempted to say that it is equivocating to say, "No I am not a universalist, yes I believe that people must repent of their sins and turn to Jesus in order to be saved, but your gospel message doesn't say that it's good news for those who do not believe, and that's wrong." See, to me, it is just as easy to ask you a very honest, point-blank question: "What is so good about the Gospel if somebody can refuse to believe it, and then following their death, face the wrath of God in hell?" I know, I know, you want to know why avoiding hell is such good news, but really - I don't want a cookie-cutter "I'm a new perspective guy" answer to this question - I really want to know. If the Gospel exists objectively, and it is good (I'd agree), what real, lasting benefit is it for the persistent unbeliever? As much as I rack my brain, I can think of no benefit, beyond the peripheral benefits to society of having gospel believers among you who live like Jesus told them to live. Or do you simply want to insist that it's just important that we say the gospel is always objectively true and leave it at that?

    Because even then you still end up nuancing things and saying, well of course if you want the benefits of the gospel you must still do all that stuff Piper says about believing the gospel. Do you agree that I am fairly characterizing what you're trying to tell me?

    Even if I can see both sides of this, and even if I grant, "Okay, Piper does make acceptance of the gospel the condition of whether it is good or not," how does that change anything at all? How is this not simply hair-splitting?

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  19. Thanks for answering my questions, Jared. There are so many things I could say, but as I think about it, I think I will let your comments stand on their own as representative of your overall position.

    You are right about the polarizing nature of what we're doing here, so instead of throwing wood on the fire and chasing your "predestination" rabbit down the proverbial hole, I'd rather dodge it for the sake of being germane.

    I am currently reading Wright's book Justification, just so you can know that he's doing some of the heavy lifting for you in explaining this or that.


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