The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

Cartoon credit: Signe Wilkinson, Philadelphia Daily News

For all our talk about the separation of church and state, religion and politics go notoriously hand-in-hand in these United States of America.  During the last presidential election cycle, religion was a major issue for no less than three of the candidates in the primaries: Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who demonstrated particular savvy with evangelicals, Mitt Romney, a member of what was, not too long ago, a little-known cult out of Utah, and, most famously, Barack Obama, whose close friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright sparked a storm of controversy.  Remember this?

We talk about God a lot in American politics.  But we don’t talk about Jesus much.


This seems like an obvious and pertinent question to me, and perhaps to many of you, too.  But Yoder is writing long before evangelicals like Shane Claiborne, for example, started insisting that we deal with this problem.  The Politics of Jesus is a groundbreaking work, simply for stating that Jesus has anything to say at all.

Now, thanks to Yoder, many would Jesus’ relevance for granted.  But before him, many theologians had distanced Jesus from contemporary ethics so far that to even bring him up in conversation might have seemed bizarre.  These theologians put forward and popularized what Yoder calls “mainstream ethics”, which most Americans probably still would agree with today.  Mainstream types cite multiple reasons that Jesus’ words shouldn’t be a factor in contemporary politics.  I’ll cite a few here:

  1. Eschatological.  Jesus assumed that the “end times” (the eschaton) would come relatively soon, and that society as he and his contemporaries knew it would soon come to an abrupt end.  His entire ethical system—of rejecting wealth, of non-retaliation, of radical generosity–was dependent on this assumption. But the end times didn’t come. Jesus was wrong. We need an ethic that can sustain societal structures, rather than one that assumes their imminent collapse.
  2. Sociological.  Jesus lived out his days in a rural, agrarian society where it was indeed possible to know and love each person that you encountered, like the Good Samaritan.  But the modern world is urbanized and industrialized, and it simply isn’t possible to create this kind of world anymore.  Should we really put every homeless person we encounter up for the night, or be expected to give generously to everyone who needs it?  There are too many people in the world, and not enough time in the day!
  3. Political.  Jesus and his early followers, in brief, weren’t in charge of anything.  They were a small minority group living under Roman occupation.  But since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have found themselves not only a majority, but a ruling majority.  Problems of government and war and administration are now pertinent in a way that Jesus never considered, and this carries with it certain kinds of responsibilities that Jesus simply didn’t address.
  4. Theological.  Jesus didn’t come to start a revolution or inspire social change; he came in humility as a sacrifice of atonement.  Ultimately, it’s what Jesus did in the Crucifixion (and maybe the Resurrection) that matters, and not what he said or did beforehand.

Now, you and I, perhaps, can see the holes in some of these arguments right off the bat.  But these are the reasons mainstream ethicists (and Christian ones, at that!) say that Jesus is no starting point for the great ethical questions.

For mainstream folks, ethics begins not with the words of Jesus, but with a long, hard analysis of the realistic options given by the world around us.

Whether this ethic of natural law be encountered in the reformation form [ . . . ] or in the older catholic forms where “nature” is known in other ways, the structure of the argument is the same: it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.

Kind of a strange logic, isn’t it?  I mean, if you believe in the Incarnation—that is, if you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh—then you’d think that every word from the Word’s mouth would be held specially close to the Christian’s heart.  But, for whatever reason, it often isn’t.  We often forget.

With this in mind, Yoder sets out to do two things.  First, he wants to show that the life and ministry of Jesus is relevant to Christian social ethics.  Second, he will argue that Jesus’ ethical vision is not merely relevant, but, in fact, normative for all Christians, everywhere, at every time.


"Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."

That’s a tall order.  Should the Christian response to 9/11 have been “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”?  Should American Christians offer hospitality and love to terrorists in their midst?  What about “do not resist an evildoer”?  Should we let those who would murder us do what they want?

How is such an ethic even achievable at all?


About mikezosel

I got a BA from the SOT at SPU. Now I sling espresso, serve donuts, and, uh, blog. Word. View all posts by mikezosel

3 responses to “The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 1: The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic

  • ben adam

    Thanks for the summary. When I read this book, I thought I did not understand it at all, but now that I am reflecting on reading it, I see how influential it was on me. I think I am going to do a book review soon. We’ll see. Maybe Chauncey and I should pick it up and read along.

    • mikezosel

      Dude that’d be a sweet way to read through it. This chapter is really just setting up the whole book but I’m hoping that the rest will pick up and there will be more of a chance for me to comment rather than just give a summary.

  • Aphasia Chronicles

    Hey, I just stumbled across your blog and found your post pretty relevant, since I am in the midst of reading “Jesus for President.” Tough questions…I will say this though: I don’t know if the response to 9/11 that was chosen brought the US any closer to its goals for security and peace. I guess the other question is whether one can expect a secular state to live according to the ethics of Christ…

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