Tag Archives: Theology

To the Young, Restless, and Reformed: An Open Letter

Dear Young, Restless, and Reformed:

We need to hash some things out.  See, I was trying to avoid this conversation, I really was, because so often these kinds of things degenerate into arguments that are frankly repellent and repulsive, especially to non-believers, but it seems that there are too many of you to ignore.  You have most of the big-name pastors (Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll) and have a lot of influence in the evangelical world, of which I consider myself, in some strange way, to be a member.  So we should really talk.

I want to start out by saying that I admire your enthusiasm and your passion.  You’re good people, by and large.  I rarely meet one of you whom I don’t genuinely like.  You have a love for the Scriptures that I envy, and I wish I could quote Scripture as readily as you do when entering into a theological discussion.  And I wish I were as passionate about evangelism as you, too.  But in all of that, I have a word of rebuke, and, I think, of encouragement.

First, the rebuke:

You’re very proud.

I say this, I hope you understand, not in condemnation.  We are all proud at times, and perhaps I should take a good look at the log in my own eye before I point out the speck in yours.  The things is, I think most of you know that you’re proud.  You say this among yourselves in private, or to those you trust.  “My biggest struggle is pride,” you’ll say.  I’ve heard this a lot.  John Piper took a sabbatical this year, in part, to deal with pride.  Mark Driscoll struggles with pride.  In fact, I know that you struggle with pride because you are always talking about humility.  It’s one of your favorite topics.

And still you struggle.  And I’m wondering if you’ve stopped to consider whether there might be some deeper emotional logic behind this fact.  Because from my perspective, it makes perfect sense that you’d be dealing with pride.  You see, I think there is a certain amount of theo-logic behind this tendency of yours.

Let me back up for a second.

Can we just acknowledge this together?  The world is a confusing place.

It’s big, it’s complex, there’s  a lot going on, there’s a lot to learn.  You might even call it chaotic: at first or second glance, it seems random, meaningless, and even cruel.  All kinds of things happen that we don’t understand.  That’s stressful.  Yet we humans are, by nature, meaning-making creatures.  We are trying to figure it all out!  And that’s an enormous task.

Religion is one of the ways that we make meaning out of the world.  One thing that all religions do is order the universe.  This, in the face of a chaotic reality, is a very comforting thing.  We are comfortable with order.  We are not comfortable with chaos.  We want to make sense of things.

This would all be well and good if we agreed about what meaning can be made out of the world.  But we don’t.  In fact, far from it.  Some of us are Christians, some Hindus, some Muslims, some Buddhists, and some are non-believers.  And there are myriad other religions, other worldviews besides the ones I’ve just mentioned.  And even within Christianity there are differences.  There are Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Abyssinians.  And within Protestantism, there are even more differences!  There are Lutherans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and evangelicals and Quakers and Mennonites.  And just look at evangelicalism!  There are charismatics and cessationists, liberals and fundamentalists, Calvinists and Arminians, and, yes, universalists, inclusivists, exclusivists, and all kinds of in-betweenists.

In light of this diversity, can we acknowledge something else together?  The Bible is a confusing book.

A reader who comes to the Bible for the first time, without any kind of prior knowledge, is likely to be very confused.  There’s a lot of strange stories about people who lived a long time ago.  There is a God who wrestles people and appears in bushes or as three strangers.  There is a great deal about a guy named Jesus.  There are a lot of letters to some churches by a guy named Paul, and some letters after that acknowledging that much of what Paul said can be confusing.  There is a vision at the end.  There is a lot of song lyrics, and some poetry, and some ancient erotica (seriously, what is that doing there?).  There are lots of people predicting the future: sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.

We approach the Bible in a very similar way that we approach the world: we both inherit and construct a system of meaning within it.  We, inevitably, interpret. And that is a very dangerous task.

With most other texts, interpretation is really quite harmless.  I don’t care much what sense you made out of Ulysses or Catch-22, to be honest.  But the thing about religion, and about worldviews in general, is that is makes a certain claim on us at an existential level.  It demands attention, and action.  It is of the utmost importance.  There is much at stake.  So we cling to our religion, to our doctrine, to the way we view the world, in spite of the very real possibility that, well, we might be wrong.  And, from a purely demographic point of view, we very likely are.

But we don’t like to admit that possibility, and frankly, deep down, we feel threatened by those with whom we disagree.  Don’t think I didn’t notice how in a tizzy you all were about Rob Bell’s new book.  For many of you, the video was a confirmation of what you had always suspected: Rob Bell is a heretic.  Universalism is heresy, and Rob Bell must be a universalist, so he’s a heretic.

Are you so quick to condemn?  Is it your place to judge?  Who gave you the authority to deem some to be orthodox and others to be heretics?  Many, many Christians throughout the history of the Church have believed that, in some way, God will bring all of Creation into God’s Kingdom.  Conversely, believe it or not, that doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that you hold so dear—the one that you scorn Bell for not holding to—is a relative newcomer on the theological scene.  Bell seems to love God and the Scriptures as much as you do.  Why is he instantly an outsider if you happen to disagree?  Why not listen to what he has to say?  Is he that much of a threat to you?

You worship the same God, yet you would cast him out of your circle at the first sign of dissenting opinion.  This is hardly the treatment demanded of you by Jesus, or the Scriptures.

My suggestion is that the vehemence, anger, and frankly, hatred of your response (and you can rationalize it all you want, but I know hatred when I see it) indicates that something is deeply wrong with your perspective.  So, here is my message to you Reformed kids, or at least, the ones who struggle with pride so much:

Believe in God, not in your understanding of God.

Many of you, I think, believe more in your doctrines about God than in the true God, whom those doctrines are provisional statements about.

Trust the Bible, not your interpretation of it.

I know this is hard for you folks, saying that you may be wrong.  You, more than most, I think, are prone to an immense amount of existential anxiety—a certain gnawing fear of where you stand in the world—and doctrines that are very concrete and specific give you an incredible amount of comfort.  Being ‘right’ means that you know where you stand, and this knowledge, in a confusing and chaotic world, seems crucial to survival.

But certainty, especially of the theological variety, can be the most unforgiving of idols. As soon as we reduce God and God’s ways to a set of propositional truths about God, we stop worshipping God altogether.  We worship doctrine instead, and doctrines are as unworthy of our worship as any Asherah pole or image of Baal.

What’s worse, we become . . . proud. If we alone have the right doctrine, we alone the right understanding, then really, how silly or misguided or in error are those people who think otherwise?  Right?  I mean, how could they even believe anything else?  After all, we so obviously have the right answer . . .

You see what I mean?  It is your certainty—really, your almost cavalier cocksureness about what is true doctrine—that leads you to prideful thinking.

And now, the encouragement:

Friends, what you must recover is a deep, abiding sense of wonder at God’s mystery.  It is only in the eschaton, at the end of days, that we will know fully, even as we are fully known.  Until then, all our doctrines—whether that be universalism or cessationism or penal substitutionary atonement or anything else—are “best guesses”.  They are thoughtful reflections and meditations on Scripture, tradition, and our own experiences.

Please, please understand that God is a mystery to be encountered, and encountered in the Person of Christ, not a doctrine to explain.  Because of their provisional nature, because they arise out of this encounter, our words about this God—our theologies—must be brought forward with open hands.  They must be offered, not wielded.

True humility emanates naturally from acceptance of this fact.  We. Do. Not. Know.  God alone is Truth.

You want to be humble?  Give glory, then, to the One who is revealed not in human words, but in human form; not in what we say about God, but in what God says about us; not in the wood and clay of human doctrines, but in our own encounter with the great mystery of a human Person—that is, Jesus Christ our Lord!

It is when, and only when, we encounter this God that we can experience true humility.  For before this peculiar, mysterious God, all our words, all our doctrines become but stammers and stutters in the presence of the One Who is Holy.  In the presence of the Living God, all must fall silent.

Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters.  May God grant you an assurance of God’s love today, tomorrow, and the next day, too.  May you forever grapple with God’s mysterious presence.

Your friend,

Michael Zosel


Rob Bell Reax

If you haven’t heard already, Rob Bell has a new book coming out.  It’s called Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Here’s the promo video which is compelling in its own right:

The video, as you can probably infer, is rather provocative, especially because it seems to lean toward (gasp!) universalism, the doctrine of universal salvation.

From the publisher:

An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Now, the book hasn’t come out yet, and so no one (except those chosen few with an advance copy) can really read the whole thing until the end of March.  But the video above has got the Christian blogosphere all atwitter.  The whole story on Christianity Today’s blog here.

My own thoughts are forthcoming, but the reactions from different voices have been . . . interesting.  Some selections, for your reading pleasure.

It all started with Justin Taylor, who blogs at The Gospel Coalition.

John Piper once wisely wrote, “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.”

It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.

But it is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about  universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

John Piper himself tweeted a link to the above post with a simple (even dismissive), “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  Hey, that rhymes!

Here’s Trevin Wax:

I pray that Rob will once again preach the glories of the God who truly loves, the God who upholds his own glory at all costs, the God who loves us despite our sin, the God who takes on flesh and dies for us in order that we might find eternal satisfaction in him. In the words of Tim Stoner, Holy love wins:

Kevin DeYoung:

As to the former question, it doesn’t matter if it’s meant to be promotional, devotional, or confrontational, the fact is he’s teaching. And false teaching of this depth and breadth needs to be addressed. This is not a conflict of personalities or an intramural turf war. This is about the gospel–what it means, what it accomplished, and what’s at stake if we do not believe its good news.

I know many young evangelicals barely have any stomach for controversy, let alone strong words about a serious topic. But if there is no way to be simultaneously bold and humble; if there is no way to be a gentle, caring person while still speaking in clear tones about hurtful error; if there is no way to correct those who oppose sound doctrine without being a moral monster; if there’s no way to love truth and grace at the same time, then there’s no way to be a biblical Christian. Judgmentalism is a sin and Calvinists can be jerks. But not every judgment is sinful and not every truth is cruel just because Reformed people teach it.

And as to the latter question, if Bell ends up espousing a traditional view of hell, the wrath of God, and penal substitution, that would mean McLaren’s blurb was misleading, the publisher’s description was misleading, and Bell’s video was misleading. Love Wins can be the second coming of Jonathan Edwards and it still doesn’t change that what was communicated in the video was untrue to the Scriptures, inconsistent with historic orthodoxy, belittling of the cross, deceiving to unbelievers, and a tragic distortion of God’s character.

Naturally, the backlash on the Reformed side provoked a number of thoughts from other bloggers who are, perhaps, a bit less dogmatic.

Here’s David Sessions:

I really have heard it all from these people when it comes to their assurance of the authority of scripture, but they can’t escape the reality that there are many things, including hell, on which the Bible is thoroughly inconclusive. As Jason Boyett explained today, you can’t draw any clear idea about hell from scripture without exegetical gymnastics. And on issues like this, you’d think people as deeply committed to self-examination and humility as Piper and Company ostensibly are would give other Christians some room for error. Especially, especially when those Christians are—like, God help us, all Christians should be—hoping people don’t have to burn in an eternal fire.

Jason Boyett (read the whole thing!):

But here’s where Taylor’s and Piper’s responses annoy and frustrate me: They are so absolutely certain that they are right. Because Rob Bell seems to be indicating that hell might not be a place of eternal suffering — or might not exist at all in the way traditional Christianity thinks of it — then they say he is flat-out wrong. Dangerously wrong. False-doctrine wrong. Opposing-the-Gospel wrong. But you know what? The Bible is really squishy on the subject of hell. The everlasting-torment hell of Dante and Jonathan Edwards doesn’t exist at all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell a lot, but sometimes in ways that a reasonable person could interpret metaphorically (like when he calls it Gehenna, after a real-life burning trash heap outside Jerusalem). And for centuries, some Christians have tried to make the case that, when Paul says Christ died for all, he really meant it. Not some. All.

No, universalism isn’t an orthodox Christian position. Hell is. But are we not willing to admit that, maybe, over the years, we could have gotten something wrong? Is it so wrong to maybe hope that everyone gets saved? That hell doesn’t exist? Because I totally hope that to be the case.

And my personal favorite, Jeff Keuss:

To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

In other news, I’m a huge nerd.  More thoughts on all this forthcoming.

The Politics of Jesus, Chapter 2: The Kingdom Coming


Suffering Servant, Messiah, King

In the previous chapter, we looked at the most common way of framing Christian social ethics—the “mainstream view”—and considered Yoder’s proposal of a radical alternative.  This alternative would be founded not on the demands and constrictions of reality, but in the words and example of Jesus himself.  For example:

I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This principle of non-retaliationdo not even resist an evildoer!–seems, well, unrealistic.  So, we’re supposed to just let people hurt us?  Kill us?  The principle of uncompromising generosity seems equally unattainable.  Every beggar?  Everyone who asks?  Impossible!

Yet these are the ethics of the Kingdom Come.  And as we shall see, Jesus was every bit as tempted towards a different, more realistic kind of Kingdom as we are today.  Yoder goes through a whole litany of stories from the gospel of Luke to demonstrate this; I’ll summarize only two of them.

Luke 4:1-13: The Temptation in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”,  and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The devil, of course, is the tempter–this is a story of temptation.  But temptation to what?  A closer look at the episode reveals the answer.

It is important to note that this episode is immediately preceded by the story of Jesus’ baptism, in which a voice from heaven (presumably, God the Father’s) declares:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

This language, Yoder notes, is not about abstract trinitarian arguments, but about kingship.  In the Old Testament, divine sonship is a way of describing the King of Israel, the heir of the Davidic line.  Take, for example, Psalm 2:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

It is no surprise, then, that the Devil uses this title—the Son of God—against Jesus only a few verses later.  If you are the Son of God, he says, prove it!  The people expect their Messiah to be a conqueror (see the bold final verse above), a king, a revolutionary!  Give them what they want!

Jesus’ confrontation with Satan, then, is about the nature of Jesus’ kingship.  The three temptations are to economic, political, and religious rule respectively, yet at every turn, Jesus’ rejects these options.  His kingdom will be like no other.

Luke 22:35-53: The Garden of Gethsemane

He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this! And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!

There are lots of perplexing things about this passage, and I actually had to call my friend Ben and talk it over with him before I felt I had a good grasp of it.  From what I can tell (this is my interpretation, not Yoder’s, but I’ll make a related point), Jesus here is intentionally deceiving both his disciples and “the crowd” that comes to arrest him.  He allows them to believe that he is a violent revolutionary (“bandit” is a most unfortunate translation), a Messiah after the traditional fashion, come to liberate the Jews from their foreign oppressor, the Romans.  That’s why he tells the disciples to procure two swords—so that they think that the revolution is about to begin, and so that he, in effect, frames himself as a threat.

In Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Yoder discerns something more than just a prayer for strength in his time of trial, however.  He asks a deeper question: with what other option, exactly, is Jesus struggling?  In Yoder’s eyes, this is Jesus’ last chance to attempt a violent overthrow of the Roman regime:

Jesus was drawn, at this very last moment of temptation, to think once again of the messianic violence with which he had been tempted since the beginning.  Now finally is the time for holy war.

Did Jesus really imagine that he could take on the Jewish and Roman authorities with a handful of followers, popular support, and a couple of swords?  Yoder looks to the parallel passage in Matthew 26 for help.  When one of his disciples tries to start a fight, Jesus cries, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?

The obvious answer to this rhetorical question—“Do you think that I cannot—?”—is “Yes.”  Jesus can in fact, appeal to his Father for help, and (as Jesus says repeatedly) whatever he asks for, he can assume will be given.  Yet Jesus intentionally chooses the way of the cross instead.  It is not an unfortunate accident that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and was buried.  It is entirely on purpose, by Jesus’ own choice.

The Cross and the Kingdom Come

Isenheim Altarpiece, Grunewald, 16th century

Recall that one of the primary theses that Yoder is arguing against is that Jesus’ ministry was apolitical–that it did not constitute a threat to the established political order.  Jesus’ crucifixion was, by this understanding, a tragic miscommunication, a misunderstanding.  The Romans thought that Jesus was a threat to their rulership over the region, but he wasn’t.  His teachings were about “spiritual”, not political matters, and addressed primarily to the individual, and not to society as a whole.

But why, counters Yoder, would Jesus not work to protect everyone against this mistaken conception of his ministry?  Why would he come riding in on a donkey, then, or go out of his way to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah?  All of the biblical evidence we have suggests that even if Jesus never presented himself as an insurrectionary, as the leader of an armed revolt against the powers-that-be, he did present himself as a Messiah-figure who would overturn the established political order.  There was certainly some ambiguity or confusion as to what his methods for doing so might be.  But:

Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat.  That the threat was not one of an armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to illegal procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonorable men.

The problem with the Jewish leaders, the Roman authorities, and even the disciples was not that they misinterpreted Jesus to be a political figure, when he wasn’t.  It was that they failed to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Yoder, again:

Their fault is that [ . . . ] they were failing to see that the suffering of the Messiah is the inauguration of the kingdom. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  “Glory” here cannot mean the ascension, which has not been recounted yet, and in fact is not clearly described in Luke’s gospel at all.  Might it not mean then [ . . . ] that the cross itself is seen as fulfilling the kingdom promise?  Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.  The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.

Jesus’ choice of the cross, then, is the proper culmination of a way of life, a way of kingship, even, that we too, as his disciples, are called to share.


So, what does this look like on the ground?  That’s what I’m itching to understand better.  I think Yoder has me convinced as far as his work with Scripture and such goes, but so far his work has mainly been negative or destructive: he’s clearing the ground of traditional, mistaken ideas in order to lay the foundations for something new.  The cross, it seems, is the foundation of the Christian life for Yoder.  What else can we say?  What are the implications of that?  I’m hoping that in the next few chapters, Yoder will begin to spell some of that out.

And a couple more questions, while I’m at it.  So far, there has been little to no discussion of the Resurrection or the Ascension.  Yoder’s work centers on the Cross, which makes sense and has a certain kind of appeal to it.  But what does the Resurrection mean for all of this: that after Jesus suffered, He was raised from the dead and glorified by God the Father?  I’m looking for a way to plug Yoder’s work with the Crucifixion into the larger narrative of the Christian story: one that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.


How to Produce an Egalitarian Man


Photo credit: New York Times Magazine

Professor John Stackhouse wants women to speak up (and so do I!):

Women have entrusted me with great gifts: their stories and theirfeelings about what they have been through and continue to encounter. My wife has told me of how people ignore her or interrupt her. Female friends, colleagues, and students have testified to the suffering they have endured—from conversational condescension to professional marginalization to marital oppression to actual sexual or physical abuse. We men will not change until we want to change, and one of the most powerful motives we will have for changing our minds is to alleviate the suffering of the women we admire and love—suffering that is obvious to women but often unseen by us men. I know it seems incredible to women that men can be so obtuse, but people of color will testify that we white North Americans are similarly obtuse about racism. Poor people will testify that we wealthy people are obtuse about financial differences. And tradespeople will testify that we professionals are obtuse about class distinctions.

We men usually don’t see how we dominate conversations, for instance. We figure that anyone who has something to say will just say it, so those silent women must not have anything to say—and, we sadly conclude, must not be all that bright or all that motivated. We don’t see how our feelings for women can take interactions that are supposed to be constructive and mutually beneficial, and divert them into erotic games that no one should have to play, and especially not in a work- or church-related context. We don’t see how we unconsciously disregard women’s abilities and interests, and because those decisions are unconscious, the women themselves will never know exactly what happened: They just somehow (again) won’t get the opportunity, or the honor, or the reward they actually deserve.

We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed. Yes, we can be told by other men to shape up, and that can help. Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.

I can say with absolute honesty that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate male feminist in these parts.  Making a theological commitment is one thing, but living that out is quite another, and it all-too-easy to fall into the patterns of this world when it comes to gender.

Just this morning in church I was so thankful for a dear friend of mine, a woman, calling me out on my critical and negative attitude toward the service.  Women of the world and in the Church: I need your voice, your insight, and your gifts in this world, but I am often too proud to admit it.  Forgive me.  Call me out when I need it—I’m trying my best, but I can’t do it without your help!

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?

The Politics of Jesus: An Introduction

Guys, I’m starting this new thing which is pretty dorky, but I think you might like it.  I’m going to start blogging through gnarly theology books.  For two reasons.

  1. It’s a great way for me to keep reading and thinking deeply while making sure to digest carefully what a read.  The best way to make sure you understand something it to try to explain it to someone else.
  2. It’s a great way for you to be in-the-know on some of the big theological debates going on right now.  I’m convinced, personally, that theology matters, and I want to be someone who can aptly articulate it for other people who, perhaps, don’t have the time or energy to read on their own.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is politics.  I mean, as a Christian, should I vote when I know that the person I voted for will probably launch covert attacks to kill people overseas?  If I should vote, whom should I vote for?  If I shouldn’t, what should I do instead?  Should I support any wars?  Should I care for the poor with my ballot, or with my money, or with my hands, or all three?

My older cover is better

So.  In pursuit of answers to these kinds of questions, the book I’ve selected is John Howard Yoder‘s The Politics of Jesus.  Yoder is a devout Mennonite theologian, and this is the work he’s best-known for, so I’m excited to get started.

Here’s the blurb from the back:

The teachings and ministry of Jesus, the author of this new study of Christian social ethics believes, represent a coherent and relevant approach to the fundamental issues of Christian behavior in the world [ . . . ] The effect of the study is to support a specific kind of Christian pacifism and a theologically coherent radical attitude toward society; but its primary concern is to proclaim the full relevance of the incarnation for the social faithfulness of Jesus’ disciples—today as well as during New Testament times.”

What?  You mean Jesus meant for his followers to, um, follow his teachings? Well, we’ll see, Yoder.  We’ll see indeed.