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Levi Jones

The Politics of Jesus

How might we interpret Jesus’ life and ministry that is inscribed in the New

Testament? One tendency has been to take Jesus’ ministry in purely spiritual context.

However, this viewpoint becomes extremely conflicting with Jesus’ death. Why would

anyone be put to death over purely spiritual matters? In juxtaposition, John Howard

Yoder proposes that Jesus’ ministry was very political in nature. In other words, Jesus’

life and death have real life meaning and application for today, not just mere implications

for one’s soul.

Another point of contention among scholars is in the understanding of the

“kingdom of God.” Many have posited that Jesus understood the kingdom of God to be a

future, apocalyptic reality that would be enacted at a certain point in time. This future

reality would be revealed at the second coming of Jesus. Again, we must ask if death by

crucifixion would be justified due to some future, spiritual reality. It does not seem to be

the case that Jesus did not understand the kingdom of God. Nor do we want to say that

Jesus guessed incorrectly when the kingdom was truly coming. In fact, Jesus called his

listener’s to repentance because the kingdom was near.

We must also keep in mind that we stray dreadfully close to the line of

Gnosticism if we relegate Jesus’ ministry to the spiritual only. In fact, Christ’s humanity

is as evident as his divinity. Jesus did not divorce himself from the politics and social

structures of his day. Rather, he worked in them without becoming subjected to them.

Neglecting the reality of a political Jesus demeans the nature of his life and deeds. Yoder

writes, “No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross
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identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of

community leading a radically new kind of life” (53). In Yoder’s understanding, Jesus

asserted a new politic for life as the community of God: forgiveness.

The year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor is the centralizing theme in the

Gospel of Luke. After Jesus has been baptized in the Spirit, led by the Spirit into the

desert, he returns full of the Spirit and begins preaching. The first episode of Jesus’

preaching in Luke 4 finds Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah. Luke sets Isaiah 61 up

to be the purpose guiding Jesus’ works and deeds. There is a very specific group to

which this passage speaks, namely outcasts. Moreover, there are political implications

found in Jubilee. It is an equalizing practice. It is the forgiveness of debt and the release

of the slave. It is looking after the welfare of all in society.

This, of course, posed a major threat to those in power. Yoder poses that Jesus’

political activism led to his eventual death on Calvary. It is not simply Christ’s words

and teachings but his actions that escalated into conflict with the powers. Once again, we

are confronted by the fact that Jesus’ life and ministry are the norm for living: “The

Jubilee is not simply a theological concept providing insight into the nature of God; it is a

guide for living which is to be observed in normal daily practice among believers” (74).

As such, Jubilee is not simply a future reality but must be presently embodied by the

Christian community. Through the life-giving politics of the kingdom of God, death and

deception that result from the “powers” are revealed.

Yoder understands that the present battle is not simply against flesh and blood. It

is not simply human conflict that is involved, although it is a catastrophic result. Powers,

spirits, and principalities play an intricate part in understanding Jesus’ death and
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resurrection. First, the powers were part of God’s good created order. However, due to

the fall, the powers are now broken and demonic in many fashions. They had been meant

to give organization and structure for life.

Now, however, they structure systems of oppression, inequality, and death. These

institutions have become gods which the people worship. Jesus lived subordinated

himself to the powers. He did this willingly and it ultimately leads to his death by

crucifixion. Rome, Judaism, and Pharisee piety were all structures and powers in which

Jesus lived responsively, politically opposing while remaining subordinate to them. Jesus

death on the cross, which is overseen by the various powers, leads to the resurrection,

which subordinates all things under Christ. By subordination himself to them but not

being enslaved by them, Jesus showed the powers for what they were: deceptive. For this

reason, we are no longer under the Law of sin and death when we too take up our cross

and die.

What does this mean though? So often, we have spiritualized our cross. We have

related any kind of suffering to being a means by which we “bear our cross.” However,

this viewpoint diminishes the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which was not merely spiritual.

This is a contemporary form of Docetism. Rather, the cross has a very physical

component. It is living subordinated to the powers without being enslaved to them. In

other words, living in this world but not of this world is our modus operandi. It is a new

politic of forgiveness and redemption that dictate our interaction with the world and its

structures. However, this is not simply an individual call or endeavor.

The Church is to be the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry and mission in response to

the powers, systems, and structures. As the body of Christ living into the politics of
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Jubilee and submission, we expose the powers and their falsehood. We expose the empty

grave that is falsely promised. Not only that, we also extend the reconciliation and

redemption that we have found in Christ. Our cross is very political in nature. It is the

kingdom of God lived out in the present, inviting the outsider to come in. Freedom is not

to be used to extrapolate ourselves from life, drifting away into acetic abandonment of

the world. No, it is rather embracing our lot in life while enacting the year of the Lord’s

favor. At the same time, violence is not to be the means by which we achieve our goal.

This would be succumbing to the powers’ broken system. The politics of Jesus might

very much mean we find ourselves opposed to the very powers to which we have

subordinated ourselves. The result might also lead to our calling, our death, and our

cross.

Paul calls for Christians to submit themselves to the governing authorities. This

has traditionally been understood to mean that we must obey our government without

question. But in the instance of evil government policies and practices, must we submit

ourselves unequivocally in obedience? Yoder writes (210):

Christians are to be nonresistant in all their relationships… (Romans 12-

13 and Matthew 5-7) both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce

participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls

‘vengeance’ or ‘justice.’ They both call Christians to respect and be

subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be

wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive

in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.

The overarching concern for obedience becomes the Law of Love. It is about the
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community being in right relationship with one another, negating division and violence.

How can we live into a different politic when violence is often used against us?

How might we find ample power to live as Christ lived despite opposition. The imagery

of Revelations helps us to see the fruitfulness of non-violent resistance. The lamb, a

picture of weakness and meekness, is the conqueror. Jesus comes again as victor over the

powers and the death they hold. As such, we are free to live as Christ lived because he

has already achieved the victory. So, what then must be our purpose as the Church in this

present age?

Justification has been seriously debated. However, it is right-relatedness which is

exhibited amongst the people of God. In essence, holiness is not an individual endeavor

but must be a social reality. Division no longer is a reality for the people of God.

Justification is not simply the transformation of the person, although this does result, but

is the unifying of people into a community. Justification “…should be thought of in its

root meaning, as a verbal noun, an action, ‘setting things right,’ rather than as an abstract

noun defining a person’s quasi-legal status as a result of a judge’s decree” (224). This is

not only extended to the insider but must be embodied for the outsider as well.

The politics of Jesus are concrete, social ways to live our lives as the body of

Christ. We are to live radical lives that expose the sinfulness of our world. We must be

engaged relationally, seeking to reconcile the outsider and insider. Additionally, the

Christian life is not an individual endeavor but a social reality. Perhaps, we have

spiritualized everything that Jesus and Paul taught. The result has been an existence that,

at times, does not reflect the life of Jesus.

Works Cited
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Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans

Publishing Co., 1994.