Yoder on the Politics of the Lord’s Cross… and the Suffering of the Christian

[Not that anyone would necessarily notice, but in case you did… Yes, I have moved this post up to most current. I have done so in order to have it be right next to the one I am about to work on, which will interact with it. 😉 ]

What follows is a string of eleven quotations from the first half or so of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I have numbered these with bold numerals for the purpose of referring back to them in an upcoming post. I do not know when I will be able to write it, but I hope to address these ideas from Yoder with a critique that is both positive and negative.
I have not put these quotations in the gray block-quote boxes that I usually use, because those convert the whole text to italics, and I want to preserve the emphases italicized by Yoder himself.
Anyway, for now, here are the Yoder quotes:

It is just when “great multitudes were accompanying him” that Jesus speaks his first severe public word of warning:
“If anyone does not hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters,
Yea, and even his own life,
He cannot be my disciple.”
Modern psychologizing interpretation of Jesus has been bothered largely with whether the word hate here should be taken seriously or not. This is certainly to miss the point of the passage. The point is rather that in a society characterized by very stable, religiously undergirded family ties, Jesus is here calling into being a community of voluntary commitment, willing for the sake of its calling to take upon itself the hostility of the given society.

[A]gain the point is not the tactical question, whether Jesus wanted many disciples or a few. What matters is the quality of life to which the disciple is called. The answer is that to be a disciple is to share in that style of life of which the cross is the culmination.

There are thus about the community of the disciples those sociological traits most characteristic of those who set about to change society: a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd. This life-style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behavior from that of “normal people,” but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed. The distinctness is not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the life of the world. It thereby constitutes an unavoidable challenge to the powers that be and the beginning of a new set of social alternatives.

[Referring to the exchange of Barabbas for Jesus]
This is another of those points where spiritualistic-apologetic exegesis has always emphasized that the Jews, or the Romans, or the Zealot-minded disciples, had Jesus all wrong; he never really meant to bother the established order. Then the illegality of the proceedings and the impropriety of the accusations must be demonstrated. Even then it would need to be explained why a Jesus whose main concern is to be apolitical would be misunderstood in just this way instead of some other way, and would not protect everyone against such a radical misconception of his intent. Granted, the trials as recounted are irregular in procedure, and normal due process according to either Jewish or Roman law might have disculpated Jesus by virtue of the lack of armed insurgent actions. Still the events in the temple court and the language Jesus used were not calculated to avoid any impression of insurrectionary vision. Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat. That the threat was not one of armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to irregular 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.

“We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (24:21) is not just one more testimony to the disciples’ obtuse failure to get Jesus’ real point; it is an eyewitness report of the way Jesus had been heard. Jesus’ rebuke to the unseeing pair on the road to Emmaus was not that they had been looking for a kingdom, and should not have been. Their fault is that, just like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, 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, although we know from Acts that Luke knew the tradition. Might it not then mean (as with the concept of “exaltation” in John’s Gospel) 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 on the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.

Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may chose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics. At this one point there is no difference between the Jesus of Historie and the Christ of Geschichte, or between Christ as God and Jesus as Man, or between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus (or between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of history). No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.

There is in the New Testament no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy, it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus. Even when Paul explains his own predilection for self-support there is no appeal to Jesus’ years as a village artisan. Even when the apostle argues strongly the case for his teaching authority, there is no appeal to the rabbinic ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ trade as a carpenter, his association with fishermen, and his choice of illustrations from the life of the sower and the shepherd have throughout Christian history given momentum to the romantic glorification of the handcrafts and the rural life; but there is none of this in the New Testament. It testifies throughout to the life and mission of a church going intentionally into the cities in full knowledge of the conflicts which awaited believers there. That the concept of imitation is notapplied by the New Testament at some of those points where Franciscan and romantic devotion has tried most piously to apply it, is all the more powerfully a demonstration of how fundamental the thought of participation in the suffering of Christ is when the New Testament church sees it as guiding and explaining her attitude to the powers of the world. Only at one point, only on one subject—but then consistently, universally—is Jesus our example: in his cross.

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Müntzer’s or Zinzendorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross or Ahfechtung, an inward wresting of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. The Word:
“The servant is not greater than his master.
If they persecuted me they will persecute you.” (John 15:20)
is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.

Christian thought is accustomed to conceiving of “persecution” as a ritual or “religious” matter independent of any ethical import. Christians are made to suffer because they worship the true God; what has this to do with our study’s concern with an attitude to government, to violence, war, conflict? Is not being persecuted for the faith quite independent of social ethics?
Such a dichotomy between the religious and the social must be imported into the texts; it cannot be found there. The “cross” of Jesus was a political punishment; and when Christians are made to suffer by government it is usually because of the practical import of their faith, and the doubt they cast upon the rulers’ claim to be “Benefactor.”

One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource can there be than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God’s purposes, even meritorious in that “bearing one’s cross” is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.
Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of Scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering be innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God (I Pet. 2:18-21; 3:14-18; 4:1,13-16; 5:9; James 4:10).

The other direction in which “cross” language can evolve is that of subjective brokenness, the renunciation of pride and self-will. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together speaks of “breaking through to the cross” as occurring in confession. “In confession we affirm and accept our cross.” Our sharing in Christ’s death, he continues, is the “shameful death of the sinner in confession.” A similar thrust is typical of the Keswick family of renewal movements in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. We may agree that the humility of confession may be quite desirable for mental health, for group processes, and for the creation of community; but this should not keep us from realizing that “cross” is not the word for that in the New Testament.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s