Chapter 7 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is the start of his next section. Having established that Jesus is rightly at the center of ethics, Yoder proceeds to consider what Jesus has to say about it. The vast majority of this chapter is a collection of Bible verses showing themes in Jesus’ teachings that were continued in the Epistles. All these themes are about imitating Jesus. Yoder makes the point that we are not called to imitate Jesus in every way – we are not called to be poor, barefoot, celibate peripatetic preachers. Even when Paul is discussing the benefits of celibacy, he does not invoke imitation of Christ. Rather, we are called to imitate Christ in only specific ways. These ways are essentially to love and forgive indiscriminately and self-sacrificially and serve others. These are not simply commands, but calls to respond and imitate Jesus – just as Jesus loved, forgave and served us, so we are to love, forgive and serve.
This call to imitation extends into suffering and death. Yoder points out that suffering is part of the cost of following Jesus. Just as he was persecuted, so will his followers be. In that situation, we are called to suffer innocently and gladly, because we are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. In general, I think Yoder’s analysis if excellent. However, I get the feeling that he thinks that Christians are not just supposed to accept, or even welcome, suffering, but we are to invite it. He quotes four passages that describe Jesus’ death as a victory, and concludes that death is a victory (p126). I’m not quite so sure; human death is a bad thing, it is a result of sin in our world. Jesus’ death was a one-off victory over sin and death, but only because of who he was and only because of his resurrection. So I have to ask, why does Yoder think death is a victory? Again, Yoder describes the cross as “the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society” (p129). In this schema, Jesus’ death is a victory because he resisted the powers-that-be non-violently and accepted the suffering that results. In that line, our death is a victory if we do the same thing. Indeed, Yoder says that suffering is only meaningful before God if it is innocent and the result of another’s evil intentions (p129). There doesn’t seem to be any concept of suffering for the Gospel.
Jesus’ death was, indeed, “the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society”, but that’s not why it was a victory. Jesus did not found a movement of pacifist activists, he founded a movement of forgiven people who have a relationship with God, possess the Holy Spirit and are one with Christ. These people are (or should be) pacifist activists, but is not their identifying description. I am increasingly getting the feeling that Yoder is missing something very important in his ethics by removing the resurrection and the atonement from his foundational framework.