Chapter 8 of The Politics of Jesus is where reading Yoder really pays dividends; where he shows the framework for his social ethic, and where he cements his argument that Jesus has political and social implications. The focus of his argument is on the New Testament concept of “Powers”, which he defines as social structures – “religious structures … intellectual structures … moral structures … political structures” (p142-3), examples of which include public opinion, justice, the state, government, tribalism, race and class.
Working off various New Testament sources, Yoder argues that these Powers were part of God’s created order, and were created to be good. They supplied order to creation and humanity. However, the Powers have fallen because they failed to have the appropriate modesty that would have conformed them to God’s creative purpose. Instead, they claimed absolute value and authority. Because of this claim, they have enslaved humanity (p143). This is the fallen situation of humanity today. However, this is not to say that the Powers are totally evil, rather they still function in some good ways as part of God’s providential care for his world, continuing to provide order for humanity in which they can live.
Yoder then poses the obvious question; “If our lostness consists in our subjection to the rebellious Powers of a fallen world, what then is the meaning of the work of Christ?” (p144). The answer is that Jesus broke their sovereignty “by living a genuinely free and human existence. This life brought him, as any genuinely human existence will bring anyone, to the cross … He accepted his own status of submission. But morally he broke their rules by refusing to support them in their self-glorification; and that is why they killed him.” (p144-5). In short, the Powers killed Jesus because he lived a morally pure life that was outside of their authoritative pretentions. “Therefore his cross is a victory, the confirmation that he was free from the rebellious pretentions of the creaturely condition” (p145).
The really good bits in this chapter are found in a couple of large-block quotes from a theologian called Hendrikus Berkhof (Christ and the Powers), who seems like a very good person to read. The point that Berkhof makes is that, Jesus exposed the Powers by showing that the power they had over was not real power. He made a public example of them, unmasking them as failing to control him, because death was an acceptable option for him. The cross has now disarmed the powers, for because the weapon they have – the threat of death and the illusion of absolute authority – are impotent. Christians cannot be threatened because no Power can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
In a second quote, Berkhof discusses how Christians are to interact with the social structures and Powers in our world. Since Jesus has already struck the victorious blow against the Powers, the Church’s role is to proclaim that victory. The existence of the church is, by itself, a powerful and aggressive attack on the powers. It is by living a life free of the powers (racism, money etc) that we attack them. We announce their already-defeat and their upcoming final failure. However, any action by the Church against the evil wrought by the Powers will be unfruitful unless the church’s life is, in itself, the attack. The only way that the Church can fight injustice is to first live a corporate life of justice. “The church must be a sample of the kind of humanity within which, for example, economic and racial differences are surmounted. Only then will it have anything to say to the society that surrounds it about how those differences must be dealt with” (p150-51).
Thus the Church cannot withdraw from social structures, nor can it compromise in order to participate in them (and thus change them). Rather, it must exist within society as an alternative that declares the bankruptcy of the Powers. This can result in either conscientious participation or conscientious objection, depending on the situation. But objection “is not a withdrawal from society. It is rather a major negative intervention within the process of social change, a refusal to use unworthy means for what seems to be a worthy end” (p154). There is also a positive role for the Church; “The church’s calling is to be the conscience and the servant within human society …we are called to contribute to the creation of structures more worthy of human society” (p155).
Even though I have some serious concerns about some of the theology, this understanding of political structures has a lot going for it. I am convinced that Yoder’s (and Berkhof’s) analysis of the impact of the Gospel on political and social structures is accurate and biblical. However, the usual criticism of Yoder’s theology raises his head – that he ignores or marginalises equally valid (and potentially more important) aspects of the Gospel in order to make his point. However, to prevent a critique from taking away from the many excellent points that have been made, I’ll discuss this in the next post.