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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


Jesus’ Political Legacy According to John Howard Yoder

February 10, 2011

There has long existed tension in Christendom about what type of relationship faith ought to have with politics. To use a contemporary analogy, should they be dating; that is, spending time with one another, but residing at different addresses devoid of any covenantal commitment? What about if they were just cohabitating, but did so for so long that common law marriage was established? Then, too, perhaps they should keep things strictly platonic. They could just be "BFFs" (best friends forever) who share many common values, and lead separate yet codependent lives. Maybe faith and politics are best viewed as sibling rivals who can only cooperate for thirty minutes at a time before turning on one another.[1]

How it is best according to Scripture for Christians to be political, if they are to be at all, and what that means is an age old debate. Everyone has an opinion. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, said, "Politics, like religion, hold up the torches of martyrdom to the reformers of error."[2] The first African-American to graduate with a doctoral degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, Tony Evans wrote, "Our God is not the God of Democrats, nor is he the God of republicans. He did not come to take sides; he came to take over."[3] According to Shakespeare a politician is simply "one that would circumvent God."[4] We remember how the Jeremiah Wright[5] controversy went viral a during Barak Obama's presidential campaign as the media got wind of the controversial remarks his then pastor made in a 2003 sermon: "The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America--that's in the Bible--for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than humans. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is god and she is supreme."[6]

John Howard Yoder was a committed Christian, first and foremost, and Mennonite theologian. Having died suddenly on December 30, 1997 at the age of seventy, we will never definitively know his views on current controversies involving the intersection of faith and politics in the public arena, such as Wright's comments. We do know, however, that with his high Christology and reverence for Scripture, Yoder sought to bring about more unity than division while he was living.[7] Also, we know that his thoughts on Jesus' cross-shaped legacy laid the foundation for his perspective on the relationship that faith should have with politics for Christians. This begs the question of who really was Jesus, God and man in the form of radical submission or radical defiance?

As a Mennonite theologian, Yoder sees the legacy that Jesus entrusts to believers that of one who defied the status quo, but more importantly in doing so was radically submissive to the controlling powers even unto his unjust persecution and death. He was indeed innocent, but willingly died a sinner's death in order to save sinners from death. This ideology frames what Yoder sees as the instructional guidelines that Jesus has left, through his earthly ministry, for us particularly when discernment is needed regarding the proper application of faith in political environments.

As a lad celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem Jesus decided to stay without his parent's consent. They headed home for Nazareth thinking that he was with them only realizing after one day's travel that he was not. Upon their return to Jerusalem after three days they located him, and his mother, Mary, inquired, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." Having been in the temple all of this time wowing the Jewish teachers with his erudite questions, Jesus replied, "Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house."[8] Jesus was in his Father's house tending to his Father's business in a way that was pleasing to his Father. This is essentially what Yoder feels Jesus calls believers to do; to go about the work of the Lord without a preoccupation with the world's opinions and without a need to receive permission from the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus. For Yoder, the "...task of obedience is to obey, and the responsibility for bringing about victory is God's alone, God's means beyond human calculation."[9] God's ways are not our ways, and thus Yoder is certain that in the ways we try to force a peg-shaped Jesus into a square hole likewise as God the Son his ways, too, are also not our ways.[10]

By inference one might say that for Yoder Jesus engaged in a coup d'etat all right[11], but his was of a spiritual nature that required him to play the game of life by a different set of rules than the opposition; selfless rules that by design left him as vulnerable as vulnerable can be. He chose the spirit over the sword, deference or suffering over justice, love over death. Yoder believes that Christians ought to do similarly. "The sword is not the source of creativity."[12], he says. Elaborating on the need for believers to wage war in a specific kind of way, Jesus' way, Ephesians 6.10-20 seems to add credence to his point.

For Yoder, Christianity requires pacifism precisely because at hand always is the query surrounding "whether violence is justified in principle for what one considers to be a very righteous political cause."[13] Again, because of how he sees Jesus, Yoder rests in blessed assurance that God will fight our battles for us. This doesn't fully abdicate believers from engaging in sociopolitical action on behalf of the least of these, but it must regulate to what extent that involvement goes and ensure that it isn't focused on overpowering systems since that ultimately is in God's territory.

In The Politics of Jesus Yoder wrote that, "The willingness to suffer is then not merely a test of our patience or a dead space of waiting; it is itself a participation in the character of God's victorious patience with the rebellious powers of creation. We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God's victory."[14] Jesus' death on the cross was the epitome of true suffering "as the cost of his obedience in the midst of a rebellious world. It will be no different for us."[15] Thus, for Yoder in biblical submission--following the footsteps of Jesus--there is true freedom. Recognizing that all human beings experience life on uniquely varying socioeconomic stratums, Yoder contends, "...freedom can already become real within one's present status by voluntarily accepting subordination, in view of the relative unimportance of such social distinctions when seen in the light of the coming fulfillment of God's purposes."[16] He is quite clear that suffering is not optional for the Christian on account of Jesus' cross-shaped legacy. It is a non-negotiable requirement. This truism is driven home personally for him in light of his commitment to the Mennonite lifestyle.

Yoder's high Christology and commitment to a conservative exegetical hermeneutic would bode well in the black church tradition, at least on a certain level. However, as has always been the case in black life, no one is above the law of considerable review. Thus, from a minority perspective, especially that of black theologians, Yoder can be embraced and significantly critiqued at the same time. There are those who, with a bourgeoisie flick of the wrist, dismiss black theology as nothing more than a bunch of confused crabs fighting in a barrel of selfish advancement.

...black theology addresses more than the black church. It also speaks to white Christians, presenting a profound critique of white theology that does not yet recognize its whiteness. Black theology challenges the presumed general or universal theology inherited from European history to acknowledge its whiteness--its accommodation and support of both the overt violence of slavery and the systemic violence of racism and presumed white supremacy throughout United States history.[17]

"The task of Black Theology then", as Cone articulates in his essay "A Black Theology of Liberation", "is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people-so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression."[18]

For Cone and many other black theologians, Christianity must be primarily about the business of liberation; salvific in the eschaton surely, but in our earthly experience to no lesser degree. He stresses that without a real sense of liberation at its core, Christianity is nothing more than yet another symbol of white privilege.[19] This reality would render Jesus' message of love and freedom an ineffectual farce on account that it enslaves rather than liberates. This is where Yoder's theology of Jesus' cross-shaped legacy and black theology butt heads.

Black theology arose out of the basic human need and right to find significance and worth in a society that says you are insignificant and worthless. It is, therefore, dedicated to affirming black peoples' blackness and their allegiance to Christ, as well as God's allegiance with them as oppressed, persecuted believers.[20] Cone takes a hard line on the subject that is oftentimes hard to digest, but one that nonetheless is important. He feels that because of white privilege and bias the Gospel oftentimes has no good news for the oppressed, but conversely carries very good news to the oppressors.[21]

This is precisely the issue that black theology, at least in principal, takes with Yoder's understanding of Jesus. Nakeisha Alexis-Baker, a black, female Mennonite raises a critical question, "...does a theology that glorifies and centralizes Jesus' suffering and violent death also disempower and thwart the survival of people who are oppressed?"[22] It is unsettling, to say the least, to have white theologians like Yoder, well-meaning no doubt, tell you as a woman or racial minority that essentially your job is to trust in Jesus exclusively in the way that their privileged interpretation of Scripture demands. "In spite of its potential for resisting domination and equalizing relationships, however, revolutionary subordination appears to be inherently oppressive when Yoder asserts that it also calls people at the bottom of society to accept their disadvantaged position. Although Yoder demonstrates how slaves, wives, and children in early Christian communities developed a sense of purpose and agency...it is nonetheless difficult to see how this aspect of revolutionary subordination can be liberating."[23] Of course the reformer Ulrich Zwingli put countless numbers of Anabaptists to death, by and large because of his disdain for their supposed re-baptizing ways[24], but that simply doesn't have the modern-day potency of the transatlantic slave trade, police brutality, genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, defacto segregation in public schools, and other such ills that affect the masses of blacks no matter their religious perspective.

From the minority perspective things are not so simple when it comes to developing an ethical paradigm by which Christians ought to live. Furthermore, once everything is said and done, "What if Jesus is in line with Hebrew Bible prophetic tradition? If so, "follow me to become fishers of men and women" would be a call to join a revolutionary band that would get rid of the Romans and the Herodians and reestablish justice and righteousness. But we are used to ignoring political language in the text, and we don't want Jesus to be political because that might mean we have to be political."[25] Yoder's theology of Jesus' cross-shaped legacy is inspiring, but also disturbing for black theologians especially because of the class dynamics that have long been the status quo in American culture. To tell a people who have been systematically discriminated against, abused, and even killed simply because of the color of their skin, that in Christ they ought to subordinate themselves to their oppressor-according to black theology-is easy for even the most pious white theologian. More to the point, arriving at Yoder's exegetical hermeneutic is easier when you know that your dominant racial classification will protect you from systematic oppression; not so much when you are subjected to utilize a veil of double consciousness[26] in order to merely survive and attempt to dream of justice.[27]

In the book of Amos we read of Yahweh's indictment of Israel for its arrogant presupposition that their relationship with God was exclusive and unconditional, that they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted because they were the chosen people of God. There are echoes of that reality in American history. America may be the land of the free and the home of the brave as "The Star-Spangled Banner" proclaims, but it is also a land where ingrained, deep-seeded oppression reigns supreme similar to Amos' day. These United States of America have been built by the free labor of its oppressed--the stolen and exploited. It is a land where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is a land where top-down tyranny has historically been implemented by white, powerful and oftentimes Christian men. Historically, theology has centered on white males exclusively interpreting Scripture from the ivory towers of academia, a position that racial, social, and economic privilege provided and through oppression maintained. Therefore, in light of American theology's willful participation as a co-conspirator in this tattered history, the black theological perspective seeks to subjugate that trend.

Still though, black theology doesn't have it fully right either. Dusmund Tutu has pondered, "I worry, however, about some of Cone's exclusiveness--that, for instance, only the oppressed can form a genuine Christian koinonia."[28] Michael Battle criticizes Cone's theology for what he terms weak ecclesiology that necessitates that the "...Black Church continues to promulgate profane structures of racism."[29] There is a point at which, for black and white theologians alike, the church loses interest in ad nauseum debates about the intricate nuances of how to best interpret Jesus' life. At some point Christians have a deep desire to put their faith, with whatever uniqueness they understand Jesus' cross-shaped legacy, into meaningful action on individual and corporate scales.

It is a challenge to decipher for Yoder precisely where the rubber meets the proverbial road and a Christian should or should not be involved in some political movement or action. We don't know Yoder's opinion on the Jeremiah Wright controversy or the influence that ultra-conservative Christians and right-wing Republicans had on America during the 1980s known as "Reaganomics." We don't know what advice Yoder would give for black Christians in America who experience racial profiling. We don't know what Yoder might say to those who are exploited by Christians all across the globe, no less in the name of Christ.

In truth neither Yoder's Mennonite tradition nor black theology are the litmus tests by which Christian worth is proven. Each perspective has much to learn from the other. There are those who would argue, I think appropriately, that Yoder's Mennonite legacy serves the purpose of "reminding us to be willing to live and die faithfully for the sake of the Gospel."[30] Indeed it does. We can take from Yoder's theology of Jesus that whatever our involvement in politics, as individuals who profess the supremacy of Christ, it behooves us to serve God, as appropriately as one can determine, not one's political self-interests. Ultimately God will right the wrongs of this world. That doesn't, however, free us from getting our hands dirty now in subordination to God, and, therefore, service to the least of these. Stanley Hauerwas articulates the long-standing legacy of Yoder well:

He is the lone hero standing up to the mob that is willing to secure justice through the anguished acceptance of violence. He insists that the christologically disciplined account of nonviolence displayed in The Politics of Jesus cannot be dismissed the way that liberal Protestant pacifism was. Also, Yoder's account of nonviolence requires theologians to acknowledge that their work makes no sense abstracted from the church.[31] 


[1] This is a condensed version of a research paper that I wrote during my studies at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
[2] John Bartlett, Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2002), 358.
[3] Tony Evans, "2nd Opinion: God transcends political parties," The Baptist Standard, October 30, 2008.
[4] Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 206.
[5] See Dwight N. Hopkins, "Obamarama: The Wright Neighborhood," Religion In the News 2 (Spring 2008), 7-8, 25.
[6] I have a personal, digital audio copy of this sermon given by Wright on April 13, 2003 from his pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ. No matter your opinion as to if his remarks were incendiary, unpatriotic, or simply untrue, the sermon deserves to be heard in its entirety and in the backdrop of the black church tradition.
[7] Mark Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), xviii-xxii.
[8] Luke 2.41-51.
[9] John H. Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998), 152.
[10] Isaiah 55.8-9.
[11] John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans, 1994), 46-47.
[12] The Royal Priesthood, 208-210.
[13] The Politics of Jesus, 58.
[14] Ibid., 209.
[15] John H. Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 60.
[16] The Politics of Jesus, 182.
[17] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 100.
[18] J. Phillip Wogaman, ed., Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 359.
[19] Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook, 358.
[20] James H. Cone, "Black Consciousness and the Black Church: A Historical-Theological Interpretation," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 387 (January 1970): 33.
[21] Ibid., 126.
[22] Jeremy M. Bergen, Anthony G. Siegrist, eds., Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009), 83.
[23] Bergen, Power and Practices, 90.
[24] Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 97-98. Ulrich Zwingli considered the Anabaptist view of adult baptism only as utter abomination, hence his theocratic slaughter of so many.
[25] Iva E. Carruthers, Frederick D. Haynes III, Jeremiah A. Wright, eds., Blow the Trumpet in Zion: Global Vision and Action for the 21st-Century Black Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 94).
[26] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), 9, 143. The "veil of double consciousness" is how DuBois described a common psychosocial coping mechanism that blacks often use in order to maintain some degree of sanity, purpose, and joy. Having one set of rules and way of carrying oneself, with the nuances of racial politics in mind, outside of the community and then another for inside of the community is employed. This is a survival tactic, but as such when used as normative behavior, as it most certainly is, it fosters discontent, confusion, and sadness or anger, which can lead to self-destructive, maladaptive behaviors.
[27] James H. Cone, "God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account," Anglican Theological Review 90 (2008): 710.
[28] Desmond Tutu, review of James H. Cone's God of the Oppressed, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 31 (June 1980): 74.
[29] Michael Battle, The Black Church in America: African American Christian Spirituality (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 113.
[30] Mark T. Nation, "John Howard Yoder: Mennonite, Evangelical, Catholic," The Mennonite Quarterly Review 78 (July 2003): 369.
[31] Stanley Hauerwas, "When the politics of Jesus makes a difference," Christian Century (October 13, 1993), 982.


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