This past election was an out of body experience for me. Since I have turned 18, it is the first presidential election in which I have felt more like an observer than a participant. The 2016 presidential election was such a huge polarization of candidates, I just couldn't get on board with either of the major parties. If you’re not on board with the Republican or Democratic parties, your actions are relatively meaningless as it relates to affecting the outcome of the vote.
In all of this, it started me thinking more and more about what it means to be a Christian in a world run by politics and institutions (big business, religion and the moral majority, etc). The part that made such thinking difficult was that I was sure Christ had little to say about institutions. I mean, he really just provided a framework for personal ethics, but he didn’t speak to a life lived in an empire like ours. But as I began researching, I came across a book that has revolutionized my view on Christian engagement in politics and society. It has made coherent those intuitions that resonated within me when I was freed from political idolization for the first time in my life this past election cycle. I'd like to share with you my summary of John Howard Yoder's book, "The Politics of Jesus."
Before digging into the book, it's important to note that Yoder has two main goals. The first is to show that Christ's ethics are prescriptive for believers today. Many (at least in Yoder's 1970's America) tried to say that Christ's ethics weren't applicable to believers on an institutional scale for a variety of reasons. He does a lot to explain why he believes this is not so. The second goal for Yoder is to paint a picture of how Christ's actions taken collectively were extremely political. When you mix the two together, you see that Christ's actions were politically pointed and we are to likewise emulate those actions.
It is also important to understand that Yoder’s writing preceded the establishment of the “Moral Majority.” Heavy Christian involvement in politics occurred in the late 1970’s. I’m not sure if Yoder saw this coming or not, but he is writing at a time where political involvement was starting to be pushed. I think this is important to understand because we now have a bias towards political involvement, and Yoder has a bias against it. It is important to remember that the gospel does not change and neither does the waywardness of humanity’s heart. The only things that change are the ways in which our hearts subvert the gospel and self-deceive. As you read my summary, please try to be aware of biases on both sides and try to sift through information to see the gospel as Christ intended it, not as we desire to skew it for our own ends.
The Cup of Suffering:
Before delving into Christ's specific actions within his three year ministry, Christians must first understand what the gospel is. Many Christians get the gospel wrong – or at least only partially right. As good Western Protestants, we have turned the gospel into the cross - the substitutionary atonement for our sins and the expunging of our ledger with God. But that is not the whole gospel. Adding the resurrection to the cross isn't even the whole gospel. The gospel as proclaimed all throughout the scriptures is that the Kingdom is at hand (Mk. 1:15, Mt. 3:2, Mt. 4:17, Mt. 10:7, Lk. 9, Lk. 17:20-21). While the cross and the resurrection and the intercession of Christ are vital to taking away our condemnation, the removal of our sin is only one part of the gospel message. The great news is not that sin is removed, but that because our sin is removed we can live a freed life in communion with God. The impartial view (or overemphasis) of the gospel that focuses only on the cross turns the gospel into a business transaction. The full view of the gospel sees the good news as a rescue of the beloved and a restoration of relationship. Christ doesn’t merely take our sin upon himself, but he imputes his righteousness to us so we can stand blameless before God and live free in loving community. The gospel is the Kingdom life. It is not just Ephesians 2:8-9, but Ephesians 2:10. We aren't just saved by grace, but we're saved unto good works. It's not just I John 1:9, but I John 2. We don't just get our sins forgiven, we have light enter our souls which enables us to live in communities characterized by freedom and love. The Gospel is the Kingdom life!
In light of Christ's mission to bring the Kingdom, Yoder begins at the start of his ministry. Christ is hunkered down in the desert and being assailed by the Devil's temptations. As most know, Christ is then tempted in three ways: with bread, with kingdoms, and with miracles. Those all seemed like fairly arbitrary things to me before, but Yoder points out that if these were arbitrary, they wouldn't be temptations. There was a reason Christ was tempted by these specific things and Yoder explores the significance of each temptation.
Understanding that Christ came to bring a kingdom, we can see how the Devil's temptation of bread was significant to Christ. First, it seems that this temptation is more than just on the level of physical hunger. It's not like Christ's fast was a mandatory obligation. He was fasting out of a love for his father and a desire to be close to him and focus on him. To say that eating bread would be a sin would be like saying that the widow not giving her mite would have been a sin. These actions are outpourings of generosity and love, not mandated actions - which if not done - were sin. So there is more behind the bread than hunger.
Yoder explores this temptation by looking at what the bread symbolizes in light of the next temptations, as well as in light of Christ's ministry. The bread represents economic provision. Were Christ to turn the rocks in the surrounding area to bread, he would not only feed himself, but he would provide a feast for all of the many needy in the surrounding area. The devil is not merely appealing to Christ's physical notions, but to his kingdom notions. This is a temptation for Jesus to bring the kingdom now, and to bring it through the bellies of the masses.
This interpretation is by no means a stretch to make. John tells us that this is exactly what happens with Christ in his ministry. When Jesus multiplies the bread to feed the masses, they are immediately enthralled with him. A man who could provide sustenance and economic promise in such a tumultuous time (with high taxation and lack of resources) should be crowned the king. And what is Christ's response? John 6 tells us,
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
After Christ multiplied the bread, he fled from the people because they wanted to make him king! This is the context for Christ walking on the water. He is not first trying to show a sign to his disciples, he is escaping the crowds who wanted to proclaim him king - but through an economic motivation. Upon realizing that Jesus was gone, they pursued him to the other side of the lake. Just as the devil tempted Christ to turn rocks into bread to establish his authority, so we see that multiplying bread moved the people to proclaim Christ as king. But this was not how his kingdom was to be established. And as Jesus ran from Satan’s temptation, so he ran from the temptation again.
The second temptation seen in Matthew is the Devil telling Jesus to throw himself off the high point of the temple. Jesus refuses. But Yoder argues that his reasons for refusing were very different than what most people think today. Many believe that Christ was unwilling to perform such a miracle because he wanted people to believe in him and not his miracles. However, that doesn't explain why Jesus then went on to perform astonishing miracles day in and day out, even raising others from the dead. Jesus even points others to his works, asking them to believe in him based on the validating testimony of his life and miracles. Jesus's refusal to give into the Devil here must be rooted in something much deeper than performing a simple miracle.
Yoder explains that being thrown from the high point in the temple was the standard punishment for blasphemy - with a stoning for those who survived the fall. Satan's temptation here is not simply performing a miracle, but performing a specific miracle at a specific place. This was Satan's temptation for Christ to establish himself as ruler through the power of religious institution. For Christ to claim his messianic role and to miraculously survive the penalty for blasphemy at the temple itself would be for Christ to establish his rule through the institution of the temple and all of the social structure and benefits that came along with it.
However, just as Christ refused Satan twice – in the desert and on the lake shore - so he refused this second temptation twice. He refused Satan in the desert and on the day of his triumphal entry. We see Christ enter Jerusalem and be proclaimed as the Messiah, enter the temple and kick out the moneychangers, and then set up shop teaching in the temple. This was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to set himself up as a leader through the power of the religious institution of his day. But Christ did not come to perpetuate this religious institution, he came in swinging his sledgehammer. According to Matthew, it is during this period that Christ condemned the religious leaders and predicted the end of this religious institution in the destruction of the temple. While the people wanted Christ to be established as their religious Messiah, Christ told them that the very institution over which they wanted him to preside would be demolished. Just as he threw away the kingly proclamation of the people for economic reasons, he did it again when they wanted to proclaim him their leader through the temple.
The final temptation Satan brings Christ is the temptation of kingdoms. This is political and militaristic might. Were Christ to be handed Rome and the Devil rescind his influence politically, what could Christ have accomplished in the world? But Christ refused. And once again, we see Christ face this very temptation again the night before the cross. As Christ was praying, he asked God for the cup to pass from him - the cup of his suffering. Yoder argues that this isn't just a simple prayer, but a very profound one. We must recognize that we get very few glimpses into the temptations of Christ. I have always found this puzzling, that the Christ who Hebrews tells us was tempted as we are never seemed to be tempted. We don't see a struggle with lust, a struggle with anger, a struggle with derision. The only place that seemed to me like temptation was Christ’s anger when throwing out the moneychangers. Yoder argues that we actually see Christ tempted frequently, and we see it time and time again in a struggle with the way in which the kingdom is to be brought. Christ, the new Adam, is tempted most in just the way that Adam was, in the desire to be like God. We see Christ’s temptation in Satan's assault in the wilderness, and we see it again when Peter tells Christ that he must not suffer. Notice Christ's response to Peter's determination to prevent the cup of suffering from coming to Christ:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Jesus was extremely upset. Peter hit on a very tender nerve within Jesus - a nerve we see Satan pressing on at the very outset of Christ's ministry. So when Christ was asking for the cup to pass from him while praying in the Garden, he was asking for the same thing Peter was when Christ reprimanded him for creating temptation. In the Garden, it is likely that Christ thought back to the wilderness - to the potential of the kingdom brought through economies, through religion, and through political/military might.
It is immediately following Christ's prayer in the garden that we see him come face to face with the second iteration of the Devil's third temptation. As the men come to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out a sword to prevent the cup of suffering from falling on Jesus. Christ tells Peter to put the sword away and says,
53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?
We see that in his last hours, when he most desperately wanted to prevent his suffering, Jesus refused to tap into the greatest power of all - God's military force. When God's Kingdom collided with Rome's kingdom - the greatest human kingdom at the time - Christ refused to win through military or political might. He did not come to conquer kingdoms through force or to rule his people through coercion. He came to lay down his life. It is in this that Christ won the victory, not only over our sins, but in our day to day lives. His sacrifice provides more than propitiation, it provides us with an example of what it truly means to live free. We are not to place our hope in economic prosperity and bread, we are not to place our hope in religious systems and institutions, and we are not to place our hope in military might or political systems. Our hope is in the fact that we are freed from all of these kingdoms to live in the Kingdom of God - the Kingdom that Christ came and established. This Kingdom life is the gospel message.