The Politics of Jesus

John Howard Yoder

Book cover

I got interested in Yoder through Stanley Hauerwas and decided to read this book. For some reason, probably at least partly bias because of the Amish last name, I had assumed that this book would be simple and folksy. It is far, far from that–even if its message is reasonably simple, Yoder’s style is heavily-footnoted, erudite academic (which I don’t mind). In fact, I learned six new words from this book, which may be a record:


The main thrust of the book is to argue that Jesus stands as a normative example for Christian people, in a very specific way–not in his barefooted itinerancy (a la St. Francis’ interpretation), but rather in his complete rejection of violence to achieve his ends. (In fact Yoder encompasses violence under a larger umbrella called “the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others.”) He counterposes this position against a number of more “classic” interpretations, which include interpreting Jesus’ life in only metaphysical terms or assuming that he simply represents an ideal type which is so unreachable as to be non-normative.

While I found the book interesting throughout, by far the most insightful part for me was Chapter 8, “Christ and Power”. In this section Yoder addresses carefully the language of “powers and principalities” (i.e., angels, demons, etc.) in the writings of Paul, something that is either skipped over or discomforting to the modern reader. Yoder makes a very compelling interpretation that this language was intended to be mapped on to what modern readers would understand as “power structures” in society–systematizing forces that can provide beneficial order to human life, but which are “fallen” in that, and to the extent to which, they claim for themselves absolute value and sovereignty. This to me was a very powerful image, and Yoder provides a strong interpretation of the meaning of the life of Jesus with regard to these Powers.

Unfortunately, the copy of the book that I checked out of the library (the only one available at the NYU/NY Public/Brooklyn Public libraries) is missing about 30 pages, not because they fell out, but because 30 other pages were printed twice, once over where the missing pages should be. I checked the Google Books preview to see if I could use that to fill in the missing space, but the same problem is there as well!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars