I grew up in a small midwestern town that had more churches than people. When I was in Middle School all my friends were wearing the same bracelets. They came in a variety of colors, a rough weave, latched with a flimsy plastic loop, and all read W.W.J.D. — What Would Jesus Do. For a fourteen year old this seemed like a perfect ethic. Do what Jesus would do. Of course on the schoolyard kickball field I was never bothered by the pesky epistemological questions of how one was to know what Jesus would do or whether we should follow what Jesus would do in the first place.
This issue and more is the subject of John Howard Yoder’s first chapter, “The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic”, in The Politics of Jesus. He begins with the long haired, sandal and course robe wearing hippies of his own day, claiming Jesus as one of their own — a dropout of the social climb, voice of the counter cultural, and inciter of social protest. This presentation is styled so glibly that the serious ethicist has no reason to take the assertion with anything more than a genial smile or slight annoyance.
There is, within both biblical scholarship and modern ethics, Yoder posits, a gulf between Jesus and ethics. The aim of Yoder’s books is to “claim not only that Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action, but that this issue is now generally visible throughout New Testament studies, even if the biblical scholars have not stated it in such a way that the ethicists across the way have had to notice it.” There is now an assumption within ethical discourse that Jesus should not be seen as the model for normative ethical behavior. Rather the ethicists most often come to an ethnical position very much apart from Jesus. Even the classical pietist’s position of “do what Jesus would do” really becomes distilled to “do right at all cost,” with very little or no appeal to Jesus for what right may be.
Yoder provides a list of arguments used for why Jesus should not be seen as a normative model of ethics:
- The ethics of Jesus were meant for a brief interim period leading up to the immanent manifestation of the Kingdom of God. While his ethics may have application within the apocalyptic context which Jesus expected to soon break forth, they do not have any hold on those living in a society which has survived for a duration which Jesus never envisioned.
- Jesus was a simply figure, his ethics that of rural life, using language of farming, birds, and gardens to communicate with fishermen, lepers and outcasts. While the ethics of face-to-face interactions in the villages and countryside of Jesus’ day may have been appropriate, it does not provide a robust enough ethic for the complicated situations of the modern world with its globalized problems, organizations, institutions and power structures.
- Since Jesus and his disciples lived in a world in which they were without control, Jesus’ ethics have application to those without power who are called to be a faithful witness to the minority, but given the power and influence of Christianity within the world today, there is a responsibility for the church to address ethical questions and situations for which Jesus could not have prepared.
- Jesus preached an ahistorical message, concerned with personal piety and inner spiritual life rather than public social matters. He taught “not social change but a new self-understanding, not obedience but atonement.” Any action of Jesus which might appear political or social must be understood as a symbol of the true spiritual principle which was at the heart of his message.
- Jesus’ monotheism meant he pointed his listeners away from the concerns of daily life and political dealings with which they had become entrenched and towards the worship of YHWH. The finite nature of humanity means there cannot be a bridge between the ethics which God desires and that which humanity can exemplify.
- It is Jesus’ mission, not his ethics with which we are concerned. Jesus came to die for the atonement of humanity. This act of salvation may be, as in the Catholic view, found in relation to the sacraments, or, in the Protestant view, through a change in self-understanding in relation to hearing the Gospel, but never through Jesus’ ethics. His death is a divine mystery, the reasons for and manner of which having no bearing on our salvation or our ethics.
From these reasons, Yoder explains, the ethicist sees the possibility of only of the most narrow of bridges between the theology of the gospels and our present ethics. While such a bridge may be able to carry at most a modest weight of cargo, perhaps a “concept of absolute love or humility or faith or freedom” the majority of our ethic must be constructed on this side of the bridge. Our ethic will then be some combination of common sense, natural wisdom, and the ‘nature of things,” based around, what is appropriate, fitting, relevant or effective, an “ethic of the situation.” It cannot be an ethic radically shaped by the life, teachings, and modality of Jesus.
From this ethical landscape, Yoder asks two questions:
- If the meaning of Jesus for us today is something different than what he meant to his Palestinian listeners, needing to be funneled through a “hermeneutic transposition and replaced by an ethic of social survival and responsibility” is it even possible to talk of a Christian ethic?
- What, if anything, is the meaning of the incarnation if Jesus is not a normative human? If he is either human but not normative, on the one hand, or authoritative thought not in his humanity, on the other hand, might not this merely be another form of the ancient ebionitic or gnostic heresies, respectfully, which the Early Church opposed?
In an attempt to answer these two questions, Yoder lays out the two aims which will drive this study:
- Yoder will attempt to show a reading of the life and ministry Jesus which can be seen as directly significant for social ethics.
- Building from his first aim, Yoder will make an case for understanding Jesus as “not only relevant but normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.”
To this end Yoder lays out his intention to focus on the Gospel of Luke as a case study for the politics of Jesus. As he goes forward he will aim to address the assumptions about both the New Testament texts and those of the modern ethicists who “have assumed that the only way to get from the gospel story to ethics, from Bethlehem to Rome or to Washington or Saigon (and we can add in Bagdad or Tehran or Pyongyang or, ironically, present-day Jerusalem, or Newport, Connecticut), was to leave the story behind.”
Yoder’s questions are as significant for today as they were in ’72. From the recess playground of my midwest middle school, to the halls of Washington, to the streets of Iran there must be more to our ethics than a W.W.J.D. bracelet which in actuality represents a situational “do what ever you think is right” ethic. Yoder is contending rather for a Christian ethic radically defined by the life, ministry, and death of Jesus which does not seek to discredit his teaching or lifestyle as the normative way which Christians, and humans, are called to live. He asks what is the possibility of a messianic ethic and, as we move forward, we will see the much needed answers to a question which W.W.J.D. would never have us ask.
- Reading The Politics of Jesus: A Personal-Ethical Introduction (thecosmiccathedral.wordpress.com)