I wrote a book report yesterday on a book called The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. A very interesting book (though a little dense – not an easy read), with a lot of mind-blowing concepts; mind blowing in their simplicity, really. Yoder challenges a lot of the traditional theology and preconceived notions about Jesus: primarily, that Jesus is not normative for ethics, and that he was completely apolitical in his day. By revewing the Gospel according to Luke (which traditionally has been interpreted as Luke trying to reassure Theophilus that Jesus wasn’t political) and stripping away that preconceived notion that Jesus was apolitical, Yoder shows that Jesus rarely said or did anything that didn’t have drastic social implications, and that it was the very political nature of his ministry that got him killed (quite willingly, of course). I want to talk about one specific concept that came out in this book (I think it was in chapter 6?): the concept of Powers.
In a few places in the Bible, Paul talks about the Powers and Authorities, or Principalities of this world. In Ephesians 6, Paul says that we fight against them (as opposed to flesh and blood). These Powers are often interpreted as being demonic forces, and I guess that would make sense if you didn’t have any other definition of them – but it doesn’t really make sense, because at other places in the New Testament the writers have absolutely no problem calling demons…demons. Why would Paul talk about them in code, calling them Powers and Principalities and Rulers?
Instead, what he’s talking about are the authorities, values, structures and norms that rule the earth. We cannot escape from them, and we are forced to obey them. It’s not just government (though that is certainly a power; Bonhoeffer refers to it as a God-given Mandate); it’s all of the rules, all of the things that we are subordinate to. Yoder describes them as being created by God, but fallen from their humble purpose, imposing their dominion beyond the bounds of their purpose (providing order in the world).
In Jesus’ day, there were three main Powers that were oppressing his people: government, personified in the Gospels in Pontius Pilate and the Herodians; the Law, or the Temple, as personified by the scribes and Sadducees; and piety or purity, as personified by the Pharisees. Between them, these three Powers had the people at their mercy – an attribute that none of them showed. There were two governments ruling Palestine (Caesar and Herod), and three laws (Roman law, Jewish law, and the pious rules of the Pharisees); the ruling and priestly classes manipulated these laws to extract money from the poor and maintain their own position. The Priestly class (Sadducees and scribes) controlled the religious life of the people, which often amounts to extortion for your very salvation; the Pharisees controlled the moral and social aspects of life, promoting a legalistic framework for the lives of the people, and stoning those who erred too grieviously; and the Romans had the power of the sword, imposing their will arbitrarily while, like the others, hiding their arbitrariness behind the illusion of moral or legal authority. Add to the mix the Zealot party, an underground resistance movement that desired to overthrow the Romans (and likely questioned where your loyalties lay) and it’s fair to say, as Paul pointed out, that the people are made slaves by the Powers and Authorities.
Now, this doesn’t just refer to corrupt governments or institutions. The Pharisees didn’t just rule people by fear of stoning; the value of piety and purity ruled people by imposing a social order (legalism) that the people could not ignore, and the Pharisees merely took advantage of that (and probably not even most of them, at that). There are still Powers and Authorities all around us today: the biggest one that immediately comes to mind is materialism. Religion is another. Science and Modernity are big ones, as are “Tolerance” and Post-Modernity. Sexuality. We could go on and on: everything that controls our lives, whether we realize it or not. These things have a good purpose, but their level of control over humanity has expanded, and is no longer subordinate to God. That’s where Jesus comes in…
Jesus’ real temptation, as described by Yoder, was to accomplish his goals (freedom for the people, a new social order, justice, etc.) the earthly way: the Zealot option was calling to him, and Satan kept rubbing his nose in it. But Jesus understood that it wasn’t just the Roman government that was oppressive, it was the Power of Government that needed to be re-submitted to God. It wasn’t just the Legalists, it was the Law. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ words and examples challenged these Powers, these institutions: they claimed moral authority, but their authority couldn’t match his, and his very existence shed light on that fact. They tried to get him to choose sides, and he refused (and this, I’m sure, is why we always think of him as apolitical – because he wouldn’t do politics our way). What he did instead, was what was right – and proved his moral authority at every turn. They could not get him to play their game, and they could not beat him at his (that is, they could not claim moral superiority over him). The only way that they could stop him from showing the world that their power was an illusion was by killing him; but in that move, their credibility and authority was completely overcome, the illusion of moral authority gone as they put an innocent man to death. Jesus went willingly, subordinating himself by choice to the powers that claim authority over us, and in so doing destroyed their grip on humanity forever.
Which brings us to today, and to the Church. We know that there are no powers that are not subordinate to Christ: his authority is greater than all others. By choosing to subordinate ourselves to the Powers, we point out that there is a power greater than them, an authority beyond them that rules over them, and they are brought back to their original level and purpose. By living lives of submission, we are pointing out the illusion of these powers to the world – and pointing to the real authority, Jesus Christ. No physical uprising could have that power!
What do you think? Is there ever a time that a physical fight could have the impact (and preserve our integrity) of submission and self-subordination?