Is Christ a model for Christians in the public sphere – for radical political action when it comes to issues like war, and for radical economic action when it comes to issues like exploitation – or is his relevance for Christians limited to the private sphere?
Is it legitimate to for Christians to distinguish between family ethics and business ethics, or do such qualifications undermine our claim that Jesus is Lord of all? Should we only speak of ethics, without qualification?
Should the relevance of Jesus for the personal and political aspects of our lives be clearly distinguished? Or is this split between the social and spiritual relevance of Jesus in the minds of many contemporary Christians the greatest false dichotomy of all?
In “The Politics of Jesus”, John Howard Yoder highlights six ways in which Christians and others have sought to limit the relevance of Jesus (Yoder, 1994, 5):
- The ethic of Jesus is an ethic for an “Interim” which Jesus thought would be very brief. It is possible for the apocalyptic Sermonizer on the Mount to be unconcerned for the survival of the structures of a solid society because he thinks the world is passing away soon. His ethical teachings therefore appropriately pay no attention to society’s need for survival and for the patient construction of permanent institution. The rejection of violence, of self-defence, and of accumulating wealth for the sake of society, and the foolishness of the prophet of the kingdom are not permanent and generalizable attitudes towards social values. They make sense only if it is to be assumed that those values are coming to an imminent end. Thus at any point where social ethics must deal with problems of duration, Jesus is quite clearly of no help. If the impermanence of the social order is an axiom underlying the ethic of Jesus, then obviously the survival of this order for centuries has already invalidated the axiom. Thereby the survival of society, as a value in itself, takes on a weight which Jesus did not give it.
- Jesus was, as his Franciscan and Tolstoyan imitators have said, a simple rural figure. He talked about the sparrows and the lilies to fishermen and peasants, lepers and outcasts. His radical personalization of all ethical problems is only possible in a village sociology where knowing everyone and having time to treat everyone as a person is culturally an available possibility. The rustic “face to face” model of social relations is the only one he cared about. There is thus in the ethic of Jesus no intention to speak substantially to the problems of complex organization, of institutions and offices, cliques and power and crowds.
- Jesus and his early followers lived in a world over which they had no control. It was therefore quite fitting that they could not conceive of the exercise of social responsibility in any form other than that of simply being a faithful witnessing minority. Now, however, that Christianity has made great progress in history, represented symbolically by the conversion of Constantine and practically by the “Judeo-Christian” assumptions underlying our entire Western culture, the Christian is obligated to answer questions which Jesus did not face. The individual Christian, or all Christians together, must accept responsibilities that were inconceivable in Jesus’ situation.
- The nature of Jesus’ message was ahistorical by definition. He dealt with spiritual and not social matters, with the existential and not the concrete. What he proclaimed was not a social change but a new self-understanding, not obedience but atonement. Whatever he said and did of a social and ethical character must be understood not for its own sake but as the symbolic or mythical clothing of his spiritual message. If the Gospel texts are not sufficiently clear on this point, at least we are brought to a definitive clarity by the later apostolic writings. Especially Paul moves us away from the last trace of the danger of a social misunderstanding of Jesus and towards the inwardness of faith.
- Or to say it a little differently, Jesus was a radical monotheist. He pointed people away from local and finite values to which they had been giving their attention and proclaimed the sovereignty of the only One worthy of being worshipped. The impact of this radical discontinuity between God and humanity, between the world of God and human values, is to relativize all human values. The will of God cannot be identified with any one ethical answer, or any given human value, since these are all finite. But the practical import of that relativizing, for the substance of ethics, is that these values have become autonomous. All that now stands above them is the infinite.
- Or the reason may be more “dogmatic” in tone. Jesus came, after all, to give his life for the sins of humankind. The work of atonement or the gift of justification, whereby God enables sinners to be restored to his fellowship, is a forensic act, a gracious gift. For Roman Catholics this act of justification may be found to be in correlation with the sacraments, and for Protestants with one’s self-understanding, in response to the proclaimed Word; but never should it be correlated with ethics. Just as guilt is not a matter of having committed particular sinful acts, so justification is not a matter of proper behaviour. How the death of Jesus works our justification is a divine miracle and mystery; how he died, or the kind of life which led to the kind of death he died, is therefore ethically immaterial.
I would like to challenge these lines of thinking, and the way they are read back into the New Testament scriptures, for Yoder (1994, 10) has some questions that have direct relevance for those of us with a missional-incarnational bent:
What becomes of the meaning of the incarnation if Jesus is not normative man? If he is a man but not normative, is this not the ebionitic heresy? If he is somehow authoritative, but not in his humanness, is this not a new Gnosticism?