On the “Politics of Jesus”: Jesus as a Political Person

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John Howard Yoder situates his basic thesis of The Politics of Jesus (1972) as hinging on the following supposition: whether Jesus was in principle a political person.[1] Though, as Yoder asserts, such a supposition fuels debate in New Testament Studies, I do not see any room for debate on the issue. In my view, Jesus was, in fact, a political person and, as a political person, Jesus’ ministry and teachings were, by principle, construed through political language meant to be subversive to the status quo and empower the powerless.

I say this, particularly, because language[2] is always a political act. The semantic choices of words, the linguistic string of those words, and the overall structure in a given sentence are all always meant to express a purposeful content. Any given sentence is a power relation between the addresser and the addressee across a plane of “meaning,” where the dialectic that occurs is a political negotiation between the signifier-signified elements of every word. As Ferdinand de Saussure suggests, words are “signs” and, in them, there is a “signifier” in the way a word is represented as a visual collection of letters and a “signified” in the image that is conjured when the “signifier” of a word is presented as an object of understanding. Depending on the context of a given word, a “sign” can provide different notions of what is “signified.” What becomes “signified,” then, is always relative to the lived experiences, or personal histories, we bring to our encounter with words and, to that end, the creative act[3] that must be involved in our extrapolation of meaning. Meaning itself is political, since it must be extrapolated through language and the relativity of quantitative elasticity therein.

As a political person, Jesus is very much aware of the power of language and the power of meaning as inextricably linked political activities. Words have meanings, and those meanings are meant to “represent” an understanding of the existential limitations placed on our existence in the world –our “being,” our “being-in-the-world,” and the physical trappings of our “being” are all exemplified through our awareness of the power relations between the powerless and the powerful. For Jesus, language serves as a means to give voice to the powerless and, in turn, becomes a source for empowerment against the oppressive actions of the powerful. The politics of Jesus, as such –Yoder’s own choice of title for his book is a political act in itself –is about the metaphysics of language and the ontology of empowerment through linguistic metaphysicality.

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[1] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 13.

[2] Language is, of course, written and oral. When considering the “language” of Jesus, whatever was written came out of an oral tradition. For the purposes of how I wish to use the term “language,” I will refer only to oral.

[3] I use this term rather purposefully as a tip of the hat to Mikhail Bakhtin and, to a lesser extent, Gilles Deleuze.

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