A Biblical Imitation Of Christ

From “The Politics of Jesus”
by John Howard Yoder, 1927-1997

As long as readers could stay unaware of the political/social dimension of Jesus’ ministry (which most of Christendom seems to have done quite successfully), then it was also possible to perceive the “in Christ” language of the Epistles as mystical or the “dying with Christ” as psychologically morbid. But if we may posit that the apostles had and taught at least a core memory of their Lord’s earthly ministry in its blunt historicity, then this centring of the apostolic ethic upon the disciple’s cross evidences a substantial, binding, costly social stance. There have perhaps been times when the issues of power, violence, and peoplehood were not at the centre of ethical preoccupations; but in the waning twentieth century they certainly are, and the rediscovery of this ethic of “responsibility” or of “power” can no longer at the same time claim to be Christian and bypass the judgment or the promise of the Suffering Servant’s exemplarity.

Yet this affirmation encloses some serious negatives. Seldom has the exemplary quality of Jesus’ social humanity been perceived as a model for our social ethics, yet the large body of New Testament traditions has not gone unnoticed. It has been perceived but interpreted differently. To these other interpretations, we must now turn.

One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource could there he than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God‘s purposes, even meritorious in that “bearing one’s cross” is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.

Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice; and he warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfilment, crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering is innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God.

Another transposition makes the cross an inward experience of the self. This is found in Thomas Müntzer, in Zinzendorf, in revivalism and in Christian existentialism. An excellent modern statement is that by Carl Michalson, “How Our Lives Carry Christ’s Death and Manifest His Resurrection.”

The other direction in which “cross” language can evolve is that of subjective brokenness, the renunciation of pride and self-will. Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” speaks of “breaking through to the cross” as occurring in confession.

“In confession, we affirm and accept our cross.”

Our sharing in Christ’s death, he continues, is the “shameful death of the sinner in confession.”

A similar thrust is typical of the Keswick family of renewal movements in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. We may agree that the humility of confession may be quite desirable for mental health, for group processes and for the creation of community; but this should not keep us from realising that “cross” is not the word for it in the New Testament.

A long history of interpretation and application which we might designate as “mendicant” has centred its attention upon the outward form of Jesus’ life; his forsaking domicile and property, his celibacy or his barefoot itinerancy. Again, without disrespect for the nobility of the monastic tradition and its needed critique of comfortable religion, we must be aware that it centres the renunciation at another point than the New Testament. Both the few who seek thus to follow Jesus in a formal mimicking of his lifestyle and the many who use this distortion to argue Jesus’ irrelevance, have failed to note a striking gap in the New Testament material we have read. As we noted before more briefly: there is no general concept of living like Jesus. According to universal tradition, Jesus was not married; yet when the Apostle Paul, advocate par excellence of the life “in Christ,” argues at length for celibacy or for a widow’s not remarrying (I Cor. 7), it never occurs to him to appeal to Jesus’ example, even as one of many arguments. Jesus is thought in his earlier life to have worked as a carpenter; yet. never, even when he explains at length why he earns his own way as an artisan (I Cor. 9), does it come to Paul’s mind that he is imitating Jesus. Jesus’ association with villagers, his drawing his illustrations from the life of the peasants and the fishermen, his leading his disciples to desert places and mountaintops, have often been appealed to as examples by the advocates of rural life and church camping; but not in the New Testament. His formation of a small circle of disciples whom he taught through months of close contact has been claimed as a model pastoral method; his teaching in parables has been made a model of graphic communication; there have been efforts to imitate his prayer life or his forty days in the desert: but not in the New Testament.

There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds, but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus, and only thus are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”


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