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Scarcely Recognizable Politics

David Rensberger’s Johannine Faith and Liberating Community is a real gem in terms of biblical scholarship. It weaves together acute social-historical analysis in its consideration of the text of John, and brings the vision(s) rendered there into conversation with the shape of Christian life today, allowing the Johannine vision to pose a real challenge to our theopolitical conceptions and constructions. Here’s an particularly good snippet:

“The Fourth Gospel, for all its sectarianism and inwardness, does not offer a mere retreat from political relationships, though the approach to them that it does offer is every bit as radical as its radical Christology. Indeed, it is just the Johannine alienation from the world that ought to make John’s refusal of allegiance to the world’s political orders somewhat less than surprising. It was an alienation of consciousness as much as an overtly social one, to be sure, yet precisely as such it could be expected to be realised ‘in the world’ as well. The politics of John may seem scarcely recognizable as politics to us. They may seem impractical or irresponsible in their stubborn devotion of all loyalty, political as well as spiritual to Jesus who had been ‘raised up’ as King of the Jews. But evidently for the Johannine Christians, who faced a complex and highly charged political situation, they were real politics and represented a real political option. The Fourth Gospel confronts the issue of Israel’s freedom in the late first-century Roman Empire with an alternative to both zealotry and collaboration, by calling for adherence to the king who is not of this world, whose servants do not need to fight but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of both synagogue and Empire.” (p. 99-100)

What Rensberger nails here is the oft-ignored fact that so many Western establishmentarians, be they liberal or conservative, fail to see. To read many theological accounts that tend towards “political realism” or the myriad of sensibilities that exist within that basic orbit, one would think that the perspectives of massive swaths of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels were dropped out of some ethereal realm aloof from the contingencies and realities of chance and change in the world. One forgets that none of the authors, compilers, or recipients of the New Testament books thought they were proclaiming a message of romantic detachment from “real” stuff in the world. The form of praxis presupposed and evoked by the writings of the New Testament was the way of life of the real, concrete, historical church. The idea that the “otherworldliness” of the Gospels mitigates any need for us to take them seriously as a possible course to which followers of Jesus are called in this world is nothing more than an elaborate way of begging the question — or more accurately, longing for a Christianity without discipleship. Those who find in the New Testament “unrealistic” ethical standards do so only through a form of self-induced ignorance, a compulsive urge to shut their eyes to the fact that these words, which so offend our modern sensibilities were the very form of life of the first Christians, which, they assummed would be the form of life for all who followed in their lineage.


  1. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. Your comments (and Rensberger’s) are a good reminder during this “political season.” I haven’t read a lot of materials on John, but this is my favorite book on that gospel. And you are exactly right about the real-life, this-worldly focus of the New Testament writers. That’s why Rensberger’s book seems so important. He takes what is often seen as the most-otherworldly material of the NT and shows how anchored in real-life politics it is.

    Rensberger’s treatment of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate is particularly masterful, I think.

    By the way, Rensberger himself has embodied this alternative politics in his own life. His story as a draft resister during the Vietnam War is told in this book: Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, eds., The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate With the Vietnam War Draft.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Doug Harink wrote:


    Thanks for the wonderful quote, from a book which I am not familiar with, but obviously must be. Thanks also for your commentary on the commentary, which sharply focuses the point about the true political realism of the gospels.

    Thanks to Ted for the tip about the book by Miller and Shenk.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Nate Kerr wrote:


    One of the things I find particularly helpful about your blog is the encounter with texts that I would not have become aware of otherwise. This is one of those. Thanks.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  4. Mika Luoma-aho wrote:


    thanks for this. Need to read it myself. Keep up the good work.


    Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  5. I’ll second that, Nate.

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 12:46 am | Permalink

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