I've just started re-reading (for the 4th or 5th time), John Howard Yoder's classic work, The Politics of Jesus, and I thought I would take the opportunity to blog my way through it, giving some succinct summaries for those of you unfamiliar with Yoder.
In his opening chapter, Yoder sets out the context and thesis of his work. His primary concern is to investigate whether Jesus has a social ethic, and whether that is relevant in any way. Yoder sets up his question against the backdrop of ethical approaches that tend to make Jesus irrelevant for (social) ethics. He lists six particular ways this has played out, including seeing Jesus as interested only in an 'interim' ethic because of an imminent eschatology, seeing Jesus as only interested in personal ethics (e.g. restricted to a 'village sociology'), and so forth. One of the the irrelevance-strategies is to sideline 'dogmatic Jesus' - that Jesus came to die for sins and the life he lived is almost immaterial and irrelevant alongside that.
The radical thing about Yoder is that he very perceptively notes that Jesus is not normative for mainstream ethics. Mainstream ethical approaches sideline Jesus' behaviour and teaching, and instead ground their norms in something else, whether nature, natural order, reason, a creation order, et cetera. The very ability to point out this situation immediately raises its absurdity. For a distinctly Christian ethic, shouldn't Jesus be normative?
Yoder's proposal is thus to read portions of the NT canon, and specifically Luke, "with the constantly pressing question, 'Is there here a social ethic?'" (p11), with the aim to tease out the relevance of Jesus for social ethics, and the normativity of Jesus.
Little Piece of Gold: p7-8, footnotes. Yoder is speaking about a classic work of Sheldon's and the slogan, "Do what Jesus would do" (sound familiar? WWJD anyone?), and Yoder makes the point that this becomes, "do the right at all costs", but that 'the right' is knowable apart from Jesus. Yoder's whole thesis is this: a truly Christian ethic knows what the right is by and in and through Jesus life, death, and resurrection.