The Concept of Jesus as a Model of Radical Political Action with Reference to the Theology of Jon Sobrino.
In his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder developed the biblical evidence which justified his belief, “Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action …” Yoder, disturbed by theological thought that separated Jesus from the political sphere, attempted to prove that faithful Christian disciples should adopt Jesus’ political approach, which included pacifism. Another area of Christian thought that encourages active participation in the arena of politics and justice is Latin American Liberation Theology (LALT), with Jon Sobrino being a particularly vocal advocate. Sobrino comes from a completely different tradition, culture and political climate than Yoder, and would have dissimilar beliefs in many regards – absolute pacifism being just one. The aim of this paper is not to compare and/or contrast the principles upon which these theologians’ beliefs are built, but rather to determine if this particular quote of Yoder would also be compatible with Sobrino’s theology.
Jon Sobrino maintains that LALT is predicated on an historical Jesus. As will be seen, this notion is not comparable to the search for the historical Jesus propounded by Schweitzer, nor that followed by the Jesus Seminar, but one that is built on the ‘historical’ reality of God’s actions on earth through God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jon Sobrino’s theology is based on three primary components – Christology, the Kingdom of God and what can be described as his theology of martyrdom. To understand his theology it is, of course, necessary to work through his development of these themes.
Sobrino’s Christology was built from the ground up – it followed from the knowledge of the fully human Jesus crucified on the cross. He developed this Christology, however, by objections to other Christological bases that began with either the divine Christ or a sanitized view of Jesus’ reality. Since this component is crucial to the totality of Sobrino’s theology, it is necessary to discuss his development of Christology.
Sobrino, a Catholic priest, begins with the classic dogma formulated by the Council of Chalcedon – Christ was a divine person with a human and a divine nature. While he acknowledges the positive and fundamental nature of the affirmations the dogma makes, he regards it as wholly inappropriate for developing a Christology. His primary difficulty with the formulation is the extent upon which it was based on abstractions. Besides the intangible language of “nature” and “hypostasis”, the concepts included describe “mysteries” – things of which humanity could have no direct knowledge. The Chalcedonian formula also approached Jesus from the point of view of how God became human. This approach, Sobrino determines, was opposite the pattern of scripture, which begins with Jesus as human and reflects on the concept of Jesus as divine. Additionally, this formulation relied heavily on an epiphanic conception of God – God suddenly breaking through into earthly reality – which denies the historical activity of God in the world and leaves the figure of Christ open to manipulation. Sobrino maintains that both God, named Yahweh, and Jesus of Nazareth are concrete entities with activity in the world that can be known by humankind. This concept of “knowing” becomes a key element in Sobrino’s theology.
The biblical focus on Christ as a beginning point for Christology is also flawed, according to Sobrino, despite the fact that the terminology is less conceptual. There have been essentially two starting points for this type of Christology:
- A concentration on the various names and title for Jesus, i.e. prophet, Messiah, Son of Man, high priest, Servant of Yahweh, Lord, Son of God, Saviour, Logos, etc.
- An approach that places significance on the major events in Jesus’ life, i.e. resurrection, transfiguration, baptism, virgin birth, pre-existence, etc.
Both these concentrations relied on scripture that already incorporated a process of theologizing begun after the historical life of Jesus, as well particularizing certain events and removing them from the historical flow of Jesus’ existence. Sobrino states also that the gospels present various Christologies that can only be unified by the concrete figure of Jesus himself, as opposed to various later attempts of unification through theologizing. 
The next argument may be less readily understood by a Protestant audience, although it is not totally foreign to many traditions. Some efforts have been made to develop Christologies based on the experience of worshippers during cultic worship. Citing the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, Sobrino acknowledges that when a person “accepts the presence of the living, resurrected Christ, then faith knows of the existence of the historical Jesus in and through the liturgical experience.” He goes on to say, however, that to base a Christology on occurrences that cannot be differentiated from deceit or illusion is inappropriate, since it cannot replace the knowledge gained from acquaintance with the concrete Jesus.
Basing belief on the kerygma, the internal change that may occur when preaching about the real Christ is heard, is equally problematic for similar reasons. The choice, to live an authentic life of faith or an inauthentic life of sin, is made by worshippers when witnessing the Sacrament of Word, but addresses only the internal, individualistic change and not how that change is lived out in the real world. It is also open to arbitrary interpretation.
By now, it should be apparent that Sobrino’s Christology is based on what he believes to be humankind’s knowledge, or rather what can be known, of the historical person of Jesus and his experiences in this world. He takes further exception to three other common starting points for Christology, however, that have been based to some extent on the criteria, which Sobrino expounds, of ‘knowing’ Jesus’ historical character.
Soteriology, while having significance potentially for all humankind, has been a Christological basis that was centered on the person being saved rather than the one saving. “An approach motivated by soteriological interests tends to disfigure Jesus … as it manipulates him and reduces him to an example of what is of deep interest to humanity …” Another approach has been to take the teachings of Jesus, isolate them and, on these fragments alone, formulate a Christology. This process made Jesus “a model of bourgeois morality and citizenship in the nineteenth century.” Sobrino states that, rather than bolstering religious or bourgeois solidarity, Jesus creates a crisis for them. This belief is presumably based on the prevalence of Jesus’ teachings in opposition to the religious and social hierarchy, but he does not give this or any other specific reasons.
Lastly, although this takes Sobrino’s arguments out of order, he takes exception to a Christology based on the resurrection. While portrayed as ‘historical’, Sobrino asserts that Christ’s resurrection is an object of our cognition and faith in a very special way” but it “cannot be known directly”. If it is actually possible to summarize his arguments, Sobrino seems to take a very critical view of the historicity of the resurrection, relegating it to almost eschatological myth. It cannot be known, as the crucifixion is known, because it was neither a physical resurrection nor the resuscitation of a lifeless cadaver, and concentrating on this event is to undervalue the horrific reality of God crucified, with its specific meaning for humanity. God’s action in resurrecting Christ, which we only know through faith, is a response to the known, historical, criminal, human action of crucifying Jesus, God incarnate. In other words, justice triumphing over injustice. The resurrection, then, provides a basis for future hope in the face of the reality of the death of Jesus on the cross. In short, the resurrected Jesus has no meaning apart from the crucified Christ.
The crucifixion is, in Sobrino’s theology at least, the only reasonable starting point for Christology, since it is the only event that brings us back to the totality of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. To use any other would be to risk a theology in which there is a “risen one without a cross, an end without a process, a transcendence without history, a lordship without service.” In seeing Jesus’ death as central to Christian belief, one is confronted with the expression of God’s profound love for humanity – but not all humanity. “God’s impotence … is the expression of God’s absolute nearness to the poor, sharing their lot to the end.” Since God was on the cross, asserts Sobrino, Jesus’ resurrection becomes credible to those who experience ignominious treatment at the hands of the powerful of the world.
Sobrino considers preaching and actions to be other historical characteristics of Jesus that can be known. What Jesus preached about most was neither himself as the central focus of faith, nor God in terms that would allow humans to ‘know’ God, but instead the Kingdom of God, a concept that Jesus did not precisely explain. Rather than trying to discern what the Kingdom looks like solely from what Jesus said, Sobrino’s approach to formulating a theology of the Kingdom incorporates:
- Analyzing what the Kingdom meant for Jesus with his roots firmly in Jewish culture.
- Analyzing the praxis of Jesus.
- Studying to whom Jesus addressed the message of the Kingdom of God, in his benediction of the poor and their lives.
Jewish thought held that God had always been active in history, reigning with acts of power in order to establish or modify the order of things. Following centuries of catastrophic experiences for Israel that, by Jesus’ time, had left continued political and economic self-determination out of grasp, the Jewish expectation was the coming of the Reign of God, and therefore liberation, through a vanquishing Messiah. Sobrino quotes Boff as saying, “[Jesus] promises that it will no longer be utopia, the object of anxious expectation, but topia, the object of happiness for all the people.” Jesus’ message was that God’s reign was near and had already begun, although not yet culminated. They saw the coming Kingdom in two planes – the vertical orientation of divine filiation, and the horizontal of reconciliation between humans – with both equally important. According to Sobrino, “the mere verbal proclamation of God without action to achieve [God’s] reign is not enough, and orthopraxis must take priority over orthodoxy.”
Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom as good news for the poor, but more specifically drew to himself, ministered to and healed those who suffered material or social oppression, were outcast, or were deemed unclean or immoral by the pious religious hierarchy. In short, Jesus ministry was a continuation of the theme of the biblical prophets who preached hope for those who needed liberation. Sobrino states that the deeds of Jesus were signs of the coming Kingdom in a world that is in need of change. The negative situations that demanded this change are described in the gospels as needing to be overcome – the conditions of those that are described as “the poor”, a collective grouping of those who are oppressed, afflicted and despised.
To these people -the helpless sick, the segregated lepers, the schismatic Samaritans, the marginalized women, the foreign centurion, the despised sinners, and the like – Jesus gave the message that the Kingdom was theirs. To the righteous religious elite and scribes, and the wealthy merchants or land barons, Jesus many times gave the admonishment that they were, in fact, the sinners and the oppressors in this world which was so in need of the coming Kingdom.
Jesus went beyond proclamation, denunciation and acts of love to “the poor”, however, by following a “historical course of voluntary impoverishment”. This impoverishment was not just in the sense of material goods, but in the willingness to be stripped of all human dignity. Sobrino sees this step of total solidarity with the poor as essential in the mission of Jesus. His Christology and theology of the Kingdom come together with the crucifixion – God’s willingness to be deprived of human life, rights, and justice, as well as suffer the ultimate oppression of murder – being a prerequisite for the coming of the Kingdom of God that will ameliorate the conditions of the majority of humans who suffer the same ignominious treatment.
From the historical actions of Jesus, in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to bring about the Kingdom of God comes the third aspect of Sobrino’s theology deemed significant for this paper – his theology of martyrdom. Following Jesus, he asserts, begins with incarnation, the process by which a person makes a conscious choice to adopt the condition of the poor and marginalized just as God did. The “crucified people” of the world are already in this incarnation, but those who do not belong to this group sociologically must “achieve this belonging through consciously lowering themselves, integrating themselves in the people in various ways, making common cause with the crucified people, taking on their struggle and their destiny.” This is not simply accomplished by visiting or working with impoverished populations, but requires the taking on of their conditions and risks. On Dec 1, 2000, at the 20th anniversary of the martyrdom of the four US churchwomen killed in El Salvador, Sobrino said:
“These martyrs were killed … because they did three things. First, they loved the poor of this world, with or without Roman catechism. They loved the poor of this world. But not only loved them, defended them. That’s the key step. At times, some of us might love the poor, but to defend them is something else. It means, if you defend someone or some group or some people, that there are others who attack them.
… And then comes the third thing. If you defend the poor, you confront their oppressors. That’s why they were killed.
… In this country (El Salvador), not only the rules of good have been violated, but the rules of evil. Evil has its own rules. Remember when Rutilio Grande was killed, he was the first priest to be assassinated in El Salvador — something new. Not that people had not been assassinated, but to kill a priest… And now, to kill American women…
… Let me use the metaphor, however. Let’s say that we build the reign of God. What I want to say is that there are forces against the building of the reign of God. The reign of God doesn’t just happen. Somehow the anti-reign, whatever you want to call it, has to be [challenged].”
The Christian disciple, Sobrino asserts, must not trivialize the struggle of the oppressed, whom God loves. They must work for peace and strive for justice, even though this struggle always includes violence. While the violence will generally be unleashed on the poor themselves, it may be born also by those that seek to love them. This is the true demonstration of love of neighbour – to be willing to suffer persecution, even to the point of death, to be in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and marginalized.
For Jon Sobrino, saying that “Jesus is the model of radical political action” may be an understatement. He would say that Christian disciples are called to model the behaviour and sacrifices of Jesus of Nazareth in all things. The group of people that would be the recipients of this loving action would be, just as in Jesus’ time, the majority of the world’s population who are impoverished – economically and/or socially. Even to the point of being willing to die as a martyr, for Sobrino quite possibly the ultimate political and religious expression, the follower of Christ is called to lower themselves socially and economically to the level of the neighbour they profess to love, and to defend them as sisters and brothers in Christ. Based on Sobrino’s understanding, it would be difficult to view Jesus as more radical, more political or more active.
Sobrino, Jon. 1978. Christology at the Crossroads – A Latin American View. Translated by John Drury. (London: SCM Press).
Sobrino, Jon. 1987. Jesus in Latin America. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).
Sobrino, Jon. 2000. “The Martyrs give us love” – Address presented at events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the martyrdom of the four US churchwomen, Dec. 1-2, 2000. Website of the Religious Taskforce on Central America and Mexico, Washington D.C. [http://www.rtfcam.org/martyrs/fullness_of_life/reflections/jon_sobrino.htm] Accessed 28/03/04.*
Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. “Faith & the Kingdoms: The Politics of Niebuhr & Yoder.” Institute for Global Engagement website, [http://www.globalengagement.org/issues/2002/03/ kingdoms.htm]. Accessed 27/03/04. (St. Davids, PA: The Institute for Global Engagement).*
Yoder, John Howard. 1972. Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
* These texts, being electronic versions structured within Java framework, have neither numbered pages nor individual url’s. An effort was made to identify them by subtitle and paragraph number with the section.
 Yoder, 2.
 Wilson-Hartgrove, ¶8-9.
 Sobrino, 1978: 4. Note: Since Sobrino bases so much of his arguments on the synoptic gospels, there are some obvious problems with this view, even while ignoring John’s “Logos” opening. Matthew begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah …” (1:1); Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1); Luke in chapter 1, outlines the immaculate conception of Jesus through Mary and the action of Holy Spirit and includes, “and will be called the Son of the Most High”. Since this paper is not a critique of Sobrino’s theology, however, critical comments will be left to the occasional footnote.
 Sobrino, 1978: 4, 82; 1987: 12.
 Sobrino, 1978: 5, 82.
 Sobrino, 1978: 5-6.
 Sobrino, 1978: 6.
 Sobrino, 1978: 7-8, Sobrino, 1987: 65.
 Sobrino, 1978: 353.
 Sobrino, 1978: 8.
 Sobrino, 1978: 6.
 Sobrino, 1978: 200-1, 236-240.
 Sobrino, 1987: 148-150.
 Sobrino, 1987: 154.
 Sobrino, 1987: 153.
 Sobrino, 1978: 42.
 Sobrino, 1978: 43.
 Sobrino, 1978: 44.
 Sobrino, 1978: 45.
 Sobrino, 1987: 142-143.
 Sobrino, 1978: 47, Sobrino, 1987: 142-145.
 Op cit.
 Sobrino, 1987: 145.
 Sobrino, 1987: 163.
 Sobrino, 2000. ¶ 9, 10, 31 & 72. Emphasis added.
 Sobrino, 1987: 164.