In the last chapter of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder moves beyond Jesus and Paul and on to the Book of Revelation. He doesn’t get entangled in arguments about how literally to take it as a prediction of the future; rather, he looks at what it says about the meaning of history.
When Yoder first wrote the book in the early 1970s, the meaning and direction of history was a major cultural preoccupation. Lots of grand theories about it and how to affect it were in play. Yoder says Revelation supports the idea that history has a meaning and direction, and thus rejects the static “order of creation” preferred by medieval Christianity (and implicitly, the cyclical and atemporal views of time in some non-Christian religions). However, he also rejects the modern humanist view that historical progress is made and directed by progressively more enlightened human beings. In fact, he believes that efforts to control and direct society are generally doomed, because it is simply too complex and unpredictable a system. (To support this, he quotes Niebuhr of all people.)
So what the Bible and, in particular, Revelation tell Christians is that history will work out all right; God will see to that. Following Christ faithfully may, at times, seem impractical and to serve no good purpose, but ultimately that is the only method we have of being on the “right side of history.”
The passage of this chapter that my brain has been chewing on most is this:
This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which would say it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the diginity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.
I’ve been wondering what, in practice, it means to refrain from forcing your will on another. In honor of MLK Day, our pastor on Sunday passed out copies of the “Ten Commandments” that King gave to all participants in his movement. Most of them you can probably guess, but what caught my attention was No. 3: “Remember that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.”
When I was learning about King’s movement growing up, I always heard it in the usual terms of political chess: the movement wanted this, they used such-and-such strategy, and they won this and lost that. Could this be a distorted understanding of what was going on? Lee links to an article saying that it is:
The first issue that gets lost is that King sought “reconciliation” with his adversaries and an improvement of life for everyone. This is the end goal and if victory is all that’s wanted then that’s not Kingian nonviolence. Reconciliation is also probably the most difficult aspect of the Kingian philosophy for activists to embrace. In his book “Stride Toward Freedom” King said that the nonviolent methods are “not an end in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
There is almost always a misunderstanding of how to define the adversaries in nonviolent social change. Dr. King said it is not a “battle” against individuals who commit evil acts but against the evil itself. Regarding the Montgomery struggles, he said, “The tension is between justice and injustice, and not white persons who may be unjust.” King said further that “the nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or engaging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in-kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.”
Easy to say, but so, so hard to do. The current struggle over gay marriage is a case in point. And it still leaves me wondering how Christians negotiate these things, especially when you’re convinced that Jesus gave an absolute and unequivocal command to do X, and the other party thinks the opposite.
I’ve been thinking about this since before the election, actually, since that was such a bitterly divisive event for many Christians. There was an interesting but, alas, no longer extant discussion of this at the now-dead Among the Ruins blog. (I note, by the way, that ATR regular Andy now has his own blog, although he hasn’t exactly swung into furious posting action yet.) Keith remarked that when people find out he’s a Republican they often take it as a blot on his moral character — the idea of reasonable people disagreeing apparently doesn’t apply to this realm. Andy pondered the fact that he and Keith are nearly identical theologically and yet are on opposite sides of the political divide. Does that leave any hope for a unified Christian politics? If not, what does “the politics of Jesus” really mean?
I’ve been thinking about this also as I’ve been hanging with the Mennonites. Everyone, not surprisingly, asks me how I came to visit their relatively obscure denomination. I sometimes mention Hugo, but he’s more the reason for my going to that particular church, not for the denomination in general. The ultimate reason, I try rather confusingly to explain, is that I was lured into Anabaptist theology by someone who isn’t an Anabaptist.
It’s been a continuing puzzle to me and to others who know Telford exactly why he’s an evangelical Pentecostal. He has no charismatic gifts of his own, and his theology is far more Anabaptist than it is American evangelical. When I try to describe him to people, I say he’s an evangelical, but he’s a pacifist, communitarian, non-creationist, non-biblical-literalist, semi-feminist, pro-separation-of-church-and-state evangelical. You know, that kind.
More and more, though, I think that the basic answer is that he’s an evangelical because he’s more politically and culturally compatible with them. (Or at least, with the Southern California version — I have a hard time imagining him being happy in some rural Southern Baptist church.) The academic/artist/left-wing activist mix that makes PMC feel so much like home to me (hey, I’m from Marin County) no doubt alienates him.
It’s become popular, in our age of political vitriol, to see the “two Americas” as acting from two vastly different and incompatible worldviews. George Lakoff’s scheme of the liberal and conservative “frames” is probably the best known, and there’s a lot of truth to it. But we also have cases like Keith and Andy, and Telford and the Mennonites (ooh, band name!) where the frames are actually very similar when it comes to things like God, morality, and human nature. And yet they wind up in different political parties, and (more damaging for the Church) different denominations. What’s going on?
Back at the now-vaporized ATR discussion, I suggested that the difference is in epistemology. That is, people have different views of what the world out there is actually like, and so have very different ideas of how to act in it. Telford, for instance, lamented to me before the election that one of his colleagues — a “wonderful, compassionate Christian” in his words — was convinced that the U.S. is turning into Nazi Germany (or maybe had already turned into it, I don’t quite remember). This led to some arguments with Telford, not because he thinks that turning into Nazi Germany is a good thing, but because he simply doesn’t think it’s happening.
I suggested that there are two factors that lead to this sort of thing, which interest me both as an amateur theologian and as a professional journalist. One is the sources people trust. In our world, only a tiny portion of which we can know from direct experience, we have to develop trusted sources in order to know anything about political events. So even people who like to bash “the media” back up their assertions by pointing to other media that they deem more reliable. (Telford mentioned that his colleague likes Indymedia, which explains a lot.)
Why do we trust some sources and not others? I’ve actually had my own arguments with Telford about that, not regarding politics but regarding religion. He mentioned in his interview with the Internet Monk that he thinks modern epistemology erred in its presumption that people aren’t really trustworthy, so you have to go on hard, scientifically provable evidence. But he’s never really responded when I’ve pressed him on how you know whom to trust, given that we have a bunch of mutually exclusive claimants on the nature of God. I suspect that a lot of it — probably more than we’d like to admit — has to do with that sort of tribal affiliation that I feel with the Mennonites, and Telford feels with evangelicals.
The other factor I mentioned is that even when we agree on basic facts, we can fundamentally differ on what stories we weave those facts into. Because stories, not bare facts, are our essential way of knowing about the world. So I can imagine that the colleague took a number of facts that are not in dispute — the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay detentions, and so on — and knitted them into a narrative of the U.S. turning into a fascist imperial power, while Telford would view them as part of a well-meaning, if at times incompetent and overzealous, effort by the administration to defend us from a grave terrorist threat.
The thing that always fascinated me about Telford’s worldview is that through his studies he became convinced of Anabaptist theology, with all its radical implications, while at the same time he’s hung on to his moderate Republican epistemology. So basically, he never changed his view that government interference in the economy tends to be counterproductive, or that the U.S. tries to stick to its original ideals most of the time, or that sometimes wars prevent further violence from occurring. The important thing about this to me is not whether he’s right, but the fact that he does not see them as conflicting. He has, in a purer fashion than anyone else I know, followed Yoder in splitting his beliefs about God’s will from his understanding about what will work.
This was especially important when I met him because I was, two years ago, having a sort of political-epistemological crisis of my own. After 9/11, I was unlike a lot of my friends and family on the left in that I really believed in the Islamist threat. I didn’t buy the idea that they were essentially annoyed at America for the same reasons that American liberals are annoyed at it, and so making the country more liberal would neutralize the threat. I’m sure that U.S. shenannigans in the Middle East haven’t helped matters any, but basically I think it’s Western culture that they despise.
Understanding the Christian view of pacifism and love of neighbor has helped me grapple with this a lot better than the humanist pacifism that I was more familiar with. But I’ve also found that in some sense my political view was also a view of myself. I had to face my own deep attraction to religious fanaticism and my discontent with modern liberal culture, which is so against the way I was brought up that I didn’t really admit it even to myself before. I feared the enemy not because he’s Other but because I was afraid that he’s actually a lot like me.
I wonder how many other people’s political perspectives are a similar hall of mirrors. The biologist in me thinks that the size and complexity of today’s world simply stretches our poor little brains beyond their capacity, because after all we evolved for little hunter-gatherer bands that only sporadically came in contact with strangers. We try to apply our first-hand experience and our archetypal story lines to the whole planet, and neither is ever adequate. I guess I can only hope that God has it all under control, because we sure don’t.