August 25, 2006

Heathens and tax collectors, part 2: the return of Yoder

Filed under: Church and state — Camassia @ 7:43 pm

I received some helpful comments to my last post, including Lee’s link to this paper by John Howard Yoder, which Lee discussed briefly here. By coincidence, my churchmate Kent recently delivered a lecture on Yoder which he posted on his blog, providing a longer summary of the same subject.

As the old-timers around here know, I liked Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, though it left a number of questions hanging. The paper under discussion, however — called “The Theological Basis of the Christian Witness to the State” — I found more troubling.

Yoder follows the anti-Constantinian line in sharply differentiating church and state, but asserts Christ’s lordship over both. As in TPOJ, he compares Romans 13’s reference to the state as a minister of God’s justice to Old Testament events where God used the violence of some foreign power, such as the Assyrians, to punish the sins of Israel, but in turn punished the foreign powers for their violence. Thus, both church and state have roles in salvation history:

Jesus made it clear that the nationalized hope of Israel had been a misunderstanding, and that God’s true purpose was the creation of a new society, unidentifiable with any of the local, national, or ethnic solidarities of the time. This new body, the church, as aftertaste of God’s loving triumph on the cross and foretaste of His ultimate loving triumph in His Kingdom, has a task within history. History is the framework in which the church evangelizes so that the true meaning of history is the fact that God has chosen it for His framework service. Now the whole vengeance-upon-vengeance mechanism takes on meaning as a subordinate vehicle to the redemptive purpose; it is to maintain peace so that all men may come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2). The interplay of violence upon violence, vengeance upon vengeance, whether in international wars such as Isaiah 10 had in mind or in the relatively more regulated processes of the state’s judiciary and police machinery, has the ultimate purpose of preserving the fabric of the human community as the context within which the church’s work can be carried on.

… It need hardly be said that such a set of concepts as the New Testament applies to this problem cannot meaningfully apply except to a fellowship of believers characterized by obedience in nonresistance. A church which is identical with society … cannot be nonresistant, cannot be willing to lose her life to find it, cannot have a fully prophetic function vis-a-vis the state, cannot clearly distinguish between her fate and that of the “powers” she acknowledges.

Here I think Lee’s question is extremely pertinent: “[D]oes the Church’s having an influence on society depend on a prior recognition by the State of the Church’s exalted status as the bearer of God’s new way of life?” I would put that more bluntly: why the hell would anyone in government go along with a narrative that says their main function is to serve a church that they don’t believe in? It sounds a lot like the Muslim concept of “dhimmitude,” only instead of just inconveniencing the infidels with taxes and other minor burdens, it expects the dhimmis to perform dangerous jobs like policing on behalf of the privileged group.

This goes to the heart of the problem with Yoder’s Old Testament analogy: the foreign armies or governments perform the will of God only because they don’t know what they’re doing. If the Assyrians had really known what was going on, they would have put away their swords and evaded God’s wrath. Similarly, if I were to write to President Bush (to get back to the question that started all this) and honestly tell him all this, he either would (most likely) write me off as a crackpot and do what he was going to do anyway, or (less likely) believe me, and feel he’d have to resign the presidency. Either way, we wouldn’t get any closer to peace in Lebanon.

But Yoder (and this really bothers me) doesn’t really favor being honest that way. Instead, he thinks Christians should call on “middle axioms,” certain values that Christians and their predominant culture have in common, and urge leaders to follow them. Yoder goes on to enumerate some of them, saying that they “agree to a large extent with those of a historian like Butterfield, a political analyst like George Kennan or Walter Lippmann, a military analyst like Hanson Baldwin.”

However, the sticking point, which Yoder admits, is that even following this much “already demands an act of faith”:

To ask the western powers to avoid the use of atomic weapons, to stay out of alliances with dictatorships like Franco’s, and to respect human values within their own forces, puts them at a disadvantage against a ruthless enemy who will use any weapon, who will mistreat his prisoners of war, and whose “human wave” tactics show absolutely no concern for the soldier as a man. This disadvantage is the price of relative justice; descending to the level of the enemy in such matters would rob the West of the last semblance of a pretext for survival. … Violence is always, apparently, the shortest and surest way. And in the long run the appearance always deceives. Had the western powers gambled on freedom and justice since 1945, if in Asia they had sought not satellites but the growth of a third camp, and if in trouble spots like Indo-China and Sumatra they had proceeded as in the Philippines, beating the communists to land reform, the shape of our world today would be far better, perhaps even in China itself. But such a strategy would have demanded faith in freedom and justice, which the champions of freedom and justice no longer had.

I would venture to say that fifty years on, the situation has not improved in that regard. Yet Yoder has no solution to this loss of faith, because his theological framework doesn’t allow it. It’s not the church’s job to cultivate faith in anything but God; so if the country loses faith in its own ideals, what can we say?

I also wanted to touch on Yoder’s attitude toward democracy, which he does not go into in the paper but which Kent summarizes thus:

As Christians we know that the “will of the people” does not carry the same authority as the voice of God speaking through Torah, the prophets, and Jesus Messiah. We know that the majority is not often moral. And being “wise as serpents” we also recognize that even democracies—at least those on a large national scale—are always managed by a ruling elite, who make most of the decisions without consulting us ordinary folk. (How many of you were consulted about the free trade agreement between Mexico, the US, and Canada called NAFTA? I know they never gave me a call!) Yet while we remain realistic about the limits of large-scale democracy, we are eager to use the tools of citizenship, consent theory, democratic representation, rights to assembly, free speech, petition, and nonviolent protest to battle the inevitable injustices that arise from inherent concentrations of wealth and power (a central insight of Reinhold Niebuhr’s, by the way.) Our freedom in Christ allows us to use any democratic tools that come to hand on behalf of the peace and prosperity of our neighbors and even our enemies.

“Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into Exile” God commanded Jeremiah in Babylon, and this word from Yahweh is at the heart of Yoder’s political ethic for Christians through all time and in all nations, Lebanon as well as Israel, Iraq as well as the good ol’ USA. Democracy is to be affirmed, Yoder says, because it offers so many more ways to hold the rich and powerful accountable to the most marginal and weak in our society. Treatment of the “least of these” is the litmus test that separates the sheep from the goats, and democracy can help us advocate for those lost sheep. Yet Yoder also warns about the dangerous and self-righteous arrogance of military crusades that would impose democracy by force on others. This Yoder essay, written in 1984, somehow rings a bell for me today.

It’s true, of course, that power in our country is unequally distributed. But I don’t think this really does credit to the role of the electorate in government. The power of any one voter is vanishingly small, but as a group, we are as much a part of the government as the judicial branch. And in California, where every election brings us a battery of propositions, we are legislators also. The president doesn’t pay attention to our letters because he thinks we’re wise advisors; he pays attention because we can fire him.

If you look at it that way, there really isn’t a whole lot of daylight between Yoder’s position and the Lutheran one. The princes of Luther’s era also “used the tools” that they inherited to do what they thought was right — in their case, the tools being things like armies and judicial fiat. The only real difference seems to be that while Luther felt it was OK for Christians to wield the sword of the state in a just manner, Mennonites apparently feel it’s OK to hire other people to bear the sword according to their direction.

Because make no mistake about it: any time you pass a law, you are backing it up with the sword. Notice that in my first Yoder quote above, he mentions “the state’s judiciary and police machinery” in the same category as international wars. Near the end of the paper he oddly remarks that, “In a highly christianized culture it is an available alternative to have unarmed police and no capital punishment,” and I am totally confused as to whether he means “christianized” in a Constantinian sense or not. But either way, that is clearly not the society we live in now; so every law is backed up with violence.

I think I’m beginning to see why Hauerwas split with Yoder here. I think the Stanmeister is next on the reading list.


  1. Ok, so now I’m picturing Yoder as Yoda and Hauerwas as Obi-Wan…

    In other news, Hauerwas is coming to give a lecture at our church, later this year I believe. I hear he’s got a very high-pitched speaking voice.

    Comment by Elliot — August 26, 2006 @ 3:31 pm

  2. To confirm Elliot’s comment, Stanley has one of the most annoying voices you will find in a public speaker. Fortunately, he usually has something emminently worth listening to. I honestly don’t think anyone can reflect on the place of power, violence, and Christian faith in the modern era without reading Hauerwas!


    Comment by Dwight — August 28, 2006 @ 7:28 am

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