As is well known, a reading of the New Testament in the Radical Reformation tradition (and, in my opinion, an honest reading of it by anyone) displays a standard for disciples of Jesus the Christ that includes a rejection of the power of the sword. This community of disciples embarked on a trajectory that would later include such community standards as those elaborated by Hippolytus of Rome in the Apostolic Tradition, in which those entering the faith (catechumens) must renounce the power of the sword, and must cease to work for the government—which happened to be the Roman Empire, of course. It is also common to point out that early Christians refused participation in the Roman Empire because it required pagan practices and idol worship—sometimes this is used as an argument against pacifism (i.e., they had to reject the “state” at that point in history for issues of idolatry, not violence, and now that the “state” does not require idol worship, we may participate in it and the power of the sword). In casual conversations about the work of John Howard Yoder, I have heard the objection that Yoder reduces the state to the power of the sword—“of course Yoder rejects Christian participation in the state, if the state is nothing but pure violence!” On the one hand, if Christian disciples must refuse to use the power of the sword, they must refuse to participate in government if government boils down to the use of violence (to accomplish whatever ends it seeks); on the other hand, if the government cannot be reduced to the power of the sword, then it might not be easy to make an argument that Christians should not work for the government.
Max Weber famously defined the modern state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” but I am not sure I want to make this concession—and Yoder certainly is sensitive to issues with this definition. He makes some good points in his early essays, found in Discipleship as Political Responsibility. He notes, “The New Testament does not deal with the state in terms of its role in funding school systems, building roads, administering social programs, regulating postal services, and all the other things that we also think of today when referring to the ‘state’” (18). In the NT, the state is the Roman Empire, not just any state in general; it is the Beast in the Apocalypse of John (Revelation). Yoder makes arguments for why the state is pagan simply in its use of the sword (e.g., how can one confront evil with suffering, cross-bearing love—what the church is called to do, and simultaneously with violence—what the state does?), but more to my point, he offers an general guideline for Christians and participation in government. He offers several theses (pages 43-45), and I paraphrase several of them below:
1) We will not make “rejection of the state” the same for everyone; not all state participation is equal;
2) We will assume the basic lines of NT teaching regarding state for those functions of state that involve the sword, i.e., they must refuse that power;
3) Sometimes refusal is our duty to the state;
4) We will stop believing that history is made up of what states do; Christians need to continue to be pioneers (e.g. building hospitals and developing non-violent conflict resolution—some things the church pioneered before);
5) We will address people working for the state as those who can say no to the state; they have a choice;
6) “Whether Christians are acting as responsible Christians or not when serving the common good in a government position will be determined by whether or not they are free to step out if the government position were to require actions that are not Christian” (45).
7) We will not ask whether something is forbidden or be legalistic; the Gospel brings freedom;
8) We won’t assume the world is made up of Christians;
While Yoder does not offer more actual analysis of the “state,” I am sure he would add that it just depends on the local conditions of what a state actually happens to be. I also find it to be a helpful distinction to say that although a public school teacher and a secretary of war are on the same continuum, they are not equally bound to the sword. (To be continued; more conversation on this topic to come)
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