May 1, 2014 / From the Editor, Uncategorized
Each Friday we compile a list of interesting links and articles our editors find from …
April 24, 2014
Revolutionary Christian Citizenship
By John Howard Yoder and Edited by John C. Nugent, Branson Parler, and Andy Alexis-Baker
Yoder for Everyone, Vol. 2
Herald Press, 2013. 171 pages. $15.99.
Discipleship and Political Disruption
by Dan Rhodes
My guess is that Yoder would wryly smirk at the idea of a “Yoder for Everyone” series. I think this not simply because I’d imagine that he’d never have considered that the work of a marginal Mennonite theologian could go mainstream, but also because he would assume that his positions, derived as they are from a dissident and minority community, were not likely to achieve widespread acceptance. His minoritarianism, I imagine, would have been a bit of a badge of honor for the theologian. And yet, given the current political and ecclesial climate, I can imagine no better discussion partner for any attempt to discover what it means to be a faithful citizen, even if such practice of citizenship will likely be greeted with scorn and dismissiveness. While the volume’s essays can be a bit choppy, moving at a rapid pace that, at times, can make the author’s argument somewhat difficult to follow, on the whole the book does succeed in presenting the unique and enigmatic thought of Yoder in a way that is accessible to the average Christian. To this extent, it is a great gift to Christian communities in the English-speaking context by Herald Press and Nugent, Parler, and Alexis-Baker.
Before I continue in my assessment of the book, outlining its gems while suggesting points at which Yoder’s own argument needs to be brought up to date with the contemporary context, I feel compelled to say something about the recent disturbing revelations of Yoder’s misconduct. Whatever one writes about Yoder, or whatever insights one gains from his thought, the lives of the women he harmed must not be set aside or his taking advantage of them downplayed. Instead, their stories have to be allowed, on some level, to judge his theology. Yoder’s actions were unacceptable and should not be dismissed or ignored. More expansive evaluations of his theology, I believe, should investigate the relations between his thought and his misbehavior, for as my mentor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying, in the end all interesting arguments are ad hominem. That said, I continue to find, as I do with Foucault despite his blatant misogyny, Yoder’s theological perspective to be profoundly insightful and deeply challenging. I also continue to think that his voice is one that still needs to be heard within Christian circles, as it calls us to be more faithful.
Yoder’s theology, his ecclesiology and missiology, all pivot on his understanding of Jesus. Hence, it is no surprise that it is exactly with the person of Jesus that his discussion of what it means to be a Christian citizen takes its point of departure here. For those who have found the clunky style, the inconspicuous adversaries, and often obscure sentences of The Politics of Jesus to be an insurmountable hurdle to grasping his argument, the prose and plain structure of his essays in these first five chapters will no doubt come as refreshingly accessible. Gathered by the editors into a section on “The Witness of Jesus,” Yoder in these chapters looks at Jesus’s relationship to politics (chapter 1), peace (chapter 2), violence (chapter 3), majesty (chapter 4), and Old Testament Warfare (chapter 5). Herein Yoder clearly rehearses his argument that the Jesus presented in the New Testament is manifestly political just as he is undeniably human. Yet, the new path of liberation initiated by Jesus as the God-man confounds and defeats the powers of the world not though violence but through enemy love, forgiveness, and peaceful reconciliation. And it is this very activity of peace-making that constitutes the most radical means of Christian revolution and resistance. As a decisive act of peace in the face of the powers, Jesus chose the path of the cross and, in doing so, vanquished their sovereignty and cut a new path of freedom, reuniting humanity with God. His life is the pattern for a new humanity, manifesting the will of God. But his life is also not discontinuous with the teaching of the Old Testament and the people of Israel, as even the bloody pages of Joshua and Judges announce the dependence of a faithful people solely upon God for their existence.
The essays collected by the editors in the second part of the volume, “the Witness of the Church,” provide the clearest and most concise summary of Yoder’s ecclesiology to be found anywhere. In the first of these essays, chapter 5, Yoder positions the church in relation to world history, offering a theological argument for the church as peculiar and distinct “new human movement that had a different way of dealing with offenders, underdogs, outsiders, money, leadership, and decision making” initiated by Christ (73). Hence, as a new people gathered in and by the salvific work of Christ, he states, “the meaning of history is what God is doing in this new people” (73). While this is not to say that God is not at work elsewhere in the world or that God’s reign is confined solely to the church, Yoder does understand the gathering of the church as the social body where God’s work is most visible and knowable. For the church to recover its true place in world history, then, it will need to cease to imagine that the state or the market are the movers of history and regain a sense that God’s work in history is borne by the unique community formed and enabled by the ethics of Jesus (76-7). What makes Yoder’s understanding of the church non-triumphalist and, therefore, essentially missional is that, following the model of Jesus, the distinguishing mark of this community’s relation to history and the future is that it will not attempt to control or steer the flow of history with violence.
Based upon this understanding of the church, Yoder’s presentation of the relation between the church and the state and the church and war provided in chapters 6 and 7 follow naturally. While the church does not seek to abolish the state, its recognition of the cosmic Lordship (that is, sovereignty) of Christ provides it with a critical edge in its engagement with the state. Because the church’s loyalty is to its Lord, Yoder makes clear, it cannot support the state with blind allegiance but must continually remind it that its function is for the good, a task that will inevitably bring it into conflict with the hubristic aspirations of the state. As a result, and of unique pertinence to churches in America, is the complete rejection of any sense of exceptionalism and/or nationalism in light of the global dimension of the work of Christ. No instance more illustrates the state’s tendency to overstep its limits than war. Hence, the church will hold the strict criteria of just war before the state’s often idolatrous confidence in its own cause, acting as a witness by reminding the state pursuing such a path that proving the justice of one’s cause bears the very heavy burden of proof. At the same time, the church will continually acting as society’s conscious, “radiat[ing] a moral influence on the world around it, including the state” (82). While negotiating exactly what it is to say to the state or what path forward needs to be take will, no doubt, be complex and not immediately clear, because the church is free in its fealty to Christ from the need to try to protect its own future (something the state is not in a position to do) it can take the time to listen to the other side and to pursue more creative and just alternatives.
The last and final section of the volume is a series of Yoder’s occasional writings assembled by the editors. It is indeed a real treat, as in reading these sermons, short essays, and articles the reader gets a sense of watching Yoder’s theological mind in action. From self-defense and voting to taxes and civil religion, the reader wanting to know what Yoder’s theology looks like on the ground and in the mix of everyday issues will not be dissatisfied. But this is not to say that the reader will not find his suggestions and conclusions as challenging as ever. As the reader will certainly recognize, the reason Yoder’s thought remains so challenging is that he refuses to compartmentalize one’s citizenship and one’s participation in society from real discipleship. Indeed, it is this simplicity of his overarching thought that makes it so revolutionary. To this extent, while available to everyone few there may be who embrace it.
In conclusion, let me point out what I take to be one limitation of the book, though to be fair it is more a limitation that arises as a result of the fact that the essays included in this volume were written by Yoder more than thirty years ago and not of Yoder’s arguments themselves. While, as the editors note, the reader can readily see many connection between the politic environment Yoder addresses and our own, there remain some significant differences. Indeed, most readers, I think, will benefit greatly from Yoder’s insight into how discipleship configures the church’s (Christian’s) relationship to the state. And yet, many readers, no doubt, will be left asking how, given the nature of the welfare-state Yoder tends to take for granted, Christians are to interact and interface with the new economic polity that has emerged over the last quarter century, which is both stronger and more subtle. If, for instance, following Michel Foucault, this new state functions with a mode of sovereignty that registers more in the production of life rather than the taking of life, what does discipleship look like within a biopolitical context? How can the church maintain its freedom when the market-state seems to be more set on capturing and shaping the soul with tools that are often invisible and quite complex? What does faithful witness to the state look like in a world where the state is becoming increasingly privatized, where war is perpetual and yet distant, where tax-cuts come not at the cost of defunding unjust wars but of gutting assistance for the unemployed, poor, and disadvantaged, and where civil religion has turned into market worship, individual consumption, and identity capital? My hope is that a new generation of students who find Yoder’s work as a result of this book will develop his thought in ways that will help us know how to live as faithful disciples and how to bear witness to the Lordship of Christ in the new era of the global market-state.
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.