Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, i

This slender volume contains two essays, presented as lectures, in 1957, translated from German into English. In this post and the next, I will briefly outline Yoder's arguments in each essay.

The first essay is entitled, 'The State in the New Testament', and Yoder begins by seeking to ask 1. What does the Bible say? 2. How are we to apply that?

In the first part, Yoder then outlines 2 theses statements (He says he will outline 4, but only 2 appear clearly):
1. "The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand." (p18) Yoder is speaking of the state primarily as "the order of the sword" (p19), rather than the modern administrative complex we generally refer to. He traces the state's function in scripture as an expression of God's grace aimed at redemption by the preservation of life and existence. He notes that the most frequently appearing OT text in the NT is Ps 110:1, and that the NT understands the State as one of those 'enemies' hostile to the Messiah and triumphed over in the cross. Yoder concludes his first thesis by reaffirming that the state is 'pagan', but that God uses this nonetheless for his purposes.

2. "The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross." (p21) Once you grasp Yoder's two mandates, the basis for his theology and social ethic becomes apparent, if not obvious. To follow Christ is to pattern and participate in the triumph over evil by way of the cross - sacrificial love unto death. Yoder then points to 1 Tim 2:1ff, as the text that best helps us relate the two mandates, "Saving people and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth were not achievements of the Roman Empire" (p22). The mandate of the state exists to keep evil in check, only in service to the superior mandate of hte church, to overcome evil. The state's existence serves the church (and not vice versa)

Yoder then goes on to speak of hte limits of the state, and suggests that the state is not addressed by Christian standards, but on its own terms is to be called to act justly. He goes on to identify the state as a Pagan institution through a number of considerations. By reading Rom 12:19 alongside Rom 13:4, he poses the dilemma of how one can both exact vengeance and live/proclaim the gospel of forgiveness (cf. 1 Cor 6:7). Further, he briefly compares the pattern of Holy War in the OT as Divine Deliverance with the later wars of the kings, confronted by the prophets for their idolatrous reliance on military strength. In the NT, he addresses his consideration to Jesus, and points out the reality of temptations to Jesus to wield the sword, following a Zealot-Messiah conception. Jesus rejects this mandate, and instead chooses the cross.

Two objections are then considered: a) aren't Christians handing over to 'the devil' the state? He rejoins that if the sovereignty of God is believed, then even the pagan powers are under God's ultimate control. b) Christians who do this are parasites, taking the protection but refusing the burden of the state. Yoder takes Origen's response to Celsus - that through the work of the church, Christians contribute more, not less, to the state. [I would further add that Christians are more than willing to forgo State 'protection' to be faithful to their mandate]

The second section then considers the question of application. Yoder's initial point is that the majority of thinkers claim, or at least practice, that the differences between the NT and our situation make this NT picture irrelevant. Thus, ethics takes it starting point elsewhere. Yoder says this is inadequate, and seeks to evaluate the changes that have taken place and what relevance they have.

Yoder begins by challenging the notion of 'progress', especially that Constantine and co. marked a change for the better. He notes seven changes that have taken place:
1. Instead of persecution, the church is recognised and favoured. Yoder: this does not change the church-state relation.
2. The number of Christians is a majority, so it is no longer possible to leave it in the hands of non-Christians. Yoder: this isn't actually true, but represents the shift from 'Christian' designating a believer to being an ethno-social tag. Secondly, that majorities should rule is far from obvious.
3. Political leaders have become Christians. Yoder: In what sense can the Christian act as a non-Christian in their state-office.
4. The requirement of military service (ie, conscription et sim.). Yoder: Ït does not follow that a military responsibility is a Christian responsibility" (p39-40).
5. Distinction between the welfare and totalitarian state. This is the first point at which Yoder does recognise a significant difference. His response is to articulate that Christians may be involved in 'the state' in a broader sense, but cannot be bound up in the "violence of the sword" (p40) which remains intrinsic to the state's essence.
6. The desire to have a universal ethic. Yoder responds that it makes no sense to hold non-Christians to a Christian ethic that is centered on Jesus, experienced forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
7. Democracy as statehood. Yoder suggests that the idea that citizens are the state is not really true. "There is no absolute difference, only a relative difference, between a democracy and other forms of statehood." (p42)


In closing, Yoder provides several observations of application for thinking about the state today:
1. "The question is not whether we have a responsibility to the state, but how we fulfill our responsibility."(p43)
2. The NT remains normative concerning the state's role with respect to violence. Other parts of the state are to be evaluated in relation to that.
3. "one form of political responsibility is to refuse...to participate in the life of the state" (p44)
4. The history of states is not all history.
5. The state exists to maintain order. When it seeks a higher purpose, it tends to self-idolatry.
6. Human officials do not give up human autonomy.
7. Christian responsibility is linked to being able to step aside when asked to act non-Christianly.
8. The question is not "Is this forbidden?" but to look for the greatest opportunities of service.
9. We will not act as if everybody is a Christian.
10. There is no grounds for self-righteous withdrawal, but rather for engagement with the world.

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