In this post I want to explore John Howard Yoder’s take on this question in his book Discipleship as Political Responsibility. He begins by raising two questions.
“If we want to learn from the Bible, we are confronted with two questions. First, what does the Bible say? Second, how are we to apply what the Bible says?” (pg. 17)
Sometimes, in order to hear the Bible in its own words, we have to set aside (for a time) the question of application in order to listen. This is especially challenging when the Bible starts to sound different than we think it should. Nevertheless, it’s an important starting point. Let’s focus on the first question by considering four thesis statements which illustrate Yoder’s thought.
Thesis 1: “The divine mandate of the state consists of using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand.”
His explanation: Human violence and selfishness could, quite easily, destroy human society. Yet, it doesn’t. It doesn’t because God has “mandated the state to uphold a measure of order.”
What is peculiar to this ‘relative order’ is that evil is applied to itself, so to speak. People protect themselves – motivated by selfishness and using violence – against the violence and selfishness of other people. This does not mean that God considers either the violence or the selfishness to be a good thing, or that God wills them. God wants humans to be neither violent nor selfish. However, since humanity has fallen away from God, God permits human evil to keep itself under control by using evil against itself. (pg 18)
God’s aim in this is keeping humans alive, as a measure of God’s grace, so that creation can experience redemption. Yoder points to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain murdered Abel. In response God put him under a sign of protection and set up the law of retribution (evil for evil, life for life) so that no one would kill him or others. In that way God responded to evil (killing a person) by allowing evil (retribution) to keep evil (killing more people) in check. In the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9, this protection extends to all humanity. Destroying sinners will never rid the world of sin. To do so would require wiping out all of humanity, which isn’t God desire. This, according to Yoder, is consistent with what we see in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. In these references, the state is talked about only in terms of the use of the sword (i.e the Bible really doesn’t address the states role in funding things like education, healthcare, infrastructure, social programs and so on). The state’s role is to use the sword to encourage the good and suppress evil.
What’s unique about Yoder’s approach is that he creates a space whereby God allows the use of evil to suppress evil while never stating that evil is what God wants or wills. If I’m hearing him correctly, he is saying that the state, when it uses the sword, is acting outside of God’s will and yet, at the same time, is creating space for God’s redemption by keeping evil in check.
From this point, Yoder argues that the state, as understood by New Testament people, was not a part of God’s good creation. Rather, in the spirit of Psalm 110, and in keeping with Paul’s teaching on the principalities and powers, the NT church recognized that there are “enemies” of the Messiah. These are concrete powers that respond with violence towards Jesus.
Such powers had responded to Christ with hostility, but Jesus became Lord through his death, resurrection and ascension; his Lordship extends even over these powers, who, as a result, will have to bend their knees (Phil2:10)… Among these powers – that is those at enmity with Christ, those fallen powers that became subject to Christ – the early Christians included the state. (pg 20)
This is an important feature of Yoder’s understanding of the NT people’s view of the state. How did this impact their relationship to the state?
The early church respected the state and made room for the state, yet they did not do so because they viewed it as part of God’s good creation. On the contrary, they viewed it as part of the world that opposes God, that is already defeated by Christ in principle, and over which the exalted Christ already rules until he has defeated his last enemy. (1 Cor. 15:25)
This allowed the NT people to concede to the state the use of the sword because, in principal, they had already been defeated by Christ, and in reality, the time would come when they would be subsumed under Christ’s glorious reign. Within the context of Romans 13, then, Paul is teaching Jesus’ followers how to stay out of the state’s crosshairs until Jesus returns.
We grossly misunderstand the ‘divine ordering of the state’ if we forget that we are talking here about the pagan state.
When Paul wrote Romans 13, he didn’t have ‘David or Josiah’ in mind. He didn’t have a Christian America in mind. He had in mind the pagan Caesar and Roman empire, which was prone to demonic self-worship (Rev. 14:14). If we interpret Romans 13, for example, through the framework of our own political ideology and perceptions of our own government run by people we like and believe like us, we will miss Paul’s point.
The radical move in Yoder’s first thesis is found in his definition of the state as pagan and outside of God’s good creation, and yet useful in holding back evil through a divine mandate – or permission – to use the sword. How we work that out is a challenge because you have God using something that is pagan and against his will towards a good end without willing it or affirming it. Again, it’s important to note that this is how Yoder understands the NT teaching regarding the state. He rightly doesn’t address the theocracy of the Old Testament, which, given his overall thought, will make sense.
In my next post, I’ll tackle the second thesis.