A Divinely Pagan State? (part 5)

In this post I will explore John Howard Yoder’s fourth thesis in Discipleship as Political Responsibility.  [click here for part 1 , part 2part 3 or part 4 of the series]

Thesis 4:  “The state is a pagan institution in which a Christian would not normally hold a position.”

Ouch!  Anyone familiar with American politics knows that such a statement is not the common wisdom of people of faith in America.  But remember, Yoder is beginning with an understanding of church state relations in the context of the New Testament and around the times when the NT was written.

The first Christians were not ‘statesmen,’ and those who held a political office and became Christians normally gave up their office.  One explanation for this is simply the historical situation of the time.  At first the Christians were reckoned among the Jews, who were in no way involved in administering the Roman political system.  For the most part they were not Roman citizens…  They came primarily from the lower and middle societal levels…  They were slaves, traveling merchants and hand workers.  Political officials were not normally recruited from such circles. (pg. 26)

That explanation explains why the first Christians were not normally officials in the Roman Empire, but it doesn’t explain why people within the government would step down when they became Christians.  On that matter, this is what Yoder has to say;

The state, that is the Roman Empire, was not a purely technical, spiritually neutral, administrative machine; it was a religion.  The Caesar was honored as divine.  Both in oaths and in the acclamation that “Caesar is Lord,” one consecrated the very being of the state as something divine.  This in itself made it impossible for Christians to serve as state officials.  (pg. 26)

The conflict between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state, thus, was more pronounced and overt.  This made the choice between “Jesus as Lord” and “Caesar as Lord” more clear and the line between the two more distinct.

There were clear social, economic and religious reasons why Christians didn’t participate as ‘statesmen’ in the Roman government.  Yet, that opens up the question of how Christians would relate to a state in a different cultural context.  If Christians were allowed to serve, recruited to serve and it didn’t involve a compromise of allegiance, could they serve? It’s here that Yoder raises other issues.

Objective considerations

If the very nature of the church is to confront evil with suffering, cross-carrying love, and if the very nature of the state is to confront evil with threat and if necessary with violence against violence, how can a person be involved in both at the same time?  Can a person simultaneously pull out the sword and ‘turn the other cheek’? (pg. 26)

If you follow Paul’s argument in Romans 12 and 13, he argues that Christians intentionally renounce the practice of vengeance as part of faithfully  following of Jesus.  Vengeance is God’s domain, which God has taken away from the church and entrusted to the state.  Why?  Because, it’s impossible for the church to be both a community where forgiveness is proclaimed and practiced and to be the ones who oppose evil with evil through the law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  “When faced with a choice between the two, Christians in the NT choose the higher calling.”  (pg. 27)

Old Testament

On this front, Yoder, quite briefly, summarizes the difference between the early ‘Holy Wars’  and the later wars fought by Israel under the leadership of a King.  Many people deal in more depth with this topic (as does Yoder in other places).  For the purpose of this work, Yoder makes these observations.

[The ‘holy wars’ of the pre-monarchy] were totally different than state measures; they were divine miracles.  They were proof that God was to be King over God’s people.  This does not merely mean that there were no generals; it means there was not even a state.  When an emergency situation threatened Israel, somebody ‘blew the trumpet’ and immediately the country-people flooded together, without proper weapons, in no reasonable power relation to the enemy power, and God gave them victory. (pg. 28)

Yoder references the trumpets of Jericho and the clay pots of Gideon’s 300 men as examples of the ways in which Israel trusted God during the pre-monarchy and were victorious.  Yoder’s contention that there was no ‘state’ during this time means that there was no centralized, human ruling authorities or structures and there was no standing army under the direction of those authorities.  People lived their lives in community and worked together to accomplish the functions that the state would later take on, living in complete dependance upon God.  This is Yoder’s summation of this point.

In the early days when Israel still had no king, it was God’s will that they live without a governing system even in the extreme situation of war, in order that Israel would be directly dependent upon God’s powerful grace. (pg. 28)

Then came a shift…

As soon as Israel got a king, ‘like the other nations,’ the situation changed.  Saul began to abandon the odd and unreliable customs of earlier times; he aimed to build up a nation state with a standing army and a reasoned military policy.  For example, he retained the booty instead of destroying it as a great offering.  And from that point on, God called forth prophets, starting with Samuel in Saul’s time, who saw in these political transactions by Israel’s kings the embodiment of disobedience.  (pg. 28)

Yoder is making a distinction between Israel as a faith community in the pre-monarchy and Israel as a nation state when they asked for, and were given, a king.  Through the critiques of the prophets, we see that Israel as nation state is not pleasing to God, prone to go it’s own way and do it’s own thing.  From this, Yoder determines that even in the Old Testament there is something incongruous between God’s people as faithful community and the nation state.  The nation state inevitably leads its people into idolatry and disobedience because, in part, it takes on the responsibility of protection and provision and begins to trust in ‘horses and chariots’ instead of God’s active intervention on behalf of God’s people.  You could say that the nation state draws people’s focus off of God and God’s will and onto a lesser form of authority, a human king, which leads to disobedience, idolatry and other ills.

New Testament

Does the New Testament even address our questions?  Yes, it is addressed most clearly in the person and work of Jesus himself.

Recent research demonstrates clearly that Jesus was confronted with concrete political problems, a fact which our usual ways of examining the Bible do not bring to light. (pg. 30)

One example of this is the zealot option.    Zealots were definite political players in Jesus time.  They were freedom-fighters who wanted to expel Roman invaders by the use of force.  Today we might call them guerrillas or insurrectionary forces.   We know that at least one of Jesus’ disciples was a zealot.  That means that Jesus was close enough to the movement that he could;

…win disciples out of their movement.  He was close enough that the charge against him, namely that he was a zealot and pretender to the throne, could be presented as legal grounds for his execution.  He was close enough that it must have been a serious temptation for him to join their program. (pg. 30)

Throughout Jesus’ public ministry, he was tempted to take up the role of political leader.  The devil offered him dominion over the world and tempted him to make a grand display out of his Messianic power.  He was tempted to make stones into bread.  After the bread miracle in John 6:15 the people tried to make him king.  He was tempted in the garden to go a different way.  He came so close to taking the other options that he asked permission from God to do this another way (Take this cup from me).  Jesus even mentions that he has control over legions of angels and could win a decisive military battle at any moment.    Jesus was confronted with concrete political options, but he considered them to be lesser options than the suffering of the cross.

He choose the cross and rejected kingship. (pg. 31)

This lead Yoder to the question;

If he, the perfectly righteous one, could not simultaneously choose these two options, if he chose to leave the political option in the hands of Pilate, if we declined the option of state-sponsored violence in order to choose the cross, this is surely the final proof that the two forms of service are irreconcilable.  Even God, in the person of God’s Son, cannot combine the two in one person.  God intentionally left the state in the hands of pagans; God has other means, more effective means, of working in and for the world. [emphasis added] (pg. 31)

With that, the next post will turn and ask, what does this mean for us today?  We’ll explore how Yoder saw the issues and then I will share some of my convictions that come out of engaging Yoder on these points.


6 thoughts on “A Divinely Pagan State? (part 5)

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