If you’ve followed the series to this point, thank you! It’s also quite possible that you’ve developed a few objections or critiques of Yoder’s thought as I have presented it. [An important caveat is that I’m dealing with Yoder in a specific work, which is a translation of a series of lectures he did in German. His later thought develops these ideas more fully, but I thought this work was an accessible introduction to some themes he works with more in depth in other places]
Yoder, himself, raises two important objections, not to the application of these 4 thesis, but to the thesis themselves.
The first of these is that if the state is ‘left to the non-Christians’ one is handing it over to the devil and giving up all concern for what happens to things. Would it not be so much better to take control of things than to hand them over to evil people and evil powers? (pg. 32)
Yoder’s contention is that this objection loses its strength when you consider the overall view of the world held by New Testament Christians. They believed that “not even the pagan world is so fully autonomous that God has no control over it.”
…not only pagans, but even the demonic powers behind the state have already been brought under the lordship of the resurrected one who sits at God’s right hand, even though things do not always look this way on the surface. This means that when Jesus and the first Christians left the sword in the hands of the pagan state they were not handing it over to the devil, but rather to God’s ultimate Lordship. (pg. 32)
I’m not so sure I buy that as a response to this first objection. That ultimately, or in the end, all things are brought under the headship of Jesus doesn’t mean that the state as it’s constituted today can’t do a whole lot of damage in the hands of evil people. It’s in those instances that it’s tempting to say that it would be far better for Christians to hold political power. Within the overall thrust of Yoder’s framework, I think this can be worked out, but on it’s face it seems to me like defaulting to the mysterious, “present but still coming” nature of the Kingdom of God. That the Kingdom takes such a shape right here and now is not a reason to deny the real harm done by evil people in power. I think the answer lies in the way such evil is confronted, which gets us back to Yoder’s fourth thesis, namely that how God is going to work that out through his people requires that his people not have any complicity in the use of the sword or evil means.
The second objection is that Christians who take this stance are irresponsible parasites. (pg. 32)
Ouch! Sticks and stones and being called a parasite all hurt. This is a response that I hear semi-regularly regarding my belief in nonviolent resistance. You enjoy the protection of the state, the police and the military but refuse to participate in supporting it’s work. This objection loses it’s force when you consider that Christians in the New Testament, and today, aren’t being called to abandon their neighbors, as the critique suggests, but are called to love them as themselves. Yoder puts it this way;
[New Testament Christians] through their Gospel proclamation, their prayers of supplication, their discipleship in the context of suffering, and their service of love to their neighbor, Christians contribute not less, but far more to human solidarity and therefore to the state than the political officials themselves.
If Christians didn’t participate in the state and then, at the same time, did nothing for those outside of their community, they would indeed be open to the charge of being parasitic. However, that’s not the call of Christians. It’s not that Christians do nothing as the state does everything. It’s that Christians have their calling and vocation in the world, as does the state, and they involve different kinds of actions – some of which are incompatible.
I find the thrust of this argument to be more compelling and consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 12-13. If the church is living into her vocation as the people of God after the way of Jesus, the shape of society itself changes. In that instance, the states use of the sword is greatly diminished for there is no reason to punish those that are not evil. So there is an inverse relationship between the church and state. The more the church is the church, the less need there is for the state to be the state. [Remember, we are talking about the state as it is understood or functioned in the 1st century, prior to the welfare states of today.]
Next time we will turn to the problem of application.