In the last two posts we turned to the question of change, or progress, over time and how that impacts the application of the New Testament. Yoder raises three questions on the nature of progress. Having dealt with question 1 and 2 in the last two posts, lets turn our attention to the third question.
“Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how we should think about our relationship to the state today, if the Scriptures are indeed to be a valid guide.” (pg. 35)
Here’s Yoder’s take…
1.) “We will guard against thinking ‘it’s all the same’.”
The question is not whether we have a responsibility to the state, but how we fulfill our responsibility. It is not ‘one and the same,’ whether we make use of our right to vote or become a soldier. It is not ‘all the same,’ whether a Mennonite farmer is voted into the office of mayor without any initiative on his part (as has sometimes happened), or whether one strives to get into a higher political office. This is not the same as being an official in state functions related to schools, social programs, forestry and transportation, or for that matter paying taxes. Participation by Christians in one aspect of the state does not obligate the Christian in any way to participate in another. (pg. 43)
All participation or service in the state is not off limits just because some of it may be. There needs to be further guidelines for distinguishing between what is permissible and what is not for Christians.
2.) “We will assume that the basic lines of the New Testament’s teaching concerning the state continue to be valid for that aspect of the state which involves the use of violence.”
The criteria for evaluating what types of state service are permissible for Christians is the relationship of said service to the sword bearing function of the state. When participation in the state requires the use of violence, participation in that state function becomes a negation of the vocation of following Jesus in cross-suffering love. Therefore, it is inconsistent with a life of faith and off limits.
3.) “We will remember, along with the New Testament church, that one form of political responsibility is to refuse, under certain circumstances, to participate in the life of the state, namely in situations where the state oversteps the boundaries of its mandate, as in totalitarianism, and in those situations where the state’s responsibilities differ from those of the Christian, as in the military.”
The belief that America is a “Christian nation” has deep roots. The lines between church and state are blurry. The church, subsequently, has taken on state demands as if they are a part of being faithful to God. This co-mingling of church and state has rendered the church impotent to carry out its actual divine mandate in relationship to the state. Instead of resisting the state when it oversteps its divine mandate, the church becomes complicit in the state’s evil.
4.) “We will stop believing what our school books keep telling us, namely that all history is the history of the state. The view that the Christian church and not the state stands in the middle of God’s rule over the world is not only a statement of faith, it is a historical fact.”
This is a refreshing point from Yoder in a world filled with the new-athiest’s critique that the net contribution of religion in the world is negative. In instances where the church has been complicit in violence, coercion, corruption and injustice you will notice that the church is acting in collusion with the state, it is not acting alone. What does the church do when it remembers and lives within her divine mandate? Schools, hospitals, voluntary service, nonviolent conflict resolution, civil rights, women’s suffrage, worker rights, abolition of slavery, abolition of child labor, and so on.
…if Christians have a responsibility in terms of general welfare services (which should not be left to the state alone), this is even more true with respect to the central mandate of the Christian church, ‘to proclaim the virtues of the One who called them into the light.’ In fact, in terms of its service to the state and to the general welfare, the church serves most effectively and in its own most essential and irreplaceable way when it seriously goes about the business of being Christian, proclaiming the Gospel, modeling an exemplary community life, and praying for all people. (pg. 44)
That’s a long, and more eloquent, way of saying that the church does the most good for society when it is being the Church, not when it becomes ancillary to the state.
5.) “The state exists for keeping order.”
The more the state aspires to a higher mission, a semi-religious role or one designed to control world history, whether in the west or in the east, the more the Christian will become suspicious with respect to the state. (pg. 45)
6.) “We will not give in to the view that human autonomy is given up when a person becomes part of the state machinery. We will address government officials just as we do other citizens, not treating them as mere cogs in a machine, but rather as persons who are free to oppose the machine’s gears when a responsible decision requires them to do so.”
The Nazi’s at Nuremberg claimed that they were simply following orders. They were just cogs in Hitler’s machine, and therefore not responsible for the horrendous acts of violence against the Jews. Such a view treats people as if they lose the ability to make independent moral choices when they are in service of the state. Christians should rightly reject that view. Even in the ‘fog of war’ people have choices. Yes, they may suffer for resisting an immoral order, but better to suffer in love than participate in evil.
The state is made up of autonomous individuals with the ability to make responsible choices, even within the state.
7.) “Whether Christians are acting as responsible Christians or not when serving the common good in a government position will be determined by whether or not they are free to step out if the government position were to require actions that are not Christian.”
The Christian should never be in a position where they must act in a way that violates their faith.
8.) We will not ask, ‘Is this or that action forbidden for the Christian?’
Yoder believes that this causes Christians to look in the wrong direction. Instead of looking towards legalistic prohibitions against certain acts, the Christian should look for positive ways to fulfill their calling. Yoder says it this way;
Christians who take their cues from the New Testament (and from Anabaptism) will not try to determine what is forbidden, but rather will look for the greatest opportunities to serve fellow humans. (pg. 45)
9.) “We will not assume, as virtually all Christians since Constantine have, that the world is made up of Christians only.”
Yoder makes this point on a number of occasions. The state will not fall apart without Christian participation. There are many other people, who are not Christians, who can serve the state without compromise. The best way for the church to help shape society is through keeping her divine mandate faithfully. The state won’t go to hell in a hand basket without Christians. Perhaps it will down-size and come back to its essential mandate itself. If you want a smaller government, you need a larger and more engaged church passionately living out her calling.
10.) “There is no justification for Christians, based upon these considerations, to rest self-justified and proud of their own piety, and leave the world to ruin.”
This is the exact opposite of what the New Testament calls the church to do. We are not to retreat from the world, but to engage the world the way that Jesus did, under the power of the Holy Spirit. That we have a different way of working than the state does not mean that we are any less responsible for the welfare of the communities and nations in which we live.
The message of the cross is always a scandal for those who are seeking power, foolishness for those who want wisdom; ‘But to those who are called…the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24). If we were to believe in this power and wisdom of God, we would not see in the New Testament teaching concerning the state a backward legalism, nor a pietistic escape from the world, nor an irresponsible anachronism. Rather we would see the gospel, the freeing, authoritative, good news of God in Christ. (pg. 47)