In this post I will bring together John Howard Yoder’s thoughts Discipleship as Political Responsibility with my questions/observations about what it might mean for us today. [click here for part 1 , part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8 or part 9 of the series]
So, here we are. If you read all previous posts in the series, thank you. I hope you found them engaging and helpful in beginning to understand where Yoder is coming from on the question of the Christian, the church, and the state. Here are some of my reflections after trying to bring Yoder together with our contemporary political/governmental concerns.
A Christian Nation?
The question of America’s relationship to Christianity has many components. One is the more common discussion on the degree to which America, in its founding, was Christian. Another is the question of what exactly that means, or in what sense, America was Christian. But a third, and more to the point of Yoder’s work, is this; Is it even possible or positive for a nation to be Christian?
Is it possible for a nation to be Christian? In a New Testament sense, I would say no, it is not possible. It is not possible because the church and the government are two different entities with two different divine mandates. For the church and state to be one, it would require one or the other to give up their divine mandate. Either the church would have to take up the sword or the state would have to lay it down. The world needs both the church and the state to fully function as God intended them to function. The evil surprising role of the state creates space for the cross-shaped redemption of Jesus through the church. In my view, those Christians who insist on America as a “Christian nation” have fundamentally misunderstood the vocation of the church and the power of the church to transform the world through the cross.
Christian participation in the state?
This question is not as tough (or perhaps more) as it appears. I’m with Yoder. To the degree that participation in the state requires one to directly participate in using evil to confront evil, the Christian cannot participate. In today’s America, which is a welfare state (meaning that it does things beyond military defense in order to attend to the general welfare of her citizens), there are many state functions that are not directly connected to the state’s use of the sword to suppress evil. Some of these functions are quite consistent with the vocation of the Christian and the church. For example, my dad was a public school teacher before retirement. An acceptable way to say that is that he was a government teacher in a government school. In that his role as teacher did not join him directly in the sword bearing function of confronting evil with evil, there is no contradiction with his government job and Christian faith.
What is the proper use of violence, if any?
This is a tough question, especially for pacifists and especially in light of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. Yoder argues that the state can justly use the sword to keep evil at bay which is their divine mandate. The key word, of course, is justly. Good police officers use the implied threat of force every time they put on their uniform and strap on their firearms. Yet, most of them don’t ever fire their weapons in the line of duty. Their desire is not to kill people, it’s to ensure that citizens behave in a way that creates and maintains a safe community for all. That’s a proper use of violence, in my opinion.
At the same time, however, there are abuses of power and unjust uses of violence. When police violence is used indiscriminately, as a tool of racial discrimination, to gain advantages for the officer, against innocent citizens, and so on there is a massive problem.
Herein lies the problem. If the church and state are one, than the unjust actions of state agents are necessarily the work of the church, too. In that instance, the unjust use of violence is a negation of the primary call of the church to confront evil with good. At the same time, even the proper use of violence by the state is a negation of the primary call of the church, and the Christian, to confront evil with good. So while there is latitude for non-Christians to use violence in a just way for the purposes outlined in the New Testament, it is still out of bounds for the Christian.
Leaving evil to bad people?
There is a not-so-subtle belief among Christians that the distinction between Christian and non-Christian is one of good vs. bad, wrong vs. right, moral vs. immoral, and so on. That belief provides the basis for many people to conclude that Christians need to be involved in all levels of government, police, and military service. The logic goes that if Christians opt out they are leaving those things in the hands of those who are bad, wrong, immoral and so on. That’s utter hogwash. That someone is not a Christians doesn’t mean that they are incapable of good, kind, compassionate, just and moral acts. What it means is that such a person has not made themselves directly accountable and subject to Jesus as Lord. That also means that using violence to confront violence is not completely out of bounds, but perhaps, completely within the bounds of what God asks of them (I know a huge paradox).
Do non-Christians keep us safe?
Some will say that this means we need to have a certain number of people around who aren’t Christians in order to keep us safe. I don’t follow that logic. According to Paul, the world is safe when Christians are living out their Christian vocation of cross-suffering love. There is no law necessary when the fruit of the Spirit are present, remember? If Christians acted like Christ, there would be less for police and the military to do. Every conversion, therefore, becomes one less person who is willing to participate in evil for evil. As long as the church remains ambivalent about Christians participating in evil by using violence, it’s a moot point, but Christians checking out of all forms of violence doesn’t make the world less safe, it makes the world more safe.
The Christian witness to the state?
Does this mean that Christians, who opt out of any service connected to the direct use of violence, surrender their voice? By no means. Christians are called to engage the world through a cross-shaped witness in word and deed. Part of that witness concerns holding the government accountable for functioning as God intended. That means that when the government uses the sword in a way that is unjust or outside of their divine mandate, the Church needs to hold their feet to the fire. Even though the state can use the sword, they cannot use the sword any way that they please. They are still held accountable to a standard of justice and appropriate use of said violence.
A Christian President?
Much is said about the faith of those running for high public office, such as the President. To my knowledge we have never had an admitted non-Christian as the President of the United States of America. In the final analysis, there are many who believe that Mitt Romney’s biggest obstacle to the office of President is his mormon faith, which is considered unorthodox at best and a cult at worst by many Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Within Yoder’s framework, a Christian should not peruse the office of President, period. Why? Because as Chief Law Enforcement officer and Commander and Chief of the United States military, the President is directly involved in the sword bearing function of the state. While the President will never shoot anyone on a battle field or the streets of one of our cities, he still authorizes the use of deadly force. Put another way, the President, while not killing folks himself, gives permission for others to carry out his order to kill others. Because of that, it is improper for followers of Jesus to seek the office of President, in my opinion. Even being the President of the United States of America is a lesser calling than being an obedient servant in the Kingdom of God.
Christians who use the sword send mixed messages!
To the degree that our government is perceived to be “Christian” around the world, the violent actions of the US military (again, I’m not arguing justification) negate the vocation of Christians, and by extension, the church. Killing is antithetical to the cross. It is what was done to Jesus, not what Jesus did to others. Therefore, while Christians may be killed, Christians are to do what Jesus did which was to confront violence in all its forms with cross-shaped love.
I see this as a pretty firm boundary in the NT, as highlighted by Yoder; Christians are not to kill. By extension the church is not to be involved in killing. To the degree that public service joins a Christian in the use of the sword, that service is out of bounds. I come at that perspective, not as one who is saying all killing is wrong so don’t do it. I think one can argue quite convincingly that the state has the right to use the sword to confront evil with evil. We see in in the NT in Romans 13. That is NOT to say, however, that the state is given indiscriminate power to kill. The state is still bound by the limits of justice which are informed by the lex talionis (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). Just violence is only to be use to confront unjust violence and keep violence at bay.
The reason Christians can’t participate in such violence is that it negates their higher calling. Put another way, Christians who use the sword are trading a higher calling (suffering, cross-shaped love) for a lesser calling (using evil to confront evil). In the end, evil begets evil begets evil. You will never end evil completely using evil means. That is why the New Testament says we overcome evil with good. So if Christians in large number are trading their higher calling which can actually overcome evil for a lesser calling that will ensure evil continues, but to a lesser degree, the world remains stuck in the cycle of violence.
The church’s confusion on this matter, in large part, contributes to ongoing evil in the world. Instead of confronting evil with good, we become complicit in evil, which fuels cycles of violence. Instead of shalom building, the church destroys the very shalom that Jesus came to realize fully, in space and time.
I’ll stop there, although there are many other questions and issues that need to be raised. If you have any thoughts, comments, questions, and so on please comment. I’d love to engage on these topics as I wrestle with Yoder myself.
Grace and peace!