“An Election Year Conversation
on Politics in the Church.”
A Review of
Discipleship as Political Responsibility,
by John Howard Yoder.
By Chris Smith.
“And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led astray by them. And none fight better for the king [and his role of preserving justice] than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he demands it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army of piety by offering our prayers to God.” — Origen
The essays included here are “The State in the New Testament” and “Following Christ as a Form of Political Responsibility.” The first essay not only explores what the scriptures say about the state, but then introduces the issue of how we are to apply this scriptural teaching to the task of discerning our ethics in the present age. Yoder describes the nature and mission of both the state and the Church, arguing persuasively that the state is a pagan institution whose mission “consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand” (18). In contrast, the Church is also called to struggle against evil, but its means for doing so, Yoder says, is “the cross.” Thus, Yoder argues that the mission of the Church is the superior to that of the state, since the Church bears witness to the overcoming of evil in contrast to the state’s temporarily checking evil in check. For Yoder, the scriptures are clear on the nature of church and state, but the complexity emerges when we try to apply the scriptural witness to our present context. Yoder describes in detail how the political context has changed since the apostolic era, and then offers ten theses to bear in mind as we seek to discern together what form the political facet of our discipleship will take today. It is refreshing that Yoder does not prescribe a specific course, but humbly in the face of the ethical complexity introduces scriptural and historical themes that he believes will be beneficial to our discernment. To be sure, Yoder is at least skeptical of the state – especially insofar as it is defined by its bearing of the sword – he definitely squares with the above wisdom of Origen; i.e., that the church’s primary political responsibility is to be faithful in its calling to follow Jesus and the way of the cross. However, he is particularly wary of the sort of legalism that would categorically forbid any participation in the affairs of the state.
The book’s second essay is a bit meatier than the first; in it, Yoder defends the thesis that: “The political existence of the incarnate one, that is the decisions of Jesus in the face of his political problems, are a revelation of God’s command in the realm of politics” (54). However, he makes it clear that understanding Jesus as the political revelation of God, does not mean that we should act exactly like Jesus did, but rather that we should “[base] our action on our participation in Christ’s very being” (61). This notion lies at the very heart of Yoder’s ethics, and therefore as in the book’s first essay, he offers no specific guidance for our action. There is one observation that Yoder makes in this second essay that is particularly keen and worthy of our reflection. He points out that the meaning of the Christ’s lordship has in the modern era taken on exactly the opposite meaning that it had in the age of the early church. In the early church, even the pagan state (in which the Church had little or no interest) was understood to be under the reign of God. Today, however, the lordship of Christ, is often taken to imply the mission of the church into all parts of society even the realm of the state. This reversal is an important thread in a conversation about what it means for us to be the church politically in the present: Is it valid? What are the implications of it?
This presidential election year, and all the pressing social and economic issues that it represents, provides our churches a wonderful opportunity to read and discuss Yoder’s Discipleship as Political Responsibility. Indeed, Yoder would no doubt be pleased with our doing so, as he is in essence providing here the basic framework for a conversation and inviting us into it. He has argued elsewhere for the central place of discernment in the Church, and with Christ as Lord over all creation, such discernment is just as important in political matters as it is elsewhere.