Monday, May 2, 2011

Yoder and the Evangelical Left

Mark Tooley has a good review of Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine at the American Spectator. He writes of John Howard Yoder's influence on the Evangelical Left:
Much of the Evangelical Left, so influential on Christian college campuses and increasingly prominent in Washington, D.C., relies on neo-Anabaptist beliefs. Sojourners activist Jim Wallis, who last week launched a crusade against "cuts" in the 2012 federal budget, adheres partly to this tradition. These neo-Anabaptists demand total pacifism and reject the military. Unlike traditional Anabaptists, they are not separatists, and many exuberantly advocate Big Government control over medical care, food, energy, and virtually all of life. The godfather of sorts for these disjointed neo-Anabaptists was the late Mennonite theologian and Notre Dame professor John Howard Yoder. He joined most Anabaptists in assuming that Christianity was massively corrupted by 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine's embrace of Christianity. The resulting Christendom created over 1,600 years of wars and oppression ostensibly in the name of Christ.
Read the whole review here.

It strikes me as right that Tooley, who is such a keen observer of all things having to do with theological liberalism, should identify John Howard Yoder as the "godfather" of the Evangelical Left. This is precisely why I was drawn to him in the 90's and also precisely why I now find his theology to be pretty much useless, except when it is dangerous.

Someone asked me just this morning how I became so conservative (politically and theologically) and I am never sure if I fully understand it all yet myself. But one major flash of insight came when I realized that the cultural Marxists - who are so powerfully influential today in academic and cultural elite circles - hate the traditional family, traditional sexual ethics and the sanctity of human life as much as they hate capitalism. That ended my ability to posit moral equivalence between the Left and the Right. Compared to the Right, the Left is far more evil. They simply are not equivalent.

I mention this because Tooley's paragraph above makes clear that Yoder's influence was to train a generation of younger Evangelicals to hate and despise their own cultural heritage - to reject as violent, colonial, patriarchal and racist the legacy of Western Christendom over the past 1500 years. By doing so, Yoder helped create a void into which cultural Marxism could move. Marxism Has been in the process of colonizing the ecclesiastical structures of a dying Christian faith in the West for over a century now. As faith in Jesus Christ declines, Marxism offers a modern, this-worldly substitute complete with eschatology, guilt, martyrdom, holy books, a prophetic stance and much more.

This is part of the explanation (which of course is far more complex than this one little point) for why the Evangelical became "Left" politically and economically. And it explains why those who first embrace economic Marxist theories are so susceptible on all the other "culture war" issues: sanctity of life, traditional marriage, sexual morality etc. There is a connection between rejecting one's cultural traditions, embracing the sexual revolution and using Marxism to criticize capitalism. These three moves fit together and reinforce one another.

But maybe it all starts with a loss of confidence in one's tradition, one's culture and one's heritage. If so, the influence of Yoder has been massive - and tragic.

6 comments:

theopolitical said...

"This is precisely why I was drawn to him in the 90's and also precisely why I now find his theology to be pretty much useless, except when it is dangerous."

What about those (like myself) who find themselves strongly identifying with Yoder's account of Constantinianism and political theology and yet utterly reject Jim Wallis and his ilk? (I might also mention Chris Huebner, whom I discovered - I believe - on your recommendation.)

Craig Carter said...

Test comment

Craig Carter said...

Theopolitical,
I guess the question you have to ask yourself is whether or not it is possible to accept Yoder's radical critique of Constantine and Western Christendom and still hold on to Christian orthodoxy.

The turning point for me came when I come (reluctantly) to the conclusion that Wallis and his ilk were legitimately developing Yoder's theology rather than perverting it irresponsibly. I cringed when I heard that Brian McLaren was prominently displaying "The Politics of Jesus" on his book table during his "Everything Must Change" book tour. But eventually I had to accept that it was logical for him to look to Yoder as his godfather.

Yoder is a 20th century expression of 16th century Anabaptism. The 16th century Anabaptists came to the conclusion that Christendom was fallen and evil from Constantine onwards and so it was only logical for them to reject historic Christian orthodoxy as the corrupt manifestation (and ideological justification) of that corrupt social order.

By this logic, Nicea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Scholasticism and Reformation theology are all suspect or worse. If you reject the homoousios, the hypostatic union, original sin, substitutionary atonement, Divine judgment etc, then you have very little need of a Jesus who is any more than a great moral teacher and heroic martyr.

This is why mainstream Anabaptist theology in the 20th century has merged with Liberal Protestantism rather than conservative Catholic or Evangelical theology. Arianism, 16th Century Anabaptism, Liberal Protestantism, 20th century Anabaptism all reject the supernatural religion of sin and salvation in favor of something human-centered and this-worldly.

This is why Marxism fills a void in such religion. It provides a secularized religion complete with guilt, martyrdom, a sense of mission, eschatology etc. to those for whom the old supernatural religion of the Bible and orthodoxy has become unbelievable.

Wallis and company are just taking the next logical step. Once Jesus is just a man and heaven and hell just a myth, you need something more than boring moralism and the UN Millennium Development Goals. Marxism provides the thrill of conflict and eschatological hope without God. Small doses of it are like a drug to the Evangelical Left, which I would describe as dabbling in Marxism.

Tim Bertolet said...

"Unlike traditional Anabaptists, they are not separatists, and many exuberantly advocate Big Government control over medical care, food, energy, and virtually all of life."

A couple things have always struck me as odd coming from the Evangelical Left:

(1) They never take Anabaptist thinking far enough, which can only (I think) lead one of two ways: Munster or Amish withdrawl. As someone who lived up in Lancaster County Pa. (it has a large Amish and Mennonite population), I find it bizarre when people champion health care and Big Government as "Anabaptist."

(2) I find it laughable when on the one hand they decry America as "Caesar" and use a dubious reading of the NT as anti-Caesar metanarrative (cf. Seyoon Kim's and Denny Burk's critiques) but at the same time want to enrich Caesar to make him compassionate. One wants to say "your Caesar isn't big enough," meaning that have made the scope of their target "Caesar" too narrow. Ironically, there big government agenda makes them want Caesar to actually be bigger, as if a bigger domestic agenda will ennoble him. Sadly, history stand against them at this point. A consistent view in my opinion would not want engorge "Caesar" with domestic control. Control is still control.

(3) I find it ironic that people do not distinguish ends and means. I think all Christians should want the ends of real health care, compassionate care for the poor, etc. Caring for the poor is a Christian value. However, the evangelical left consistently assumes that big government is not merely the best way but really the only way of reaching a good end. So that if you are against big government (the means) you must be de facto against care for the poor (the end).

The inconsistency of the Evangelical Left is troubling. It is deemed evil for Christian to be in league with Republicans who are greedy. But it is ok for the sake of "social issues" to be in league with people who deny the sanctity of human life and the importance of traditional marriage?

Craig Carter said...

Tim,
You wrote:

"I find it laughable when on the one hand they decry America as "Caesar" and use a dubious reading of the NT as anti-Caesar metanarrative (cf. Seyoon Kim's and Denny Burk's critiques) but at the same time want to enrich Caesar to make him compassionate."

You have made an excellent point. At the heart of all left-wing political thought is statolotry. So all the railing against "Caesar" is indeed quite laughable.

B.N.A.Freedom said...

Very good post and comments here. I am Traditional (http://www.traditionalbritain.org)
and Evangelical; following in the footsteps of the late Dr. Peter Toon (Prayer Book Society).
- - http://bnafreedom.posterous.com