Monday, January 31, 2011

Yoder, Augustine and Christendom: What is the Real Politics of Jesus?

I continue to ponder the implications of Peter Leithart's brilliant answer to John Howard Yoder in his Defending Constantine: The Twilight of Empire and the End of Sacrifice. I am trying to think through the question of why Yoder advocates a minority church and pacifism for all disciples as the core of that minority church and why he rejects all of Christendom as "Constantinian" and thus heretical.

The problem I have with Yoder at this point is that as Yoder's influence grows and spreads among left-wing Evangelicals and liberal Protestants alike, the theology that emerges from those who are influenced by him is, all too often, individualistic and privatized. For example, many (most) of those influenced by Yoder are acquiescing in the redefinition of marriage by the State.

Now, the Evangelical Left, which is influenced by Yoder, will jump all over me at this point and angrily deny my charge on the basis that they have embraced a socialist ideology which they see as communal. In their account, it is the conservative Evangelicals who are buying into modernity by accepting the marginalized place the church is afforded in late modernity. They are different because they proclaim peace and justice and concern for the poor expressed in welfare statism or democratic socialism.

But what if socialism and the liberal democratic state are simply parodies of true community? What if, as Alasdair MacIntrye recognized, they mask a deep individualism at their roots which is more modern than Christian? Suppose we apply an Augustinian analysis to the modern welfare state. Should we not conclude that the modern state is - precisely to the extent that it privatizes Christianity - deeply idolatrous and pagan?

In the light of these musings, listen to Stanley Hauerwas' comments on Defending Constantine.

Leithart does not think his disavowal of pacifism means he has to reject Yoder's contention that Jesus has a politics. In order to defend his own understanding of the politics of Jesus, he introduces a theme I can only hope he will develop in the future: his defense of Constantine turns on his claim that as a Christian, Constantine ended the Roman sacrificial system. Accordingly Constantine "desacrificed" the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice. The church, for Augustine, is the embodiment of Christ's sacrifice, and this creates a new political reality necessary to keep the state appropriately modest.

It seems to me that what Leithart sometimes calls the "desacrificing" of the Empire, and other times the "baptism" of the Empire, could also be called the "conversion of the Empire." But misunderstanding lurks at every turn here. This "conversion" is the renouncing of idolatry by the Empire, not the turning of the Roman State into the Church. When the State becomes a Church we have a deformation of Christendom. Rather, what happens when the Roman State ceases sacrificing to the gods is that it becomes secular (i.e. belonging to this age between the two comings of Christ, destined to pass away at the end of the age).

Implicit in the ceasing of sacrifice is the recognition of the Church as an alternative polity, a community which proclaims the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ as the call to worship the True God alone through the sacrifice of Christ and therefore to cease from sacrificing to the gods. Yet, in recognizing the Lordship of Christ, the State does not become a Christian State in the sense of the Church taking over the State; instead the State recognizes the existence and legitimacy of an alien polity within its territory - the Church. The Church is the embodiment of true religion so the State no longer has to be religion in and of itself. It is Christian precisely by being secular.

The Church is the node at which Christendom connects to Divine Revelation and therefore its preaching of God's will has authority for all within Christendom including rulers. But rulers still rule according to prudence and are justified in making space within Christendom for dissenters (Jews, pagans, Muslims, atheists). This is where tolerance came from historically. The Church proclaims moral truth; rulers practice statecraft. We have two sources of authority in society, not just one. Neither the Church leaders or the political leaders are all-powerful.

The problem with Yoder is that his view of conversion is all or nothing. For him, either Constantine becomes a pacifist or he remains pagan. The conversion of the state, for Yoder, can only mean a theocracy and he, quite understandably, cannot imagine a violent theocracy being a proper witness to Jesus Christ in this world. (It is significant that separated Anabaptist communities have quite often become Constantinian mini-Christendoms.).

Yoder failed to recognize that for a state to be converted might look different from what it would mean for an individual to be converted. We as individuals are not converted to secularism, but to Christian discipleship. For you or me, to become a Christian means to worship God through Christ. But for the state to be converted means for it to cease sacrifice and not presume to worship at all. Why? Because it recognizes that worship happens in the Church and that the State is not the Church.

Yoder has to dismiss all Christendom as Constantinian and evil because he does not recognize that there are three, rather than two, ways for the State to be the State. The State can either be a pagan idolatrous State or a Theocratic, Church-dominated State, but it can also be a modest, limited government that recognizes that it is not ultimate or Divinely sanctioned in and of itself. It can recognize its limits precisely by doing what Constantine did: that is, by ending sacrifice and recognizing the truth of the Gospel and the role of the Church as a polity distinct from the State with its own proper role to play in Christendom.

Such a State will not presume to re-define marriage by fiat, nor will it authorize the killing of the pre-born, the young, the sick, the elderly or the handicapped. It will not require its citizens to be practicing Christians, but it will encourage them to be such. It will give many advantages to the Church, make holidays conform to the Christian calendar and seek to promote marriage and the family as the foundations of a healthy society. It will be open to civil society and avoid totalitarian tendencies to meddle in the lives of individuals to the extent compatible with law and order. It is appropriate to call such a State "Christian" so long as you know what that means. You know what it means if you can give an account of why a "Christian" State must be secular and give individuals the freedom to believe or not.

It is my conviction that Yoder's theology plays into the hands of late modern, Statism by not calling the State to the conversion that is proper to the state. Because of this error, Yoder can only imagine a minority Church ever existing and thus he equates Christendom with unfaithfulness. Meanwhile, the State is left free to proceed on the path to its own divinization. Just as the Roman Emperors gradually began to accept worship, so the late modern State gradually assumes Divine prerogatives.

To hold, as Yoder does, that the State cannot be converted without becoming pacifist and thus committing suicide, is to determine ahead of time what God's Spirit is allowed and not allowed to do in history. If Kenya, for example, goes from being 9% Christian in 1900 to being 91% Christian in 2000, (which it did), then we have Christendom like it or not. A true Christian political theology must allow for such a possibility and have something constructive to say to Christian politicians in Kenya. What is has to say is the true politics of Jesus, but ironically we need to look to the Augustinian tradition rather than the Anabaptist tradition for help in spelling out that politics.


Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying and being challenged by this mini-series. At this point I think I have one main question. Forgive the wording because I'm still working it out. What Yoder still seems to have in his corner is that he can root his "politics of Jesus" in the actual life or career of Jesus of Nazareth as witnessed in Scripture, particular in the inspired narratives of his life, death, and resurrection. Even if his historical arguments are unconvincing or wrongly dichotomous, his pacifism is rooted in exegesis. Is the "politics of Jesus" you/Leithart are suggesting able to do the same thing? I think that's the question - an exegetical one, really, particularly with attention to the words and actions of Jesus in his earthly ministry - I'd love to see you talk through in continuing posts.

Put differently, it seems that what you're calling the politics of Jesus actually allows folks who are supposedly enacting Jesus' politics to act in ways that contradict what Jesus himself did and commanded us to do (or not do). But I may just not be seeing things rightly. I do hope you'll continue reflecting on Leithart/Augustine/Yoder/us. Thanks.

Craig Carter said...

This is too short a space to give adequate answers to such big questions.

Last question first: for Augustine, using force to defend the weak and innocent is not going against Jesus' commands. He did not interpret the Sermon on the Mount as forbidding the defense of the innocent - as in Roman soldiers hunting down bandits who had been terrorizing travelers. He would say that anyone who interpreted Jesus' teaching in such a way as to forbid such law enforcement (by Christian Roman soldiers) is simply not taking the Biblical teaching on original sin seriously and has an over-realized eschatology.

As for the idea that Yoder has all the exegetical evidence on his side, it must be said that Yoder bases his whole concept of discipleship on Jesus' life & death. But what is the importance of the Resurrection and Ascension for Yoder? Reformed theology has taught that Christ now reigns at the right hand of the Father and will come again to actualize that rule. It is incumbent on ruler here and now to recognize that fact.

One author who does a good job of explicating this line of exegesis is Oliver O'Donovan in "The Desire of the Nations" and other books. He would say that Yoder is operating with a "canon within the canon" that makes him unable to deal with the whole of Scripture. Thus, he may not be holding all the exegetical cards after all.

Anonymous said...

First, thank you for this. I think this is the clearest exposition yet of your developing position, which I am finding both exciting and challenging. I actually posted on that at greater length on my site this morning.

My concern echoes Michael's, above, though I wouldn't tie it to Yoder's hermeneutics per se. (I will add O'Donovan to my reading list, though). Through voices like Kenneth Bailey and Willard Swartley, I find the exegetical ground for nonviolence as a characteristic of the Christian community absolutely compelling.

So my question is, without abandoning this perspective, how could the discipleship community in Christian Kenya (for example) actively support Kenya's statecraft, when they cannot be called on to wield the sword? My reading of Rethinking Christ and Culture was that Christian witness is compromised at exactly that point.

I also echo Michael's ope that you continue this line of reflection.

Craig Carter said...

Nick Don,
Thanks for the kind words. Let me get right to the heart of your question.

The Amish live a separated life renouncing violence as unchristian but they do not presume to instruct secular governments to become pacifist. They are not out lobbying Bush not to invade Iraq or to get policemen not to carry guns. The same is true of monks and nuns, as well as the clergy of most denominations. They are less separated but they do not engage in violence themselves and they do not expect all people and governments to be pacifist.

Eastern Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church and historic most Protestantism all accept that violence by the Church is incompatible with preaching the Gospel, which must be responded to freely. But they accept some form of "two kingdoms" in which God ordains government to use coercion in the service of justice in a fallen world of sinners where otherwise the strong would eat the weak.

I once thought Yoder was coming from the Amish/monastic perspective, but he did press all people, apparently including non-Christian governments, to become pacifist. I think it is ok to call for conversion but a government cannot be converted in the same way as an individual because a government has a different calling (est. by God) than an individual. Augustine thought that Christians should serve in government; Yoder would have them resign. Or would he have them try to make the government pacifist? This is the problem. How can a non-Christian adopt a Christological pacifism?

Authentic Amish/Mennonite/monastic pacifism can be co-opted by liberal pacifism. The Amish/monastic kind doesn't necessarily deny original sin and the need for government to wield the sword, but liberal pacifism does. Liberal pacifism is Pelagian and has an over-realized eschatology in which the kingdom of God becomes a human project here & now instead of coming only when the King himself returns. We can establish peace on earth.

So, I do think it is important to have separation of church and state so the church can be nonviolent and non-coercive in its evangelism. But the question is what is the Church's message to the state? Yoder would say: "become pacifist." Augustine would say: "stop worshiping idols, recognize the church as the bearer of the truth & enforce justice impartially."

It seems to me that Augustine is more scriptural than Yoder in that his view seems to be the implementation of Paul's teaching in Rom. 13. The Church is called to be non-violent in preaching the Gospel. The Government is called to wield the sword in defense of justice. So the ambiguity is "what about the Christian qua citizen?"

Craig Carter said...

Michael and Nick Don,
I am preparing a post that deals with the issue of the Christian citizen. I'm teaching all day tomorrow so it won't be up until tomorrow evening or Friday. But it will argue for a two kingdoms approach from a Reformed (not a Lutheran) perspective.

Anonymous said...

Am looking forward to your next post on the subject. I'm not convinced that those two extremes are the only options. Why not a qualified participation in government on the part of Christians, which doesn't expect pacifism on the part of those outside the church, but also doesn't embrace a "two kingdoms" approach on the part of those within the church. Such an participation could define national conversion along the Augustinian lines you mention without agreeing to wield the sword on Caesar's behalf. (Of course this leads to a problem in nations where the Christian population is over a certain percentage.)

Anyway, I'm probably stepping ahead too quickly, having not seen your post on the subject. I also do hope you'll show where Yoder falls into the trap you mentioned above. Looking forward to the next entry.