“Christian Witness to the State” By John H. Yoder

The Christian Witness to the StateThe Christian Witness to the State by John Howard Yoder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Howard Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State (1964) explore an embodied witness to the established political order, particularly the somatic theological implications therefor. The begins by defending the relevancy of the Christian (and therefore, for Yoder, pacifist) witness to a non-Christian, non-pacifist establishment in which they live and work and worship. From the outset, Yoder has Niebuhrian theology in mind, and begins by lamenting the “prophetic irrelevancy” (7) to which his colleague apparently relegates Christian pacifism. A few particular points that are helpful are his claims that a) “the bearers of political authority are in spite of themselves agents of the divine economy, being used whether in rebellion or submission as agents of God’s purpose,” (12) b) “The meaning of history… lies in the creation and the work of the Church.” (13)

These twin claims are powerful and compelling to any person who considers themselves a Christian, since it forces them to put political claims directly subordinate to the God from which they derive their authority, despite the arrogance of many political assumptions. In fact, to take the universal vocation of the church seriously, it leads us to the conclusion that “…the Christian church knows why the state exists… better than the state itself.” (16) And it is from this conviction that one overcomes the supposed prophetic irrelevancy to which Niebuhr wants to condemn pacifists.

A central concept Yoder advances is what he calls “middle axioms” (32-33, 35, 47, 72-73) that are “halfway between meaningless broad generalities and unrealistically precise prescriptions… midway between absolute moral principles and mere pragmatic common sense.” (33, n.3) To reconcile the claims of the state and the convictions of the Church, Yoder tries to find that area of grey that might satisfy both. Going into each example would be redundant here, though it seems as though one of the central issues he forces each view to confront is the privileged nature of reason and justice known apart from or held over and above revelation. Yoder’s own view attempts to combine Niebuhr’s rightful insistence on the persistence of sin, the unknowable nature of justice as a norm/middle axiom, and the agape-love of Christ as the foundation upon which the created order rests.

In Witness, Yoder only sporadically brings in the notion of vocation/calling, and usually to make the point that the burden of proof is upon the statesman, not the pacifist, that theirs is a calling from God. His thoughts on Eucharist are exemplary; keeping in mind the Medieval/Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran distinctions he describes, between two realms (the political and the ecclesial), Yoder insists “The Gospel response to this notion is not that there is no such thing as a Christian calling or vocation, but that it is not to be distinguished from or contrasted with following Jesus.”

A similar criticism is again leveled in his conclusion, in which he claims the these major Christian traditions set up “a firm dualism separating Christ from culture… [in which] social ethics can and should be less authentically derived from the gospel than should Christian thought and witness in any other realm of discourse.” The gospels, he reminds us, should be more constitutive for Christians than later ‘developed’ or ‘enlightened’ intellectual discourse and theoretical abstraction.

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• If it is true that “The good action is measured by its conformity to the command and to the nature of God” (44), then how can the Church learn obedience from its soldier saints like Martin, Ignatius, Francis, etc.?
• Yoder claims (in the negative) it would be apostasy for a nation to claim “the sword is itself not part of the fall.” (38) But his emphasis on the Bible makes this connection difficult, as violence does not seem present until well after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Does he equate “the sword” not with violence per se, but with general disobedience?
• Yoder’s insistence that “communication to the statesman is… pastoral” (24) is much appreciated. He qualifies “pastoral” by reminding us that it includes looking to the stranger with an esteem that does not exclude God’s judgment. This is not what most ministers mean when that same word is uttered. Usually, divine appraisal is associated with the ‘prophetic’ office. In his larger body of work, does Yoder maintain this distinction between the pastoral and the prophetic, or challenge it, as he does here?

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