Sunday, June 10, 2007

Discipleship as Political Responsibility

John Howard Yoder’s magnificent insight in Discipleship as Political Responsibility is more than it’s compact size might imply. Although this book is merely a forerunner to Yoder’s more developed thought it is nonetheless an important contribution to understanding both Yoder and the positions he advocates. The book is split into two primary sections which were both first published as essays in 1957.

The first sections, The State in the New Testaments, seeks to discover what they New Testament says about the state, and secondarily what this means for how Christians are to interact with the state. Yoder understands the New Testament to claim that the mandate for the state is found within the mandate for the Church. God has ordained the state in order to keep relative order. God does not view the violence or selfishness of the state (or humanity) as a good thing but permits the state to use evil against itself in order to restrain itself.

The state is understood as being “pagan” or at least “non-Christian”. We must also realize that the New Testament does not speak about the state in the way that we understand the state. The primary state function in the New Testament is the sword-function. The Early Church also understood the state as belonging to the order of “principalities” and “dominions” that Christ had defeated. “The early church respected the state and made room for the state, yet they did not do so because they viewed it as a part of God’s good creation. On the contrary, they viewed it as part of the world God opposes, that is already defeated by Christ in principle, and over which the exalted Christ already rules until he has defeated his last enemy.” (20)

The Church is called to praise God; to proclaim the Gospel, live acts of love, and to witness to the virtue of Jesus Christ. The early church viewed the way of the cross not as something “tacked on” to salvation but as part of Christ’s saving work. The Church’s responsibility regarding the state is “to pray for political leaders and for peace, because God desires everyone to be saved.” (22) “The mandate of the Church, the mandate to overcome evil, is the superior mandate; the mandate of the state, that of keeping evil in check, only has meaning because the Church is accomplishing its mission.” (23) The Church clearly has a superior role and this role is seen in light of what Yoder calls the old and new aeon. The state belongs to the order of the old aeon. This order has been defeated by Christ but still exists under the lordship of Christ. The Church belongs to the new aeon, although these aeons overlap. Within this framework we can see how the task of the Church has superiority, since it belongs to the new aeon constituted by God’s redemptive purpose for humanity. The task of the state is merely temporary and has already been subjected to Christ. The existence of the Church is proof of this subjection.

This covers only a minor portion of the book, but are the implications of Yoder's articulation of the New Testament understanding of the state? What might this mean for us in our relation to the American state?


Kevin K. Wright said...

Ben, if I might say something. Yoder's work is important because it presents a counter to the dominant two-kingdom doctrine upheld by most American Christians. Two Kingdoms works so darn well because it acknowledges the fallnness of this world, and yet calls the Christians to act in a loving and responsible manner towards temporal injustices. However, as you probably see, this ends up not only constructing a duelism but a duality as well in which both kingdoms have a significant claim on one's life. Yoder's system, as I understand it, allows for a duelism but without the duality parturient within two-kingdom thinking. Thus, we can agree with Paul that whoever is in Christ is a new creation, while Amen-ing with Jesus that you don't pour new wine into old wineskins. Thus, the first language of a Christian is not some artifically constructed notion of responsibility, but rather formed in the vocabulary of faithfulness and worship.

Randy said...

Dear Friend,
I'm a fly in the oinment -- sorry -- but the insight does not seem magnificent to me. You can speak better to this than me -- I really mean that -- but where does Yoder meet Augustine's thinking in "City of God"? Surely Yoder departs from Augustine somewhat, which he is free to do. I've not read C. of God -- as a friend once said, I look at the cover and surmise what it is about. :)! Actually, though, I've read a bit about it and was wondering (casually) how Yoder's curious (to me) insights intersect Augustine.
To be more specific in closing, the whole old and new aeon sounds a bit contrived, though I again admit this is all I have read of Yoder and I am sure he is an excellent scholar.
Thanks for hearing my brief sounding.