John Howard Yoder’s Anabaptist Reading of Church and State: every church a peace church?

The first thing I can say about John Howard Yoder is that I once mowed his lawn.  Yoder lived across the street from the Mennonite seminary that I attended in Indiana (and where he used to teach).  I lived two doors down from him for a year.  So, other than having also lived for several years in the hometown of Floyd Landis of Tour de France infamy, this lawn-mowing encounter is my greatest claim to Mennonite fame.  I can say I did my best to mow his grass as nonviolently as possible.   

John Howard Yoder’s theology grew from the soil of the Anabaptist movement that was a vibrant, if controversial, part of the Reformation.  The controversial part led to about 5000 Anabaptists being martyred by both Catholic and Protestant overlords; the vibrant part made the highly decentralized Anabaptists the fastest-spreading and most mission-minded Reformation movement.  They were sort of the Pentecostals of their day!  Luther famously denounced them as “enthusiasts” and their born-again impulse to baptize adults quickly became a death penalty crime.  Adult baptism was seen as a treasonous threat to medieval Christendom’s unity of church and state.  The refusal of many Anabaptists to take oaths of allegiance to the state or kill at the command of their rulers at a time when Muslim Turks where knocking on the doors of Vienna also did not endear them to the authorities.  The reason they refused oaths and warfare was simple enough: they took seriously Jesus’ example and commands not to do these things but instead practice the nonviolent politics of the church.  They were willing to follow Jesus as Lord even if some European Caesar killed them for it.   

This Anabaptist angle on theology has been called peace church (as versus just war), free church (as versus state church), believers, or adult baptizing, church (as versus infant baptizing), or Radical Reformation (as distinct from the mainline Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin).  It has even been called a “third way,” neither Catholic nor Protestant, though I think it is better understood as both/and, rather than neither/nor.  While Yoder and my Mennonite denomination is rooted in the Radical Reformation, it also self-consciously imitates the nonviolent praxis of the messianic Jews who wrote the New Testament and the first two to three centuries of Church Fathers.  From Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Ireneus in the 2nd century, to Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen in the third, no early church fathers offered a justification for Christian participation in the wars of the empire.  Nor did they support revolutions against it, like the Jewish Revolt of 66 AD that resulted in Rome destroying Jerusalem and its Temple, just as Jesus had predicted would happen a generation before it did.  The Roman Empire periodically persecuted the church during this formative period, as seen by the fact that many of the church fathers I just mentioned were executed for treason against the state.  In this they followed in the New Testament footsteps of John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen, Paul, Peter, and James, all of whom received the death penalty from either Herod (in the case of John the Baptist), the Jerusalem Temple-state run by the Sanhedrin and high priests (in the case of Stephen, James and, indirectly, Jesus,), or the Roman superpower itself (in the case of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.) 

What came to be called the Just War tradition emerged only in the fourth century after Christ, first with Ambrose but especially with Augustine, in the new context of an officially Christianized Roman empire, emperor, and army.  This Constantian shift of the church actually developed gradually over the century following Constantine himself, rather than in one fell swoop.  During this momentous change in its worldly fortunes, Christianity went from being an illegal cult potentially punishable by death, to a tolerated mystery religions among many other Near Eastern cults, to the one-and-only-allowed religion of the empire (that is, a state-church)! In developing a Xian justification for war, Ambrose and Augustine drew heavily on the natural law tradition of Greco-Roman thought (such as the Roman philosopher Cicero), as it is very difficult to justify Christian participation in war directly from the New Testament, and if one wanted to develop the church’s ethic of war and peace directly from the Old Testament, you would necessarily end up with something much more like “holy war” than just war. 

So, although this peace church perspective has certainly been a minority position since Constantine, it represents the oldest Christian thought and practice about violence and the state.  You might call it the “classic” position.  It has been witnessed to by an unbroken succession of Christian groups through the millennia.  Sometimes this pacifistic stream flowed through monastic sub-movements within the official church like St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi.  Other times it bubbled up from lay renewal movements that ended up outside the official church, like the medieval Waldensians, Cathars, or Czech Brethren, or the Anabaptists of the 16th century (all of whom were persecuted as “heretics”).  The Quaker renewal that emerged from the 17th century Puritan Revolution in England, and the Church of the Brethren—an 18th century hybrid of German Pietism and Anabaptism—are also considered historic peace churches.  Like Mennonites, the Amish and Hutterites trace their roots directly back to the original Anabaptists.  The very first Baptists picked up the practice of adult baptism from Dutch Mennonites in the early 1600s, after being exiled from England by the King James of Bible fame.  They did not carry forward the peace teaching of Jesus as strongly.  However, the most famous peace church advocate of the 20th century, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a Baptist preacher if ever there was one!

Many other individuals and traditions have come to similarly nonviolent conclusions about Jesus and the New Testament in the modern era, including the unorthodox Russian Orthodox Tolstoy, the American Transcendentalist Thoreau, the 19th century Stone-Campbellite revivals that birthed both the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, the first generation of Asuza Street Pentecostals, a Hindu who cherished the Sermon on the Mount named Gandhi, the Lutheran Dietrich Bonheoffer (despite his self-conscious choice to break faith with this way at the very end of his life), the French Reformed pastor Andre Trocme whose tiny village of Le Chambon saved 5000 Jews from Hitler without firing a shot, activist Catholics like Dorothy Day and contemplative ones like Thomas Merton, white Baptists like Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Jordan, Will Campbell, and Glen Stassen, and black ones like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Vincent Harding, Episcopalians like William Stringfellow, Anglicans like Desmond Tutu, Methodists like Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Wink, and current historical Jesus and New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Hays.  Both American Jewish rabbis like Abraham Heschel and Michael Lerner, and much less known but amazingly courageous Palestinian priests like Elias Chacour and Naim Ateek have embodied this peacemaking way. 

Chacour, who I met in 2003 in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, is author of “Blood Brothers” and “We Belong to the Land,” which describes the Palestinian Christian experience with the state of Israel.  Naim Ateek—whose son and daughter-in-law Sari and Tanory are recent Fuller graduates and friends—has led me, and many other American Christians, on solidarity tours among Palestinian Christians and Muslims suffering under 40-years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

My two-part presentation tonight therefore represents an attempt to offer to you a (hopefully) compelling and coherent reading of how the New Testament and early church—reading the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus Messiah—ended up taking a nonviolence-advocating stance.  In other words, as John Howard Yoder often insisted, a peace church praxis is not a peripheral or optional Christian teaching for especially holy saints or extremist cults, but emerges from the heart of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as testified to by the Gospels.  It can and should unapologetically call itself “catholic-with-a-small-c” theology, that is, a witness and a gift to all Christians everywhere and in all times.  I hope my own limitations will not cause this profound wisdom of the cross to appear to you as folly or become to you a stumbling block.  Hopefully by the end of the evening, even if you strongly disagree, you will have gained a better informed respect for this foundational part of our shared faith in Christ, the Suffering Servant Messiah of Israel.    

Before highlighting Yoder’s thought, I will give a brief “bio” of the man himself, in keeping with the “narrative” approach to ethics this course has taken.  As Yoder once said, if your “talking the talk but not walking the walk” when you go to speak to the government, you’re only “lobbying.”  When you do both, you’re witnessing to the state.  James McClendon—who used to teach theological ethics at Fuller—liked to talk about doing “biography as theology.”  What are the Gospels if not that, after all?!  Both the now deceased McClendon and his still-very-much-alive widow, Nancey Murphy, have also made peace church commitments to Christ as members of the Church of the Brethren.

Well, on to Yoder.  Yoder was raised Mennonite in Ohio.  After completing college in only two years, he was sent in the late 1940s by the dean of his school to do relief and refugee work in the devastated landscape of post-WW 2 France.  For five years Yoder administered an orphan’s home for boys, where he met and married a Frenchwoman named Annie.  (Nice fringe benefit to voluntary service work, eh?)  He then began doctoral studies in German at the University of Basel, studied under no less a theological giant than Karl Barth.  A famous story about Yoder recounts how he had the nerve to hand Herr-Professor Barth a 70-page critique of Barth’s own position on war as one of his class assignments! (Yoder’s paper was later published as the mini-book “Karl Barth and the Problem of War,” if you want to look it up.)  In the 1950s Yoder also helped pioneer the first ecumenical dialogues between the free and state churches of Protestantism since the Reformation.  Given the very fresh memory of the German church’s tragic capitulation to the demonic forces of Nazism, it is not surprising that the first topic on the table was church and state and war and peace. 

Yoder returned stateside in the 1960s and served the Mennonite church through its mission board and seminary.  Yoder’s most influential work, “The Politics of Jesus,” was published in 1971, causing a stir in the academic world.  It is widely considered one of the theological watersheds of the 20th century, putting him on a short list with the likes of his mentor, Karl Barth.  Shortly after the Politics of Jesus made its splash, Yoder was invited to teach ethics at the prestigious Catholic university of Notre Dame, a highly unusual opportunity at the time for an unsystematic, low-church scholar.  At Notre Dame he made a big impact on one of the other Protestants on the faculty, Stanley Hauerwas.  Hauerwas, a disillusioned liberal mainliner and contrarian rabble-rouser, has done much to spread Yoder’s influence beyond the historic peace churches.  The differences between the two can be seen in the fact that Yoder self-consciously titled his last collection of essays “For the Nations” to counter Hauerwas’ earlier book “Against the Nations.”  Yoder always insisted that Jesus’ nonviolent Way was God’s gift of grace to, and for, nation-states, not just the church. 

Like one of his favorite Reformed dialogue partners, Richard Mouw, Yoder believed in the Lordship of Christ over all of life.  Mouw and Yoder engaged in several friendly exchanges through the years, for example, their co-written article “Evangelical Ethics and the Anabaptist-Reformed Dialogue,” which can be found in the Fall 1989 edition of the Journal of Religious Ethics.  You also might check out Mouw’s “When War is Unjust: Being Honest about Just War Thinking” in the Fall 1985 edition of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.  Yoder himself taught Just War theory to ROTC students at Notre Dame for decades.  He believed those who claimed the just war tradition ought to take it very seriously, and few knew it better than this pacifist.  In advocating Just War criteria to other Christians, Yoder perhaps realized that, in practice if not principle, the devastating “shock and awe” power of modern weaponry has made 20th  and 21st century warfare very nearly unjustifiable, as civilian casualties now make up more than half the wreckage of war.  Despite much hype about “precision-guided” missiles, the percentage of civilian casualties in war continues to increase, as the current conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and
Iraq graphically display.  The “civilian immunity” clause of classic Just War theory has been shredded by modern weapons, most especially the widespread acceptance of the once-shocking practice of dropping bombs on cities from airplanes.  This tactic was pioneered by the Nazis but taken to unprecedented levels by British and American bombers by the end of World War 2. 1.5 million German and Japanese civilians lost their lives in the firebombing of dozens of cities, including hundreds of thousands of women and children. 

Yoder’s fluency in both his mother-tongue of New Testament pacifism and Just War theory demonstrated his belief that Christians need to know several languages to carry out the mission of the church.  He learned at least five or six languages in order to teach around the world and translate the work of non-English scholars.  He translated the Dutch Reformed scholar Hendrikus Berkhof’s “The Powers” into English, which helped set off the torrent of theological reflection on the contemporary meaning of this Pauline Powers language that has reached a highpoint in Walter Wink’s work.  Yoder died at age 70 in 1997, sitting in the chair of his Notre Dame office.  A true scholar’s death! 

Enough of Yoder’s life.  Also by way of biography as theology, I will just briefly note my own family’s engagement in issues of church and state, war and peace.  My parents were part of a Mennonite mission team of about five or six families and several single men and women who planted a Vietnamese church in
Saigon, Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s.  (My parents and older sisters have some great stories about living through the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the war came right into their city neighborhood!  I was born two year later, so I missed out on the excitement.)  My dad’s ten-year “tour of duty” in mission and service work in Vietnam more than met the alternative service requirements placed on him by the American state as a conscientious objector to war.  After the tragic end of that disastrous war, my dad used his fluency in Vietnamese to help resettle thousands of SE Asian refugees in the US and Canada, where many have become highly productive citizens.  My Mom taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for many years in the public schools system.  In his retirement, my dad volunteers with a local Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, or VORP, a restorative justice approach to crime and punishment that Mennonites began experimenting with in the early 1970s and which is now an alternative track option in some North American court systems.  My dad just recently traveled back to
Vietnam to help strengthen the Vietnamese Mennonite church in face of discrimination by their communist government, who last year had six of the church’s leaders thrown into prison.  All have since been released after pressure was applied by Mennonites all over the world, other evangelicals, and groups like Amnesty International, though not without some beatings and much hardship along the way.  Thus these contemporary Christians are re-living the struggle for religious freedom that characterized the Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation.  Which brings us back to where we started, with the Anabaptists!

The Gospel Realism of Jesus:  Reinhold Niebuhr was the most influential American Christian ethicist of the 20th century.  He became famous for his brand of Christian realism. Niebuhr was admirably honest about writing off Jesus as an “impossible ideal.” He presumed he had a more penetrating analysis of power and politics than Jesus did.  If we look closely at some provocative Gospel sayings of Jesus, however, we may find grounds to challenge Niebuhr’s assumption of superior insight.  Yoder makes one such Gospel saying of Jesus the centerpiece of his essay “A Christian Case for Democracy” (found in his A Priestly Kingdom: the Gospel as Social Ethics).  Remember, the cornerstone of Anabaptist ethics is always starting with Jesus and taking pretty seriously what he said and did!  Then we can test whether what Augustine or Calvin or Niebuhr or Menno Simons or President Bush says lines up with Jesus.) 

Luke 22:24-28 is part of Jesus’ Last Supper instructions to his disciples before his Passion on a cross, that cruel and unusual torture reserved by Rome for political rebels and slaves.  In characteristically pithy style, Jesus declares “the rulers of the nations (or Gentiles) lord it over them, and those who exercise authority let themselves be called benefactors.  But it shall not be so among you; the greatest shall be like the youngest and the leader as one who serves.  Who is greater, the one at the table or one who serves?  Is not the one at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”  (To show how politically loaded Jesus’ teaching appears once we remove our modernist evangelical blinders, Jesus in the very next verse explicitly promises to confer a kingdom on his disciples.  He says they will sit on the thrones of the 12 tribes of
Israel, doing justice for, or judging, the people.)

Yoder’s essay divides this Jesus saying into three.  First, Yoder notes how Jesus straightforwardly acknowledges the reality of pagan domination in his society, without any special fanfare.  He simply states, “your rulers lord it over you.”  He neither justifies existing state power as directly ordained by God, nor does he seek to deny or overthrow it.  He simply says, “the state is…It exists and we Yahweh-believers must deal with it.”  The Bible, Yoder claims, has no comprehensive theory of the state.  (Don’t worry I’ll get to Romans 13—and Revelation 13—before all is said and done this evening!)

So, first Jesus says, “the state is.” In part two of his teaching he goes on in almost cynical fashion to notice “and these rulers allow themselves to be called your benefactors.”  In other words, all governments—from monarchies to democracies—attempt to justify themselves by claiming they do good things for the people under their rule.  Jesus here seems to have a strong dose of Niebuhr-style realism about power!  Maybe Jesus wasn’t so naïve about politics after all, Reinhold; maybe he wasn’t quite the otherworldly dreamer you thought he was.  

Remember, this is the same Jesus who called his own local ruler, Herod Antipas “a fox” and sent him a message on no uncertain terms that he was not afraid of Herod’s power, nor would he be intimidated by him into changing his ministry plans.  In Luke 13, verses 31-35, Jesus is warned by some friendly Pharisees that he better skedaddle, because Herod is looking to kill him.  Jesus replies, “Tell that fox, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my Way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  I wanted to gather your children like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.  See, your house is abandoned.”  Notice the power-packed meaning for Gospel readers of Jesus “finishing his work on the third day” (resurrection day is the third day, remember) or Jesus being “on his Way.” (The Way was the first name by which Christians identified themselves.)  Or, how Jesus directly challenges his own capital city, where sat the glorious seat of King David and King Solomon’s great “house” the Temple.  He says, this Temple-state kills the prophets and rebels against God.  He indicates that Yahweh has abandoned this Temple-system, just like Jeremiah declared six centuries earlier, and that God’s children are still living in exile and under oppression.  Sadly, it is just as true today as it was the first century that Jerusalem “does not know the things that make for peace,” a fact that Jesus’ later laments in Luke 19.

In thinking about Jesus’ own relationship to the state, it is absolutely crucial to recognize that the
Jerusalem Temple was much more than a religious institution: it was a full-fledged client-state of
Rome.  As the center of economic and political power in 1st century Judah, it possessed the legal powers to tax the people via multiple tithes.  Alongside the tribute demanded by Rome and Herod, the Temple tithes represented a triple-tax on the peasants, which was pushing them to the brink of survival.  This reality is represented in the Gospels by the poor and destitute folk who so often populated Jesus’ parables and encounters.  The Temple also had its own judges and court system, even its own death squads.  Remember the thugs with clubs sent by the high priest to drag Jesus from the
 Garden of Gethesmane?

Unlike modern Western attempts to somehow separate the spiritual from the secular, religious, economic, and political institutions were fully enmeshed in the ancient world.  To imagine that someone could be religious but not political would have made no sense in the time of Jesus, whose career was politically charged from its very beginnings.  Just think of the plot elements in the birth narratives about Jesus: imperial taxation; forced displacement of Joseph and a pregnant Mary from their homes in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem; no housing for the poor when they got there; foreign kings visiting secretly from afar; local kings and their terrorizing death squads; escaping as refugees into Egypt; political praises to a Lord and Savior other than Caesar being sung to the lowest of the low, the shepherds.  Well, you get the idea.   

This same Jesus of Nazareth also once said “have no fear of those who can kill the body” (like Herod Antipas, whose father Herod the Great attempted to murder Jesus as a wee baby) “but fear only that which can kill the spirit,” that is, Satan.  And remember, the Gospels present Satan as being in charge of the kingdoms of the world in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  Wow, this is getting pretty realistic, Jesus!

Cynical as Jesus’ attitude about the state might seem, the self-justifying government language of benefaction—call it rhetoric or propaganda if you like—can be quite useful for kingdom-comers seeking first the salvation and shalom of their neighbors.  It opens the door wide for subjects and citizens of whatever state—whether oil monarchy, socialist, neo-liberal, Zionist, Islamic, or fascist—to hold their government accountable to its own best principles and claims for itself.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a master at this.  I believe he was the greatest patriot America has ever seen, even though the state threw him in jail dozens of times, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI wire-tapped and harassed him for years, and his own countrymen killed him in the end.  Rev. King was no Communist.  He was a black Baptist peace church preacher who said “Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence two hundred years ago and declared ‘all men are created equal’ (sorry women); Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation one hundred years ago, setting us free from slavery.  So how come my people are still in bondage to the segregation and terrorism of the Jim Crow South and the vicious racism of Chicago or Philadelphia or LA?”  King used the benefaction language of the greatest heroes of the American republic to challenge democracy to live up to its own best principles and potential. 

As Christians we know that the “will of the people” does not carry the same authority as the voice of God speaking through Torah, the prophets, and Jesus Messiah.  We know that the majority is not often moral.  And being “wise as serpents” we also recognize that even democracies—at least those on a large national scale—are always managed by a ruling elite, who make most of the decisions without consulting us ordinary folk.  (How many of you were consulted about the free trade agreement between Mexico, the US, and Canada called NAFTA?  I know they never gave me a call!) Yet while we remain realistic about the limits of large-scale democracy, we are eager to use the tools of citizenship, consent theory, democratic representation, rights to assembly, free speech, petition, and nonviolent protest to battle the inevitable injustices that arise from inherent concentrations of wealth and power (a central insight of Reinhold Niebuhr’s, by the way.)  Our freedom in Christ allows us to use any democratic tools that come to hand on behalf of the peace and prosperity of our neighbors and even our enemies.

“Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into Exile” God commanded Jeremiah in Babylon, and this word from Yahweh is at the heart of Yoder’s political ethic for Christians through all time and in all nations, Lebanon as well as Israel, Iraq as well as the good ol’ USA.  Democracy is to be affirmed, Yoder says, because it offers so many more ways to hold the rich and powerful accountable to the most marginal and weak in our society.  Treatment of the “least of these” is the litmus test that separates the sheep from the goats, and democracy can help us advocate for those lost sheep.  Yet Yoder also warns about the dangerous and self-righteous arrogance of military crusades that would impose democracy by force on others.  This Yoder essay, written in 1984, somehow rings a bell for me today.     

Most of the time, Yoder says, when we try to hold the state accountable to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the illegal alien—or for that matter, hold to account corporations or the media or public schools or hospitals or whatever societal institution you choose—we will do so in a second or secular language, different from our mother tongue of worship.  We will sometimes speak in terms of equality or rights, for example.  Yoder calls these translated, second language terms “middle axioms” in Christian Witness to the State. However, there is no reason we cannot also speak publicly in our mother tongue of biblical faith, as Martin Luther King also did so vividly, like when he quoted the prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  After all, the Bible speaks of public justice in over 1000 passages, more than any other theme.  We bible-believers don’t need Enlightenment liberalism to talk about justice; we have plenty of our own material! 

But there is a third and climactic conclusion to Jesus’ triadic teaching: “The rulers lord it over you; they say they are your benefactors, but, third, it shall not be so among you, for you are servants because I am a servant.”  In the church we do servant leadership and reject worldly hierarchies of domination like patriarchy and militarism.  Yoder says “we play a different ethical game” than our pagan rulers.  In this Christian game we fight evil like Jesus did: through nonviolent healings and exorcisms, subversive stories that turn the world upside-down, preaching unto repentance, feeding the hungry, offering hospitality to the outcast, befriending women and children, engaging in contemplative and intercessory prayer, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, partying with sinners, and loving enemies. Or as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6, we fight only with the weapons of the Holy Spirit, never the carnal weapons of the world. Yet, as John of Patmos repeatedly promises us in his Revelation, the Way of the Lamb is more than enough to conquer to the world and its Roman beast.  We go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, taking the transforming and reconciling initiatives of the kingdom and pouring hot coals on the heads of bullies and oppressors so that they might be shamed into repentance, like King and the black church did to Jim Crow racists like Bull Conner, or Gandhi did to the British Empire, or Palestinians did to the Israeli occupiers of their traditional lands in the first and nonviolent intifada of the 1980s. 

Yoder calls this engaging in “holy experiments” and encourages the church to constantly, creatively, and concretely to be about this work of innovating new social forms of compassion and service.  Yoder takes the term “holy experiment” from William Penn’s Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, which operated a state for some 80 years on pacifist principles.  This New World experiment set many important precedents of governance later enshrined in the US Constitution.  Once the calls of the non-pacifist majority of
Pennsylvania’s citizens to kill the Indians on the frontier became vociferous enough, the Quakers resigned their seats in the state legislature, not wanting to impose their peace ethic on others. My Mennonite ancestors bought land from the sons of William Penn in the 1720s and farmed that land in
Lancaster County for 6 generations, and I am proud to lay claim to this peace church stake in
America’s origins.  When it comes to discussing with my neighbors how to respond to September 11, for example, I believe my peace church perspective has earned a place at the table.   

 Yoder’s (vastly simplified) Critique of 6 Historical Models of Church and State: 

Let’s look at Yoder’s rather goofy-looking, old-fashioned graphics of 6 different historical Christian approaches to the state found in Christian Witness to the State, to close out the first part of my presentation. 1) Roman Catholic clergy/lay dualism: “counsels of perfection” for the holy orders/ordained priests, and a lower standard for the rest, including the emperor and the vast majority of Christians; 2) Lutheran ethical dualism between inner/outer, public/private, and face-to-face relations vs. “stations”/vocations/occupations (like being a hangman for the state!); 3) Reformed/Calvinist theocracy: Renewed monotheistic affirmation of one standard of God’s will for all, but the public responsibility of Christian magistrate to whole of society means it can sometimes actually be immoral to act with Christian love rather than secular justice.  Introduces right of “just revolution”—like the Puritan Revolt and execution of the English king in the 1640s— alongside “just war” (the roots of modern liberation theology).  A state can be both too good (acting too much like Jesus and putting citizens at risk) and too bad (straying so far from its ordained Rom. 13 calling to the Rev. 13 “beast” that Christians must rebel against it); 4) liberal Christian pacifism: The standard of Christ’s love can be applied to society and state—a “social gospel”—but the criteria is fuzzy/uncertain; its contradictions collapsed in face of World War 1, with Barth and Niebuhr revising their original liberal pacifistic stance towards “neo-orthodoxy”; 5) Niebuhrian realism: Combines a) Catholic affirmation of Greco-Roman “natural law” principles of justice as a necessary supplement to Christian love in statecraft; b) accepts the role-specific ethics of Luther (private vs. public ethics); c) agrees with the Reformed that there is only one standard of love, but the heavy weight of sin greatly limits the possibility of a straight-forward application of it to mass society; and d) agrees with the liberal pacifism Niebuhr first espoused that Christ-love is a theoretically applicable standard, but defines “agape” as (essentially) complete self-abnegation and renunciation (quite differently than the Bible, which says love your neighbor as you love yourself; love God and love enemies, because God loves God’s enemies, including you/a sinner far from grace). Niebuhr’s historical-realist analysis means, unlike all the previous models, there is no attempt to identify a fixed point or universal norm; we rather must be attuned to the interplay of forces in whatever context we are in and seek the best love/justice compromise available (the flexibility and freedom of this non-foundationalist approach is actually quite similar to Yoder’s radical reformation/“always reforming” ethos); 6) sectarian: For the first time a clear testimony to the difference that faith makes for the possibilities of one’s political ethic.  Yoder compares and contrasts a spectrum of sectarian praxis, from a) traditional Amish-Mennonite way, that says the government is ordained to use the sword but it is “outside the way of Christ”—a kind of “two kingdoms”/Schleitheim Confession of 1527 dualism—and yet still holds the state accountable on some matters of justice, like religious persecution/ freedom.  They also allow for their being other kinds of Christians than their own group; and b) Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say all government is evil/of the devil, and the church is a strictly/exactly defined remnant of 144, 000).   

Yoder’s Model: Jesus’ Body Politics: In his 75-page mini-classic Body Politics: Five Church Practices before a Watching World Yoder takes five central sacraments of the church—baptism, Lord’s Supper, binding and loosing, the many gifts of the Spirit, and the open meeting of discernment—and shows how they are not only fully “political” actions—in the sense of having to do with power-distribution among people—in their own right within the church, but could also be translated more broadly into redemptive practices serving the wider society and state.  These focal practices include: 1) the Lord’s Supper: breaking-bread in the communion of the body, the “love-feast”/shared meals of Acts 2 and 4, and Jesus’ open table fellowship with sinners and outcasts translates into the practice of everyone having an economic right to food, security, and a sustainable livelihood; 2) Baptism: breaks down the divisions between Greek and Jew, slave and free, man and woman—Galatians 3:28—just like Christ “came preaching peace” and “breaking down the dividing wall of hostility,” as Paul proclaims in Ephesians 2.  This translates into a practice of giving civil rights to all kinds and classes of people and God’s creatures; 3) binding and loosing (or what Anabaptists called the “rule of Christ,” found most explicitly outlined in Matt. 18).  This describes an orderly, nonviolent, social process—moving personal to communal levels, as needed—for resolving conflicts and doing reconciliation, restitution, reparation, restoration, “tough love/“care-fronting,” and forgiveness between victims and offenders (or simply disputants) within a community;  Glen Stassen and company’s “just peacemaking practices” take this to a global/political science level of application; 4) the many-gifts of the Spirit: the practice and principle of valuing and facilitating the participation and skills of every member of a society, no matter how weak, despised, or seemingly “disabled”; and 5) the “open meeting” (or what Yoder calls the “rule of Paul”); the principle/practice that every voice must be listened to in a consensus-building process of discernment and decision-making about matters that affect the whole body. 

These five practices are not exhaustive, simply representative, and Yoder calls each of them “sacraments,” defined as social processes where human and divine action come together.  Duane Friesen in his Citizens, Artists, and Philosophers: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture outlines a dozen or so such practices, including the ones Yoder cites, and divides them into a) ritual practices of moral formation; b) process practices; c) pastoral care practices; and d) community service practices.    


25 Responses to “John Howard Yoder’s Anabaptist Reading of Church and State: every church a peace church?”

  1. Camassia Says:

    […] I received some helpful comments to my last post, including Lee’s link to this paper by John Howard Yoder, which Lee discussed briefly here. By coincidence, my churchmate Kent recently delivered a lecture on Yoder which he posted on his blog, providing a longer summary of the same subject. […]

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  6. timothy Sauder Says:

    Good article. I am a Canadian in excile in Florida going to a MCC church the only one in a 100 miles. My ancestors came with your I am sure as our earliest records go to 1720 also. I am frustrated in that this church hides any Mennonite connection to the outside world and although I have been the adult sunday school teacher, to pacify me, there is no Mennonite destinctives taught or thought in the church. This conference is so evangelicalized that it is in danger of loosing its meaning to neutralism. I grew up in a branch church like that which after it changed from Mennonite Brethern in Christ to United Missionary lost even the very connection to the family of peace churches. Distinctives are not to be apologized for if they are Biblically sound and practically necessary for a voice to those who might desire an alternative option in this secular non christian world.

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  8. links for 2007-10-19 | lifeasmission Says:

    […] church and state – john howard yoder a presentaton given on John Howard Yoder’s understanding of church state relations, nonviolence and some good historical anecdotes (tags: anabaptist politics) […]

  9. Tim Says:

    Thorough. Thanks.

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    […] The key issue, as depicted here then, is that free citizens in the West should be able to choose whatever lifestyle we wish to lead in a free society. Religion has no right to define for us that we are unnatural so long as the State is more powerful than religion. […]

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  22. marcus pomeroy Says:

    I really like this. Our church is beginning the process of becoming a peace church and I’d like to suggest that our study group use this article. Who is the author

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