Church and State: Beyond the Constantinian Assumption (ala J.H. Yoder)

This is a much longer post than I usually do — a paper written last semester.  I post it today in response to some thoughts and conversations about the political protests happening around the country.  The question it seeks to address, via exploring and explaining Yoder’s theology, is this: what is the relationship between the church and the state?  Obviously, this is a complex topic on which Christianity is not in agreement.  Yoder articulates well a Radical Reformation stance.  Here is my articulation of his understanding, blended with a little of my tradition’s brand of Radical Reformation faith.

Yoder was a nefarious human being in some very particular ways.  And I find much life in his theology.  I leave you to sort that out in your own faith and community, and there are many blog posts that do an excellent job of exploring what we do with a theologian who desecrates his own theology by his human, complex, evil actions.  (By the way, those are conversations I’m also happy to have… just not in this post.)

This essay is drawn from the following books, all of which are very good:

  • Yoder:
    • Discipleship as Political Responsibility
    • Politics of Jesus
    • The Original Revolution
    • The Christian Witness to the State
  • Mehl-Laituri:
    • Reborn on the Fourth of July
    • For God and Country, In That Order
  • Carter:
    • Politics of the Cross

One of the lynchpins of understanding Yoderian thought in regards to the relationship between church and state, as Carter rightly points out, is an understanding of what Yoder names as the Constantinian assumption. His “beef” with the other Christian options is similar to many neo-anabaptists’ problem with the conservative / democratic options (or liberal protestant / conservative fundamentalist options). It is this: both sides understand themselves to have influence over the state by participating in it and by intertwining the church’s self-understanding with the state. The debate throughout modern Christianity has, in general, not been whether or not to be intertwined with the state, but with which version of the state to be intertwined and in what ways.

To use modern examples, Glen Beck and his people want the state (and thereby society) to be Christian, and to that end they participate politically, aiming to make the state conform to church ends. They advocate legislation that seeks to enforce explicitly Christian morality (at least, as they understand “Christian”). On the other side, Jim Wallace and his people do not seem to explicitly say that society should be Christian, but they still seek to enforce their version of Christian morality in broad spheres, assuming that the change they seek will come first at the state level. Both groups lobby, publish, and convince in order to see society change toward their own version of Christianity. Both of these, whether in stated or implicit ways, affirm that the salvation of humans will come through the workings of the state.

Yoder’s problem with this is at least twofold. First, for Yoder, Christ is the Lord of history, a New Testament affirmation that is inherently political. If Christ is the Lord of history, the various lords of history can have no ultimate authority except that which Christ grants. From history, it is evident that lords come and go and represent very different kinds of societies; to tie the church to any particular lord is to be parochial and short-sighted (Yoder calls this the true sectarianism). Second, he sees the church’s mandate as being one of creating an alternative society, a foretaste of the kingdom; central to this belief is the understanding that faith and morality cannot be coerced. Central to God’s nature and the nature of the Kingdom is that all people must have completely free choice about rejecting it. For this reason, Christian morality cannot be legislated, especially on non-Christians who have not chosen covenant with God in Christ and other Christians.

Likewise, central to the nature of the work and enactment of the Kingdom is that humans are only able to attain any sort of Christ-like action by way of becoming conformed to Christ, which, for Yoder, happens only in community and only by way of an almost mystical transformation. Thus, to ask non-Christians to conform to Christian morality and life is like asking a human to grow wings and fly. In Christ and in community, for Yoder, a person is a new creation and the church is a new society. In Christ we are given a new ontological being that, though it is already-but-not-yet in the same way that the Kingdom is, is still very real and strikingly discontinuous with life without Christ. Yoder would caution, I think, against understanding this individually apart from the Kingdom-community.

Yoder outlines four options that Jesus had, in relation to the state, all of which he rejected. These four options then become the paradigmatic choices for the church, which is called to follow the path of Jesus (the fifth option Yoder outlines). First, Jesus was in conflict with Sadducees and Herodians who were the realists of their day; they believed that we must work with what we have and compromise in order to bring about incremental goodness. Jesus didn’t so much reject that as he was rejected by that camp. Second, Jesus could have advocated the withdrawal and spiritualization (or communal purity) of the Essenes, but he did not, chosing a very politically active and controversial course of action instead.

The Pharisees provided a third option, that of religious purity, a society within society that walled itself off through religious ritual. Jesus repeatedly rejected this option as well. The fourth option is the one that Yoder names as the biggest temptation for Jesus, occurring three times in the Gospel narratives: the Zealot option of righteous religious violence. The Zealot option, arguably the most tempting one today, and perhaps the one in regards to which Constantinianism is most culpable, is rejected not because it is too strong but because it is too weak. Violence can restrain and destroy the evil ones, but it cannot build a new world. Violence inevitably makes the victim-cum-aggressor look like the original tyrant. As Wink says, it is not enough to change the rulers – we must also change the rules.

Instead of all these, Jesus creates a community which itself becomes a sign of the Kingdom. This community rejects violence and is always the minority among minorities, seeking the power of yeast and mustard seeds instead of the power of might and the Cedars of Lebanon. This comes back to Yoder’s point that coercion can never be a part of the kingdom – all creatures must have the full possibility to reject the message. The power of the kingdom must be a whispering seduction, not a fearsome roar.

So where does this leave the state in relation to the church? If the church is to be a minority living in an alternative society within the state-sponsored and state-oriented society, how are Christians to understand their participation in the state? Yoder says that in a world of evil, Christ allows the state to keep order, but the state is still ultimately under Christ’s lordship and is only temporarily allowed. The state’s actions are to be judged by Romans 13 – they are acting under Christ’s lordship insofar as they are protecting the good and restraining the evil. As soon as they do anything else, they are setting themselves up as gods and rebelling against the lordship of Christ. That kind of state, historically as well as in the view of faith, always becomes its own downfall.

Meanwhile, the church’s mandate is to live in the kingdom in the midst of this world. This means that the church will go above and beyond the morality of the state. The church will not expect of the state its own morality but it will expect of it (and continually call it to) the protecting of the good and the restraining of the evil. Taken to its end, the implication of this for Yoder is that the church will never be allowed to participate in the functions of the state that perpetuate any kind of violence, even righteous violence. Again, this is not because of a separatism but because the church is the witness, sign, and foretaste of the kingdom, and so the church must be the church. Christians in political or military office will always be faced with the temptations of the Sadducees and the Zealots, and they will not have the freedom to choose the lordship of Christ over practical compromises or righteous violence. Thus, they will no longer be the church.

Given these two mandates, Yoder says that the police function of the state is allowable, and he says that Christians can participate in the parts of the state that do not perpetuate or require violence. This is a very interesting caveat that I think is not very well explored by Yoder. Partly, developments that he may not have noticed or that may not have been present in his time, bring these into question. First, his point about democracy being only relatively better than other forms of government is becoming more and more obvious, as it becomes increasingly understood that government is driven by money and that corporate interests are often honored above individual voters’ interests. This, along with the foul track record of international policing and the glaring and horrendous inequality with regards to policing at home, brings into question even the police function of the state.

Max Weber defines the state as the group that has the power to claim the monopoly on all forms of legitimate violence. William Cavanaugh follows him in this definition. Taken to its extreme (and in the situation of our own government, it is not hard to do), this means that all (or nearly all) functions of the state uphold that monopoly of violence. Thus, the state begins to define who is human and who is less than human, to define what kinds of coercion are okay and what are not, to define whites’ preemptive shooting of blacks as okay but blacks’ stealing of a candy bar as not okay. This can happen in all areas, from state foster care systems that kidnap Native American children to state funding of schools that gives more money to white schools and severely underfunds Latino ones. In this understanding of the state, Yoder’s suggestion is that if a Christian is involved in the state he or she must always maintain the freedom to disobey the state (or leave its purview) in order to follow the lordship of Christ where the two contradict. This way of judging seems more consistent than Yoder’s implication that police functions and non-violent functions of the state are acceptable for Christians. (Yoder himself admits that even the so-called non-violent functions of the state have possibility to be upholding of violence.)

Yoder also undergirds all of his understanding of the role of the church and the state with a very clear and particular eschatology that has a kind of spiritual warfare undergirding it. He talks about the overlapping of the two aeons, with Christ inaugurating but not yet completing the new aeon. He draws an analogy to the time between D-Day and V-Day. Now, in Christ, the end is inevitable. But the battle is not yet won. This is very difficult imagery, however, because the lordship of Christ, for Yoder, clearly comes about through seduction, attraction and love, not power over, violence, or coercion. This also depends on a very particular understanding of evil – a kind of macro-level spirituality that sees powers and principalities (in NT language) as having corporate spiritual lives that can either be good or evil. If this spiritual warfare understanding of evil is misused or misunderstood (as it easily is in Constantinian paradigms), there is a great danger of mapping evil directly onto human faces and understanding Christians as the warriors of God with the mandate to eradicate evil by killing humans. This is a gross perversion of this eschatology, but it is common nonetheless.

Yoder has an extremely high view of God’s ability to transform humans (which is different, notably, than an extremely high view of human nature, which I would argue Yoder does not have). As mentioned above, he has an almost mystical understanding of what happens to a human community that is in covenant with God through Christ – a transformation that results in Christ-likeness and grace-given ability to commune with Christ. This is not a works righteousness theology, but rather is closer to an Orthodox view of theosis. Anabaptists are often (rightly, sometimes) accused of a moral perfectionism that seeks to earn salvation through works, but this is a misunderstanding (from without or within) of this theology. As believers, Christians enter into covenant, a covenant that must be chosen (again, the theme of coercion!), and once chosen, a dynamic process begins wherein the church becomes part of Christ, a sacrament of the kingdom. Yoder does not use these words – perhaps the Anabaptist spirituality sounds too much like practicality to Constantinian ears for many readers to detect any of this kind of devotion – but this is a necessary underpinning for Yoder’s theology.

Obedience is important for Yoder, and is often misunderstood in our culture of individual freedom and autonomy. Obedience is often seen as power over, often oppressive. However, the quality of the obedience depends on the character and intent of the one who is being obeyed. In a movie I watched last week, a drill-sergeant father, injured on a hostile world, sends his young son out with tracking and communication devices to find an object necessary for their survival. The father says to the boy, “I will be able to see everything you can see and more. Do exactly as I tell you, and I will keep you safe.” Not to obey in this case is not freedom – it is foolishness. The father’s motivation is love and he has more information and better decision-making experience than his son does. This is the kind of obedience that Yoder calls for in following Christ (really, it’s the New Testament that calls for this kind of obedience). The father in this scenario may give orders that do not make sense to the child, but the boy must follow them anyway. Thus, effectiveness and practicality can never be our primary aim. Obedience must be primary, trusting in the will of One who loves us and to whom we are committed. And even in this obedience, there is no coercion because it is chosen in every moment. God always leaves the possibility open for his creation to reject him.

Another unstated necessity in Yoder’s theology is what I have started calling a hermeneutic of humility. He is strident in his beliefs to the point of seeming arrogant at times, but his theology falls apart without a deep sense of epistemic humility. There are subjects that Yoder does not speak of, like, for instance, whether or not God works outside the church or in and through other faiths. I think this is the reason: I think he cannot speak of these because he must hold onto the belief that God is inexorably and mysteriously working to bring creation to herself. In this theology, there are things that are better left unsaid, better left to God’s inscrutable judgment. This is not relativism, but rather a continual unveiling of Truth. We follow a divine person and engage in a covenant relationship.   We do not follow laws and prescriptions and engage with a dead text. Thus, in every moment, the relationship has the ability to deepen and change, to be particular and universal at the same time.

This is why, for all Carter’s brilliance in creating a systematic theology of Yoder’s theology, the book is, in some ways, subtle blasphemy. Yoder’s theology, indeed all theology whether we admit it or not, is for and from a particular context in space and time. It is an outworking of a whole network of relationship. Relationships are not systematic and entail many logical contradictions. To systematize a theology like Yoder’s is like this: Seeing a beautiful butterfly on a hillside, you try to figure out why it is so beautiful. You watch it, but you can’t figure it out. So you catch it and take it home with you. You still can’t discover the formula for its beauty, so you pin it to a board and examine it closely. This still does not capture it, so you dissect it. At this point, far from figuring out the reason for its beauty, you have destroyed its beauty altogether. Although I would not go so far as to say that Carter has destroyed the beauty of Yoder’s theology – in fact, I think he did an admirable job of describing the butterfly’s beauty under a microscope – theology done in the way Yoder does it has a spirit about it that is not decipherable.

Yoder’s way of doing theology is in keeping with his message – the beauty in the theology Yoder posits is not a logical consistency that you must believe or be wrong (which might almost be a kind of coercion). Rather, it is a beauty that resonates and summons and evokes. This is the kind of beauty in Jesus’ parables, a kind of beauty that is dangerous because it is so immeasurable and so unrepeatable. There is true, not just imagined, danger in this kind of theology because without the Spirit’s breath (and who can control the Spirit’s breath?) it can be worse than dead – it can be deadly. But where the Spirit is present in it, this kind of occasional, devotional, provisional theology offers a drink of life-giving water.

1 thought on “Church and State: Beyond the Constantinian Assumption (ala J.H. Yoder)”

  1. A fair and nicely nuanced treatment of JHY’s church-state work, Laura, especially related to Romans 13 and the function of policing, which is a section many pacifists choose to neglect. Your last paragraph suggests that theological construction is not only about ethics but about the inspired aesthetics of the vision and voice. Do write more about this good and lovely truth in your future posts.

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