Posted tagged ‘John Howard Yoder’

Christians and Politics: Abstinence is the Best Policy

June 28, 2009

This is a short paper I wrote, for an ethics class, about responsible engagement of the political sphere by Christians. I of course take the position that Christians should not get themselves tangled up in the worldly political game, but I was required to give a brief positive assessment of competing views so I did that although I am not convinced that the “positives” of other views are truly strengths at all. It is a very basic, perhaps even elementary, assessment but I believe it to be a sufficient introduction to this position.

The Distinct Polity of the Church is Political Enough: Why Christians Should Abstain from Civil Governmental Politics

by Justin Bronson

I am persuaded that the most faithful way for Christians to engage the political sphere is by being a distinct polity unto themselves operating on the principle of imitating Christ’s example of cross-bearing love. In my view this precludes the participation of Christians in government, but requires us to transform the political sphere by questioning the powers, and exposing any sin by openly provoking them to direct their evil towards us just as Christ did. This could perhaps be viewed as a sort of mediation between Niebuhr’s Christ against culture, and Christ the transformer of culture.[i] We participate in what I will call selective engagement, meaning not that we choose when we are going to engage, but how we are going to engage the political sphere; specifically that we reject governmental positions and create our own peculiar polity of Christ-like living.

In Scripture we can see both apodictic and casuistic[ii] teachings[iii], and examples, particularly in the person of Christ; as well as an overarching, at least in the NT, principle of humble, self-sacrificial service[iv] as opposed to “fighting” worldly political battles as the means to transforming the world. This informs a position of selective engagement. Themes such as Satan being the god of this age[v], Jesus’ example of rejection of earthly power[vi], the demonic influence in government[vii] and of Christians being foreigners in earthly kingdoms[viii] all point to an idea of selective engagement. Our primary grounds for this selective engagement is, as already mentioned, the life of Christ. Instead of taking the kingdoms Satan offered,[ix] entering Jerusalem as the conquering earthly king, calling legions of angels,[x] or getting caught up in the politics of his day; Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of power,[xi] entered Jerusalem on a lowly donkey, died alone on a cross[xii], and called all people to take up their crosses and follow him.[xiii] Perhaps the best representative verse of Christ in this light is Col 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”[xiv]

Many early Christians, the Anabaptist movement, and multiple contemporary theologians/ethicists, have also called the church to be its own polity as a way of influencing the world and subverting the current political sphere. Tertullian will, for this essay, serve as an example of the early Christian call to selective engagement. According to Hollinger, Tertullian believed “Christians were to refrain from political life because it involved emperor worship.”[xv] Although the American context does not require emperor worship, it does demand allegiance. This is something we as Christians cannot give because our sole allegiance is to Christ. This is where I would fall in line with Niebuhr’s assessment of Christ against culture when he says this approach “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and rejects cultures’ claims to loyalty.”[xvi]

The Anabaptists picked up on this thinking and refused to let the church be defined by geography, and believed that government was unnecessary for Christians because the church was the their polity.[xvii] The Schleitheim Confession unabashedly declares that Christians should not be involved in government, pointing to the example of Christ[xviii] and the need for separation from the evils of the world[xix]. However, it wasn’t that they, and others like them,[xx] just wanted to be against culture. This is evidenced in Yoder’s critique of Niebuhr’s assessment of Christ against culture. Yoder points to an amalgamation with “Christ transforming culture”[xxi], when he says it’s “about devotion to the way of Christ, which at points conflicts with culture and society.”[xxii]

Contemporary theologians[xxiii] have also delved into this idea, including Stanley Hauerwas who says “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”[xxiv] Martin Luther King Jr. did not completely reject the notion of Christians in government, but he witnessed to the conflict between government and Christian ideals and called for a negotiation that ultimately seeks justice.[xxv]

Christians have also taken opposing views, each with particular strengths. Many, like Calvin, believed the church should indeed be involved in government[xxvi] claiming that those who refused to do so were “frantic and barbarous men are furiously endeavoring to overturn the order established by God.”[xxvii] The focus on God’s sovereignty, even in the political realm, and Christians’ use of the established order to advance kingdom ideals are strengths of this position. Others, like Luther proposed, that it is acceptable, but not necessary for Christians to be involved in government. His distinction between the two kingdoms[xxviii] allowed for Christian participation while not mandating it. He also proposed that the government should not be governed by Christian ideals. This has a particular strength because it attempts to keep the church and the state from getting too muddled while allowing for freedom of Christians to pursue any vocation in which he or she can do good. These views, and similar ones, have the three primary strengths of a broad range of influence and the possibility of “immediate” effectiveness, as well as the necessary power to enact proposed changes. The belief is, if a Christian can rightly participate in government he or she can enact good over a large number of people and possibly in a relatively short amount of time and to a great extent make sure it happens.

All of these things considered, it is my belief that Christians should actively engage society and the political sphere by being a separate and distinct polity. We therefore should avoid direct involvement in government such as serving as a governing official. The witness of Christ, the New Testament, various historical and contemporary individuals and movements have persuaded me that although the church can certainly bring about good through government; ultimately our responsibility is to be faithful to Christ as Lord and we must therefore take up our crosses and not the sword of power. We must imitate Jesus and not Caesar if we are ever going to change the world.

 


[i] Hollinger, Dennis, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 191-197, 208-213

[ii] Pohl, Christine- Class Handout,  Forms of Ethical Guidance in Scripture

[iii] Luke 9:48, John 10:37

[iv] E.g. Matt. 5:3ff, 16:24, Acts 20:18-21, Eph 6:12, Phil 2:3

[v] E.g. 2 Cor 4:4

[vi] E.g. John 6:15, Luke 4:7f

[vii] E.g. Luke 4:6, Eph 6:12, Col 2:15

[viii] E.g. 1 Pet 2:11

[ix] Luke 4:5f

[x] Matt 26:43

[xi] Luke 4:8

[xii] E.g. Matt 27:46

[xiii] E.g. Mark 8:34

[xiv] RSV

[xv] Hollinger p192

[xvi] Hollinger p191

[xvii] Hollinger p194

[xviii] Boulton, Wayne G., Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey, eds., From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics p286

[xix] Boulton p284

[xx] See for example Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Jacques Ellul, Vernard Eller, David Lipscomb and Various Monastic movements

[xxi] Hollinger p208

[xxii] Hollinger p194

[xxiii] Notably Vernard Eller, John Howard Yoder, Greg Boyd, Lee Camp and Richard Hughes

[xxiv] Hollinger p55

[xxv] Boulton p429

[xxvi] Hollinger p209

[xxvii] Calvin, John. Of Civil Government Ch. 20 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xxi.html

[xxviii] Pohl, Christine- Class notes Christ and Culture in Paradox from Martin Luther

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Christians and Politics, Some Resources

October 25, 2008

Here are some more resources you might want to read before the coming election. 

Stanley Hauerwas writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view of Truth and Politics, and a review of the impact of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and an insightful theological look at abortion.

Gabriel Salguero, The Election, Immigration, and the Gospel.

The Problem with “Under God”, and interesting article by Rodney Clapp.

A Non-Voting Manifesto? A concise but very insightful look at Christians and voting, by Tripp York

An article about a practitioner of Christian Anarchism.

Between Sojourners and the Simple Way? Rethinking Radical, Evangelical Politics in ’08 with John Howard Yoder, a long title but a great article dealing with a few views of post-religious-right Christian political action.

The late great John Howard Yoder on the limits of our obedience to any government in this article. (Its a pdf and it might show up funny in your browser, just open it with a different program)

Some Websites with more resources.

http://www.theotherjournal.com/

http://www.jesusradicals.com/

http://www.christarchy.com/

http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/

http://young.anabaptistradicals.org/

Hope you enjoy!