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A Couple Thoughts on Yoder

Here's some informal thoughts on Yoder's The Christian Witness to the State that I typed up for our class discussion.

I’ve always been a fan of Yoder, but I was particularly impressed and surprised by this book, which defied the typical portrayal of Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al. as being sectarian, isolated, disengaged, unable to engage the state constructively at all, etc. In this book, Yoder argues that, while the consistent Christian will not be able to participate in many of the state’s activities, and must always protest against the state’s violence as wrong, this does not mean that the Christian cannot offer constructive advice to the state about how to be, if not more virtuous, at least less vicious.

At first glance, Yoder seems to be inappropriately compromising the unalterable principles of Christian ethics. If Christian ethics really says, “Do not kill” then shouldn’t we maintain that staunchly and absolutely, and never dilute it to “Ok, well, don’t kill in certain particularly egregious ways and circumstances”? And yet, upon further consideration, we have to do this sort of thing all the time, unless we give up entirely the idea of giving ethical counsel to unbelievers. Indeed, some Christians tend to go to this extreme: true virtue is possible only in Christ, therefore all we should do is convert unbelievers; no point in trying to get them to do anything good otherwise. Perhaps if the only concern were their own souls, this would be a valid point--if it is true that good ethics apart from Christ will not save them, then let’s not waste time on works-salvation. But it’s not. Their actions affect others, and thus it is important that we exhort them to do actions that are less evil, less harmful--if not for their own justification before God, then at least for the aid of those who might otherwise suffer from their actions.

So, I think Yoder is absolutely justified in saying, “Even if we believe that all war is wrong; we can nevertheless appeal to the State to engage in just war, war that may well do more good than harm.”

But I have a couple questions about Yoder’s approach. Is it coherent to claim that a certain kind of action is necessary and yet sinful? I have serious trouble getting my head around this idea. Yoder claims at several points that the function of the civil magistrate, although it is ultimately wrong for a Christian, is nonetheless necessary in our fallen world to restrain evil. I don’t see how we can maintain that certain actions need to be done by someone in society and yet still condemn those actions as unethical...this kind of approach can lead to a dangerous kind of relativism of the sort that justifies torture, etc., the justificaiton that says that even if it’s evil, it’s necessary and so it must be done-- “well, someone’s gotta get their hands dirty.” Or is Yoder saying it’s not unethical, so long as it’s done by unbelievers? It would be wrong for Christians to do, but is right for unbelievers? If so, this kind of claim creates even more problems.

Second, I have some concerns about how Yoder intends the idea of “middle axioms.” On the one hand, Christians are supposed to appeal to non-Christians in terms of ideas and principles that will make sense to the latter, yet on the other hand, they are not supposed to relinquish their core Christian commitments and pretend to a secular neutrality. Yoder seems to try to emphasize both of these. But I’m a little unsure about where he comes down. Are Christians supposed to check their Christian beliefs in at the door in order to appeal to politicians in terms of general ethical principles, or do we appeal to them always as Christians, reminding them that our concern over the particular ethical issue under debate is just the tip of the iceberg?

Finally, is the state, the civil authority, always and unchangeably characterized as bearer of the sword. The striking thing about the Old Testament prophets’s vision of the redeemed world is that, while they insist that there will be no more war, and swords will be beaten into ploughshares, yet the imagery that characterizes this New Creation is thoroughly political. Must all political rule pass away, or can we imagine a transfiguration of politics so that we still have princes and magistrates, but ones who order society without violence? Maybe not, but it’s at least worth a thought experiment.


intriguing. O'donovan has less than admirable things to say about Yoder, so I'd be interested how you square Yoder with O'Donovan's giving of 'judgment' to the state, i.e. the 'right' to make war.

November 20, 2009 at 7:36 PM  

Yes, O'Donovan is not so kind to Yoder as he should be. But, he's an Anglican, so he's in a different political-theological universe than Anabaptist Yoder.

So how do I square Yoder with O'Donovan? Well, I don't know that I do. I'd like to. If I find a way over the next few years, I will count my entire life a success. However, they are not, perhaps, so far apart. O'Donovan grants the state a very provisional role, one that is passing away, a role in which the state is supposed to more and more give away its power as the Church matures. Yoder grants that, even though the state has no right as such to exist, it will exist, and it serves a valuable provisional function that helps the Church do its work.

Yoder's exegesis of Romans 13 is better than O'Donovan's, though.

Just thought I'd drop that little bombshell.

November 21, 2009 at 2:54 AM  

no doubt that O'Donovan's reading of Romans 13 is worse than Yoder's, given that OD's reading of what governments are is terrible. His analogical reading of governments in the 'judgment' capacity as a holdover from political Israel makes precisely zero sense.

November 23, 2009 at 12:38 AM  

Christian Witness to the State is of course a very brief and early statement from Yoder. I'd like to respond to your interesting questions, drawing on some of his other writings.

(1) I don't think either of your suggestions are what Yoder would have meant (that evil action is "necessary" or that evil is okay when done by "unbelievers"). Yoder's discussion of the Powers in The Politics of Jesus points toward the idea that the state is "necessary" in the sense that the structures of human life include "governing authorities" — they just are.

Even the most fallen of governments still serve God's purposes insofar as they maintain some more order beyond pure chaos. But the evil done is never "necessary". We can imagine a state that is not doing evil and should seek to influence our state further in that direction.

(2) Yoder actually abandoned the term "middle axioms," perhaps because it was easily misunderstood. I take him to be suggesting that while a properly Christian understanding of "politics" is always relevant, even normative, for the whole world (he wrote about the church witnessing to the politics God will ultimately have all creation practicing), the world outside the church may not be able to understand the language of a Jesus-oriented politics.

So, while followers of Jesus always seek consistently to follow Jesus in all areas of life at all times, in some settings it may be necessary to describe their political ideas in language more easily understood by those who don't share their faith. This is essentially a tactical strategy, not in any sense a compromise on their core convictions.

(3) Yoder would definitely not say the state necessarily bears the sword (at least in the sense of practicing capital punishment or going to war). These uses of violence are not of the essence of the state's identity and the state should be encouraged to move away from them more and more.

The entire premise of The Politics of Jesus (many other of Yoder's writings also echo this) is that politics need not require violence. What is central in the story of Jesus is that he was political through and through (echoing the prophets), but that time after time he refused violence.

Ted Grimsrud

November 23, 2009 at 1:23 AM  

Whoa...didn't realize where you were coming from. I wouldn't take nearly that negative of a tack on O'Donovan, though I have some questions and concerns about his approach. In general, what he is seeking to do is to work within the mainstream tradition of Christian reflection on these issues, revising it where necessary, but understanding that it needs to be listened to and respected. And I appreciate that--if we're going to honor the Church and her history, we have to give some hearing to her past reflection on political questions. No doubt I'll have much more to say next term, when I take his class on Christian Political Thought.

Thanks for that. Just so you know, I also have read the Politics of Jesus, and I agree that he handles things much more clearly there. My questions were intended as discussion questions about the potential weaknesses within that text, not necessarily within Yoder's position as a whole. I still do have some doubts about the necessity of the state's function (the first question)--it does seem at times as if Yoder accepts that someone will need to keep the world's disorder in check, but that someone can never be a Christian. And I'm not sure that that sort of statement is ethically coherent.

November 23, 2009 at 9:32 PM  


certainly the tradition needs to be respected and listened to, but i fear the parts that OD listens are the parts which are most at odds with Yoder, and (while trying to take seriously providential guidance and care in the world) wind up mutating parts of the tradition into a-theological visions of government.

We can talk more about that if you like, but as to Yoder, keep reading the early stuff. It's certainly the best.

November 30, 2009 at 3:16 AM  

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