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.