Sabbatical Report #18: More Essay Reports

Yoderian Essays Part 3

Here are my summaries of two more of the essays in John Howard Yoder’s book The Royal Priesthood, along with a personal reflection on one issue at the end.

‘Let the Church be the Church’.

In this essay Yoder continues to emphasise his familiar themes of the difference between the church and the world, and the distinctive calling of the church. The basic distinction in society is between those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and those who do not. For those who do, their confession commits them to a relative independence of other loyalties.

Some Anglican theology has seen part of the significance of the incarnation in the idea that God’s coming among us as a human being has sanctified every aspect of our ordinary human life. But in fact God did not come among us to sanctify our society and our vocations as they are, but rather to show what we must do and what we must leave behind. God’s pattern in incarnation was that of Abraham, the nomad who left behind his home civilization, not of Constantine, who sought God’s blessing on his society as it was.

The church in the past has often been represented by the ‘chaplain’ who is called on to bless an existing power structure. Some chaplains, strong people who serve well-intentioned ‘princes’ or ‘generals’, can use the power of their position to impose on all of society the vision of morality prescribed by religion; this is the ‘puritan’ pattern of chaplaincy, and tends to produce the two types of people seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Other chaplains limit themselves to calling down sacramentally the blessing of God on society, sanctifying anything that society (or its prince) needs to do to keep society (or rather the prince’s place in it) afloat. This is the ‘court priest’ pattern of chaplaincy.

Both these patterns of chaplaincy are looking for a course of human behaviour that is possible for all women and men. But Christian ethics calls for behaviour that is impossible except by the miracles of the Holy Spirit! It also recognizes the minority status of the church, and rejoices in it because it helps us to renounce the idea that we must provide an ethic that is workable for people who have no faith in Jesus Christ.

The Christian community is the only community whose social hope is that we need not rule because Jesus Christ is Lord. And because it is from the cross that he reigns, we can be set free from the idea that our success is the thing that will bring about the triumph of God in human history. It is this sort of ‘disestablishment’ – ‘not of buildings and bishoprics but of the soul of the church’ – that we need more than anything.

‘Christ, the Light of the World’

This essay (like the previous one) was originally presented as an address to the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship in 1964 and deals more directly with the implications of discipleship for Christian pacifism; it takes its title from a recent theme slogan of a meeting of the World Council of Churches, and as its starting point a book by one of the WCC leaders, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Kingship of Christ. This title, Yoder says, is a resounding truth claim within Christendom.

In much of the Christian world there is an assumption that there is another self-evident body of truth, given to all humanity, which gives us reasonable guidance different from that which we might learn from Jesus. This body of reasonable truth is often appealed to by defenders of the just war tradition, and its effect is to marginalize Jesus – not just his words, but the significance of his life.

Jesus must be seen not just as a teacher or as an actor on the social scene but in the unity of his person and his teaching. ‘His life is a life according to the Sermon on the Mount; the cross is the meaning of his moral teaching’. The concept of incarnation is not discussed in an abstract metaphysical way in the New Testament; rather, it concerns Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of the Father and thus his revelation of the nature of the Father. Jesus takes the side of the poor; Jesus takes a whip of cords and a cross, instead of a crown and a sword. The Gospel is that this is what God does for his enemies, and this is a revealed moral imperative for those who would belong to and obey God. There is also a sober realism about it – Jesus does not claim that the end result will always be happy. It is possible to live this way, if you are also prepared to die this way (‘take up your cross…’).

I quote one paragraph in full:

‘In the personal case of Jesus it is made clear that he rejects not only unjust violence but also the use of violence in the most righteous cause. It is no longer possible to misinterpret his teaching as simply a call to vigilance or to sensitivity in excluding the improper use of violence; what Jesus was really tempted by was the proper use of violence. It was concerning the use of the sword in legitimate defense that Jesus said that they who take it will die by it’.

Increasingly, sober criticism of pacifism accepts the idea of a nonresistant Jesus, but then relativises him by insisting that we must appeal to some other ethical standard in our consideration of war – some ‘other light’. One such light is the doctrine of the ‘just war’, which deserves respect because it does admit that ethical judgements can be pronounced against the use of certain kinds of violence in wartime – in practice, in wartime, most Christians will not grant this (I am reminded of the outrage that greeted Bishop George Bell when he criticized the carpet bombing of German cities in World War Two on the grounds of the just war theory!). Other ‘lights’ include appeal to the ‘orders of creation’ (‘God created a world in which there is authority, whose bearers justify their violence by various moral claims; therefore we must take it on God’s authority that God wants us to operate that way’), or to immediate revelations from the Holy Spirit (from Montanus in the second century to the ‘situation ethics’ of the 1960s), or to an ethic of love whose content is different from that taught us by Jesus. All of these appeals call us to place our faith in some other channel of ethical insight than Jesus, and all find in this alternative channel another substance of ethical instruction.

What we are dealing with here is nothing less than an alternative revelation claim – not just filling in the gaps, but actually contradicting what Jesus taught. On the one hand, we have the teaching of Jesus that ‘In the world kings lord it over their subjects, and those in authority are called their nation’s benefactors. Not so with you’ (Luke 22:25-26); on the other hand, we have those who believe it is our calling to use power and violence to make history ‘turn out right’ (as we define ‘right’ from the place we are standing at present). This is to deny that Jesus is in fact the light of the world, and to appeal to some other source of light in his place.

As I continue to read and ponder Yoder’s thoughts I find much to agree with, much to challenge me, and a couple of things I find troubling. One of the latter is what seems to be his belief that Christians may not take part in the government of their countries. To him, this flows naturally from Jesus’ words (which he quotes above) about not lording it over others, and also Jesus’ question, ‘Who made me a ruler and judge over you?’ “As he is, so are we in the world” is then taken to mean that because Jesus refused the roles of ruler and judge, so should we.
I see the strength of Yoder’s argument. The church has a distinct function in the world, to witness to the gospel by its words and actions and its life together, and as such the state role can be a distraction from this. Many Christians have indeed allowed it to be a distraction, and have fallen into the mistaken assumption (which he strongly and rightly refutes) that right at the centre of God’s plan of salvation for the world is found, not the church of Jesus Christ, but the civilian government of so-called ‘Christian’ countries. Moreover, in biblical times and in the era of the early Anabaptists, taking part in civil government involved people inescapably in two functions forbidden to followers of Jesus: the use of the sword, and the taking and making of oaths. Swearing allegiance to an earthly ruler (still required of members of parliament in Canada) would also be seen as a contradiction to one’s ultimate allegiance to Christ alone.
However, there’s another side to the argument. Jesus commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves; in modern democracies, where everyone has a voice, can it not be part of our obedience to that command to persuade the people’s government to act in just and loving ways toward our neighbours near and far? Was William Wilberforce wrong, for instance, to use his position as a Christian politician to work for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire? Because it seems to me that if Yoder’s logic is followed to its conclusion, Wilberforce should have resigned from Parliament and spent his energies persuading his Christian brothers and sisters to free their slaves – no doubt a commendable thing to do, but not quite the victory for freedom that was March 25th 1807.
So I find I disagree with Yoder here. I find that modern democracy puts another tool in the hand of the Christian – not coercion or force, but persuasion. Persuasion was what Wilberforce and his colleagues used to such good effect. And Wilberforce made it quite clear by the way he lived his life that his first loyalty was to Jesus Christ and not to his prime minister or even the British crown.

However, I think that modern Christian politicians will always find themselves in positions of conflict because of the state’s power to compel and, in some situations, to kill. In these situations I think the force of Yoder’s argument still stands. Compulsion and violence is contradictory to the teaching and example of Jesus. And we must also recognise that some of the most important moments of history, seen in the light of eternity, do not take place in government chambers or battlefields but in small houses and situations no one has ever heard of. As my musical friend Martin Kerr sang to a couple of his friends on their wedding day, ‘Bono can’t change the world/any more than you two can’. Amen.

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