Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Pacifist Offense, Redux

Following commentary on select passages from Paul, with a keen investment in Colossians, John Howard Yoder has this to say:
Let us avoid with great care the two possible misunderstandings of this critical statement about social pressure to which the Apostle Paul has led us. What he says is not, as some conservative religious groups would say, that the gospel deals only with personal ethics and not with social structures. Nor does he say that the only way to change structures is to change the heart of an individual man, preferably the man in power, and then see that he exercises his control of society with more humility and discernment or according to better standards. What needs to be seen is rather that the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community. J.H.Y., (1972), The Politics of Jesus, p. 157.
Allow me to unveil my former allegiance to this second perspective. O, how many well-meaning, pure-spirited declarations took this perceived wisdom to heart! That if we only change the heart of every individual, then we may change the world around us. That if we only reach the leader of X, then we will see the culture transform.

What is true in both statements is no doubt that, with every heart finally changed for the good, a special number of theological issues would arise. What happens to a concept of 'the world'? How would we read, say, 1 John? Colossians? Revelation? Indeed the whole New Testament? My purpose is not to be cutesy, but to trace where I think the line is drawn between the second 'misunderstanding' and Yoder's account. The divergence lies in what it means to be the Church. Or put this way: what it means to be wholly claimed by the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Prior to addressing how Christians 'should' read the Old Testament - which is entirely relevant to discussion of pacifism/just war traditions, and not to be ducked - it seems to me necessary first to treat the political or public witness of the Church. Yoder's brief statement is as good as any for orientating us toward conceiving of Church as an alternative political community, as a polis. She is a body of believers called out of the world and into Kingdom existence; her ethic is that of Jesus Christ, her obedience conformed to the reality of suffering, her humility shaped by the radical self-giving which characterised her Lord and Saviour, the very Son of God.

In this way, the wimpy word 'pacifism' is applied simply to name that contingent aspect of being the Church who belongs to Jesus Christ. The Gospel message is a political message precisely through its formation of a radically non-violent, Christocentric community that refuses to take up the (very natural) drive to control history through violence. It is the 'cost of discipleship' in its most insufferable form. Yet through this discipleship (to borrow from S. Hauerwas), the world learns that it is the world, because the Church enacts what it means to be church.

But let us suppose the two misunderstandings Yoder presents us with do not sum up all the different ways to conceive of a Christian social ethic. Indeed, there appears to be many ways for the Church to understand her mission, which will avoid the pitfalls of the first two yet not sell out to the third. What are these options? And how might they nuance the debate?

Whatever the options, the main thrust is to subject the prevailing or at least popular 'ethic of evangelicalism' to some critical scrutiny. It is not enough to settle for the 'winning of souls' at the expense of performing true discipleship. The Gospel is about more than psychological transformation. It confronts far more forces and structures of evil, far more enemies, than the personal guilt which is nevertheless constitutive of them.

The Gospel is a public witness. In what way? With what means? This draws us into difficult questions. The best place to be.


Kaitiaki said...

Then there is the persistent idea of the Kingdom of God and what it means in the light of:
first - the Great Commission - make disciples of all nations,
and the saying: "he must reign until all his enemies are put under his feet."
I have to ask ... in all seriousness (since we are concerned about orthopraxis) what exactly do we expect to see happening as these two tasks come to fruition?
And what are legitimate steps for those countries, which already owe their allegiance (at least formally) to Christ, to take to defend their citizens against those who might wish to force us into idolatry?

David A. Carlson said...

Ian - Great series - I look forward to more.

Hone - What?

Ian Clausen said...


If I follow your first question, it seems to me the crucial interpretive burden concerning these two verses is eschatological. In this sense, Yoder's 'version' of the Gospel message is primarily working on the basis of a 'less-realised' eschatology. The purity of Christian witness lies in its radical identification with the crucified Messiah. This means the Church must take up the cross of Christ in a world that continues to regard it as foolishness, that is, a world which perpetually and inescapably misunderstands it.

So I suppose, with respect to how these verses will 'come to fruition', Yoder might simply say he doesn't know. But the fact that he does not know (and he would say, that nobody really knows) betrays just to what extent the Christian community must remain wakeful to the presence of the enemies around them. Whenever that time is when God's enemies finally lay their weapons down, it is not a time that can be deduced from Scripture or statistics or whatever. The Church must therefore centre its witness in the radical renunciation of violence, for in doing so it enters into the wisdom of God, which is Christ; and so surrenders the ways of the world.

Take that for what it is, now, as a brief comment rather than a serious attempt. As for your second question, you'll have to come back to me on it. I'm not sure I understand.