...are the ones that make the biggest difference



John Howard Yoder coined the term "Constantinianism" to describe the nature of the church that arose after Constantine's edict making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The church and the state became enmeshed with each other, each supporting the other's mission and actions. The state used its coercive power to enforce the state religion on the populace, just as it had previously under pagan rule, and added a specifically missionary component to its dealings with outside peoples and nations. This explicit marriage between the spiritual and political lasted even through the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli - all allied themselves with local authorities to propagate their version of the Reformation, even granting political leaders the right to appoint clergy. Yoder draws numerous avenues of critique from this fatal mixing of politics and religion but one of the primary points he makes is the improper understanding of human agency that this arrangement inevitably brings about. Christians are not responsible for making history turn out right. Only One person can accomplish that task; our task is to be faithful to Him. We cannot control the flow of history and any effort to do so is really an attempt to usurp God's control of his creation. Thus, quite apart from questions of violence, Christians attempting to achieve political control is always frought with peril because we will find ourselves in an ongoing temptation to (attempt to) yank the reins out of God's hands, often for very good, "responsible" reasons. Mix in the ultimate issue of causing the death of another human being that we are supposed to be loving and inviting into the Kingdom, and we can see that the tight rope of political power shrinks even more. Yoder thus stands for a principled rejection of efforts to take control and to instead put dynamic trust in a God who will act when he sees fit.

But it must be admitted that one thing I personally struggle with now is how to apply my commitment to nonviolence to my participation in our government as a US citizen. The average Christian throughout most of the church's history really has not had to think about how to direct the state to act; a monarchy precludes popular participation in the decision making process. At most, a Christian had to decide about their level of participation in those activities, ie, whether to serve in the military (though this really wasn't a question for many of less-than-noble birth or means) or whether to join a religious order. With the ascension of democracy in the West, especially a secular democracy, Christians have had to tease out a theology of the state and their participation therein. This is doubly true of Christians committed to nonviolence as many aspects of state power require reliance upon or participation in violent acts. How do we reconcile our citizenship in the US with our citizenship in the Kingdom? At what point must we draw a hard line? a soft line? These are vexing questions, especially when considered in light of Yoder's thesis described above.

One the one hand, there is the unavoidable call to live lives that witness to the reconciling love of Christ. This love is expressed and demonstrated mainly in interpersonal ways, through the building of direct relationships and in direct encounters. It is face to face and hip to hip. But when this call to witness is introduced into a democratic environment, we have on the other hand the insidious temptation to wield our power as citizens to force the state to act on our behalf. Needless to say, such activity by the state cannot help but be impersonal, devoid of personal relationships and encounters, except by those employed by the state on its behalf. Take the current situation in Gaza and Israel. There is the strong temptation to attempt to influence the Bush administration to take a line that (rightly) acts to counter the suffering of innocent Palestinians presently trapped in Gaza. Here again is that horribly attractive proposal to be "responsible." We have an obligation as witnesses to the Christ that reached out to the poor and downtrodden to reach out to the poor and downtrodden in Gaza, so why not get out government in on it? Or, taking another current example, there is a relatively strong movement aimed at getting the US out of Iraq and opposing any military escalation with Iran. It varies from person to person, but a common thread coming from pacifist Christian camps is that since violence is wrong for the church, then it is our duty to act to prevent the US from acting violently.

At this point, it strikes me as glaringly obvious that these pacifists have themselves fallen for the Constantinian trap. They are attempting to wield state power on behalf of the Kingdom. Even granting its nonviolent impulses, how is this truly any different from the problems Yoder addresses? The church is conflating itself with the state, trying to use a power other than Christ to influence the world in favor of Christ or on His behalf. Yes, it aims to use peaceful means to bring about these "responsible" acts, but it is not the means that really matter. We once again return to the issue of trying to control history, to make things turn out right.

And this is where I struggle. I believe, with Yoder, that we are not called to a retreating quietism. We are called precisely out of separatist movements into direct engagement with the world around us. But what are the limits of that engagement? Can we engage in local politics? state politics? Should we attempt to serve on school boards or city councils? Should we hold elected office? Should we attempt to influence the national course through protest & demonstration? Or through letter writing & phone calls to our representative? Or not at all? Where and when can we act through the state and when can we not?

Here are some others who are working through similar issues:
Our Christian Discipleship as Political Responsibility
Toward a Cultus Publicus
The King Reigns From the Tree


Thom Stark said...

Hey, thanks for the link and for your thoughtful post. These are important questions and you've done a good job of framing them. I'd be careful, however, about making too clean a distinction between the "interpersonal" and the "political." Have you read Yoder's Body Politics or his Christian Witness to the State? Those are both indispensable for understanding Yoder's theology of church and state.

Grace and peace.

Thom Stark said...

Hello again, Nathan. Thanks for your probing questions on the torture post. I've attempted to give a response, but I know it's not going to be sufficient. I'll probably need some more help from you!

Grace and peace.