Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.6

This is my final post for the Bible and Politics class. Thanks for reading and commenting; I hope we've all learned something and can continue to move to a more faithful political engagement. Thanks!

Anabaptist(ic) Theologians: Yoder and Hauerwas

John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite, was a theology professor at Notre Dame until his death in 1997. More than any other figure, Yoder brought Anabaptist perspectives on theology, ethics and politics, to the attention of the larger church.

In his groundbreaking book, The Politics of Jesus, Yoder painted a convincing picture of Jesus as a nonviolent radical. Challenging conventional notions of 'politics' as the exclusive domain of the state, Yoder articulated a church-centered politics that is based on the imitation of Jesus' nonviolent way. Because Jesus' way reveals the ultimate goal of history, putting most of our political efforts into following Jesus is quite 'realistic,' contrary to what many 'Christian realists' insist. Likewise, as a sociological institution rooted in the world, the church's politics are public, a light for all the world to see.

As the previous sentence indicates, the church's involvement with politics outside of itself is in the form of witness; the life of the church is to be a sign to the world of what God is doing. In this sense, the Bible as the central document of the church has a direct function politically, in that it shapes the church's witness.

Yoder also examined the language with which the church speaks to society. Although he remained firm that the only thing the church ever says is 'Jesus is Messiah and Lord,' he felt that--since the church is a thoroughly historical, sociological entity--it can do nothing but say those words by using the various languages and concepts of the day. In speaking to the state, this means proposing policies in realistic terms readily understood by the state.

The biblical vision of society, therefore, is to strictly guide the church's practice, but can be communicated to the state in pragmatic terms. For example, though the Bible teaches Christians to be strict pacifists, it is highly unlikely the state would ever adopt such a position; thus Christians are to critique and restrain specific wars as much as possible, not call the state to an ideal which it will easily ignore.

Hauerwas, a Methodist, was a colleague of Yoder's at Notre Dame before moving to Duke, where he still teaches. Named 'America's best theologian' by Time in 2001, Hauerwas espouses a highly philosophical version of Yoder's theology--with significant differences.

Whereas Yoder maintained the possibility of a faithful church speaking effectively to the state in pragmatic terms, Hauerwas is skeptical of the possibility of the church speaking in any other terms than its own. For Hauerwas, any attempt to change the terminology waters down the content to a point that compromises the church's witness. (It should be noted that Hauerwas claims continuity with Yoder on this subject.)

As a virtue ethicist and follow of Yoder, Hauerwas devotes the vast majority of his efforts to articulating the church practices that form Christians into a different kind of people--a political, public community whose inner life witnesses to the world. The church should eschew political terminology that is easily confused with the world's (like 'justice' and 'rights'), and speak only its 'thick' language of Christian discipleship.
As indicated by Hauerwas's claim of continuity with Yoder on this subject the difference between the two is probably one of degree. As Anabaptist-minded theologians, both work hard to base their vision of social ethics in the church community first, and in the rest of the world (a distant) second. Both are convinced of the necessity of the church to speak the one message it has been given, but Yoder seems more optimistic about the ability to put this message into practical terms that the state can understand and use in its policies.

In terms of this class, these theologians see the Bible's primary political function as shaping the church into a community whose politics exhibits God's reign. When speaking to the state, Yoder is more willing to couch biblical language in other terms, while Hauerwas believes those are the only terms with which we can speak.

1) Is the church a primary location for political action? Is it subordinate to the state's politics?

2) How has the Bible functioned to shape the politics of your church community?

3) What do you think about Christians' ability to speak to the state in 'pragmatic' terms? Do Christians only have Christian language, or do we speak Christian messages in other languages?

Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964).

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2d edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

1 comment:

seth said...

I'm sorry i didn't comment more jaime, this has been an excellent series and i learned some things that i didnt know before, and i finally heard some things i hadn't had confirmed before as well. thanks for taking the time to pass on the wealth of knowledge.