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).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.5

This is the final week for our class, and the final installment in the lesson on theological approaches to the use of the Bible in politics. This post talks about recent moves in Anabaptist theology (Anabaptist denominations include Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, etc.). The final post will look at a few Anabaptist theologians' treatment of our issue.


In the last 50 years or so, Anabaptist theologians have made their church’s distinct approach to religion and politics known to the rest of the church. John Howard Yoder and Gordon Kaufmann are perhaps the best known recent Anabaptists, and their students Stanley Hauerwas, Duane Friesen, and Glen Stassen have popularized their treatments of the issue beyond the confines of Anabaptism.

Central to the Anabaptist approach is attention to the church as a primary location for discipleship. In regards to our question, an Anabaptist asks first, ‘How can the politics of the Bible be lived out in the community of the church’ well before asking, ‘How can the Bible be used in political situations outside the church.’ This church-first stance means an Anabaptist response to racism, ecological disaster, or poverty will rely heavily on the church’s own use of the Bible in those situations.

Viewing the church in such a way implies some sort of separation between the church as a political unit, and other political units (such as the U.S. government). This separation is precisely what Anabaptists want, and, indeed Anabaptists were among the first to propose a doctrine of the separation between church and state. Part of the reason for such a separation is Anabaptism’s historic stance as a peace church. Because Anabaptists (usually) reject violence, they (usually) reject some degree of participation in any state that uses violence. (Various Anabaptists define ‘participation’ differently, but for most this means not running for office.)

When it does come time to interact with political entities outside of the church, many Anabaptists are pessimistic about using language that is not deeply rooted in Christian tradition. This pessimism comes about from a deep conviction that, through baptism, a Christian’s identity is first and foremost derived from the church. In other words, the primary language of Christians is explicitly Christian, and to attempt a translation would invariably lose much of the meaning that makes Christianity’s politics work. However, because of the priority of the church and it separation from the state, Anabaptists do not go out of their way to tell the state what to do—in biblical or any other terms—and mostly focus on the church’s responsibility to live out a different kind of politics.


1) How do you feel about Anabaptism's prioritization of the church? Is the church political? Can political change happen within the church?

2) What do you think about the claim that Christians' primary identity is as Christians? Does this affect how you view your ability to use non-biblical language in politics? Can Christian (and biblical) language be translated for use in politics?