June 30, 2004
Be not afraid

As promised, I ordered John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus from the library, and will start reading (and blogging) it shortly. Although it came up most recently regarding the covenant and the Jews, I've been interested in this book for a long time because of its explication of Christian pacifism. It was that subject, in fact, that started me reading Telford's blog two years ago, and led me to where I am now.

I was thinking about this just last night when my group was studying John 11. This is where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. At the end, the Pharisees hear about it and are terrified that this means the guy will attract more followers, incite a rebellion and provoke the Romans to destroy the temple and crush the Jewish nation. The pastor wondered how the Jewish authorities could think this way. Jesus raised a guy from the dead! How could they not realize he was from God?

I answered that this was actually pretty easy for me to understand because I see similar thinking in Christian anti-pacifist arguments, such as in the second update to this post and in the comments to this post. Basically it goes, "OK, God said that -- but dammit, don't you see someone is trying to KILL you??" People look at a situation and make a natural calculation of survival, and when they face something frightening enough, cannot believe that God really means it. I can imagine the Jewish authorities of the day making the same assessment: "OK, this guy raised somebody from the dead, that's impressive ... but there's the frickin' Roman army over there!"

I also like the way Caiaphas goes on to make a classic utilitarian argument: "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." As the author of John points out, he's unwittingly making a prophecy, but the manner in which one man will die for the people is quite different from what he thinks.

Why does this subject resonate with me so much? Not for strictly political reasons, since I am not much of a political animal. (And Telford, in fact, is a church pacifist but not a state pacifist, though I am not entirely convinced of the tenebility of that position.) I think it is because I have always been so naturally fearful, and so aware of the threats out there. Unlike many anti-pacifists, I don't find empowerment in fighting back. Because then I am limited by my own strength, and my capacity for violence, and I know many others are greater than me in those respects. I don't want to follow a God who says, "OK sweetie, go take good care of yourself!"

I think this may be especially true because I'm female. Women are, by design, physically weaker and more vulnerable than men. So the model of a woman fending for herself throughout history hasn't really been Xena the Warrior Princess, but the innumerable anonymous wives of kings and warriors who subjugate themselves in return for security. I don't see how women can truly be free unless all people are freed from the brute order of physical strength.

Anyway, I don't think I'll blog every single chapter of the Yoder book as I have some other readings, but I'm sure I'll post some things that will strike me as I go along.

Posted by Camassia at June 30, 2004 10:02 AM | TrackBack

You wrote:
I don't see how women can truly be free unless all people are freed from the brute order of physical strength.

I had never thought of looking at pacificsm from the POV of individuals more vulnerable to brute force, as you nicely put it in regards to women.

This would very much be in keeping with Jesus' teachings and interactions with the poor, the vulnerable, etc. or the teachings of the Hebrew prophets (who often used the poor treatment of the most vulnerable as a proof that Israel was not truely worshiping and following God). Thus, being a "religious" pacifist (or "church" pacifist, as you put it) also includes the larger societal issues that are typically covered by interventions made by the state.

I'm not sure if I'm totally making sense here. But, to put it in a different way, your post has caused me to reconsider this notion that even if our pacifism is primarily due to our faith (versus a more "state" oriented pacifism), then perhaps the two are not so dissimiliar given how you've framed the question. How can one be only a "church" pacifist given the impact that war has on the most vulnerable and given the teaching/examples of the prophets and of Christ regarding how the treatment of the most vulnerable is a reflection of true (or untrue, as the case may be) faith.


Posted by: Joe G. on June 30, 2004 12:30 PM

That's a good question, and it's one of the reasons I'm not totally decided on the question of church vs. state pacifism. I think that state force, when used properly, can be deployed to protect the most vulnerable, as in fending off a foreign invasion or protecting citizens from criminals (who tend to prey on the weakest). I think that is the rationale behind just-war theory.

I understand that point of view, seeing as we are definitely not in that ideal world where brute force doesn't matter. When I object to women being under the protection and power of men, I'm not objecting to the general theory of people looking after each other, certainly. Dismissing that as oppressive leads to its own kind of heartless individualism.

If you do need a protector, however, there's a difference between a protector in the worldly sense and a protector in the Christian sense. For millennia women (and their parents) have calculated their rational self-interest by trying to land the richest and most powerful husbands they can get, which is why kings end up with harems. But that, of course, only solidifies the rule of those who are best at violence, which women in general will always be on the wrong side of. A Christian woman would presumably look for a husband who is the most faithful to God, because that faithfulness will help bring God's protection on them both. I suppose you could extrapolate that to the citizen and the state, though I'm having a harder time imagining how that would work.

Posted by: Camassia on June 30, 2004 01:10 PM

Yoder, quite simply, made me join the Mennonite Church. I read the Politics of Jesus in September 2001, in the weeks after the attacks; it continues to be the most treasured work of theology I own.

Posted by: Hugo on June 30, 2004 06:16 PM

I can understand Hugo's being driven to the Mennonite Church by Yoder's writings. I hope, however, that more "mainline Protestants" will read and be captured by Yoder's analysis and then lobby for that point of view within their own traditions. The Politics of Jesus is an insightful and useful book for carrying on conversations within our church gatherings (e.g., in adult fora or congregational meetintgs) -- not to mention keeping our preachers honest. Yoder's analysis of pacifism or non-violence -- in books and theological and even legal journals -- is nuanced and sometimes very brash. He was a brilliant and committed Christian.

Yoder is a hero of mine, and I look forward to your thoughts!

Dwight P.

Posted by: Dwight on July 2, 2004 06:13 AM
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