August 05, 2004
Fight the powers that be

My, it's been a long time since I've blogged about The Politics of Jesus, hasn't it? Kynn's recent post pondering a progressive Christian study group made me think of it, though I'm not sure I should recommend it until I've actually finished the thing. As I said in my last entry on it, it was starting to bog down, so I put it aside and procrastinated picking it up again. But in the current chapter, "Christ and Power," things really liven up.

Part of the reason it's more interesting to me is that rather than refuting arguments from theologies I'm only vaguely familiar with and am not particularly tempted to believe, here Yoder addresses a problem I've raised before myself. Jesus, in his various sayings, seems mostly to be talking to a disenfranchised group about their personal behavior. What, if anything, does he say about the actual governing structures of society?

Jesus himself doesn't say a lot, so here Yoder relies heavily on Paul and the basic Jewish theology of creation. God created the world with a system, an order. The structures of society are part of that order, and are therefore basically good. But like everything else in the fallen world, authorities come short of what they should be. Power goes to their heads and they start thinking they're the gods.

Here Yoder does the best job that I've yet read of harmonizing Romans 13 with the rest of the New Testament, by drawing a parallel between the way Paul views authority and the way he views the Jewish Law. Paul sees how Jesus abolished the Law and united Jews and Gentiles, but he also sees the Law as an indispensable part of the process of sanctification, sort of the way you have to learn to walk before you can run. By the same token, even tyrannous authorities are still preferable to chaos, and being subject to authority is more mature than trying to be your own king. But as with the Law, that ultimately falls short of the greater authority of Christ.

Such an ordering of virtue may grate against modern sensibilities. We Americans, in particular, have learned a historical narrative of progressive freedom from authority. Paul, of course, was talking to a different historical moment: societies without the rule of law were still fairly common, and such a society wasn't too far in the Jewish past. If you think of, say, Somalia at the height of its anarchy 10 years ago, you'll get an idea of what Paul was contrasting lawful authority against.

But Yoder is definitely not an apologist for tyrants here. In his life, death, and resurrection, he says Jesus unmasked the true nature of the ruling authorities.

Man's subordination to these Powers is what makes him human, for if they did not exist there would be no history nor society nor humanity. If then God is going to save man in his humanity, the Powers cannot simply be destroyed or set aside or ignored. Their sovereignty must be broken. This is what Jesus did, concretely and historically, by living among men a genuinely free and human existence. This life brought him, as any genuinely human existence will bring any man, to the cross. In his death the Powers -- in this case the most worthy, weighty representatives of Jewish religion and Roman politics -- acted in collusion. Like all men, he too was subject (but in this case quite willingly) to these powers. He accepted his own status of submission. But morally he broke their rules by refusing to support them in their self-glorification; and that is why they killed him. ... He did not fear even death. Therefore his cross is a victory, is the confirmation that he was free from the rebellious pretensions of the creaturely condition.

Later, Yoder quotes from Hendrik Berkhof, on how Colossians states that Jesus "made an example of" the Powers:
It is precisely in the Crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived, nor could it have been perceived, that their power was based on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him ... Now they are unmasked as false gods by their encounter with the Very God; they are made a public spectacle.

When I read this, it reminds me again of how much has changed in 2,000 years. Today, when "Question Authority" is mass-produced on a bumper sticker, and everybody wants to stand with the Little Guy against the Powers, the problem isn't so much that no one is questioning the Powers so much as that no one can agree on who they are. Everyone thinks they're an outgroup these days. The poor feel oppressed by the rich and the rich feel oppressed by the government, liberals complain that conservatives control business and conservatives complain liberals control the media and education, libertines complain of being censored while puritans feel they're losing the culture war, and so on and so forth. The temptation isn't so much to worship the Powers as it is convincing yourself that whatever you're already doing is standing with Jesus against the Powers.

But to Yoder it's pretty straightforward: all powers other than God are the Powers. But, as the previous analysis suggests, he does not follow the Jehovah's Witnesses and various cults who think all governments were instituted by Satan, and therefore one should withdraw to keep oneself pure. Nor does he believe that Christians should try to conform the Powers to the image of God. Rather, they should show the world how people live when they are not under the control of the Powers. Here's Berkhof again:

All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church herself is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers. We can only preach the manifold wisdom of God to Mammon if our life displays that we are joyfully freed from his clutches.

...The believer strives ultimately not against tangible men and objects ("flesh and blood") but against the Powers they obey. ... Though surely the believer must assure defense against them, he can do this only by standing, simply, by his faith. He is not called to do more than he can do by simply believing. His duty is not to bring the Powers to their knees. This is Jesus Christ's own task. ... Our weapon is to stay close to Him and thus remain out of reach of the drawing power of the Powers.

In an age when everyone fancies himself a rebel, perhaps the most crucial distinction to make is between this and other types of insurrection. Yoder does not advocate fighting the powers directly, or plotting their overthrow, or trying to influence or control political offices. To do so would, in fact, be recognizing their power by trying to remove it. Instead, employing Christus Victor language (though he doesn't use the term), he wants Christians to act as people who are already free, and whose King already rules.

As is always the case for me, it's an enormously appealing idea and enormously difficult to put into practice. And I'm still wondering how this plays in a society where the church itself becomes a power. After all, the New Testament church that Yoder is viewing as a model became the Roman Catholic church that his Anabaptist movement formed in opposition to. But I haven't even finished the chapter yet, so I'll see what develops.

Posted by Camassia at August 05, 2004 05:19 PM | TrackBack

One quick thing, with the caveat that I'd have to look at Yoder again to be sure what I'm talking about. In your fourth paragraph, you note that Jesus "abolished the Law" and united Jews and Gentiles, then go on to repeat the standard idea of the Law as training wheels of sorts. That is to fall back on a common habit of thought that, I think, Yoder is trying to break. It suggests that the Law points to an end beyond itself, such as salvation, which is theoretically, but not practically, attainable by keeping the Law.

Yoder pushes us to see that being a Jew is a matter of Jewish practice -- keeping the Law -- that, in the end, has little to do with belief, and almost nothing to do with salvation. It is a gift of God and an good in itself. Christ does not abolish the Law; rather, Christ opens us table fellowship between those who keep the Law (Jews) and those who do not (Gentiles). And -- and this is the beautiful part -- they come to the table AS JEWS AND GENTILES. The Law, which previously served to divide, without being abolished (!), no longer does so. Jewish practice is transformed.

This is why, in all the wrangling over Law, Paul never tells Jews to give it up! He does tell Gentiles who are becoming Christian that they need not keep the Law because they are to come to the table as Gentiles, not as converted Jews.

I think. I know that's not really what your post was about, but I'm a little touchy on the Law....

Posted by: Mark on August 6, 2004 06:59 AM

"Their sovereignty must be broken."

I'll buy that. I've read the first half of enough essays to know there's a genuine problem with political sovereignty as commonly understood.

At the same time, breaking a Power's sovereignty is different from standing against that Power. It is not subordination to a Power that is the problem -- as Yoder writes, that's what makes history, society, and humanity possible. It's subordination to a Power that regards itself as sovereign.

If man is by nature a political animal, then the conversion of man to Christ entails the conversion of his politics. Human authority is not abolished, but baptized.

Posted by: Tom on August 6, 2004 07:23 AM

Yoder really doesn't spell out a theory of the Law in this chapter, so I probably am reading into it a theory that I've heard elsewhere that isn't Yoder's. (This is one problem with blogging a book as you go along.) Thanks for the clarification.

Posted by: Camassia on August 6, 2004 08:00 AM

Here's part of the relevant section:

Yet even in this fallen and rebellious state the working of the Powers is not something simply limitlessly evil. The Powers, despite their fallenness, continue to exercise an ordering function. Even tyranny (which according to Rom. 13:1 is to be counted among the powers) is still better than chaos and we should be subject to it. The law (which according to Gal. 4:5 prevents us from attaining filial maturity) is nevertheless righteous and good and we should obey it.

I think it was the "filial maturity" line that threw me into that line of thinking. But he doesn't amplify the point in this chapter, so the amplification was my own.

Posted by: Camassia on August 6, 2004 10:54 AM
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