November 25, 2004
The revolution at home

Up till now The Politics of Jesus has dealt with politics in their usual meaning of government and the public sphere. Chapter 9, "Revolutionary Subordination," deals with the politics of the intimate sphere. Yoder takes on the Haustafeln, or "house rules," found in such passages as Ephesians 5 and 6, Colossians 3 and 4, and 1 Peter 2 and 3.

These passages have generally been taken as a reification of the existing social order. They advise wives to be subject to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters. They have no parallel in the Gospels. So many people have taken them to be drawn from some non-Christian source, since Jesus didn't have anything to say about the subject.

Yoder disagrees. The fact that the form and content of the Haustafeln are so similar in these different epistles argues that they go back to the very beginning of the church, probably from Jesus himself, and weren't added on ad hoc. More to the point, he doesn't think they really resemble other conservative philosophies of the day. He spends the longest time refuting the idea that they came from Stoic philosophy, since he admits this somewhat resembles the Haustafeln in advising submission to socially ordained roles.

Stoic philosophy, like most Greek philosophy, was by and for the leisure class of Greek society, namely property-owning men. It doesn't directly address any other groups. The Haustafeln, on the other hand, address people in relational pairs, starting with the socially subordinate party. So they first tell wives how to relate to husbands, then husbands to wives, slaves to masters and then masters to slaves, etc. The deeper meaning of this is that the Apostles proceeded from the premise that the subordinate parties are free moral agents who learn right behavior in the same way as their superiors. At the time, Yoder says, underlings were supposed to accept their fate because they had little choice, not because of moral teaching.

But, apparently, first-century Christians thought they did have a choice. Yoder explains:

Why did this need to be said? Why was there any point, in that ancient time, in directing an imperative to children and women to subordinate themselves? Was this not taken for granted? Was there any other choice in society? Here we find the second revolutionary axiom underlying our texts. ... For the apostles to encourage slaves and women to be subordinate, there must have been some specific reason for them to have been tempted otherwise. What could that have been? There must have been something in their experience of becoming Christians, or in their education as new members of the Christian community, or in their experience in the life of that group, which had given these subjects a vision or a breath of a new kind of dignity and responsibility. This must already have occurred to them if they were tempted to rise above their station.

So did the apostles betray this vision by telling them to keep their places? Yoder thinks they did not. Rather, he thinks they advised according to the example of Jesus' voluntary subjection that he described in the last chapter. In the freedom of Christ, knowing one's own worth, a person doesn't have to defend her own freedom and worth to other people. And this subordination itself is a form of witness, as Jesus' was.

At the same time, the Haustafeln direct instructions to the superordinate parties that would have been radical at the time: husbands are told to love their wives with the self-sacrifical love of Christ for the Church, parents are told not to provoke their children, masters are told to treat their slaves with the knowledge that they themselves have a master in heaven. And yet, Yoder notes, there are no instructions directed at political leaders. This may have been because there were no kings in the church at this point, but it also may have been because Jesus "had instructed his disciples specifically to reject governmental domination over others as unworthy of the disciple's calling of servanthood."

It's an appealing vision, but as I read it my mind was still going, "But ... but ..." For one thing, by looking narrowly at Stoicism Yoder doesn't seem to give enough credit to the question of where else women, slaves, etc. might have gotten their "ideas." In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels argued that there was a thread of women's liberation of a sort in the Roman Empire, taken up by the Gnostics and other groups that the orthodox Church rejected. I also noticed that one reviewer at TPOJ's Amazon page takes issue with the idea that no one before then treated slaves as moral agents.

I don't know the source material for the latter claim, so I can't comment on that. But I suppose a crucial difference between Yoder and Pagels is that she's looking at society about 100 years later. Yoder admits in an epilogue to the chapter that as early as the second century some Christians were already using the Haustafeln to argue that the existing social order was divinely ordained.

A greater problem for me is that, while it's true that the epistles call on the example of Jesus when speaking to subordinate parties, that's not the only reasoning they use. 1 Timothy 2:12-15 and 1 Corinthians 11:7-10 argue for female subordination calling on an order going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The latter passage, in particular, seems to be using exactly the sort of "natural law" reasoning that Yoder claims Paul doesn't use. Yoder (rather like my Beta instructor) does make it clear that Christians have to live in both kingdoms at once, so I suppose he might say these are examples of "the old world passing away." But it's annoying that he doesn't address those passages at all.

Still, I have to say that even with those problems Yoder makes a pretty strong case. You can sense the giddy feeling of liberation in the church of the New Testament, with its slogans such as "All things are lawful to me," and there's no question that the Bible throughout history has been giving people like slaves "ideas" even as overlords have tried to use it to justify their authority. And as I said here, I can understand why Paul and the other apostles wouldn't have wanted people to get too carried away with this.

Yoder is also making a deeper theological point that is very interesting. As the title "Revolutionary Subordination" implies, he believes that Christians live God's new order by being subject, not by asserting their rights (or the rights of those beneath them) and trying to manipulate the levers of society to accommodate them. In the epistle to Philemon, for instance, a runaway slave converts to Christianity and decides to voluntarily return to his master. Paul advises Philemon to receive him "no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord." Yoder believes this amounts to a command to set the slave free, but it's "a kind of noncoercive instruction befitting a Christian brother." Yoder adds:

American experience since 1865 has demonstrated that summary release from chattel slavery is not necessarily an improvement in the status of the slave if not accompanied with a new and honorable relationship to the former master and the relevant social structure. The this way of dealing with Onesimus ... documents not the conservatism but the innovative character of Paul's ethic.

This is an audacious claim to make at a time when people can point to recent historical events where much more aggressive revolutionary actions led to good outcomes. Even if there were problems, the Civil War did abolish slavery, didn't it? What about World War II and the end of the Holocaust? Would even the nonviolent civil-rights movement in America have passed muster with Yoder?

Yoder addresses this a bit in his epilogue to the previous chapter:

If it could be our task here to enter modern conversations about social ethics, the point to make would be that this Pauline vision is far more nuanced and helpful than much contemporary discussion about "the problem of power" in Christian social ethics. For many who use that phrase it designates little more than a sense of guilt about "realistically" having to "take responsibility" for harming some persons in the interest of desirable social ends. The Pauline perspective is far more clear about the intrinsic complexities of institutional and psychodynamic structures, such that basically good creaturely structures can nonetheless be oppressive, and basically selfish decisions can nonetheless have less evil outcomes. Neither guilt about losing personal purity, nor pragmatism about doing lesser evils to achieve greater goods, is then at the heart of "the problem of power" for Paul, as they are for our contemporaries. The challenge to which the proclamation of Christ's rule over the rebellious world speaks a word of grace is not a problem within the self but a split within the cosmos.

In other words, Yoder admits that there can be "less evil outcomes" to un-Christian behavior. He does not make a Manichean division of the world between God's kingdom and Satan's. What I think he's disputing here is the idea that the only way to effect good social changes is through politicking and violence. (The Mennonite preacher I heard recently made a similar point, disputed the way Americans have been taught a history of progressive liberation through battle.) I guess his argument ultimately boils down to G.K. Chesterton's famous maxim: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."

Posted by Camassia at November 25, 2004 09:40 AM | TrackBack
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