November 26, 2004
Love and peace or else

Yes, I bought the new U2 album the other day, and the title tune seems like a great theme song for Yoder's muscular pacifism. (See here for the lyrics ... scroll down a bit.) But anyway, now we're on to Chapter 10 of TPOJ where Yoder deals with that bane of all pacifists, Romans 13:1-7.

Historically, writes Yoder, people have tended to read this passage in two ways. One is to see every government as its own "revelation", with each leader appointed specifically by God and used by him to carry out justice. The job of the people, then, is to faithfully obey. This view was a lot easier to accept in the days of monarchy, since most leaders actually did attain their position by an act of God, i.e. birth. Put more cynically, you could say that once Europe abandoned paganism this is what replaced divine kingship.

As Yoder says, one of the problems here is that people read the passage out of context with the rest of the New Testament. Almost everywhere else, governors and governments appear in a decidedly negative light, from Herod's Massacre of the Innocents through Salome and the venal behavior of the Jewish authorities that wound up with Jesus' crucifixion. At some points -- the temptation in the desert and Revelation 13 -- all earthly governments are portrayed as being in league with Satan. Moreover, the Roman government that Paul was telling his brethren to submit to was pagan and at that time actively persecuting Christians, including Paul himself.

The second view, which has been popular since the Reformation, is that Romans 13 applies to good governments. So long as governments actually reward goodness and punish guilt in the manner described, Christians should respect them as legitimate. If not, they may engage in a "just rebellion" to reform the government or replace it with a new one. If this sounds familiar, it's because this view is enshrined in our country's own Declaration of Independence.

The problem, Yoder accurately points out, is that there is zero evidence that this is what Paul meant. Surely he could not have regarded the emperor-worshipping, Coliseum-running Roman imperium as an example of "good government." If there was no justification for rising up against that one, how bad does it have to get? Yet there's also no sign that he was writing about a hypothetical Godly government that didn't actually exist yet.

So given all that, what on earth was Paul writing about? Here Yoder offers an explanation that I've pretty much assumed myself (so of course it must be right;-)). The oppressed Jewish society from which Paul came had by this time perfected the art of seeing its own persecution and conquest by neighboring states as God's punishment for Jews' sins and faithlessness. Paul was simply continuing this tradition by narratively replacing Israel with Christians. So just as the Assyrians in Isaiah act as instruments of God's justice without any implication that God actually approves of Assyria's beliefs and ambitions, the same goes with the Roman government.

Or to put it another way: for as long as Christians remain within Christ, they have nothing to fear. If they decide to leave Christ and go back into the world of sin, they will inevitably suffer. If they sin by attacking the government, then it's pretty logical to assume the government will inflict the suffering. That doesn't mean that governments are knowingly acting as agents of God, or are particularly virtuous.

In discussing the hand of God upon civil governments, Yoder goes farther than I did when I said that while God might appoint leaders of states they're as free to screw up as the rest of us are. Yoder doesn't think that God actually gets specific enough to appoint certain leaders of governments. Instead, he "orders" them, keeping them in line with the general plan but not interfering too much with the details. Yoder compares him to a librarian: responsible for keeping the books in order but not for the actual content of those books.

This reminds me again of Nate's post at Icthus where he said, in the comments, that he objects to the "limitations" the sectarian philosophy places on God's sovereignty, and prefers to think God can work through the organs of the state as well as through the church. Yoder certainly agrees that God is sovereign over states and uses them in certain ways, but not in any way remotely equivalent to the way God uses the church.

Although Yoder doesn't specifically make this analogy, it seems to me that he's following the "chosen nation" line of thinking into the New Testament. In the Old Testament, God uses Israel as his vehicle for making his will known to the world. He micromanages its laws and government so that it might be a model polity. The rest of the nations interest him mostly to the extent that they relate to his plans for Israel.

Like I said, in the New Testament the Church takes the place of Israel. And although it now includes Gentiles, the setup is basically the same. Now the Church is God's vehicle for making his will known to the world, its model polity. The other governments of the world perform the same roles as the foreign governments of the Old Testament. (What happens to God's covenant with Israel in Yoder's scheme I don't know, though I've been told it turns up in a later chapter.)

So what about Christians actually serving in government itself? Why would it not be permissible for them to be servants of God's wrath by punishing wrongdoers? Here Yoder points to the context of the passages, putting Romans 12 and 13 together. The advice about submission to authorities immediately follows commandments to repay evil with good and abjuring vengeance and wrath, leaving those things to God. It also precedes a reminder that "Love does no harm to its neighbor." Thus, while pagan authorities may act as vehicles for God's vengeance, this is not something Christians should do. So Yoder concludes, in his Mennonite way, that Christians should not hold political office.

This brings to mind another objection that Nate raised: what about your responsibility to help your neighbor? Shouldn't you be able to (nonviolently) employ the power of the government to prevent harm? Or at least influence the government to get it to stop doing harm? Yoder doesn't address that question here; I hope he will at some point. I expect, however, that he would see the idea of taking power in order to do good -- taking it on behalf of the powerless, or whatever -- as a sin of pride. Man is too fallen to do that successfully; the only plan that really works to help the powerless is Jesus'. And given the record of idealistic governments, he may have a point.

One interesting point about all this is that, while Yoder is a pacifist, his approach to pacifism is a little different from the approach of the hippie pacifists I grew up around, or even a lot of the Christian pacifists whose blogs I read. He doesn't really preach against violence per se; he preaches against rebellion. Anger, hatred, pride, ambition -- all are forms of rebellion against God, and therefore sinful regardless of whether they cause physical violence or not. This makes Yoder tough to pigeonhole politically. Which I'm sure is just how he would like it.

Posted by Camassia at November 26, 2004 02:12 PM | TrackBack

Camassia, I have enjoyed reading your bloggings on TPOJ. One thing you said might require more nuance: it doesn't sound Yoderian to say "the church takes the place of Israel." Perhaps you meant "the church has become a new Israel, without replacing the original Israel?" Or maybe you'll get to this later. In Paul Among the Postliberals, Douglas Harink contrasts Yoder with NT Wright, saying that NT Wright is supercessionist, whereas Yoder is not. I'm not smart enough to critique NT Wright (I think he's brilliant), but I do know that Yoder is profoundly anti-supercessionist.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlowe on November 27, 2004 05:58 AM

So Yoder concludes, in his Mennonite way, that Christians should not hold political office.

And in a country in which everyone is Christian, who holds political office?

No doubt Yoder has an answer, but this sort of thinking sounds to me as though it objectifies non-Christians, making of them "useful goods" created to help order the world for the sake of Christians.

Posted by: Tom on November 27, 2004 08:47 AM

Jonathan: Yes, that was why I added the parenthetical remark that I don't know what Yoder sees as happening to the Covenant with Israel. I was hoping the vague term "takes the place" would go either way, although it sounds like it came across as supercessionist anyway.

Tom: I know, and that's one of the limitations of Yoder's fixation on the first century. I gather that Yoder feels that the Church, rather like the Blob, should spread by turning everything into itself; that is, in areas where everyone is Christian there should be no government other than the Church. Although what internal Church government should look like Yoder doesn't say.

Posted by: Camassia on November 27, 2004 08:57 AM

what about your responsibility to help your neighbor? Shouldn't you be able to (nonviolently) employ the power of the government to prevent harm? Or at least influence the government to get it to stop doing harm?

Yoder definately thought that Christians should seek to influence the government to stop doing harm, he just rejected the use of violence or even "coercive" non-violence to do this. But he certainly felt that the church should try to bring about good through witness to the state, however avoiding idealizing the role or potential of the state in doing good. Yoder also thought that Christians should encourage the state to choose the lesser of two bad options, so he taught Just War theory even though he was a pacifist (even teaching ROTC at Notre Dame in order to encourage soldiers to use violence within better ethical boundries).

I don't think that Yoder articulates this too much in TPOJ as far as I remember, but see the Christian Witness to the State if you really want to understand his view on Christians and the government.

Posted by: NJL on November 28, 2004 02:21 AM

That's interesting, because he mentions just-war theory in passing but not very positively: "The doctrine of the 'just war' is an effort to extend into the realm of war the logic of the limited violence of police authority -- but not a very successful one. There is some logic to the 'just war' pattern of thought but very little realism." However, in a footnote he says it's "...the only serious way of dealing with the moral problem of war apart from pacifism." I suppose in a fallen world, that's enough.

Posted by: Camassia on November 29, 2004 05:35 PM

Wow, thanks for the discussion, Camassia and thanks Nate for pointing me to this post from your contributing efforts at ICHTHUS.

I wonder if the following books would be helpful:

Karl Barth and the Problem of War
by John Howard Yoder


The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder
by Craig A. Carter

My friend Charlie ( has mini reviews for each of these books on his website and from those summaries it seems like they tie into this conversation very well.

Also, Charlie points to a critique of Niebuhr's Christ & Culture by Yoder and Glen Stassen (with a supporting segment by D.M. Yeager) called Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture.

I'd highly recommend reading the one (and only) review posted on Amazon:

It sounds like it would be well worth the time to read. Glen Stassen, you might remember, is also the same "consistently pro-life" guy who published that article called "Pro-Life? Look at the Fruits" which claims that abortion is on the rise under George W. Bush. I'm new to a lot of these theological circles, but I'm sure you've probably heard of his name before elsewhere, I'm sure.



Posted by: Eric Lee on December 2, 2004 03:12 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?