Revolutionary Christian Citizenship (John Howard Yoder) -- A Review
REVOLUTIONARY CHRISTIAN CITIZENSHIP. Yoder for Everyone, Volume 2. By John Howard Yoder. Edited by John C. Nugent, Brandon Parler, and Andy Alexis-Baker. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2013. 171 pages.
What does it mean to be Christian and a citizen of a particular nation? Where do one’s loyalties lie? What happens when loyalty to nation and loyalty to God come into conflict? These aren’t easy questions to answer. Simply quoting Jesus isn’t enough to resolve all issues, especially when it comes to being Christian in a modern Western democracy. Theologians have been seeking answers to these questions from the earliest days of the church, with varying results. The responses to the questions became increasingly difficult in the years following Constantine’s seeming embrace of Christianity. For more than fifteen hundred years Christendom has held sway in many places where Christians have been in the majority. Christendom is fraying, but the questions persist.
Every since the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists have stood as a counter force to the Christendom paradigm. They have challenged the ways in which the majority sought to entangle church and state. Many of them embraced a separatist vision and stood back from participation in the wider culture, including refraining from serving in government, military, or even voting. The practice of believer baptism not only had theological implications, it had political implications as well – leading to the persecution of the nonconformist Anabaptists. John Howard Yoder (died in 1997) is a product of this tradition, and he brought these principles to the broader Christian community in his books and articles, including The Politics of Jesus.
Yoder has been deceased for nearly twenty years, but his influence continues to grow, especially among politically progressive evangelicals. At a time when mainstream evangelical culture has increasingly wrapped the cross of Jesus in the American flag, and embraced Christian Americanism, Yoder has provided an antidote – especially to militaristic versions of evangelicalism. Whereas many modern American Christians, bred with a Christendom mindset start with political and nationalist principles and then turn to Scripture, Yoder starts with Scripture and then asks that our citizenship be understood in light of Scripture, even if this is counter-cultural. Revolutionary Christian Citizenship forms the second volume in a series entitled Yoder for Everyone. Recognizing that Yoder’s writings can be inaccessible to the general reader (Yoder was, after all, a scholar – a professor of theology and ethics at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and later Notre Dame), the three editors of this series have compiled a collection of Yoder’s writings, in this case regarding one’s citizenship, and edited them in a way that is faithful to Yoder’s message, but accessible to the general reader.
The first book in the series – Radical Christian Discipleship (John Howard Yoder's Challenge to the Church) (2012) focused on the Christian response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. In this second volume in the series, they seek to lay “the biblical foundation for how Christians might relate to the nations in which they live” (p. 15). What is important to note here is that Yoder was insistent that there are political implications to the Christian faith – and that the message of Jesus was inherently political.
The book is comprised of three parts – “The Witness of Jesus;” The Witness of the Church;” and “Witness in Action.” The first part encompasses five chapters that focus on Jesus’ understanding of politics, peace, violence, majesty and Old Testament warfare. On the latter it’s a much more complicated issue than one might expect. On the matter of Jesus and politics, one must remember that Yoder penned a major treatise entitled The Politics of Jesus. In relationship to this, reality, Yoder writes (in a piece drawn from lectures given in 1973 at Goshen College), that “the politics of Jesus is the meeting point of restored personal authenticity and faithful social commitment.” He goes on to suggest that “when the God of the Bible comes to humans . . . he does not come as a mystical guru who instructs us to retreat from the real world.” In other words, Yoder doesn’t believe that Jesus is calling the church to completely separate from the world. That is because “he comes as Messiah, Lord, and Servant: political terms” (p. 33-34). Faith may be personal, but it’s not private.
The three chapters that form part two look at the relationship of the church to world history, the state, and war. Even as Jesus is engaged with the world, so must the church. It is the conscience of society. It serves the world, but isn’t subservient. Since most Western European and North American nations at least give lip service to the principle of just war principles, Yoder’s engagement with these principles are a must read. Even if we profess to embrace these principles, rejecting the idea of pacifism, Yoder asks if we have truly embraced them. In fact, considering the modern embrace of “total war,” he asks whether a “Just War” is even possible in this day – if we strictly follow the guidelines. It is, he suggests, our duty to stop fighting such wars. He doesn’t argue from a pacifist view, but a just war vision.
The final section is the longest, covering important issues facing the modern citizen, including t he question of whether one should vote. I found this a useful foil, for I have consistently believed that to complain about what is going on in the nation, one must be a voter. I have interpreted Romans 13 in terms of the people’s governing authority in a democracy. As for Yoder, he doesn’t reject voting, but he sees voting not as “a ritual affirmation of moral solidarity with the system,” but is, instead, a way in which one can “speak truth to power,” even if it is a weaker form. Besides voting, there are chapters on self-defense, Veteran’s Day, conscientious objection, arms race, taxes, and civil religion. Each chapter is brief and doesn’t exhaust the issue, but they provide an excellent place to start for a conversation.
I am not a close follower of Yoder’s works and views, but I do find him to be an important voice that the church needs to hear. The editors of this small book have done the reading audience a great service by providing this accessible introduction to Yoder and his vision of the Christian and the state. If one hasn’t read Yoder before, this is a good place to start. Or, if one is new to Yoder, this will be a great introduction. I need to acknowledge that I received a copy of the book from one of the editors of the book (John C. Nugent). John is from the Stone-Campbell movement, and is one of a number from his branch of this communion to be influenced by Yoder. Having read selectively in Yoder’s corpus, I can say this is a most useful, thoughtful, and engaging introduction to Yoder’s thought. Of course the editors don’t mean for us to simply admire Yoder’s work. They assume that he has a word for the present moment, and that the church will benefit from reading it. As one does, it’s important to remember that Yoder was a man of complexity and even darkness – as is true of all of us. That complexity and darkness doesn’t take away from his message.