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John Howard Yoder And The New Prospects For A Christian Politics (Jonathan Cole)

John Howard Yoder

The heady first weeks of Trump’s tenure as CEO of America Inc. have seen political orthodoxies continue to be trampled with aplomb.

For the time being the shareholders are split. At the extremities there is rapturous ecstasy and apocalyptic terror in equal measure. Many are simply bemused. Others are still in denial. Much attention has understandably come to rest on analyzing what the Trump presidency means for the Republican Party and conservatism more broadly given he is ostensibly flying the flag for both, despite persistent cries of heresy by some on the right.

There can be little doubt that the GOP and the conservative movement will irrevocably be changed by the Trump moment. But as Einstein proverbially put it, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The Trump era will not only be defined by transformations on the right, but also by equal and opposite transformations on the left. For it seems all but certain that the Democratic Party and the progressive movement will not emerge from the Trump experience unaltered.

Trump’s presidency will be a testing, searching time for Christians on the left. If early signs are any indication – the Berkley riot comes to mind – then the Ying to Trump’s Yang looks set to include some of the left’s worst pathologies: violent, abusive, intolerant protest, disruption, and disorder. A perennial challenge for the Christian left (also a challenge for the Christian right) has been to forge a distinctive, authentic progressive Christian political vision that amounts to more than a slavish imitation of popular secular ideological fashions, and avoids contamination by its more extreme elements.

Historically speaking, there have been valiant attempts in this regard. One of the legacies of Christian French intellectual Jacques Ellul and his ilk was to bequeath the category “Christian anarchism” to social science.

For our purposes we will leave Ellul’s Christian anarchism for another time and turn our attention to a figure who has inspired generations of Christians in America and further afield on the political left: Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). We will suggest that Yoder’s notion of “revolutionary subordination,” in spite of its weaknesses (see below), might offer Christian progressives a distinctively Christian political contribution that may be of service to the left in this turbulent age.

Yoder’s highly influential 1972 book The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster advances the thesis that “Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action” (p.2).   In order to appreciate the contribution of The Politics of Jesus, it is important to understand the context in which it was written.  Yoder sought to counter the prevalent narrative at the time that Jesus was not “relevant to social issues”. In this effort he largely succeeded.

The political “model” Yoder discerned in Jesus’ life and teaching was something he called “revolutionary subordination.” As he explained it:

[Jesus’] motto of revolutionary subordination, of willing servanthood in the place of domination, enables the person in a subordinate position in society to accept and live within that status without resentment…The subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent when he voluntarily accedes to his subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalistically or resentfully (p.186).

Jesus’ “revolutionary subordination” was exemplified, according to Yoder, in the way that he submitted freely, and in innocence, to the injustice of death by crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities in first century Palestine. Yoder maintained that:

There is thus but one  realm in which the concept of imitation holds…This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility (p.131).

Some might wish to quibble with whether “revolutionary subordination” is indeed the correct model offered by Jesus’ life and teaching. But there is a more fundamental problem: the notion that Jesus represents a model of political action, radical or otherwise. It is one thing to argue that Jesus’s life and teaching is relevant, even instructive, for Christian political ethics and another thing entirely to argue that Jesus offers a normative political “model” that the Christian can, or ought, to practice.

The first problematic is the lack of explicit articulation of this so-called political model in Scripture. The fact of the matter is that Jesus had very little to say explicitly about politics, as did those who wrote about him. They had no demonstrable interest in political theory and do not appear to have been particularly preoccupied with practical political questions. This probably helps explain how Christianity has managed to spawn everything from Ellul’s Christian anarchism to Nazi Party member Carl Schmitt, the putative father of political theology.

The problem, in short, is that there is, strictly speaking, no “motto” of “revolutionary subordination” in the Bible. The metaphorical “motto” Yoder speaks of is a description of the “model” he has extrapolated from Jesus’ life and teaching and Paul’s Epistles. This is a subtle, yet important distinction.

The fact that “revolutionary subordination” is a political “model” Yoder extrapolates, or infers, from his reading of the New Testament does not, in and of itself, invalidate his argument. Extrapolation and inference, after all, are hazards of the theologian’s trade, particularly the political theologian. It does, however, raise the burden of proof. Yoder must show that his theory of “revolutionary subordination,” for that is what it is, can cogently be inferred or extrapolated from a text that has no knowledge or apparent interest in political models per se.

This is no easy task. If one of the things Jesus is supposed to have done was reveal a normative political model of action in the way he lived his earthly life, wouldn’t he conceivably have said so, or at least included clearer and more explicit teaching in this regard?  Wouldn’t Paul have addressed it more extensively than the seven verses in chapter 13 of his epistle to the church at Rome?

Moreover, why did the Christian tradition develop a doctrine of imitatio Christi from its reading of the Scriptures but apparently miss Yoder’s imitatio Christi politici? Rather than representing Jesus’ political model, “revolutionary subordination” might simply reflect the New Testament’s lack of deep interest in politics, thus making a virtue out of silence. Is it possible that Paul just wasn’t as interested in the political Jesus as Yoder?

It is not difficult to discern a reason why the pre- and post-Constantinian church did not develop a doctrine of imitatio Christi politici with the content of “revolutionary subordination.” Christian tradition, taking its lead from Scripture, arrived at an understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching in terms of salvation, not political edification. As John’s Gospel succinctly puts it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (3:16).”

Christian traditions have differed over precisely how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice works itself out in practice, but they have never lost sight of the fact that the central meaning and purpose of Jesus’s life and teaching was salvation.

It is therefore difficult to discern the precise basis upon which Yoder believes Christ’s salvific mission also reveals the normative political model for Christians, except in a rather secondary, even incidental sense. This of course does not gainsay the political significance of Jesus’ life and teaching. The follower of Jesus can hardly avoid thinking through the implications of this allegiance for their interaction with political authorities.

One of the weaknesses in Yoder’s argument is that it doesn’t sufficiently take into account the very profound ontological distinction between the model, i.e., the theanthropos Jesus, and those meant to emulate him, i.e., fallen humans.  Yoder sees the cross as the pinnacle of Jesus’ radical political action and the embodiment of “revolutionary subordination.” But even if we accept this, in what sense can it really be construed as an analogy for human political action? Jesus’ life culminated in his death, resurrection, ascension, and rule at the right hand of the father, for humankind’s savlation.

Yet “revolutionary subordination” lays its foundation in Jesus’ death. It is not difficult to see why. This is an aspect of Jesus’ life humans can emulate, if not always literally, then at least in spirit. Rising from the dead, ascending to heaven and ruling at the right hand of the father, on the other hand, are not. The point is that we are not heirs to the Davidic throne, so there are important respects in which the political Jesus does not bear analogy for his followers.

The notion that Jesus offers a “model” of political action unavoidably entails decisions about which aspects of his life are to be regarded as both political and normative. This unavoidably injects a degree of selectivity and subjectivity into the equation, a charge that could be leveled at Yoder in the way he highlights Jesus’ death over and above his resurrection, exaltation, or kingship.

A final problem relates to the question of whether “revolutionary subordination” can really be construed as a political ‘model’ of action at all. Yoder believes that political power is in the hands of “fallen powers,” albeit providentially ordered by God. So active participation in institutional power does not appear to be a viable option for the Christian on his account. His pacifism similarly rules out armed rebellion.

In fact, “revolutionary subordination” ostensibly rules out non-violent civil disobedience and disruption, even if this has not always been the implication drawn by his followers. Even more problematic is the implication that “revolutionary subordination” deals Christians out of political discourse altogether. What does “revolutionary subordination” have to offer to economic debate? What of health care policy or judicial reform?

The inherent risk for “revolutionary subordination” is that in practice it might amount to little more than than a glamorous euphemism for simply obeying the law, even if done so while protesting its injustice and illegitimacy, something routinely done in Western democracies.

We promised above that we would suggest a way that Yoder’s model of “revolutionary subordination” might be of service to the left in the age of Trump. Thus far we have taken an admittedly counter-intuitive route to this end. If one of the weaknesses in Yoder’s political theology is that it offers nothing for the Christian, left or right, who seeks to implement their faith and make a difference through the formal institutions of “power,” its virtue might lie in what it has to offer those more inclined to a politics of protest and opposition.

There is every indication that protest, activism, and civil disruption might be a fixture of the new political order under Trump. If the exegetical and theological basis for Jesus’ political “model” being “revolutionary subordination” is tenuous, it is nonetheless an authentically Christian idea.

Yoder is right to point out that Jesus eschewed political violence and revolution. He did submit and defer to the human political authorities of his day. But he also cast doubt on their legitimacy, status, and power. Moreover, as Yoder points out, martyrdom was an important and distinctive part of the early Christian tradition, even if the circumstances in which this occurred are not exactly paralleled in Trump’s America.

The “isms” that dominate the extremities of the left, which are bound to find reinvigoration in the opportunity to oppose the “fascist” Trump, do not share Yoder’s distinctively Christian view of opposition to power. They, like Yoder, do not believe the state and its institutions are legitimate or just.

But Yoder’s model has a somewhat paradoxical respect for political order not shared by some elements on the left. Yoder understood that “society and history, even nature, would be impossible without regularity, system, order – and God has provided for this need” (p.141).  Yoder also had a healthy skepticism about the ability of earthly political power to recreate Eden. And his pacifism and focus on “servanthood” and forgiveness are often in short supply amongst sections of the left.

In an age in which elements of the left will face an ever-present temptation towards disruption, disorder, and, on occasion, violence, Yoder’s “revolutionary subordination” could provide a bridge for a critical dialog with the left. Yoder’s deep sense of injustice and corruption in the existing political order constitutes a shared principle from which such a dialog could begin.

But he could also provide a word of caution to those on the left who want to use state power to recreate paradise on Earth, those who wish to tear down political order altogether, or simply those who wish to silence and marginalize conservatives, that political order, if not political power, is a providential good that every citizen has a part in upholding.

He could also remind the left (and the right for that matter) that American politics could benefit from a little “servanthood,” humility, and forgiveness. Vicit agnus Noster.

Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra, Australia, and a PhD candidate in Political Theology at the School of Theology, CSU. He spent 14 years working in the Australian public service in the areas of Immigration, Health, and Intelligence. He spent seven of those years working in two intelligence agencies as a Senior Terrorism Analyst. He has an MA specializing in Middle Eastern politics and Islamic theology from the Australian National University. He also has a BA Honors in Modern Greek language and history. He wrote his honors thesis on the politics of linguistic nationalism in 19th century Greece.

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