Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Band Concert or Religious Service?

I went to a band concert a few weeks ago. The Massanutten Brass Band played on the lawn at James Madison University. They were awesome. They played some good tunes, and they were good at it. My son and I loved the "Imperial March" from Star Wars, and all of it was top notch. But this post is not intended to be a review of the concert so much as a critique of the culture that the band concert took place in. Of course, they opened with "The Star-Spangled Banner" (that was the opening prayer). Most civic events do. And, of course, some people in attendance sang along and a few even placed their hands over their hearts. Many of the songs were patriotic marches with one or two Christian hymns sprinkled in as a perfunctory nod to the role Christianity plays in our culture - as a support to the greater, overriding ideology of America.

It would appear that America is a highly religious nation, but its dominant religion is not biblical
Christianity. Its dominant religion is America. In the concert, the overwhelming theme was the greatness of America. The hymns were brought almost as a sub-theme.

It's interesting to think about the heated debates about the appropriateness of religion (or maybe faith is the current buzzword) in politics. I'm thinking that that discussion completely misses the elephant in the room that I've been talking about - Americanism. People kill for it, people die for it, they sing its praises, they want it to rescue them from terror or poverty, they give large chunks of their lives to serve it. Liberals and conservatives alike. Christian and anti-Christian alike.

America is its own god. Now where's my John Philip Sousa record?


Saturday, June 9, 2007

Charles E. Fuller and R.E.M.

Here's what can happen when you load up your MP3 player (actually a PDA, but I couldn't call it an MP3 player when I was buying it) with recorded broadcasts of the 1930's thru 1950's radio show called the Old Fashioned Revival Hour and the R.E.M. albums from "Out of Time" to "Around The Sun", and then listen to them all intermixed and in a loop while staining the outside of your house for three weeks: you start thinking that the one might be talking about the other.

I did anyway, and something jumped out at me after hearing the choir on the OFRH sing the song "Heavenly Sunshine" for the 13th time followed by R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People." I thought to myself: "Michael Stipe is taking a jab at the Christians who are caught up in a heavenly, sunshiny faith which makes them care less about life in the dirt of the planet Earth, forgetting that the Word became flesh."

I grew up hearing rebroadcasts of the OFRH on the local Christian radio station. Both of my parents heard it in their conservative Mennonite homes. The founder, fundamentalist pastor Charles E. Fuller was a gifted preacher who had a good command of his tone of voice and diction. He could string parts of different Bible verses together and come up with a coherent sentence, and finally punctuate it with a self-assured "Thus saith the Lord." Very inspiring..., but sometimes (too frequently) untrue to the original verses which were strung together. Maybe that's why the Christian faith he preached was mostly about how to comfort oneself with the knowledge that their ticket to heaven was secure and that one didn't need to be troubled by wars, strife and sorrows in this life. The United States of America was (pre-)destined to win all her wars anyway.

Sometime in the 1980's, I started listening to R.E.M. After a few albums, I caught on to Michael Stipe's riffs on Christianity. And I think that he has some pretty valid critiques that serious Christians need to pay attention to. Fuller's otherworldly flavor of Christian faith wasn't invented by him. He came from a stream which was reacting to the postmillenial liberalism of the Social Gospelers. To him, faith was not intended to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. It was meant to save souls from eternal damnation.

Stipe's response is reactionary also, but in it we can see a call to reclaim some of what the Social Gospelers were after - the Kingdom of God must be visible on earth through the actions of the church. A faith that can only witness to premillennial hope is usually one that also rejects the connected gospel calls to love God and love neighbor - including those neighbors who are our enemy. It preaches a Jesus who can't be followed. Following might look too much like attempts to earn our salvation. In truth, following Jesus is simply working out one's salvation.

Thanks for the reminder, R.E.M.


Friday, February 23, 2007

At Least It's Something...

I added some links on the right. Also added the full moon image. Now we can get that genuine "howlin' at the moon" feel. Very inspirational.

We should have some more posts coming soon. I'm working on something about Charles Fuller and R.E.M. (which I had mostly done and then made one wrong click and lost it) in a pop culture/theology vein. I have all kinds of ideas but less discipline and even less time. Meanwhile, here's something to chew on: An excellent article (beginning on page 5) by Alain Epp Weaver and Peter Dula in the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Office Newsletter. It's about humanitarianism and the ways it can become disconnected from and dehumanize the ones it seeks to help. I think it connects in a way with the book I just finished reading by Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community. A must read if you are interested in sustainable peace and justice activism.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thoughts on Human Being and Being Human

A written word is the choicest of relics…it is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech (Thoreau)

Long before the time of Christ, the fathers and sons of Israel began piecing together narratives describing their relationships to each other and to their God. Artfully, strategically, they wove together stories and songs trying to capture the depth of their tradition. Stories of human experience passed from mouth to ear for generations before the written word cemented their place in the annals of recorded history.

And so we read today; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

This experience--what it means to be human—has not significantly changed since the beginning of time. Our story is remarkably similar to that of Adam and Eve, yet we are no closer to answering the basic questions of human identity than they. We continue to question our identity for ourselves, before others, and before our God.

In short, we continue to seek the meaning of life that has eluded so many for so long. I am interested in demonstrating how we hold together the finitude of life as we know it with the infinite character of God—whom we are modeled after.

From the outset of created humanity, so the story goes, we were meant to live in relation to both God and other people. We are complex individuals intended for community, for “The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.””[1] We were never meant for isolated existence apart from our creator or the rest of creation. “Such a model of unfettered freedom is an unreachable mirage.”[2]

Therefore, one of the most poignant metaphors we can use when talking about God is that of a serious relationship such as marriage. Such a metaphor is useful because we were intended for relationship from the beginning! I have long held to the belief that what is true of one relationship might be considered true for most relationships. While this view may or may not hold water across the broad spectrum of humanity, I have found it helpful to think in this way on numerous occasions when attempting to understand or describe a specific relationship in which I am involved.

“True knowledge of humanity cannot be separated from true knowledge of God.”[1]

The church today could benefit from viewing the decision to follow Christ with as much weight as the decision of young people to marry. If I had been encouraged to consider as much my decision to become a Christian as I was my decision to get married, I would have given it much more serious consideration before taking the plunge.

Until our Christianity is as real and as life-altering as marriage (and I assume childbirth), we are largely missing the point in our congregations. Stagg describes what I am trying to say as dealing with salvation as both gift and demand.[1]

It poses an interesting question—did Jesus as our model human (he was human as intended) always delight in servitude? Or did he sometimes share the same feelings of drudgery that often mark our common experience? The implications of such a humanity could be liberating for us today. It would free us from the bulwark of pretense and take us into a deeper realization of what it means to be fully human in relation to God.

This relationship to God is an incredible, gracious gift that comes with a sense of duty not unlike marriage. Brueggemann hits the nail on the head when he states “the poets who have given us our primal language for God are seeking a way to voice an inscrutability that overrides our logic and is more like the inscrutability of serious relationships than it is like anything else.”[1] This inscrutability is one of the best ways I have heard yet to describe the paradoxes and dichotomies that comprise our human experience, yet we continue to scrutinize, to search for answers to the questions we struggle with.

At this point I would like to make a distinction between authentic experience and true knowledge. True knowledge seems somewhat ambiguous. If I truly know something, the implication is that the mystery surrounding it has burned away like morning fog and I have seen it clearly for whatever it is. I don’t think it’s helpful to think about either God or human being in this way.

There is a mystery, or as Brueggemann puts it, inscrutability, inherent to serious relationship that does not allow for complete, ‘true’ knowing.[1] There will always be an element of the unknown in any relationship that matters.

It is this unknowable element that continues to intrigue me about serious relationships that I have, that makes me want to continue knowing this person and get to know them better than I do. Mystery has the power to suck us in and pay attention to what is happening.

In closing for this post, I would like to end with the observations of Arthur Vogel, who has said

"There is no ratio between the finite and the infinite. Finite creatures such as we cannot get closer to God by degrees, understanding God better and better as we go along, until there is less and less of God that is mysterious to us. God is total Mystery." [1]

[1] Vogel, Arthur A., God, Prayer, and Healing (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 105-106.

[1] See Brueggemann pages 3-4 for further discussion along these lines.

[1] Brueggemann 4.

[1] Frank Stagg, Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective (Macon: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1994), 149-161.

[1] Jones 294.

[1] Genesis 2:18 NIV

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Duty as Delight and Desire: Preaching Obedience That is Not Legalism,” Journal for Preachers 18 (1994): 3.

Henry David Thoreau, Reading, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 355.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

What's this about?

This blog is intended to be a space where we post our thoughts on things from a Mennonite-theological perspective-mainly peace and war, church and state/world, the "simple" theological/political topics we love to shoot the breeze over. We have been influenced by persons who learned under John Howard Yoder and believe that what the church needs is a renewed commitment to an "evangelical witness" which is public, social, pacifist, service-oriented and egalitarian. By "evangelical," we do not mean "American, politically conservative"; we mean we believe we have been given "good news" (gospel) to share with the world. (Sometimes the world will help us understand what "good news" means in a particular situation.) On the other hand, by "public, social, pacifist," etc, we do not mean "American, politically liberal"; we mean to point to a way of living modeled by Jesus Christ as shown in the New Testament. This is something that is visible, not simply tucked away and hidden in the hearts of the faithful. It leads and is an example through service, not through domination.

We will be cheating and recycling some of our seminary papers here (hey, we paid to write these things!). I have already posted one (a first-year effort). Hopefully we can share our best work, and hopefully all of it can spark some discussion and thought amongst the readers (all 2 of you).

Watch this space...


Monday, February 5, 2007

Peace Advocacy

Why Peace and Peacemaking? Because it's biblical. Here is a paper I wrote for a seminary class which looks at Christian peacemaking through the theology of John Howard Yoder (and Stanley Hauerwas).

As Yeast Leavens The Dough: A Theology of Peace Advocacy

LeVon Smoker

CTT 524 Contemporary Theology in Anabaptist Perspective

14 June 2004

[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

  • Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

In Matthew 13:33 and again in Luke 13:21, Jesus tells a parable which implies that the kingdom of heaven (or “kingdom of God” in the Lukan text) is a pervasive entity which must grow and penetrate all areas of human living. The way in which the yeast penetrates is important to the the meaning of the parable. Its initial effects are imperceptible. The kingdom is unfulfilled as yet, but is still working and growing in the context in which it exists. The final result of this process will be dramatic as is indicated by the amount of flour (ten gallons) being leavened.

The parable gives us a picture of an entity which does not allow itself to be circumscribed and cordoned off. Nothing prevents it from having an effect on the whole of society. It is not content to be restricted to one or a few areas of living, but wants to transform everything within its reach. Yet its effects are not immediately detectable. The work it does cannot be captured in a glimpse, and its methods are not violently frantic or fearful. A wholesale overthrow of existing societal orders is not necessary to have proof that the kingdom is indeed growing and working out its purposes. Such a picture is helpful in seeing how the prophetic witness of the church to the state is part of the inevitable spread of the kingdom of God, and it helps to free the mind from an attitude that is oriented toward either quiet disengagement or easily-seen results.

This paper will examine how the Anabaptist theology articulated by John Howard Yoder most thoroughly in his book, The Politics of Jesus, can be applied and used as a theological underpinning for the church’s prophetic witness to government, specifically in the area of peace advocacy. This book serves best to show that salvation is not a singularly individualistic and emotional experience, but is an all-encompassing way of living which includes social relationships and behaviors. Yoder argues that the incarnation of Jesus was an historical event in which God broke into human existence for the purpose of giving it a new norm, a new way of being human. The newness of this way is not limited to a spiritual, other-worldly rebirth. Instead, it breaks into all areas of life including the social.

Yoder’s Theology

Yoder’s basic assumption is that the Christian is to live a life of nonresistance regardless of vocation and in all relationships. The situation of that Christian does not change their ethics — ethics which do not permit the taking of another life, whether in the defense of property, self, others or country. This theology builds on Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” article and takes the ethic of love and nonresistance beyond the separatist stance of Guy F. Hershberger which logically points in the direction of the church as a self-contained society and tends to ignore the matters of the world outside that society. Yoder attempts to answer the question, “Is there a normative social ethic to be found in the New Testament?” at a time when prevailing thought said that the ethics in the New Testament could not all be applied on the social level, but that some were largely personal or at least limited to a small, separated community. The life and teachings of Jesus are not necessarily to be seen as normative. To this assertion and in light of the historicity of the person of Jesus the Christ and incarnate God, Yoder raises the question, “Why not?”

Yoder wrote The Politics of Jesus with the intent that it be read by all Christians, not just those of the Anabaptist faith. He therefore does not focus on the Sermon on the Mount or any specific New Testament passages (especially those which have traditionally been used by Mennonites) for proof of his claims. Rather he uses the whole sweep of the New Testament to show the social ramifications of the church in relation to those outside the church.

In addition, his biblical basis rests not only on the life and teachings of Jesus as given in the gospels, but also on the writings of Paul. He shows that the faith taught by Paul was not different from the faith taught by Jesus, thus eliminating a perceived discontinuity between the two. He also reminds us that Jesus’ ministry took place in a distinctly Judaic context. Stanley Hauerwas states that “Yoder rightly understood that the real Jesus is not to be discovered in discontinuity with Judaism but in his continuity with the extraordinarily diverse modes of life we now call Jewish. Indeed, one of the aspects of Yoder’s work that has been unfairly overlooked is his way of reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.” In this way, his work was true to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists who sought a restoration of the New Testament church and a recapturing of the concept of lives thoroughly transformed by the work of the Spirit and made ready for right living. The modern, liberal notion of separation of church (or faith) and state would have been completely outrageous to the biblical people of God.

Theological Politics

Yoder advocates a Christian social ethic which puts his theology, in part, in conflict with both ends of the spectrum of thought on political involvement for the church. H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, both influenced by Ernst Troeltsch, were promoting the idea that Christians had to choose between social and political responsibility on the one hand, and sectarian withdrawal on the other. The former path requires that one view Jesus as a personal, spiritual savior whose social teachings are not relevant to the involvement of Christians in contemporary politics. These teachings must be set aside or reinterpreted spiritually in order for the Christian to provide relevant solutions for the problems faced. In this case, social ethical norms are sought from sources other than the biblical revelation of Jesus, such as nature or a general concept of the good. This is the option advocated by the Niebuhrs and their adherents.

The latter option of withdrawal is presented as the one which is overly concerned with moral purity and not concerned enough with the fate of those outside the church nor with politics in general. The Jesus preached is an apolitical one who is relevant within the church but not beyond its walls. To those who do not choose this option, those who do appear to be parasites on the rest of society, not wanting to be bothered with its problems or taking an active part in its betterment. This separatist stance has helped to earn Mennonites the somewhat pejorative nickname “quiet in the land.”

Yoder proposes a position which while having overlap with both aforementioned options, does not submit to the theological weaknesses of either. The starting point of Jesus as normative for Christian social ethics — since there is no other norm — affirms the need for personal salvation and regeneration while pushing for the development of virtuous disciples of Christ who together form a body which signifies the kingdom of God on earth. As such the body ministers to those outside of it as a witness to the lordship of Christ over all things. Starting with Jesus also reminds the church that as the bride of Christ it is important to pursue personal piety and spiritual growth, but not to the exclusion or denigration of its witness to the wider society.

Stanley Hauerwas has been significantly influenced by Yoder and has written much on the development of virtues in Christian disciples as an important task in the shaping of the church. This emphasis on holy living is reflected in his statement that “the church is finally known by the character of the people who constitute it, and if we lack that character, the world rightly draws the conclusion that the God we worship is in fact a false God.” He would argue that the acts and rituals related to the making of disciples are political in nature in that those acts and rituals form them into persons whose primary identities and narratives are with the church of Jesus Christ and not with any other institution including the nation-state.

The term “politics” as used by Yoder and Hauerwas must be understood aside from the normally assumed usage, that is, the American party politics of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The “theological politics” of Yoder and Hauerwas which Arne Rasmusson argues for in The Church as Polis does not allow itself to be subsumed under any other politics, but rather judges, discusses and discerns these other politics within its own framework. The discipline of ethics is not something which is turned to after most of the major work is said and done, but is something which is part and parcel of every discussion relating theology, politics, economics or indeed any discipline.

A statement frequently heard in today’s society in both the church and the world is “everyone must decide for themselves.” Whether the subject is truth, authority, lifestyle or vocation, the individualism inherent in the statement is instructive of the pervasiveness of a thinking which repudiates the community of the church as a discipling and character-shaping entity. It might be more true to say that “everyone has already decided for themselves.” The problem of individualism might even be characterized as the modern version of idolatry. It has been intensely crippling and divisive in the church. It is no small wonder that the church as a whole cannot form a consistent witness to the world when internally it is splintering into “birds of a feather” factions over such issues as homosexuality, social action, biblical interpretation, etc. But as Hauerwas argues, persons in the church must see themselves as citizens of the church and develop and order their lives accordingly. Such citizens are preparing themselves through disciplines and praxis for the church’s task of being a social ethic, rather than promoting a particular “stand-alone” social ethic. Such a church is prepared to advocate for peace outside of its walls even as it makes peace within itself. It is this topic of peace advocacy to which we turn now in light of the basis given by Yoder and Hauerwas.

Peace Advocacy

One of the stumbling blocks in the broader scope of Christian discourse to advocating for peace outside of the church has been the argument that the church should keep itself pure and not get involved in politics or “tell the government what to do.” As we have seen, this approach assumes the world’s definition of politics and a norm for society which is other than the church. The approach argued for in this paper is that “[t]he gospel is a political gospel. Christians are engaged in politics, but it is a politics of the kingdom that reveals the insufficiency of all politics based on coercion and falsehood and finds the true source of power in servanthood rather than dominion.” This locates our starting point in the suffering and cross of Jesus Christ, the lamb who has conquered, rather than in a disembodied universal, natural law or principle that is assumed to be available to everyone. Establishing this starting point allows us to move to a discussion of how this formed and discipled church relates to the world. Again, Hauerwas helps us see that the church is not “anti-world, but rather an attempt to show what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.” “The world is in principle redeemed, and the church is the first fruits of this redemption.” The church is essentially a witness to the world by fulfilling its calling to be the church.

Yoder’s work The Christian Witness to the State is a significant and influential articulation of the point being made here. In it he seeks “to analyze whether it is truly the case that a Christian pacifist position rooted not in pragmatic or psychological but in Christological considerations is thereby irrelevant to the social order.” He argues that the only difference between the ethic of the church and the ethic of the state is in the level of adherence of each to the ethic which the church manifests. Such an argument places the church in a position to critique and judge the behavior and goals of the state.

Yoder also takes care to explain the role of the state in relation to the church and how it can be used to fulfill God’s purposes, but does not represent God’s obedient agent in history:

In spite of the present visible dominion of the “powers” of “this present evil age,” the triumph of Christ has already guaranteed that the ultimate meaning of history will not be found in the course of earthly empires or the development of proud cultures, but in the calling together of the “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation,” which is the church of Christ.

He lists a number of criteria for judgment of political events which are available to Christians, the first one being that, based on the New Testament message, the state exists “for the sake of the work of the church and not vice versa.” It is a general organizing, ordering entity whose purpose is to create an atmosphere where the gospel can be preached and the ultimate lordship of Christ acknowledged. The second critique argues that, in accordance with Romans 13, governments function most properly when the innocent are protected and the guilty punished. This would preclude a kind of “blank check” approach to the appropriateness of the state’s use of violence. The third critique is that states tend to claim that they represent or can bring about an ideal order and that the sword is a necessary part of that order. This claim is in contrast with the church’s claim to be the ideal society and tends to exhibit the state’s rebellion against God. The fourth critique argues that the church’s criticisms must speak to specific visible abuses, rather than make a general call for the government to create a perfect, violence-free society. It can advocate for options in specific situations which use the least amount of violence and then, whether or not it is achieved, continue to advocate for less violence since the state will still be in rebellion and tempted to use more violence.

Yoder explains five more criteria. Not all of them need explanation here, but the sixth one states that the Christian social ethic is usually the unpopular choice and in the minority because it speaks to the majority on behalf of those who are marginalized and ignored, that is, widows, orphans, strangers and enemies. Speaking on behalf of enemies will surely not ingratiate one with the majority. This is especially evident in times when war is kept in the minds of a nation and such speaking can easily be put in the category of “treason.” Therefore it must be done with great care and sensitivity, making the intentions clear and differentiating the message from one that simply takes the side of the enemy without critique. The seventh critique argues that the church can ask the state to take the most just, least violent action and that even though this requires a certain kind of faith, it is appropriate to ask the state to live up the the best ideals it claims to hold. National or international conventions and standards for war conduct, prisoner treatment and so on do call for a certain level of trust on the part of the state, so the church’s call for more justice and less violence in given situations is not unreasonable or totally foreign to prior commitments made by the state.

The threat of nuclear war was very present when Yoder first wrote The Christian Witness to the State in 1964, but it is certainly not less important today than it was then. “Nuclear pacifism” was the term used by theologians, churchpersons and others who opposed the development and use of nuclear weapons. This opposition was based on the expected horrific consequences of a nuclear war. Images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki graphically brought these consequences back to the Western nations on whose behalf the destruction was wrought. Biological and chemical weapons can also cause an unconscionable number of deaths. The kind of pacifism which opposes these weapons can present an opportunity not only for alliances with traditional pacifists, but also for dialog in which the nuclear pacifists are invited to re-examine their position in light of the devastating effects of all forms of warfare.

For the pacifist who rejects all forms of war on the basis of conscience, there are a number of responses, some of which may be used in a way that does not fit in the category of “witness.” Nonviolent direct action for the sake of forcing one’s will on the government can be both successful and nonviolent, although it has no guarantee of success (its main objective) and does not primarily speak to the government but attempts to “force its hand” and simply engages in a power struggle. Basic non-participation in any transactions with government can take the form of abstinence from voting or living below the taxable income level. Standing on its own, non-participation does not effectively address the state but withdraws from it. Civil disobedience is characterized by the illegality of the action and its symbolic nature. It does not intend to bend a system to its will, but attempts to draw public and government attention to an injustice or social evil. Other acts or demonstrations can be similar to civil disobedience except that they are legal such as permitted marches, prayer vigils or fasts.

The last two responses have as their primary outcome a clear witness to the state and/or society at large that a state action or policy is being critiqued in the name of the Christian social ethic. The witness may or may not have an effect on government policy, but that is not the measure of the act’s effectiveness. The measure is whether or not the point has been made clear to someone who can do something about the policy in question. Neither does the act seek to control or manipulate anyone in power. It is done as an outgrowth of the church’s witness. “This witness will be most forceful if it coincides with a clear prior moral commitment rather than being a mere protest.” Consistency is needed between lifestyles and habits in the churchpersons and their publicly targeted actions. It would be disingenuous for a person who has significant investments in defense-related corporations to protest a state military action. Hauerwas’ use of the term “politics as gesture” is helpful in understanding the need for consistency. How churchpersons spend their time and energy, how they relate to others, how they prioritize the varying parts of their lives, in fact, how they bring those varying parts of their lives together, are important gestures which reflect their real commitments to the church and its witness of peace. If the church is to be a contrast society, meaning different from but in contact with the wider society and able to offer real alternatives, then it must substantially be and appear different to the ones outside of it. This approach “is animated by a different Spirit — a difference manifested in its material practices and institutions, as well as in the narratives and convictions that give them shape and intelligibility.” It goes far enough to provide a challenge to the current state of the church which appears to be one of comfortable assimilation into the wider society and offers little in the way of real, identity-shaping alternatives. It describes a fertile seedbed for the kind of active witness that has been advocated in this paper and keeps the temptation to resort to nonviolent coercion in its proper category — as a temptation to be avoided.

Rasmusson’s description of the church as a “tactic” also helps us to see that it does not operate from a position of political power or a desire for hegemony. Therefore the church cannot create an overarching strategy for conquest since it is living and acting on the “turf” of the world, not its own independent space. It is impossible to control or withdraw from this turf, so the church must act with the resources available to it and from a position of weakness. This position requires careful actions which must be discerned within the body and not merely adopted from the competing society. Its tactics will be along the lines of the forms of witness described above.

The state to which the church witnesses has commonly been defended by a theology which claims Romans 13 as its basis. This theology argues that the state has been instituted or ordained by God in “a specific providential or creative act.” It has taken shape in two differing ways. In the first one, the state that exists in a given situation is the one which God wants to be there at that time, and the will of the state is seen as the will of God for that state. In the second way, the ideal of the state is what has been instituted by God which means that the state must maintain a certain legitimacy in order to claim divine authority. When it does not, it is worthy of non-existence and cannot truthfully claim to be doing God’s will. Yoder argues that both of these interpretations of Romans 13 limit the debate on its meaning and hide their inadequate assumptions:

More careful recent analysis, both exegetical and systematic, has given good reason to doubt whether the intention of Paul in this passage was at all to provide this sort of metaphysic or ontology of the state. Paul was simply arguing that the Christians in Rome should not rebel even against a government which threatened to mistreat them. They could be confident that God was using the powers in and behind the state within His providential purpose. The state is not instituted, i.e., established, but rather accepted in its empirical reality, as something that God can overrule toward His ends. Paul therefore does not mean that in the divine acceptance of the state there is implied any ratification of its moral standards or political purposes, or any theory of the proper state.

Interpreted thus, Yoder argues, the Christian is not called to obedience to the state, but to be subject to it. Having clarified that subjection is not the same as obedience, it should be made equally clear that it is not disobedience. It is simply a decoupling of the concept of the will of the state from the concept of the will of God. Then the Christian is free to obey or disobey (and accept the potential consequences) depending on obligations the state places on her or him. With this interpretation of the biblical text, the church should not be restricted by a false conscience in its witness to the state.

The preceding argument then leaves us with no theory, at least from a Christian perspective, of how states should order and structure themselves. This is precisely where Yoder and Hauerwas believe we should be as a biblical people — back to the place where the scriptures give meaning, purpose, mandate and shape to the people of God and not to the institution we call the state. “[T]he church should be faithful to the kingdom of God and not see as its role to give religious legitimation to the state, or to formulate its ethic so that the state can make it its own.” Hauerwas would argue that there will necessarily be tensions between the church and the state due to their competition for the loyalties of the citizens. Whether that state is a liberal democracy or a totalitarian dictatorship (the difference is only a matter of degree), the state will eventually make demands of its citizens to which the church must respond in the negative. A body of persons who have proclaimed their loyalty to Christ and can see through and around the falsity of the promises which states make will be prepared and skilled for such a task.

The social witness impulses of the church have come to fruition in numerous forms throughout its history. Slavery, child labor, labor conditions and many other issues have been raised by churches in the public sphere. The Sunday School movement which began as an effort to educate impoverished children went on to become influential in shaping public education in America. In the twentieth century, Mennonites were instrumental in reforming the mental health industry by raising the awareness of the government and nation regarding the conditions and abuses in mental hospitals. Churches were at the forefront of providing relief and voluntary labor in times of disaster and war long before government agencies were created to address these problems. Not every effort has been continued in the spirit of Christian witness, and in fact some have been co-opted as tools of foreign policy with motives far-removed from basic altruism. This is perhaps more of a critique of the church for having an overly optimistic view of the state-sponsored agencies. The point remains that the church has been the impetus for many reforms and humanitarian institutions.

John Rempel was the Mennonite Central Committee liaison to the United Nations for twelve years ending in 2003. His attitude toward his work there was deeply influenced by Yoder, especially The Christian Witness to the State, and he has actively sought to apply this theology in day-to-day interactions. He reflects on his contact with a Jehovah’s Witness who sometimes castigated him for working with and attempting to influence the “beast in Revelation,” and working with a Quaker colleague who had his optimism for changing human institutions challenged by the escalating violence in the Middle East. He writes:

In my work with MCC at the UN I regularly find myself thinking of my Jehovah’s Witness friend, who can’t see God at work outside the church, and my Quaker friend, who puts too much stock in the goodness of human institutions. The shortcoming of the first position lies in thinking that the church doesn’t need the world; the shortcoming of the second one lies in thinking that the world doesn’t need the church.

As an alternative to these supposed either/or propositions, Rempel describes how Yoder’s “middle axiom” has been the model used for interacting with the United Nations on behalf of the MCC constituency, and the example is given of working to prevent the use of children as soldiers. This effort was specific, firmly within the realm of the possible and targeted towards officials who could implement the agreed upon resolutions. The outcomes of such negotiations are necessarily seen as provisional and not a final settling of the issue. Mennonite workers have returned from assignments overseas to meet with United Nations workers and helped document the continuing use of children as soldiers in Uganda. This witness is both powerful and subtle in its approach. Returning volunteers have on numerous occasions been given the opportunity to visit with a United Nations official or United States congressperson or congressional aide and tell the story of what they saw, experienced and heard in their overseas setting. Many times the conditions are in direct relation to a United States policy. This simple testimony on behalf of another can serve as a critique of misguided state actions.

A further example given by Rempel illustrates the difficulties and complexities which inevitably come in working with secular institutions:

Our office was able to participate in the deliberations of a UN sub-committee recommending mechanisms to measure the humanitarian impact of sanctions. Some members of this committee had concluded that in Iraq even smart sanctions wouldn’t ease the suffering. A few of them made the case for lifting the embargo altogether. MCC shared this view.

What happened at one of the meetings of the sub-committee makes the dilemmas we face clear. I was there on the day of an unforgettable meeting with a top UN advisor. He had been persuaded to enter a conversation sponsored by a joint committee of NGOs and UN humanitarian staff. At a crucial point in the exchange he declared, “I will negotiate with you on smart sanctions, on targeting elites and not ordinary people, but if you’ve invited me to support the lifting of sanctions, I’m leaving the room right now. Such a position contradicts the Charter and puts me in an impossible position with the Council.”

You could have heard a pin drop. No one spoke up. Before our eyes the dynamic of the debate had changed! And I was there. Had I squandered a prophetic moment? Should I have shouted out, “I protest. Only the lifting of sanctions can end the starvation.”? Instead, we supported the subcommittee’s proposal for smart sanctions because at least they offered the possibility of easing conditions. At the same time we continued to press members of the Iraq Sanctions Committee to lift the embargo altogether. Was that a bad compromise?

Rempel states that MCC works with the United Nations “not because it is our hope. We work with it because our hope lies outside human institutions; it lies in the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has entrusted that message to the church (II Cor. 5:19). Part of our mission is to carry the ministry of reconciliation into the political order.” It is the mission even when the path is not perfectly clear and the options are less than optimal, but the calling still remains.

The church’s witness to the lordship and supremacy of Christ will naturally place it in conflict with the state’s claim to sovereignty over a nation of individuals. The church must continue to push out this witness even as it seeks to create the bonds and virtues within itself in order to assert its own communal identity. The metaphor given to us by Jesus in the parable of the yeast is helpful in envisioning both the means and the ends of the kingdoms inevitable growth and spread. In this endeavor, John Howard Yoder has given the church an inestimable gift in systematically peeling away the layers of a theology influenced by Constantinianism and enlightenment philosophy and helping us to see Jesus as normative for Christians and the church as a whole. His work has clarified the foundation for the peace witness of the church.


Required texts for the class.

Rempel, John. A Mouse Among Elephants: The Mennonite Central Committee Office at the United Nations. The Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA. 10 June 2004 <>.

Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State, 2d ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002.


Sunday, February 4, 2007

Inaugural Post

What's a "WereMenno"?
  1. Someone who is a Mennonite and is not ashamed of it ("We're Menno").
  2. A Mennonite seminary graduate who isn't sure where her/his education will take them.
  3. A Mennonite seminary graduate who thinks he/she has something to say to the church.
  4. A creature which comes out at night to howl at the moon in a Mennonite perspective.