Messianic Political Theology: Yoder contra Redekop
Anabaptist political theology in our time has been most influentially articulated in the writings of John Howard Yoder, a theologian and ethicist. In his popularly written contribution to the complex debates concerning Christianity and politics, John H. Redekop, a retired political scientist, distinguishes his Politics Under God from Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and designates his approach as “Anabaptist realism” over against Yoder’s “biblical realism.” 1 While Redekop offers an appreciative acknowledgement of Yoder’s influence, he is no less appreciative, it seems, of the role models for Christian political ethics provided by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This telling eclecticism points up a basic problem of Redekop’s book: what kind of study is it and to whom is it addressed?
For Redekop, Jesus had a unique mission. He concentrated on that divine mandate. We do not have that mission.
While the book purports to be a Christian account of church-state relations that is biblically and historically informed, it is certainly not a work of political theology. And while Redekop claims that his approach is Anabaptist insofar as it insists on the separation of church and state and a “full religious freedom,” both of which he deems to be closer to New Testament teaching than any other account, these claims are more asserted than explored or elaborated. Indeed, to the contrary (and despite pervasive biblical citation), rather than being rooted in biblical political theology, the operative assumptions of “church” and “state” in the book are more indebted to a vague political liberalism (institutional separation of church and state; freedom of speech and religion) and a conventional American evangelical moralism in which Christian ethics (the “Judeo-Christian ethic”) “is easily the most useful . . . in helping governments to achieve a free, democratic, tolerant, and respectful society in which human dignity is affirmed. . . .” (92–93).
In contrast to the political theologies of Yoder, the early Anabaptists, Luther, and Augustine—to name but a few of those messianic political theologies rooted in the apocalyptic theo-political vision of the New Testament and the Bible in general in which Yahweh is sovereign and the Messiah is Yahweh’s anointed representative—Redekop’s approach rests on a rather worldly ethical dualism between the state, which is established by God according to a lower “mark of Cain” ethic of retributive justice but about which one can still be “fairly optimistic” (19), and the church, which operates according to a “higher ethic,” the Christian virtues of love, humility and mercy (64) ordered by the moral perfection of Christ. Let me take up each of these in order to explore the challenges that apocalyptic political theology offers to their underlying assumptions.
Redekop’s definition of “politics” precludes a biblical messianic definition insofar as he defines it in terms of modern western liberalism as “activity related to governments, including the actions of public officeholders, of those seeking to become officeholders, and of political parties and other organizations seeking to place candidates in government positions” (25). It is no wonder, then, that there can be no “politics of Jesus” since such terminology is by definition irrelevant to liberal politics (18–19). This is why, I expect, Redekop mistakenly asserts that Yoder stands for the “political irrelevance of Christian pacifism,” advocates “the minimization of any political involvement,” and holds “a rather low view of politics as an arena of Christian service” (18–19). How can this be an intelligible account of a book entitled The Politics of Jesus?! Only if the meaning of politics is defined in radically different terms. And this is indeed the case, insofar as Redekop defines politics and governing authority in terms of absolutist state power, again in keeping with liberal statism whether of the right or of the left: “In other words, political power is distinctive because government is the only power center that potentially or actually controls and sets the guidelines for all other power centers in its realm, ranging from the family and school to business corporations and labor unions” (26, emphasis mine).
This coercive definition of political power is rooted in the “ultimate legal coercive power” (27) that trumps the limited power of all other institutions, including the church. The state’s power, in fact, represents “ultimately . . . control over life itself” (26). These are elevated claims for the state and, when combined uncritically with a generally affirmative view of “the expanding role of governments in most countries” (28), it begins to sound positively idolatrous. Redekop wants to resist giving politics the status of “ultimate seriousness” (29), but I suggest this becomes difficult to do when the state is defined as established by God on such totalizing terms.
Redekop repeatedly cites Romans 13 to support his claims in this regard, without much interpretation or qualification—and he never bothers to engage the complex political and exegetical account given by Yoder in The Politics of Jesus. Yoder for his part, contra Redekop’s representation, says the following:
Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics. 2
For Yoder, Romans 13 may therefore not be read as authorizing the divine “establishment” of state authority or a divine “mandate” for government “outside the perfection of Christ,” as Redekop does (28, 33f., 70f.). Indeed, to argue as Redekop does that every society requires some governing agency to be “the ultimate referee, the final arbiter, the overarching power center” and that this legitimation of the coercive, military state is provided in Romans 13:4 (75, 104–5) would be for Yoder a violation of the text. The first point to be made, suggests Yoder, is to recognize that the language of the “powers” (exousiae) in 13:1 is situated in the context of the apocalyptic cosmology of Paul: the “governing authorities” of the created order are fallen and stand in rebellion against divine rule and yet God providentially “orders” (tetagmenai eisin, 13:1) these powers in an ordering to which all people remain “subordinate” (hypotassestho, 13:1).
But this in no way mitigates the call to worldly nonconformity that Paul issues in the opening verses of the larger section in which Romans 13:1–7 finds its context: “Do not be conformed to this world . . .” (12:2), a nonconformity that is tied directly and consistently to the messianic commandment (12:9–21; 13:8–14) to fulfill the law through revolutionary subordination that imitates the servant love of Christ. Indeed, if the New Testament is to be believed, God has broken the sovereignty of the fallen powers precisely through the public disarming triumph of the cross (Paul in Colossians 2)—they are precisely not the final arbiters or ultimate powers of good and evil in the world. 3 Rather, the Messiah is, and displays this precisely through the free subordination to an unjust death that reveals the impotence of coercive juridical power to establish justice.
How then might the rebellious governing authorities also be “the servant of God” by executing divine wrath via the sword upon wrongdoers (Rom. 13:4)? Precisely, it seems, in the same way as Jesus recognized in his words spoken during his violent arrest: “all who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). The divine wrath here is not the retributive vengeance of a juridical God who needs a coercive human political arm to carry out his sentences; it is rather the outcome of human rebellion, described in detail in Romans 1:18f. What is Paul’s understanding of the wrath of God “revealed from heaven”? It is that “God gave them up [paredoken, “handed them over”] in the lusts of their hearts . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” This verb “handed them over” is repeated (1:24, 26, 28) as the act of divine abandonment of idolaters—those who worship human power and creaturely authority rather than God—to the disorder and violence of their own religio-political worship. Such a “handing over” is also a display of the ordering of divine providence in which rebellious human judgment rooted in violence is shown to be devoid of true justice or righteousness (Paul’s word is dikaiosyne), in contrast to the creative love of divine agency “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17).
In other words, there is in Romans no authorization of a governing agency outside the perfection of Christ (the perfection of sacrificial love) as a separate “mandate” of political justice that somehow establishes the necessary coercive conditions for “worldly peace” required by the church to do its “important spiritual work” (Redekop). This would be to deny the cosmic sovereignty of Christ. Yet this is precisely what Redekop is forced to argue when he divides “the perfection of Christ” (the church) from “the perfection of God’s love” (which mandates the coercive order of the secular state as a divinely legitimated authority, 33).
Furthermore, while Redekop acknowledges that the divine establishment of political authority is a “Plan B” arrangement rooted in human sin, beginning with the “mark of Cain” as a restraint on freely chosen human evil, he purports to find a Christological legitimation of the coercive, expansionist secular state in the notoriously ambiguous words of Jesus (which are, however, repeatedly cited by Redekop without a hint of ambiguity, 33, et passim): “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21). To suggest as Redekop does that these words of Jesus “bestowed legitimacy on [Roman] government” (32) is astonishing, insofar as most interpreters who place this passage in Matthean context note that its effect is to relativize radically the claims of the Roman empire. 4 Jesus, after all, precedes these word with a question with regard to the coin he has requested to be shown: “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asks (Matt. 22:20)—it is Caesar’s of course. This should be highly suggestive of a resonance with Paul’s discussion of idolatry in Romans 1:20: “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man.” Not to mention the dominical saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
By contrast, Redekop wants to interpret Jesus as legitimating coercive secular rule and advocating a “balanced” and no doubt “enlightened” view of politics and government that smoothes out the messianic apocalyptic tension. Jesus, I suggest, rather escalates the tension by implying that it matters little whose human image is on the coin—Caesar, Charlemagne, or Abraham Lincoln—as the decisive cosmic question, both religious and political, is what belongs to and is owed to God. Here again the words of Paul in Romans 13 may prove useful: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for one who loves one’s neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8).
If Redekop’s account of the secular state is too worldly in a non-messianic direction, perhaps the reason is that his account of the church is too idealistic. There are indications in his book of such idealism. He seems at times to imply, in keeping with the early Anabaptists (who were, however, not idealists—as I shall argue below), that the ethic of the church is in keeping with the “perfection of Christ” (63f.). By contrast to the “sub-Christian” state with its requirement of coercive judicial power, the church is to be ordered by the Christian virtues of love, humility and mercy (64).
Yet for Redekop Anabaptist ecclesiology is not without its progressive implications for secular politics (here is where his idealism begins to show), as he characterizes the early Anabaptists as “the first champions of the separation of church and state” and thus “the first modern champions of religious freedom.” There are limits to such progress, however, as messianic ethics could never, Redekop argues, become definitively normative for the state:
Does a ruler, even if he is a Christian, have the right to sacrifice his country’s advantages or its assets when a large majority of its citizens are opposed? Further, would a ruler be acting correctly if he simply ‘turned the other cheek’ . . . and did nothing to stop a brutal foreign dictator from attacking, pillaging, and conquering his country? Should invading soldiers simply be allowed to plunder, rape, kill, and destroy? . . . Also, would a government in a relatively prosperous country be acting rightly if it decided, against the wishes of the majority population, to give away the bulk of its assets to poor countries and commit itself simply to follow Jesus in a life of faith, trusting him to provide for its needy people in the future? (84)
In other words, governments cannot be expected to “live ethically like the body of Christ”—especially, it would seem, “enlightened” liberal democratic ones.
And yet if one were simply to replace “ruler” or “government” with “parent” or “church” one might quickly realize that the ethical idealism of Redekop’s “Reformed Anabaptism” does not readily address the apocalyptic challenges entailed in messianic ethics, of which the early Anabaptists were well aware. How many Anabaptist churches in our enlightened democratic regimes give away the bulk of their assets, indeed how many Mennonite households and how many so-called Christian disciples live according to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? To speak about this in terms of conflicting moral absolutes, as Redekop does (85), does not get at the critical theo-political challenges confronting us in a messianic “gospel.” Nor is it clear to me that “the Christian ethic, which can also be called the Judeo-Christian ethic, is easily the most useful . . . in helping governments to achieve a free, democratic, tolerant, and respectful society in which human dignity is affirmed and serious social needs are addressed” (92–93).
I see nothing terribly democratic in Jesus’ message—he certainly does not think that the majority vote decides what is true or just or good! To the contrary, he tells his followers to be prepared, if they follow him in obedience to divine sovereignty, to be in a very small and despised, undignified minority. And how does he propose to address social needs? Through particular enactments of divine power intended as signs of a hidden providence. Indeed, how would one even discern which social needs are serious and which are not? Surely not via quantitative measures or purely external criteria. I do not find programmatic ethical or political answers to these questions in the New Testament.
Of course, it is also the case for Redekop that “Jesus had a unique mission. He concentrated on that divine mandate. We do not have that mission” (113). Does this mean that for Redekop the messianic tradition of “imitatio Christi” and the “Nachfolge Christi” of the Anabaptist tradition is a politically irrelevant ideal? Redekop states, correctly, that “in many areas of life, Jesus and his disciples did not actually model behavior for us” (114)—Jesus and his followers generally did not have families and certainly did not grow old, they did not run successful businesses or become model careerists, and they lived in a very different political, economic and cultural context. Yet what are the “general moral values” Jesus has left his twenty-first century followers, and what are the characteristics of the Spirit-guided “mind” that should inform those who would be “salt and light in a needy world” (114)? Redekop’s book does not truly help us address this question beyond offering the kinds of problematic vague generalities I have already indicated. John Howard Yoder remains, in my view, the most challenging political ethical thinker for those interested in the question of whether a messianic political ethic remains possible in our time and place and I wish in conclusion to reflect on why I think this is so. 5
Yoder understood himself to be clearing the ground for the political theological meaning of the New Testament claim that “Jesus as the Messiah is Lord” to be brought into focus for contemporary North American social ethics. This project, argued Yoder, is by no means one of “sectarian” withdrawal into an idealistic religious community. To the contrary, it is publicly to raise and test the truth question entailed in New Testament Christological claims that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the cosmic Lord over all creation, whose sovereignty is expressed in the world by followers who imitate his kenotic “revolutionary subordination.” If this claim is true, it must be true not only for first or sixteenth century Christians, but also for twentieth and twenty-first century Christians, and it will be as apocalyptically scandalous today as it was to the Jewish and Gentile communities of Jesus’ day.
Paul’s apostolic calling as a prophet of the crucified Jewish messiah to the Gentile nations required him to articulate a political sovereignty that radically called into question the sovereignty of both Rome and ethnic Israel, and proclaimed the founding of a new people, who would not recognize traditional boundaries and defining identities. This crucified messiah even now exercises real cosmic sovereignty, a rule displayed not in the exercise of juridical authority or state power but in the pattern of life displayed in the slain Lamb and imitated in the community of disciples that follow him, identified by Paul as the “messianic body.”
This apocalyptic messianic paradigm has a number of characteristic social marks: baptism as the initiation into a new humanity of inter-ethnic ecumenicity; the Eucharistic pattern of table fellowship and economic sharing rooted in the liturgical and celebratory receiving of life as divine gift; binding and loosing as the pattern of discernment, forgiveness and social reconciliation; the fullness of the messianic body in which no “I” stands alone but all are gifted and require the full participation of each gift; the open meeting in which freedom of speech is found through the shared discernment of what the divine spirit may be saying. 6
While this fivefold pattern of the messianic body politic should be explicitly displayed in the ekklesia, the community called out in obedience to messianic authority, it is not a church ideal and it is not limited to Christians. All people are invited into the messianic polis and to understand the meaning of their shared life in terms of its distinctive patterns, since the calling of the people of God is no different from the calling of all humanity. Hence Yoder is also able, non-idealistically, to trace analogies and examples of the messianic community in the wider, non-confessional world. For example, binding and loosing may be displayed in non-confessional society as conflict resolution and mediation, Eucharistic community as the sharing of goods and reinterpretation of power and rank, and so on.
The scandal and the power of the messianic paradigm, therefore, is not its closed “insider” information or special privileged identity, but precisely those authoritative characteristics of the crucified messiah’s sovereignty that always have and always will continue to challenge wise and responsible humanists, both inside and outside the church, who appeal to other models of political and moral responsibility. These scandal markers include: the renunciation of domination in favor of servanthood, the pacifist love of enemies which breaks down closed identities, and the practice of forgiveness rather than retributive justice as the path to socio-political reconciliation and harmony. 7
- John H. Redekop, Politics Under God (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2007). References to this book will appear in brackets in the body of this review article.
- John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994; original 1972), 52–53. Yoder’s book is devoted to demonstrating that Jesus’ (and the New Testament’s) language of the “kingdom of God” is fully political. Yoder’s claim from the outset is that his book will test “the hypothesis that runs counter to the prevalent assumptions [including Redekop’s]: the hypothesis that the ministry and claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option” (11). The same hypothesis underlies Yoder’s more popular account in Body Politics: “Church and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence of the same Lordship. The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), ix.
- See Yoder, Politics of Jesus, chapters 8 and 9. Cf. René Girard, “The Triumph of the Cross,” I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), chapter 11.
- See W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, volume III (London: T. & T. Clark, 1997): 210–20. An excellent discussion of the story of the tribute money as a renunciation of the imperium Caesaris is found in Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars: Historical Sketches (Wipf & Stock reprint, 1952), chapter 8.
- I have tried to give a more complete, critical account of this in “Is a Messianic Political Ethic Possible? Recent Work By and About John Howard Yoder,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33, no. 1 (2005): 141–74.
- See Yoder, Body Politics; also For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), chapters 2 and 12.
- See Yoder, For the Nations, 47–48.