27 May 2008

Authority and servanthood, II

Young people typically experiment with their own identities, trying on different personae and worldviews to see how well they make sense of the new experiences they are confronting on a daily basis. The university undergraduate years see this sort of quest occurring at a high level of intensity, hopefully under the guidance of older mentors capable of bringing some order to this search. My own undergraduate years were a time of tremendous intellectual and spiritual growth.

To begin with, though I entered university a music major, intending to focus on vocal performance and composition, two related events pushed me towards a focussed study of politics: Watergate and the Cyprus crisis of 1974, the latter of which made refugees of my close relatives. Though the church of my youth (for all its considerable virtues) had given me little guidance on how to relate my faith in Jesus Christ to the great political events of the day, assuming that concern for politics might deflect one from the ostensibly higher calling of evangelizing the lost, I was becoming aware that there was a long tradition of Christian reflection on social and political life. Indeed there was more than one such tradition. The first of these was a variant of the Anabaptist vision, which was the initial influence on me around 19 years of age.

Accordingly, I flirted with the brand of Anabaptism associated with the Sojourners community, whose flagship periodical was then known as the Post-American. This is because, first, it resonated strongly with my burgeoning commitment to social justice, especially as manifested in public efforts to alleviate poverty. Second, at 19 I considered myself a pacifist and was briefly persuaded that Christians ought not to fight in wars — for any reason.

Founded by Jim Wallis and others, Sojourners grew out of the student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vietnam was the issue of the day, and many young people were disillusioned by the foreign and defence policies of the US government. The Christians among them were especially cynical about the role of churches in supporting these policies. Seeing evangelist Billy Graham fraternizing with the discredited President Richard Nixon in the White House was a continuing irritant. As a youthful baby-boomer with a developing social conscience, Sojourners touched a chord with me.

Nevertheless, it didn't take me long to run up against the limitations of their approach. In particular it seemed unable to envision a positive role for the state as a truly political community called by God to do public justice in his world. The ultimate solution to the power of sin on earth was to be found in the church as an alternative community, while earthly communities such as state and government belonged only to the order of providence. This order of providence was, to be sure, under God’s control, but it could never be a suitable venue for living the Christian life in an actively obedient way.

The Sojourners community had been influenced by the writings of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who would later come to influence the theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. (Both of them were at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, while I was a graduate student there.) Yoder in turn had been a student of Karl Barth at Basel.

Yoder is perhaps best known for his book, The Politics of Jesus, which I read and reviewed for a course I was taking in the autumn of 1975. My undertaking of this project turned out to be a watershed experience for me, as it planted doubts in my mind as to the validity of his approach. Here are two typical passages from Yoder’s book:
God can in his own way, in his sovereign permissive providence, “use” idolatrous Assyria (Isa. 10) or Rome. This takes place, however, without his declaring that such action which he thus uses is morally good or that participation in it is incumbent upon his covenant people (1st ed., p. 199).

God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that in his ordering of it he specifically, morally approves of what government does. The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills, the librarian does not create nor approve of the book he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that he orders them, brings them into line, that by his permissive government he lines them up with his purpose (p. 203).

What then is the political task of the Christian? Can the believing Christian, faithful to the gospel and obedient to the will of God, ever become a civil magistrate, seeking to do justice within the context of political community? Here is Yoder's answer, which comes in the midst of a discussion of the relationship between the 12th and 13th chapters of Romans:

There is a most specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians (p. 199, emphasis mine).

This, it seemed to me, failed to do justice to St. Paul's reference in Romans 13 to political authority as precisely God's servant. In the course of writing my review, I discovered that the Greek word the Apostle uses for servant, viz., διάκονος, is the same one used for a deacon in the church community. Romans 12:19 was thus not a prohibition against taking up the office of civil magistrate; it was rather a warning not to take personal vengeance.

This suggested to me that political authority, normatively speaking, is in principle more than an inadvertent doer of God’s will, along the lines of the Persian King Cyrus, but is called, like David and Solomon and their successors, to respond actively to God’s summons to do justice. A king now converted to faith in Christ does not cease to be a king; rather he now rules justly according to God's commands. He exercises the responsibilities of his office as an active doer of God's will. After making this discovery, I could no longer call myself an Anabaptist in any meaningful sense and began to look increasingly to the Reformed tradition in which I had been raised.

Because at least this particular strain of Anabaptism lacks a normative conception of political authority within God's world, it is difficult to find good reason for mounting a trenchant critique of the various secular ideologies that have infused its exercise over the past two to three centuries. If politics falls at best within the realm of God's providential sovereignty, and if one should focus one's redemptive efforts only on building up the institutional church, then the need for discerning the spirits (which was the title I had originally chosen for my first book) within the political realm becomes less significant.

This does not mean that Anabaptists will then become enthusiasts for, say, liberalism or socialism. Instead, following Yoder, Hendrik Berkhof, and ultimately Barth himself, there is a tendency to lump state authorities as such together with various spiritual forces into the catch-all category of "principalities and powers." There is, in other words, a tendency to conflate creational structure with spiritual direction. The net result is a tendency to truncate the full scope of Christ's redemption, which now involves breaking the sovereignty of the powers but not reclaiming them as such by reorienting their foundational religious direction.

Next: Authority and power.

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