The last third of the book was probably the most influential for me because it tore down the theological dissonance I had brought to the table. The first two-thirds of Yoder’s book made sense because I knew the Bible pretty well, and a lot of what he said was Sunday School stuff. "Jesus said love your enemies." Yes. "Jesus said turn the other cheek." Of course. "Jesus loved the outcasts." Undoubtedly. "Jesus pushed back against the powerful religious institution of his day." Correct. But for some reason - my stupidity, the Western heritage and unique bias Christianity has in the U.S., etc. - I had always left Jesus's words where they were - with him. I never took them upon myself really. I had willfully and/or subconsciously made Christ's difficult expectations for me either suggestions, symbolism, or applicable only to him and his mission. But Yoder demolishes those options in his last section of the book.
"One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history. Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause. Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right 'handle' by which one can 'get a hold of' the course of history and move it in the right direction. For the movement called Moral Rearmament, ideology was this handle; 'ideas have legs,' so that if we can get a contagious new thought moving, it will make its own way. For others, it is the process of education that ultimately determines the character and course of the civilization; whoever rules the teachers' colleges rules the world...
Whichever the favored 'handle' may be, the structure of this approach is logically the same. One seeks to lift up one focal point in the midst of the course of human relations, one thread of meaning and causality which is more important than the individual persons, their lives and well-being, because it in itself determines wherein their well-being consists. Therefore it is justified to sacrifice to this one 'cause' other subordinate values, including the life and welfare of one's self, one's neighbor, and (of course!) the enemy. We pull this one strategic thread in order to save the whole fabric. We can see this kind of reasoning with Constantine saving the Roman Empire, with Luther saving the Reformation by making an alliance with the princes, or with Khrushchev and his successors saving Marxism by making it somewhat more capitalistic, or with the United States saving democracy by alliances with military dictatorships and by the threatened use of the bomb."
So the question is, where is it that I believe the seat of power lies for the movement of history in our world? While most Christians would say they believe the seat of power is the throne of God, Yoder would likely point to the depths of Christian action and vocalness today in the political realm and say that this belies our true stance. The "moral majority" is a political term for a reason - Christians have so entrenched themselves in governmental affairs that their group is easily identifiable and influential. While the “Moral Majority” as an organization may have disappeared, it has not gone away as a movement.
Let's delve further into Yoder's analysis of how our view of power and shaping history plays out. Yoder says that those who desire to shape history through some mechanism of power do so with three major assumptions. First, they assume that "the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choice on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will move in that direction." Second, we assume that "we are adequately informed to be able to set up for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it." Finally, they assume that "effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yardstick." In summary, the movers and shakers of history generally believe in cause and effect, and that their ideal is the moral yardstick through which their actions are to be guided, and through which "good" is to be determined.
Taking that understanding of the working out of power, let's look at the "moral majority" in American politics. Their yardstick for effectiveness is the overt presence of God and his moral laws. By the overt presence of God I would mean Christian paraphernalia (e.g. the ten commandments in courthouses, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, Bibles in hotel rooms, prayer in schools, etc) as well as a lack of competing idolatrous paraphernalia (e.g. religious symbols from other religions in public places). The second form, having God's moral laws, is ensuring that things like gay marriage are banned, transgendered bathrooms aren’t implemented, and religious freedom is instituted and maintained.
The problem with a moral majority view in politics is really quite simple. Christians by and large know both logically and intuitively that effectiveness itself is not a goal. Actions are not deemed just or right based on their effectiveness. On top of this, there are actions that are morally fine that are actually bad if love is taken out of the equation. Paul speaks to this very clearly when he talks about Christian liberty, and it is the very crux of his love chapter (I Corinthians 13) - a chapter sandwiched between two chapters discussing how to effectively use the spiritual gifts and how to use them without bickering and competing. Yoder asks, "is there not in Christ's teaching on meekness, or in the attitude of Jesus toward power and servanthood, a deeper question being raised about whether it is our business at all to guide our action by the course we wish history to take?" I don't think there is a better question to ask, especially at this time in American history.
When you end up taking on the metric of effectiveness as your goal, you will find that you end up in one of two camps. You will either end up a conservative, where "any sense of movement is only a threat," or a progressive, where "the discernable movement of history is self-explicating and generally works for good, and therefore is the only terrain of significance from which ethics should self-evidently be derived." Effectiveness will either be measured by preservation or progress. But both of these systems have a major flaw to the Christian. Jesus's ethic was not measured by effectiveness, but rather servanthood and submission. To be a conservative or progressive who marks success by effectiveness makes the assumption "that history has moved us past the time of primitive Christianity and therefore out from under the relevance of the apostolic witness on this question."
Yoder is not surprised, however, that we have moved beyond the teaching of servanthood and submission to one of effectiveness. It was the main temptation of Christ, and it is what the world throws in our face constantly. It is what Yoder says next that clinches everything for me. It is a loosening of the shackles my heart has felt with all of my social compromise in the past decade. It is the spiritual intuition that Christianity is more than just establishing surface level morality through legislation. And it is the clarifying of how such a compromise as we saw in the last election could have come about.
"Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus the Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same... The cross is not a recipe for resurrection. Suffering is not a tool to make people come around, nor a good in itself. But the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works among us, aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.
The vision of ultimate good being determined by faithfulness and not by results is the point where we moderns get off. We confuse the kind of 'triumph of the good,' whose sole guarantee is the resurrection and the promise of the eternal glory of the Lamb, which an immediately accessible triumph which can be manipulated, just past the next social action campaign, by getting hold of society as a whole at the top. What in the Middle Ages was done by Roman Christianity or Islam is now being attempted by Marxism and by democratic nationalism. In spite of all the difference in language, and in the detailed vision of just what a good society would look like (and as a matter of fact even the visions are not that different), the real uniqueness of each of these positions is only that it identifies differently the particular moral elite which it holds to be worthy of guiding its society from the top. We may well prefer a democratically controlled oligarchy to some other kind. We may well have a choice between Marxist and Islamic and other statements of the vision of the good society. But what our contemporaries find themselves practically incapable of challenging is that the social problem can be solved by determining which aristocrats are morally justified, by virtue of their better ideology, to use the power of society from the top so as to lead the whole system in their direction.
Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only to our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, 'relevance' itself a good in the name of which evil may be done."
Christ himself, the one who moved his whole ministry towards the cross, teaches us what he thinks of effectiveness as a metric. It is wisdom. But God makes the “wise” things of the world foolish, for it is the "foolishness" of God that is truly wisdom. We see this clearly summarized in Philippians 2. In the context of being in right relationship, Paul says (emphases mine),
"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!"
While many interpret this as Jesus not grasping at deity, this doesn't make whole sense of the passage in its context. For Christ was deity. What does it mean for him to not grasp at it? What we see is that,
"Christ renounced the claim to govern history...What Jesus renounced was thus not simply the metaphysical status of sonship but rather the untrammeled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amid which he came to dwell. His emptying of himself, his accepting the form of servanthood and obedience unto death, is precisely his renunciation of lordship, his apparent abandonment of any obligation to be effective in making history move down the right track... The universal testimony of Scripture is that Christians are those who follow Christ at just this point."
Yoder goes on,
"The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!" John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross is not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness but their patience (Rev. 13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection... we find the most desperate encounter of the church's weakness (John was probably in exile, Paul in prison) with the power of the evil rulers of the present age. But this position is nothing more than a logical unfolding of the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ himself, whose choice of suffering servanthood rather than violent lordship, of love to the point of death rather than righteousness backed by power, was itself the fundamental direction of his life. Jesus was so faithful to the enemy love of God that it cost him all his effectiveness; he gave up every handle on history."
So the goal of the Christian in the world is not effectiveness, but servanthood, as seen in the example of Christ and the command for us to take up our crosses, as well as holding the expectation Christ's disciples should have of persecution. Yoder moves on to explore how this servanthood and submission are exemplified in scripture, and how we are to pursue them rather than effectiveness.
Before moving on, however, it is important to take into consideration Yoder’s claim that the West has emphasized personal justification too heavily. This isn't to say that personal justification is unimportant, but that the Bible teaches much more than individualism. It is important to understand this point, as our servanthood and submission are always grounded in relationships, not in the individual.
Those who grew up in conservative circles and learned scriptures for evangelism likely know Ephesians 2:8-9 by heart. This speaks to our personal justification through grace by faith. But Yoder shows that this justification isn't just a personal thing, but a communal one. Ephesians 2:11-22 says,
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
As Yoder summarizes, "The work of Christ is not only that he saves the soul of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ, the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, is itself the constituting of a new community made up of two kinds of people, those who had lived under the law and those who had not." Yoder quotes Markus Barth to further clarify,
"Sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means of justification: only in Christ's death and resurrection is the new man created from at least two, a Jew and a Greek, a man and a woman, a slave and a free man, etc.... The new man is present in actuality where two previously alien and hostile men come together before God. Justification in Christ is thus not an individual miracle happening to this person or that person, which each may seek or possess for himself. Rather justification by grace is a joining together of this person and that person, of the near and far;... it is a social event."
Such a notion puts into perspective Christ's words that the world would know his disciples by the way they loved one another. While Christianity is composed of individuals, were only individuals to exist there would be no Christianity. The triune, eternally communal God, not only reconciles individuals to himself, but also the new community of the Kingdom.
To explore the importance of relationships, Yoder examines a number of examples including the relationship of slave and free, husband and wife, and parent and child. But the example that stuck out to me most was that of women and the church. Yoder expounds on a very difficult passage - women covering their heads in church. This is a passage I had never heard explained well at all. But Yoder shows how the communal nature of Christianity and submission over effectiveness might explain such a passage.
We see in Corinth that a problem has arisen in the church. In their culture, a woman was to have her head covered, likely as a veiling of protection when she left home, and an indication that "she belonged somewhere in society." She had a protector in her husband or father. And of course, this was also a symbol of subjection. But didn't Christ come to free us from bondage? Didn't Paul say that we are all one in Christ? Didn't this community at Corinth receive that message? Yes. Yoder says that "if we are to understand the point of this passage, we must assume that the women in Corinth had heard [the message of her equal standing]. Otherwise [the women] would not be taking off their veils, especially not during the worship service." Yoder's point is that the only reason there is an issue with women being countercultural is because the gospel of freedom and oneness had reached these women's ears. The natural consequence is that they embraced their equality and loosed themselves from this social bond.
Surely Paul's response, then, would be that the veil of subjection should be taken off. But that's not what he says. Paul tells her to be subordinate. It is at this point that most interpreters go astray and either say that moral understanding was progressing or that the Bible is and always has been mysoginistic. But Yoder exclaims that this passage is right at the heart of true morality and true communal Christianity. Yoder says,
"[Paul's] first element of counsel is to remain in the social status within which one is; 'in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God' (v. 24). This applied to the slave's remaining a slave, to the single person's remaining single, to the married woman's remaining with her unbelieving husband, to the forsaken married woman's remaining unmarried without her husband as long as he lives; to accepting one's status as circumcised or as not circumcised. The reasoning supporting this general admonition is not that to change in any of these ways would be sinful or wrong, in the sense of an infraction of the law of God. The concern of the apostle is rather to assist everyone to remain 'free from anxieties' (v. 32), in a world whose structures are impermanent, and not so important that we should concentrate our efforts upon changing our status with regard to them. ('The appointed time has grown very short; from now on let those who have wives live as though they have none...for the form of this world is passing away' [vv. 29-31].)"
Our human view of freedom is that more opportunity and mobility provides us with more freedom. While that is true to an extent, Paul's point is that understanding our true status and the impermanence of worldly structures and status is what allows us to be free. In fact, at times fighting against one's social status betrays all senses of freedom. In one sense it may indicate that an individual requires a different social standing to truly feel that they have value. This belies their misunderstanding of value. Some of the women in Corinth may have believed they needed to be veil-free for their equality to be real. Secondly, freedom is taken away in that fighting for social status creates tension in all sorts of communities. For the women in Corinth this likely included tension with their husbands, other women, and their local community. Anxiety takes away one's ability to identify as valuable and free. Finally, pushing back against social status can take away freedoms. For some of the women in Corinth, there may have been strong repercussions. There may have been fines, they may have been forcefully kept in their houses, or they may have been abused by those outside their home. I'm not sure what the social repercussions were for them, but fighting one's social status often brings about these sorts of things.
Paul's point, then, is that if we understand our status in Christ, then it is true that women shouldn't have to wear a veil. But if we understand our status in Christ and our social context, we can see that women wearing a veil in no way detracts from their true value or freedom in Christ, regardless of the value the pro-veil faction attributes to them. If a woman in Corinth were to recognize that her value is equal with men's so that not wearing a veil doesn't devalue her - then certainly she can recognize that wearing a veil doesn't devalue her either. And in her social context, it may be better for her - both in terms of her freedom and her testimony to others - that she willingly subordinate to this custom.
Of course such a notion will sound horrendous to many progressives. To willingly subordinate oneself is despicable. Nobody would do such a thing, and to give in is to devalue oneself and their class. But the Bible says so much more on this freedom and subordination. Yoder explains,
"Yet right alongside this concern for that freedom which is maintained by not being rebellious about one's status in the present, there runs a second strand of instruction which seems at first to be opposed to it. If a slave can become free, he should avail himself of this opportunity (v. 21). If the husband of the forsaken woman dies she is free to remarry (v. 39); if anyone is strongly inclined toward marriage, that is quite proper (v. 36), but a freed man must not become a slave since that would be to move away from rather than toward freedom (vv. 22-23). Thus the Christian is called to view social status from the perspective of maximizing freedom. One who is given an opportunity to exercise more freedom should do so, because we are called to freedom in Christ. Yet that freedom can already become real within one's present status by voluntarily accepting subordination, in view of the relative unimportance of such social distinctions when seen in the light of the coming fulfillment of God's purposes... The apostles rather transformed the concept of living within a role by finding how in each role the servanthood of Christ - the voluntary subordination of one who knows that another regime is normative - could be made concrete. The wife or child or slave who can accept subordination because 'it is fitting in the Lord' has not forsaken the radicality of the call of Jesus; it is precisely this attitude toward the structures of this world, this freedom from needing to smash them since they are about to crumble anyway, which Jesus had been the first to teach and in his suffering concretize."
As Yoder points out again and again, the New Testament is all about relational living. Jesus Christ himself lived relationally and subordinated himself to God, despite Satan's continuing attempts to have Christ bring the Kingdom in a way that did not involve suffering. Yet Christ was obedient even to death, and death on a cross. Paul is by no means teaching that women, slaves, or children are unequal with men, masters, and parents. In fact, we can see by the disunity caused by the women at Corinth or Onesimus the slave that the implication of equality in Christ was well understood. Individuals who think they are lesser and belong in a subservient role don't rebel. But Paul had to continually preach towards the temptation that faced Christ, for it is the same temptation that faces humanity - control. Paul reminds us that just as Christ condescended to become a servant, though he deserved to rule, and just as he fulfilled his role by willfully giving up his right to comfort and calling the shots, so it is to be with us. We are to be content in whatever role we find ourselves in knowing that our value is unchanged by our role and our Sovereign is in control. As our example of servanthood and willful subordination takes root, we may find, as early Rome did, that society is changed much more meaningfully, more deeply, and more permanently by humble submission than it is by armed revolt or coercive legislation. And if the world isn't changed through our effort and means, it by no means changes our standing with God. Effectiveness as the world sees it is no replacement for humble faith, submission, and obedience to God's ethic and agenda.