I am still trying to sift through where I line up with Yoder's thoughts – especially as they pertain to the implications of pacifism and the abstention from government. I think his work is a very important one to consider due to the messiah complex we slap onto politics, but it would be a terrible thing to simply swing the pendulum the other way without careful consideration. I want to pose each concluding point as questions to consider and leave you to grapple with the answer I believe Yoder would give.
For many of my friends who are in the Reformed tradition, Men like John Owen (e.g. “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”) should ring loudly on this point. We understand that Christ's work was not simply his death on the cross. Sacrifice alone would make him an imperfect high priest. Christ's work as high priest extends into intercession on behalf of those for whom he sacrificed – the application. Christ's work extends not only beyond the cross to intercession, but in the procession of the Holy Spirit unto believers, as Joel and other prophets looked forward to. It is this Spirit who now lives within believers and transforms individuals in the context of communities to live in the Kingdom. The gospel is not death, but life – Kingdom life.
2. Is the Gospel death or new birth? If Christ's life is vital to our understanding of our lives and obligations, and if Christ reigns in power now as the Scripture seems to indicate, then his example and his power are applicable now. While Christians certainly have hope in a future resurrection, our new birth into the Kingdom happens here and now. We are already there, though not fully yet. Christ's enemies are being made his footstool, but just as the Powers were defeated by Christ's willing subordination and servanthood, so they are defeated in the same way today, in Christ's sacrificial body, the church. We are so free in our new lives that not even the fear of death can hold us back from choosing rightly. We are God's subjects living in his Kingdom under his rule. We are made right before him and our brethren and should live freely now.
3. If Christ is seated at the right hand of God and rules in power, how does our allegiance to his Kingdom impact our allegiance to earthly kingdoms? This will be one of the biggest points of contention for modern Christians. Since Constantine and Augustine, Christianity and politics have been mingled inseparably. But should this be? Many in the early church railed against participation in the government and military, and any (as far as I am aware) early quote (pre 200, and largely up through 300) one finds on the government - and particularly military service – view the two in a negative and prohibitive manner. While the context of some of these quotes may be due to the overt idolatry associated with some of these services in a country where Caesar was also god, it is hard to imagine that similar compromises aren't required in many areas of today's political and military service.
The big question, then, is "where is there conflict between the two kingdoms?" If God has truly called us to love our enemies, even to our own harm, to avoid courts for our own internal judges, to do no harm and return good in the face of evil - it is hard to imagine how this doesn't preclude a Christian from close participation in the kingdom of men because the Christian has a primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God. The Christian owes the Kingdom allegiance and obedience, while the earthly kingdom is owed only subordination. Such a stance means embracing persecution for not buying into a system the Powers prescribe. It also may mean forgoing effectiveness as the world defines effectiveness. But most importantly, it means following the example of Christ, obeying the king, and subordinating our wills to the God we say is sovereign.
4. If we truly believe the church is the seat of power, how does that influence where we spend our social capital? Christians believe that Christ came to establish his Kingdom. Christians believe that the church is the body of Christ in the world. Christians believe that Christ's words are wise prescriptions for our lives. If we are a new creation - both individually and communally, then how should that influence where we spend our "lobbying" potential? How much time and money should we spend on changing the minds of politicians versus working within our own church community and local community?
As a wonderful example of this, look at the film "The Drop Box." (http://www.thedropboxfilm.com/). It is a film about an elderly Christian couple who recognize the travesty of abortion in South Korea and create a box where mothers can place their children instead of leaving them out in the elements to die. Knowing that most of the children who will be abandoned will have special needs, this couple has taken on caring for and finding homes for many children over the decades. None of this is to say that a governmental ban on abortion is necessarily better or worse than allowing for it, but that the method whereby this couple moves forward is compelling in a number of ways.
First, their actions avoid any legitimate condemnation and don't create the vitriolic atmosphere lobbying and politicization bring. Second, their money and efforts go directly into helping people. Third, their efforts directly impact their community and their relationships. Fourth, they are blameless in their ethic, as nobody can tell them they are only pro-birth and not pro-life. They actually contribute to human thriving and uphold life. We could go on and on about how such actions escape blame, stifle judgmentalism against them, create an atmosphere of love, actually helps individuals in the real world and local community, and displays a love unfathomable to a world who desperately needs to see such a thing. If the church is the seat of power, and we believe that, this is how we should live and spend our resources.
5. Should effectiveness be an ethical metric for a Christian? Christians often belabor the point – and for good reason – that ends don’t justify the means. Euthanasia is a despicable evil, even if it ends suffering and allows the rest of a society to have more resources and a better quality of living. Life is valuable and we should not end a life lightly (or for the Christian, perhaps not at all). Abortion for most or all circumstances is considered by Christians to be wrong. It doesn’t matter if a mother can’t provide for her kids, if her kids will experience physical, mental, or economic hardship, or whatever else – the ends don’t justify the means.
While the above situations were morally intuitive to me, there were many situations that weren’t. For instance, there was an episode of M.A.S.H. where a group of individuals was hiding from the North Koreans and one of the members in the group had a baby. The baby started screaming and the mother had to choose between smothering the baby and killing it to save everyone, or allowing the baby to cry and have the whole group found and killed. To me, that was a situation in which I had no idea how I’d act. To kill a child is horrific, but to allow fifty to die so that one doesn’t have to be killed by my hands seems worse. Fifty to one. Before reading Yoder’s book, I thought that the terrible deed had to be done for the greater good. My stance on abortion and my stance on this situation were not the same. I was a hypocrite.
After reading “The Politics of Jesus,” I recognized that I had always had an “ends justify the means” mentality. While I might not have taken this as far as many non-Christians, I and my fellow Christians were just a little farther down the utilitarian scale. We still were consequentialists. Nothing made this more clear than the last election did for me.
Since Yoder has highlighted my tendency towards the metric of effectiveness, I recognize that the answer to the M.A.S.H. moral dilemma is simple to answer, though it would be hard to enact. I should not kill the child to save the fifty. Knowing this, it might mean that I let any group with whom I travel know that if such a scenario came up, I would not kill. That may mean they ask me not to travel with them, increasing my likelihood of death. But whatever it means for my physical wellbeing, I should not let such a decision corrupt my soul. It is far better that my body be thrown to the flames and my soul be saved – my soul escaping the flames unscathed.
This last election was the first time I recognized my tendency towards measuring success in terms of effectiveness. The Republican platform is more friendly towards Christians, promotes religious freedom (at least for Christians), is anti-abortion, pro-traditional family, etc. These are all platforms that many conservative Christians desire to see advanced. But as I thought about the candidate representing the Republican party, the immoral actions that characterized his life, and the questionable ways in which he wanted to advance the conservative platform – it crossed some line in my moral threshold. It was too much. I wanted to end abortion, but I didn’t want to be a hypocrite by advancing agendas that dismissed the needs of people beyond their birth. I wanted abortion to end, but I knew that advancing a political platform was only effective so long as that platform held power. Legislation would not change the hearts of people. I wanted to end abortion, but I didn’t want to put my hopes for legislating against it on the back of an individual who was so morally flawed. I wanted to end abortion, but I didn’t want my savior to be identified with the narcissistic, self-proclaimed and Republican acclaimed “savior.” I wanted to end abortion, but I didn’t want to do it through the power of coercion and majority rule.
What Yoder provides is not just a negative ethic about what Christians should avoid. It is a positive one. We are to flee the Powers that be when they are in conflict with the true Kingdom. Running to a system that is founded upon coercion, majority rule, moralism, immorality, violence, and vitriol is not what we are to embrace as followers of Christ. We are to be little Christs who love our enemies, obey our savior, trust in God’s sovereignty, be willing to be persecuted and die, and bring light, not darkness into the world. Observing this last election, I saw Christians so willing to go against the negative ethic and do harm, hate enemies, and seek self-preservation, with so little of the positive ethic willing to stand up for the oppressed, bear persecution, and love even their enemies. It rather convinced me that politics may be the most effective route to take, as it has worked to bring back the Mexico City Policy against abortion and appoint conservative Supreme Court Justices. But for all of that effectiveness, I fear it has irreparably marred both the body and image of Christ for decades to come.
6. Finally, when looking at Christ's prophetic expectation for his followers and when looking at the common Christian experience from around the world and throughout the ages - what does it say about us that we live lives devoid of real persecution? As Yoder points out, persecution and the bearing of the cross are distinct events. We move towards these events. They are culminations of continued willful decisions to throw off the powers of our day as we live our lives in a specific manner that offends the established institutions. Is it that we Christians truly live in such a blessed and holy nation that persecution just doesn't result?
One needs only take a cursory glance at history to see that much of the Christianity in America has been a Christianity defined by the avoidance of persecution because it was a Christianity that avoided putting on Christ. Atrocities committed against Native Americans? We sacrificed on the altar of Colonialism and Imperialism. Slavery? We sacrificed on the altar of nationalism and the in-race. Unethical labor practices? We sacrificed on the altar of the economy. Civil Rights and women's rights? We sacrificed on the altar of religious institutions, not wanting to acknowledge wrongdoing and fallibility. Japanese internment camps? We sacrificed on the altar of self-preservation and safety. For the minority of Christians who stood firm in the example of Christ and who have joined the heavenly cloud of witnesses before us - they chose persecution. For some it was social ostracization, and for others it was death. But no one can say that there was ever a time in our country's history when persecution wasn't the road less traveled by Christians, but the road that needed to be traveled. The road less traveled is an inevitability for true Christians. It is the narrow gate – the eye of the needle.
I wonder now what persecutions I am avoiding and in need of embracing. We have many to choose from. Maybe I should really stand up for the unborn, through the seat of power, the church, and with the daily strength God so graciously apportions me. Maybe I should truly stand up for refugees and house them, or call my church to shelter them in the midst of their persecution, creating the potential for my own. Maybe I take a stand against mainstream Evangelicals who have bought into the idolatry of the political sphere and face being called a heretic and disowned by the people I love most. Perhaps obedience to my king requires that I disobey my government, though I willingly subordinate to the consequences that this may bring. Opportunity for real persecution is never far off when Christ is put on.
When we measure our lives by how well we avoid persecution, how well we forcefully impose morality on others, and how well we accrue comfort and wealth - I have to ask whether we're using the appropriate metric. The metric of Christ not only indicates that our current measures are wrong, but also that we are a long way from the metric of Calvary. We allow Christ to bear his cross and relish in this thought, while refusing to bear our own. We are like the disciples when they knew only crucifixion without the promise of resurrection. We scatter in the face of hardship, scared that our fate may be like our savior's. We are not like the disciples who knew the risen Christ - fearlessly living under their sovereign king and obedient to him alone, even when his decrees seemed foolish and lead to a torturous end.
While the world stands in need of those willing to die to self, we Christians are content to let Jesus do the dying alone. We allow our savior who was sacrificed once for all to die over and over again as the only example of love - an ethic we are unwilling to exemplify. We are not disciples, we are freeloaders. We've counted the cost of discipleship and found it too rich for our blood - yet suitable for God's. We maintain the power politicized moralism grants to us and live our lives as demigods rather servants. We refuse to even consider dying the death of a martyr. For the sake of our agenda we forsake all others, while a savior asks us to make him Lord and forsake ourselves.