Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yoder vs. Augustine: Ethics of War and Peace (pt.2)

John Howard Yoder essentially argues that this tension that just warriors find themselves in must be broken in favor of absolute pacifism, a return to the earliest way of discipleship out of faithfulness to the gospel before the rise of “Constantinianism.” Between the early 4th and 5th centuries, the church slowly but surely gave up its original call to be a community of faith that is distinct from the empire, due to their newly gained freedom and power after Constantine legalized Christianity. The church naturally began to see themselves as part of the establishment, rather than as a faithful, persecuted minority. As a result, church membership came to be identified with citizenship in the empire, the church worked alongside the empire, and Christian ethics went mainstream – except for pacifism, which was largely abandoned in order to allow the church to integrate into positions of power that often required the use of force. It is not a coincidence that Augustine lived during this period, as he widely influenced the church with his articulation of just war principles towards a full embrace of Constantinianism. Yoder follows this pattern of Constantinianism all the way to the present day, showing how it has changed while also remaining a fixture of Christianity in some capacity. His Anabaptist call for the church to leave behind the dream of controlling history through the use of governmental power and force is motivated in part by this decline narrative of Constantinianism.

With his concept of “original revolution”, Yoder means to urge the church back to their true calling: to live in intentional faith communities “with [their] own deviant set of values and [their] coherent way of incarnating them.” This goes against the Augustinian, dualistic idea that church life operates on a separate spiritual level (City of God), while worldly life is more concerned with the material conditions of a sinful world (City of Man). For Yoder, this “two cities” concept is part of the mistake of Constantinianism. Instead, he argues that Jesus incarnated a new, distinct way of being in the world by renouncing violence and any hope of gaining authority or power – without retreating from the world. Faithful Christian discipleship is revealed in the cross and resurrection: although the cross looked like a failure, it ultimately led to the victory of resurrection. Christian pacifism is thus not about making pragmatic calculations, but about living in the pattern of cross and resurrection: “…in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation…which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord.”

Although Yoder’s pacifism cannot be imposed on those who do not share the Christian hope (it is voluntary), it is absolute and unbending for persons of faith. Whereas Augustine reads Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as sometimes referring to an “inward disposition”, Yoder reads it quite concretely as demanding nonresistance for all disciples of Jesus. Additionally, while Augustine interprets Romans 13 to legitimize all governmental authority as divinely ordained, Yoder counters this in two ways. First, he argues that the nonviolent ethic of Romans 12 must be read alongside Romans 13. Although governments can use the sword, Christians are prohibited. Second, Yoder argues that when Romans 13 is properly interpreted, it does not mean that God approves of the powers that be, but only that God orders them, assigning them a place in the world as a librarian assigns books a place on shelves while not necessarily approving of the book’s content: “…it is not that by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what that government does.” Understood in historical context, Yoder argues that these passages in Romans still require absolute pacifism from Christians and therefore prohibit participation in war.

Clearly, Yoder’s pacifism is not rooted in a liberal humanist pragmatism, but rather in faith and obedience to Jesus, who in turn was an absolute pacifist out of obedience to God. At the same time, it should be noted that neither does Yoder believe that pacifism is totally ineffective – on the contrary, it sometimes will be the most pragmatic option to resolve conflicts: “The renunciation of violence is not right because it ‘works’ (sometimes); it works (sometimes) because it is right.” Absolute, principled pacifism is thus the only way Christians are to live in the world. Christians do not hold dual citizenship, as Augustine thought, but owe their full allegiance to God’s coming rule and actualizing that rule through faithfulness in the here-and-now. Rather than distinguishing between the City of God and City of Man, Yoder distinguishes between the new aeon (which has been inaugurated by Jesus, to be fulfilled in the future) and the old aeon (the present order under “Caesar”, which is passing away), and calls Christians to live in the new aeon in anticipation of the triumph of the Lamb.

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