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Yoder’s pragmatic politics

I just reread one of my favorite Yoder essays, “Peace Without Eschatology?”, which is one of his earliest.* He wrote it in 1954, twenty seven years old, still in the beginning stages of his Th.D. at Basel and working for Mennonite Central Committee as director of a couple homes for children and as a peace advocate. It’s amazing to see how much of his later thinking is already present, or at least provoked, by such an early piece.

What really struck me this time was the way he talks about the state as needing to subject itself to a “higher moral instance,” the need to recognize certain limits on its authority deriving from the fact that it is subject to the reign of Christ. That weirdly resembles the view of someone like O’Donovan, who thinks that the “conversion” of the state to Christ partly includes its deliberate self-limiting.

But Yoder doesn’t think that this deliberate self-limiting is part of “the ideal state” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as the ideal state. He rejects O’Donovan’s search for “true political concepts” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there are such things as true political concepts. Politics is about maintaining a “tolerable balance of egoisms,” which is a completely contingent, permanently fallible, context-dependent enterprise.

When Yoder says that the state has certain limits, he’s saying that from a Christian point of view, the state cannot be invested with ultimate significance. From the perspective of things that do have ultimate significance—i.e., from an eschatological perspective—Christians should believe that the state has the very limited function of making sure sinfulness doesn’t get out of hand within its own domain. And Christians should be willing to tell the state when it’s doing something more or less than that in specific cases, “denouncing particular evils and inventing particular remedies.” Since sinfulness does tend to get out of hand when a state overestimates its importance, it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian to tell the state it should limit itself. So even the claim that the state has limits is not derived from any idea of what the state really ought to be according to theology, but from a pragmatic concern to keep the world from devolving into chaos and violence.

I’m more and more taken by this approach, which simply abandons the Platonic search for an ideal politics (which I think is present in most communitarians) and proceeds instead by analyzing specific political realities and making suggestions as they appear.

* For the curious, it was published for the first time in 1961 in pamphlet form, and then again in 1994 in The Royal Priesthood. That’s the best place to find it now.

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  1. myles
    June 13, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    One qualifying consideration to this: state isn’t ‘ideal’, because state exists ‘under the powers’, such that what ‘state’ is remains in flux according to those parts which are cooperating with the powers. So, it may _appear_ pragmatist, but in actuality, it’s looking at those parts of the state which can be cooperated with toward peaceability, i.e. under Christ’s lordship.

  2. June 13, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    That’s an interesting way of putting it. I’ve been reading some of earliest Yoder the past few days, so correct me if you think this shifts somewhat later—I have some suspicion it does.

    But in these essays I don’t think Yoder would say that parts of the state might be cooperating with the powers, but that the state itself is a power proper to the old aeon. So it has no “essence” at all. “All that the Powers have in common is their revolt, and revolt is not a principle of unity” (from “The Otherness of the Church”). The state plays a chaos-limiting function in history, but not even that function can be said to give the state any ontological dignity, of which it has none. With respect to such a transient, center-less institution built on such a precarious balance of order and disorder, one’s activity can only ever be pragmatic. In principle there can be no general theory of statecraft.

    Am I disagreeing with you, or are you getting at something similar?

  3. myles
    June 13, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Agreed–the state’s principle of unity is revolt, but not all “state acts” are state, i.e. he approves of education and roads and such, but not warmaking. So “state” appears as those things which are paradigmatic of “world”, as opposed to “church”. Neither church/world are defined in terms of institutions, but in terms of their orientation of practice, which is why the two get so closely linked together for him.

    Is this pragmatic? Maybe. I tend to think that his view of cooperation with public acts is less pragmatic than an ongoing act of discernment, ferreting out those portion of public activity which fall between “state” and “church”, i.e. that which can be redeemed by church.

  4. myles
    June 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

    and yes, he does shift later, but not toward pragmatism, I don’t think. What you do find is an increasing adoption of sociological language to describe this relationship rather than ‘powers’ language.

  5. June 15, 2010 at 10:22 am

    We might be working with slightly different ideas of what “pragmatic” means. I mean that Yoder thinks Christians should approach witness to the state on a case-by-case basis, deciding in each particular context what needs to be done and how. I’m opposing pragmatic political action to action based on any pre-conceived notion of how political bodies “really ought to behave” or what it means for a state to be really obedient to Christ or whatever. With respect to the state, I take Yoder as being a bit more “dogmatically” pragmatic still, in that he rejects a priori any such thing as “true political ideas.”

    I think that might be more or less the same as “an ongoing act of discernment.”

    And you’re definitely right that education, roads, public health, etc., are perfectly legitimate; but I don’t think that’s because they exist somewhere “between” the state and the church. I’m just not sure “the state” is a purely negative construct. It does good things, including those kinds of public service, and there’s no problem with Christians participating in those things. But in its total institutional setting, it still belongs to the world, to the realm of structured unbelief.

    I’m kind of stuttering here, but there’s something that just doesn’t strike me quite right about the “between” language. I’ll try to pay attention to some of this in the next few essays I read.

  6. myles
    June 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    For Yoder, “state” is part of “fallen powers”. That being said, “powers” are fallen, but created good, such that even among “state” there can be something redeemable; hence, it makes sense to “witness to the state”.

    When I say that for Yoder’s there’s something between state and church, I mean that ‘state’ and ‘church’ name modes of unbelief/discipleship, under a single reign of Christ, such that a practice, i.e. peacemaking, can be done not by the state, but not by the church either, leaving the practice somewhere in the middle between ‘under the powers’ or ‘freed from the powers’, creating the very situation requiring discernment, or ad-hoc pragmatism. So, yes, there’s no state-as-such, which means then that all we have is ongoing discernment. But I’d call that something different than pragmatism, which to my mind names actions apart from metaphysical reasons for doing those actions. Yoder might agree with that to some degree, but still confesses Christ’s lordship, which for him, still means that there’s something beyond creative activity holding things together.

  7. June 15, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I think I’m with you.

    It’s interesting that there’s a kind of metaphysical asymmetry in the Christian’s relation to the world, where on the side of Christ’s lordship there is some metaphysically “sure footing” from which to act and on the side of the world there’s none; it’s metaphysically empty, or chaotic. So when the Christians witness to the world it’s forced to be pragmatic from one side, but not quite from the other.

  8. myles
    June 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Maybe–I’d say that the footing is uncertain on both sides, as both sides remain contingent upon certain a priori criteria, namely, their relation to ‘the lordship of Christ’. The church can never lay claim to this, but only follows in Christ’s wake; to lay claim would be for Yoder bad sacramentalism (he’s fairly banal in his published stuff on this point, but I’m editing some unpublished stuff right now where he goes OFF on Catholic sacramentalism). For Yoder, both ends of this equation are contingent, and thus, both called to discipleship; church is named by the retention of discipleship, and the world in failure–that both exist on the same continuum, however, is the bigger point of interest, I think…

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