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Yoder’s pragmatic politics

June 13, 2010 8 comments

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.