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Faith & the Kingdoms: The Politics of Niebuhr & Yoder

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Since the decline of the Moral Majority, Christianity has been left without a visible face in American politics. This is not entirely lamentable. That Christianity lost face at the end of the 20th century was perhaps just as much a judgment as it was an attack upon the church. No doubt, “secular humanism” presented a challenge.

But the church’s failure to meet that challenge cannot be entirely attributed to “the enemy.” The American church has lost face in the public square in part, some have contended, because it has lost a sense of who it is.

We’ve yet to see what politics the church will be associated with in this century. The events following September 11th are but a reminder of the timeless truth that Christians who live in the world cannot escape its troubles — many of which are political. Most agree that Jesus spoke truth when he commanded that we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. The powers of this world, fallen though they may be, are still ordained by God to order society (Rom. 13). Politics, like all powers, has its place. The question is what the proper boundaries of that place must be. We know that Caesar gets his own. The trouble is how to reckon Caesar’s portion.

Where do we turn for help as we think through these issues? One source is the theological reflection of two 20th century Americans, Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder. Though these two men are not necessarily representative of opposing “schools” in Christian social ethics, they do emphasize themes which have been at odds in the Christian conversation of the past century. To understand them is to get a handle on the issues that arise when faith and politics meet.

Reinhold Niebuhr was born in 1892, the son of a pastor, and followed in his father’s footsteps to receive his first pastorate in Detroit during World War I. Ordained to proclaim the Word of God at the epicenter of the industrial war machine, Niebuhr heard the cry of his congregation (mostly factory workers) as well as that of war torn Europe. He was sympathetic to the Marxists in the unions of Detroit, espoused pacifism in response to the horrors of post-war Germany and was thus thrust into the social issues of his day.

Whereas Niebuhr followed his father to the pastorate, John Howard Yoder said he became a theologian because he was no good at his father’s greenhouse business. What Yoder was good at was analytic examination of the Anabaptist tradition and the broader Christian tradition that he inherited. This he did for most of his life. In his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus, Yoder lays out the New Testament evidence which points to his conclusion that “Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action.” Frustrated by theological claims which render Jesus irrelevant to political discourse, Yoder sought to show that Christians who are faithful disciples of Jesus must adopt his politics in this world. He argued that Jesus is not only our Savior, but also our Master, come to teach us what a life well lived must look like.

How would Niebuhr have responded to the events of September 11th? Most likely with little surprise. His understanding of the human condition allowed him to face the fact that evil is part of our world. Terrible things like this happen. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that terrorism does not compromise a society in which human beings can flourish. Sometimes this responsibility entails the use of military force. Would Niebuhr agree that it does in the case of September 11th? “I’d be very surprised if he didn’t,” says Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things. “Everything in his life and in his way of thinking would have led him to understand that this was a case in which it was necessary to use coercion, including military force, to contain a great evil.” Thus, the responsibility of the American Christian would be to support his government’s pursuit of justice. And the church would be a collection — an amplification — of these individual imperatives.

Yoder would certainly disagree. While he was never willing to gainsay what Christians can or cannot do, he did insist that we must put forward those things which we will not do. Taking up arms to kill the enemy is one of those things. The church must never support the wars of the nations, for we are the community which enacts Jesus’ way of being in the world. And Jesus, though he had all power to establish his kingdom by violence (“he could have called ten thousand angels”), chose to submit himself to the violence of this world so that his might be a kingdom of peace. How would Niebuhr respond to such a claim? Father Neuhaus speculates that he might reply with the contention, “Here’s what I’m doing in obedience to the commandment to love my neighbor. What are you going to do, aside from criticizing me?” To this Yoder might reply that he is going to continue witnessing faithfully to the kingdom of peace by loving his neighbor as well as his enemy. This is, to his mind, the only way that we can consider ourselves obedient followers of Jesus.

This is an excerpt from the Institute for Global Engagement. It is reprinted with permission. To read the entire piece visit www.globalengagement.org.