Resisting Empire

Inspired by a coffee conversation this morning with my flatmate (have I said lately how much I love my flatmate?)… reflections on empire and faith, informed by Mitri Raheb, Jean Zaru, John Howard Yoder, and William Cavanaugh. It’s an old paper, so it’s a bit long and academic but hopefully not too dry. =)

For this post, I summarize four books, noticing similarities and differences between them as a beginning exploration of how faith might encounter empire. He Came Preaching Peace is a collection of essays and speeches by John Howard Yoder, many of which are engaged with scriptural interpretation and interpretations of peace theology. This is explicitly an in-group communication for peace church people. Because of this, he does not take time to explain some of the foundations he might otherwise explain (for example, he names dualism and its dismantling as one of these foundations). Each chapter in this book stands alone; as with much of Yoder’s writing, themes arise repeatedly, but little effort is made to systematize or synthesize the various writings.

One of the primary themes in this book is love of enemies that is not based on pragmatism but rather obedience: “Christians love their enemies because God does so, and commands his followers to do so. That is the only reason, and that is enough.” (Loc 163) Likewise, he insists that we follow Christ even when the world is not ready to follow, even when systems of government will not give up fighting. The “call is simply an invitation to believe, really to believe, to believe even though many others do not, to believe even though the proof is not yet final.” (948)

Another theme that arises only early in the book but is helpful here is the understanding of Christianity as a nationality and of nationalism as a religion. For Yoder, this underscores a central understanding of Christ in relationship to the disciple, namely that Christ is Lord and evokes from his followers total loyalty. In War of the Lamb, Yoder will clarify this as a loyalty to a person and a covenant, not an adherence to rules or legalism. Yoder considers Christianity to be an identity requiring a loyalty that precludes and rises above national identity: “For Christians to seek any government’s interest – even the security and power of peaceable and freedom-loving democracy – at the cost of the lives and security of our brothers and sisters around the world, would be selfishness and idolatry, however much glorified by patriotic preachers and poets.” (241)

Another theme throughout the essays is that of rethinking power, wisdom, and strength. Along Pauline lines, Yoder sees the vulnerability and defeat of the cross as a revelation of a new kind of power and wisdom, a power of love and a wisdom that subverts the rules of violence. Nonviolent action is, for Yoder, an enactment of this kind of power: “When the Christian whom God has disarmed lays aside carnal weapons it is not, in the last analysis, because those weapons are too strong, but because they are too weak.” (311) This obedience trusts completely in the God who created human beings in their own image, and sees that image in the faces of those who would be enemies. When “we want a symbol of power that proves itself to us, without need for faith, by its own overwhelming impact,” (1211) instead we get a suffering Servant who yet somehow has power to transform.

Another book by Yoder, War of the Lamb, is a book published posthumously, planned by Yoder himself before death, and intended for a very different audience. In this collection of essays, he engages the ecumenical scene much more intentionally, engaging in dialogue with thinkers like Niebuhr and Cahill and with theologies like Just War Theory. Stassen says, in his introduction, that “Yoder is well known for arguing on behalf of an ethics of faithfulness rather than effectiveness (66),” but here, concerned with translation, he seems more ready to admit of some possible effectiveness. Similarly, his tone is much less confessional than the Christologically-centered, aforementioned book. For example statements like the following, while not admitting of any pure utilitarianism, open a door for talk about effectiveness and “working,” at least in a long-term and general sense: “Suffering love is not right because it ‘works’ in any calculable short-run way (although it often does). It is right because it goes with the grain of the universe, and that is why in the long run nothing else will work.” (83, emphasis in original)

This allows him much more sustained discussion about the connections between pacifism and just war theory (which, he points out, are more alike in their aims than different), a dialogue in which he critiques each tradition in terms of the other. Yoder suggests that nonviolence can learn discipline from just war theory, including a careful understanding of authorization, finite and attainable demands, and calculation of peripheral violence. Just war theory can learn to question whether all possible alternative measures have been considered. In the end, though, he heavily critiques just war theory as being good in principle but in all cases not taken seriously enough for it to provide an actual deterrent to war.

Seeking this kind of ecumenical dialogue, Yoder examines figures like Tolstoy (and his politics of hope), Gandhi (and his soul-force), and King (and his identity of means and ends), alongside the broader realms of church history (especially Constantinianism), Hebraic vision as seen in the Hebrew Bible, and apocalyptic literature. Throughout these examples, he speaks God’s sovereignty, loyalty to God rather than state, and the “certain victory of God” that is “correlated with his people’s faithfulness but not with their power.” (1308)

Several other themes in this book include love of enemy; a down-and-dirty guide to conflict resolution; a strong statement (and supporting argument) that conflict avoidance is not peacemaking and that conflict should be considered a sign of growth and creativity to be harnessed, not stifled; and the false dichotomy of withdrawal and involvement.

Alongside these two books, I also read two by Palestinian Christians with their own approaches to the violent rule of empire over their own subjugated people. The first was Occupied by Nonviolence, by Jean Zaru, a Quaker woman who has done much activism in the World Council of Churches, speaking around the world on behalf of her people. Her underlying affirmation is that the telling of stories is redemptive in itself – if stories are witnessed and told, which Zaru enacts as her own calling, those with the power to do something will act on behalf of the humans who are subjugated. “By telling our stories, we resist the diminishing of the reality of our lives. We resist vague and generalized abstractions, and we maintain the urgency and intensity of the concrete.” (200)

Given that, she tries to instill in her Palestinian students “a sense of empowerment, a sense of competence,… and a sense of optimism about the future. While we do not know what the future holds, we do know that we hold the future in our hands.” (275) In the midst of this, she names isolation and disconnection as a tool of the empire and understands faith and religion as nurturers of connection and relationship, and thus an antidote to the effects of subjugation.

Zaru emphasizes human rights, naming that those rights of Palestinians have been declared by the UN to be violated by Israel. She calls upon the UN to hold Israel accountable to following through on agreements and submitting to the discipline of the UN. At one point she goes so far as to say, “Conflicts can only be resolved politically and legally, on the basis of parity of rights and the global rule of law. “ (595) Regarding nonviolence, Zaru bases her commitment not to kill on human rights, as well: “My spirituality is rooted in the human dignity and human rights of all people, and the sacredness of Mother Earth.” (235) Zaru admits of a great struggle to keep faith in the midst of struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Finally, Palestinian Christian pastor and scholar, Mitri Raheb, begins his book, Faith in the Face of Empire, with the statement, “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew,” a statement that (intentionally?) echoes African-American theologian James Cone’s statement that “Jesus is black.” Raheb continues on to take a several thousand year tour of the geopolitics of the area, demonstrating that this empire is only the most recent in a nearly unbroken line of occupation in Palestine. He also insists on the continuity of biblical and church history in Palestine (ie, that Christianity does not end in Palestine when Europe comes on the Christian scene). From those insights, he reinterprets the narrative of the Bible for Palestinian people. Rather than accepting the commonly held identity of Palestinians as Canaanites, he says that Palestinians today are like Israel at the time of the New Testament, and that Israel is acting as Rome. The twisting Israel has done of the story becomes an important point in Raheb’s construction: “Empires create their own theologies to justify their occupation.” (152) Raheb seems to agree with Zaru that the unheard story is the one that needs told, but Raheb is seeking to tell the story of a people as a whole, a story that finds its place in the sacred narrative of Raheb’s faith. This retelling rescues Palestine from being “theologically invisible.”

Raheb, like Yoder, has a vision of a strong God that calls for a loyalty that supersedes all other loyalties: “Believing that there is something more powerful than the empire is an important and necessary step toward questioning it. God questions the omnipotence of the empire. As well, seeing God on the other side of the empire queries and challenges the morality of the empire, which is a key link in its weakening. Faith in God becomes a strong factor in mobilizing people against the empire. Whereas armies might not dare to challenge the empire because of the power imbalance; faith in God can provide the necessary motivation to go against the empire even if doing so means sacrificing one’s life.” (1451)

Raheb sees isolation and division as intentional strategies of empire that aid in subjugation: “restoring a sense of community across ideological differences and geographical barriers is crucial for any community living under occupation. Occupied people often start to fight among themselves concerning the best way to resist the empire and consequently end up fighting one another instead of fighting the empire.” (1693) Cultural memory involved in telling a counter theology that locates Palestinian people in the story of salvation is Raheb’s primary weapon against this fragmentation. Raheb does not speak much explicitly of nonviolence, but his program of resistance is a nonviolent one.

Many similarities exist in the three authors, sometimes expressed and drawn forward in different ways. In theologies of nonviolence, all three authors mention this fragmentation and division as a primary problem to overcome when resisting evil systems. Thus, for all three, a primary solution is reconnection and community. However, for Raheb and Yoder, this connection is found through connection with a larger collective narrative. For Zaru, this connection is found through the telling of individual stories. Raheb and Zaru, in this, are much more attentive to silenced voices and invisible peoples than Yoder is.

All three base their nonviolent resistance, at least to some extent, on their understanding of the imago dei in all human beings. Zaru’s strategy for reform relies on the human rights being acknowledged but also enforced by UN and the national community. Likewise, her conviction that it is not right to kill comes from an understanding that even the perpetuators of empire have human rights and dignities. Yoder, on the other hand, has his eyes almost exclusively fixed on the nature of God rather than humans – seeing the image of God in humans is important because not to acknowledge that would be to violate their Creator.

Raheb seems to base his nonviolence on the conviction that violence does not work. Raheb writes, “violence is a culture unto itself; it is not something one dons like a hat when dealing with the ‘enemy’ and then sets aside at the end of the confrontation. Once violence enters the arena, it creates a culture that is very difficult to eradicate. In fact liberation in the true sense also means liberating the ‘enemy’ from its own violence.” (1914) Zaru’s conviction on this is less solid, and sometimes her anger at the Israeli empire comes through in a retaliatory tone. All three see evil as systemic, but Raheb and Yoder are more able to maintain hope for persons involved in evil to be redeemed – a foundation for love of enemy for both of them.

Given all of this, I argue that a nonviolence based not on human rights but on the story of God is a more durable and powerful weapon against occupation than an understanding of human rights and individual imago dei. First, as all of the authors note, isolation is a technique of occupation to keep people submissive. William Cavanaugh also draws upon this dynamic in relation to torture in his book, Torture and the Eucharist – the intended action of state torture (or the oppressive action of empire) is not primarily on human bodies but rather on social bodies, effected by atomizing those social bodies through breaking communal bonds. If isolation is the problem, the solution is connection. I am not convinced that Zaru’s storytelling, because of its individual focus and human rights emphasis, truly connects people to each other in the way she obviously intends. Both Raheb and Yoder rely, for connection of a whole people, on a narrative (for Raheb) or a God (for Yoder) under whom all the people can be connected and see themselves as one unit. This is partly problematic, however, because the narratives and images of God that Raheb and Yoder suggest might not be the narratives of each individual, so a feminist critique would perhaps note that the new narrative has just as much power to be imperial as the Israeli empire (in the case of Raheb).

The second reason that nonviolence based on human rights and an individual conception of imago dei seems to me to be less effective is because of the difficulty of maintaining a posture of nonviolence. Yoder’s insistence that we are nonviolent because of obedience to a God we trust, whose victory is sure and nonviolent, is helpful here, I think. Zaru wants to say that all humans are equally deserving of human rights and dignity. At the same time, occupation takes a psychological toll that she is devastatingly good at describing. Zaru relies on a hope or optimism that Palestine will be free of occupation. Raheb’s long view of constant occupation for millennia makes that a difficult optimism to hold on to. To say that the arc of the universe bends toward justice is not empirically justifiable most of the time in everyday life. It is even less so in the face of constant occupation. This hope in the power of nonviolence, then, must be based on something other than efficacy or it will not last. Thankfully, as Yoder points out, the character and story of God are possibilities for the basis of this unlikely and sure hope. Likewise, in the midst of occupation, it is not immediately clear that the soldier, the torturer, the bomber have equal human rights or equally have the image of God mapped onto them. Zaru’s righteous and understandable anger at points in her writing point to this reality. Thus, the need not to violate others, the imperative to love one’s enemy, in the face of real evil like long-term occupation, must have a basis in the character and plan of God rather than in the human evidence.

I return, however, with gratitude to some of my feminist colleagues’ voices echoing in my mind, to the question of privilege, authority, and power. Zaru perhaps has been given fewer authorizations to tell the kind of sweeping metanarrative that Yoder and Raheb attempt. Zaru perhaps has experienced the kind of silencing that can happen under even well-intentioned metanarratives. The question here is how this narrative that Raheb and Yoder propose as a collective understanding can keep itself from becoming either a tool of empire or from twisting itself into the narrative of empire. Yoder would say, I think, that because the power of the cross is in vulnerability and the wisdom of the cross is in foolishness, that this is a power and a wisdom that can never be used by empire – it is perhaps immune to misuse. However, his confidence in the “city on a hill” and “two types of people,” though not themselves coercive as he has stated them, would not take much human meddling (not to mention human power/privilege) before they might turn into weapons of exclusion and separation rather than love and faith. This is also called into question by Yoder’s own twisting of the Gospel narrative to justify his predatory and abusive sexual behavior toward women within the realms of his individual power.

Raheb calls to his readers to understand the message of the New Testament as one of connection beyond boundaries. This echoes Yoder’s love of enemies and vulnerable power of the cross, while also providing a helpful corrective to possible sectarian impulses (which Yoder would vehemently deny!): “I argue that the whole New Testament is a collection of narratives that challenge the then-existing exclusive national and religious narratives. The New Testament introduces a new lens; instead of identifying with one people over against the others, which is the traditional way of forming one’s identity, it calls people to reflect on the entire process of identification as misleading.” (1234)

All of this begs the question that I hope you’ll begin to answer for yourselves in your own contexts, for us as a body of Christ-followers: How do we tell collective counter-narratives that resist becoming tools of empire, that resist silencing dissenting voices from within those counter-narratives?  How do we identify as a people who belong and still resist excluding others?

We’re going on a God-hunt: Interacting with Way to Water

Here’s another break from my Anabaptist Spiritual Guidance series (which I promise I’ll continue) in order to review a book that has a lot to say to that topic. Callid Keefe-Perry, a talented colleague of mine at Boston University, has written a primer on theopoetics and invited several people to participate in a blog tour of it this week. You can get the book here, and catch the other wonderful blog posts here (more to come tomorrow, too!).  I got a review copy for free from Wipf and Stock Publishers for this purpose (yay for free, new, really good theology books!).

Do you remember the children’s poem that begins “we’re going on a bear hunt”? In it, we go on a bear hunt and meet obstacles – tall swishy grass, squelchy mud, a gi-normous mountain, and a dark wood. In each case, the poem continues, “we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we’ve gotta go through it!”

Somewhere along the line, I began to take up the practice of “going on a God-hunt” periodically in my life. During those times, I go tiptoeing through dark woods, sploshing through deep mud, swaying through tall grass in my faith, always on the lookout for signs, always expecting God to be around the next corner or behind me or right beside me… expecting to be surprised by joy in my encounter with the divine in just the place I wasn’t looking.

This posture is a big part of what I hear Callid pointing toward in his book, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. He interacts with thinkers and writers who have been instrumental in the upwelling movement of theopoetics throughout its history, and makes a compelling case for theopoetics as a full-bodied way of knowing and approaching an untameable God – as a whole epistemological framework.

In theo-logic, we too often look for systems, categories, boxes to stuff God into. In theo-poesis, we seek to interact with the God that keeps breaking out of those boxes, that keeps becoming and creating.

One of the striking things in this book is the tension and oscillation between cataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing, between words and silence, thought and experience. Our theological God-hunt, if we are doing it well, says theopoetics, tips us into awe and wonder at the unnameable-ness of God. But that awe and wonder calls forth fountains of words, stories, songs, dances, art….

Callid himself, in the midst of this book, struggles with this paradox: on the one hand, theopoetics is a slippery subject that keeps wriggling out of academic conventions; on the other hand, Callid’s passion for the topic, his conviction that it has something important to offer theology and the world, has him searching for words; but as soon as words are put to the page, God has moved again, requiring endless unsaying and resaying, and tipping us again to art and silence.

Given this tension, Callid has done brilliantly in assembling a “bricolage” of thinkers and approaches, of poems, essays, testimony and vivid images alongside more systematic academic language.

The way of knowing (aka, epistemology) outlined in this book, both through the writers Callid engages with and through his own perspectives and interpretations, has much to offer the world of theological study. As someone who is passionate about nonviolence, I see this as a way of getting at a nonviolent truth-seeking akin to Anabaptist ways of knowing, but with more grace and rhythm. This kind of process and propositioning is antithetical to coercion, while fostering a creative openness to individual and communal revelation.

And this book spins into some really interesting questions. First, if theopoetics is at least in part about making space for voices and ways of speaking that don’t sound like the typical academic theological voice, I find myself wondering where theopoetics is already being done in congregations and among laity.

In my own denomination, I sometimes stumble upon a kind of farmer-poet, with her hands in the dirt, who has a straightforward way of truth-telling that has its own poetry. I think also of hymn writers and liturgists who craft their words with care and prayer.

While it is true that this is a helpful corrective for many congregations, pastors, and academics, I wonder about how to lift up and celebrate the places where it is already happening. This is resonant with an underlying premise of theopoetics that we must remain open to being surprised by wisdom from any source – we must expect God to show up in exactly the places we aren’t looking. In that way, theopoetics is a posture that is always pushing past itself.

My second question is more a matter of emphasis. The Pietist in me loves the sense of seduction, devotion, and mystery that theopoetics entails. The Anabaptist in me wants to push toward the sweaty, earthy, communal particulars: how do we do that kind of devotion and poetry on a communal level? To this, Callid begins to provide answers through taking a look at possible implications on the pastoral, congregational, and public levels. There are some exciting possibilities here that are certainly worthy of further exploration. I look forward to reading the next book someone writes on this!

This was a great book to read to both encourage a God-hunt posture, and also to provide tools for squelching through the mud on the way.

The end of the child’s poem has us meeting the bear and running away, eventually vowing to never go on a bear hunt again. I think theopoetics might caution us that the God we might eventually find on our God-hunt is an untameable and ultimately unnameable reality. We might be tempted to run back to our boxes and systems and categories when we encounter that mystery, or we might be tempted to give up the God-hunt altogether.

But the God that surprises us on our search is also a seductive and wonderous God that calls us back, again and again, to the search. The God that surprises us with joy and wisdom where we least expect it, leaving a wafting smell of delicious wholeness in the air, also seeks communion with us, so that at the same time we imagine ourselves on a God-hunt, God is also on an us-hunt.

And so our saying, unsaying, dancing, searching, yearning, creating, calming, laughing, resting, and reaching continues…

Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 3: Ritual and Mystagogy

Mystagogy (mist-uh-go-jee) is one of my favorite words, not just because it is so delicious to say but also because it is a part of the early church practice that I think deserves reclaiming. Stick with me as I explain.

In the 3rd and 4th century church (and perhaps earlier), the process for becoming a Christian was a lengthy one, and it included instruction and discernment all along the way. Progressively more of the things of the faith were entrusted to the seekers as they traveled that path.

Before baptism, the seedling Christians were taught creeds, hymns and prayers. Only after baptism did newly planted (“neophyte”) Christians participate in the experience of communion.

Teaching about the rituals of baptism and communion happened after the experience of those rituals, and it was called “mystagogy,” meaning “teaching of the mysteries.”  Ambrose wrote this about it in the 4th century:

Now is the time to speak of the mysteries and to reflect systematically on the sacred ritual actions. We should not have considered it helpful to those not yet initiated, but rather a betrayal of them, if we had decided to give such a detailed explanation before baptism. Indeed, it is better for the light of the mysteries themselves to have inundated you as a surprise than it would have been for us to have given an explanation beforehand.

(quoted in Clarahan’s article, “Mystagogy and Mystery”)

Here’s why I think this has something to say to us and a possibility to offer to an Anabaptist vision of spiritual guidance…

Most churches do one of two things around rituals. Some churches explain the rituals before hand, drawing out the theology and symbolism. This approach risks flattening the rituals to one or two meanings and prescribing those meanings for a congregation.

Other churches never explain or explore the rituals, desiring them to stand on their own and be revelatory of God without words. This approach also risks flattening the rituals, through of a lack of intentionality regarding theology and practice.

Mystagogy offers a third option. The experience is allowed to stand on its own, full of mystery and inspiring seemingly infinite layers of meaning. Yet the exploring of those layers of meaning has a place to find expression, in words and in community.

The Anabaptist tradition is very ritually rich. As Christians formed by a steady rhythm of Love Feasts, our theology concerning Kingdom finds a most life-giving context in the washing of feet. As a tradition formed by a regular practice of anointing and service (often experienced as worship), our theology of reconciliation and justice finds a most full-breathing context in the caring touch of hands.

Part of why we like rituals in our antiauthoritarian tradition is because they are both communal and individual. Their meanings are not prescribed and yet we participate together; in ritual we have opportunity to build something together that is larger than the sum of our individual meaning-making.

And yet I am convinced that we do ourselves a disservice and risk losing the centrality of our rituals altogether if we do not find ways of exploring these mysteries communally. In thinking about how to draw more communal connection from the rituals we undertake, mystagogy is a promising option.

Here’s an imagining of what a practice of mystagogy could look like in the church:

In the Church of the Brethren, young people are often baptized on the Sunday before a midweek Love Feast, so that this central ritual can be one of their first communal experiences as a baptized Christian. After this first Love Feast, a group of people could gather together to recognize, affirm, and explore the meanings, individual and collective, that arose from that ritual.

The hope in this kind of group would be that it would flow out of existing relationship and into continuing relationship. Although the group would especially hold the new person and their experience, the giving and receiving would be shared.

The group might include a range of ages, backgrounds, and experience levels with the ritual. The group could be conducted similar to a “Listening Hearts” model of group discernment, or it could be a kind of clearness committee. In both of these models, a primary emphasis is on listening for the Spirit in the midst of the group and the individual, and working together to name and claim the movement of the Spirit.

Something like this could be extended to small groups that did not particularly focus around a person’s first experience but rather fostered a general sensitivity to layers of meaning found in ritual. It could also extend to experiences like anointing.

Although Anabaptists as ordinance Christians do not want to go too far into saying that our rituals have any saving power in and of themselves, we do often find our hearts stirred and our lives shaped by these rituals. A forum to acknowledge and build on those stirrings and shapings feels crucial to communal faith development.

After my baptism, at which an elder in the church told me I looked like a new bride, and after my first Love Feast, at which another beloved elder 60 years older than me washed my feet, I was brimming with meaning and questions and inspirations. Those things found a container, eventually, in the life of the church and in my own life of discipleship and faith. But I find myself wondering if the richness of that – and of what is present in each member of the body – could have been brought more fully to bloom within the community had there been a space dedicated to those explorations of meaning.

This kind of small-group mystagogy practice could provide a container for fluid and overflowing meaning, inspired by ritual, that provides a way for the Spirit’s movement to be named and celebrated. And all of this is put forward with the faith that naming and celebrating the movement of the Spirit is one of the ways we attune our hearts to continually notice and move with the Spirit in all of life, and in all our actions.

Sabbath Hymns

For those of you who are interested, here is music for four of my hymns. If you print the music, check the copyright info for the songs. I think two of them are public domain, but the other two are definitely not.
Use and share at will… just give credit where it’s due and talk to me if you want to adapt any of them. I also welcome feedback!

Sing Praise to Our God

On This Blest Day

Sabbath Sweetness

O God, We Come to You This Day

For the Life of the World: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of the Church

Taking a wee break from the spirituality series to offer this reflection I wrote last year around Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World, one of my all-time favorites.

“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom – not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And his joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.” (113)

Alexander Schmemann, originally writing For the Life of the World in 1963 from his position as dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, puts forward in this book an Eastern Orthodox view of the church as a sacrament. While many of his statements are difficult to understand and appreciate from a liberal Western perspective (and perhaps others are experienced as just plain wrong), there is much that Western Christianity potentially has to learn from this view of church. I advocate that, just for a moment, we suspend judgment on the hierarchical, patriarchal, and hetero- and andro-normative extensions and implications of this theology as posited by Schmemann, and question whether there are other aspects of this theology that can be helpful while not requiring that we buy in to the more negative aspects.

Foundational Analysis

At least three assumptions of Schmemann’s framework must be understood before the book can begin to make sense. First, Schmemann takes the experience of liturgy as his authority (7, 8). This view fits within a full framework of participation in liturgy as participation in the Kingdom, but this is certainly not a common starting point even for the most high-church of Western thinkers. Because of this, Schmemann appeals consistently to words from liturgy, in the way a Protestant might appeal to words from scripture or a Catholic might appeal to church tradition – as authoritative in their own right, requiring no prior claim for justification.

Secondly, Schmemann assumes, as does much of Eastern Orthodoxy, that death (not sin or evil, as Protestants and Catholics respectively tend to assume) is the primary problem or condition of humanity. In this framework, then, life is the salvific antidote offered by God, particularly life in the Kingdom. This life is offered by way of participation in and full communion with God through Christ, a participation in the Trinity that Schmemann sees as both mystical and physical, not wanting to define physical as “real” and mystical as “unreal,” as Western thinkers tend to do, but rather seeing the wholeness of both together as “real” (135-151). Thus, in place of emphasis on understanding of God (typically Protestant) or on holiness (typically Catholic), Orthodox theology tends to include emphasis on participation in and becoming entirely one with God, or theosis, as means and end of salvation. Once again, this participation happens, for Schmemann, primarily through the liturgy, which then reveals to Christians the true nature of the whole world as sacrament.

Finally, Schmemann does not claim to give a systematic theology (7, 8, 20) and is, in fact, working within a background tradition that leans toward the apophatic. Western arguments (especially academic ones) are often judged to be true or not based on whether the argument is internally consistent. Western judgments also often assume that the observer can have some objective distance from the argument; even though hermeneutical models would tend to dispute this in theory, this assumption is often operative nonetheless. This way of judging does not work for apophatic modes of reasoning, which lean toward the aesthetic and poetic, and by virtue of that, often have internal logical inconsistencies. So Westerners are left with a looming question of how to measure this kind of argument, which deals so thickly in paradox. Do we have other ways of gauging truth?

Ultimately, suspending judgment about Schmemann’s argument is about trying to step into the shoes of the author, not only seeing what he sees but also, for a moment, attempting to measure with his ruler. Is there something of truth here, even in the midst of contradictions? How might we know it? I submit that, if we are truly to see what Schmemann and other Orthodox thinkers see, we must see texts like this as Schmemann himself advocates seeing all of worldly life – as somehow sacramental; as stained glass that is not, itself, inherently good but that is intended to allow the light of truth to shine through. And further, from my own Anabaptist tradition, which is in its own way apophatic and sacramental, I submit that we must learn to know a tree by its fruits, never seeking pure utilitarian use but yet always asking, “In what ways is this life-giving?” with the assumption that everything in the created world has the potential to be life-giving. There are many risks inherent in this kind of measuring (as with any system of measurement), not least among them the risks of absolutizing individual or group subjectivity and of instrumentalizing theology. However, for now, to take Schmemann on his own terms, I suggest we attempt this mode of measuring.


For Schmemann, the problem with Western theology and secularism (as it was experienced in the 60s, we can assume), is that humans are constantly dividing the spiritual from the physical, and Western religion has accepted that division too entirely. Human tendency is to love the things that satisfy, as ends in themselves, Schmemann says, while forgetting that they are simply paths toward the ultimate end of communion with God. For Schmemann, God has provided the physical world to be “transparent to God” (16): “When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence” (17). The church, then is the location of God’s reminder that all of life is sacramental. Schmemann argues that when all are in perfect communion with God (note here the Orthodox emphasis on theosis), the church will no longer exist because it will no longer be needed. Now, in our imperfection, when we get stuck in desacralizing the world; the church, and Eucharist in particular, is meant to be a sacramental “entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (27).

Because the Eucharist and the liturgy of the church are the place of ascension and reorientation for Christians, Schmemann then points out what he sees as the reorienting factors in the words and rites of the liturgy. For example, he writes against the doctrine of transubstantiation because for him the bread and wine do not become something entirely different and new – rather, God reveals the inner and inherently sacred core of these material things, a core that was always there but usually hidden to the human eye, and a core that holds the possibility of revealing God through materiality. This sacred core is infused within the whole material world, to Schmemann’s thinking. Interestingly, this emphasis seems to hold the possibility of allowing for both a radical break between the church and the world, and also a radical love of the world on its own terms as a sacrament of God.

Schmemann is clear that participation in liturgy of the church provides an experience of the Kingdom: “The very goal of this [liturgical] movement of ascension is to take us out of ‘this world’ and to make us partakers of the world to come… But this is not an ‘other’ world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us” (42, emphasis in original). This understanding of the purpose of liturgy, far from being an escape from the world, seeks to propel us back into the world with new vision:

It is here, at this moment [of confirmation and anointing], that the pseudo-Christian opposition of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ is denounced, abolished, and revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world. The only true temple of God is man and through man the world. Each ounce of matter belongs to God and is to find in God its fulfillment. Each instant of time is God’s time and is to fulfill itself as God’s eternity. Nothing is ‘neutral.’ For the Holy Spirit as a ray of light, as a smile of joy, has ‘touched’ all things, all time – revealing all of them as precious stones of a precious temple. (76)

He makes this same case in relation to the liturgy of the Eucharist, baptism and confirmation, the Christian year, marriage, ordination, death, and mission, both using those aspects of liturgy and church life to confirm his vision and using his vision of the church to tease out new and fuller meanings of those rituals and life events.

His chapter on death is particularly interesting to me and underlines the Orthodox view of death. He insists that the Western church has, by and large, adopted the pre-Christian view of an immortal soul and mortal body. Thus, he writes that the Western Christian attitude toward death is essentially death-denying, as is Western culture in general. He prefers to see death as absolute – when we die, every part of us dies – but as overcome by God’s bestowal of new life. “Death is not only the end, but indeed the very reality of this world” (96).

Christianity is not a reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is the Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained… Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. (99-100)

In this view of death, the church then becomes the entrance into life in Christ, an entrance into life that redeems death, not by making death disappear but by replacing it with new life.

Schmemann also connects this view of death, as opposed to what he sees as the prevailing Western Christian denial of death, as avoiding the pitfalls of a religion that “helps.” As with many aesthetic theologians, Schmemann insists that faith (as beauty) cannot be instrumentalized. He rails against a Christianity that seeks to “help” rather than to simply be true. He sees this desire to “help” as part of a capitulation to secularism and as stemming from a duality between spirituality and materiality. If the church is a sacrament, as he insists, it cannot be instrumentalized to meet particular needs but must be met and experienced on its own terms. On the other hand, if church is made relevant or utilitarian or helpful, he insists that it has lost its sense of the wholeness of creation and is seeking to simply meet material (or spiritual) needs, assuming a division between the two.

Edging into analysis…

The difficulty with this, again similar to aesthetic theologies, is that it becomes difficult to measure and judge what is “true,” especially if experience becomes the authority, as it is for Schmemann (particularly liturgical experience). You will remember that I suggested that we might, for a time, use “life-giving” as a ruler (for Schmemann this might be more accurately “communion-enhancing”), but measuring by that ruler can easily become just as instrumental as measuring by the ruler called “helpful.” It is also clear that suspending judgment or measurement entirely is dangerous. Thus, we stumble on a paradox. On the one hand, perhaps we can recognize the need for emphasizing the wholeness and the truth of avoiding pure instrumentalization of faith. On the other hand, any measurement (and humans must always be measuring) requires a move, however slight, toward instrumentalization.

While struggling with this paradox, we must address some of the extrapolations of Schmemann’s theology that we have attempted to set aside until now. Schmemann’s view of marriage is highly sacramental (as should not be surprising at this point), but it is also highly patriarchal, in keeping with much of the Orthodox Church’s practice in general. He draws connections between Mary and brides that end up prescribing tightly gendered roles – passivity in women, kingship in men. Although he does a little gender-bending, implying that men must incorporate feminine qualities, and although his portrayal of virginity and love are not entirely oppressive, they still uphold male dominance and power structures. (This is not to even mention the fact that there is no place in his structure for LGBT people or expressions.)

Likewise, although the sacramental nature of the church and the world can be liberating and could foreseeably cause a turn toward seeking justice and reconciliation in the world, seeing it as God’s precious creation and as inherently sacred, this view still sees the world as entirely under the Christian God’s purview. This is a highly confessional book, seemingly not very interested in constructing an apology to the outside world. In our pluralist climate, it is not clear to me how (or if) Schmemann would deal with dialogue between faiths.

In trying to parse this question, we again stumble upon an inconsistency. On the one hand, the world is sacred inherently and the Christian needs only to see it as it really is. On the other hand, when the world is revealed as “it really is,” one gets the distinct impression that for Schmemann, it is revealed as not only sacred but also as being within a Christian framework. It seems that in an interfaith dialogue, this theology is clearly inclusivist in perspective, and yet a perspective that would see a Hindu as inherently Christian at her core, does not take the existence of other religions as seriously as they deserve – indeed does not truly see other religions as inherently sacred.

Because this book is from 50 years ago, I find myself wondering how differently Schmemann would approach these topics now. The Orthodox Church remains hierarchical and patriarchal, hetero- and andro-normative, and highly confessional, so perhaps his perspectives on these topics would not have changed. However, culture and its questions have changed substantially since Schmemann was writing, so perhaps he would have new answers.

Schmemann’s ecclesiology points a way beyond the dualism of Western Christianity, and particularly underscores just how much that dualism affects our very way of speaking of, thinking about, and judging theology. It provides a helpful possibility of a new way to play with the church/world dynamic that, as mentioned above can hold in tension radical discontinuity with radical love. It also can hold together a sense of the chosenness of the church and a deep humility; if the church is a sacrament, then it is not the locus of grace by any merit of its own. Likewise, if the church is only needed because broken humanity cannot experience the world the way it is meant to be, then the more need we have of church, the more humble we as humans must be.

All in all, I am not certain if the deep flaws in Schmemann’s (and Orthodox) theology mentioned above are inherent to this kind of theology, or if there exists a possibility of adopting and reframing the sacramental orientation of the theology in such a way that it precludes those weaknesses. Because I find so many helpful counterpoints to Enlightenment rationalist Christianity, as well as helpful counterpoints to Postmodern relativist Christianity, I advocate a posture of discovery and play in regard to the view of church as sacrament, all the while also maintaining a careful and iterative evaluation of its outcomes.

Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 2: An Anabaptist anthropology

Balthasar Hubmaier was one of the most important first-generation Anabaptist leaders in Moravia in the 1520s. The best writer of the Swiss line of Anabaptists, he was a Catholic priest and a Zwinglian pastor before becoming a renegade Anabaptist. Here’s his anthropology (understanding of human nature) in a nutshell:

Human beings have three parts, all three referenced biblically, namely the spirit, the soul, and the flesh. All were created good and remained good until the fall.

The spirit is the part of us that, even after the fall, resonates with the divine and is in every moment capable of responding to the holy.

The flesh is the part that, beginning with the fall, is rebellious and, Hubmaier would say, entirely corrupt if left to its own devices.

The unconverted soul is generally swayed by the flesh to chase distractions and destruction. The conversion moment, for Hubmaier, is the hearing of the word in such a way that the soul knows it has a choice. This moment is the moment of new birth.

Once the soul knows it has a choice (ie, once it has heard the echoes of the divine in the spirit), the process of becoming Christ-like has begun for a Christian. This process involves the soul’s increasing alignment with the spirit, which then shapes the flesh’s response. Hubmaier is convinced that the flesh will go along with the soul and the spirit if those two are aligned with one another, which becomes a way of understanding how Christ-likeness is possible, since the spirit is always aligned with God.

For Hubmaier (and this was a big difference between Anabaptists and Protestants in the Reformation), conversion toward Christ cannot said to be full unless it involves an outward disciplining of the flesh (or the actions / will), because the human being can choose to do good, to become more like Christ. But the disciplining of the will does not come about through pure effort or even through fighting evil desires. It comes about through allowing the spirit to seduce the soul, which then tugs the flesh in a Christ-ward direction.

As we continue to work with this anthropology, teasing out ways of understanding “the flesh” and “the world” without demonizing bodies or creation will be very important. Although Hubmaier does have some very negative things to say about the flesh (and Eve, unfortunately) along the way, I believe that his view of the flesh is different from the total condemnation of the body that feminists and others rightly abhor. For Hubmaier, the ultimate end is not to be rid of the flesh, because the flesh was not created evil or even as sloppy seconds. Likewise, in the final perfection, Hubmaier asserts, we are raised with bodies, and the unity of the spirit / soul / body is the consummation of humanity’s created nature. That unity of spirit / soul / body is also possible to approach in this life.

I find this understanding of human nature to be compelling. It is akin to that of the Orthodox monk I heard, who spoke of the seed of divine in every person. It grows when it is watered and nurtured, but even if it is covered up it is always present, always offering possibility to move toward theosis (union with God). But Hubmaier’s framework allows for it to be even more active than that.

In this framework, every person has part of their core, created nature that stretches toward God. Beginning to conform to that nature (thereby conforming to God) requires only hearing the Word so fully that one accepts the spirit’s existence, begins to hear its voice, and recognizes that the soul has a choice. The spirit is constantly whispering sweet nothings into the soul’s ear longing for it to fall in love with God. This is grace if there ever was grace.

By the same token, though, the soul’s choice to be conformed to the spirit is an every-moment thing. As seductive as the spirit (through God) is, the flesh is distracted by the evils of the world, and it has its own tricks and tantrums that can mire the soul. The Christian’s choice is never finished, but in the end, for Hubmaier, the flesh will follow where the soul leads, so physicality and spirituality can be (indeed are meant to be) united in God.

I think this has implications for spiritual guidance in the Anabaptist tradition. First, if new birth is the point at which the Word awakens the soul to the spirit’s existence, before that new birth a spiritual guide can serve as midwife, fostering the growth and birth of the soul’s awareness of the spirit (of the connection to God).

Second, if the spirit stretches toward God and the soul has a choice in every moment whether or not to conform to the spirit, the spiritual guide can be a witness to the aligning of the soul and spirit, pointing out and celebrating those alignments in service of fostering new ones. Taking it one step further, the spiritual guide can be a witness to the ways in which the acts of the will and physical nature are in union with the soul and spirit and with Christ.

And third, if the soul will always have the distractions of the world’s evils and smallnesses to contend with, a spiritual guide can function as parent or elder, gently calling the soul back from its stuckness in the petty or destructive. In this, the spiritual guide as parent or elder could help the person develop discipline, in the mode of teaching or inspiring virtue- and habit-forming practices.

Ultimately, this framework means that, although the soul will always need all the help it can get, no person who comes for spiritual guidance is bereft of the resources to move toward spiritual healing. The freedom in this framework is that the spiritual guide can trust God to work in the person through the tugs of grace.

And on the other hand, this framework means that, although connecting with the spirit is essential, a person is free and unified with Christ insofar as their whole being (including their actions) is unified. Thus, our habits and worldly life become essential subjects for the spiritual guidance relationship.

I’m sure there are other connections I’m missing… What would you add to this list? If we take Hubmaier’s framework, how might we structure or enact spiritual guidance? And then, connected to those questions, do we take Hubmaier’s framework? Could it bear Spirit-fruit in the world?

Next up in the series: Ritual and mystagogy as possible contexts for spiritual guidance.

Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 1: Intro

I took a class this semester on Spiritual Guidance in the Christian Tradition, in which we studied models and histories of spiritual guidance (direction, companionship) in Orthodox, Wesleyan, Ignatian, French humanist, feminist, interfaith, Jewish, artistic, Quaker, African American, desert elders, and communal contexts. Seeing the particular gifts and challenges of spiritual guidance within each framework inspired the following questions that followed me throughout the semester:

What might a model of spiritual guidance particular to the Church of the Brethren look like, drawing on Anabaptist and Radical Pietist heritage and practice?

What unique gifts and challenges would such a model potentially offer to a broader, ecumenical understanding of spiritual guidance?

In this post and the four that will follow, I intend to explore these two questions a bit. Those of you who are familiar with the tradition will perhaps notice at least a couple of hurdles. First, current Anabaptists tend to consider themselves too practical for spirituality and skeptical of the individual revelation that spiritual guidance often seems to imply. This is tempered a bit, for Church of the Brethren folk, by the Radical Pietist part of us that inspires a warmth and tendency toward (a somewhat diffident) mysticism. Looking to early leaders of both stripes, we find the categories to be much less clearly drawn, but the fact remains that today’s faithful are much more likely to talk about obedience, discipleship, and service than devotion, spirituality, or mysticism. Many of us are from farming stock… who has time for all that froofy stuff? We follow Jesus with our feet on the ground and our hands at the plow.

The second hurdle, especially when looking to early sources, but also when looking to current sources, is that we are a tradition that has not valued spiritual and theological writing as much as we have valued spiritual and theological living. This means that many of the existing writings are addressed to a particular situation, within a particular context, and by particular lay ministers (letters from prison or hymns, for example). It is very difficult to say anything categorical about what Anabaptists and Radical Pietists believe(d) or practice(d) in general, especially about spirituality or spiritual guidance.

My assertion from within this tradition is that our spirituality is as wholesome and rich as Iowa topsoil. This spirituality is connected to a daily and practical mysticism that sees obedience as an outworking of a warm devotion to a personally and communally encountered living Christ. Because this spirituality does not generally express itself in ecstatic, charismatic, or typically other-worldly encounters, we are likely not to name it as mysticism. But I think we are a people who expect Jesus to literally show up in the midst of our everyday lives, who expect God to move through the rhythms of our days with as real a touch as our grandmothers’ steady pressure on the bread dough, and who expect the Spirit to stir us to build new worlds in God’s name with as tangible a voice as a construction foreman’s.

Someday I’m sure I’ll expound on my understanding of the ways in which our spirituality manifests itself. Hints of that will find expression in the following posts, but for now, I leave you to explore that avenue in comments or elsewhere. Instead, I will shift my attention to this question: Given a uniquely Anabaptist / Radical Pietist expression of spirituality, what might spiritual guidance look like?

Next up: Balthasar Hubmaier (an early Anabaptist leader and theologian with a wicked cool name), an Anabaptist view of human nature, and possible models for spiritual guidance (like midwife, parent / elder, witness) in the Anabaptist tradition based on that anthropology.

A Nonviolent Way of Doing Theology (ala J.H. Yoder)

Below is a companion essay to my previous Church and State post… The same caveat still applies. And for you lay theologians out there, “epistemology” is essentially a flowery word for “a way of knowing things” or for the often-complicated answer to the question “how do you know what’s True?”

This essay is based on the books A pacifist way of knowing, a collection of some of Yoder’s writings; A Precarious Peace by Chris Huebner; John Howard Yoder by Mark Thiessen-Nation; and Salvation at Stake by Brad S. Gregory.

Yoder’s epistemology is a truly complex but essential part of his theological framework. In fact, in my experience misunderstandings of his epistemology are some of the most common causes of general misunderstandings of his theology. Ultimately, as two of the three books I read for this week suggest, Yoder’s epistemology and methodology (or lack thereof) outline a nonviolent way of doing theology, with Yoder’s peace theology vitally informing his very way of being a theologian. His is an “epistemology of peace that assumes that the truth about God is not something that can be possessed or secured through some kind of theory of justification… There is something about Yoder’s ad hoc, dialogical, and unsystematic way of proceeding that is central to his very understanding of peace itself.” (Heubner, Kindle loc 1090)

Yoder, in his characteristic railing against the Constantinian or Christendom vision, also rails against the underlying assumptions of establishment epistemology. These assumptions include the premise of a normative framework that is publicly and generally accepted, to which all reasonable people either assent or are wrong. This, he says, though it promises a wider world, is just as particular as any other framework: “There is no non-particular place to stand. Any claim to have access to a kind of truth which is by definition the same for everyone is epistemologically pre-modern. The theory of truth… which can claim to put the ‘particularity’ of others in a box only because it thinks that its own ‘necessary truths of reason’ are universal, is in fact no less in a box itself.” (Yoder, loc 1125) Truth claims inescapably come from within a context, out of particularity, and are formed and expressed in a historical setting. This need not be an embarrassment to Christians (whose God chose to become very particular), but rather embodies a kind of vulnerability that does not allow coercion. The Christian faith must be assented to before it can be believed, he says, and no closure can ever be found.

This freedom from coercion is an important theme for Yoder and shapes his epistemology radically. The most emphatic theme for Yoder is that the church itself becomes witness, foretaste, and locale of communal discernment. The church’s task is to be, to witness with its life to the One it follows and the One whose body it is. But more than that, all knowledge claims must come from within relationship and discernment of the community. This necessarily makes epistemology a kind of dance for Yoder. He chafes at what he calls methodologism, because he sees it as yet another way to gain control of a conversation. Furthermore, a devotion to a particular method is far too confining for Yoder, who insists that ways of doing theology must change depending on the needs of the moment and the discernment of the people.

In this dance, it is also imperative for Yoder that theologians neither see themselves as starting from scratch nor as having the last word. Any attempt at clean beginning or closure is another attempt to control conversation. Instead, theologians are to be ready to repent, to be converted by the witness of another, and to change methods, frameworks, or theological constructions as inspired by the Spirit, in discernment and practice in community, and in the acting out of discipleship to Jesus. Heubner says (echoing Millbank) that this makes Yoder’s theology fragmentary and slow – a kind of theology that opens conversation without knowing where it will lead, that resists any kind of closure, that actively pursues conflict as potential sites of revelation, and that maintains a posture open to self-criticism. Over all, this theology seeks to emphasize and act out of vulnerability rather than “employing an accelerated and possessive hermeneutics of mastery and control.” (Huebner, loc 451)

The primary foundation for this kind of theology, epistemology, and hermeneutic is an eschewing of any possessiveness in regards to the Gospel. Evangel (as Yoder names it) is a free gift of God, one that does not depend on us for its survival, and one that can only be received as good if it is not forced upon the other. Huebner writes, “The most profound truth about God – and that which Christian nonviolence most significantly turns on – is that God’s continued survival is not dependent on us.” (loc 451) One of the biggest problems with the Christendom vision for Yoder is that a theology that seeks to hold the people of the world (outside the church) to Christian ethics, an ethical practice that cannot be achieved, in Yoder’s mind, without prior covenant, is a theology that does not allow God’s creation to reject God, an option that God always leaves open. In contrast, faithful witness means giving up the assumption that it is up to us to change the world or bring the kingdom.

Instead, Yoder suggests the living witness of community as a messy and vulnerable truth claim that is always in process. Again, Huebner is helpful here: Yoder’s epistemology “assumes that truthfulness is an utterly contingent gift that can only be given and received and that it emerges at the site of vulnerable interchange with the other. Accordingly, it is fundamentally open-ended and radically concrete, refusing any self-legitimating appeal to theoretical abstraction.” (loc 1413) This is the theology and epistemology of “come and see.” To enter vulnerably into conversation, for Yoder, especially true ecumenical dialogue, means engaging so fully that the witness of the Other risks changing our minds and converting our hearts. To enter vulnerably into conversation also means engaging in a way that does not seek to protect one’s theology from rejection, but rather trusts the witness to speak as it will, and trusts the Spirit to move where it will.

Yoder puts forth, as alternative to a theological method that includes coercion, a theological method that begins from patience. He gives nineteen different examples or kinds of patience that are to be incorporated into a truly nonviolent epistemology: pedagogical, corrective, pastoral, ecumenical, multicultural/cosmopolitan, anti-methodologistic, therapeutic, subjective (subordination), corporate, collegial, exilic, contrite, modest, gelassen (yieldedness), honest, resigned, apocalyptic, audience-sensitive, and political. Each of these has a different context and slightly different meaning for Yoder, but each turns on two concepts. First, the trust in the providence of God allows a measure of hopeful patience that does not need to “white-knuckle” the bringing of the kingdom. Second, the utter humility in face of the ultimate mystery of God allows a measure of anticipatory patience that looks for God’s work in all places, even surprising ones.

This brings me (as it does Huebner) to a consideration of martyrdom. Thanks to Gregory’s book Salvation at Stake, about martyrdom in the 16th century across all Christian groups, I have come to see the posture of martyrdom in a framework akin to middle voice. In most languages, active voice suggests direct action, often on an object. Alternately, passive voice is used to indicate the passive receipt of an action. In some languages, a third voice called “middle voice,” is used to indicate a particular kind of action, namely an active choice to allow. It seems to me that Yoder’s conception of patience, as he works to define it, is perhaps in the realm of middle voice. It is neither entirely passive, subject only to the whims of history, nor entirely active, forcing or moving. Instead, it is an active allowing, a dynamic standing in faith, in the face of rejection and even martyrdom. If, indeed, this is what Yoder is pointing toward in his epistemological patience, this is a stance entirely opposite to coercion.

In my opinion, Yoder’s patience does not go far enough in emphasizing the active portion of this middle voice concept. His patience can edge toward resigned, almost grudging powerlessness if it is not combined with a robust enough understanding of the rest of his discipleship ethic. Instead, I propose a further exploration of the early Anabaptist word Gelassenheit, which has echoes of this middle voice meaning, as well as layers of meaning related to a yieldedness to God’s providence, a self-emptying akin to kenosis, and a mutual submission within community.

Ultimately, martyrdom is a reality that Yoder’s kind of nonviolent epistemology must be ready at any moment to suffer. Martyrdom, far from being a denial of life, insanity, or a death wish, is actually a supreme act of trust in God’s providence. Giving one’s life willingly requires an understanding of life as a precious gift, not as something that one can grasp. Giving one’s life for one’s beliefs requires an understanding of individual survival as a good that is not ultimate but rather relative to communal well-being or faith claims or integrity. This is a kind of surrender and sacrifice in relation to a larger good that is understood without question in regard to military pursuits, or, less violently, in regard to service people like firefighters. For early Anabaptists and current radical pacifists to be willing to die for their faith but to refuse to kill for their faith is an affirmation of the providence of God and the precious gift of life, a position that sets discipleship above survival when the two values conflict. (See Gregory’s book Salvation at Stake for more history in this regard.)

This stance can never healthily be assumed outside of relationship with God and discipleship of Christ. If God is not continually transforming, our dynamic standing in the promise of faith becomes nothing more than a provision of a doormat for oppressors. If obedience to the foolishness of discipleship is not, somehow in the grand scheme of things, used by God to create good, then yieldedness to one another simply becomes passive enabling of evil. This is where we approach the end of our ability to “logic” our way into certainty. Although academic theology tends to see this as a failure or as proof that this system is not true, Yoder would point out that this is the gift of the Gospel. None of us must believe it because of its flawless logic. Rather, each of us is invited to experience it through living scripture, practicing community, and reconciling Spirit. None of us can know exactly where the road of this kind of logic will lead until we step out into the path. We are invited to “come and see,” because if it were an order rather than an invitation, then our freedom for full encounter or full rejection would be curtailed. This is the risk of the Gospel, for Yoder – the cross shape that evangelism must take.

All that said, where does that leave us in regard to feminist concerns? I believe that yielding passively to the oppression of others is not holy, and violence against the weak is not a cross to be silently borne. Does the yielding of Gelassenheit, then, imply a weak resignation to the evils we deplore? The key to this answer, I think, is to whom and what we are yielding. For early Anabaptists, Gelassenheit was first and foremost a sense of peace in God’s providence and the yielding that is enabled by trust in One who is unfailingly good. In light of this, everything else falls into place under that measuring stick. If God commands it, if Jesus encourages it, then it must be good because Jesus is God, and God is unfailingly good. This Jesus demonstrates a costly love that does not hesitate to confront evil but also a relentless love that reaches to every person, even those who do evil. Yieldedness to God will look like a similar confronting of evil and loving of persons, even when that goes against the grain of our human desires and even when it looks like foolishness and can’t possibly guarantee efficacy. In this, only the trust in God’s faithfulness can sustain, and that trust is only built in relationship and experience.

Looking for an example to domestic violence, the yieldedness of Gelassenheit is not the denial of violence nor the poisoningly-sweet insistence that allowing one more punch will perhaps change the abuser for the better. The yieldedness of Gelassenheit is a seeking after fierce love – love of self, love of community, and love of other. Fierce, costly love knows that allowing another to do evil, to remain enslaved to cycles of committing violence, is not loving. Neither, however, is demonizing or dehumanizing the person nor retaliating with more violence. For the victim to show fierce, costly love in a situation of domestic violence entails a naming and renouncing of the evil behavior; this love is predicated on the victim’s being able to stand in the truth of their own belovedness and identity in relation to God, as well as on the victim’s trust that following God in love will require making choices that feel dangerous (as breaking away from an abusive partner certainly is) but that God will provide. Standing firm in the truth of these things without retaliating and getting caught up in the cycle of violence requires a courageous, long-term, middle-voice posture, but it is the only way toward freedom from the power exerted by the oppressors. If God’s power, the power of Love, is the only power to which we yield – and if any other yielding we do is in service to and in relation to that yielding – evil’s power loses its hold on us. This is Gelassenheit.

Yoder’s concept of patience is perhaps a pendulum swing away from the coercion of modern methods of theology, which he identifies with a vestigial Constantinianism, and in that it is helpful. It is certainly a part of the toolkit involved in Gelassenheit, but it is not full, especially for those who suffer under direct and unrelenting violence and oppression, without a more active move toward a middle-voice posture. Yoder supplies this in his ethics and moral theology, but the lack of explicit tie between his epistemological method of patience and his active seeking of peace and justice is disturbing. Perhaps the tie between the two was so deeply carried that it seemed common sense to Yoder, but in this world where violence is portrayed and experienced around every corner and apathy and denial is just as prevalent, this connection must be further explored.

Church and State: Beyond the Constantinian Assumption (ala J.H. Yoder)

This is a much longer post than I usually do — a paper written last semester.  I post it today in response to some thoughts and conversations about the political protests happening around the country.  The question it seeks to address, via exploring and explaining Yoder’s theology, is this: what is the relationship between the church and the state?  Obviously, this is a complex topic on which Christianity is not in agreement.  Yoder articulates well a Radical Reformation stance.  Here is my articulation of his understanding, blended with a little of my tradition’s brand of Radical Reformation faith.

Yoder was a nefarious human being in some very particular ways.  And I find much life in his theology.  I leave you to sort that out in your own faith and community, and there are many blog posts that do an excellent job of exploring what we do with a theologian who desecrates his own theology by his human, complex, evil actions.  (By the way, those are conversations I’m also happy to have… just not in this post.)

This essay is drawn from the following books, all of which are very good:

  • Yoder:
    • Discipleship as Political Responsibility
    • Politics of Jesus
    • The Original Revolution
    • The Christian Witness to the State
  • Mehl-Laituri:
    • Reborn on the Fourth of July
    • For God and Country, In That Order
  • Carter:
    • Politics of the Cross

One of the lynchpins of understanding Yoderian thought in regards to the relationship between church and state, as Carter rightly points out, is an understanding of what Yoder names as the Constantinian assumption. His “beef” with the other Christian options is similar to many neo-anabaptists’ problem with the conservative / democratic options (or liberal protestant / conservative fundamentalist options). It is this: both sides understand themselves to have influence over the state by participating in it and by intertwining the church’s self-understanding with the state. The debate throughout modern Christianity has, in general, not been whether or not to be intertwined with the state, but with which version of the state to be intertwined and in what ways.

To use modern examples, Glen Beck and his people want the state (and thereby society) to be Christian, and to that end they participate politically, aiming to make the state conform to church ends. They advocate legislation that seeks to enforce explicitly Christian morality (at least, as they understand “Christian”). On the other side, Jim Wallace and his people do not seem to explicitly say that society should be Christian, but they still seek to enforce their version of Christian morality in broad spheres, assuming that the change they seek will come first at the state level. Both groups lobby, publish, and convince in order to see society change toward their own version of Christianity. Both of these, whether in stated or implicit ways, affirm that the salvation of humans will come through the workings of the state.

Yoder’s problem with this is at least twofold. First, for Yoder, Christ is the Lord of history, a New Testament affirmation that is inherently political. If Christ is the Lord of history, the various lords of history can have no ultimate authority except that which Christ grants. From history, it is evident that lords come and go and represent very different kinds of societies; to tie the church to any particular lord is to be parochial and short-sighted (Yoder calls this the true sectarianism). Second, he sees the church’s mandate as being one of creating an alternative society, a foretaste of the kingdom; central to this belief is the understanding that faith and morality cannot be coerced. Central to God’s nature and the nature of the Kingdom is that all people must have completely free choice about rejecting it. For this reason, Christian morality cannot be legislated, especially on non-Christians who have not chosen covenant with God in Christ and other Christians.

Likewise, central to the nature of the work and enactment of the Kingdom is that humans are only able to attain any sort of Christ-like action by way of becoming conformed to Christ, which, for Yoder, happens only in community and only by way of an almost mystical transformation. Thus, to ask non-Christians to conform to Christian morality and life is like asking a human to grow wings and fly. In Christ and in community, for Yoder, a person is a new creation and the church is a new society. In Christ we are given a new ontological being that, though it is already-but-not-yet in the same way that the Kingdom is, is still very real and strikingly discontinuous with life without Christ. Yoder would caution, I think, against understanding this individually apart from the Kingdom-community.

Yoder outlines four options that Jesus had, in relation to the state, all of which he rejected. These four options then become the paradigmatic choices for the church, which is called to follow the path of Jesus (the fifth option Yoder outlines). First, Jesus was in conflict with Sadducees and Herodians who were the realists of their day; they believed that we must work with what we have and compromise in order to bring about incremental goodness. Jesus didn’t so much reject that as he was rejected by that camp. Second, Jesus could have advocated the withdrawal and spiritualization (or communal purity) of the Essenes, but he did not, chosing a very politically active and controversial course of action instead.

The Pharisees provided a third option, that of religious purity, a society within society that walled itself off through religious ritual. Jesus repeatedly rejected this option as well. The fourth option is the one that Yoder names as the biggest temptation for Jesus, occurring three times in the Gospel narratives: the Zealot option of righteous religious violence. The Zealot option, arguably the most tempting one today, and perhaps the one in regards to which Constantinianism is most culpable, is rejected not because it is too strong but because it is too weak. Violence can restrain and destroy the evil ones, but it cannot build a new world. Violence inevitably makes the victim-cum-aggressor look like the original tyrant. As Wink says, it is not enough to change the rulers – we must also change the rules.

Instead of all these, Jesus creates a community which itself becomes a sign of the Kingdom. This community rejects violence and is always the minority among minorities, seeking the power of yeast and mustard seeds instead of the power of might and the Cedars of Lebanon. This comes back to Yoder’s point that coercion can never be a part of the kingdom – all creatures must have the full possibility to reject the message. The power of the kingdom must be a whispering seduction, not a fearsome roar.

So where does this leave the state in relation to the church? If the church is to be a minority living in an alternative society within the state-sponsored and state-oriented society, how are Christians to understand their participation in the state? Yoder says that in a world of evil, Christ allows the state to keep order, but the state is still ultimately under Christ’s lordship and is only temporarily allowed. The state’s actions are to be judged by Romans 13 – they are acting under Christ’s lordship insofar as they are protecting the good and restraining the evil. As soon as they do anything else, they are setting themselves up as gods and rebelling against the lordship of Christ. That kind of state, historically as well as in the view of faith, always becomes its own downfall.

Meanwhile, the church’s mandate is to live in the kingdom in the midst of this world. This means that the church will go above and beyond the morality of the state. The church will not expect of the state its own morality but it will expect of it (and continually call it to) the protecting of the good and the restraining of the evil. Taken to its end, the implication of this for Yoder is that the church will never be allowed to participate in the functions of the state that perpetuate any kind of violence, even righteous violence. Again, this is not because of a separatism but because the church is the witness, sign, and foretaste of the kingdom, and so the church must be the church. Christians in political or military office will always be faced with the temptations of the Sadducees and the Zealots, and they will not have the freedom to choose the lordship of Christ over practical compromises or righteous violence. Thus, they will no longer be the church.

Given these two mandates, Yoder says that the police function of the state is allowable, and he says that Christians can participate in the parts of the state that do not perpetuate or require violence. This is a very interesting caveat that I think is not very well explored by Yoder. Partly, developments that he may not have noticed or that may not have been present in his time, bring these into question. First, his point about democracy being only relatively better than other forms of government is becoming more and more obvious, as it becomes increasingly understood that government is driven by money and that corporate interests are often honored above individual voters’ interests. This, along with the foul track record of international policing and the glaring and horrendous inequality with regards to policing at home, brings into question even the police function of the state.

Max Weber defines the state as the group that has the power to claim the monopoly on all forms of legitimate violence. William Cavanaugh follows him in this definition. Taken to its extreme (and in the situation of our own government, it is not hard to do), this means that all (or nearly all) functions of the state uphold that monopoly of violence. Thus, the state begins to define who is human and who is less than human, to define what kinds of coercion are okay and what are not, to define whites’ preemptive shooting of blacks as okay but blacks’ stealing of a candy bar as not okay. This can happen in all areas, from state foster care systems that kidnap Native American children to state funding of schools that gives more money to white schools and severely underfunds Latino ones. In this understanding of the state, Yoder’s suggestion is that if a Christian is involved in the state he or she must always maintain the freedom to disobey the state (or leave its purview) in order to follow the lordship of Christ where the two contradict. This way of judging seems more consistent than Yoder’s implication that police functions and non-violent functions of the state are acceptable for Christians. (Yoder himself admits that even the so-called non-violent functions of the state have possibility to be upholding of violence.)

Yoder also undergirds all of his understanding of the role of the church and the state with a very clear and particular eschatology that has a kind of spiritual warfare undergirding it. He talks about the overlapping of the two aeons, with Christ inaugurating but not yet completing the new aeon. He draws an analogy to the time between D-Day and V-Day. Now, in Christ, the end is inevitable. But the battle is not yet won. This is very difficult imagery, however, because the lordship of Christ, for Yoder, clearly comes about through seduction, attraction and love, not power over, violence, or coercion. This also depends on a very particular understanding of evil – a kind of macro-level spirituality that sees powers and principalities (in NT language) as having corporate spiritual lives that can either be good or evil. If this spiritual warfare understanding of evil is misused or misunderstood (as it easily is in Constantinian paradigms), there is a great danger of mapping evil directly onto human faces and understanding Christians as the warriors of God with the mandate to eradicate evil by killing humans. This is a gross perversion of this eschatology, but it is common nonetheless.

Yoder has an extremely high view of God’s ability to transform humans (which is different, notably, than an extremely high view of human nature, which I would argue Yoder does not have). As mentioned above, he has an almost mystical understanding of what happens to a human community that is in covenant with God through Christ – a transformation that results in Christ-likeness and grace-given ability to commune with Christ. This is not a works righteousness theology, but rather is closer to an Orthodox view of theosis. Anabaptists are often (rightly, sometimes) accused of a moral perfectionism that seeks to earn salvation through works, but this is a misunderstanding (from without or within) of this theology. As believers, Christians enter into covenant, a covenant that must be chosen (again, the theme of coercion!), and once chosen, a dynamic process begins wherein the church becomes part of Christ, a sacrament of the kingdom. Yoder does not use these words – perhaps the Anabaptist spirituality sounds too much like practicality to Constantinian ears for many readers to detect any of this kind of devotion – but this is a necessary underpinning for Yoder’s theology.

Obedience is important for Yoder, and is often misunderstood in our culture of individual freedom and autonomy. Obedience is often seen as power over, often oppressive. However, the quality of the obedience depends on the character and intent of the one who is being obeyed. In a movie I watched last week, a drill-sergeant father, injured on a hostile world, sends his young son out with tracking and communication devices to find an object necessary for their survival. The father says to the boy, “I will be able to see everything you can see and more. Do exactly as I tell you, and I will keep you safe.” Not to obey in this case is not freedom – it is foolishness. The father’s motivation is love and he has more information and better decision-making experience than his son does. This is the kind of obedience that Yoder calls for in following Christ (really, it’s the New Testament that calls for this kind of obedience). The father in this scenario may give orders that do not make sense to the child, but the boy must follow them anyway. Thus, effectiveness and practicality can never be our primary aim. Obedience must be primary, trusting in the will of One who loves us and to whom we are committed. And even in this obedience, there is no coercion because it is chosen in every moment. God always leaves the possibility open for his creation to reject him.

Another unstated necessity in Yoder’s theology is what I have started calling a hermeneutic of humility. He is strident in his beliefs to the point of seeming arrogant at times, but his theology falls apart without a deep sense of epistemic humility. There are subjects that Yoder does not speak of, like, for instance, whether or not God works outside the church or in and through other faiths. I think this is the reason: I think he cannot speak of these because he must hold onto the belief that God is inexorably and mysteriously working to bring creation to herself. In this theology, there are things that are better left unsaid, better left to God’s inscrutable judgment. This is not relativism, but rather a continual unveiling of Truth. We follow a divine person and engage in a covenant relationship.   We do not follow laws and prescriptions and engage with a dead text. Thus, in every moment, the relationship has the ability to deepen and change, to be particular and universal at the same time.

This is why, for all Carter’s brilliance in creating a systematic theology of Yoder’s theology, the book is, in some ways, subtle blasphemy. Yoder’s theology, indeed all theology whether we admit it or not, is for and from a particular context in space and time. It is an outworking of a whole network of relationship. Relationships are not systematic and entail many logical contradictions. To systematize a theology like Yoder’s is like this: Seeing a beautiful butterfly on a hillside, you try to figure out why it is so beautiful. You watch it, but you can’t figure it out. So you catch it and take it home with you. You still can’t discover the formula for its beauty, so you pin it to a board and examine it closely. This still does not capture it, so you dissect it. At this point, far from figuring out the reason for its beauty, you have destroyed its beauty altogether. Although I would not go so far as to say that Carter has destroyed the beauty of Yoder’s theology – in fact, I think he did an admirable job of describing the butterfly’s beauty under a microscope – theology done in the way Yoder does it has a spirit about it that is not decipherable.

Yoder’s way of doing theology is in keeping with his message – the beauty in the theology Yoder posits is not a logical consistency that you must believe or be wrong (which might almost be a kind of coercion). Rather, it is a beauty that resonates and summons and evokes. This is the kind of beauty in Jesus’ parables, a kind of beauty that is dangerous because it is so immeasurable and so unrepeatable. There is true, not just imagined, danger in this kind of theology because without the Spirit’s breath (and who can control the Spirit’s breath?) it can be worse than dead – it can be deadly. But where the Spirit is present in it, this kind of occasional, devotional, provisional theology offers a drink of life-giving water.

Peacemaking: being like a child

In the class I’m TAing, we have talked much about Jesus’ injunction to the disciples to be like a child (Matthew 18).  Many of the students have brought up the difficulties of this image.  Usually it’s talked about in regard to our current understanding of children and vaguely psychologized — children are (and so we are to be) constantly learning, dependent for provision, trusting, vulnerable, enthusiastic, innocent, naive, etc.  This is a possible (if very challenging) interpretation, one that, when fleshed out carefully, can be fruitful.

But here are some of the questions that have come up for the class:  This assumes a lot about children that, especially in situations of violence in their society or home, is not always true or even ideal.  A child in an abusive home may be vulnerable and may have no choice but to “trust,” but would we want that vulnerability or coerced “trust” for them?  Is that what Jesus is asking us to imitate?  In Jesus’ time, children were akin to slaves.  Are we to literally become people who have no power and live on the handouts of others?  Paul tells us to put off childish things in regard to faith.  Can we be like a child and at the same time not childish?

I think these are not unanswerable questions, and they may not, in the end, negate the call to vulnerability and trust that many people read in this passage.  However, I don’t want to stop there in considering this passage and its meaning… Here’s another possibility:

Margaret Urban Walker, feminist philosopher and ethicist, explains that human interactions work on a pyramid of privilege along lines of race, class, gender, ability, age, sexuality, and many other factors.  The more of these factors you have in your favor, the higher you are on the pyramid.  She goes on to say that we tend to know a lot about the people who are above us on the pyramid and almost nothing about the people below us.  This very fact tends to perpetuate the pyramid — we can step all over those below us because we don’t know them or see them as quite human (in fact, we barely know they’re there), and we do step all over them because we are working to somehow get higher on that scale.  If you need an example of that, think of how much you know about movie stars and CEOs of major companies… and how much you know about the janitor who works in your building or the migrant worker who detassels corn nearby or the worker who made your clothes.  For Margaret Urban Walker, this not knowing of people below us on this pyramid is directly related to the dehumanization that makes space for violence.

In the mean time, Renee Girard (along with many others) says that we humans are mimetic beings.  One of the most basic facts of our identity is that it is formed by imitating others.  We imitate all the time… in everything (or nearly everything).  In Girard’s view, this system results in “successful” imitation and jealousy becoming a threat to identity and then an incitement to violence and scapegoating.

(Side note — the system of mimetic violence that Girard puts forth is one of the foundations of the theology of the cross called Nonviolent Atonement… if you haven’t heard of it, look it up.  It’s pretty awesome.  Now back to the main point…)

So the disciples are looking to each other and the people around them and saying “hey, Jesus — who’s going to be greatest in heaven?”  And Jesus shows them a little child and says — be like this one.  Do you hear it?  Jesus is saying “imitate this one” — this one who is below you on the pyramid.  When you want to know who to imitate, stop looking up.  Look down.  Get to know the janitor and the migrant worker, or whoever is below you on the prescribed social hierarchy, so they can teach you to be more human.  If you have to imitate (and Girard would say, if he were Jesus, you have to imitate because you’re human…) — if you have to imitate, look for someone who doesn’t seem to matter or who you hadn’t even noticed before, and let them teach you.

Of course, Christian faith also tells us to imitate Jesus.  But Jesus himself tells us that he is to be found in the midst of those who are below us on the social ladder.

Also notice that it is imitation Jesus is calling for, which requires learning and knowing.  This is not the charity that pulls another up the social ladder, though maybe there is also a place for that.  This is the knowing and seeing that requires stepping down a rung or two and looking at the world from that view.  Because we might find (we probably will find, in fact) that the ladder itself is overrated — or downright destructive and dangerous.  Because we might be called to a different way of being together, stepping off the ladder entirely, where with feet on the ground we find ways of caring for one another that are so much richer than pulling and pushing and squashing others on our way up to a Babel-like “kingdom” that can never come.

Jesus is preaching a solidarity that reshapes our very identity and shakes up our current way of being.  If it doesn’t do that, you can bet that you are still just offering a hand up rather than engaging in true solidarity.

I wonder if we did that kind of looking and knowing and imitating and identity-shifting, if Margaret Urban Walker’s pyramid might come crashing down.

Your turn… what are you connecting this passage with these days?  How are you interpreting it in this world of ours?