Politics of YHWH

The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is best known for his seminal book on The Politics of Jesus (1972). Yoder’s writings about the Old Testament “prequel” to Jesus are less well known, partly because they are scattered in articles that Yoder never gathered between two covers. In The Politics of Yahweh (Cascade, 2011), John C. Nugent, Professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College, not only synthesizes this body of work, but also provides a thoughtful critique and correction of various aspects of Yoder’s Old Testament theology.

Dissatisfied with the “Marcionite” readings of the Old Testament sometimes used by pacifists, Yoder set out to show instead that Jesus’ advocacy of non-violence was a natural climax to the history of Israel. Nugent calls Yoder’s approach “canonical-directional,” canonical in the sense that Yoder was more interested in the final form of the biblical text than in its prehistory and directional in the sense that Israel’s history should be read as an arrow pointing to its fulfillment in Christ.

Two themes stand out in Yoder’s treatment of Israel’s history. First, Yoder’s God is reactive, orchestrating and limiting human sin to achieve His promises. Blood vengeance was already practiced in the time of Cain and Abel, and in giving Noah authority to exercise capital punishment God placed this practice “more fully under his jurisdiction” (p. 36). Israel established monarchy in rebellion, but in Deuteronomy 17 Yahweh “effectively denies Israel’s request to have a king ‘like the nations’” by requiring a “unique, Torah-advocating ruler” (p. 58). Yoder extends the logic of Jesus (“Because of the hardness of your heart”) to argue that Yahweh’s control does not imply endorsement.

Second, Yoder read the Old Testament as a history of Israel’s maturation. Fundamentally, it is a pedagogy in faith, beginning with the call that cut Abram off from all natural means of support. It is also a pedagogy in a particular kind of warfare, “Yahweh war,” in which Israel depends on Yahweh as the warrior who will fight their battles. By the end of the Old Testament period, Israel has no armies of her own and is forced by the circumstance of exile to rely on Yahweh alone. Jesus takes up the mantle of Jeremiah, urging His disciples to seek the peace of the city and not to take control of the empire themselves.

Even with Nugent’s corrections, there are fairly glaring oversights and weaknesses in Yoder’s work. His account of kingship, especially David, is one-sidedly negative. From the Psalms, it would seem that David represents a continuation of “Yahweh war” into the period of the monarchy. Though Israel lost its political and military independence after the exile, they were hardly “non-aligned-with-empire,” as Yoder and Nugent suggest. And they were hardly non-violent: Yoder cites Esther several times as an example of faithfulness in exile, but he ignores Mordecai’s effort to organize armed resistance with the permission of the Persian king. At several points, in short, Yoder’s telling of Israel’s story clashes with the canon.

More globally, Yoder polarizes Yahweh-war and Israel-war in a way that the Bible does not. At times, Israel does nothing and watches Yahweh defeat their enemies. Other times, Israel fights in faith while Yahweh defeats their enemies. I wonder if this betrays a more fundamental flaw in Yoder’s theology, a tendency to treat divine/human action as a zero-sum game.

Besides, the story of maturation could be told differently: Growing up might mean that the kids learn to fight alongside daddy, rather than watching him handle all the baddies. There is plenty of biblical evidence for this narrative line. Noah is granted the power of the sword; he doesn’t have to wait for another flood to rid the world of violence. Paul says that we have been given spiritual weapons powerful to cast down vain imaginations; he says that we trample Satan underfoot; Revelation says repeatedly that we are made kings and priests in Christ Jesus. These all refer to “spiritual” warfare, but in the Bible the wars of the Spirit are also political events, and in any case these texts all indicate that, possessed by the militant Spirit, we participate in Yahweh’s wars, more than ancient Israel ever did.

Scattered comments raise questions about Yoder’s theology of creation, and hence theology of culture (he was a student of Barth!). For instance, he insists that Christians are freed from the burden of running the world and can leave coercive political actions to others, as Israel in exile left her protection in the hands of Babylonians and Persians while they devoted themselves to Torah, hospitality, and worship. Why, he wonders, would a Christian want to be involved in running the state anyway? “The Christian who wants to put the role of Christian living into second place in order to serve the state as a first priority is like a musician who leaves the stage in order to work as an usher in the concert hall.”

This immediately elicits several objections: Is it possible to serve in the state without making it a “first priority”? Is public service necessarily idolatrous? Elsewhere, Yoder acknowledges that Christians can serve in public office, so long as they do not shed blood. Yet his comment here leaves me with a lingering suspicion that Yoder has reservations about the goodness of human society as such (“Culture . . . is already morally ambivalent,” p. 35).

Yoder’s reference to the musician is an analogy, I know, but it left me wondering what he would say about a Christian who “puts the role of Christian living into second place” in order to pursue a career as a musician. As Nugent puts it, Christians “are freed from running the world so that they may serve the world with the life-giving resources only they possess” (p. 195), which seems to suggest that Christians are all to be full-time “priests” and nothing else. Can a Christian serve the world with life-giving resources in the process of running a Christian bakery, teaching mathematics, working as a real estate agent, repairing the plumbing?

Yoder is an interesting reader of the Old Testament, and his Old Testament writings have their share of challenging insights. He is right to emphasize that the Old Testament order was pedagogical, and, though in my estimate the canonical direction does not point to pacifism, it does prepare a people for the Prince of Peace. By bringing the entire Bible fully into play, Nugent’s important book deepens the debate for both pacifists and non-pacifists.

(An earlier version of this review was published in Credenda/Agenda.)

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