This piece is the first of a series of posts I intend to write on the topic of Anabaptist Epistemology. This piece will focus on political theology, the second on implications and the third on the positive outlines of an Anabaptist Epistemology.
In this piece I will give the broad outlines of a Anabaptist, and specifically Hutterite political theology. Hutterite political theology (if there is such a thing) is drawn mostly from the work of Peter Riedemann in his Hutterite Confession of Faith. I will be summarizing and interpreting Riedemann’s work while also supplementing it in places with the work of Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, especially with regards to contemporary biblical scholarship on the powers. Despite that, the broad outlines of my summery will focus on Riedemann’s political theology.
Riedemann on the Church and the State
Riedemann begins by giving an account of how and why the government was established. This is key for his theological outlook as we shall see. Riedemann does not think that that the ruling authorities—or “principalities and powers” to use biblical language—are part of the good, original creation. Rather they are instituted by God as a consequence of the fall. Prior, and even after the Fall, up until the Flood, Riedemann believes that “God himself ruled and judged people through his Spirit.” However, humanity became so rebellious that God withdrew His Spirit and established the Powers:
“…What caused God to take away the power of his Spirit from humans was their own corrupt nature and carnal inclination. Because they would no longer obey but allowed themselves to be overcome by sin, the Spirit of God turned away from them. However, God did not want to cut them off forever, and therefore, after the Flood he gave them a government. We read in Ecclesiastes. “He set a ruler over every people.” Paul tells us the same when he says that all government everywhere is established by God. For what purpose? To be his servant for the punishment of evildoers.”
Here we come to a key feature of Riedemann’s account of the Powers; they are not part of God’s good creation and have no place in it, but rather “God has appointed human rulers not from goodwill, but only from wrath.” The purpose of the Powers for Riedemann is very simple: “to be [God’s] servant for the punishment of evildoers”. They exist carry out God’s wrath at injustice, and exist as constant sign of our rebellion and alienation from God. The Powers in Riedemann’s theology have the paradoxical quality of being a strange alien feature in God’s creation and yet, somehow a necessary evil. Riedemann can’t conceive of a world—at least not in its current fallen state—without the Powers punishing those who shed innocent blood, and yet, he also recognizes that these sword wielding rulers have no place in God’s good creation. Indeed, Riedemann is emphatic that vengeance and worldly authority have no place in God’s kingdom. The Church, as the eschatological sign of God’s coming reign, cannot participate in bloodshed, and must embody peace:
“Christ does not want us to resist evil, and he means that not only for all subjects but for all people who enter his kingdom. Then also, Christ limits the authority of governments and does not want that authority to be used in his kingdom. He obviously does not speak only to those who previously had not power, but much more to those who have used it. He tells them to set it aside when they enter his kingdom and leave vengeance to God alone.”
Riedemann is striking in his radicallity here. Not only can Christians not “resist evil,” practice “vengeance,” or “retaliate,” but they must also renounce political power. Christians as agents of God’s kingdom are called to spread not violence, but “blessings, love, and deeds of kindness.” So, while Riedemann does think that there is a need for the Government, he does not think that Christians can rule, and, by extension, that rulers “are not Christians”. He distinguishes between two different “servants of God.” On one hand, the “servants of wrath” who “carry out God’s wrath upon the evildoer.” And, on the other hand, the servants of blessing who work for God’s kingdom. So, Riedemann makes a strict separation between Church and State, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. There can be no overlap between the two, you can only serve one or the other. Interestingly, the reason Riedemann wants to separate the Church and the State, is precisely the reverse of the reason we give today. While we want a separation in order to protect the state from influence from the Church, Riedemann wants the Church free from the violent business of the state. He doesn’t call Christians to political office in order to make the state align more with Christian values, but rather, calls Christians to renounce political office for the sake of their values. In other words, Riedemann is more concerned about the corrupting influence of power on Christianity, than the corrupting influence of religion on power. Christendom seems anathema to Riedemann’s political theology.
This points to a further, connected point that is often obscured by contemporary Hutterite reflection on the relationship between the Church and politics. Riedemann does not see the separation of Church and State as the setting up of two complimentary spheres with different roles; one preoccupied with a earthly political task and the other with the spiritual task of saving souls. Rather, for Riedemann, State is irrelevant to the Church and the Church is an alternative to the State. The Church is an alternative polis. This is why for the Hutterites, the political and the religious are intertwined in a way of life that strives to embody the life of the kingdom of God. The Church, as Riedemann conceives it, is incompatible with the violence of the State because Christians have found themselves to be living within a new reality in which peace has prevailed over death. The State continues to exist as a strange and alien feature in God’s creation, with a necessary function—to punish evildoers—but its existence is superfluous for those who find themselves to be members of the Kingdom of God: “What was given and appointed in wrath, under a curse, and in disfavour, that cannot have any place in Christ.” The State is a continuous sign of the “now but not yet” quality of our lives between the resurrection and the coming of Christ. When Riedemann says that the task of the Church is to “preach the gospel” this is precisely a political claim. The Church proclaims the Lordship of Christ, and lives under His rule; this very proclamation, the very existence of the Church, is a challenge and a rendering irrelevant of the State.
This brings us to a strange feature of Riedemann’s political theology. While the role of the government is very limited for Riedemann (He is writing after all in the 16th century, when governments had significantly less power)—to punish evildoers—he does make some striking moral demands. He does not think that governments have the right to “exterminate other nations” or to “wage war,” and also makes the strange statement that God “wants rulers to look to him and obey him” and also “to be guided by him in accordance with his will and preference.” Its hard to see how Riedemann holds together on one hand, that rulers can’t be Christian, and on the other that rulers should “be guided” by God and “obey him”. Perhaps Riedemann could be taking for granted a kind of Natural Law, where there is a natural order of things which will lead to human flourishing if we exist in harmony with it. Riedemann could be interpreted as hinting towards something like this when he speaks of revolution as God’s punishment for unjust rule. God’s punishment is not in the form of lighting bolts hurled from the sky, but rather, in the form of the consequences of your actions: you have violated the natural order of things by your injustice and will pay the price for it. If Riedemann has in mind some kind of a Natural Law, than that would represent a universal moral code to which rulers must remain submitted and by which their injustice can be called out. That would be the standard by which Riedemann could condemn rulers for their extermination of nations or their “waging of war.” Weather Natural Law theory is consistent with the theological vision Riedemann has just sketched out, is a question we will take up in the next piece. In any event, Riedemann doesn’t sound like he is making any kind of appeal to natural law when he condemns the “extermination of other nations”, instead he is making an appeal to scripture. I suspect that the more likely reason Riedemann can, on one hand call Rulers to “obey God” and on the other, claim that they cannot be Christian, is because of his context within Christendom. Its important here to contrast Riedemann’s context within Christendom, with our own secular context. In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor traces the cultural shifts that had to take place for secularity to emerge. We have gone, according to Taylor, from a society in which belief in God was axiomatic and reinforced by our social imaginary or “context of understanding,” to a society in which belief in God is one option among many:
“…the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest of believer, is one human possibility among others… Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith… Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral spiritual and religious experience and search takes place.”
Riedemann can make Christian appeals to the rulers because he lives in a society in which belief in God is axiomatic, and reinforced by how he and his fellow citizens experience their entire reality; time, society, nature, the self etc. So, it is likely that Riedemann is taking rulers who profess belief in God for granted—the Anabaptists were alone among the Reformers and Catholics in their rejection of political power—and just doesn’t think that those rulers are “true Christians” since they cannot renounce political power. Since Christianity was the universal ethic that all members of Christendom shared, Riedemann can appeal to the Rulers’ common belief in God when he demands that they follow the will of God and rule justly. If this reading is correct, this raises the question of how we, in our own time, can speak out against the “extermination of nations” or the “waging of war”. We, unlike Riedemann, live in a secular age, where belief in God—and Christianity—is one option among a plurality of others. In such a context, what kind of a common ethical framework can we appeal to when speaking out against the injustice of the Powers? Should we appeal to natural law? Or should we embrace our Christian particularity? Is this kind of activism compatible with Riedemann’s strict separation of the two kingdoms? These are questions we will raise in the next piece.
Despite Riedemann’s repeated appeals to believers to submit to the ruling authorities, and his dismissal of the rebellious “Münsterites” as “deceived by the devil,” we see that his is not a theology that sacralizes the established order. On one hand, he calls the ruling authorities to recognize that there is a Power higher than they; that God, in giving the rulers “power over the people” still “reserved the highest power for himself.” Correspondingly, while those under the Powers are called to obey, their “conscience has been set free and is reserved for God alone.” So Riedemann does not think the rulers are permitted to “carry out every whim”—words perhaps written with Luther’s infamous call for the slaughter of the Peasants in mind—nor does he think that Christians must obey the rulers when they violate their conscience. Riedemann concludes by noting that while he and his fellow believers cannot in any way aid in warfare, they do wish to “serve humanity and its welfare.”:
“Since wars and the extermination of nations are more contrary to the office of government than in agreement with it, God allows them nothing for such purposes, and we can give nothing for them. We do wish, however, to serve humanity and its welfare and improvement in every possible way, and do this as well as we can. But regarding whatever is against God, against the conscience, and against our calling,—we want to obey God rather than humans.”
Yoder on the Powers
Now that we have summarized Riedemann’s political theology, we will now move on to supplement his account with the work of John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus. Yoder’s book is mostly a bringing to bear the findings of contemporary biblical scholarship to questions of politics and non violence, and his is an attempt to elucidate the “politics of Jesus.” Given Riedemann’s biblicism, it does not seem inappropriate to show where his account can benefit from the findings of contemporary biblical scholarship. There are two aspects of Riedemann’s political theology that I want to examine via Yoder. First, Riedemann’s theological account of the nature of the Powers, Yoder can give us a more positive, expansive and indeed, biblical view of the Powers. Second, we will examine Riedemann’s views on the relationship between the Church and the State and his claim that Christians should submit to the ruling authorities. Yoder’s notion of “revolutionary subordination” and his theology of the cross can be helpful here.
Let’s begin with the Powers. While Riedemann refers only to the “Ruling authorities”, the biblical language is much richer. Yoder gives us a sense of the scope of Paul’s language in describing these realities:
“When in modern social analysis such terms as “power” and “structure” are used, everyone knows just about what is meant; but still a logician would have little trouble in demonstrating that not everyone means exactly the same things and nothing else… Something of the same stimulating confusion is present in the thought of the apostle Paul as he applies some of the same thought patterns to different challenges in different contexts. He speaks of “principalities and powers,” and of “thrones and dominions,” thus using language of political colour. But he can also use cosmological language like “angels and archangels,” “elements,” “heights and depths.” Or the language can be religious: “law,” “knowledge.” Sometimes the reader perceives a parallelism in all of these concepts. Sometimes not.
We see that Paul is aware, not just of “ruling authorities” who rule over him, and limit his freedom, but sees a broad array of forces and systems that impinge upon us. Yoder finds it helpful to speak of “structures,” which he defines as the “patterns or regularities that transcend or proceed or condition the individual phenomena we can immediately perceive.” In other words, we are thinking of those larger, patterned wholes which are not reducible to individual phenomenon. One example would be the state, the state is a patterned whole—some might call it “emergent”—which is not reducible to any individual phenomena, and yet is a force in our lives. It is not merely the scowling figure of Ceaser that restrains us, but also the larger system that we call the state. The state has power, that is, “some kind of capacity to make things happen,” and power over us: it can make us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. That is the role of these structures in our lives, they exercise power over us for some regulative end. Some of the powers present in our modern lives include: “…Religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive structures), intellectual structures (-ologies, and -isms), moral structures (codes and customs) [and] political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race, and nation). This broad category of systems which we will, following Yoder, refer to under the shorthand of the Powers, have both a physical and a spiritual reality. For example, Paul can speak of ruling authorities as somehow connected to cosmic powers. Walter Wink, in his book The Powers That Be, gives us a helpful enumeration:
“But the Powers…are not just physical. The Bible insists that they are more than that (Eph. 3:10, 6:12); this “more” holds the clue to their profundity. In the biblical view the powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional. (Col. 1:15-20) Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government posses and outer physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously and outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality…What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the centre of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.”
The question that this raises is how we are to think of the spiritual reality of the Powers. When Paul refers to the cosmic dimension of the Powers, should we think of spiritual beings or of the emergent properties (some larger whole emerging from individual phenomenon) we sketched out above. Wink takes the latter view, but other equally prominent biblical scholars take the other view. In any event, we see that this biblical concept of the Powers takes us well beyond Riedemann’s stark dichotomy between Church and State. To be under the dominion of the Powers is part of the human condition.
This takes us to Yoder’s discussion of the nature of the Powers. Yoder makes three foundational claims. First, the Powers are a good creation of God, are therefore part of God’s original creation and serve an important function within creation: “It is important…to begin with the reminder that [the Powers] were part of the good creation of God. Society and history, even nature, would be impossible without regulatory, system, order—and God has provided for this need.”
Second, the powers, like humanity, are fallen:
“[The Powers] are no longer active only as mediators of the saving creative purposes of God; we find them seeking to separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38); we find them ruling over the lives of those who live far from the love of God (Eph. 2:2); We find them holding us in servitude to their rules (Col. 2:20); we find them holding us under their tutelage (Gal. 4:3). Those structures were supposed to be our servants have become our masters and our guardians.”
Finally, God still uses these fallen powers for the good and they still “exercise an ordering function.” They keep tyranny at bay and structure and order society. These religious, social, moral and political structures are a sign “of the preserving patience of God towards a world that has not yet heard of its redemption.” Yoder summarizes our predicament under the powers. Because the Powers are fallen and therefore oppressive, we “cannot live with the Powers.” However, because of their essential role in holding society together and guarding against tyranny, “we cannot live without them.” We are in a paradoxical predicament. This is part of what Christ comes to redeem us from.
So here we see that Yoder has a different view of the nature of the Powers than Riedemann. Riedemann thinks of the “Ruling authorities” as alien to God’s good creation, a consequence of our sinfulness, and yet, a “necessary evil.” This strange paradox in Riedemann’s account is helpfully supplemented by Yoder’s biblical view of The Powers as part of God’s good creation, and yet, fallen. Furthermore, Yoder gives us a more expansive view of the Powers, they are those subjugating systems that bind us and constrain us in all spheres of life. This complicates the clean separation that Riedemann wants to make between the Church and the State. If we use Riedemann’s language, the separation is clear, but if we use Yoder’s more expansive biblical language of the Powers, we can see that the Church is never entirely free from the influence of the fallen Powers. Of course, we know this to be true, the Church exists within a given culture and will adapt to those cultural forms, part of this is just what it means to be human. But at the same time, the Church can also fall under the subjugation of evil Powers—racism, mammonism, violence, power—from which it must continuously repent.
While both Yoder and Riedemann do not think that the Church is called to violently resist the powers—even though both believe the Powers are corrupt in some way—Yoder sees the undermining of the Powers as a essential part of the Church’s mission: “The very existence of the Church is its primary task. It is in itself a proclamation of the lordship of Christ to the powers from whose dominion the church has begun to be liberated.” It seems to me that Riedemann has something like this view implicit within his political theology when he argues that Christians cannot rule and that the State is alien to God’s creation. The Church, on this view, cannot be anything other than an alternative to the State which renders the State irrelevant for those under the Lordship of Christ. The proclamation of the Gospel—“Jesus is Lord”—and the life of the Church are then, a challenge to the Powers and will work subversively against them. Riedemann’s two kingdom theology seems to implicitly contain something like Yoder’s notion of “revolutionary subordination.” Lets examine what Yoder means by this.
Christ lived a life genuinely free from the domination of the Powers, and his going to the cross shows his obedience onto death: “Here we have for the first time to do with someone who is not the slave of any power, of any law or custom, community or institution, value or theory. Not event to save his own life will he let himself be made a slave of these Powers.” Christ, through his giving himself over to be crucified confronts the Powers and by his resurrection, unmasks and defeats them. The Church then, because of the work of Christ, is freed from the dominion of the Powers:
…at the cross Christ has disarmed the Powers. The weapons from which there heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince us that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty from the small, dependent humanity. Since Christ we know that this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny: we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater protector. No powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on us. The cross has disarmed them: where after it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the powers takes place.”
Now if the Church is free from the rule of the Powers, why does Paul admonish the Church to submit to the ruling authorities, wives to their husbands, and slaves to their masters? Is this not in stark tension with this message of liberation and Paul’s statement that in Christ there is neither greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female? This is where Yoder’s notion of “Revolutionary Subordination” comes in. Yoder maintains that the standard reading of the Haustafeln (literally “household codes”) as a defence of the status quo, cannot be correct:
“The only thing the Haustafeln cannot have meant originally is what they have mostly been used for since the second century, namely to reinforce extant authority structures a divinely willed for their own sake, by borrowing propatriarchial arguments either from a Stoic or a Jewish world vision, for an appeal either to creation or nature.”
Yoder begins by pointing out that these calls for believers to subordinate themselves to the present realties, only make sense if believers already experienced liberation from the powers. Indeed, that these first century, second class citizens—women, slaves, etc.—need to be told to subordinate themselves, shows that they already have been liberated and are acting as moral agents who can choose weather or not to submit. They are free in Christ and their submission to earthly authorities is their own choice: “It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as simple meaningless decree of fate but as… an issue about which they can make a moral choice.” Furthermore, the call for subordination is reciprocal: “After having stated the call to subordination as addressed first to those who are subordinate already, the Haustafeln then… [call on] the dominant parter in the relationship to a kind of subordination in return.” Paul calls for agape relationships between master and slave, man and wife. Husband and wife are to submit to each other, Philemon is told to treat his runaway slave “as a beloved brother.” If masters really did treat their slaves “like brothers”, how long could slavery, which depends on dehumanizing the slave, continue to exist? We see here what Yoder is getting at with “revolutionary subordination.” Because the old order and the new reality of the kingdom exist simultaneously, this is a nonviolent “tactic for change in light of the new Christological reality.” This revolutionary subordination is exemplified by the life of Christ, in his subordination to the Powers at the Cross, he brings about their defeat. It is because Christ has overcome and unmasked the powers that Paul admonishes believes not to violently overcome the powers, but rather to subvert them by these agape relationships. The present order of things has been desacralized, but it must be overcome not by violence, but by the cross. Paul’s admonition to subordination is then a subversive strategy for living in this strange in between time:
“The apostles rather transformed the concept of living within a role by finding how in each role the servanthood of Christ, the voluntary subordination of one who knows that another regime is normative, could be made concrete….it is…this attitude towards the structures of this world, this freedom from needing to smash them since they are about to crumble anyway, which Jesus had been the first to teach and in his suffering to concretize.”
To help us understand the kind of thing Yoder might have in mind with his notion of revolutionary subordination, it might be helpful to turn again to Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. At the conclusion of chapter four, Taylor notes that Christianity can act as a force for disembedding by subverting traditional structures. Drawing on the work of Ivan Illich, he points to the parable of the good Samaritan, where the tribal good is transcended by Christian agape love: “If the Samaritan had followed the demands of sacred social boundaries, he would never have stopped to help the wounded Jew. It is plain that the Kingdom involves another kind of solidarity altogether, one which would bring us into a network of agape.” Taylor contrasts the two senses of “the world” found in the New Testament. One, is “the world” as in God’s good creation. The other, is the “present sacralized order of things”, the transitory domain of Ceaser to which God’s kingdom is opposed. (We can think of Yoder’s expansive view of the Powers here.) Christians are opposed to the world in this second sense and thus act as a “disembedding force.” However, Taylor points out that there is a corrupt and a faithful way of going about this. Is the world overcome by “networks of agape” or by the forceful imposition of “the law of God” with force? When the later method is used, the tactics of the world are used against it, and in the end, the world wins:
“ The irony is that it somehow turned into something quite different; in another, rather different sense, the “world” won after all. Perhaps the contradiction lay in the very idea of a disciplined imposition of the Kingdom of God. The temptation of Power was after all, too strong, as Dostoyevski saw in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Here lay the corruption.”