Today we begin the review of the conclusion to Making the Best of It, in which John Stackhouse pulls all the pieces together.
Stackhouse reminds us that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s driving question was, “Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?” Stackhouse writes:
He believes that two options predominate in Christianity today.
Stackhouse see his Christian Realism as a better alternative to either of these options.
Of the posts I’ve written on this book, the ones that have touched specifically John Howard Yoder and Anabaptist views have generated the most conversation. Here at the end of the book, Stackhouse acknowledges that he has contrasted his position with Yoder’s position a number of times precisely because he thinks many will, and are, finding Yoder’s model attractive. I know Scot McKnight has noted a strong Anabaptist streak in the emerging church movement. My experience has been that a majority of folks who have come into the emerging church world come from conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical environments where the Religious Right, with its ambitions of wielding political power, is pervasive. It is not hard to understand why the more circumspect teachings of Yoder and Hauerwas are appealing. Still, along with Stackhouse, I think the Yoder/Hauerwas option is not the best option. To give you some idea of what Stackhouse thoughts are on this issue, I will quote him at length before launching into the rest of the chapter.
It must be clear that I recognize that Yoder does not advocate a simplistic “Christ against culture” model – nor do his latter-day epigones, such as Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, and others. They are too intelligent and too Christian for that. Thus I agree strongly with this passage of Yoder’s. …
… The fundamental disagreement has to do with the cultural opportunities and, indeed, threats posed by societies whose dominant institutions are open to Christian participation. … The Roman Empire in many respect was not open to such Christian participation, and that is the cultural context of the New Testament. But what happens when the emperor not only opens a door to Christians but welcomes them in, as Constantine did? Those of Yoder’s stripe see this occasion as the Great Disaster, the co-optation of the church by the world, which they never tire of identifying as the root of all sorts of evil. But what if, as we have remarked already, we see the new era inaugurated by Constantine as an evangelistic success story, as simply the logical working out of the mission of God in the Roman Empire – with full recognitions of all of the ambiguities, limitations, failures, and blessings that attend the mission God being accomplished via human beings in the world?
It is obvious that few of us live in anything like “Christendom” today. Yet we still have far more opportunity to participate in the life of our culture than did the first Christians – including participation in every institution of society. What, then, are Christians supposed to do in this context? Keep acting like a repressed minority, when we are no longer repressed and no longer a minority? Yoder and his ilk do seem to suggest that it would have been entirely salutary for Christians to have retained that mentality. And he, as always, makes an attractive case, particularly as we stand many centuries downstream of the Constantinian era and rue the entanglements of Christianity and culture that have occurred since then. (310-312)
While Christians have had their blunders through the centuries they have also used resources Providence provided to end the excess of the medieval church, end slavery, build schools, establish charities, etc. … these were, “… all things Yoder wanted them to – pray, proclaim, form godly communities that modeled alternatives, serve society in various other positive respects …” (312) But Stackhouse adds:
My thoughts: I first read Yoder, as well as people like Donald Kraybill and Ron Sider, back in the late ‘70s while in college. I remember being fascinated by their work. I’ve been around Mennonite folks and Anabaptism to varying degrees most of life. Compared to the antics of the Religious Right, I find it a refreshing crowd to hang with.
What I’ve not been able to do is to embrace the clean demarcations between two kingdoms. Sustainable democratic government is dependent upon broad-based willful compliance with its directives but no government is sustainable without the underlying threat of coercive force. The idea that we can somehow participate in government without participating in violence, or the underlying threat thereof, is, to me, an illusion … and not participating in government is a failure to participate in the cultural mandate to exercise dominion.
When John was preaching repentance, Luke records:
No condemnation of their soldiering. Jesus commends the Centurion’s great faith in Matthew 8 with no command to “go and sin no more.” Peter, directed by God, goes to a Centurion in Acts 10 who was baptized without repentance from his soldiering. Paul is affirming of government agents wielding swords to enforce the good. The generic cry that we can’t participate in “empire” because it uses coercive force just isn’t faithful to the biblical witness.
I’m sympathetic with the critique people like Yoder bring about past abuses. I’m not persuaded by his response or those of his enthusiasts. We must participate in government where we have the freedom to do so as part of answering the cultural mandate. I think the line comes when total allegiance to, and worship of, the state is mandated for participation.