What We Can All Learn from Mennonite Political Teachings

I’ve learned what I know of Mennonite beliefs from the books of John Howard Yoder, specifically The Christian Witness to the State, The Politics of Jesus, and When War is Unjust. The last book is actually his effort to explicate Catholic just-war theory in as rational a form as possible and I’ll deal with that in another entry.

For now, I wish to emphasize a criticism that Professor Yoder first directed at some of his fellow Mennonites: their political views have been corrupted (my term) by a flavor of modern liberalism and don’t correspond with the views traditionally taught by Mennonites. Those traditional Mennonite views are very similar to those taught by Quakers in the early generations of that faith though modern-day Quakers seem to me to be also corrupted by that same flavor of modern liberalism. The traditional Mennonite view, at least according to Yoder’s analysis starts with this truth which any Christian should believe:

A Christian’s primary public duty is to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to His Good News and this is tied to his moral duty to follow Christ’s teaching in his own behaviors, private and public.

As stated, I think most Christians would hesitate to deny this view. Unfortunately, this is where the hard work of begins and many avoid the work of determining what it is they’ve been taught in their tradition, whether it’s correct, and what it means for them personally. American Catholics and Protestants tend, in my opinion, to work to secure safety and comfort and social respectability before devoting some energies to hopeless efforts to reconcile anti-Christian behaviors with subjective Christian beliefs. Professor Yoder wouldn’t be likely to use the term ‘public duty’, choosing instead to get right to the core of public duty: political duty. Thus it is that he points out correctly and clearly that a Christian is a witness to the state. But, as he understands it, this is an overly simple view. As a convert to the Catholic Church, I would suggest that we first need to learn how to witness to our family-members and neighbors, our fellow-parishioners and even our clergymen. He may have missed this need just because he grew up in a community bound by both faith and family-ties whereas most Catholic and Protestant Americans have been willing to leave behind faith and family to the extent necessary to prosper in the modern fascist economy and polity. I confess I have failed to properly witness even those I love without confusing or antagonizing some of them. Sometimes I simply have not the courage to stand before the tide. Then again, we have to choose our battles and pray the Holy Spirit will let us know when the time has come.

In his earlier book, The Christian Witness to the State, Professor Yoder seemed a bit more optimistic about the possibilities of the welfare state than he seemed in his later years. In that earlier book, he seemed to allow peace-church Christians the possibility of government employment in non-police and non-military positions. I’m under the impression that he moved towards the position of some, such as Dorothy Day, who consider the welfare state to be but one side of a Janus who smiles and hands you gifts if he looks upon you with one face or drops bombs on you and your children if he looks upon you with the other face. Where Yoder shines is in his explanations of the shared traditional teaching that a Christian has that duty to witness to Jesus Christ even to the point of martyrdom. He also shines in claiming that Christians have no right to enforce Christian moral behaviors upon others. The question remains as to whether we really have a clear and authoritative understanding of the political and moral teachings of Christ. I hope to have the resources and energy before long to make a serious argument that we don’t: as part of this phase of God’s Creation, moral truths — and the political truths they imply — have to be seen by processes of exploration and contemplation much akin to the Thomistic idea of the development of the human mind. (See loydfueston.com:category=’Mind’..) A Christ-like man is natural man completed by grace but even that grace is often mediated through our responses to God’s Creation in its perceived entirety, which entirety is itself held together by God’s purposes. We don’t even understand our natural selves and there is no compelling Biblical arguments that I know of to rule out either radical non-resistance or just-war.

This much would seem clear: Christians have no right to try to enact laws against abortion on a society where a majority now accepts it as a matter of course — no matter what we say in surveys. We have a duty to witness to the teachings of Christ and so the prayer-vigils should go on, as should the many efforts of loving Christians to provide help to pregnant women who feel abandoned or simply need help. One disturbing way of putting matters is:

Christians have an obligation to witness to Jesus Christ and to live up to the fullness of their understanding of His teachings and commandments. We have that obligation even to the point of great sufferings — physical and also public humiliation. We have that obligation to die for Christ. At the same time, we don’t have the right to force non-believers to live up to the fullness of Christian moral beliefs.

If our medical system continues on its current path, Christians might well have the duty to die rather than accept the benefits of a system that uses some human creatures as means to the ends of others, but we have no impose laws upon non-believers in our efforts to change that system if our fellow-citizens accept such moral horrors as the research aimed at cloning human beings to provide cells or even entire organs for other human beings. The legal and bureaucratic techniques of Hell can’t be used to gain Heaven.

Yoder was quite honest about the Mennonite understanding of those Bible verses which label the most brutal of conquerors and rulers as ‘scourges of God’ or equivalent terms. While he sees a duty incumbent upon members of peace-churches (including Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, and some others) to mitigate the effects of warfare and brutal police actions upon all but especially the innocent, those wars and brutal police actions serve the purposes of God by enforcing some sort of order on those not ready to accept the peaceful order of Christ. Why would God do such a thing? So that the Church can do her work and preach the Good News of Christ.

There are two immediately bothersome problems with Yoder’s specific development of Mennonite political and moral beliefs — and I’m certainly willing to assume that he better understood the traditional teachings of his people better than some Mennonites who seem to be modern liberals in somewhat more sober clothing.

  1. Not all Christians accept the Mennonite understandings of the teachings and commandments found in the New Testament. In particular, the Catholic and Orthodox have traditions of radical non-resistance similar to Mennonite traditions but also parallel traditions of just-war. The Protestant traditions founded by Calvin, Luther, and Knox tend to have been just-war advocates at least from the days of the treaties which reinstated those principles in the fighting of wars between Protestant and Catholic countries. The rediscovery of natural-law traditions by Protestant scholars a generation or two later have allowed practical and humane measures to be understood in terms of more general principles which are now forgotten as they are by most Catholics around the world.
  2. We have other human traditions that indicate we share a significant moral tradition across all Christian traditions (ancient Christian traditions unaffiliated with the Catholic or Orthodox churches including some descendants of the heretical sects such as Monophysitism) and also with Jews and virtuous pagans of the Roman or Greek sort. The Mennonite claims to be able to jump back past ‘Constantinian’ and ‘Augustinian’ traditions to read the real meaning of the New Testament is an illicit claim to authority. Also even Yoder’s denials of natural law reasoning are ill-founded and unconvincing though modern statements of natural-law by Catholic and Protestant theorists are also ill-founded and unconvincing even if they do retain some truths in the conclusions of their arguments which consider faith and some version of reason but ignore a reality which doesn’t sit comfortably with that version of reason.

And that leads me to restate the above problems in terms of an evolutionary foundation:

  1. We now know, at least those who like to live in the reality explored by serious empirical research, that morality has evolved and that moral evolution accelerated quite a bit when social mammals came on the scene. We share with wolves not only tight family bonds and a (very defective) bias towards monogamous relationships but also a reluctance to kill members of our own species. Wolves have much stronger instincts against killing other wolves than we have against killing other human beings.
  2. Since the human mind forms in response to its environments, as St. Thomas Aquinas knew in the 13th century and as modern brain-scientists have rediscovered, a human being born into a complex human society is a different animal from any ancestors which developed in humanoid societies more similar to those of our evolutionary cousins such as chimpanzees and gorillas. While there is surprising complexity in bushmen societies, the advantage of human flexibility shows in human civilizations which can only grow and remain intact if there are complex and shared beliefs that can support the spontaneous growth of some institutions and the legislated development of others. While the pagan Romans may have had brutal and incomplete moral beliefs by the standards of Christianity, those beliefs were quite advanced by any reasonable standards and required substantial training of the Roman youth to hold to those beliefs even at great cost. Even human civilizations which had evil practices or beliefs also had moral structure beyond anything which could likely be projected if we could observe ‘simple’ human animals in the days of cave-bears and mammoths.
  3. Christ upped the ante tremendously using antithetical ways of talk — “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment…” [Matt 5:21-22, RSV, Catholic edition.] I’m forced in this context to note that this doesn’t directly argue against dispassionate and well-reasoned acts of justice, perhaps even just wars, but — more importantly for now — it does assume a substantial development of moral behaviors and language for Christ to speak in these terms. You can’t build a rocket-ship to fly to the moon unless you have a highly developed metallurgical industry even if it had been built up to serve more mundane purposes. Christ spoke to human beings already shaped by eons of evolution and by the experiences of civilized man in the Near East and by the divinely guided experiences of Israel.

I’m most certainly not engaging in this critique to deny Yoder’s greatness as a thinker. I’m currently paying him the tribute of rereading the three books I listed above. I most certainly would never cast doubt on the moral integrity of the Mennonites. There are times when I think the Mennonites and Amish and other Anabaptists are the last true Christians in the United States even though I remain a faithful Catholic. The vast majority of Catholics and Protestants I’ve known, many of them both likable and admirable, have been Americans who happened to attend some Christian church. Many, including some who seem very devout, accept that sub-set of Christian teachings which work to form good work habits and disciplined sexual behavior as if Christianity were no more than a resource for building a prosperous society with secure property rights and no yucky stuff on television.

I hope to be able to address Professor Yoder’s insightful and morally profound critique of the actual practice of war by societies which lie in the just-war tradition. I hope also to address the issue of natural law in more detail. Stay tuned to this blog-site if you’re interested.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Biblical interpretation, Christianity, Evolution, Moral issues, politics

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