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Notes on, and quotes from: The Politics of Jesus (Yoder, 1972, 1994)

Article Table of Contents

As I’ve done many times before, compiling some notes about some long quotes from some books.

In the modern world, we’re loath to read long, complicated passeges of text. I hope to get some of you to eventually order your own copy of The Politics of Jesus. On my website you can find the full text of three of the 12 chapters, so it feels needless to say this book has affected me.

I had to do this transcription laboriusly, via optical character recognition apps on my phone, hand-fixing the errors. I undoubtedly missed some.

I’m not bringing over the footnotes from the book, at least not most of them. I find there to be lots of fascinating portions of this chapter - I want to share it around, to see if others feel nerd sniped. Chapter 11 sets up lots of context for chapter 12, the final chapter of the book.

I’ve copied down all of chapter 1 in Was Jesus’ behavior normative?, and shared context around it.

CHAPTER 11: Justification by Grace through Faith #

I have followed up my reading of the story of Jesus with several sample soundings in the thought of the apostolic church. I have observed the prevalence of the language of discipleship, imitation, and participation, and seen how this characterized not only the motivation but also the shape of early Christian behavior. I have observed a parallel expression in the cosmology of the apostle where the “principalities and powers” language, which might be called “mythological,” nonetheless has a very precise and fruitful burden of meaning with regard to understanding the church’s faithfulness within the structured power relationships of society. I have observed that the willingness of the apostles (sometimes embarrassing for moderns) to live within the limits of a society marked by slavery and radical social stratification also has a meaningful foundation in their understanding of the work of Christ and the place of the church in the continuation of that work.

If the reader has followed thus far, it may not be too much to claim that what we have been observing are several significant strands of corroborative evidence for the survival of the social stance of Jesus into the church of the Apostolic Age. But, the critic may well say, this still leaves aside one fundamental observation. The apostle may well have retained within his thought the vestiges of the Jesus kind of ethos, after all, he did not claim to be uniquely pioneering on every subject. But was not his major original contribution to the life of the early church the position he took with regard to justification and the law? Is not the center of Pauline theology the argument, called forth by “Judaizers” and stated in different ways, especially in Romans and Galatians, that a person may be made righteous before God only on the grounds of faith, with no correlation to his keeping of the law?

Just as a guilty thief or murderer is still a thief or a murderer after a declaration of amnesty has freed him from his punishment, the argument runs, so a guilty sinner is still a sinner when God declares, on the ground of the work of Christ which no person could have accomplished for himself or herself, that he or she shall henceforth be considered a new person, forgiven and restored to fellowship. But this “being considered” is, spiritually speaking, a legal fiction. It is valid only on the grounds of the sovereign authority of the judge who declared it to be so. The act of justification or the status of being just or righteous before God is therefore radically disconnected from any objective or empirical achievement of goodness by the believer.

This “disconnection” is only a part of the wider phenomenon of separation between body and soul, objective and subjective realities, outward and inward history, which are the key, are they not, to all the specific emphases of the apostle Paul?

Was not the central message of the apostle Paul his rejection of any objective dimension to the work of God which could be focused in piety, religious practices, or ethical behavior in such a way as to turn the believer’s attention toward the human works instead of toward the gift of God? Does not the insistence that justification is by faith alone and through grace alone, apart from any correlation with works of any kind, undercut any radical ethical and social concern by implication, even if Paul himself might not have been rigorous enough to push that implication all the way? If we truly join with classic Protestantism in considering the proclamation of justification by grace through faith to be the point at which the gospel stands or falls, must we not then interpret the ethical tradition which Paul took over from Jewish Christianity and shared with his Gentile churches as a vestige of another system, destined to fade away? Was it not, after all, at the cost of forgetting Paul’s emphasis upon grace that a later generation again made good works and a certain social stance very important in the preaching of the church?

Paul and the Question of the Modern Reader #

This sweeping set of assumptions about what the apostle Paul must certainly have meant when he spoke about the righteousness of God becoming effective in making people righteous was so self-evident for centuries of Protestant thought, and seemed so necessary as a corrective over against certain tendencies attributed to Catholic piety, that it scarcely could occur to anyone to think that it might be otherwise. It rhymed so well with the heritage of Augustine, and fit so neatly into Protestant preaching patterns, that there was no chink in the armor of self-evidence through which a doubt could insinuate itself.

Or so it seemed, at least, until the advent of the biblical scholarship of this century, which found more freedom to distinguish between the initial cultural context of a biblical passage on one hand and the contribution it makes to contemporary thought on the other.’ If we may be freed by self-critical scholarly objectivity no longer to have to assume that the authority of the Bible resides in its saying things that we agree with, we may be free as well to hear more clearly what it really says instead of giving it credit for saying what we already think.

Once the entering wedge of this capacity for critical self-awareness had made possible a freer and less apologetic reading of the ancient documents, it became possible to call into question the far-reaching assumption that the apostle Paul was preoccupied with personal self acceptance. It is understandable that Martin Luther could have found this preoccupation in the apostolic message since it was his own question. Luther had been taught by his monastic training to be personally in need of knowing that he had found a God who would be gracious personally to him. Thus it was perfectly natural for Luther to assume that this was also the preoccupation of the apostle. It was also perfectly natural for a John Wesley, a Kierkegaard, or today for an existentialist or a conservative evangelical reader to make the same assumption and find the same message for all of these are in their variegated ways children of Luther, still asking the same question of personal guilt and righteousness.

But let us set aside for purposes of discussion the assumption that the righteousness of God and the righteousness of humanity are most fundamentally located on the individual level. Let us make this, instead of an axiom, a hypothesis to be tested. Let us posit as at least thinkable the alternate hypothesis that for Paul righteousness, either in God or in human beings, might more appropriately be conceived of as having cosmic or social dimensions Such larger dimensions would not negate the personal character of the righteousness God imputes to those who believe; but by englobing the personal salvation in a fuller reality they would negate the individualism with which we understand such reconciliation.

Krister Stendahl set about to call this axiom into question in his article “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” ‘1

Stendahl demonstrates one by one that all the constitutive elements of the classic “Luther-type experience” are missing in both the experience and the thought of the apostle. Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt and seeking the assurance of a gracious God; he was rather robust of conscience and untroubled about whether God was gracious or not. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release from that anguish in a message of forgiveness.

Second, Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Hebrew law as taught is not that its function was to make people know their guilt, to prepare listeners for the message of forgiveness by deepening their awareness of their sinfulness. The law was rather a gracious arrangement the arrival of the Messiah. It is true that, once present, law makes its made by God for ordering the life of his people while they were awaiting opposite, sin, more visible; but that is not its first purpose nor its primary effect for the believer.

Third, faith was for Paul not a particular spiritual exercise of moving from self-trust through despair to confidence in the paradoxical goodness of the judgment of God; faith is at its core the affirmation which separated Jewish Christians from other Jews, that in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah had come. A Jew did not become a Christian by coming to see God as a righteous judge and a gracious, forgiving protector. The Jew believed that already, being a Jew. What it took for him or her, to become a Christian was not some new idea about his or her sinfulness or God’s righteousness, but one about Jesus. The subjective meanings of faith for the self-aware person, and its doctrinal meanings for the believing intellect, build upon this prior messianist affirmation. They cannot precede or replace it.

The heresy Paul was struggling against was not that the Jewish Christians continued to be committed to keeping the law; Paul was quite tolerant of those who held to such a conviction. He taught respect for their dietary scruples. He went out of his way to share their ritual faithfulness when in Jerusalem. Nor was it their thinking that by keeping the law they would be saved, for Jewish Christians did not believe that. The basic heresy he exposed was the failure of those Jewish Christians to recognize that since the Messiah had come the covenant of God had been broken open to include the Gentiles. In sum: the fundamental issue was that of the social form of the church. Was it to be a new and inexplicable kind of community of both Jews and Gentiles, or was it going to be a confederation of a Jewish Christian sect and a Gentile one? Or would all the Gentiles have first to become Jews according to the conditions of pre-messianic proselytism?

Stendahl exemplifies this difference with one of the classic texts, Galatians 3:24, which states that the law was a “custodian” to order the life of the Jewish community until the Messiah should come. The point of Paul’s explanation is that now that the Messiah has come, the Gentiles do not need to pass by way of the law, but can be incorporated directly into the new community. For Luther, on the other hand, “custodian” was interpreted as “schoolmaster,” as representing a necessary step which even now the Gentiles must go through. They do not need to be educated by way of the details of the Jewish legislation, but in order to be able to receive grace one must first be broken under the yoke of some kind of law. All must pass by the usus elenchticus, by the way of the judging impact of the righteousness of God.

What then was Paul’s understanding of sin? When he does speak of himself as a serious sinner at all, this is not because of his existential anguish under the righteousness of God in general, but very specifically because, not having recognized that Messiah had come in Jesus, he had persecuted the church and fought the opening of God’s covenant to the Gentiles. What is now set right in his life is not that he has overcome his inner resistances and has become able to trust in God for his right status before God; it is rather that through the inexplicable intervention of God on the Damascus Road and in later experiences, Paul has become the agent of the action of God for the right cause. He has become the privileged bearer of the cause of the ingathering of the Gentiles. This was perfectly clear not only to Paul but also to his readers.

What was at stake in the “proclamation of the righteousness of God to both Jew and Gentile” was precisely that it was to be proclaimed to both and that both were to become parts of the new believing community, some having come by way of the law and some not. It was only when in later generations the Jew-Gentile relationship was partly forgotten and partly distorted into a polemic one that the Pauline language of justification could be reinterpreted, especially in the heritage of Augustine, and translated into the terms of Western self-examination and concern for authenticity. Since this transformation stated the justifying purpose of God in terms translatable for and accessible to every individual, it could be considered somehow eternally or universally relevant, whereas the reconciling of Jew and Gentile can be understood and celebrated only particularly in the uniqueness of salvation history in given times and places.

Stendahl is quite tolerant. He does not reject outright the possible claim that the new “Western” meaning might be, by certain criteria which we might consider useful, more “valid” or more “relevant” than the original one. The further “development of doctrine” may in some way be a good thing. But he nevertheless closes with the suggestion that perhaps the meaning enshrined in the salvation-history concern of the early church as a social reality might also be relevant for modern Christians, in addition to doing more justice to the biblical documents and the thought which they report.

The New Person #

The most presumptuous and the clearest statement of the particular apostolic ministry of Paul is stated in the letter to the Ephesians. Here the apostle makes claims to a knowledge and to a ministry that is not merely on the level of the other apostles but unique among the apostles. It is a particular grace which was given just to him to steward for the churches (Eph. 3:2), a “mystery” which was made known to him (3:3). “Mystery” is to be understood not as a spooky secret forever hidden from view, but rather as the strategic purpose of God, which was not widely known until the point of its execution.5

The “plan of the mystery” was hidden for ages in God, but now it is known and in fact it is being made known beyond the church by the church, proclaimed even to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (3:9-10).

Just what is this divine purpose, hidden for a time and made known by revelation to Paul? It is precisely that Jew and Gentile are now reconciled in one community.

At one time you Gentiles in the flesh alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise … were separated from Christ, …but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law… that he might create in himself the one humanity instead of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Eph. 2:11-26)

The hostility brought to an end in Christ is first and foremost in passage not the hostility between a righteous God and the creature who has trespassed against his rules, but the hostility between Jew and Greek. The overcoming of this hostility, the making of peace by eliminating the wall that had separated them, namely the Jewish law to which Jews were committed and which Gentiles ignored, is itself the creation of a new humanity. This is why the unique ministry of Paul as “prisoner for Jesus Christ on behalf of you Gentiles” (3:1) is insep arable from his own unique revealed insight into the “mystery” of God’s purpose. The work of Christ is not only that he saves the soul of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ, the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, is itself the constituting of a new community made up of two kinds of people, those who had lived under the law and those who had not. (emphasis mine) The events the book of Acts narrates as the recent initiative of the Holy Spirit in opening up the churches, first at Jerusalem and then in Samaria, then in Damascus and Antioch, to the fellowship of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, are here interpreted by Paul, a major actor in that drama and its accredited interpreter, as being the extended meaning of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.6

We have identified this message in the book of Ephesians, a relatively late document, where the word “justification” actually is not central, only in order to be able to perceive more readily its presence in the earlier writings where it is not equally developed. As elsewhere, we lean heavily upon a few contemporary scholars, testifying again to the fact that the thrust of the present book is not original except perhaps in the consistency with which it attempts to draw ethical conclusions from what more specialized scholars have already found.

The New Righteousness That Is Valid Before God #

Markus Barth plunges right to the heart of the classic discussion in Galatians (2:14ff.).

We have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one shall be justified.

What does “justified” mean here? Can it really mean, as Protestant tradition assumes (Lutheranism most sweepingly, but the Anglican and Reformed liturgies give the same testimony), that it refers only to the quasi-judicial status of the sinner’s guilt before God, which is annulled or amnestied by a declaration of the judge in response to the act of faith?

Through very careful analysis of this classic passage, clarifies that the particular issue at stake, carried on unbroken from the earlier part Markus Barth of chapter 2, was whether Jewish and Gentile Christians were to live together acceptingly in one fellowship. To be “justified” is to be set right in and for that relationship. “Justification” is, in other words, in the language of Galatians the same as “making peace” or “breaking down the wall” in the language of Ephesians.

Sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means of justification: only in Christ’s death and resurrection is the new man created from at least two, a Jew and a Greek, a man and a woman, a slave and a free man, etc…. The new man is present i actuality where two previously alien and hostile men come t before God. Justification in Christ is thus not an individual miracle happening to this person or that person, which each may seek or possess for himself. Rather justification by grace is a joining together of this person and that person, of the near and far; … it is a social event.

Barth has thus confirmed, beginning his analysis from another direction and dealing with another text, what we have already seen to have been demonstrated by Stendahl and in Ephesians: that the relationship between divine justification) and the reconciliation of persons and groups to one another is not a sequential relationship. It is not that “faith” occurs first as an inner existential leap of the individual past concern for his or her finitude, and then God operates a change in the person who becomes able to love others. Barth characterizes Albrecht Ritschl as having “considered forgiveness and justification as sort of psychic release which enabled the individual member of the church to participate in an ethical process,” whereas for Paul this relationship of prelude and sequence cannot thus be distinguished.”

The “New Creature” (This section is what I wanted to share around - it’s the reason I copied down all of chapter 11) #

If there is any one biblical text that focuses for lay understanding the individualism of the Pietist heritage it is the statement of 2 Corinthians 5:17:

If anyone be in Christ he is a new creature” (AV).

It has seemed self-evident that we were being promised here, overlapping with the language of a new birth (John 3:5-6), a metaphysical or ontological transformation of the individual person.

The miracle of being made a new person has been promised in evangelistic proclamation and has served in turn to illuminate traditional understandings of the roots of Christian social concern.

[they say that] it is because “only a transformed individual will behave differently” that some kinds of social activism are fruitless; it is because “a transformed individual will definitely behave differently” that the preaching of the gospel to individuals is the surest way to change society.

It is not the concern of the present study to deny that such a thrust has had a wholesome, corrective impact in certain contexts in the history of Protestant thought and Protestant church life.

Like Stendahl, we may concede a certain usefulness to nonbiblical thought patterns. Nor are we setting aside the “new birth” imagery of John 3 or parallel themes elsewhere.

Our question is only whether this is what Paul is saying in this text. This becomes extremely doubtful when we look more carefully at the text itself.

As the italics in the AV indicate, the words “he is” are not in the original text. Now it can regularly be necessary to add the English “is” in order to make clear a predication which in the Greek requires no copulative verb. But to add “he” (or “she”), thereby identifying an antecedent in the previous clause, is quite another matter.

It is grammatically not impossible to reach back to the “anyone” earlier in the verse as the understood subject of this predication; but that is not the only interpretation, and others should be tried first.

A second shortcoming of this traditional interpretation of “the new creature” as the transformed individual personality is that the word ketisis, here translated “creature” or “creation,” is not used elsewhere in the New Testament to designate the individual person. It in fact most often is used to designate not the object of creation but rather the act of creating (e.g., Rom. 1:20), “from the creation of the world.”

Secondarily it may mean the entire universe (Mark 16:15; Col. 1:15, 24; Rom. 8:19-22; Heb. 9:11).

The single reference to “human creation refers to social institutions (1 Pet. 2:13).

In the one other place where the phrase “new creation” is used, it is quite parallel to the “new humanity” of Ephesians 2:15, not a renewed individual but a new social reality, marked by the overcoming of the Jew/Greek barrier; “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).10

Putting together these strictly linguistic observations, it becomes enormously more probable that we should lean to the kind of translation favored by the more recent translators; literally, “if anyone is in Christ, new is creation,” or more smoothly, “there is a whole new world” (NEB). ‘[^money-shot] [^money-shot]: this particular sentence hit hard when I first read it.

The accent lies not on transforming the ontology of the person (to say nothing of transforming his or her psychological or neurological equipment) but on transforming the perspective of one who has accepted Christ as life context.

This is certainly the point of the rest of the passage in question. Paul is explaining why he no longer regards anyone from the human point of view; why he does not regard Jew as Jew or Greek as Greek, but rather looks at every person in the light of the new world which begins in Christ. “The old has passed away, behold the new has come,” is a social or historical statement, not an introspective or emotional one.

To the Jew First but Also to the Greek #

A quite different segment of Paul’s writings is the framework of introduction and conclusion around his letter to the Christians at Rome. Hans Werner Bartsch points out that Paul never calls the total Roman community a “church” and that the issue of the polarity of Jew and Gentile is present at major turning points throughout the argument of the book, as well as in the introduction and conclusion. The foreground meaning of the issue of the place of the law was not systematic theological speculation about how human beings are to be made acceptable to God, but rather the very concrete Roman situation in which Jew and Greek, legalistic Christian and pagan Christian needed to accept one another. “Law” is written about neither as a means of soul salvation, nor as a hindrance thereto, but as the historically concrete identity of the Jewish separateness which made the problem that justification resolves.

We could in fact most properly say that the word “justification” (like the word “creation” examined above) should be thought of in its root meaning, as a verbal noun, an action, “setting things right,” rather than as an abstract noun defining a person’s quasi-legal status as a result of a judge’s decree. To proclaim divine righteousness means to proclaim that God sets things right; it is characteristic of the God who makes a covenant with us to be a right-setting kind of God.

Bartsch supports this interpretation of the concern of Romans with a wealth of detailed textual observations. That the Christians in Rome are not referred to as a “church,” in view of Paul’s is presumed to indicate that the insufficient unity of that group con susage elsewhere, stitutes a problem to them and to him. Bartsch emphasizes the recur rence of reference to Jew and Greek at all the turning points of the document, to say nothing of the special significance of chapters 9-11, whose entire concern is the place of Jewish identity in view of God’s having created the church. From the obedience of faith (1:5) through the “accepting one another” (14:1; 15:7) to Paul’s concern for collecting funds for Jerusalem (15:28), his desire is that there should come into being in Rome this kind of new community where the brokenness of humankind is set right and where persons who were not born under the law obey it from the heart.

If the reader can grant that in the company of Stendahl, Barth, Bartsch, and Minear we may properly understand Paul’s concept of justification as a social phenomenon centering in the reconciliation of different kinds of people, what has that to do with the problem with which our study began, namely the ethic of revolutionary nonviolence which Jesus offers to his disciples?

Perhaps most evident is a kind of double negative impact upon the state of the debate in theological ethics. This debate has been dominated by a negation, which appealed in its support to what was supposed to be unique about the message of Paul. Because Paul is different from Jesus or because justification is different from social ethics, therefore the way of Jesus, it was classically held, has lost its bindingness for our age. It is this negation which a more open reading of the apostles in turn negates. The negation of this negation is all the more significant because the scholars I have been quoting were simply going about their erudite business, with no predisposition to support my reading of Jesus’ or of Paul’s ethics.

But the proclamation that God reconciles classes of people is in itself far more than a double negative. To proclaim it as Paul did in his writings years and even decades after Pentecost is to confirm that such reconciliation is a real experience and therefore a real invitation. Paul is saying, somewhere toward the end of the evolution of apostolic Christianity, what Jesus had said somewhere near the beginning. That he can still say it now is proof that, at least to some modest degree, experience had confirmed it. Paul says that it characterizes the victory of God’s creation-sustaining love that insider and outsider, friend and enemy are equally blessed, in such manner that the genuineness (Jesus said, “perfection”)2 of our love is also made real at the point of its application to the enemy, the Gentile, the sinner. There is a sense in which the ethics of marriage and the prohibition of adultery, or the ethics of work and the regulation of attitudes toward slavery, or the opening up of communication and the prohibition of falsehood are all part of the promise of a new humanity enabled and created by God, and already being received by men and women of faith. But it par excellence with reference to enmity between peoples, the extension of neighbor love to the enemy, and the renunciation of violence even in the most righteous cause, that this promise takes on flesh in the most original, the most authentic, the most frightening and scandalous, and therefore in the most evangelical way. It is the Good News that my enemy and I are united, through no merit or work of our own, in a new humanity that forbids henceforth my ever taking his or her life in my hands.

Perhaps a retrospective word should extend to all of this section on the thought of Paul what was said with regard to “justification.” My presentation, in order to correct for the one-sided social ethic which has been dominant in the past, emphasizes what was denied before: Jesus as teacher and example, not only as sacrifice; God as the shaker of the foundations, not only as guarantor of the orders of creation; faith as discipleship, not only as subjectivity. The element of debate in the presentation may make it seem that the “other” or “traditional” element in each case -Jesus as sacrifice, God as creator, faith as subjectivity is being rejected. It should therefore be restated that - as perusal of the structure of our presentation will confirm - no such disjunction is intended. I am rather defending the New Testament against the exclusion of the “messianic” element. The disjunction must be laid to the account of the traditional view, not of mine. It is those other views that say that because Jesus is seen as sacrifice he may not be seen as sovereign, or that because he is seen as Word made flesh he cannot be seen as normative person.

Chapter 12: The War of the Lamb #

Jesus and Paul have been the foci of our exposition. They must J represent the centers of any New Testament theological synthesis, due both to their originality and to the amount of the material that makes them knowable to us. But there are other figures, other minds at work. A thorough treatment would demand that we test there as well the reading we have taken already. There would be the thought of the author of Matthew or of the writer to the Hebrews; there would be the mind of Peter, of John, of Jude, or of the seer of the Apocalypse. There is reason to trust that the reading there would confirm the orientation already sketched. Here, however, I must renounce the further cross-referencing and leap ahead to a summary, rooted none the less especially in the last-named Apocalypse. I shall seek briefly to characterize the stance of that book, as it might by contrast throw some light on our contemporary agenda and at the same time draw together the argument of the entire book.

One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history. Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right “handle” by which one can “get a hold on” the course of history and move it in the right direction. For the movement called Moral Rearmament, ideology was this handle; “ideas have legs,” so that if we can get a contagious new thought moving, it will make its own way. For others, it is the process of education that ultimately determines the character and course of the civilization; whoever rules the teachers’ colleges rules the world.

Rambunctious students believe that the office of the dean or the president is the center of the university and therefore they occupy that office. Che Guevara believed the peasant to be the backbone of the coming Latin American revolution, so he went to the hills of Bolivia. The Black Economic Development Conference directed its Manifesto to the administrators of denominations because it believed that the point of decision making for white racist American society was there. Conservative evangelicalism focuses its call for change upon the will of the individual because it believes that when the individual heart is turned in another direction the rest is sure to follow. For still others it is the proletariat or geopolitics that explains everything.

Whichever the favored “handle” may be, the structure of this approach is logically the same. One seeks to lift up one focal point in the midst of the course of human relations, one thread of meaning and causality which is more important than individual persons, their lives and well-being, because it in itself determines wherein their well-being consists. Therefore it is justified to sacrifice to this one “cause” other subordinate values, including the life and welfare of one’s self, one’s neighbor, and (of course!) of the enemy. We pull this one strategic thread in order to save the whole fabric. We can see this kind of reasoning with Constantine saving the Roman Empire, with Luther saving the Reformation by making an alliance with the princes, or with Khrushchev and his successors saving Marxism by making it somewhat more capitalistic, or with the United States saving democracy by alliances with military dictatorships and by the threatened use of the bomb. If we look more analytically at this way of deriving social and political ethics from an overview of the course of history and the choice of the thread within history that is thought to be the most powerful, we find that it involves at least three distinguishable assumptions:

  1. It is assumed that the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choices on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will be moved in that direction.

  2. It is assumed that we are informed to be able to set for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it.

  3. Interlocked with these two assumptions and dependent upon them for its applicability is the further postulate that effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yard stick.

If we look critically at these assumptions we discover that they are by no means as self-evident as they seem to be at first. There is for one thing the phenomenon Reinhold Niebuhr has called “irony”: that when people try to manage history, it almost always turns out to have taken another direction than that in which they thought they were guiding it. This may mean that we are not morally qualified to set the goals toward which we would move history. At least it must mean that we are not capable of discerning and managing its course when there are in the same theater of operation a host of other free agents, each of them in their own way also acting under the same assumptions as to their capacity to move history in their direction. Thus even apart from other more spiritual considerations, the strategic calculus is subject to a very serious internal question. It has yet to be demonstrated that history can be moved in the direction in which one claims the duty to cause it to go.

The other question we must raise at the outset about the logic of the “strategic” attitude toward ethical decisions is its acceptance of effectiveness itself as a goal. Even if we know how effectiveness is to be measured that is, even if we could get a clear definition of the goal we are trying to reach and how to ascertain whether we had reached it is there not in Christ’s teaching on meekness, or in the attitude of Jesus toward power and servanthood, a deeper question being raised about whether it is our business at all to guide our action by the course we wish history to take?

It is, however, not the concern of our present study to deal logically or systematically with this kind of question within the traditional or contemporary idioms of theological debate. In recent centuries debate around the question of the meaning of history, and the place of Christian decision within that meaningfulness, has generally been a conversation of the deaf, with some so committed to pre-Enlightenment understandings of the stability of the proper social order that any sense

Footnotes #

  1. I found this paper (The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West (pdf)) to be excellent, I’ve read it four or five times over the years, it has changed my soul, would strongly endorse. 

  2. The “perfection” to which Jesus calls his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:48; cf. Luke 6:35-36) is not flawlessness not impeccability, but precisely the refusal to discriminate between friend and enemy, the in and the out, the good and the evil. It is revealed in the indiscriminateness in which God loves the good and the evil alike (cf. above, p. 116). (this footnote is in the original text

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