What Would Yoder Do?

By Duane Shank 11-03-2008

Since Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder's death in 1997, I have often wondered what he would have said about the events of these past eleven years. Many make assumptions about his view on various things; this year has seen a lot of speculation about his view of voting, and whether or not Christians should vote.

Yoder addressed the question in his book Christian Witness to the State (1964), one of my most important guides to integrating faith and politics. It sits on the bookshelf above my desk and I frequently consult it.

He argues that democracy, while certainly superior to more coercive forms of government, is nonetheless still a system in which "some men exercise power over others." But he went on to say:

If we refuse the mythological explanation of democracy as a fundamentally new kind of social order, we can rejoice in the immensely increased possibilities which it provides of speaking to those who exercise power; the decentralization of authority, the election of legislators by a local constituency, and the constitutional and judicial controls on abuse of authority are all factors which oblige the men in power to listen to criticism with a greater degree of seriousness than in the age of absolutist monarchs.

The elective process, and in a general sense even the legislative process (especially in the national level, where the overwhelming power of bureaucracy is the most predominant) may thus be understood not as final and responsible participation in the making of government decisions about how the sword of the state is to be used, and still less as blameworthy involvement in executing those decisions; but rather as one relatively effective way the subject population has of making its likes and dislikes known.

For the idea that the voter himself is making the decision to have any real validity, it would be necessary for the options presented to the electorate to include all the possible choices. In a two-party system this is never the case. The voter chooses not a position of principle but the less objectionable of two competing oligarchies.

Understanding the franchise as a means of communicating to the bearers of political authority underlines how seriously the Christian witness is compromised by the fact that for most Christians the decision about how to vote is not the expression of any careful evaluation of what needs to be said to the authorities; the decision to abstain from voting is likewise seldom evaluated with a view to its communicating something.

Similarly, in an October 1976 article in Sojourners magazine, Yoder wrote that

A system in which the subjects are consulted, and in which the oligarchy can be changed non-violently, is better than other systems, so we shall participate gratefully, though with low expectations, in the plebiscite, to the extent that real options, such as real platform integrity or technical competence of major figures are at stake.

That being the case,

To go to the polls is then not, as the Hutterite and the hippie on one side and the superpatriot on the other contend, a ritual affirmation of moral solidarity with the system. It is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil (all other things being equal) than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.

Finally, in a 1979 lecture to the South Africa Christian Leadership Assembly (printed in For the Nations, 1997), he directly addressed those who proposed Christians should remain separate from politics:

A related misunderstanding is the notion that it might be possible for Christians to avoid or withdraw from the political realm simply and entirely.

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