Friday, March 07, 2008

the original revolution

We're reading this book, "The Original Revolution," by John Howard Yoder, for my War & Christian Conscience class. It's an excellent collection of early Yoder essays (first published in 1971). The title essay is the one I wanted to focus on today. Yoder outlines four ways that people generally deal the with problem of finding themselves in a world that is less than perfect. I think he assumes that most people want to change the way things are, and says the way people usually try to do that fits in these four categories, but that Jesus chose none of these strategies.

The four strategies are:

1. Realism: you recognize that an evil system is in place, so you work within the system to try to change it. The problem is, you usually get so caught up in the system (and you profit by it) that you are unable/unwilling to heed prophetic voices or to do anything to change the system once you have power within it. You will sacrifice the prophet in order to keep your profit. (Think Jerry Falwell, GW Bush, and in Jesus' time the Sadducees.)

2. Righteous revolutionary violence: you attack the system from without using violence to achieve good ends. The problem here is that when you use violence to bring about a new system, you generally just end up replacing the people in power but using just as evil (or more evil) means to keep your power. (Not to mention all the innocent people who die by your bringing about this new system violently.) (Think Latin American revolutions, and in Jesus' time the Zealots.)

3. Separatism: completely separating your community from "the world" in order to create the Kingdom of God on earth. The problem here is a) you realize "the world" is still inside you (or at least everyone else in your community!), and b) it's becoming increasingly difficult in our world to find a place to do this. (Think Amish, and historical Mennonites, and in Jesus' time the Essenes.)

4. Legalism: you separate yourself from the world not with physical distance but with the rules you choose to follow that separate "us" from "them," providing ritual purity as long as you keep to your own religious sphere. From here you can criticize the world because you see it every day, but you can't really get involved because you have to remain separate from it. This is in the end siding with "the establishment" since you're doing nothing to change it. (Think contemporary Judaism to some degree, and all of us who complain about "the system" but don't do anything to change it, and historical Pharisees.)

Yoder says Jesus could have chosen any of these four paths, but they would not have been faithful. Instead he set up a new kind of community, the kind that God had been hinting at throughout the story of the Hebrew people. This was an intentional, voluntary community, made up of a mixed group of people of any race and gender and background, who lived a new way of life characterized by forgiveness, suffering rather than vengefulness, and sharing of resources and talents.

He says, "The church is God's people gathered as a unit, as a people, gathered to do business in [God's] name, to find what it means here and now to put into practice this different quality of life which is God's promise to them and tot he world and their promise to God and service the the world" (Yoder, 2003, p. 31). This is an interesting quote for Quakers--it's good for us to remember why we call our places of worship "meetinghouses," but to remember that we ARE the church, gathered to listen and do business but then to go out and act for the sake of the world.

The end of the essay is worth quoting at length:

And Now?

"The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news!" To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently. Protestantism, and perhaps especially evangelical Protestantism, in its concern for helping every individual to make his own authentic choice in full awareness and sincerity, is in constant danger of confusing the kingdom itself with the benefits of the kingdom. If anyone repents, if anyone turns around to follow Jesus in his new way of life, this will do something for the aimlessness of [her] life. It will do something for his loneliness by giving him fellowship. It will do something for [her] anxiety and guilt by giving [her] a good conscience. So the Bultmanns and the Grahams whose "evangelism" is to proclaim the offer of restored selfhood, liberation from anxiety and guilt, are not wrong. If anyone repents, it will do something for his intellectual confusion, by giving him doctrinal meat to digest, a heritage to appreciate, and a conscience about telling it all as it is: So "evangelicalism" with its concern for hallowed truth and reasoned communication is not wrong; it is right. If a [woman] repents it will do something for [her] moral weakness by giving [her] the focus for wholesome self-discipline, it will keep [her] from immorality and get [her] to work on time. So the Peales and the Robertses who promise that God cares about helping me squeeze through the tight spots of life are not wrong; they have their place. BUT ALL OF THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL. This is just the bonus, the wrapping paper thrown in when you buy the meat, the "everything" which will be added, without our taking thought for it, if we seek first the kingdom of God and [God's] righteousness.

The good news of God's original revolution is not, as the Zealots of right or left would say, that violence is only wrong when the bad guys use it, or that enmity is only wrong when it is violent. It does not say, with the emigrant to the desert [Essenes], that you can cop out and do your own thing unmolested. It is not concerned with the inner-worldly emigration of the Pharisees, to refuse cooperation only at the point of personal complicity. It does not promise, with the Herodians and Sadducees, that if enough morally concerned people sign up to work for Dow, DuPont, and General Motors, we can beat the communists yet at feeding the world. All four of these classical strategies have in common that they dodge the duty of beginning now, first, with the creation of a new, voluntary, covenanting community in which the rejection of the Old is accredited by the reality of the New which has already begun.

The question for our time, in the world which awaits and aspires to revolution, is not whether the kingdom is coming, but what we will do about it. It continues to be possible, and in fact likely, that we may choose the strategies which Jesus rejected. We could find most respectable company in any of these four camps, as did our [parents]. Or we could, if we chose, accept in all its novelty and discover in all our creativity the kind of life together as fully human [people] among [people] which [God] came to live and to give, including the kind of death [Jesus] came to die. We could accept, if we would repent, that novelty in our ways of dealing with one another, with ethnic differences, with social hierarchy, with money, with offenses, with leadership and with power, for which "revolutionary" is the only adequate word. "The kingdom of God is within your grasp: repent and believe the good news!"
(Yoder, 2003, pp. 31-33, emphasis mine)

This is not only a calling for Mennonites (as Yoder was), but a call to Quakers and to all who would live a life in keeping with the only truly revolutionary path out there. The question is, then, how do we begin (or continue) this intentional community today?

1 comment:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

The issues you raise, and the question you pose at the conclusion of this essay, are the same ones I've been putting to Friends all around the country these past few years, regarding the environmental crisis. (My, what a coincidence!)

I put them to Baltimore YM in 2006 and to Iowa YM (Conservative) in 2007, and I'll be putting them to a New York YM workshop just this next weekend.

It seems to me that if we understand how pressing the environmental crisis has become, then it's like asking the question of whether we should get on Noah's Ark or not, now that it's started to rain. A real thumbsucker, no?

But even now, most Friends don't have any response such a challenge. They're just silent. Some of them have a look on their faces that suggests they might be willing to do something, if someone tells them what to do. Some seem paralyzed by the fact that they really don't want to have to change; they like their separate suburban homes, their gas-guzzling car trips, their winter flights to the tropics and summer flights to Europe and Asia, and above all, their "free time". Some clearly don't agree that there's any real crisis, environmental or otherwise. And some think that their financial contributions to The Nature Conservancy and FCNL and to Hillary or Obama are all they need to do. (That last is the path Yoder calls "realism", but I can't bring myself to believe it's realistic.)

Alas — intentional world-changing community doesn't just happen. It happens only where and when we exert ourselves to make it happen. So I think, perhaps, those of us who are in a position to make it happen, need to take the lead by finding one another and starting concrete things happening together. It's important that we find each other! And it's important that we find concrete corporate ways of holding up alternatives to the world — alternatives that others can join in.

I've posted five concrete proposals for the Society of Friends on my journal. They're by no means the only possibilities, and I'm not stuck on them. I plan to post an improved presentation of them after next weekend's workshop; but I'd also love to hear other people's different ideas — yours, for example!

We need some serious brainstorming in this regard, Cherice. You and me and whoever else is interested.

Thanks for caring about this. You give me hope.