A Review of Craig A. Carter’s The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder

Brazos Press, 2001. Pp. 254. $18.99 (paper)

[1] Like me, you might begin reading this review for the sake of balance, to listen at least for a little while to the voice of a pacifist sectarian whose theology, though interesting and admirable, is also eccentric and unrealistic. You, as a reader, therefore begin with the assumption that Yoder sits on the edge of orthodox, mainstream Christian thought, lifting up a de-centering minority critique that is important, yet still on the edge.

[2] Craig Carter in his The Politics of the Cross wants to disabuse us of this notion. In a discussion of the historical context of Yoder’s thought, he announces that “the ecumenical significance of Yoder’s work is not that he articulates a peace witness on behalf of a small denomination but rather that he presents a strong case for peace being at the heart of the biblical gospel as it is enshrined in the creeds of orthodox Christianity” (49). Earlier, Carter states, “I want to show that, for Yoder, pacifism is not the point; Jesus is the point. Not only is Jesus the point, but protecting, declaring, and unpacking the claims of classical Christology is what Yoder is about” (17). For Carter, Yoder is a minority voice situated at the center of the Christian tradition crying out to the rest of us, “Come home!”

[3] Carter begins by analyzing Yoder’s historical context. Part I of Carter’s work is a lengthy working out of the proposition that Yoder’s theology represents a recovery of the Anabaptist vision, and a faithful continuation, even a fulfillment, of Karl Barth’s method. He “creatively unites aspects of his Anabaptist theological heritage with the theological method and major themes of Karl Barth’s thought to create a distinctive postliberal alternative to Christian Realism, liberation theology, and privatized evangelical religion” (23).

[4] As a result of his Anabaptist heritage, Yoder develops a biblically based, high Christology, understands ethics as obedience, defines the church’s mission as witness, and understands this witness occurring through the church’s distinctiveness from the world, particularly in its pacifism. From Barth, Yoder learns a narrative approach to Scripture, rejects natural theology, and adopts the Barthian dictum that dogmatics is ethics and vice versa, so that social ethics and theology are inextricably intermixed.

[5] Of course, Yoder also moves beyond these categories in creative ways, so much so that Carter can exclaim, together with Stanley Hauerwas, that “a century from now, Yoder’s work will be seen as a new beginning” (225). Piling up adjectives (as well as a few adverbs) to indicate how Yoder is a new beginning, Carter labels Yoder a Barthian, Anabaptist, postliberal, theologically orthodox, radical, nonfoundationalist, nonrelativist, evangelical, Jewish, Christian, Christocentric, Trinitarian social ethicist. Much of Carter’s work in the book is focused on unpacking these labels.

[6] The central section of Carter’s book (Part’s II, III, and IV) present a systematic fleshing out of Yoder’s thought- Christology as the source, eschatology as the context, and ecclesiology as the shape of Yoder’s social ethics. It is a fascinating and helpful project. Because much of Yoder’s writing is conversational and ad hoc, the gift of systematic reflections on these traditional areas of Christian thought is a great guide to future readings of Yoder.

[7] Carter’s most challenging and illuminating reading of Yoder is in Part III. Here Carter observes that “Yoder developed a christocentric eschatology using his Barthian method of relating all doctrinal statements to their true center-Jesus Christ as he is attested in Scripture-and the result was the clarification of the true status and character of Constantinianism as an eschatological heresy” (140). For Yoder, there are eight distinguishing points at which Constantinianism distorts or denies biblical eschatology. These are worth hearing in full, given recent currents in United States policy and Christian thought.

[8] First, Constantinianism denies Christ’s lordship by placing human rulers in the place of Jesus. For example, “when the modern nation-state drafts Christians into the army and commands them to kill Christians from another nation-state” (157), then the state has supplanted the lordship of Christ. Second, Constantinianism eases the already/not-yet tension of the two ages, by relegating the new age to the past, to the future, to the ideal, or by fusing the new age with the old. Third, Constantinianism denies Christ’s victory over the powers, sometimes by compromising with them in the name of realism, other times by failing to acknowledge that the powers in fact are fallen and in need of a redeemer. Fourth, and most blasphemous, Constantinianism identifies a human kingdom directly with the kingdom of God. The present human kingdom performs redemptive, salvific acts; it itself operates with “Infinite Justice.”

[9] The list continues. Fifth, “in Constantinianism, the church is no longer a body of people who have a different lifestyle; rather it is merely an aspect of society… the church is the service station for the ‘crisis experiences’ and for the ‘depth dimensions’ of life” (159). In short, the church is no longer a people but a religion. Sixth, Constantianism does not distinguish between the church and the world. In uniting the two, the church can no longer function as a distinctive witness to the world. Seventh, Constantinianism operates as if Jesus did not fundamentally alter history and its meaning. Instead, and eighth in our list, the state itself “becomes the bearer of the meaning of history and thus takes the place of the church eschatologically” (162).

[10] In light of this heresy, Yoder proposes some options for Christian thought. First, a Christian will not expect redemption from the state. Furthermore, Yoder argues that there is no such thing as “the state as such,” and thus Christians cannot legitimize the state by developing a Christian theory of it, nor can they uphold the positivist option, that “whatever is, is good” (163). Instead, following a close reading of Romans 13, Yoder proposes subjection to the existing state, but obedience only when the commands of the state do no contradict the will of God. Christians can disobey. They may not rebel.

[11] Following this extensive discussion of Constantinianism, Carter presents what is either an incredibly clever theory, or an exceedingly strange historical conjecture. Based on a remark of Yoder’s that “Judaism through the Middle Ages demonstrated the sociological viability of the ethic of Jesus” (168), Carter wonders whether this fact has anything to do with Christendom’s anti-Semitism. That is, is the anti-Semitism present at a social level in Constantinian Christianity a larger manifestation of the personal, sometimes vitriolic, vehemence experienced by out-spoken pacifists when they mention their pacifism to non-pacifist Christians?

[12] Although Carter’s book represents an admirable attempt at a constructive synthesis of Yoder’s thought, it will also leave many readers hungry. Carter portrays Yoder as an ecumenical and catholic thinker, but I imagine, given his believer’s church ecclesiology, that Roman Catholic and Orthodox thinkers (not to mention Lutherans and other “liturgical” Protestants) would find his approach to baptism (and the sacraments generally) something of a hurdle. The lack of references to thinkers from these traditions does little to dispel this suspicion. Furthermore, since Yoder is most famous for his sustained defense of pacifism, Carter’s work would benefit from greater concentration on the topic, especially on Yoder’s distinctive understanding of pacifism as presented in Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, and his sustained critique of the just war tradition in When War Is Unjust: Being Honest In Just-War Theory.

[13] On the other hand, Carter’s clear exposition of Christian social ethics as applying primarily to Christians for the sake of witness to the watching world is superb, and his presentation of a cross-conditioned correspondence theory of Christian discipleship is challenging in the extreme. “Only at one point, only on one subject-but then consistently, universally-is Jesus our example: in his cross” (78). For calling us in this direction, and for calling us back to a closer reading of Yoder as a theologian of the highest order, we can give hearty thanks.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com.