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Morally Basic Political Action

One of the key polarities that manifests itself in political discussions today involves the most basic evils of our time that must be courageously struggled against. In other words, positions and allegiances get defined by where one stands on particular things like abortion, war, or poverty. Regardless of where one stands on these issues they tend to always be thought of as morally basic forms of political action. John Howard Yoder offers and important corrective to such trends:

“The falleness of the world is not just the fallenness of individual sinners; the world as structure is gone awry. Those of us who seek to ‘take charge’ of events by challenging the Powers at their own game, trying to manipulate events in terms of their own inherent dynamics, may be selling out morally and practically at the very point where they claim to be taking responsibility. By agreeing to play by their rules we grant their idolatrous claim to be in charge of history in JHWH’s stead. Our refusal to play the game by the agreed rules may be more morally basic than our courageous wrestling with things as they are. Jesus defeated the powers by refusing to meet them on that terrain, at the cost of his life.” (The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 175)

In other words, our most morally basic political activity is refusing to strive to seize control of events, to carve out our own territory as if we were lords or delegates of history. Put positively, the most morally basic political action is prayer–or more comprehensively, doxology.


  1. Jim wrote:


    You’ve got to hand it to Yoder for transcending merely indivualistic claims to the scope of the what was accomplished through the cross and resurrection. I wonder if you could even expand beyond your conclusion of prayer and doxology to include Yoder’s thought on the embodied witness of the church taking a servant stance within society, liberated by the patience of God to relinquish any claims to controlling the outcome of history.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Skip Newby wrote:

    I like the post, and the reply. Developing power blocks, even against oppression and injustice, is the same game, under a different flag.

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  3. Chris Smith wrote:

    Seems like Origen said something along these lines:

    “And as we – by our prayers – vanquish all the demons that stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this service are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with
    righteous prayers we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led astray by them. And none fight better for the king [and his role of preserving justice] than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he demands it; but we
    fight on his behalf, forming a special army of piety by offering our prayers to God. ”

    — Contra Celsus, Book VIII, Ch.73 (paraphrased)

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  4. Marvin wrote:

    By all means let us lift up the Priestly work of the Church as intercessor.

    But is the Church and her members completely forbidden from exercising any Kingly office in this world? Do not the biblical figures of Joseph and Daniel hold out the hope that the people of God can serve both God and the people in the public square? (This is not an original observation; Brueggemann–who seems to be in favor in this blogging community–says as much in his Intepretation Commentary on Genesis.

    Or, what about a figure like Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor, whose legacy is Social Security? In a not new but still relevant article, Donn Mitchell writes, “Perkins thought of insurance as a brilliant marriage of religion and science. It was a way to realize the moral ideal of neighbor helping neighbor through actuarial science. In practical terms, insurance translated mercy into money, compassion into financial assistance. The abstract became concrete, just as the Word had been made flesh.”

    Sounds awfully creative to me, and not in the idol manufacturing and decorating sense of the word creativity.

    Long story short, I don’t think that the Church’s public witness is exhausted in worship and prayer, although to the extent that liberal Protestantism has ignored its own liturgical resources, Yoder’s critique is important to keep in mind. There are simply too many people out there who are public servants in the best sense of the word, whose temporal authority is seasoned with a biblical sense of justice, prudence and love, whose lives are a testimony to the faithful possibilities of Christian engagement in the public square, whose lives belie the at times cynical quietism of some communitarians.

    Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  5. amoslanka wrote:

    great post, friend. The quote is especially spot-on saying that fallenness is about a lot more than just individual fallenness. In a lot of ways, we could call this collectivism the fallenness of individuals carried over into culture, but in either sense, its not as if humanity works as it was intended and we are individually deviant.

    The friends I talk with often would likely recognize one of my oft-repeated notions- that all of civiliazation is a tower of babel. I think there’s much more to learn in that biblical passage than the credit that it is usually given.

    Monday, February 2, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  6. YES, BUT… If it were not for people like Martin Luther King Jr. who faught against evil on this world’s terms, we as a nation would not have been able to uphold equality, liberty, and human rights for all peoples. It takes prayer and action my friend. Just because, “we live in the world but are not of the world,” doesn’t make us as void of responsibility to face the world head on when there is a godly standard to stand for. Many times Jesus prayed, but many times he met faced political leaders of his time (which were religious leaders by culture) and spoke the truth in face of ridicule and danger. It was in fact this aspect of his public, not private (prayer) life, that gave way for the cross.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  7. Hey Halden! I was hoping you’d respond… because I’m still not sure how for example, your above statement jives with biblical teaching: “In other words, our most morally basic political activity is refusing to strive to seize control of events, to carve out our own territory as if we were lords or delegates of history.” Where is this coming from? Do you see how this statement goes against what Martin Luther King Jr. did with his life. King may not have been a perfect man but if he had not strived to stop the white supremacist events of his time, we might very well still be seeing signs on restaurants saying “Whites only”… I strongly disagree with the notion that those with a moral backbone do nothing to take control of events, especially when such “events” could be threat to equality, liberty, or society as a whole. There are no scriptures I am aware of that point to the role of Christians as being passive, and futher more, morality will always be challenged in a fallen world, but we were told we would face persecution. No one who remains locked in a prayer closet is afforded the opportunity to face such persecution and the blessing from it promised in Matthew 5:10-12 My point being this- one should pray and do. If by some chance history is changed in the process, this would not be a bad thing, but a thing to rejoice over.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  8. bobby grow wrote:


    I don’t think what Yoder or Halden is getting at denies “action;” instead the point is what “kind” of action is required relative to the circumstances — i.e. Christ did not take the road he took because the “powers that be” determined that direction and shape of action for Him; rather Christ determined (before the foundations of the world, and in accordance with His very life) the trajectory and path of His “action.” No one took His life from Him, He “freely” gave it (Jn 10). This is what Halden is getting at, I believe. It all has to do with who is truly in control, and who truly gets to set the terms of engagement. Just because justice “appears” to be accomplished through civil disobedience (and such); doesn’t necessarily mean that this is “God’s justice.” That doesn’t mean civil disobedience can’t accomplish God’s purposes, on the contrary, it just means we need to be self-critical about whose “agenda” is actually setting the terms for any kind of “disobedience.” Is it in accordance with Christ’s inbreaking kingdom, or with the “kingdom of man.” I think what Halden is highlighting is that prayer and worship must be at the core of any “moral political action;” insofar as this very activity shapes the very life and shape of God’s life in Christ.

    Peace out.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby, thanks for responding to me. I think I see what you’re saying, it’s just not what I gathered from the mysterious Halden’s original post…especially his use of the adjective, “corrective” to a “trend” like the stand against abortion. But I’ll assume you know what he might be trying to communicate better than I. If the overall message is simply “prayer and worship being at the core” then I agree, and add that with any core, fruit always surrounds it.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

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