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Democratic time: lessons learned from Yoder and Wolin.

Jeffrey Stout on Democracy

Though the subject for this article is really "Christianity and Radical Democracy," I think it disingenuous not to acknowledge that I am still thinking about the issues raised by Jeffrey Stout with the publication of his important book, Democracy and Tradition. (1) In my first response to Stout I thanked him for forcing me to revisit some of the early and, I hope, continuing influences on me that determine my understanding of how Christians should negotiate this allegedly democratic society. (2) Often gestures of gratitude toward one's critics are made to dismiss the criticism by showing that the critics do not understand or may even be so ill-educated they are not able to grasp the position they critique.

For example, in his recent book, Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Paul Griffiths praises Newman, and the Victorians in general, for the sharpness of their polemics. Newman responds to Kingsley's anti-Catholic polemics by observing he did not think Kingsley's misunderstanding was due to malice, but rather was the result of Kingsley's "intellectual build. He appears to be so constituted as to have no notion of what goes on in minds very different from his own, and moreover to be stone-blind to his ignorance." (3) I report Newman's judgment to say that is certainly not how I regard the criticism made by Stout of my work. Indeed I am in debt to Stout, because Stout has forced me to revisit judgments I had made in the past which I now understand I did not make sufficiently articulate for others and, most important, for me to understand what I think.

Accordingly I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to explore how Christians should understand their relation to "radical democracy." In Democracy and Tradition Stout challenges me to join the struggle to make America more democratic. He thinks I have confused liberal political theory with democratic practice in a manner that allows me to disdain the struggles for justice, for democracy, in American society. (4) Indeed he fears that the many ministers who have been influenced by me will shape their congregations in a manner that makes the church the enemy of democracy.

Stout may well be right that I have conflated liberal theory with democratic practice, but if I have, I have had good reason to do so, because that is what many liberals have done. As I will argue below, I think Sheldon Wolin is right to interpret liberalism as the attempt to avoid the challenge of democratic politics, but it is nevertheless the case that liberal presuppositions have dominated accounts of--as well as justifications of--democracy in recent theory. Of course the difficulty begins with how democracy is understood, and in particular, radical democracy.

In order to clarify my take on radical democracy, I will simply try to draw out some lessons I have learned from Yoder and Wolin. Before doing so, however, I want to raise some questions about Stout's understanding of the democracy I am alleged to have convinced Christians to give up. Stout says his focus is on democracy in America; yet it is not clear to me what he means by democracy, or how democracy and America are interrelated. (5) At times he sounds--particularly when he is talking about community--like a radical democrat, though he seldom references current theorists identified with that alternative. He, rightly I think, says we cannot call the mode of government in America democratic given the corporate influence on legislation, (6) but it remains unclear to me what Stout understands to be the alternative.

Stout's favorite way of describing democracy is that it is "practice of giving and asking for reasons." (7) Such a claim I assume is equivalent to his admittedly aphoristic and paradoxical statement that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism"; that is, that pragmatism names the space that combines rebellion against hierarchy with a love of virtue. (8) Therefore democracy does not seem to name a form of government for Stout, but rather "is a culture in its own right." (9) Accordingly he insists that the ideal of democratic individuality is not complete independence but rather the interlocking virtues of courage and self-trust that allows citizens to resist conformity. (10) Indeed, Stout insists the democratic critics of democracy must tempter their criticism with generosity. Generosity is required in order to show that the critic is open to having his, her, or their indictment indicted. (11)

It remains unclear to me, however, how Stout understands the role of "the people" and democracy. He worries "under circumstances like ours" whether "the people can summon the spiritual wherewithal, the moral fiber, to act on behalf of democracy before democracy gives way." (12) However, in response to Eliot's "Anglophilia and traditionalism," which Stout criticizes for looking away from his own people to find hope and value in some other place and time, Stout confesses that his "democratic wager is that the grounds for this-worldly hope and the evils we need to resist are both to be found among the people." (13) I am not suggesting that Stout cannot consistently hold these judgments about the role of "the people" in democracies, but I would like to know more about how he understands who the people are and what role they should play in his democracy.

Early in Democracy and Tradition, Stout says democracy as a "strictly political referent is a form of government in which the adult members of the society being governed all have some share in electing rulers and are free to speak their minds in a wide-ranging discussion that rulers are bound to take seriously." (14) Public deliberations are essential to this form of government, requiring people's representatives to deliberate on behalf of their constituency and the judgments of their constituencies. Such a context is the link between democracy in its strictly political form and democracy as a cultural phenomenon.

Stout's argument in Democracy and Tradition rightly, I think, avoids associating democracy with governmental institutions, but I am not quite sure what he means above by the "strictly political referent." (15) For example, Stout criticizes me for failing to provide an account of justice which he says is crucial if the struggle against terrorism is to be rightly conducted. He observes that the language of justice is necessary to explain "why we have just cause to bear arms against terrorists, why our armed forces should not be firing at civilians, and why we should not be supporting regimes that depend on us to thwart the democratic aspirations of their own people." (16) I worry that the "we" in this sentence may legitimate the assumption about power that accepts the status quo.

I wonder if that "we" is what Stout means by a "civic nation?" (17) Drawing on the work of David Hollinger, Stout reminds us that three formidable constituencies--a business elite, those with diaspora identities, and middle Americans--that comprise America are all members of a "civic nation." Yet Stout also maintains that it is a grave mistake to believe a nation like America could become a community in the communitarian sense. (18)

What is not clear to me is how Stout understands the democracy fostered in his neighborhood is connected with, depends on, or is a manifestation of what he takes to be the "civic nations." I do not ask this question as a disguised criticism but rather because I think it is a question that challenges anyone, myself included, who advocates some form of "radical democracy."

I think this question is also at the heart of Stout's chapter on "Democratic Norms and Terrorism." I found his discussion of the unavoidability as well as the limits of "dirty hands" illuminating, but I wonder if Stout needs this account to sustain his advocacy of democracy. He tells us that heads of state hold office that burdens them with unique responsibilities. They must protect "the people" even if such protection gives them dirty hands. Such rulers "are unlike the rest of us in being officially responsible for the exercise of coercive power on behalf of the people's survival and well-being." (19) Rulers are going to do what rulers have to do. I simply do not see why we need to give rulers legitimating accounts (even accounts as carefully qualified as the one Stout gives) for doing what they say or what they have to do for our survival. More to the point, I do not see how those accounts are required if you believe, as Stout seems to do, that democracy is meant to disrupt those who rule and act in the name of serving "the people." (20) If democratic theory provides accounts that legitimate the ruling powers, then the subversive thrust of democratic practice is in danger of functioning in a purely ideological manner. (21)

I need to be clear, however, that the issues raised by Stout in his chapter on "dirty hands" are also issues that I cannot avoid. In a review of Performing the Faith, Terry Tilley asks, "How are we to think about structures and officers of the churches? What can we say about the diversity of offices, tasks, and witnesses within our churches? Do not some of our leaders have 'dirty hands' in running the churches?" (22) If, as I maintain, the church is an alternative politics, such questions cannot be avoided. This means that questions of how the churches are governed are at the heart of how Christians should understand their witness to the world. But that is what I take to be the center of John Howard Yoder's "politics" and, in particular, how he taught us to see how the acknowledgement of the sinfulness of the church is crucial for understanding the "politics of the church." So it is to Yoder I now turn. (23)

John Howard Yoder on Church and Democracy

In his essay, "The Christian Case for Democracy," Yoder observes that it "did not occur to the early Christians to ask whether the empire was or was not the best form of government." (24) It is equally the case that in many parts of the world the call for democracy is not a self-evident given. So to ask "What is the best form of government?" is a Constantinian question, that is, it presupposes that the one asking the question is in an "established" social posture that presumes a position of power. Yoder suggests that the "paradigmatic ethical agent" capable of asking the question of what is the best form of government is "assumed to be free, adult, healthy, male (as even our generic pronouns testify), and owner of property, and able to earn." (25)

Yoder's disavowal of the question of what form of government is best does not mean that he thinks we live politically in a world in which all cats are gray. Christians can and should distinguish between different societal and governmental alternatives, but they must do so without assuming they need a theory of legitimacy to discern the difference between political societies. That Christians refuse to speculate about what form of government may be best does not mean they must abandon all attempts to discern between better and worse forms of societies.

Nonviolence obviously plays a role in discernment in the evaluation of governments, but according to Yoder the most basic issue facing Christians is not that of war, but rather the social assumptions that lead Christians to assume the necessity of war. He observes that no Christian accepts war because they like it or think war is a good thing, but "because they assume that the church is called to run society in collaboration with the state." (26)

Yoder thus praises Reinhold Niebuhr for criticizing the pacifism of the peace churches in the 1920s and 1930s. The assumption that people have the capacity to make the world come out right or that an insightful minority could make the world good by coercively outlawing war through the technique of minority control was not faithful to the Gospel. But that does not mean that Christians can take a pessimistic stance toward the world. "It is the business of the church to change the world, not only by changing individuals but also by being a different kind of human community in the midst of the world." (27)

If I have any complaint against Stout's characterization of me in Democracy and Tradition, it is that he fails to credit this emphasis in my own work that I learned from Yoder. The oft-made charge that Yoder (or Hauerwas) is a sectarian simply fails to take seriously Yoder's emphasis that the church should be a community that models for the world what the world can be. That I refuse to provide an account of legitimacy for the state may seem to be irresponsible to some is but an indication that such critics, at least as far as I am concerned, are not being "realistic." A refusal to develop accounts of legitimacy, moreover, does not mean that discriminating judgments cannot be made by Christians about the limits and possibilities of the societies in which they find themselves. Such judgments, however, should not ever prevent Christians from becoming missionaries in societies that they might well regard as politically oppressive.

Yoder thinks it quite important that civil freedoms such as speech, press, and assembly arose out of religious agitation. It is another matter that these freedoms became in a secular translation "inalienable rights" that may create problems for Christians. Moreover Yoder, drawing on A. D. Lindsay's work, thinks it significant that the Puritan conviction that because God's word must be heard there must be freedom to preach, print and read, became the model for secular town meetings. This is not without significance for Christians. Problems may be created when those meetings are justified by the assumption that the individual is reliable, but that is a problem that Christians are glad to have. (28)

Yoder even suggests that Christians committed to nonviolence, particularly those who are rurally and evangelically oriented, are not fully honest about the ways they are also happy in the world. They may criticize the "wild-eyed Quakers" for assuming that Christians can change the world by joining the United Nations, but they must recognize that their pride in their clean fence rows, the lack of weeds in their corn, that their fields have less erosion, and that they have discovered the importance of crop rotation is coupled with the tendency of peace people "to migrate to democratic parts of the world, away from totalitarian parts of it. If we (the peace churches) took it really seriously, this would mean that we do see a difference between a better society and a worse society, and that we would all rather live in a better one." (29)

Some may think Yoder's observation concerning the need of peace churches to give an account of why they prefer to live in societies described as democratic is inconsistent with his claim in The Christian Witness to the State that the "Christian witness does not provide any foundations for government, either practically or philosophically, but that the Christian rather accepts the powers that be and speaks to them in a corrective way." (30) In my early essay on Yoder, "The Nonresistant Church: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder" (the essay Stout likes), I criticized Yoder for not providing a theory of legitimacy by which states can be judged. (31) Yet I came to think Yoder was right to insist that "The state does not need to be theoretically justified in order to exist; it does exist. Whether our speaking to the state presupposes that we must have a theory of why the state exists will depend on the nature and ground of our critique." (32) Not only is Yoder's insistence that "the state" does not need legitimacy true to the New Testament's understanding of the powers, but his position realistically provides the concrete way to make a political difference. In other words, his refusal to provide a "theory of legitimacy" is but the other side of his admirable historicism.

Yoder does not provide a theory of legitimacy, but he remains Pauline in acknowledging that governmental authority is God's instrument in a process which will lead to its own defeat. (33) In this time between the two aeons in which the reign of Christ channels violence, turns violence against itself, to preserve as much as possible of the order necessary for human society, Christians are subject to that order. Accordingly Christians do not ask governments to be nonresistant, but they can ask that those in power be just, care for the orphans and widows, and use the least violent means possible to secure order. (34) Christians can do so because they recognize that "government" is "by no means only the sword," making it possible for Christians not only to witness to the state but to participate in government. (35)

I realize that talk of "two aeons" for those concerned with politics may sound at best fanciful, but I believe that such talk is crucial not only for understanding Yoder but for understanding how the church and Christians serve any politics in which we find ourselves. At the heart of Yoder's understanding of politics is time, an apocalyptic time that means that in a world that too often assumes we do not have time to be political, Christians refuse to be hurried. Accordingly Christians do not believe that history is just one damn thing after another. (36)

That is why Yoder recommends that Christians "should be more relaxed and less compulsive about running the world" and make use of what is given us; that is, we should learn how to make fruitful use of the self-justification language of rulers who always claim to be our benefactors. (37) Democracies, at least as theories of state power, are best understood not as the rule of the people, but rather as "a most realistic way of exercising vigilant supervision over the authority entrusted to a few." (38) In the name of democracy we are still ruled by an elite whose decisions are not the result of a democratic process; but the reasons elites give for the decisions they make may provide the means for those subject to those decisions to hold their rulers to account. (39) Democracies, particularly, if they are understood not as majority rule but as an arrangement for minority leverage, can be a form of government Christians rightly prefer. (40)

The question must still be pressed, however, whether Yoder can be read as an advocate of "radical democracy." In a review of Stout's Democracy and Tradition, Rom Coles argues that Yoder's understanding of the church, and Christian tradition in particular, bears the hallmarks of radical democracy. (41) Coles regards Yoder's understanding of the sinfulness of the church that requires a stance of constant reformation to be an exemplification of the kind of practice required by radical democracy. In particular, Coles commends Yoder's understanding of tradition, in which wholesome growth is not so much understood to be like branches from a tree, but rather more like a vine. The kind of "looping back" to test current practices by the Lordship of Christ means Christian tradition is best understood as "a story of constant interruptions of organic growth in favor of pruning and a new chance for the roots." (42)

Equally important is Yoder's understanding of the "hermeneutics of peoplehood," in which agents of the community bear the responsibility to maintain an open process for the interpretation of scripture. Such a process is what is required for a community to discover judgments in common. Indeed the agents of memory, of direction, of linguistic self-consciousness, and of order and due process are the gifts a community needs to "loop back" and discover what is required if the church is to be faithful to Christ. (43) For Yoder, moreover, such agents do not necessarily come from within the church. In fact agents of the Enlightenment have taught and continue to teach the church crucial lessons about religious liberty. From Yoder's perspective it is unfortunate that critics of Christianity had to assume an anti-church stance in order to critique the Protestant dependence on governments to accomplish church reforms. As a result of this unfortunate development, the contributions Christians should have made for the development of democracies was undercut.

Coles, I think, is right to point to these aspects of Yoder's understanding of the church as indicators of how Yoder's understanding of the church may well parallel what some mean when they commend radical democracy. Yoder's insistence that the church has the time to care for and listen to the "weakest" member is equally important for appreciating how the church might embody democratic habits. Yoder, moreover, would have no reason to object to such parallels, for as he makes clear in his essay "The Christian Case for Democracy," analogies can be drawn between the practices of the church and practices of social organizations that do not follow Jesus. (45)

Stout may well object, however, that Coles's attempt to make Yoder a representative of radical democracy fails to see that Yoder is not doing political theory nor is he describing any real politics. Rather Yoder is doing ecclesiology. However, Yoder has no reason (at least if he is right that the difference between church and world is not an ontological difference but rather a difference between agents) to think when he does ecclesiology he is not also reflecting on politics. (46) The difference between what is possible for Christians and those who do not follow Christ is that which is a duty for Christians is but a possibility for those who are not Christian. As Yoder puts it,</p> <pre> the difference between Christian ethics for Christians and a Christian ethic for the state is therefore due to duality not of realms or levels, but of responses. Where God speaks to the reconciled and committed believers, the command to "be minded as it befits someone who is in Christ" (Phil. 2) takes into

consideration all the possibilities of the Holy Spirit and the

church. When God's will is communicated to man or men in their

rebellion, neither God nor His ultimate will changes, but His

current demands take into account the nonbelief of the addressee

(just as any truly personal communication encounters the addressee

where he is) and therefore stay within other limits of possibility. (47) </pre> <p>Coles rightly observes that Yoder's pacifism constitutes a vulnerable politics not only because it is a politics that demands a sense of what it means to follow Jesus, but also because Yoder refuses to let the church "be assimilated into what he takes to be even the most admirable currents of civic nationalism." Rather Yoder pursues "the local piecemeal approach of reciprocal translation" that Coles thinks Stout desires. Such a stand requires that Christians must cultivate a vulnerability in the face of contingency if they are to fulfill not only the Christian but the democratic promise.

Of course there is still the question whether Yoder's church exists, but that very question presupposes that the unfaithful church cannot be the church. However, as I suggested above, at the heart of Yoder's understanding of the church is the confession of sin. (48) The "body politics" constitutive of the church must exist, for how else will the church have the means to confess her sinfulness. (49) The practices that constitute that body will be more or less present in this church and in that time than in other churches and other times; but just to the extent they can hold the church that exists to account, they serve not as some never realized ideal but rather as a every present reality.

In his review of Stout, Coles suggests that Sheldon Wolin--whom Coles characterizes as "one of the most profound radical democratic theorists of the past several decades"--offers a political vision that resonates with Yoderian themes. That Coles so identifies Wolin is important for the case I am trying to make. The suggestion of Coles that Wolin's understanding of politics may resonate with Yoder's understanding of how the church must conduct her life reminded me that I had read Wolin before I read Yoder. This has led me to wonder if one of the reasons I found Yoder so compelling is he offered me an account of ecclesial existence I thought required if Wolin's criticisms of liberalism were correct. That is the thought I now want to explore.

Sheldon Wolin's Lessons

Coles observes that Wolin values many American exemplifications of radical democracy that Stout embraces--the abolitionists, the civil rights movement, feminist struggles, grassroots organizations formed against exploitive corporate-state power. Yet Coles also thinks Wolin's understanding of history pulls him toward a more insurgent stance than Stout seems to embrace. I think that is right; but to understand why it is so requires a return to the way Wolin tells the story of the development of political theory. Indeed I fear that the expanded edition of Politics and Vision may tempt some to read the new materials without reading or rereading the chapters that constituted the first edition. The new chapters added to the edition are so interesting, dramatic, and filled with the insights about our everyday reality that one has come to expect of Wolin (insights such as how the postmodern economy has begun to appear as a variant of totalitarianism) that one can forget those judgments and insights are possible because of Wolin's extraordinary erudition as well as how he tells the story of the nature and development of political theory.

Wolin credits Plato with the discovery of "the political," that is, he taught those who would come after him to think of political society as a coherent and interconnected whole. (50) By doing so Plato exercised the power of the imagination that is absolutely crucial for the political theorist. Through the use of exaggeration and extravagance Plato, as well as those who followed him, helped us see what might otherwise go unseen. (51) Yet Plato represents an ambiguous beginning for Wolin just to the extent Plato discovered politics as the form of rule necessary for the management of public affairs for the community, Plato also regretted the turbulence of Athenian democracy. (52) As a result, Wolin argues, Plato failed to establish an adequate understanding of the relationship of the political and politics, that is, how to gain the knowledge we need to act wisely in a context of conflict, ambiguity, and change. (53) When all is said and done, it is Wolin's judgment that Plato finally desired to defeat the contingent and incomplete art called politics through philosophy. Yet according to Wolin "the concluding note of Plato's political science is not of an unlimited arrogance that man can fashion a polity untouched by time, but of a heroism chastened by the foreknowledge of eventual defeat. It is, in Shelley's words, 'Eternity warning Time.'" (54)

Time, however, is exactly what Christians brought to politics. They did so, moreover, at a time when the possibility of politics was in danger of being lost, at a time when the politics of the Greeks, a politics dependent on the polis for its intelligibility, was subsumed into empire. The polis required according to Wolin, a kind of "nervous intensity" in contrast to later Stoicism "which leisurely, and without the sense of compelling urgency, contemplated political life as it was acted out amidst a setting as spacious as the universe itself." (55) In the empire people no longer had a sense of common involvement, which meant that political loyalty was centered in a common reverence for power. (56) As a result of these changes, a politics of interest was created, a politics that inevitably results in bureaucracy. In our day these bureaucratic developments are underwritten by social science to make the way things are seem to be the only way things can be.

It fell to Christianity to revivify political thought not by what Christians had to say about politics, but by what Christians had to say about their own lives. How Christians struggled to order their lives, as well as how they came to understand that order, provided a new source for ideas in political thought. Wolin observes:</p> <pre> Christianity succeeded where the Hellenistic and late classical philosophies had failed, because it put forward a new and powerful ideal of community which recalled men to a life of meaningful participation. Although the nature of this community contrasted sharply with classical ideals, although its ultimate purpose lay beyond historical time and space, it contained, nevertheless, ideals of solidarity and membership that were to leave a lasting imprint, and not always for good, on the Western tradition of political thought. (57) </pre> <p>Wolin notes that Christians could entertain doubts about political obligation because they were members of an alternative politics. In other words, Christians mistakenly equated politics with power and then attributed to the church a more positive form of politics as an alternative to the politics of the world. As a result the church too often failed to acknowledge the power exercised in the church on its members. Equally troubling was the tendency of the church after Constantine to use secular power to support orthodoxy.

According to Wolin, however, the great gift of Christianity, associated in particular with Augustine, was quite literally the gift of time. Prior to Christianity, time had been conceived in classical terms of cycles. In contrast, for the Christian such an understanding of time could lead only to despair. "Christianity broke the closed circle, substituting a conception of time as a series of irreversible movements extending along a line of progressive development. History was thus transformed into a drama of deliverance, enacted under the shadow of an apocalypse that would end historical time and, for the elect, bring a halt to suffering." (58) Wolin notes that this new time-dimension could be unpolitical and even anti-political in some forms of Christianity, but it is nonetheless the case the Christian encounter with politics revitalized a tradition of political thought. (59)

It is against this background, I think, that we can appreciate Wolin's concern with recent developments in political theory and practice. For Wolin the development of political liberalism looks very much like the attempt to deny contingency--a denial that often is associated with empire--that lies at the heart of the political. The effect of liberal theorists such as Hobbes and Locke (an effect they might well not have welcomed, to be sure) is to subject politics to the economics of interest--or perhaps, to subject politics to economic presumptions derived from capitalism. Wolin's last chapter in the first edition of Politics and Vision, "The Age of Organization and the Sublimation of Politics," was Wolin's attempt to help us see how the fear of politics, a fear he finds at the heart of the liberal theorist, has resulted in a rationalism embodied in the modern corporation.

In the new edition of Politics and Vision the chapters on "Liberalism and the Politics of Rationalism," and "Liberal Justice and Political Democracy" are but further reflections Wolin began in his analysis of the modern organization which includes the modern state. For Wolin, therefore, Rawls becomes the exemplification of the end of politics. Of course Rawls's declared purpose in writing A Theory of Justice was to further the interest of a democratic society; but Wolin argues that Rawls lacked any conception of politics, political power, or the role of the citizen. (60) That Rawls represents for Wolin the denial of politics is but a correlative of Rawls's ahistorical account of political life. (61) From Wolin's point of view, Rawls is the final outworking of the contractarian tradition which was from the beginning the attempt to deny history, particularity, and difference. (62)

Such a politics, a politics without memory, is "the precise definition of the media-constituted politics which forms such an essential element in the structure of megastate power and of the structure of passivity which sustains it." (63) In the "Preface to the Expanded Edition" of Politics and Vision Wolin describes his evolution as a theorist as "the journey from liberalism to democracy." (64) Wolin rightly, I think, thought liberalism served at certain times as an expression of democratic hope, but the ahistorical character of liberalism failed to acknowledge we come into this world with a "birthright." (65) Birthright politics, historical politics, is composed of ambiguous historical moments, deep ambiguities, that require interpretative modes of understanding that make us able to reconnect past and present experience and in the process reconstitute our politics. (66) But memory, it turns out, is exactly what liberal arrangements are meant to repress.

The politics of memory cannot help but disrupt liberal politics, at least the kind of liberalism exemplified by Rawls, if for no other reason than that democratic politics is not first and foremost (as liberal theory seems to be) concerned with questions of legitimacy of state power. From Wolin's perspective, those who care about a political life of participation--that is, who desire to originate or foster cooperative action with others--must abjure current forms of state power. "The result of state-centeredness is a politics in which at one extreme are the experts struggling to be scientific and rational while at the other is a politics of mass irrationality, of manipulated images, controlled information, single-issue fanaticism, and pervasive fear." (67)

Wolin, therefore, recommends rather than accepting a conception of democracy that makes it indistinguishable from constitutions necessary for state power, we should accept the charge that "democracy is inherently unstable, inclined toward anarchy, and identified with revolution.... This democracy might be summed up as the idea and practice of rational disorganization." (68) Wolin makes this recommendation because he is convinced that democracy in the late modern world cannot be a complete political system, but rather democracy can only succeed temporarily as a witness to a political mode of existence that exists through memory. (69) I think it is not unreasonable to suggest that radical democracy is Wolin's name for the kind of interruption he thinks the church represented in the Roman Empire. (70)

Wolin does not believe our situation is at all hopeless. Indeed he thinks we have time to draw on our ability to tend to one another when we are sick or when the garden needs weeding. To so tend requires the development of skills through which our tending is tempered by "a concern for objects whose nature requires that they be treated as historical and biographical beings. The beings are such as to need regular attention from someone who is concerned about their well-being and sensitive to their needs." (71) Such tending politically should direct our attention to practices constituted by habits of competence and skill that are routinely required if things that matter to us are to be taken care of.

If that is "radical democracy," then I think I can claim to be a radical democrat. Indeed I should like to think that the attention and reflection I have developed concerning the place of those called the mentally handicapped represents my most determinative political reflections. A community that has the time and can take the time, the patience, to be constituted by practices represented by those "slower" than most of us, is a community that may provide an alternative to the politics of speed that currently shapes our lives.

Returning to Stout

Stout may well object that I have made my identification with radical democracy far too easy by concentrating on Wolin's criticism of liberalism and his alternative understanding of radical democracy as the recovery of a genuine politics. No doubt he would want to raise questions about Wolin's understanding of how we have got to where we are as well as the adequacy of Wolin's account of where we are. I am obviously quite persuaded by the overall analysis Wolin provides. That I am so persuaded may be because his analysis seems to suggest that my kind of Christianity and church are politically significant. If that is so, I am not sure that is a failure. But at least I hope I have made clear why I think John Howard Yoder supplies us with an account of a politics that is not only hopeful but hopefully is not only for Christians but will prove attractive for anyone. (72)


1. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

2. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 215-241.

3. Paul Griffiths, Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 200. Griffiths is certainly right to praise the Victorians for knowing that disagreements are important requiring sharp rhetorical habits. See, for example, David Newsome's wonderful book, The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) for confirmation of the Victorians "sharp rhetorical habits." For example, Newsome observes that the conversion of Henry Wilberforce to Catholicism "may have saved his soul from perdition, but it certainly did nothing to sweeten his temper or to improve his manners." 361.

4. Charlie Collier has pointed out to me that Stout's request that I do Christian theology in a manner compatible with if not a handmaid to democracy could be reversed. I could claim that Stout's political theory is not Christian theology and is therefore incompatible with my ecclesiology, so Stout needs to do theology. This is a way to suggest that Stout's criticism of me sometimes seems to ask me to be something else than a theologian.

5. Stout, 15.

6. Stout, 305.

7. Stout, 6.

8. Stout, 13.

9. Stout, 195.

10. Stout, 293.

11. Stout, 60.

12. Stout, 23.

13. Stout, 57.

14. Stout, 4.

15. One way to put the question I am raising is to ask Stout what he makes of Wolin's refusal to describe democracy as a form of government. See Wolin, Politics and Vision (Expanded Edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2004), 602.

16. Stout, 160.

17. Stout, 297.

18. Stout, 303. This is a point made by MacIntyre who disavows being a communitarian exactly because in the world that inhabits us a call for community too often becomes a form of state power.

19. Stout, 190.

20. Another set of problems with Stout's account of democracy involves his understanding of how democracy came into being. He observes that "modern democracy was in some sense a revolutionary break with the past." (201) In particular he claims that "democracy came into the modern world opposing the representatives of a feudal and theocratic past." (225) I think neither of these claims would be accepted by most historians or political theorist. At the very least Stout owes us some account of why A. D. Lindsay's understanding of the role of the Puritan congregation for the formation of democracy is wrong. See A. D. Lindsay, The Modern Democratic State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

21. I owe this way of putting the matter to Alex Sider. Alex also observes that disruptions inherent to democratic practice are themselves a de facto acknowledgement of the right to rule.

22. Terrence Tilley, "Faith-Based Initiatives: Review of Performing the Faith," Commonweal (September 2004): 31.

23. As influenced by C.B. MacPherson, I have always been reluctant to recommend democracy qua democracy because I was doubtful I knew what I was recommending. See MacPherson's The Real World of Democracy (New York: The Oxford University Press, 1966). I also learned from MacPherson that discussion of democracy cannot be separated from capitalist subversions of democracy.

24. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 154.

25. Yoder, 154. Yoder's generalization about the agent capable of asking the question of what form of government is the best is just that, a generalization. He would certainly be ready to acknowledge that the call for democratic forms of life might come from the dispossessed. In Democracy Matters (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) Cornel West identifies Constantinianism as the problem besetting "Christian America." According to West, when Christians became Constantinians, they rob Christianity of the "prophetic fervor of Jesus and the apocalyptic fire of that Jew-turned-Christian named Paul." (107). No doubt Yoder would be in agreement with West's criticism of the effect of Constantinianism, but he might well distance himself from West's identification of Rauschenbusch as a representative of "prophetic Christianity." No doubt Yoder shares Rauschenbusch's critique of capitalism but Rauschenbusch's blessing of democracy as the form of Christian government would appear to Yoder as a Constantinianism of the left. West, however, is quite clear that he "speaks as a Christian whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are even deeper." (171) In a very important chapter, "Christ the Hope of the World" in The Original Revolution (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998) Yoder develops an account of neo, neo-neo, neo-not-neo-Constantinianism that helps us see how Constantinian- ism can emigrate into diverse forms from some developments in Latin American liberation theology to outright secular formations (132-154).

26. John Howard Yoder, "The Unique Role of the Historic Peace Churches," Brethren Life and Thought, 14, (Summer, 1969), 136. Yoder often made this point, but it is interesting how seldom critics of Yoder's "pacifism" "get it." I am indebted to Charlie Collier for finding this article in Brethren Life and Thought. Critics of Yoder seldom do the reading necessary to sustain their criticisms of him. I suppose they may be excused for failing to do so because John's essays are scattered in a wide range of journals and books, but often critics do not even read with care Yoder's materials that are widely available.

27. Yoder, "The Unique Role of the Historic Peace Churches," (147.) Yoder explicitly rejects the spiritualistic and theocratic alternatives for understanding the place of the church in the world. The church "is to be a new society. We cannot say that the gospel does not have social expression if we have any meetings at all, because if we meet that is already a social expression of the gospel, and it is going to change the neighbors.... Neither biblically nor historically is the choice between personal obedience and social impact a choice at all. Each is permissible, each is possible, only with the other." "The Unique Role of the Historic Peace Churches," 149.

28. John Howard Yoder, "Response of an Amateur Historian and a Religious Citizen," Journal of Law and Religion, 416 (1989), 415. In this essay Yoder does not explain what he means by identifying himself as a "religious citizen." I confess I am not quite sure how he would understand what it would mean to be a "religious citizen." I suspect John would say that it depends on what you mean by "citizen."

29. Yoder, "The Unique role of the Historic Peace Churches," 147.

30. John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2002), 41.

31. Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 213-221.

32. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, 78.

33. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, 12. Yoder quite rightly rejects the view that such a thing as anarchy exists. (39) There are, of course, varying forms of governments from tyranny to constitutional democracy, but Yoder refuses to accept those that would justify any order on grounds without such order anarchy will reign. Those that would justify "democracy" as the happy alternative between totalitarianism and anarchy need to attend to Yoder's refusal to accept such abstractions.

34. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, 42.

35. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 165.

36. Alex Sider raises an extremely interesting criticism of this claim by pointing out that apocalyptic means having something hidden revealed. What is revealed may be about time but it is, at least for Yoder, "the Lamb that was slain is now worthy to receive honor ..." Accordingly Alex wonders if the point about time is not that we have all the time in the world, but "with the Resurrection time ceases to be a first principle." The question then becomes how to combine the refusal to make time a first principle with the sense of urgency in the New Testament and that with democratic practice. He notes his view requires "extended exposition." That is no doubt true, but I think the form that exposition should take is to show how Yoder's understanding of patience is possible only because of what has been revealed in the Resurrection.

37. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 158.

38. Yoder, Christian Witness to The State, 19.

39. Yoder's understanding of Christian political responsibility requires continuing discernment because the Christian must "speak in terms of available, or at least conceivable, alternatives." In an odd way this makes Yoder a very "realistic" political alternative just to the extent the Christian never asks the state to eliminate all evil, but rather to combat one visible sin at a time. The Christian Witness to the State, 38.

40. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 167.

41. Romand Coles, "Democracy, Theology, and the Question of Excess: A Review of Jeffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition," Modern Theology (Forthcoming).

42. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 69.

43. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 15-45.

44. Yoder, 23.

45. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 160-166. My hunch is that Yoder in this essay, which in some ways he must have learned from Barth's attempt to develop analogies from Christian doctrine to political life, was exploring a different way from Barth to suggest how Christians might make a political witness than the middle-axiom approach he took in The Christian Witness to the State. The strength of Yoder's "generalizations" in contrast to Barth's analogies is that Yoder discovers analogies from the actual practices of the Christian community rather than from Barth's rather forced analogies from doctrines. Yet Yoder shares Barth's fundamental commitment to a Christological understanding of governing authority.

46. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, 24-25. Particularly important for Yoder's understanding of politics is his Body Politics (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1989). Yoder always insisted that the boundaries between church and world were permeable.

47. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, 32. Earlier in The Christian Witness to the State Yoder argued that the Christian is always to address those who do not follow Jesus on the basis of the gospel. For example Christians might address a statesman who is engaged in an activity that they think reprehensible with the presumption that if the statesman repented they would see that their office was incompatible with being a Christian. Yoder, however, argues that it is "improper" to begin with this conclusion or to impose this logic on the statesman before beginning the conversation. Yoder suggest, for example, that to ask a French intelligence officer in Algeria not to torture on the basis of the Geneva convention does not cease to be the gospel simply because he is addressed in terms of his present options. (25.) This respect for the one addressed in Yoder is a correlate of what it means to be nonviolent.

48. In this respect the contemporary theologian who most resembles Yoder is Rowan Williams.

49. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christians Community Before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1989).

50. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 30-31.

51. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 18-19.

52. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 38-39. Whether Wolin is right about Plato is not crucial for how I understand the importance of his setting up the problem.

53. Wolin, 40.

54. Wolin, 62.

55. Wolin, 66.

56. Wolin, 69.

57. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 87. In his discussion of Augustine Wolin observes that Augustine's account of the two cities displayed a new temporal dimension for the political order, but "the new time-dimension was both unpolitical and anti-political: unpolitical in that the vital moments of meaning in time, such as Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption, lacked any essential connection with political matters; and anti-political in that political society was implicated in a series of historical events heading towards a final consummation which would mark the end of politics." (112) Wolin, I think, rightly sees that Augustine thought the most fundamental needs of man no human society could satisfy, but Wolin sometimes seems to suggest that Christianity, and, in particular, the hope in the kingdom of God puts Christianity on the side of an "other worldliness," that was and is no doubt often present, but I think can be a mischaracterization of the Christian hope in the coming Kingdom.

58. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 112. It is fascinating that Wolin's primary source for this understanding of time is Oscar Cullmann's Christ and Time as well as The State in the New Testament. Cullmann of course was influenced as well as influenced Barth. Moreover Cullmann was one of John Howard Yoder's teachers. I am not trying to argue that Wolin sounds a lot like Yoder because they both learned from Cullmann, but rather to indicate that we should not be surprised that at least on some of these matters they strike some of the same notes. I must observe, however, that I do not think Wolin's characterizations of the cyclic character of time he attributes to the Greeks does justice to the variety of Greek thought. Wolin and Yoder drew on the scholarship of the day that made generalizations about Greek and Hebrew thought that are problematic. For a critique of Yoder's use of this contrast, see Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider, "Introduction" to John Howard Yoder's Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 9-29.

59. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 125. Wolin's account of Calvin repeats this theme because he thinks Calvin, in contrast to Machiavelli and Hobbes, understood that the power of a community if it is not repressive requires active membership (171).

60. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 538.

61. Sheldon Wolin, The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 142-143.

62. Wolin observes that "Civic forgetfulness is the tribute that the political unconscious pays to the power of the forgotten. A civic celebration organizes forgetfulness so as to ward off the return of the repressed, which, though overcome or rejected, is still perceived as threatening." The Presence of the Past, 83. I think it is not a stretch to interpret Wolin's account of Rawls as a contemporary form of Stoicism correlative to the politics of empire.

63. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, 184.

64. Wolin, Politics and Vision, XV.

65. Wolin's chapter "Contract and Birthright" in The Presence of the Past is his classic statement of this contrast (pp. 137-150). Wolin observes "the birthright that we have made over to our Jacobs is our politicalness. By politicalness I mean our capacity for developing into beings who know and value what it means to participate in and be responsible for the care and improvement of our common and collective life. To be political is not identical with being part of government or being associated with a political party. These are structured roles, and typically they are highly bureaucratized. For these reason, they are opposed to the authentically political." 139.

66. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, 141.

67. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, 149.

68. Sheldon Wolin, "Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy," in Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, edited by Peter Euben, John Wallach, and Josiah Ober (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 37.

69. Wolin, "Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy," 54-55.

70. Wolin suggests that democracy should best be understood as about forms rather than a form of constitution. That is, democracy names a response to felt grievances of needs on the part of those whose main preoccupation--an occupation that demands time and energy--is to scratch out a decent existence. Small scale is the only scale commensurate with the kind of power democracy is capable of mobilizing. "The power of democratic politics lies in the multiplicity of modern sites disposed among local governments and institutions under local control (schools, community health services, police and fire protection, recreational, cultural institutions, property taxes) and in the ingenuity of ordinary people in inventing temporary forms to meet their needs." (Politics and Vision, 603). I cannot help but think such an account of politics would be every appealing to Yoder.

71. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, 89.

72. I am indebted to Jonathan Tran, Charlie Collier, and Alex Sider for their criticisms of this paper.
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Title Annotation:John Howard Yoder, Sheldon S. Wolin
Author:Hauerwas, Stanley
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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