Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The fall of leadership: A Yoderian rejoinder to neo-Reformed sausage parties

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
(Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti via Flickr)
There's been some heated talk about masculinity and the Christian faith coming from the neo-Reformed movement these days. Lots of talk about what "real men" are like and such, and of course the related question of how women factor into these things. What strikes me is that most of the talking is being done by white dudes and, well, sometimes the rhetoric sounds more like a sausage party than anything else. Or to use another metaphor from the Flight of the Conchords: "There's too many [crude phallus reference] on the dance floor!" (Crude/hilarious video alert...you've been warned.) Not that what I'm going to offer below addresses the issue by my weighing in because, well...I'm a white dude. But here goes...

Rather than argue directly with my neo-Reformed brah's, which I'm really not interested in doing, I thought it might better to very briefly offer some Yoderian reflections on gender as it relates to leadership. In John Nugent's recent book about John Howard Yoder's Old Testament hermeneutic, The Politics of Yahweh, he talks about a few of Yoder's writings on the Fall in relation to leadership.

Leadership in the Garden
In the Genesis creation & garden narratives, Yoder sees what he described as a "feminine" form of leadership-as-stewardship of the land ("power with"). But after the Fall and exile from the garden, leadership is marred by "masculine" dominance ("power over"). And with Yoder's "jesulogical christocentric" way of reading the Old Testament as a Christian - with Jesus as the "new Adam" or full/real human - Yoder notes that Jesus' leadership looks a lot more like the pre-Fall or "feminine" form than it does the dominating/masculine form. Even Paul's exhortations to women in congregations in 1 Timothy, which in feminist interpretations get categorized as patriarchal, when seen in this Yoderian sense, becomes a call to exercise leadership in more humble, charismatic, Christ-like ways. (Relevant page numbers in Nugent: 26-29.)

(Now, we could talk about the problems of characterizing such things as "masculine" or "feminine," but putting that aside for this post...)

Kingship in Israel and the State
Yoder is also highly critical of monarchy in biblical Israel. This gets unpacked in Nugent, but there's a similar connection in Kurt Willem's recent post about Peter Enns and N.T. Wright talking about Adam as a narrative stand-in for Israel in Exile. Yoder see's the exile as the natural consequences of the mistaken/sinful move to monarchy, rejecting God's kingship in order to be like the nations. So this critique of leadership after the Fall makes sense ontologically but also socio-politically: authoritarian regimes are doomed from the start to abuse power.

As William Cavanaugh has pointed out in his essay, "Killing for the Telephone Company," certain reformers-who-shall-not-be-named - heroes of the neo-Reformed movement - place the state as existing pre-Fall. But this simply does not hold up to narrative-theological scrutiny. So it seems that neo-Reformed folks are hamstrung into thinking this form of "strong leadership," decidedly manly and  supposedly "natural" is indeed quite contingent and theologically problematic.

"What? It's natural!"
So if you take the ethical implications of Yoder's reading seriously, neo-Reformed machismo becomes problematic to say the least. If I had more time, I could mention all the many bride/birthing analogies scattered across both testaments, many even cited as characteristics of God, which, given the patriarchal societies of the day, is pretty significant. And let's not forget the context of the "no graven images" commandment. Because there were plenty of them in the surrounding pagan cultures, and many of them looked like our friend to the right...

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