Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World

John Howard Yoder

Book cover

Like Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus,” this is an excellent book (if much shorter). Through very straightforward discussion of five practices of the Christian community, Yoder manages to gesture toward what strikes me as an ideal vision of Christianity. He draws heavily on scripture for understanding, but, like many of my favorite authors (in any field), he staunchly insists on “making it new”–he sees tradition as an important inspiration but refuses to see even the early apostolic church as a golden age to be emulated wholesale.

The book is already extremely short and extremely clear, so I’m not sure I can add anything useful by way of summary. But I will go through one example to give a flavor of the book.

The Eucharist (communion) is probably the most widely known practice that Yoder discusses. As with the other four practices, Yoder’s understanding ascribes to it a strong operational significance in addition to the metaphysical significance that it is traditionally given. The metaphysical significance of the Eucharist is that it is the way in which Christians formally accept the sacrifice of Christ and therefore the grace of God. When I say that the traditional view (what Yoder calls the “sacramentalist” view) does not have operational significance, I mean that it appears largely ancillary that this formal acceptance is expressed through the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. It is so because Christ commanded it to be so; yet Christ could have commanded it to be otherwise. The operational significance, as Yoder describes it, is in the communal sharing of economic goods. The reason that the Eucharist is conducted through the eating of bread and the drinking of wine is that Christ commands us to share with those in need; it is by this action (both in the Eucharistic setting and in the broader world) that Christians accept the sacrifice of Christ and therefore the grace of God. It is significant that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not merely symbolic of economic goods, but are in fact economic goods themselves.

The emphasis on the operational component has several implications. First, and I think most significantly, the practice is transparent and even available to non-Christians. The sharing of economic goods is a way in which Christians can declare the presence of God’s kingdom to the world at large. Its significance is largely intelligible, even to people who know nothing of the Bible. It is something that Christians can and should practice with non-Christians, welcoming and inviting them in rather than signaling who is “in” and who is “out.” Second, it is a practice that is only intelligible at the community level. While it is possible for an individual to go through the motions of the Eucharist, this ignores the operational significance of sharing, which can be realized only communally. Finally, it is a practice whose significance resides in the entire body of the church, rather than being dispensed hierarchically by specialized individuals.

I think a natural criticism would be to say that Yoder’s view takes the “religion” out of these practices–once you draw out the operational significance of these practices so clearly, in a way that is intelligible even to non-believers, what role is left for God, for spirituality? After all, atheistic collectives also can and do share economic goods in common (for example). I think this type of criticism is deeply rooted in the history of dominant religious institutions in the West, which have tended to depict “the spiritual” as something distinct from everyday life and mediated through selected empowered individuals rather than through community (“corporate”) practice. Yoder’s view says that God is present when the Eucharist is practiced, not as some mystical external presence but in and through the bodies and actions of those assembled. God is also present when non-Christians share economic goods in common; his presence is just not recognized as such. What separates Christians from non-believers, then, is not preferential access to God’s work in the world, but rather, recognition and therefore more systematic and intentional cultivation thereof.

One last thing I wanted to point out is the connection between the five practices that Yoder discusses and the concept of resilience. I have been reading a lot lately on the topic of system resilience, mostly as relating to the economy through the writings of Ashwin Parameswaran at the blog Macroeconomic Resilience. Ashwin in turn is heavily influenced by work on ecosystem resilience by Buzz Holling and others. The analytical lens of resilience accepts the inevitability of unexpected shocks, and also accepts that no system or institution can be so perfectly designed as to survive indefinitely in a fixed form. In a real sense, stability is the enemy of resilience, as a system that is actively insulated from shocks over time will lose its ability to recover from shocks, with the result that when a shock occurs that cannot be insulated against, the damage to the system is much greater. The classic application in ecology is forest fire suppression (Holling); the application in economics should be apparent to anyone who has been following the news.

What struck me in reading this book was that, although Yoder never addresses the topic, all five of the practices he discusses would seem to foster the church community’s resilience. The practice of binding and loosing (conflict resolution) seeks to allow conflict-based shocks to propagate through the community while they are manageably small, rather than allowing them to escalate to unmanageable proportions by bottling them up. The practice of baptism (which expresses openness to outsiders) allows new infusions to the (figurative if not literal) “gene pool” of the community, militating against stagnation. Eucharistic sharing promotes the interests of the community over those of the individual by allowing resources to flow where they are needed. The recognition of the multiplicity of gifts reduces reliance on key individuals, so that the system is more able to cope with inevitable losses. Open meeting discourages groupthink and promotes learning.

Allow me finally to pull in a reference to “Watership Down,” which I think is similarly concerned with resilience in the presence of an unalterably precarious and hostile environment. The Christian community as Yoder describes it is much like Hazel’s warren–able to cope with the inevitable shocks, without pretending they don’t exist (“head in the sand”, like Cowslip’s warren) and without pretending that they have been mastered once and for all (“end of history”, like Efrafa).

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars