Indonesian Indigenous Studies

Relational Revolutionary Subordination: Reading Yoder’s Mennonite Pacifism with Indigenous Framework

Rezza P. Setiawan

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42 (New International Version Bible)

The forest is burning. Deers, birds, and the great apes of the forest ran out of trees to live with. The earth and sacred mountains are being sundered by gigantic machinery and the cold metals created by those settler-minded, colonial miners. Cultures are ignored, bulldozed, and buried under piles of papers filled with foreign words, unfamiliar to the lands. It is violence against living beings, communities, and whole societies. This is the reality where indigenous studies emerged from, where the idea of relationality takes the main stage.

Guided by relationality as one of its core principles, indigenous studies is a part of the bigger narrative in advocating for marginalized minority groups. It arose together with the awareness for preservation and resistance: to preserve thriving relationships of human and nonhuman entities coexisting together and to resist the damages caused by the oppressing entities. It calls for resistance against imbalanced power relations and violent and unjust actions.

Response to violence and injustice is certainly not singular. “Turning the other cheek” is a saying representing a pacifist form of political involvement popular among Christians. The Mennonites, one denominational branch of Christianity, since their historical roots, had opted for pacifist responses to injustice and oppression instead of retaliating with violence. In response to violence, the pacifists refuse to proliferate more harm to other entities by forgiving the harm done to them. In this regard, John Howard Yoder, a prominent Mennonite theologian, introduces the term “revolutionary subordination” as his interpretation on the Christians’ necessary political involvement that is not blindly obeying the oppressors, yet also without necessarily fighting back with violence. It is a pacifist construction of political activism ethics.

This article argues that the integration of revolutionary subordination with the principle of relationality is important to give us an alternative ethical basis for indigenous studies. It will do so by first translating Yoder’s revolutionary subordination into the principle of relationality to strip it from its tendency for individual interpretation of spirituality. This article will then focus on talking about the aspects of forgiveness and resistance within the idea of revolutionary subordination in a relational framework. In the end, the article will derive the political implication of the relational interpretation of Yoder’s idea for indigenous studies.

Relationality in Indigenous Paradigm

Karen Barad (2007) spotted a problem within the Western epistemological framework which she calls individual metaphysics. Within this framework, one thing is placed in isolation, separated from everything else. This then becomes an onto-epistemological problem. As Latour (1993) points out, the separation between nature and culture has resulted in othering and exploitation of nature. In this way of thinking, all humans’ deeds, including the religiously motivated ones, are detached from their relationship with other parts of creation.

Barad and Latour, in contrast, promote the idea that everything is connected, through and through. Nothing could—onto-epistemologically—exist in isolation because its existence would always be in relation to everything else. Barad puts reality as being in an eternal entanglement, where one could only exist in a relationship with the other. This idea of relationality also exists in the indigenous research paradigm as a central principle. In Moreton-Robinson’s words, “Relationality is grounded in a holistic conception of the inter-connectedness and inter-substantiation between and among all living things and the earth, which is inhabited by a world of ancestors and creator beings”.

Yoder’s Idea of Revolutionary Subordination

John Howard Yoder was a Mennonite theologian known for his book “The Politics of Jesus” (1994) which addresses a certain pacifistic approach to political ethics called Revolutionary Subordination, deriving from the values held by the gospels’ account of Jesus from Nazareth. By showing Jesus’ political engagement throughout his life in the context of the Roman Empire’s rule over Jews, this book disproves the assumed political detachment of Jesus as believed by some Christians. Such assumption is due to the Western Christian tendency on individual metaphysics that places one thing— even God himself—in isolation from everything else.

Yoder also differentiates Jesus’ way of politics from the other political groups such as (1) the Essenes who disengaged from society and its political struggle; (2) the Pharisees who resorted to religious traditionalism; and (3) the Zealots who use violence by killing those associated with the Roman imperialists. Jesus did not detach himself from the political context around him as the Essenes did. He also did not resort to religious traditionalism in the hope for divine intervention like the Pharisees. He also did not employ violence as the Zealots did. Jesus used a pacifistic approach in his politics by being “revolutionarily subordinate” to the existing power structure.

Yoder on government

In one part of his book, Yoder delegitimizes the argument that says governments are blessed with divine ordination. He explains that many passages in the bible are actually in a dichotomous stance toward the government. For example, on one hand, the bible tells a story about how God uses the Persian kingdom to help Israel, but on the other hand, governments are also seen as evil powers. In the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11), when Jesus was tempted by the devil, all powers and authorities on the earth are offered to Jesus as if the powers and authorities are in the possession of the devil to give away.

Yoder notices how Jesus did not deny the devil’s claim over the world’s power and authority. Yoder also notes Paul’s remark placing the powers of the world as an evil force to resist (Ephesian 6:12). With these arguments, governments are not necessarily evil or good in his perspective, but Yoder emphasizes that they are not from God. Therefore, they are not seen as the representation of God and we are not required to be blindly obedient to the governments. In short, Yoder’s idea of subordination perceives the government as having no sovereignty over humans because the government was not ordained by God. 

Subordination and obedience

Subordination is not obedience. Yoder’s idea of subordination is not about being obedient to governments or other oppressive entities. Yoder delegitimizes the divine status of the government because he knows the government can act in transgression against divine will. Therefore, revolutionary subordination does not mean that we have to obey the rulers when they lead their people away from the truth and closer to injustice. Subordination means that we should resist an unjust system, but willingly accept the consequence of doing so, even when resistance means receiving punishment from the government.

Subordination is not supposed to be an individual winning strategy, but through the loss we take in doing the right thing, it will expose the injustice of the ruling system to the general public, forcing the masses to take a side. Therefore, Yoder believes that in our involvement as political agents, subordination to the ruling system is revolutionary because it exposes the injustice within the system. This is the ethical choice that Yoder puts forward in his framework of Christian political involvement.

Revolutionary Subordination  in a Relational Sense

Revolutionary subordination should be understood, not in an individual, but relational sense. Understanding a revolutionary act as a thing in itself would isolate the change to a very narrow scope and ignore the reverberating impact of the act. Similarly, understanding subordination in an individual sense would also lose the original idea of why subordination itself is important because, by itself, the act of subordination would become an act of piety in isolation from the overarching impact of the act itself. However, when revolutionary subordination is understood in a wider relational sense, one act is perceived as interrelated to other entities, who would act accordingly. Hence, as revolutionary subordination implies the idea of resistance and forgiveness, both are to be communicated with and understood within the relationality framework.

Relationality of resistance

Resistance is not an isolated event. At the most basic level, it involves two entities in which one is resisting the other. This is then widened to other entities influenced by the resistance. In indigenous power injustice issues, the oppressor and the oppressed are involved in the act of resistance. However, this structural oppression often involves not only one but many individuals and groups, either humans or non-humans. For example, the imposition of exclusive religious governance in Indonesia has obstructed the legal-political recognition of many different religio-cultural and indigenous communities. Among the side effects is the eco-cultural devastation such as the building of a Cement factory on the lands of the Samin community and the establishment of MIFEE on the lands of the Malind Anim people in Merauke.

Therefore, the act of resistance is also relational. The establishment of many NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) such as Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN) in Indonesia has proven to hold key roles in resistance efforts against the destructive effects of this oppression against the marginalized peoples. Specifically, AMAN and other NGOs -and often with researchers- serve as intermediaries between the government and the local people, further emphasizing the relational aspect of advocacy in indigenous studies. NGOs have persuaded the government to resolve the issues of indigenous peoples’ rights. In 2009, for example, AMAN, together with the Kenegerian Kuntu community from Riau and the Kasepuhan Cisitu community from Banten, filed a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court over a forestry law (No. 41/1999) that denied indigenous ownership of customary forests.

For a different example on an individual level, Paschalis, a Catholic priest who called out the acts of human trafficking done by people in governmental bodies, was criminalized. Paskhalis submitted to the legal process as a form of his subordination. However, this does not mean a halt to his activism against human trafficking in Nusa Tenggara Timur province. His subordination rather allowed him to stay in the limelight for the public to see, and it exposes the unjust system that allows the criminalization of someone who fights for justice and human rights. In consequence, this does not only expose the one case that he was advocating for but also leads to broader public awareness of the issue of human trafficking in general.

Within the notion of revolutionary subordination, such pacifist resistance is done not as a submissive desperate measure, but in favor of change. Subordination does not mean ignorance of injustice, but rather a resistance to the ruling system. The cases of AMAN and Paschalis advocating for human rights have shown that the problems of marginalization and human trafficking, including other human rights issues, are relationally situated issues to tackle not as an individual but as a collective struggle.

Relationality of forgiveness

Doing the right thing is an abstract conception that includes every morally preferable practice, such as justice, love, and forgiveness. In the context of indigenous studies, it is the ethical choice to opt for marginalized communities and to strive toward justice for all. The concept of relationality brings us to the awareness that everything is intricately connected in mutual relationships. Humans’ sinful acts against nature will ultimately come around as if they are harming themselves by their own acts. Some would even summarize this to the expression of “what goes around comes around” or “you reap what you sow” as if the bad thing that “comes around” to that particular person would stop at that person and the debt is somehow paid. In reality, that harm would continue reverberating through that person unto others around ad infinitum.

In this context, the act of subordination and forgiveness stops the harm being done to us from being reproduced over and over throughout our universal web of interconnectedness. By forgiving, the violence stops at us and is stopped from harming others anywhere else. That is why it becomes an ethical choice to forgive others in subordination. By working for what is right and for what is just, by subordinating ourselves to the ruling system—even to violent governments—and by releasing forgiveness in places of violence, we prevent more harm from being produced. In this regard, Jesus’ sacrifice is a form of merciful revolutionary subordination that stops the reproduction of harm.

Finally, revolutionary subordination implies the importance of not being ignorant of the surrounding socio-political contexts, especially those related to violence and injustice. Among the example is the Indonesian exclusive governance of religion and its destructive impact on indigenous peoples. In this regard, the idea of revolutionary subordination provides a framework for non-violent resistance against oppression. Within the principle of relationality, such resistance is conducted collaboratively, in light of the interconnected nature of all living things. This relational revolutionary subordination is in the end an act of justice: an act of love.

Rezza P. Setiawan is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada

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