Writing off Yoder

The latest edition of One the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand, includes a helpful piece by Michael Buttrey titled ‘12 ways to prematurely write off Yoder: Some common misconceptions about Yoder’s ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ vision’. Buttrey identifies the twelve ‘misconceptions’ as:

1. Yoder believes Constantine corrupted the church.

2. Yoder thinks that there was no salt or light in the medieval church.

3. Yoder hates Luther, Calvin and the other magisterial Reformers.

4. Yoder has a low view of God’s sovereignty over history. Or:

5. He idolizes the early church.

6. Yoder inappropriately sees Jesus’ earthly life as normative.

7. Yoder fails to deal with the Old Testament, especially the wars of Joshua.

8. Yoder’s pacifism inhibits any effective witness to the state, especially regarding war.

9. Even for Christians, Yoder’s pacifism is impossible, or at least irresponsible.

10. Yoder advocates separation from the world that ‘God so loved.’ And:

11. Isn’t Yoder a ‘fideistic sectarian tribalist’ like Stanley Hauerwas?

Here, Buttrey writes:

These common accusations seriously misunderstand Yoder.

First, Yoder’s context was one where he was urging traditionally quietist Anabaptists to realize they had a social ethic and witness to society, while simultaneously calling activist Christians to realize they need not abandon the gospel and take up the methods of the world in their impatience to get things done. Ironically, Yoder has often been taken more seriously by theologians and political philosophers outside his tradition – such as Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles – than those on the ‘inside.’

Second, Yoder has no desire to divide the church further. Indeed, in “The Kingdom As Social Ethic” he deeply objects to the labelling of radically obedient groups as sectarian, for they had no intentions of separating themselves:

[Such groups] have called upon all Christians to return to the ethic to which they themselves were called. They did not agree that their position was only for heroes, or only possible for those who would withdraw from wider society. They did not agree to separate themselves as more righteous from the church at large. (85)

Third, Yoder is fundamentally not interested in withdrawal or separation from society. In “The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People,” Yoder agrees with Karl Barth that ‘what believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. … To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord makes it inconceivable that there should be any realm where his writ would not run.’ (25) Of course, those who seriously see Christ’s commands as normative for all tend to be called fideists or theocrats. Yoder is neither.

Yoder is not a fideist because, unlike most realists, he sees the gospel as having a truly universal appeal. Christian realists typically assume that the gospel is inaccessible and incomprehensible to all other groups, and so it is necessary to use a neutral, ‘public’ language to oblige non-Christians ‘to assent to our views on other grounds than that they are our views.’ (16–7) Indeed, it is not Yoder but his critics who tend to think that their faith is fundamentally irrational and its public demands must be set aside for that reason. This reverse fideism is not surprising, however, given how modern liberal democracies understand religious groups and language.

Further, Yoder is not a theocrat, because he does not call for the violent imposition of the gospel, which would be an oxymoron. Rather, the challenge for the church is to purify its witness so ‘the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.’ (24) Christ’s universal lordship obliges the church to make great demands of the world, but by definition, the gospel witness is a process of public dialogue, not coercion.

In short, the best word for Yoder’s understanding of the church’s witness to society is that of model. Consider some of these potential imperatives for civil society Yoder derives theologically in that same essay:

  • egalitarianism, not because it is self-evident (history suggests that it is clearly not!) but because baptism into one body breaks down ethnic and cultural barriers;
  • forgiveness as commanded by Christ (he agrees with Hannah Arendt that a religious origin and articulation for forgiveness is no reason to discount it in secular contexts);
  • radical sharing and hospitality, even voluntary socialism, as implied in the Eucharist; and
  • open public meetings and dialogue, as Paul instructed the Corinthians.

This sketch is almost a political “platform,” and hardly separatist. But for Christians with typical approaches to politics, Yoder’s call for the church to be where God’s vision for society is first implemented and practiced is an enormous stumbling block. It is yet another irony that realists are so often closet quietists: they see the only choice as being between transforming society and letting it go its own way. Yoder, however, asks us to obey Christ even if no one else is interested – although he trusts that the Kingdom will advance if the word of God is faithfully witnessed and embodied amid the powers and principalities of the world.

12. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are the same.

You can read the full piece here.

14 thoughts on “Writing off Yoder

  1. Thanks Jason. I am yet to be convinced that Yoder’s pacifism is not irresponsible. I have seen his theological position further expanded to include the police, as mere ‘agents’ of state power. This state power, is said to be wrong. Mennonites (and thus Christians who really know what s what!) should not join the police. I cannot buy it. His is a thinking, which, to my understanding, when fully outworked, is highly dangerous.

    The capacity of humanity for evil, and the God-given requirement for loving another, shepherding humanity, and caring that people may live, is to me a legitimate creational constraint, consistent with subduing the earth, as commanded in Genesis 1. It is inescapable.

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  2. Thanks for posting this Jason. Although it seems that trying to take Yoder to task is nothing new (especially along the lines of the worn-out arguments on the dangers of pacifism we see in Trevor’s comment), there does seem to be a resurgence in critiques of both he and Hauerwas. Thus Leithart’s book seems timely (though, it’s not his first to take Yoder on), in that what was once a growing movement writing in appreciation and application of Yoder and his work — both in and out of theological circles — is now shifting to more an more critical appraisals (sometimes by the same people who so revered him). Perhaps the need to produce original research makes this kind of waxing and waning inevitable in academic study. Nonetheless, this post was a helpful reminder that Yoder is probably not someone we can easily pigeon hole and ignore.

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  3. Thanks for this Jason. Here’s my problem with Yoder’s pacifism: not that it is “irresponsible” (an accusation which is little more than a kind of theological posturing that serves only to obfuscate the issues at hand), but rather that it shares one of the chief presuppositions of Niebuhr’s “Christian realism”, namely that violence is, in itself, an evil. It is this refusal to allow that under certain conditions the use of violence might be a work of charity (such that to fail to use violence under these conditions is a failure of love) that sets Yoder’s pacifism against an Augustinian-Thomist tradition (think here, of course, Jeremy Irons in The Mission; and conversely, the idiot priest who refuses to fight). The Christian tradition here bears an affinity with radical politics rather than the liberal tradition (which is closer to Niebuhr’s ‘violence is bad, but sometimes we must use it’). The reasons why Augustinian-Thomists and Marxists reject Yoder’s pacifism have a formal similarity, which is, I think, quite interesting. Put another way, Yoderist are not only rejecting Niebuhr (to whose “Christian realism” they bear an undeclared affinity), they are also rejecting a radical political tradition, as well as, of course, mainstream Christian tradition (both western and, for slightly different reasons, eastern).

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  4. Andre, this is a good point and a serious argument to reckoned with for those, like myself, who are still persuaded to see our role as disciples fundamentally shaped by kenotic non-violence. Herbert McCabe wrote a short piece on that deals with this, which caused me a great deal of discomfort, “Christian and the Class Struggle.” Also, Dan Oudshoorn’s recent posts on this have been very challenging: http://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/the-new-testament-and-violence-part-two-the-nonviolence-of-paul/

    It is intriguing that you link the use of violence to love and the radical tradition of Christianity. Which is odd, for Yoderians likely consider their non-violence to be inherently radical and subversive.

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  5. Andre, a couple of the essays in the recent book The Gift of Difference, a collection of essays by Anabaptist and Anabaptist-influenced scholars engaging Radical Orthodoxy in general (and often the work of John Milbank in particular) raise that very issue. The first three essays are especially relevant. The second essay in the book, “Milbank and Violence: Against a Derridean Pacifism” by Kevin Derksen, raises the important matter that categories of “peace” and “violence” are not stable, easily identifiable realities but always contextual and in seeking to be peaceful one must always consider the possibility that what appears to be violent, even according to dictionary definitions, may in fact be more peaceful than alternatives. He doesn’t take the step of using this analysis to justify killing or participating in state violence (quite the contrary), but as a critique of the idea, prevalent in many Anabaptist circles, that “peace” is something that we can recognize prior to theology that can serve as an ontological ground for action and inquiry. It’s well worth reading.

    Peace,
    Jason

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  6. As a relative newcomer to Yoder this is a very helpful post. It fits with my reading of Yoder, I was however largely unaware of the kinds of criticisms made of his positions. Many thanks.

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  7. Thanks for the literature Christian and Jason, which looks really interesting.
    I thought I might venture a serious criticism of the position I would want to argue for, which is that it is enormously difficult to gain purchase on its contemporary relevance. It’s one thing to say that under certain conditions the use of armed force might be a work of charity (such that to not use it is to fail in charity); but it is hard to envisage those conditions being met now. As far as I can tell, they can’t be met by the modern state, because the modern state is not a just society (in the Augustinian-Thomist sense… i.e., a society ordered by the Christian notion of caritas). This problem is related to an even more pressing one, which is that the just war tradition has ceased to act as an articulation of a public grammar and has become a matter of conscience, a kind of individual calculation (‘should I support this war, or not?’), which, of course, is precisely what a tradition that is structured by a concept of the just society, is not. How to talk the language of Christian princes and rulers in an age of the post-Christian state? This, I think, is how David Bentley Hart poses the problem. It is, I think, a deeply serious problem (and one that some recent attempts at explicating the just war tradition (e.g., O’Donovan’s little book) do not take as seriously as they should… is it really enough to point to international tribunes etc.?) Here I would make two suggestions. First, the problem is not unique to the just war tradition, but one facing any putatively “public” theology. I just don’t think the idea that Christians can rest content with “making their contribution” to public discourse and life without calling into question the structure of the public discourse and life to which they are contributing, is viable. To not do the latter is to fail to see that Christians have a particular conception of the just society that is invested with distinctively theological notions of justice and charity. But to challenge the structure of public life is to call into question the very game that one is playing. The second suggestion is that we may be at a cultural moment when these notions can only be held by individual believers, and if this is so, what is needed is something like what Hart calls chivalry. A public grammar that is lived out, even reconstituted, at the level of an individual life, in the hope that its “publicness” might one day become evident in a new form, while knowing that in the present it must strike the world as nothing more than a matter of private judgment or conscience.

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  8. Isn’t this publicness precisely what paul is talking about when he talks of ‘foolishness to the greeks’. If we take the ‘power of the cross seriously’ our public contribution can appear little other than ‘foolishness’ to principalities and powers who establish the framework of plausibility for the ‘public’.

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  9. Thanks for the excellent post, Jason. I stumbled across it while looking for a photo of Yoder to stick on a little “journey to Yoder” post I was putting together, and found myself reading quickly but appreciatively through your points.

    I’m also interested to see that you’re in NZ. I’ve had a few interactions with Chris Marshall up at Victoria U. of Wellington, who’s been influenced not only by Anabaptism but also Howard Zehr, a Mennonite and the “grandfather” of a movement called restorative justice. I’m currently studying both at a Mennonite university in the States.

    Thanks again, and grace and peace to you in your ministry!

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  10. Thanks for this review. One thing I can say with certainty about Yoder’s writing: there is no other author, writing as a follower of Jesus, who has influenced the way I engage in local “advocacy” within a faith community the way Yoder has. His “The Christian Witness to the State” is a call–not to relevance–but to faithful presence (see Hunter’s “The Change the World”). Yoder does not talk about the work of the Holy Spirit a great deal but it is clear from where he expected “change” to come–from God’s work in the world through the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Excellent post and one I will hold onto.

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