The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder:

& Yoder.

Legal and Religious Considerations


J. Glenn Friesen[1]

[Note from Mark Thiessen Nation: The following essay is not the way I would frame these issues. For that see my previous blog posts. But I believe Dr. Friesen has gone through the facts in a very careful way that is clarifying. I believe his essay, framed by an attorney, adds much to the current discussions that are underway.]


During my graduate studies in philosophy, I considered studying with John Howard Yoder. I tentatively booked an exploratory session at the seminary in early 1976. I cancelled it. Instead, preferring the ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to The Politics of Jesus, I became a lawyer. Later, I completed a doctorate in religious studies. I continue to read Yoder’s works, particularly his later work on The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, which I like to read in conjunction and in contrast with Jewish authors like Alan F. Segal or Daniel Boyarin.[2] Although I have a Mennonite heritage, I am not a member of any Mennonite church.

From this perspective, I have some comments concerning the discipline of Yoder by the Prairie Street Mennonite Church (Elkhart, Indiana) and by the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church. I anticipate that some readers will not appreciate my conclusion that Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. Nor was it sexual assault. And it is anachronistic to call it sexual harassment. Others will not be happy with my conclusion that the church discipline process was itself unjust. I would ask these people to read the entire article, including the parts relating to my family history, as well as my positive comments on some ideas of feminist theologians. (more…)

Sectarian Compassion

& Uncategorized.

As is obvious, I am not a blogger who comments regularly on happenings in the world. And I have been hesitant to break that pattern. The central reason is that a very occasional comment might give the wrong impression: as if I just care about the occasional isolated topic on which I focus. Anyone who really knew me would know otherwise. But I find myself simply too busy with the many tasks related to teaching a full load at Eastern Mennonite Seminary to comment often. But it is the case that my interests vary quite widely—even if I will comment only occasionally and thus on randomly selected topics.

I simply couldn’t pass this up. I am a regular listener to NPR (and when I am not sleeping well in the middle of the night, the BBC). I have been aware for some time that the bright and talented writers and commentators on NPR seem almost tone deaf to orthodox Christianity. Christianity is most often simply absent. When some comment is made about Christianity it is more often than not rooted in relative ignorance of the rich wealth of varied Christian traditions (or particular ones, for that matter). Or when they have a Christian on NPR, again more often than not, it is someone who is quite cynical or critical in regard to orthodox Christianity. (And I mean to refer to what I would call a generous orthodoxy. I mean nothing especially narrow by my reference.)

Anyway, it was on NPR that I heard yesterday (or the day before) about some anonymous individuals leaving large tips (sometimes $1000 or $5000 or more) for waiting staff at restaurants, anonymously. It was mentioned in the brief story that some of these tips come from an organization called “tips for Jesus.” The commentator felt compelled to add the editorial comment: “of course this is not about religion, it is simply about kindness.” (Or words to that effect. I didn’t write them down.)

On the other hand, of course, within the last week (and often) “religion” was to blame when NPR was discussing “sectarian” violence. And it was Christianity (and Western colonialism) that was being blamed for animating anti-gay laws in several African countries as I listened to an interview on the BBC last night. (Although, honesty compels me to add that the BBC interviewer kept pressing the gay Kenyan being interviewed to be honest about the fact that traditional African cultures had also opposed gay and lesbian sex, long before Pentecostals or Anglicans imported Christian views. Both seemed to miss the irony that the “universal” human rights language they were using was also, basically, a Western import.)

After I went to the trouble to read a couple of articles about “tips for Jesus,” I noticed that this anonymous donor added: “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.”  Another anonymous donor said, “God sent me here to help you.” Why were these statements not quoted on NPR? Why does this not lead at least some commentator on NPR to discuss “sectarian” compassion or generosity?  For after all, there is a good chance that some of these anonymous givers are members of particular churches, i.e. “sectarian” (distinct religious/Christian) groups.

George Steiner, influential literary and cultural critic said: “Even if we cannot believe that God is dead, it is clear that something has died. And that is the capacity of most of us for conducting our daily lives as if He were about, as if His existence and His interest in our affairs were fairly probable. This incapacity may have already had drastic consequences. It may be an honest explanation of the barbarism and confusion that attack our politics, and it may help to account for the turbulence in the private climate of the age.” (“God’s Acres,” The New Yorker, October 30, 1978, quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 3)

Perhaps many of us—including Christians—have trouble having a living faith in a living God because our “world” too often is defined—narrated—by those who are tone deaf to the Christian story. We need to reflect critically on what that means for how we live our lives. Perhaps we should live with the question: Who Gets to Narrate Our World?



Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Going to the Source of the Myth

& Bonhoeffer.

Questioning Eberhard Bethge on Bonhoeffer & the Conspiracy

“I do not know of any reputable scholar or reader of Bonhoeffer who believes that he personally was involved in the attempts on Hitler’s life.” This is a statement I received by e-mail within the last year from a quite respected senior Bonhoeffer scholar. If he is right, I thought, then why do very many theologians, Scripture scholars and ethicists that I know think otherwise? (This would have included John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and my doctoral supervisor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.)

I believe there are two central reasons. First, very many (mostly academic) books and essays on Bonhoeffer vaguely allude to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” or “participation” in attempts on Hitler’s life, without specifying what this vague reference means. Second, and more significantly, I’ve come to believe that Eberhard Bethge is at the root of the myth that Bonhoeffer was both personally involved and changed his theological ethic from what was named in Discipleship, if not to justify his “involvement” at least to make it intelligible.

I am aware as I write this that it probably seems arrogant for me to question Eberhard Bethge’s interpretation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his relationship to the conspiracy. For Bethge is the authority on Bonhoeffer. After all, during Bonhoeffer’s short life Bethge was one of Bonhoeffer’s two best friends. He knew him; he was often with him; Bonhoeffer confided in him. Additionally, Bethge devoted much of his life to keeping alive the legacy of his good friend. All of us who study Bonhoeffer owe Bethge a huge debt. There is no question about that. However, having affirmed that he is clearly an irreplaceable authority on Bonhoeffer does not mean that Bethge’s interpretations of him are beyond critical examination. In fact, I imagine that critiques of Bethge’s reading of Bonhoeffer will multiply now that many more scholars have access to sixteen volumes of Bonhoeffer’s published and unpublished writings.

I first read Bethge’s massive biography of Bonhoeffer in 1980, outlining the whole book to use it in my Master’s thesis on Christians in Nazi Germany. Between then and now, I have taken two courses on Bonhoeffer. In essays published in 1991 and 1999, I explored Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. However, it was only much more recently, after doing substantial research on the attempts on Hitler’s life as they relate to Bonhoeffer’s biography, reading Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance, and carefully reading through most of the volumes of the collected works that I have had a greater sense of clarity both regarding the consistency of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic and his life reflecting these commitments.

As I have become clearer I have also grown in my sense that Bethge is likely the reason why so many believe that Bonhoeffer was personally involved in efforts to kill Hitler (and that his moral theology shifted accordingly). How is that the case? (more…)

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Response to Roger Olson’s Critical Review

& Bonhoeffer.

I knew when I began writing Bonhoeffer the Assassin? that there would be many who would not want to accept our argument. Well, the first negative review has arrived; it’s by Roger Olson. Below is my response to his review, also placed on his blog.

Let me offer a response to Roger Olson. I will begin with a quote, a quote that seems to represent the heart of his critical reflections. “If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty.”

Olson’s critique depends mostly on his response to our critique of what is remembered from  informal, oral conversations (“Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others”). I will comment on this later. But first let me name what Olson has basically ignored.

We have argued that Bonhoeffer underwent a theological and spiritual transformation between 1929 and 1932 that changed his approach to Christian ethics. In February of 1929 we see Bonhoeffer saying in a lecture that love of his own people will sanctify war, will sanctify murder. He also says in this lecture that the Sermon on the Mount is not to instruct us in how to live in the present. By 1932 he is saying the opposite in lectures he presents. He is telling Christians they should live by the Sermon on the Mount and that this includes not killing in war. What happened in between?  In 1930 he finished his habilitation thesis, Act and Being in which he argues for the centrality of Jesus Christ in understanding Christian ethics. In 1930-31 he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there he was deeply influenced by Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor and pacifist, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and to embrace pacifism. Bonhoeffer was also deeply formed by his months of serious participation in the life of the African American congregation, Abyssinian Baptist Church. In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Zinn, in January 1936, he says that sometime before 1933 he came to see “pacifism as self-evident,” which he had previously argued against passionately. (This sentence is left out from this quote, pp. 123-4, in the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxis of Bonhoeffer—indicating the lengths some will go to to establish that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist.) The views that he here referred to as pacifism are expressed in numerous passionate lectures and given careful articulation in his 1937 book, Discipleship, based on lectures he taught to his students at the Finkenwalde seminary. Questions that beg to be asked are: did Bonhoeffer return to the convictions he held in 1929?  Did he reverse his understanding of the centrality of Jesus for understanding ethics? Or somehow re-formulate this centrality so that it caused him to abandon his views on peace? The textual evidence suggests he did not. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book (and I in a separate essay published this past summer in Perpectives in Religious Studies) that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. Moreover, he specifically affirms the book, Discipleship, in prison in the summer of 1944.

And what do we see in Bonhoeffer’s life that is consistent with this affirmation of what he on occasion referred to as pacifism? (more…)

On Contexualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder

& Yoder.

Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn

 [Note: I write the following after having written two previous blog posts, in the first of which, among other things, I affirmed the statement formulated by the faculty of AMBS. Thus the following reflections should be understood in light of my earlier posts.  I should perhaps add that I have written two earlier biographical sketches of Yoder.[1] Those sketches were mostly intended as an outline of his Mennonite background and academic life. What appears below is more about Yoder’s personal life, attempting to capture who he was as a person rather than focusing on his academic lifeknowing that these cannot finally be separated. Marva Dawn has graciously agreed to be co-author of this essay. Marva, who is a prolific author, was both John Yoder’s doctoral student and his teaching assistant. Mostly this essay has been written by Mark; the personal pronouns are his. However, Marva has read the essay, corrected some grammar, added a couple of paragraphs and has affirmed that the essay is “descriptive of the John I knew.”]

My initial reading of the articles in The Elkhart Truth—especially the descriptions of Yoder’s behaviors that were harassing, abusive and terrorizing of these women—left me with a pain in the pit of my stomach. In fact I was reminded of the feeling I sometimes had when I was a child protective services social worker, when I would, for the first time, grasp the pain and suffering experienced by a child who had been abused by a parent. Or when, on other occasions, I would note that not only was a child the victim of an abusive father but so also was the wife a victim of abuse by the same man. I was a young man when I was a social worker, with only the first steps in experience of children of my own. But along with training, I had life experience. I could empathize with those who were abused because I had lived with an abusive stepfather for more than two years myself. I knew what domestic violence and terrorizing felt like.

I am sure it was partly because of my own experiences—and my close identification with my mother—that made it easier in my job to enter into these domestic situations and provide help for those who were abused and neglected. In the midst of this painful and complex work I learned much. Among many other things, I learned that abusive and neglectful parents (and spouses) vary tremendously. Some seem rather thoroughly horrible (apparently immune to change), some are repentant almost immediately when confronted by their behaviors and successfully make vital changes—and then there is a spectrum between these two extremes.

But however behaviors express who someone really is, if they are experienced as harassing, abusive, violent and terrorizing, then they must be stopped. Having accomplished that goal, the task lies ahead as to how to prevent the behaviors in the future, care for those injured to bring healing and wholeness, as well as work to understand the perpetrators to discern who they are and what caused them to engage in such behaviors.

As I reflect on the series of articles in The Elkhart Truth, I have several immediate responses. First, I am very saddened that Yoder was not stopped much more quickly from engaging in sexually immoral, abusive and harassing behaviors. Second, I am disheartened that the pain and suffering of the women involved was not given adequate attention at various stages in the process when authorities in the Mennonite Church and institutions became aware of what had been done to these women. Third, I am grateful that Yoder was finally convinced to submit to a discipline process in 1992 and that, so far as I know, he discontinued all of his extra-marital intimate relationships (including the abusive and harassing behaviors) from that point forward. Fourth, I understand why many believe we are not yet finished with what we have to learn from these years in which Yoder engaged in these behaviors without having been stopped by the Mennonite community or by its institutions. And fifth, I wondered how these behaviors fit with who Yoder was across his life in various contexts and varied relationships?

So, what I have just named is my own way of stating what is already apparent in many recent discussions regarding Yoder: namely, his failure in relation to destructive sexual behaviors. (And I have alluded to the failure of institutions in relation to his failures as well—though it should be said that there were valiant efforts on the part of some. As one who teaches historical courses, I need to add that we should not, anachronistically, expect the world of, say, 1973 to be the world of 2013.)

However, what has not usually been emphasized is that there is a second failure on  Yoder’s part that should also be highlighted. Yoder failed by the light of his own theological commitments.  In saying this I don’t mostly mean what is perhaps obvious: namely that his violating women flies in the face of his commitment to nonviolence. That is certainly true. And it’s important to discuss that. But, even if he was unable to see that, he taught many of us to recognize the need for accountability in the Christian community. And Yoder failed miserably in this regard. Yoder was told clearly and repeatedly—by colleagues and administrators at his seminary, Mennonite church members and church leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues in the academy—that he was profoundly wrong. And yet he did not listen. He ignored the counsel from trusted friends, including those who thought they had learned much of their theology from him. This was a major failure on Yoder’s part in relation to his own theological commitments.

In many previous writings I have offered my interpretations of and reflections on Yoder’s theology. In what follows I will attempt to contextualize Yoder’s sexual misconduct in a brief narrative of his life, attempting to live with the question: how do the harassing and abusive behaviors he engaged in between 1970 and 1992 fit with who he seemed to be across the span of his life, with special emphasis on his relationships with women? (more…)

John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Misconduct: Why Do I Care? Why Do I Write?

& Yoder.

Sometime in the early to mid-1970s Mark Hatfield, longtime U. S. Senator from Oregon, took a two-week retreat in the mountains of Oregon. During this important time away he read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. According to Richard Mouw, he returned from this retreat a convert to an Anabaptist perspective on how to be a Baptist Christian and a Senator.  From this point forward this affected how he conducted himself as a member of the U.S. Senate. (See Hatfield’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.) “The one way in which he manifested that every year was that whenever the Senate voted on the military budget, he would stand up and he would make the same speech every year for about five years in a row. The speech was this, ‘The Bible says, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’ I vote against this whole budget.’”[1]

Last summer when I taught my course on “Biblical Foundations for Justice and Peacemaking,” one of my students was a man from northern Nigeria. This man has a ministry working for reconciliation among Muslims and Christians. He also offers training in discipleship to Muslims who have become Christians. He works in a situation where Christians not infrequently experience violence at the hands of Muslims. He himself carries the marks of torture. Early in our time together, I gave this student a copy of Mirror to the Church, a book by Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. This is an extraordinary book that examines the slaughter that happened in Rwanda in 1994, but also uses that situation to provoke probing questions for how we in Christian communities across the globe understand our lives in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Do we live our lives in such a way that reflects the embodiment of love of neighbors and love of enemies to which our Lord calls us? Even in ways that are difficult and costly?

Emmanuel Katongole, who now teaches theology and peace studies at The University of Notre Dame, wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosophical dimensions of the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley Hauerwas was converted to pacifism through the theology of John Howard Yoder. The Nigerian student in my class this summer stayed up until 4:30 in the morning during the week of my course reading Mirror to the Church. Captivated, my student’s commitment to nonviolence was solidified by this challenging book—knowing this called for costly discipleship in the world to which he would shortly return.

These two anecdotes could be multiplied many times over. Over the last thirty years I have heard thousands of stories of how Christians have had their minds—and even their lives—changed by the writings of John Howard Yoder. Typically this transformation has included a conversion to the nonviolent implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ or a deepening of such convictions.

I came to care about the man, John Yoder. I care about his widow, Annie. But the central passion that animates my writings about Yoder is not really about Yoder, it is about the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in relation to Yoder’s writings it is mostly about his way of articulating Anabaptist convictions—including a call for Christians to be nonviolent—in such a powerful way.

I am writing about John Howard Yoder and his moral failings in relation to sexual behaviors  because I hear questions being posed about whether or not we should continue reading him. I am sure we should. (I am also firmly committed to honesty. Therefore, we also have to try to deal honestly with his behaviors and the effects they have had on others.) I have written about this very briefly in my immediately previous blog post. I will soon be posting a much longer essay.

[1] See: “Learning from Kuyper, Following Jesus: A Conversation with Richard Mouw,” Comment Magazine, September 13, 2013, accessed online, September 19, 2013.

What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct?

& Yoder.

The following is the paragraph I wrote almost two years ago for GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) in my brief biographical sketch of John Yoder: In 1991 formal complaints of sexual misconduct were brought against Yoder by eight women.  A task force was appointed by Yoder’s home congregation.  Following a year of investigating the allegations the task force concluded that “the charges brought by the women are accurate, and John has violated sexual boundaries.”  Moreover, said the official press release, Yoder “has acknowledged the truth of the charges and has expressed deep regret for the hurt his actions have caused for the women.”  Therefore on June 27, 1992 the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church began a process of formally disciplining Yoder.  Yoder submitted to this process, which would last a little over four years.  As a part of the process, Yoder acted to cut off any ongoing relationships that were deemed inappropriate and agreed not to pursue any new ones.  He also agreed to undergo therapy “to work thoroughly with the issues involved.”  In the summer of 1996 the discipline process concluded successfully, with the Church Life Commission and the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference saying that they encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.”  The semester before he died he once again taught a course at Associated [now Anabaptist] Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

I have decided, in the midst of the recent flurry of discussion of Yoder’s sexual misconduct, to say a little more than that. Though only a little more.  Mostly I want to say I affirm the statement made by the faculty at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, my alma mater, where I went more than thirty years ago, largely to study with Yoder. I think it is a carefully worded statement that is quite appropriate. (more…)

Do You Know Who You Are? (a sermon)

& The Politics of Jesus.

Do You Know Who You Are?


“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”

1 Kings 21.1-10, 15-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Luke 7.36-50; Galatians 2.15-21 (6/16/’13)

 The following is a sermon I preached at the Early Church, a Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA, where I am one of the elders and on the preaching rotation. The sermon is one of my many attempts to connect Jesus and Paul, grace and discipleship–so that we don’t imagine that either is to be disconnected from the other.

I. The story of the centurion’s brother and his wife (backstory of Lk.7.36-50)

Those of you who know the Gospel of Luke may remember the story that opens chapter 7.  It is a remarkable story about Jesus healing the slave of a Roman centurion, a slave, who, the text tells us, “was near death.” We are told that this Roman officer loved the Jewish people, that he had built the local synagogue. Jesus was so impressed with this man’s trust in him that he said: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (7.9)

What if we knew the backstory of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet at the end of chapter 7?

Let’s suppose:

The story is told that this centurion had a brother who was much less admirable.  He too was a Roman centurion. He was stationed only a short journey to the south, in the territory of Northern Samaria. Unlike his brother, however, he used his power for his own gain. Because of his lust for wealth and unquenchable thirst for power, he had often stolen people’s property or killed those who stood in the way of his apparently limitless ambitions. His wife—who reveled in the pleasures of their luxurious lifestyle—passively and sometimes actively colluded in her husband’s abuse of his role as a Roman officer. Many Jews saw this couple as latter-day incarnations of Ahab and Jezebel. That is to say, the abuses of this wife and her husband did not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities.  They came to be hated.  In fact, one of the violent Zealots of lower Galilee assassinated this man, making his wife a widow. Because she and her husband were so despised, she was quickly reduced to poverty. And before long, in desperation, she became a prostitute. [PAUSE]  Someone has suggested that it may have been this woman who appears in the story at the end of the chapter, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, a woman whose sins “were many,” so Jesus informs us. (7.47) (more…)

The Heterodox Yoder?

& Uncategorized.

The Heterodox Yoder.  By Paul Martens.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. Pp. 166. $20.

Let me say at the outset that I think this book is wrong in its central argument, profoundly wrong.  However, I also think it is instructive, perhaps importantly instructive in a couple of ways.  So, what is its central argument?

As indicated by the title, Martens’ central claim is not subtle.  It is intended to provoke. However, it is also intended to be precise. “To be as clear as possible at this point,” says Martens early in the book, “I argue that Yoder’s distillation amounts to a complex narration of the early Christian church in primarily ethical terms.  Thus, his narration provides an account of the early church’s particularity (a particularity that eventually earns the title of the politics of Jesus), but, as Yoder’s corpus progresses, his narration of the early church’s particularity eventually—and perhaps unwittingly—advocates an ethical or political particularity that becomes so ‘distilled’ that the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a for a form of secular sociology (at worst). This, in my judgment, is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 3-4)

Thus what Martens is arguing is that Yoder’s “theology” is finally reducible to ethics or politics.  Martens unfolds his argument in five chapters, roughly in chronological order.  The first chapter sets up Martens’ interpretive schema.  Engaging various texts in chapters two and three, Martens explores the way Yoder discusses discipleship and church in a way that culminates in “the prioritization of politics,” as announced in the title of chapter three.  The following two chapters attempt to establish—through a discussion of Yoder’s work on Jewish-Christian engagement and ecumenism—that in fact his work following The Politics of Jesus most clearly displays the way in which “the prioritization of politics” or social ethics has become centrally defining for Yoder.  Though Martens believes he has shown that this was always Yoder’s tendency, it has become particularly obvious by the late 1970s to the end of Yoder’s life in 1997 that his ethic is not a “particularly-Christian ethic,” but rather a universalizable ethic for everyone.

Martens’ claim about Yoder reducing theology to ethics is not unique.  What is unique is the scope of the argument and the specific way he makes it.

I’ve come to believe that one of Martens’central methodological moves is misleading.  In his opening chapter he implies that it is only because of privileging a certain inner canon of Yoder writings that some of us can claim Yoder is deeply theological.  We have excluded other writings that would challenge our claims.  This is deceptive in at least two ways.  First, serious Yoder scholars do not exclude any of Yoder’s writings.  However, we do respect the fact that Yoder himself intended some of his writings to be more centrally defining than others. But second, and more significantly, Martens is in fact implying through his use of the image of “the prioritization of politics” that Yoder’s best-known work, The Politics of Jesus is quite properly seen as central.  Because really, according to Martens, this book has announced Yoder’s agenda.  However, having suggested that some of us ignore certain important writings by Yoder, Martens can then claim to have given a more honest portrayal of Yoder’s true theological colors.  And then one of his tasks must be to engage in misdirection so that we forget, e.g., that Yoder said in The Politics of Jesus that his convictions stated there were “more radically Nicene and Chalcedonian than other views.”  That he in fact was affirming “what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man” and that Yoder’s effort is simply to show that such claims should “be taken more seriously” when it comes to embodying social ethics.

Only those with extensive knowledge of Yoder’s overall corpus can engage Martens’ detailed argument.  Truly to refute his central claims requires a contextualizing of the many quotations from Yoder’s writings over his career that Martens provides, as well as alternative contextualized quotes that would challenge his claims.  I cannot offer such detailed rebuttal here. But, let me provide a small sample. Martens claims that one can see the “primacy of the ethical . . . especially as we turn to Yoder’s articulation of community.”  However, I would suggest that it is particularly Yoder’s view of the Christian community that shows Yoder’s consistency in not reducing theology to ethics over his whole career, which is in fact precisely why many non-Mennonite critics have seen him as sectarian.

In his 1954 essay, “The Anabaptist Dissent” Yoder was arguing against the dominant view regarding “responsibility” joined to an understanding of justification by grace through faith as merely forensic.  In that context Yoder suggested that we ought not to be “optimistic about either the world’s or the Christian’s goodness.”  However, in Christ Christians know “empowering grace,” so that “we may walk in newness of life.”  This is what sets the church apart, claimed Yoder.  He affirmed this again in his provocative 1960 essay, “The Otherness of the Church,” which he reaffirmed in 1994 by including it in the collection, The Royal Priesthood.  Among other things, here Yoder says, “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.  The short-circuited means used to ‘Christianize’ ‘responsibly’ the world in some easier way than by the gospel have had the effect of dechristianizing the Occident and demonizing paganism.”  In his book Nevertheless, in both the 1970s and the revision in the 1990s, Yoder distinguished his own understanding of pacifism from the many others described in the book. There he says: “To say that this is the pacifism of the messianic community is to affirm its dependence upon the confession that Jesus is Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  “Therefore,” says Yoder, “in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement.”  In critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr, Constantinianism and H. Richard Niebuhr from the 1950s to the 1990s Yoder would argue that each of these problematic approaches had a distorted view of the church community that denied empowering grace, the power of the Holy Spirit and the regeneration made possible in Christ.

Though I believe Martens is wrong in his central claim, nonetheless there are two reasons why I see the book as helpfully instructive.  First, it helped me to see more clearly the strands within Yoder’s writings that have led some mistakenly to claim that Yoder didn’t believe that true theological convictions mattered that much.  That is to say, he believed that strictly theological matters regarding God, church, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. are really not that important, except as means to an end; thus they are dispensable means to an end.  Because the true end, really, of Yoder’s central project is a full embracing of progressive politics and peacemaking—in an effort to transform the world over into a religious image of “Democracy Now” (the most progressive political program on NPR).

Second, I have come to agree with Martens that his book is a cautionary tale.  Even more than Martens, James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, in the midst of a caricaturing portrayal of Yoder and Hauerwas, has nonetheless helped me to see how the “politicization” language of neo-Anabaptism can easily become theologically reductionistic.  I have come to believe—especially with influential writers like Yoder—it is not enough merely to signal reminders of what we should believe (e.g. orthodox beliefs about Jesus and the trinity).  We must continually offer theologically rich accounts of discipleship, social ethics and “politics.”  Similarly, Yoder should have listened more carefully to the cautions of his teacher, Karl Barth, about apologetics.  Yoder knew—especially after the popularity of The Politics of Jesus—that many dismissed him for being sectarian.  Perhaps he worked too hard, or without enough theological carefulness, to demonstrate he was not sectarian.  And thus some of his very language for doing apologetics to convince the cultured despisers could be turned against him.

Sometimes it is helpfully clarifying to have a faulty argument that names important issues, such that it elicits careful, thoughtful critiques.  For this book clarifies the elements of Yoder that have been distortingly drawn upon to make arguments that don’t truly fit Yoder’s central project.  Thus I am hopeful that the more thoughtful critiques of Martens’ book will bring some clarity to some false ways of appropriating Yoder.  (In relation to Martens’ basic argument as presented in earlier essays, I attempted to do this in an essay published last fall: “The ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ Yoder,” The Conrad Grebel Review (Fall 2011): 73-87.  Already, a quite helpful, 38-page review of Martens’ book has been written by Branson Parlor as an e-booklet, The Forest and the Trees [PDF], followed by an exchange between Martens and Parler in the online book review, The Englewood Review of Books.  Branson Parler’s new book, Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture will also indirectly challenge Martens’ argument.)

A closing thought.  Karl Barth says: “Our contention is, however, that the dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the Christian doctrine of God, is ethics.” (CD II/2, 515) Perhaps if we can simply convince those deceptive Barth scholars to quit privileging the Church Dogmatics we could establish that Barth really reduced theology to ethics. It’s just a thought.

(I wrote this a couple of months ago. It will be published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. When it is published–or when I know it is close to publication–I will remove most of it from here.)