Stanley Hauerwas is the most famous convert to pacifism John Howard Yoder ever made. Hauerwas tells the story of how he discovered Yoder in a bookstore at Yale. There in the late 1960s he found a mimeographed copy of Yoder’s 1957 essay on Barth that became the 1970 book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War. He was immediately taken with Yoder’s sophisticated analysis, but resisted some of the implications. When Hauerwas joined the Notre Dame faculty a few years later he sought out Yoder, met with him and took away a stack of unpublished writings and was on his way to having his theology and life transformed. The stack included writings that became The Politics of Jesus.
In the first edition of the first volume of his systematic theology, Ethics, Jim McClendon, my doctoral supervisor, says: “Nineteen seventy-four, I believe, was the year I read John Yoder’s Politics of Jesus.” This is his way of signaling that Yoder also transformed his theology, culminating in the way he approached the task of writing a systematic theology.
My own story is that I became a pacifist within a year of becoming a Christian in a General Baptist church. I registered as a conscientious objector in 1971. Something like five years later I read The Politics of Jesus, followed within the next couple of years by three other books by Yoder. As I see it Yoder helped me to begin to integrate my theology with my ethics. Having become conscious of, and actively engaged in, issues related to peace and social justice, it was through my reading of Yoder (along with a growing list of authors) that I was helped in integrating my convictions with my life in the church—and discerning how that life related to my witness in the world. As I see it now, Yoder set me on a theological path that I have been on consistently since the mid-1970s. In other words, I was becoming an Anabaptist (and many years later, a Mennonite).
That beginning part of my journey—in the Christian faith and a little later with Yoder’s writings—was a long time ago. I would later study with Yoder, read most of his writings—the most central ones many times—and become a friend of his. I decided to write my doctoral thesis on him, which was published as a book. I have edited or co-edited several of his books. And I have now written more than a dozen essays, and about as many reviews, directly related to Yoder’s work.
I’ve been aware for some time that the stories of Hauerwas, McClendon and my own are hardly isolated cases. Yoder has been of similar importance to many. And in fact, in recent years, his influence has only increased. I am incredibly grateful personally for this. I’ve also seen it as a part of my vocation for some time now to perpetuate the influence of Yoder (and Hauerwas, which is a story for later). Since I attempt (mostly) to keep up on the vast secondary literature on Yoder’s writings, I am keenly aware of various readings and appropriations of Yoder. In fact within the last decade or so it has been interesting to watch the varied—and competing—streams emanating from Yoder’s writings. In the midst of this cacophony of readings of Yoder, I have seen it as a responsibility to honor Yoder by keeping alive what I believe are the core—crucial and revolutionary—insights of his. This sometimes requires offering critiques as well as pointing readers to very helpful writings. This is the reason for this post.
I want to alert interested readers to three important books on Yoder. The first one is in a different category from the other two. The first one is The Heterodox Yoder by Paul Martens (Cascade Books, 2012). Let me say that I am good friends with Paul. I have heard him give several lectures that moved toward the writing of this book. He and I have had vigorous arguments around the basic thrust of the book (as conveyed through the earlier lectures and essays). As it happens, Paul and I share some similar central theological passions. As of a few weeks ago I read his book. It confirmed my earlier sense that his interpretation of certain strands of Yoder’s thought is profoundly wrong—and in fact seriously distorting in ways both of us think matter. If that’s true, then why do I think the book important? For I wouldn’t attach that word to a number of other books I consider wrong.
There are two reasons why I see the book as (at least potentially) important. First, it is because it helped me to see more clearly the strands within Yoder’s writings that have led some to mistakenly understand Yoder as a “social gospeller.” Or to put it differently, these misinterpreters imagine that Yoder didn’t believe that true theological convictions mattered that much. That is to say, he believed that strictly theological matters like 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). Perhaps I am (at least) on the edge of caricature. But at least something similar to what I’ve said seems implied by more than a few who have seen themselves to be deeply influenced by Yoder. Which leads me to my second reason why this book is potentially important.
Sometimes it is helpfully clarifying to have a bad 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. (I put it that way because Yoder was quite ecumenical. So, just as he would attempt to help just war theorists think more clearly to be better in their use of this approach that he thought was fundamentally flawed, so he would also help clarify the logic of arguments for peace even when he thought the theology that funded such approaches was significantly wrong. [See Yoder’s book, Nevertheless for this latter.]) Thus I am hopeful that the more thoughtful critiques of Martens’ book will bring some clarity to some false ways of appropriating Yoder related to Martens’ book. 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.) I will be writing a review of the book for The Mennonite Quarterly Review later this year. And already, a really wonderful, lengthy review of Martens’ book has been written by Branson Parler and is available both in html and pdf versions, which brings me to the other books I want to mention.
Branson Parler and John Nugent are two young Yoder scholars to which to pay careful attention. Both of them wrote doctoral theses on Yoder at Calvin Seminary! And on subjects—Christ and culture and the Old Testament—that are not only quite important to Reformed folk, but subjects that have historically separated Reformed and Anabaptist streams of thought rather decisively. It takes guts and a serious determination to take on such projects in that context.
Branson Parler’s revised dissertation is to be published later this year by Herald Press. It is entitled Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture. I have read a considerable amount of literature on the subjects of this book. I can’t think of anyone who has dealt more carefully with the issues at hand. And certainly no one has offered a more careful account of Yoder in relation to these issues. It is an impressive and timely book. For instance, one chapter is on the Niebuhr brothers. Most of Reinhold Niebuhr’s most influential writings are from no later than the 1950s. The same is true of his brother, H. Richard. But not only is it the case that President Obama said that his favorite theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, as I read the chapter on the Niebuhrs I found myself saying repeatedly: “I think many Mennonites I know resonate much more with the Niebuhrs than with Yoder.” Therefore, it is of ongoing relevance that Parler offers convincing critiques of those with whom Yoder differed. However, more importantly he gives a compelling, biblically and theologically holistic, account of Yoder’s understanding of Christ and culture that is significantly illuminating within our present contexts. By the end I found myself saying: “yes, yes, yes; this is why I have found myself captive to Yoder’s theology for all these years.” This fits a biblical understanding so well and yet also shows how we are to relate redemptively to the world as the body of Christ. (Parler’s reviews of Martens’ book gives you a taste of what you can expect in his book.)
The last book I will mention is John C. Nugent’s book, The Politics of Yahweh: John Howward Yoder, the Old Testament, and People of God (Cascade Books, 2011). Nugent’s book is equally relevant, important, and superbly written. As I said in my endorsing blurb: “This wonderful book is all I hoped for—and more. Nugent clearly knows Yoder’s thought extremely well. With considerable intelligence and discernment, he has shown the vital importance of the Old Testament roots of The Politics of Jesus. But more than that, he has written a book that has great relevance for all Christians interested in the relationship between the Testaments, especially as related to the subject of peace.” I believe every word I wrote. This is a book well worth reading. (One can get a taste of John’s work on Yoder’s views of the Old Testament by reading his introduction to Yoder’s collection of writings on capital punishment which John Nugent edited; the book is entitled The End of Sacrifice. Or one can see Nugent’s summary of his views on Yoder and the Old Testament in his essay in The Journal of Religious Ethics, March 2011. One can also sample the thought of both Nugent and Parler in the book edited by Nugent, Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder, a fine collection of essays originating with a conference on Yoder.)
As I said earlier, I have seen it as a part of my vocation to carry on (as faithfully as I can, given my limitations) the legacy of John Howard Yoder. Occasionally I have had some concern that no one in the generation following mine would carry on Yoder’s legacy in a way that was truly faithful to what Yoder taught. Don’t get me wrong, there are some younger scholars who take Yoder’s work seriously. Some of them both grasp his writings and employ them in their own work. I’m thinking at this point of more or less straightforward expositions of Yoder’s thought that are clear, imaginative and engaging current issues. In that regard, for the first time—coming to know John Nugent and Branson Parler—I can say, in relation to this part of my vocation, I can die in peace. The legacy will be carried on. This is important, so far as I am concerned, because I continue to believe that what Yoder was trying to teach us under the label of “the politics of Jesus” is hugely important. Many have still not fully grasped, and some have seriously misunderstood, what Yoder was saying. However, truly appropriating the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ as embodied within the Christian community for the sake of the world is a life-long task. Thus we need ongoing fresh and compelling interpretations of what this means, of what it looks like. Nugent and Parler are among those helping us with this task.