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Hauerwas joined the Notre Dame faculty a few years later he sought out Yoder, met with him and took away a stack of unpublished writings and was on his way to having his theology and life transformed.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.Read the rest of this entry »