Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.
This article appeared in The Christian Century October 13, l993, pp. 982-987. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C.Purdy.
An introduction to the thought of theologian John Howard Yoder, whose reading of Jesus’s politics is that the church is called to practice nonviolence.
John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus surely would be an odd choice for a classic. As a fairly recent book (1972), it has not had a chance to prove its staying power. For that matter, it does not now command great attention in contemporary discussions of theology or ethics. To be sure, most mark it as an important work, but not one that has decisively changed the way we think. Indeed, Yoder does not pretend that the book is anything more than a report on the mainstream scholarly consensus concerning the political character of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as found in the Book of Luke. Yet I am convinced that when Christians look back on this century of theology in America The Politics Of Jesus will be seen as a new beginning.
Prior to Yoder the subject of Christian ethics in America was always America. The more America became the democratic society that the social gospelers so desired, the more difficult it became to do ethics in a theologically candid manner. Chastened by the Niebuhrs, those trained in ethics no longer sought to “Christianize” the social order. Instead they pursued, in the name of love, a more nearly just political arrangement.
The social gospel spawned ethicists who became social scientists, or at least read social science, in the interest of social transformation. The “realists” spawned ethicists who became moral philosophers, clarifying moral questions in medicine and business and, in their spare time, keeping alive the “God question.” In this mode, Christian ethics continues, but it becomes increasingly difficult to say what makes it Christian. Indeed, the effort to discover the relationship between policy questions or basic moral principles and theological warrants now preoccupies many ethicists.
Yoder comes into this territory from the sectarian badlands. He is the lone hero standing up to the mob that is willing to secure justice through the anguished acceptance of violence. He insists that the christologically disciplined account of nonviolence displayed in The Politics of Jesus cannot be dismissed the way that liberal Protestant pacifism was. Also, Yoder’s account of nonviolence requires theologians to acknowledge that their work makes no sense abstracted from the church. In short, for Yoder both the subject and the audience of Christian ethics are Christians — the people who are constituted by that polity called church.
The image of the lone gunman facing down the bad guys does not really fit Yoder, however, because his work is meant to defeat the myth of the hero. His work is based on the life of a community. Nonviolence is a way of life for Christians. If that community produces people whose stories it remembers, it calls them martyrs, not heroes.
It is odd, then, to regard The Politics of Jesus as a classic. The very idea of “classic” suggests heroic narratives. The classic is the category of dominant and dominating traditions. Yoder does not want The Politics of Jesus to be a classic, but rather to serve those who are living better than he writes. The very character of the book defies the effort to categorize it as a classic, since it does not articulate an elegant position but rather provides a close reading of Luke. Indeed, one of the problems with the book is our inability to locate it in a recognizable genre. It is not a commentary, though it consists primarily of comments on scripture; it is not theology, though Yoder makes extraordinary theological asides of a systematic nature; it is not ethics, though it challenges and perhaps changes our very idea of what ethics might be.
For many people, the classics are works that are ends in themselves because they embody essential truths about the human condition. It is assumed that if you have never read Shakespeare your life is less rich, since you may fail to appreciate the truths about life that his plays present. But what is important is not that certain books be read as an end in themselves, but that they be read because of their relationship to other books in a tradition and community that make such a conversation significant. Thus we should read Thomas Aquinas not because the Summa Theologica is a classic, but because reading Aquinas teaches us how better to read Augustine and the scriptures.
In like manner I want to promote the reading of The Politics of Jesus because it helps us locate our lives as Christians in the catholic faith. Yoder needs to be read in the tradition of liberal Protestantism not only because he helps us recognize the strengths of that tradition, but also because he helps us see why that tradition has come to an end (which accounts for why he remains something of an outcast in mainstream Protestant theology). Yoder cannot be made to fit into the presuppositions we have learned from the Niebuhrs and their successors. Such theologians keep saying, “We have seen this Christ-against-culture type before.” In mainstream hands, such typologies become power plays to keep in their place those who might challenge the reigning explanatory categories.
Yoder challenges the philosophical moves we have learned so thoroughly from Troeltsch through the Niebuhrs, and so we are desperate to make him but another example of what it means to be a sectarian. What gives The Politics of Jesus its power is that Yoder knows us better than we know him. Yoder sees the peculiar way that Troeltsch and the Niebuhrs dehistoricized the Christian faith in the name of “history,” and he sets himself against the dichotomy of faith and history.
In fairness it should be said that it is easy to miss Yoder’s challenge because he is so free of the ory. For example, he notes in The Priestly Kingdom that while he is not disrespectful of self-critical conceptual analysis, he is skeptical that such exercises can come first logically, chronologically or developmentally. You cannot start trying to formulate the conditions of meaningful discourse if such discourse is not already established. There is simply no place to start thinking prior to being engaged in a tradition. As Yoder says, “What must replace the prolegomenal search for ‘scratch’ is the confession of rootedness in historical community. Then one directs one’s critical acuity toward making clear the distance between that community ty’s charter or covenant and its present faithfulness.” Yoder does not talk about how he might do theology if he ever got around to doing any. Rather, like Barth, he simply begins to train us to read Luke with eyes unclouded by the presumption that Jesus is irrelevant for matters of social and political ethics. By doing so he challenges all pietistic readings of salvation, whether of the left or the right.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s under standing of salvation was fundamentally individualistic, if not gnostic. Indeed, this has been a characteristic of most Protestant liberals, excepting Rauschenbusch. Yoder helps us see that Niebuhr’s understanding of salvation had to be depoliticized exactly because he assumed the normative status of a politics based on violence. Correlatively, the cross for Niebuhr becomes a symbol of the tragic character of the human condition. Niebuhr’s fatal concession to a very narrow understanding of the political made his Christology deficient.
Yet Yoder also challenges those evangelicals who describe salvation in terms of personal fulfillment. “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder does not invite us to become concerned with our personal salvation, since that cannot help but depoliticize the salvation wrought in Christ.
Yoder does not think he is offering a radical new account of Jesus. “We do not here advocate an unheard-of modern understanding of Jesus; we ask rather that the implications of what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man, be taken more seriously, as relevant to our social problems, than ever before.” Commenting on The Politics of Jesus in The Priestly Kingdom, he notes
Jesus of the Gospel accounts was compatible with the classic confession of the true humanity o There my point was that the book’s emphasis on the concrete historical-political humanity of the f Christ (i.e., the core meaning of “incarnation”), whereas those who deny that humanity (or its normative exemplarity) in favor of “some more spiritual” message are implicitly Docetic. Secondly I argue that the New Testament’s seeing Jesus as example is a necessary correlate of what later theology calls his divine sonship (the other side of the “incarnation”), in such a way that those who downgrade the weight of Jesus’ example, on the grounds that his particular social location or example cannot be a norm, renew a counterpart of the old “Ebionitic” heresy. This is a small sample of a wider claim; the convictions argued here do not admit to being categorized as a sectarian oddity or a prophetic exception. Their appeal is to classical catholic Christian convictions properly understood.
Yoder does not understand himself as a “Mennonite thinker.” Indeed, if there is anything that makes him testy it is being so pigeonholed. Those that so designate him often mean to honor him as representing a position that is necessary for reminding us of our sinfulness. But Yoder is not trying to be a reminder. He is trying to force us to recognize that in spite of what appears to be orthodox christological affirmations, we are embedded in social practices that deny that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection make any difference.
Thus incarnation does not mean that God approves of all of human nature:
The point is just the opposite; that God broke through the borders of our definition of what is human, and gave a new, formative definition in Jesus. “Trinity” did not originally mean, as it does for some later, that there are three kinds of revelation, the Father speaking through creation and the Spirit though experience, by which the words and example of the Son must be corrected; it meant rather that language must be found and definitions created so that Christians, who believe in only one God, can affirm that he is most adequately and bindingly known in Jesus.
In a manner that can only be described as catholic, Yoder returns Jesus to the center of Christian ethics by freeing us from the political presuppositions sponsored by liberal social orders. The directness of his style belies the complex nature of his thought. His clarity makes the power of his arguments deceptive. He shows us that our sense of the alternatives — that we must choose between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, between prophet and institution, between catastrophic kingdom and inner kingdom between being political and being sectarian, between the individual and the social — derives not from categories intrinsic to the human condition but from a depoliticization of salvation that has made Christianity a faithful servant of the status quo.
That Yoder’s significance has not been widely acknowledged is no doubt due to his unwillingness to put himself forward. Yoder is not good at self-promotion. He does not try to find us; he lets us find him. He neither tries to hide nor calls attention to himself. The way of nonviolence cannot seek easy victories, and Yoder does not want to make it easy for us to agree with him. His purpose is to commit us to Jesus’ nonviolent mode of discipleship, making that way of life our own. He is interested not in promoting himself but in inviting others to live in a way that acknowledges Jesus as the “bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and. therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.”
My introduction to Yoder came in the bookstore at Yale Divinity School. Since Barth was playing a large part in my dissertation I bought a mimeographed 47-page pamphlet called Karl Barth and Christian Pacifism written by someone named J. H. Yoder. It noted that it was “work paper number four,” prepared as a study document for the peace section of the Mennonite Central Committee. In short, this was not an impressive-looking document. But I took it back to my carrel and began to read, and was absolutely stunned by Yoder’s powerful analysis and critique of Barth. I thought, of course, that the criticisms were based on an ecclesiology that you would have to be crazy to accept. (This pamphlet later became Yoder’s Karl Barth and the Problem of War, published by Abingdon in 1970.)
I more or less forgot about Yoder until I began to teach at Notre Dame in 1970. 1 assumed that Yoder must teach at Goshen College, which is not far from South Bend. In the process of learning the lay of the land around South Bend I found myself in Goshen. I discovered that Yoder taught not at Goshen College but rather in Elkhart at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, but in my exploration of Goshen I discovered that Yoder had written numerous pamphlets that could be bought off a rack in College Church for a dime a piece. Always ready for the unusual and bizarre, I bought among others his pamphlets on Reinhold Niebuhr and on capital punishment, and another treatment of Barth. In reading these pamphlets I began to understand that this was not just .”another” theologian. I was sure he had to be wrong, though I was increasingly having trouble saying how.
Thinking I needed to know more about him, I called him in Elkhart and asked if I could meet him. He invited me over, though I am sure he must have thought he was going to be besieged by another mainstream Protestant collecting data on the odd ideas of the Mennonites. When we met he did nothing to try to ingratiate himself. He answered questions that I put to him but seldom went beyond the answer itself. If Yoder was trying to make disciples, he certainly was not doing it through flattery.
I told him of my enthusiasm for his work and asked if he had written anything else. Little did I know how much Yoder had written, but he did not use that as an opportunity to expose my ignorance. He simply gave me copies of the Yoder mimeograph library. I left Elkhart with a stack of papers a foot high, thinking that this guy did not know how to make it as an academic. He thought mimeograph papers written to specific people in response to concrete requests were appropriate.
Within those papers lay the basic material we now know as The Politics of Jesus. The more I read it and the other material the more I was frightened. Here was a position I was sure implied withdrawal from the world, but that certainly did not seem to be what Yoder was about. Indeed, his Christian Witness to the State was an extraordinary attempt to convince Mennonites not to accept Niebuhrian characterizations of them as morally necesssary s but politically irrelevant. Yoder simply challenged all the neat intellectual and theological classification with which I had been so carefully educated. At that time the yearly ecumenical effort of Notre Dame’s theology department was to have a colloquium with the theology department at Valparaiso University. That year I was asked to prepare the paper for the colloquium. Since I had spent a good deal of the year reading Yoder I decided that I would write on him. I introduced my remarks by saying that here I was, a Methodist of doubtful theological background (Methodists by definition have a
doubtful theological background), representing a Catholic department of theology speaking to a bunch of Lutherans to say that the Mennonites had been right all along. I suggested that this would be an ecumenical effort since I thought by presenting the work of John Howard Yoder to Catholics and Lutherans I would help them see they shared much in common — namely, that Catholics and Lutherans had always assumed it was a good thing to kill the Anabaptists. Of course, that was what happened when Catholics and Lutherans competed to show why under certain circumstances it is a good thing to kill.
I called the paper “The Non-Resistant Church: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder.” I sent the paper to at least six journals, all of which rejected it, not because they disliked the paper in and of itself but because they disliked what the paper was about. One of the objections was that Yoder’s position reflected a pre-Bultmannian view of biblical exegesis. I was beginning to learn that Yoder was perceived by many as deeply problematic because he is such a decisive threat to our accepted
ways of thinking. (The characterization of Yoder as pre-Bultmannian now almost strikes one as humorous given recent developments in biblical criticism. Even on historical grounds Yoder’s Jesus in The Politics of Jesus appears more historically defensible than Bultmann’s Jesus.)
Yoder rightly understood that the real Jesus is not to be discovered in discontinuity with Judaism but in his continuity with the extraordinarily diverse modes of life we now call Jewish. Indeed, one of the aspects of Yoder’s work that has been unfairly overlooked is his way of reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.
The liberal dismissal of Yoder appears quite odd in light of the celebration of him as a “postmodern theologian” by Frederic Jameson in his Post-Modernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson notes that the central hermeneutic of theological modernism was posed by the anthropomorphism of the narrative character of a historical Jesus. Modern theologians assumed that
only intense philosophical effort is capable of turning this character into this or that christological abstraction. As for the commandments and the ethical doctrine, casuistry has long since settled the matter; they also need no longer be taken literally, and confronted with properly modern forms of injustice, bureaucratic warfare, systemic or economic inequality, and so forth, modern theologians and churchmen can work up persuasive accommodations to the constraints of complex modern societies, and provide excellent reasons for bombing civilian populations or executing criminals which do not disqualify the executors from Christian status.
Yoder challenges that accommodation by his account of “the politics of Jesus.” That is why a secular intellectual like Jameson admires him — even though the mainstream maintains that such people should not be able to appreciate Yoder.
Of course, Yoder will not be impressed by knowing that people like Jameson admire his work. His task is not to represent a position interesting to other intellectuals. Rather, he works as a theologian in subordination to a church pledged to witness to the nonviolent politics of the gospel. (The fact that he has submitted to his church’s discipline process regarding sexual misconduct is but a testimony to his commitment to nonviolence as the community’s form of behavior.)
Nor will Yoder be impressed with my reading of the significance of The Politics of Jesus. In many ways my reading remains still far too laden with theory, which always threatens to become a substitute for the church rather than an enhancement of ecclesial practice. Nor would I want to imply that Yoder will help us reconceive the tradition of liberal Protestantism simply because of the mainstream churches’ loss of institutional and social power. On the contrary, Yoder may well help us to use the remaining resources of that tradition to help Christians rediscover ways to serve our non-Christian brothers and sisters by being unwavering in our commitment to the politics of Jesus.