Ted Grimsrud

Ray Gingerich on JHY’s view of God

Theological Foundations for an Ethics of Nonviolence: Was Yoder’s God a Warrior? RAY C. GINGERICH* (Mennonite Quarterly Review 76.3 (July 2003).

Abstract: Yoder placed the nonviolent earthly Jesus at the center of his theological enterprise, offering a sharp critique of Constantinianism and constructing an ethics of nonviolent discipleship. But his legacy leaves us with a warrior God and hence without an enduring theological foundation to sustain the practice of nonviolence. The challenge of this essay is to overcome the anomaly created by Yoder’s theological premise that “Hebrew holy war is the historical foundation for . . . Jesus’ nonviolence.” Yoder’s project of anti-Constantinianism needs to be carried to the next stage-beyond the sociopolitical to the theo-cosmic to enable us to perceive the nonviolent God revealed in the Jesus-event.

THE PROBLEM OF A WARRIOR GODJohn Howard Yoder is the theologian who most significantly shaped peace theology and the theo-politics of peace in the second half of the twentieth century. In that crucial period following World War II, the arms race took a quantum leap toward the dark abyss of death, focusing no longer on conventional weaponry but on the unleashing of the atom. All national politics, particularly in the U. S. in its struggle to gain global hegemony, became geopolitics.

Throughout his life Yoder engaged in what he called “occasional theology” rather than systematics. That is, he was always keenly aware of the times in which he lived, and his theology addressed the particular issues that emerged out of those contexts. But Yoder’s “occasional theology,” though wide-ranging, was not random. In his analysis of Christendom, he called the theological elites, who lent Christendom its cultural respectability and political legitimation, to the accountability of the earthly Jesus[1] -a Jesus who calls his followers to practice nonviolence in a world dominated by violence. Thus it is understandable that Yoder’s Politics of Jesus[2] was aimed at America’s Ivy League academies of theology.[3] And although these institutions were slow to respond, The Politics was immediately picked up by large numbers of theologically trained, peace-oriented pastors and church people across the United States, followed by a global readership. Two decades later Yoder had become the first Mennonite theologian to achieve a worldwide readership.

Yoder placed Jesus, the nonviolent earthly Jesus, in the center of the theological agenda-an odd historical nemesis for the Just War theologians of the Ivy League schools; a socio-theological archetype for the struggle of engaged pacifists. Embedded in all of this is a peculiar irony: Were the Just War theologians of the Ivy League schools and many of the Jesus-followers of Yoderian pacifism all worshipping the same God-a warrior God? For me it is a self-evident truth that an enduring ethics of nonviolence cannot finally be grounded in a theology of violence.[4]

The morality of God in the thought and writings of Yoder, with specific focus on the “warrior God,” is the focus of this essay. If I am critical of certain aspects of Yoder’s thought, I nevertheless pay Yoder tribute and highest respect.[5] The image of the Warrior-God was brought into much sharper relief through Yoder because of his contrasting emphasis on shalom as the defining characteristic of God’s people. On the one hand, Yoder substantiated this normative emphasis on shalom through his consistent focus on Jesus-the fully human one, who is our fullest revelation of the will of God, who in his invitation to follow him is normative for our daily lives. On the other hand, Yoder continued to present God in the biblical images of a warrior, as one who uses violence to accomplish divine ends. Yoder was more willing to examine the socio-cultural phenomena surrounding the prophets and Jesus than to examine the Hebrew epistemological construction of the God whom Jesus and the prophets served.

Yoder has left us with the biblical and theological problem of a warrior God-of a moral Son and, if measured by the same standard, an immoral Father. He left us with the problem of a nonviolent messiahship resting on the foundation of a violent God; or-depending upon which philosophical tools one uses-a God who is beyond command and beyond good and evil.[6] This problem lies at the roots of the Abrahamic traditions-Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The myth of redemptive violence[7] is deeply and tragically embedded in the whole of Christian theology. Yoder’s emphasis on the nonviolent way of Jesus brought about a sea-change, if not a paradigmatic shift, to Jesus studies. But, while raising the problem of a warrior God to a new level of urgency, Yoder did little to offer a new image of a nonviolent God.

The theology of a nonviolent Jesus, whom Christians proclaim as the fullest revelation of a God who is also the Yahweh of holy war, is a contemporary believers’ church problem. Much earlier, at least as early as the fifth century (CE), the church already recognized this problem when it set a higher morality for religious orders than for the laity, exempting the former from military duty. Luther attempted to resolve the issue by establishing a two-kingdom theory in which the ethics of Jesus were not applicable to the affairs of state. Believers’ church denominations and certain Pietist groups have long struggled with a separatist or sectarian two-kingdom theology, one that offered legitimation for Mennonite and Brethren separatist existence in a seemingly satisfying way, until mid-twentieth-century urbanism, education and cultural amalgamation began to take over.[8] Yoder helped us move beyond this ethical dualism by developing a schema of middle axioms[9] at the socio-cultural communications level. But ethics, built around the model of a nonviolent Jesus and his nonviolent followers throughout the centuries, begs for nonviolent theological foundations that go beyond the person of Jesus and call on us to re-examine again our constructs of the God whom Jesus made known.

The problem of religion appealing to a warrior God is today a problem of world Western civilization, for this “civilization” that clings to a warrior God has brought us the weapons of mass destruction capable of annihilating the human species. As long as we hold a worldview in which ultimate power is expressed through violence, as long as we construct theologies that contain at their core the myth of redemptive violence, and as long as we in our imaginations construct gods whose morality lies beyond good and evil-we will create wars and call them holy. God the deliverer of the oppressed through violence becomes God the conqueror of the world by whatever means appear to be necessary.[10] And as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer notes, “Without roots in the nonviolent character of God, Jesus’ nonviolence will be dismissed as part of an ‘interim ethic’ no longer relevant to people of the twenty-first century, or linked to his status and mission as a ‘paschal lamb’ slaughtered by God as part of an atoning sacrifice, or superseded by God’s violence.”[11]

“Not surprisingly,” concludes Nelson-Pallmeyer, “very few Christians who embrace the violence of God follow the nonviolence of Jesus.”[12] This characterizes the ambivalent witness of American Mennonites today. Many whose self-identity was unhesitatingly pacifist or “nonresistant” are now no longer sure where they stand. Others who still think of themselves as firmly in the pacifist tradition acknowledge discomfort and a disorientation caused by the compromises that seem to be forced upon them. Are we, for example, being nonviolent when we refuse to go to war but continue to pay for war? Or has the refusal to go to war in an era when the sole global superpower no longer needs our men, but more than ever depends on our money, become a ritual of deception, an act of bad faith?

Yoder very carefully disavowed traditional dualisms which so readily become structures for ethical cop-outs.[13] Within an ontological framework, Yoder rejected a two-kingdom theory, insisting that Christ was already Lord of the earth and of the cosmos.[14] Precisely in the service of this single-kingdom understanding Yoder developed the effective use of middle axioms.[15] The thoroughness of Yoder’s pacifism, the logic of his theology and the concern that he had for consistency-avoiding, for the most part, the category of paradox-would lead us to presuppose that Yoder’s God, like Jesus, was nonviolent and not a warrior God.[16] But his testimony does not support that.

I will first examine Yoder’s understanding of the “wrath of God,” a category that can be defined relationally and attitudinally, but one that Yoder also analyzes in structural terms. I then look at how Yoder understands and comes to terms with “Yahweh’s wars”-a term that goes well beyond the attitudinal and the institutional, and is usually seen in the context of larger historical and political events, and which Yoder sees as the foundation of Israel’s peoplehood.

THE WRATH AND VENGEANCE OF GOD“The concept of ‘wrath’ in the Bible is anthropopathic,” notes Yoder. That is, the wrath of God:

speaks of God in terms of human feelings. . . . Just as in the Proverbs, wisdom, sophia, was close to sharing the nature of God and yet independent. So it is with Wrath. Wrath takes on a character of its own, and is not simply a trait of God’s personality. In fact, it is not personal at all. It is more mechanical, like a process. . . .[17]

Much earlier, during his years in Europe, Yoder had already begun to reflect on this theme:

Wrath and hell are the biblical words for the bindingness of our historicity. . . . The historicity of human nature is that people are what they become. The decisions I make make me what I am. I am not another than what I have made myself become. What I have decided is decisive. . . . [18]

Yoder uses this same kind of analysis, borrowing from the insights of psychology and sociology, in his class lectures now published as Preface to Theology.[19] In this expanded presentation he also alludes to the philosophical alternatives, noting that:

I am neither just one sample of an essence, nor an arbitrary and meaningless movement on the face of history. . . . If by my decisions I have made myself a selfish person, committed myself to myself, then I do not fight God; I just do not notice or want God. When God lets me be selfish, leaves me with myself (which is another word for hell[20] ), God is not being nasty, judgmental, or vindictive. God is being loving . . . by respecting the freedom God gave me to bottle myself up . . . .[21]

In an earlier essay that emerged out of Yoder’s studies with Oscar Cullmann during his post-World War II period in Europe, Yoder addresses one of the more difficult passages for pacifists, Romans 13:1-7, developing a theology of the state. The state, notes Yoder, becomes the political structure exercising God’s vengeance. “Vengeance itself, the most characteristic manifestation of evil, instead of creating chaos as is its nature, is harnessed [by God] through the state in such a way as to preserve order and give room for the growth and work of the church.”[22] While God is not the agent of vengeance, it is “harnessed” or “‘channelized’ by God, in spite of itself, to serve God’s purposes. . . . Vengeance is not thereby redeemed or made good; it is nonetheless rendered subservient to God’s purposes. . . .” Such is the characteristic of the reign of God.[23]

Just how important and vexing this problem was for Yoder is indicated by the fact that he addresses it once more in the last chapter of the last book published before his untimely death (although it should be noted that this particular essay was first written in 1979). Yoder begins this segment on God’s wrath with a reference to Psalm 76:10, noting that “God makes men’s wrath praise him.” He further develops this concept, noting that “there is a nonreversible relationship between our deeds, which may be evil, and God’s use of them for ultimate good.”[24]

“God’s sovereignty, which includes wrath, can integrate the works of human rebellion without rendering those actions morally good. That YHWH used Assyria’s troops to chastise his own people (Isa. 10:6 ff.) did not make those deeds into good works, nor were the Israelites called to celebrate them or to help with them. That God reserves vengeance to himself and may then ‘delegate’ that vengeance to Cyrus or to Caesar (Rom. 13:2, 4 and Isaiah 45) is grounds for his people to renounce vengeance (Rom. 12:19 but also Deut. 32:35) rather than claiming to be his instruments [by using vengeance].” [25]

Hence, clearly for Yoder, God may do and does do morally what neither Jesus nor his followers are morally allowed to do.

Yoder’s claim that “God reserves vengeance to himself” seems to portray God as one who on certain occasions is both agent and instrument of wrath. The language is certainly ambiguous. But in the larger context Yoder sees evil as under the sovereignty of God, channeled or delegated by God through human agency and institutions (e.g., the state) without, however, overtly making God an agent of evil.

Let us test Yoder’s argument on God’s wrath and vengeance at two levels. First, at the level of logic: Yoder asserts toward the end of the essay “On the Wrath of God and the Love of God” that “God’s wrath is God’s love.”[26] Do Yoder’s words and definitions define a reality that is present “out there” or do they locate a perceptual reality (possibly not God) present only within us? Or to ask the question from another angle: What keeps Yoder’s argument-his understanding of the God of wrath as also being the God of love-from being completely circular, from a collapsing of definitions that end up being solipsistic and therefore groundless except as a construct that is lodged in the subjective individual and the cultural perception of worshippers? Does the sentence “God’s wrath is God’s love” continue to be a meaningful ethical construct within a pacifist context? Or is it simply a metaphysical theological construct to respond to the problem of theodicy (specifically violence) within a pacifist framework?

At a second level, does Yoder’s understanding of God’s wrath hold sufficient “norming objectivity” that it would let me know when I might anticipate God’s wrath or how I might experience God’s love? Or to restate the issue, might Yoder’s line of reasoning mean that the normative guidelines for ethics (even those practiced by Christians) are determined by culture and nation rather than by Jesus or the community of his followers?[27]

If I, for example, were from an infant-sacrificing culture (or one in which eighteen-year-old young men are sacrificed on the battlefield in the name of their nation and are thereby immortalized), might I not experience God’s love in the sacrifice of my child? How my experience in a child-sacrificing culture (whether primitive or modern) would then alter the moral nature of that act is not being disputed here. But would it alter what would be a strict prohibition (namely, killing) in one culture to an ought or a command to be obeyed in a particular other culture? If so, then clearly there could be an ethical norm (in a particular culture of our contemporary world) more demanding and definitive than nonviolence or “not killing” or “the way of Jesus.” Here I merely ask the questions that Yoder asks elsewhere when he probes for ethical grounds that hold definitive authority within particular cultures. I am simply “playing forward” into the possibilities of our contemporary world what Yoder “played back” into Abraham’s world when Yoder legitimated the slaughter of Isaac by using a metaphysical claim under the rubric of “Abraham’s obedience to God.”[28]

THE WARS OF YAHWEH: THE FOUNDATION FOR JESUS’ NONVIOLENCELet us turn to a more careful examination of how Yoder develops the concept of Israel’s holy wars, or as he prefers to call them, YHWH’s wars. As we have just seen, God’s vengeance and wrath are associated by Yoder with the nonredeemable coercive structures (the state), with the leaders of the enemies of Israel and with the wars Israel loses. In contrast, Hebrew holy wars are the wars Israel wins-specifically those in which Israel claimed to have been commanded by God.

“Far from constituting an embarrassment for those who follow Jesus’ nonviolence, Hebrew holy war is the historical foundation for the same.”[29] “The wars of YHWH are an alternative model of peoplehood,” claims Yoder. “Israel came on the scene as a political novum around the specific institution of the wars of YHWH, which constituted an alternative both to sacral kingship of either the Canaanite or the Babylonian type and to particularist tribal separation,” avers Yoder. “YHWH’s militant presence provided a power for defense without a standing army, a legendarium filled with almighty deliverances where the Hebrew’s weapons had usually been of secondary significance and were sometimes not even used.”[30]

This is the key, it seems to me, for understanding both the location and the basic argument of the seminal chapter “God Will Fight for Us” in The Politics of Jesus.[31] Here it may be helpful, as a way of getting into Yoder’s argument for Hebrew holy war, simply to back off a bit and observe the steps in Yoder’s logic.

Step I: Ancient Israel

1. Don’t ask, Is killing wrong? and Is “war . . . always contrary to the will of God?” That is a modern question that seeks to confirm a certain moral generalization (phrases in italics are Yoderisms).[32]

2. Ask rather, How did the Israelites read their story?

3. The answer is: Yahweh is “the God who saves his people without their needing to act.”[33] We should note that here, as in other places where Yoder addresses the issue of Hebrew holy war, he speaks to only one side of the issue. What Yoder fails to say is that “when the Israelites read the story” (and later when the Christians read it) Yahweh the deliverer is also Yahweh the conqueror (and the crusader).

Step II: Jesus and his listeners

“We are glancing back at the story of ancient Israel, the reader will remember, not for its own sake or for scholarly curiosity, but as a test of modern ethical hermeneutics.”[34] Implicitly we are told:

1. Don’t ask the “scholarly curious” questions-such as the morality behind the wars of conquest, or attempt to “undertake even a capsule enumeration of the strands of Hebrew history which are taken up” (strands which if analyzed socio-politically rather than sanctioned theologically might suggest that Israel was attributing to God’s will its own past atrocities).[35]

2. Ask rather “how Jesus and his listeners were likely to conceive of the action of God.”[36]

3. And the answer is: “The Israelites did nothing to bring about the destruction of the Egyptians. The only call to them was to believe and obey Yahweh,” the conquering God who destroys the enemy.[37]

Step III: Aborted Obedience: Backflash to the Exceptions

There were times when the armies of Israel slaughtered the inhabitants of the land. So intent is Yoder to deliver on the theme of Israel’s obedience to Yahweh that even in those cases when Israel was not obedient to God, when “Moses and Joshua respond in their own way to the Amalekites’ attack” and fight their own battle, the victory still belonged to God.[38]

1. Ask not “whether the taking of human life is morally permissible or forbidden under all circumstances . . . .” This “was not a culturally conceivable question in the age of Abraham or that of Joshua.”[39]

2. Ask rather “what its author meant to say and what its first readers would have heard it say.”[40]

3. And the answer is: Even when the “war is not reported as having been commanded by YHWH”[41] and “even when Israel uses the sword in a most fearful and destructive way, the victory is credited not to the prowess of the swordsman or the wisdom of the generals, but to the help of YHWH.”[42]

Yoder’s argument is an ingenious tour de force. By repeatedly, in only slightly varied form, restating the question and then supplying the answer, Yoder begins the agenda where his determining predisposition tells him it needs to begin; he leads it in precisely the direction he believes it needs to go and brings it to an indisputable conclusion! Or so it would seem. Yoder does this not by a sleight of hand or by the use of some neo-sophistry-not, at least, if we can follow his presuppositions regarding what parts of scripture may be critically analyzed and what is not open to further analysis.

But the thoroughness of disclosure in Yoder’s arguments leaves much to be desired. His insistence on setting the agenda, often without clarifying his methodological moves, sets its own limitations and raises some serious questions: Why does Yoder assume that Jesus sanctioned Hebrew holy war when one could cite significant evidence to the contrary and when common-sense logic would lead us to a different conclusion? At best, the argument is one from silence.[43] And why did Yoder uncritically link the views and perceptions of Jesus with those of his listeners on this most sensitive subject of holy war? Was Yoder so fixed on Hebrew culture and the Abrahamic command to obedience that for him Hebrew holy war was a unique phenomenon of its own in the founding of Israel and in no way to be compared with later Christian holy war or Muslim holy war?[44]

Nevertheless, Yoder’s larger focus is on Jesus. There is not a chapter in The Politics of Jesus where one is left dangling, wondering where Yoder’s commitment lies. The centrality of Jesus, the nonviolent man, the victorious lamb, is ever present. But it is precisely this illuminating brightness of the centrality of Jesus that often blinds us to the fact that Yoder’s guiding principle is not love or nonviolence but obedience. This is an important observation and a significant phenomenon to factor into our considerations if we are to understand the logic of Yoder in making the assertion that “Hebrew holy war is the historical foundation” for an ethic “for those who follow Jesus’ nonviolence.”[45]

Having noted Yoder’s claim that the nonviolent ethics for the followers of Jesus are grounded in Hebrew holy war, we ask: What is the larger rational and theological framework of Yoder’s ethical system? To this several statements by Yoder offer crucial insights: “What things mean, what is to be spoken, must be tested at the bar not so much of relevance as of resonance. It must echo the meaning of Jesus. It would be unbelief,” insists Yoder,

for us to be embarrassed by the simplicity of this statement. Whatever echoes the confession of Christ’s humanity is recognizable as the spirit to listen to. Whatever denies that normativeness and that particular humanity is not to be heard. The Christ by whose standard the spirits are to be tested, as I John 4 makes especially clear, is the earthly Jesus. Our criteria must not be ‘christological’ in some vague, cosmic sense, but ‘jesulogical.’[46]

Toward the end of this same essay Yoder takes the question from “jesuology” to epistemology (or revelation) and implicitly raises the question of the moral nature of God: “Providence,” writes Yoder, “remains inscrutable. Our estimates of how to help history along, whether they claim to be guided by prophecy or by secular common sense, are still only guesses, always limited by our point of view and usually by our interests.” So how are we to gain the perspective of the Inscrutable? How is one to get beyond our wisest estimates? However prudently assessed and wisely guided, notes Yoder, “They can never replace the Torah or the incarnation as moral guides.”[47]

One of the foci of Yoder’s ethics is agape expressed incarnationally as demonstrated by Jesus. “The cross in the extreme case demonstrates that agape seeks neither effectiveness nor justice and is willing to suffer any loss or seeming defeat for the sake of obedience.” [48] The other focal point for Yoder is Torah. The ethic of cross-bearing love (nonviolence) and Torah finds its cohesiveness through obedience. The commonality shared by Abraham and Jesus is not nonviolence (or some other life-giving norm such as shalom, or love, or justice, but obedience. Perhaps, to remove obedience from the connotations of legalism and better to capture the spirit and intent of Yoder, we should say “trusting obedience.” But even so, the question remains: Obedience to what? To whom? How is the human component of Torah to be tested? And how is this obedience (which always involves both a hermeneutic and application in life) to be tested?

THE ADEQUACY OF YODER’S NONVIOLENT ETHIC FOUNDED ON HEBREW HOLY WARYoder’s two sources-Torah and incarnation-are at times complementary, at other times in tension, but always held together by an ethic of trusting obedience.[49] Or as Yoder says elsewhere, this is an ethic of “not being in charge,” of letting God be in charge.[50] The fact that obedience is epistemologically lodged in different sources (now in Torah, then in incarnation) and in different locations or communities within the larger context of God’s people, brings an unresolved bifurcation into full view.[51] Thus when we ask the question: Can Hebrew holy wars be tested by the normativeness of Jesus?, Yoder, as we have noted earlier, deflects the question. Yet, beyond this deflection, the answer is clearly No. Ancient Israel’s holy wars (which Yoder calls YHWH’s wars) cannot be tested by the norms of the nonviolent Jesus; only by obedience to YHWH as recorded in Torah. This, however, is an “obedience” for which there are no other earthly criteria (socio-historical moral communities or individuals) to test the spirits[52] -criteria which Yoder insists upon for testing “incarnation.”

What then if Israel’s actions were judged by her own prophets contemporary to the writing and editing of Torah? Here the response would need to be more nuanced, but it would not be the unqualified endorsement of holy war as “obedience” to YHWH, which Yoder gives it.[53] Not only are Torah and incarnation two sources, but the standards for testing faithfulness to these sources were also bifurcated within Yoder’s ethics-the one is based on the authority of sacralized writings (with the possibility of having been projected onto the will of God); the other is based on the earthly Jesus and the community of his “resurrected” nonviolent followers.[54]

What the writers meant to communicate and what the first readers heard (using the hermeneutical guidelines which Yoder himself wants to follow) was undoubtedly that God is a warrior. But if we believe in the nonviolence of Jesus, and if we share the common Christian understanding that Jesus was the fullest revelation of God available to humanity, and if we hold the (believers’) church to be a present incarnation of Jesus, then it should be clear to us that Yahweh, the God of Jesus, was not a warrior.[55] Furthermore we should realize that what may have been at work in pre-kingship Israel (and in certain periods of rewriting the texts) is a religion in which a “nation’s” or a tribe’s violence is sacralized and legitimated in the name of their most high God.[56] What Yoder might have further said, considering the unusual sensitivity that he had for Constantinization, is that the violent Hebrew holy wars-perceived, in their purest form, as historical events without human agency; as noninstitutionalized divine empowerment-which were an integral part of early Israel’s religion in opposition to a standing militia, readily become institutionalized in the cultural milieu of kingship and canonized into the Judeo-Christian scriptures. It would seem particularly likely and appropriate for this more dynamic and desacralized understanding of Israel’s institutions and of scripture to be constructed within the pacifist believers’ church context of Yoder’s heritage, a heritage inclined to desacralization, with an openness to the tools of social analysis.[57]

As mentioned earlier, Yoder was willing to use the tools of socio-cultural analysis and the insights gleaned from the sociology of religion to unravel God’s wrath and hell, and to conceptualize these phenomena as fundamentally socially and culturally externalized reifications of the human experience. He was not willing, however, to use those tools and apply them to an analysis of Israel’s holy wars. This, of course, begs the question: why? Let me offer a few suggestions:

1. Yoder was a product of the Mennonite community and, perhaps more important, he had immense loyalty to it. Yoder creatively expanded the theological paradigm of his mentors but never broke out of it. That is where his mentors were;[58] that is where the Mennonite Church was. Neither psychologically nor politically could he afford to lose their trust.

2. Yoder was, to the end of his life, a tempered Barthian and a “biblical realist.” This framework did not allow sufficient freedom to view scripture more dialogically, as the product of a fallible and faltering people of God-writings produced and preserved by communities in which power politics was at times more determinative than faithful prophecy and servanthood.

3. Yoder seems to have had an innate urge to sacralize the Hebrew worldview; or more specifically, to view certain events in ancient Israel’s history as Urgeschichte, beyond the pale of historical analysis. Or was some grander epistemological schema undergirding a statement such as the following: “. . . .the civil impact of the Bible might be the result of a distinctive Hebraic Weltanschauung, which could be held to be normative, because in choosing the Jews God ruled that Hebrew is the best language for theology.”[59] What is this distinctiveness of the Hebraic Weltanschauung that makes it normative? Is this why Hebrew holy wars become “YHWH’s wars” in Yoder’s thought-wars that cannot be analyzed and treated as the doings of fallible, nationalistic, fearful people?

CONCLUSION: THE CALL FOR A NEW PARADIGM OF POWERWith all due respect to Yoder, both his writings on God’s wrath and on Yahweh’s wars-which should more prudently be referred to as Israel’s “holy” wars-constitute a form of modern scholasticism. The practiced prudence of careful analysis-of rephrasing the issues, of re-examining the etymologies, of quasi-arbitrary explanations based now on sociology and psychology and then on some form of near-timeless Hebrew culture-obscures the larger issues at stake, including the question of how we perceive power and the myth of redemptive violence.

If we limit our investigation of Yoder’s theology to God’s wrath and God’s vengeance, Yoder himself did not believe, nor did he wish to communicate to others, that God is the agent or initiator of wrathful violence and revenge. God only channels violence, God only delegates it-meaning, of course, but never quite saying so: God determines who gets destroyed and who is saved through the instrumentality of this violence. Implicit and assumed throughout this entire theology is the usefulness of violence in human affairs-if not in fact the necessity of violence-to overcome violence.

In the midst of this neo-scholasticism, in the midst of the attempt to resolve the anomalies of violence within a theological framework in which violence is being challenged and even condemned, Yoder seeks to protect both the freedom of humanity and the sovereignty of God within the framework of certain sacralized portions of scripture. How entities of freedom and sovereignty are balanced, where the precise lines are drawn between agency and the action of delegating-a kind of penultimate engagement in violence that neither Jesus nor his followers may carry out, but God alone-are constructs that have answers only in the imagination of those scholars’ minds that are sufficiently conditioned through cultic homage, by their attachment to certain somewhat arbitrarily chosen sacred texts, and by making normative for all times certain facets of the ancient Hebrew Weltanschauung.

In this last point we encounter an additional problem: In Yoder’s thought “YHWH’s wars” are a phenomenon of a different order, one that is not amenable to the scrutiny of our contemporary tools of historical analysis and the sociology of knowledge-methodological tools which, however, did play a vital role in Yoder’s debunking of mainline Protestant culture-ethics and in establishing the viability of “discipleship ethics.” What we are confronting here are the anomalies of a theological paradigm that on the one hand needs to accommodate an ethic of nonviolence patterned after the life of Jesus, while at the same time it includes the violent liberation of Yahweh’s people and the conquest of a land by slaughtering its native inhabitants [60] -according to Yoder, this latter phenomenon being even the very foundation of the former.[61]

This paradigm, as is the nature of all cosmologic paradigms, controls the boundaries of our thinking-the assumptions we bring, the questions we entertain and the answers we are capable of supplying. The paradigm of a warrior God no longer provides a sufficient framework within which to ground the ethics of the nonviolent reality at the core of our biblical, Anabaptist, theological and spiritual heritage. So great are the anomalies encountered within the practice of a nonviolent heritage that the tools of the Warrior-God paradigm can no longer solve them. But the theological crisis we are in has yet largely to be recognized.[62] This heritage, pointing to the possibility of a nonviolent society with alternative structures, has been raised to a new level of tangibility and consciousness precisely through the theology to which John Howard Yoder himself, more than anyone else in the past century, has given shape and substance-a nonviolent Jesus whose life and death are vindicated by the resurrection of a practicing nonviolent body of Christ, the new humanity.

For Christian communities of nonviolence the theological project for the twentieth-first century can no longer be restricted to the sacred texts of the ancient Hebrews that legitimate holy war in the name of YHWH. We must now focus on a paradigm that no longer confines our understanding of God to the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews.[63] For the ultimate power of that God was violence. In a kind of fortuitous irony, “Yoder’s desacralized Jesus” has led us into a crisis with the worldview of “Yoder’s sacralized Warrior-God,” a cosmology which must now be seen as a broken “old wineskin” that signifies both the urgent need and the kairos of our time for a new paradigm of power, a “new wineskin” that holds within it the power of the Jesus-event,[64] to preserve the new wine of nonviolent “resurrection” power.

This power is grounded in a nonviolent God, incarnated by a community practicing the politics of the nonviolent Jesus.

This is the vision and calling of the community of the new humanity in these times in which the larger world, with the institutionalized church and its theology, is still clinging to the old paradigm of violence represented by the Warrior God and to a denial of the resurrection of Jesus as God’s testimony to the power of nonviolence.[65] This is the challenge that Yoder leaves with us: To carry his project of anti-Constantinianism to the next stage, beyond a thorough socio-political analysis of culture and beyond a selective socio-critical analysis of the sacred text. The task is nothing less than perceiving (constructing) a new reality of power-power as the Nonviolence-of-God. This is not the task of a lone individual or a single generation. For those individuals who will be rejected by the very communities they seek to serve, it will call for patience and the committedness to “not being in charge.” Such must be the foundation of a theology “for the nations: public and evangelical.”


[*] Ray Gingerich is professor of theology and ethics at Eastern Mennonite University. 1. This was undoubtedly Yoder’s more commonly used appellation for Jesus. Cf. For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 241. But it was not unusual for Yoder during lectures to speak of “the fully human Jesus,” without simultaneously or in the same context adding, “and the fully divine.” Commenting on where to place the emphasis on “Christ,” Yoder notes, “For this author the humanity is what counts.”-Ibid., n. 4. Return to Text

[2] . The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (1972; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). Return to Text

[3] . Among the specific audiences were the students of the Niebuhr brothers (Reinhold at Union Theological in New York, Richard at Yale) and Paul Ramsey (Princeton). Return to Text

[4] . Or if we assume that ethics precedes theology, the axiom may be stated inversely: The praxis of nonviolence will not produce a theology of violence. Return to Text

[5] . Yoder helped me, doubter that I was then and skeptic that I continue to be, to find Jesus again for the first time (to mimic Marcus Borg). Return to Text

[6] . Yoder’s epistemological position was very similar to that of Millard Lind, his colleague through the 1960s and 1970s at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. For Lind the warrior God intervened directly in the affairs of his people and miraculously gave Israel the victory-a consistent “pacifist” theology for Lind because it is Yahweh who fights and not Yahweh’s people. See Lind’s later published research, Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980). Yoder endorsed Lind’s work on holy war, but Yoder’s theological writings are more complex and the issue of the Warrior Yahweh becomes even more sharply focused, partially because of his work with the nonviolent Jesus. Return to Text

[7] . “Myth” in this context, carries primarily the popular meaning of “an ill-founded belief held uncritically” and, secondarily, the more philosophical meaning of “an event or ‘truth’ rooted in the deep past whose ostensible historical origins have been lost.” This phrase, brought into philosophical usage through Ren‚ Girard, has recently become the lingua franca of a wide spectrum of theologians, one of the more substantive treatments being by Walter Wink. For an introduction to Girard’s thought, see The Girard Reader, edited by James B. Williams, which offers basic texts on Girard’s “mimetic theory” and on surrogate violence surrounding scapegoat myths.-New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996. Wink’s best exposition of the myth of redemptive violence is found in his Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), ch. 1, “The Myth of the Domination System” and scattered through various other parts of this very significant work on the anatomy of violence in the Christian tradition. Return to Text

[8] . Cf. Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill’s analysis, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994), for a historical sketch of this development. Return to Text

[9] . The Christian Witness to the State, Institute of Mennonite Studies Series No. 3, (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1963), 71-73. The concept of middle axioms was made current through the social ethics discussions in preparation for the World Council of Churches’ General Assembly, Amsterdam, 1948. “Middle axioms” are used by ethicists and theologians in significantly differing ways. Yoder’s use of middle axioms is an attempt to “mediate between the norms of faith and the situation conditioned by unbelief.”-Ibid., 33, n. 3. Return to Text

[10] . Robert Allen Warrior, an American Indian, states the issue succinctly and forcefully: “As long as people believe in the Yahweh of deliverance, the world will not be safe from Yahweh the conqueror”-unless, one might add, Yahweh is perceived and worshipped as the nonviolent deliverer, even as is Jesus.-Robert Allen Warrior, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 1995), 284. Return to Text

[11] . Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 225 ff. Return to Text

[12] . Ibid., 225. Return to Text

[13] . Illustrative of this is The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), chs. 1 and 6. Return to Text

[14] . This theme is both implicitly and explicitly central to nearly all of Yoder’s writing. Examples are the opening chapter of his Politics of Jesus, “The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic,” and his work on The Christian Witness to the State, whose opening sentence begins: “The reign of Christ means for the state the obligation to serve God . . . “(5). “The Lordship of Christ Over Church and State,” a series of ecumenical conferences begun in 1955 for which Yoder was key sponsor, was the original title for what later came to be known as the “Puidoux Conferences.” Return to Text

[15] . The Christian Witness to the State, 71-73. Return to Text

[16] . Thus, for example, Nancey Murphy sums up Yoder’s program as follows: “The moral character of God is revealed in Jesus’ vulnerability, enemy love and renunciation of domination.”-The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, eds. Stanley Hauerwas, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1999), 48. Murphy states a commonly held view of Yoder’s “God.” But this view is based on a deduction of Yoder’s ethical statements and is not borne out in Yoder’s theological claims. Return to Text

[17] . This extended quotation is taken from Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), 318. The comments here and those following, notes Yoder, are based on Anthony Tyrrell Hanson’s study, The Wrath of the Lamb (London: SPCK, 1967), an exegetical study which follows the theme of wrath through the Old and then the New Testament. Return to Text

[18] . “The Wrath of God and the Love of God” paper presented at “Historic Peace Churches and I.F.O.R. Conference,” Beatrice Webb House, England, September 11-14, 1956. Yoder cites Rachel King, God’s Boycott of Sin, as a key source from which he is borrowing. In this unpublished paper Yoder refers to “hell” as “the most extreme form which that wrath can take” (2). Return to Text

[19] . Preface to Theology, 314-20. Return to Text

[20] . A reinterpreting and repositioning of significant orthodox theological concepts such as this, which also challenge traditional understandings of creedal statements, is common to Yoder and should make us skeptical of those interpreters of Yoder who insist on interpreting him within the framework of traditional orthodoxy. Cf. Craig Carter, The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002). This same skeptical approach should be applied to Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider’s “Introduction” to Preface to Theology, particularly to the section on “Preface to Theology in the Context of Yoder’s Work” (15 ff.), in which the authors defend Yoder’s adherence to Nicea and Chalcedon. Yoder did not reject acceptance of the creeds if the ecclesial-political context called for it. But Yoder would reject an anachronistic reading of the Bible or of Jesus through the creeds. A “high Christology” for Yoder is not dependent on a creedal theology. Return to Text

[21] . Preface to Theology, 318, 319. Return to Text

[22] . “Peace Without Eschatology?” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 149. This essay was originally presented at a theological study conference at Heerenwegen, Zeist (The Netherlands) in 1954. Return to Text

[23] . “Peace Without Eschatology?” in The Royal Priesthood, 149. Return to Text

[24] . For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 244, 245. Return to Text

[25] . For the Nations, 244. Italics added for emphasis. Return to Text

[26] . John Yoder, “The Wrath of God and the Love of God.” (Copy in my files is without pagination.) Return to Text

[27] . The fact that this is clearly not Yoder’s intent does not lessen the legitimacy or the force of this line of questioning. Return to Text

[28] . Cf. “If Abraham is Our Father,” in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972), 91-111. Return to Text

[29] . For the Nations, 85, n. 11. Return to Text

[30] . Ibid., 85. Return to Text

[31] . Politics of Jesus, 76-86. Return to Text

[32] . Ibid., 76. Return to Text

[33] . Ibid., 76. Repeated numerous times with only slight variation in phrasing, “Yahweh is the God who saves his people without their needing to act,” is a leitmotif in Yoder’s writings on “YHWH’s wars.” Yoder effectively uses it to provide a cohesive and unifying bond between the various accounts: “Every portion of the Exodus account, difficult to interpret at other points, is clear in the report that the Israelites did nothing to bring about the destruction of the Egyptians. The only call to them was to believe and obey.”-Ibid., 77. Return to Text

[34] . Ibid., 77. Return to Text

[35] . Ibid., 76-77. Return to Text

[36] . Here the prior assumptions and the necessary outcome of the argument dictate the momentum of Yoder’s argument, and determine by default what is omitted in the argument: (1) Yoder does not tell us why he assumes that Jesus sanctioned Hebrew holy war rather than a violent, popularly led insurrection; Yoder simply assumes that Jesus thought like Yoder thought, and that Jesus himself, like Yoder, was able to categorically distinguish between ancient Hebrew holy war and “modern” Hebrew holy war. (2) Yoder gives us no clue why he links Jesus’ perception with that of his listeners at this particular, most controversial point of divine instrumentality of war. Elsewhere Yoder always attributes a higher level of awareness and insight (or revelation) to Jesus than to the variety of his Jewish listeners. Return to Text

[37] . Politics, 77. I have supplied the self-evident conclusion (following the quotation) that Yoder fails to supply. Return to Text

[38] . Ibid., 77. Return to Text

[39] . Ibid., 78. Return to Text

[40] . Ibid., 78. Return to Text

[41] . As is the case of Moses and Joshua against Amelek.-Ibid., 77. Return to Text

[42] . Ibid., 77, 78. Return to Text

[43] . Cf. Ibid., 84-86. In my reading of the Gospels I find no convincing evidence that Jesus made the assumption that the ancient Hebrew holy wars were fought in obedience to Yahweh, although it seems apparent that from a number of angles Jesus may have been accused of this, even of envisioning himself as continuing that tradition. The literature here is too massive to cite, but Richard A. Horsely’s earlier work, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) offers a useful orientation made more credible for this particular point because of Horsely’s somewhat less-than-pacifist understanding of Jesus. See especially the concluding chapters 8-10, pp. 209-326. Return to Text

[44] . Were this a theme stressed only in a single chapter of the first edition of Politics (1972), we might understand it as belonging to the biblical-pacifist Zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s (to which Lind’s Yahweh is a Warrior also belongs). But Hebrew holy war (YHWH’s war) was central to Yoder’s theology. To the end of his life, Yoder continued to see Hebrew holy war as an important part of the heritage to be “remembered as Jews in the age of Jesus must have remembered it . . . . There is much more to say,” notes Yoder, “about how the Old Testament story of YHWH as warrior should be taken in its own right.”-“Epilogue” to “God Will Fight for Us” in Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (1994), 87. Return to Text

[45] . For the Nations, 85, n. 11. Return to Text

[46] . Ibid., 241. Return to Text

[47] . Ibid., 245. Return to Text

[48] . Royal Priesthood, 147. Return to Text

[49] . Politics of Jesus, 53. Here he uses the language of “call,” which is both invitation and command. Return to Text

[50] . “On Not Being In Charge” in War and Its Discontents: Pacifism and Quietism in the Abrahamic Traditions, ed. Patout Burns (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown U. Press, 1966), 74-90. Return to Text

[51] . I owe this particular line of thought to Earl Zimmerman, colleague at Eastern Mennonite University and doctoral student at the Catholic University of America, who is writing his dissertation on Yoder. Return to Text

[52] . Yoder recognizes this problem inasmuch as he selects the accounts from Chronicles where the victory is YHWH’s rather than the parallel, more “nationalistic” accounts of Kings. But this is as far as his analysis carries him.-Politics of Jesus, 78-81. Return to Text

[53] . To develop the larger framework for disclaiming the legitimacy or the “rightness” of Israel’s holy war as consistent with “the will of the God of Jesus” is a task beyond the limitations of this paper. My main goal is to point out that Yoder, based on his own ethical framework, fails to sufficiently address this problem. Return to Text

[54] . The more one probes the epistemological grounds of Yoder’s writings the clearer becomes the bifurcation between a metaphysically grounded revelation and a relationally, socio-historically grounded revelation. To my knowledge a comprehensive and careful analysis of Yoder’s thought along these lines still needs to be done. Return to Text

[55] . The metaphor of a militant warrior common throughout Yoder’s writings on YHWH’s wars seems at times to be pointing to some ontological phenomenon like the “essence of the divine”; at other times the argument is in a more postmodern context, far less sweeping-the perceived understanding of Yahweh held by Yahweh worshippers. In either case, it would be contrary to Yoder’s thought and intent to construe the metaphor of warrior-as has been suggested to me by persons who resist the claim that Yoder’s God was a warrior-so as to make it compatible with a harmless or nonviolent Jesus, e.g., the imagery of a hen defending her brood with her own life. Return to Text

[56] . Yoder’s claim is in full agreement with Lind’s extensive analysis, in which Lind argues that “Yahweh’s holy wars represent Israel’s radical rejection of human kingship for the sole kingship of Yahweh” (Yahweh is a Warrior, 53), which constitutes a form of radical anti-nationalistic religio-political entity. Undoubtedly the difference in hermeneutics (as I reflect above) lies less in historical events and in the details of textual analysis than with the presuppositions one brings to the text and with whether one accepts the tribal theological claims regarding Yahweh or brings a more critical socio-political analysis to bear upon the texts and the events. Yoder and Lind, of course, are not alone among pacifists seeking to explain the anomalies of a dualistic theology of a Warrior God whose fullest revelation and most faithful servant is a nonviolent Jesus. Return to Text

[57] . Already in the sixteenth century the Anabaptists rejected a “flat” Bible (i.e., a Bible in which all parts were equally authoritative for the life of the church). A differentiation between various biblical texts based upon their source and content continues to be in the theology and the spiritual purview of those believers’ churches who have found a relational, Jesus-oriented third way that has succumbed neither to the social and ideological relativizing of liberalism nor to the cultural crystallizing and sacralizing of fundamentalism-not because theology done within this tradition is ipso facto superior in its analytical reasoning but because it begins with different epistemological understandings. Return to Text

[58] . In referring to Yoder’s mentors I refer specifically to Guy F. Hershberger (peace studies), Herald S. Bender (church history) and Oscar Cullman (biblical realism). Cf. Earl Zimmerman, “The Mennonite Conversation after World War II,” paper analyzing the early Yoder historical background, read at the Believers’ Church Conference, Notre Dame, March 7-9, 2002. Zimmerman sees Hershberger as playing a larger role in the formation of Yoder than that attributed to him in Albert N. Keim’s biography, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998). Return to Text

[59] . For the Nations, 85, n. 10. See also the comments by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider in their “Introduction” to Yoder’s Preface: “Yoder seems to imply that each language ‘contains’ a logic, such that the Hebrew mind focuses on the particular and the Greek mind concentrates on the general . . . . The problem . . . is twofold: not only is the contrast between the Hebrew and the Greek languages far too monolithic, but the assumption that a ‘logic’ is somehow present in a language also is philosophically suspect” (23). Return to Text

[60] . My use of the terms “paradigm” and “anomaly” is in the context of Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1962, 1970). I am referring not to an individualistic perspective, nor to an ideological shift by a particular group, but to a cosmological shift-a structural, paradigmatic shift in how we perceive our world and our universe, its peoples and its gods, particularly as this affects the theological task. In this essay, the focus of the paradigm shift is on our understanding of power which, theologically developed, lies at the very center of what shapes our perceptions of God. Return to Text

[61] . “Far from constituting an embarrassment for those who follow Jesus’ nonviolence, Hebrew holy war is the historical foundation for the same.”-For the Nations, 85, n. 11. Return to Text

[62] . As Kuhn already pointed out: As long as an alternative paradigm is not within our grasp we will deny the depth of our predicament. “. . . counterinstances to a prevalent epistemological theory . . . can at best help to create crisis or, more accurately, to reinforce one that is already in existence. By themselves they cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.“-Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 78 (emphasis added). Return to Text

[63] . Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, after offering brief analyses of Yoder, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan and Richard Horsley’s writings on a nonviolent Jesus and a God who is a holy warrior, concludes: “I believe these and other scholars and activists affirm the nonviolence of Jesus while holding onto the violence of God because of their uncritical approach to scripture.”-Jesus Against Christianity, 220. Though I may share Nelson-Pallmeyer’s sentiments, the problem lies at a level beyond any de-sacralizing of scripture-i.e., beyond merely a further application of the historical-critical tools of the nineteenth century and the insights gained through the sociology of knowledge (the twentieth-century expansion of the historical-critical tools). The problem lies in the cosmological worldview we hold-a culturally and anthropologically constructed cosmology in which ultimate power is consciously and subconsciously equated with violence. Return to Text

[64] . “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skin is burst and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). Return to Text

[65] Again quoting Kuhn: ” . . . when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists [and theologians] adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists [and theologians] see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before.”-Structure of Scientific Revolutions,111.

440 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 433 Was Yoder’s God a Warrior? 417

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