Monthly Archives: October 2009

Craig Carter, The Politics of the Cross

Craig Carter. The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder. Brazos Press, 2001.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

I think The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Brazos Press, 2001) is quite a good book.  Craig Carter reads Yoder sympathetically and appreciatively.  As a big Yoder fan, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to someone who wants better to understand Yoder.  Maybe most importantly, Carter’s book furthers the cause of the gospel of peace.  For that I am grateful.

However, I have to admit that some of what got my blood pumping the most in the book were points where I would want to challenge Carter’s argument.  I will discuss a few of those points here.

(1) It was courageous of Carter, as an “outsider” to write chapter one, “Yoder and the Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision,” where he tries to situate Yoder in the context of twentieth-century Mennonite thought.  This is a very important and necessary task, though.  Yoder’s Mennonite context must be taken seriously if his thought is to be understood—and not enough attention is paid to this context by most Yoder interpreters.

I agree that this topic should be the first chapter, but, even though he has worked hard at understanding Mennonite theology, Carter’s treatment is problematic for at least two reasons that I see.  I could nit-pick his threefold typology on page 48 (“Mennonite revisionists,” “peace witness advocates,” and “classically orthodox Mennonites”)—and, in fact, I do not think it’s particularly helpful.

However, more importantly, I would say (a) Carter does not ultimately take Yoder’s Mennonite context seriously enough.  I think his attempt to link Yoder with Barth is wrong-headed (more about that below), as his focus on “classical, creedal Christology” (more about this below as well).  One consequence of these two linkages is to minimize the fact that Yoder was from start to finish a Mennonite theologian.

And, I would say (b) Carter ignores Yoder’s most important Mennonite links.  Much more than Barth, to understand Yoder one should read his Mennonite teacher Guy Hershberger (especially War, Peace, and Nonresistance and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations).  I think Yoder’s two most important Mennonite students are J. Denny Weaver and Duane Friesen.  Carter ignores Friesen and barely mentions Weaver—but these are the thinkers (much more than Stanley Hauerwas) who have applied Yoder’s thinking the best.  Carter also fails to consider an almost exact contemporary of Yoder’s, Mennonite theologian C. Norman Kraus, whose extensive writings very much parallel Yoder’s.  Especially in relation to issues of christology and Yoder’s relation to classical christology, Kraus’s work provides some crucial sense of perspective.  Another important contemporary of Yoder’s who helps illustrate my point here, also ignored by Carter, is Dave Schroeder of Canadian Mennonite Bible College.

Attention to these Mennonite thinkers, none of whom was particularly influenced by Barth at all, would have made clear that in virtually every aspect of Yoder’s thought, he was not reflecting a perspective originating in Barth’s theology, but a perspective coming directly out of the Mennonite tradition.  I point this out not due to my “Mennonite pride” (which is, popular mythology notwithstanding, not an oxymoron!), but because I think the full radicalness of Yoder’s program will not be appreciated if his roots are not given full credence.

Yoder challenges mainstream theology and ethics not as a kind of mutant individual who brought unique insights to bear on key issues, but as a particularly articulate and prominent member of a community of thought, of which thinkers such as Hershberger, Kraus, Weaver, Friesen, and Schroeder are also important members.  I am sorry that Carter distorts this reality.

(2) Carter himself has drunk deeply from the Waters of Barth and then he turned to Yoder and was struck with the common themes.  Plus, he learned that Yoder studied at Basel and seemed to have some personal connections with Barth.  I am not unsympathetic with Carter’s claims about Barth’s importance to the world, though I remain to be convinced.  Even as evinced with Carter’s discussion of Barth in this book, though, I find Barth’s ethical thrust simply to be too abstract and vague to be that important for peace theology.

I was struck throughout chapter two (“Yoder and the Theology of Karl Barth”), point by every single point, that all Carter was accomplishing was to show that Yoder and Barth had some parallel perspectives.  The Yoder corpus is impressive in how little direct evidence there is of Barth’s influence as a shaper of Yoder’s thought.  Carter milks the few times Yoder refers to Barth, but even those occasions are evidence more of Yoder using Barth to help illustrate a point Yoder has arrived at from non-Barthian sources.

For an audience that has Barth on a pedestal, it may increase people’s openness to Yoder’s work to argue for a close connection.  For other audiences, this connection would provide a further basis for dismissing Yoder.  As I will argue below, to label Yoder’s work as “Christocentric” in a Barthian sense would be a pretty effective way of deflecting the true radicality of Yoder’s theology.

I will cite one sentence from Carter’s book that I think helps make my point. He writes that like Yoder, “Barth also interprets the whole Bible from its center, which is for him Jesus Christ, that is the salvific work of God in Jesus Christ as broadly conceived by classical orthodoxy” (page 65).  Assuming this is an accurate portrayal of Barth’s position, this actually emphasizes his difference with Yoder.  One of Yoder’s main concerns was to challenge the doctrinal focus on Christ as Savior, seeing as central instead Jesus as Model.  What matters for Yoder is the way of life Jesus followed, not orthodoxy’s “saving work of Christ.”  That is why Yoder’s theological ethics are so extraordinarily concrete and specific, in contrast with the vagueness and abstractness of Barth.  An interesting contrast can be seen in comparing Barth’s published sermons (e.g., Liberty to the Captives) with Yoder’s published “Bible lectures” (He Came Preaching Peace).  I love Barth’s sermons, but if you’ve read one you’ve pretty much got his message down—and it is pretty ethically vague.

Carter writes on page 79 that “Yoder’s identification of doctrine and ethics as two sides of the same coin is simply the implementation of Barth’s method.”  This statement amazed me.  Denny Weaver’s Keeping Salvation Ethical has shown how deeply embedded this identification was even in late-19th Mennonite theology.  I think most interpreters would say that the central theological distinctive of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement was its linking of theology and ethics.  I would need to be convinced that Barth did indeed link these two as closely as Carter claims, but even if he did all that would explain is why Yoder might have been drawn to Barth.  To imply that Yoder got this linking from Barth is a case of the problem of not taking Yoder’s Mennonite roots seriously enough.

(3) Carter’s argument that “Yoder’s radical social ethic is derived from a classically orthodox Christianity” (blurb on the book cover) is the element of his book that I would most want to challenge.  Carter writes on page 93, “Yoder’s approach to social ethics is rooted in the classical, orthodox Christology that the ecumenical creeds affirm as the meaning of the Scriptures.”  I believe that this statement is exactly backwards from what it should be.

To the extent that Yoder finds it useful rhetorically to express support for the creeds, he does so only insofar as they are subordinated to scripture.  Yoder does not present the creeds as the interpretive key to Scripture.  The interpretive key to scripture, for Jesus, is the way of life Jesus embodied.  The creeds are useful for Yoder primarily in that he tries to use them rhetorically to argue for the normativeness of Jesus’ way of life.  I learned from Yoder in his class, “Christology and Theological Method” (Spring 1981—this may have been the last time he taught this class at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), to be suspicious of the creeds (though not to reject them or think of them as wrong) insofar as they tend to express a perspective on faith that increasingly distances the way of Jesus in their making abstract doctrine more and more central.

The issue for Yoder, as I understand it, is not, as Carter presents it, the centrality of “incarnation” as a doctrine about Christ the Savior, but rather the way of life that led to the conclusion that in this man God was present.  That is, the focus for Yoder is on Jesus’ way, not on doctrines about Jesus.

I believe that Carter misses the way Yoder uses his affirmations of orthodox Christology.  Mention of the creeds is rhetorical move by Yoder to make his point that Jesus’ way is True, the most authentic expression of God among human beings.  But the priority is on this way of life, not on the creeds as “ontologically true.”  In this sense, I actually think Mennonite theologian Jim Reimer reads Yoder more accurately (see pages 115ff. in Carter’s book) in seeing Yoder as not really meaning that the “gospel is ontologically true”—though, unlike Reimer, I happen to believe that Yoder was right in this view.

Near the end of chapter 4 (page 133), Carter admits that for Yoder “the authority of the creeds can never supersede the authority of the biblical texts themselves….However, to subordinate the authority of the creeds to that of Scripture is not necessarily to think the creeds are wrong.”  I think this is about right—but seems to me to be much different than earlier claims Carter has made: “protecting, declaring, and unpacking the claims classical Christology is what Yoder is about” (page 17); “Yoder…shows how…Christological orthodoxy…contains the key to the survival and flourishing of the church’s witness to Jesus Christ” (page 23); “peace [is] at the heart of the biblical gospel as it is enshrined in the creeds” (page 49); “Yoder’s approach to social ethics is rooted in the classical, orthodox Christology that the ecumenical creeds affirm as the meaning of the Scriptures” (page 93).

I think here is where Carter’s attempt to see Yoder as a Barthian/Mennonite rather simply as a Mennonite has led him to distort Yoder’s theology.  It is too bad Carter was not more attentive to thinkers such as Denny Weaver and Norman Kraus who, drinking from the same Mennonite waters as Yoder, have done significant work in trying to articulate a christology that places the priority on the way of Jesus as presented in the Gospels over the doctrinal, salvation-oriented christology of the creeds.  I actually also think that Gordon Kaufman could be helpful here as well—not as an influence on Yoder but as an independent expression of a Mennonite-rooted christology.

(4) Finally, I found chapters six through eight to be terrific, especially chapter six (“The Heresy of Constantianism”).  I think, though, the effectiveness of these three chapters actually supports my criticisms above. In these chapters were have pretty much “straight Yoder” without Carter trying to fit Yoder’s thought into the boxes of Barthianism and classical orthodoxy.

[This review was originally posted on the John Howard Yoder listserve in Fall, 2001. For a response from Craig Carter and extended dialogue from Fall, 2001, go here.] book review index

Book Review: A moral critique of World War II

Michael Bess. Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. Knopf, 2006.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

An extraordinarily strong cultural assumption most Americans hold—to a large extent across the political spectrum—is that World War II stands as one of the highest moral achievements in our entire history.  It’s obvious that the patriotic Right affirms the “goodness” of the War, but strong similar feelings are held by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, too (witness, for example, Leftist pundit Katha Pollitt’s scathing response to Nicholson Baker’s attempt to question the “goodness” of the War in his book, Human Smoke, in The Nation [April 21, 2008]).

One of the main virtues of Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II, is how Bess, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, complexifies the easy assumption that World War II was mostly a morally unambiguous success story for American virtue.

While Bess pays respectful attention to pacifists who question the validity of all wars (see especially his highly sympathetic treatment of French pacifist pastor André Trocmé’s work to save Jews during the war years in chapter six), he is no pacifist himself.  He even states that, of course, we have no reason to question whether this was ultimately a necessary and just war.  And in the end, in fact, he treats even the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima, Japan, as a morally justifiable (if barely) act (he’s less positive about the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki).

However, the ultimate justifiability of the war does not release its participants nor those now seeking to take account of what happened from moral analysis.  Bess works hard, and mostly with admirable success, at offering an objective moral analysis that scrutinizes “our side” as much as “their side.”  So he criticizes the bombing of civilian populations by the Allies as a case of “moral slippage.”  And in one of his more important, though frustratingly brief, chapters he examines the “moral awkwardness” of the Allies’ alliance with Stalin and totalitarian Soviet Russia.  He also critically discusses the “victors’ justice” of the post-war war crimes’ trials.

I found the positive impression Bess’s careful analyses made on me lessening as the book continues, however.  The first half of the book, showing the dynamics of racism shaping all sides of the conflict, the policies of the victorious World War I nations that surely played a major role in making Germany “safe for the Nazis,” American imperialism in the Far East, and the morally problematic war tactics the “good guys” used, indeed effectively challenges American mythology about the “goodness” of the “Good War.”

However, right in the middle of the book, Bess offers a curious chapter on the Battle of Midway that turns out simply to be a celebration of the bold American tactics that turned a likely defeat into a war-changing victory.  Admirable and interesting as those tactics and their execution may be, it was unclear what the role of this particular story played in relation to Bess’s overall argument in the book—and Bess’s account here adds a note of triumphalism that actually seems to diminish the overall objective tone of the book.

It was with his thorough and thoughtful account of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that Bess challenges my thinking the most.  He raises important questions and makes a strong case for the complexity of the American decision to introduce the world to this most devastating of weapons.  However, since he doesn’t convince me that this decision was not an unqualified moral disaster for this country, I ended up finishing this part of the book with a bad taste in my mouth.  Any moral account of the War that leaves the door as open as Bess’s does to the moral legitimacy of nuclear weapons fails its most important test.

Bess, at the end of the day, seems to treat morality as a series of quandaries without any overarching anchor points.  With his assumption that, of course, this was a necessary and just war, he ends up mostly making the case for the inevitability of “dirty hands.”  He does give the reader a lot to appreciate in his treatment of the various elements of World War II—his rigor in raising moral questions marks this as a highly unusual work.  And this distinctiveness is certainly commendable, even if in many ways I am left with the feeling that the fact that I am as impressed as I am with this book mostly reflects the utter failure of other historians and ethicists in our country to use stable moral criteria in their evaluation of the War.

Ultimately, though, Bess gives us only a little help in our struggle to counter the American version of the myth of redemptive violence that uses World War II as one of its paradigmatic cases of how violence does indeed defeat evil and make good win out.  If indeed, as Bess helps us see at a number of places, the actual war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 did violate fundamental moral principles, perhaps we should allow those violations to push us to ask even more fundamental moral questions about World War II than Bess seems willing to ask.

Maybe the War was actually a moral failure—and as such more serves as a cautionary tale.  Is it possible that even when there is a “good cause,” even when democratic and “Christian” nations take up the sword in “justifiable” resistance to tyranny, even then war corrupts absolutely?

Peace theology book review index

Theology as if Jesus Matters

I am very happy to have a new book just out. It’s called Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Living Issues Discussion). It’s published by Cascadia Publishing House.The book asks (and tries to answer) the question: What would each of the core Christian beliefs look like if we focused on how it links with Jesus’ call to love God and neighbor? What results is a book that is kind of Bible-centered, postmodern, practical, theoretical, pacifist, and confrontational.If Tom Waits were to describe this theology he might say: “It’s new, it’s improved, it’s old fashioned.”

Here is a link to the book’s web page: Theology as if Jesus Matters.