17. Pacifism and Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Epistemology

Pacifism and Knowing[1]

For the influential Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder[2] , pacifism[3] was unequivocally true. But what would this statement have meant for Yoder—“Pacifism is unequivocally true”? What would have been Yoder’s basis for making such a claim? And how did this “truth” work for him?

Reflecting on these questions is a useful way to consider even bigger questions—How do we find our way between foundationalism and relativism? How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values? How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the words of Robert Nozick, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one’s interlocutors must either give in or have their brains explode?[4] On the other hand, how do we avoid the paralysis of many contemporaries who cannot find a way to condemn evil and do not have the clarity of conviction that would empower them to suffer, even to die, for the cause of peace.

In his posthumously published essay, “‘Patience’ as Method in Moral Reasoning,” Yoder provides in a sentence the basic outline for my paper. He wrote, “Nonviolence is not only an ethic about power, but also an epistemology about how to let truth speak for itself.”[5]

These are the issues I will address: (1) How is nonviolence (or pacifism; I will use these two terms interchangeably, as Yoder often did) an “epistemology”? (2) What is the “truth” of which Yoder speaks here? (3) What is involved in letting “truth speak for itself”?

To state my central argument in a nutshell: Yoder’s pacifist epistemology is clearly an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition. For Yoder, the way we approach knowing as Christian pacifists qualitatively differs from the approach to knowing that has over the centuries relied in one way or another on coercive power—either literally as in the use of the sword against “heretics” or more intellectually, as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.

Nonviolence (or pacifism) as an “epistemology”

Let us define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.”[6] In line with this understanding, we may say that when Yoder speaks of pacifism as an epistemology, he asserts that a pacifist commitment actually shapes how a person knows. A pacifist sees the world in a certain way, understands in a certain way. The commitment to nonviolence is a life-shaping, mind-shaping kind of conviction—a conviction that shapes all other convictions.

Yoder refers to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in asserting that pacifism is more than simply “a position in political ethics.” “The renunciation of violence…is…an epistemology.” That is, pacifism is a way of knowing that has at its center the decisive commitment to offer “good news for the other.”[7] Gandhi and King both shaped their pragmatic strategies in line with their underlying core philosophical commitment to nonviolence.

In aligning himself with Gandhi and King in this way, Yoder commits himself to a process of knowing and understanding that is unwilling to rely on power over others. This is a major move away from the epistemology of western philosophy that is essentially at its core coercive; one “knows” on the basis of logically compelling justifications irresistibly following from certain absolutes or foundations. One has no “choice;” one must assent to such knowledge.

Yoder rejects seeking a truth system that is based on a sense of possession. Instead of seeking “a truth system with which to defend ourselves as those who possess it,” he argues for an approach that accepts relative powerlessness over against others.[8] In this way, as with the rest of his ethics, he draws his cues from his understanding of Jesus.

One of the most relevant elements of Jesus’ way for Yoder’s pacifist epistemology is Jesus’ vulnerability, even to the point of his crucifixion. In his vulnerability, Jesus modeled a willingness to respect others’ freedom either to accept or reject his message.

Yoder contrasts this vulnerability with the quest for invulnerability he sees in foundationalist appeals to “truths” that must be accepted. “The foundational appeal remains a mental power play to avoid my being dependent on your voluntary assent, to bypass my becoming vulnerable to your world in your otherness.”[9]

A big problem with the way people in the West have approached knowledge is that it is based upon a desire to be “on top,” to be in power. If we ourselves do not happen to be in power we still tend to imagine being in power. How would I think if I were the one in charge? However, being in such a position, or wanting to be in such a position is, in Yoder’s view, the opposite of being in a position to know accurately. He wrote, “being on top of the heap consistently keeps one from seeing things as they are. Even wanting to be there has that effect.”[10]

For Yoder, there is a direct connection between the fact that thinkers within the Western epistemological tradition are open to the use of violence and that they have difficulty accurately perceiving the nature of reality. To say that pacifism is an epistemology is to say that there are elements of a pacifism commitment that actually serve to foster better, more accurate knowing.

One of the ways that pacifism can foster knowing is that does not understand the quest for truth to be a zero-sum, scarcity-oriented, competitive process. Rather, our understanding of truth depends upon our listening to others, even our adversaries.

For Yoder, as for Gandhi, knowing requires nonviolent ways of relating to others, all others. He wrote “the reason one renounces violence in social conflict is that the adversary is part of my truth-finding process. I need to act nonviolently in order to get the adversary to hear me, but I need as well to hear the adversary.”[11]

For Gandhi—and Yoder—life is “an experiment with truth.”[12] That is, as we seek truth, we enter a process of moving toward it—a process we never dare to cease because we never arrive. Because of our finitude, we must always be learning from others, including our adversaries. Truth is too big, and we are each too limited, to think we may know the truth fully.

Gandhi asserted that the quest for truth excludes the use of violence. Human beings are not capable of knowing the absolute truth. Hence, we must never close off the possibility of learning from our adversaries, nor must we ever take upon ourselves the absolute certainty that killing others assumes.[13]

Yoder’s pacifist epistemology, like Gandhi’s, renounces coercion and affirms the possibility—the requirement—that we learn from everyone, even our adversaries. He goes even further, though. We not only should renounce coercion and affirm openness as we seek to know, we must actually renounce all tools of privilege and power as means of accessing truth.[14]

“The epistemological privilege of the poor,” Yoder writes, “means that if you see things from below, you see them as God does.”[15] He directly delinks power, the capacity to coerce, standing “at the top of the heap,” from authentic knowledge of truth.

Yoder’s pacifist epistemology privileges vulnerability, trust in God’s kind of power (the power of self-giving love), renouncing privilege, of respecting the freedom and insights of the other, process—everything the epistemology of domination does not.

The “truth” of which Yoder speaks

“Truth,” for Yoder, has much more to do with practical ethics, with concrete expression in life, than with theories and abstract principles. He takes as his “location,” as his context for theological reflection, the community of faith.

For Yoder, “what it means to qualify a statement as ‘true’ in the faith community is not an ontological statement about the status of a proposition. It is an historical judgment about the statement’s compatibility with the life directions and value insights, the narrative memories and the practices, of that community.”[16] What matters most, that is, are ways that truth-claims foster faithful living within the community and are coherent with past expressions of faithfulness.

Yoder understands faithful living (“truthfulness”) to be by definition outward focused. Faithful living means fostering healing and restorative justice in a broken, alienated, and unjust world. Faithfulness requires witnessing to the “good news” of God’s right-making love. This love must be lived-out—characterizing the community of faith’s internal life and its message to the wider world.

So, according to Yoder, “at the center of Christianity we find ‘news,’ not ‘out there’ absolutes.” This “news”—the story of God’s healing love—is the “truth” to which the faith community witnesses. But it is a different kind of “truth” than the Western epistemological tradition affirms. This “news” originates in a particular setting, is contingent, historical, non-esoteric, and translatable into any language.[17]

Yoder’s “truth,” then, is not authoritarian, under the control of people in power, or accessible only through some sort of universal language that is more real than particular languages. What makes the “news” accessible to everyone is not that it is expressed in some kind of over-arching, transcendent language—but because it can be translated in meaningful ways into each particular language.

This apparent “weakness” of the “truth,” of the “news,” is actually, according to Yoder, responsible for its very power to bring life. Only this kind of “news” can actually foster authentic wholeness—and it matters that the content of the “news” includes nonviolence. “News is ‘good’,” Yoder writes, “when it fosters wholeness—this cannot happen when the news is imposed by authority or coercively.”[18]

The key image Yoder draws upon to characterize the nature of truth is God’s vulnerability. The “news” we affirm requires a relinquishment of dominance and control. In reporting this “news” we always allow others to challenge it, even reject it.

“We do not have the truth. We confess a truth which has taken possession of us through no merit of our own. The truth, being the revelation of God’s own vulnerability on the cross, cannot be otherwise commended than in the vulnerability of open encounter with the neighbor.”[19]

Yoder believes following Jesus in this granting of freedom and respect toward others is a crucial way of ourselves being truthful. “We do not have to follow Jesus,” he writes. “That we do not have to is the profoundest proof of his condescension, and thereby of his glory.”[20] Jesus is the “truth” not in spite of his always respecting others’ freedom, but because of it.

Truth is lived out, concrete, on-the-ground. It is inextricably linked with non-coercive communication. The evidence truth can be known, that there is truth according to which human beings thrive best when they shape their lives in coherence with it, is found not in logical proofs but in “the vitality of communities in which a different way of being keeps breaking in here and now.”[21]

Yoder uses the term “evangelical” to characterize people committed to the “news” of Jesus. However, he clearly differentiates this meaning of “evangelical” from the movement he calls “High Protestant Scholasticism.” This latter fixates on epistemology in a way that reflects “a concession to Enlightenment and not a victory over it. It looks like an acceptance of the scholastic notion that we seek a truth system with which to defend ourselves.”[22]

In contrast, Yoder asserts, “to be ‘evangelical’ is not to claim universality as achieved either on the grounds of a revelatory privilege or because one can apologetically subject it to everyone else’s concept of natural reason. It is to discover approximations to universality in the lived experience of transtribal communication and reconciliation.”[23] By “transtribal communication and reconciliation,” Yoder means that it is necessary, and possible, for human beings across cultures to embrace their common humanity and to share commitments to the way of Jesus.

The truth Yoder sees in Jesus serves as an ordering principle for all knowing. He writes, “the point is not that all truth is in Jesus or in the Bible. It is that the truth that is in Jesus is the truth that matters the most, which must therefore regulate our reception and recognition of other kinds and levels of truth rather than being set in parallel or subordinated thereto.”[24]

In linking truth so closely to Jesus, Yoder means the particular first-century human being who lives in a particular culture and spoke a particular language. Yoder resists the universalizing emphases of sophisticated philosophical method. In actual on-the-ground reality, truthful human beings always have drawn on eclectic sources in learning and living out truth.

“There is nothing necessarily wrong with real life in which modes such as ends, means, story, contract, virtue—and others—are mixed together helter-skelter, with no need for one of them always to have priority.”[25]

That is, “the truth question is rooted in the real world, in communities holding to various faith claims, to which diverse people find themselves adhering for all kinds of reasons.”[26] The point, then, is not that there is some clear method that delivers perfect truth. To the contrary, the truth that matters is something that may be messy, complex, ambiguous, partial, imperfect—just like human beings and human communities. Amidst these complexities, truth may be discovered and lived.

Jesus lived the way he did because of how he understood the universe to be. He trusted in how things “really are”—he understood God as the One creator and sustainer of a universe in which love and nonviolence are at home.

“It has always been true that suffering creates shalom. Motherhood has always meant that. Servanthood has always meant that. Healing has always meant that. Tilling the soil has always meant that. Priesthood has always meant that. Prophecy has always meant that. What Jesus did was that he renewed the definition of kingship to fit with the priesthood and prophecy. He saw that the suffering servant is king as much as he is priest and prophet. The cross is neither foolish nor weak, but natural.”[27]

Yoder’s view of truth, then, embraces a kind of paradox. He confidently speaks of truth—we can know, truth is real. But the truth is accessed only amidst the particularity and relativity of on-the-ground social life among actual human beings. And the entirety of reality witnesses to the ultimate truthfulness of suffering love.

Letting “truth speak for itself”

The key here is Yoder’s affirmation that people of faith must be open to all the truth—and that God’s Spirit enables us to do so. We may admit various points of view, even when contested. And we may trust that the truth will be served by open encounter.[28]

Yoder links together confidence in truth’s power with belief that truth is nonviolent. A third element of the mix is our human finitude. We cannot know all there is to know; we must keep learning. We may trust that it is possible to keep learning and that it is sure that our questions, our doubts, even our distorted motivations, will not quench the truth. We do not need to use coercion of any sort to insure the survivability of truth—and, in fact, if we do use coercion we will invariably separate ourselves from the truth.

So we need not fear give and take or lacking absolute certainty. Yoder argues that “what we are looking for is not a way to keep dry above the waves of relativity, but a way to stay within our bark, barely afloat and sometimes awash amidst those waves, yet neither dissolving into them nor being carried only where they want to push it.”[29]

Truth speaks for itself, then, when on the one hand we open ourselves to hearing all relevant voices, recognizing that each has a contribution to make, while, on the other hand, we retain the conviction that we can know truth, that we can remain afloat, and that we are empowered to resist the “waves of relativity” as they seek to push us “only where they want.”

At the core of our capability of holding together openness and conviction lies nonviolence. The power of the truth of the gospel (“good news”) is to be found in “its renunciation of coercion. You do not have to believe.” Yoder argues that this renunciation contrasts with other epistemologies. “The temptation with which foundationalism flirts is to find a mental or verbal move that will coerce assent.”[30]

Since truth for Yoder is understood in terms of the gospel, the “good news,” he places special importance on the translatability of the truthful message of God’s suffering love. And the characteristics of this translating work themselves reflect the nature of the truth.

We do not seek a “higher” or “absolute” language with the expectation that people encounter truth only as they leave their own particular languages (and cultures) behind. Rather, we accept as necessary the task of entering “concretely into the other community long enough, deeply enough, vulnerably enough, to be able to articulate our Word in their words.”[31]

This vulnerability, in part at least, finds expression in our need to validate our message by living it out. What we are saying is seen to be truthful, ultimately, not by our careful and irresistible logic, but by the coherence between “walk and word.”

“Ultimate validation is a matter not of a reasoning process which one could by dint of more doubt or finer hair-splitting push down one story closer to bedrock, but of a concrete social genuineness of the community’s reasoning together in the Spirit.”[32]

Besides having our lives face scrutiny as part of the evaluation of the truthfulness of our words, vulnerability in letting “truth speak for itself” also means allowing others the freedom to disagree. In this way we are consistent with Jesus. Yoder asserts, “Jesus makes on his hearers’ assent no claims but by the truth inherent in his words and his being there at their mercy. Rejection, according to the ‘news’ brought by Jesus and his witness, is part of the validation.”[33]

One crucial way the community of faith witnesses by its common life to the truthfulness of its understanding of God and reality is how it communicates with those outside the community. Vulnerability, non-coerciveness, meeting the others on their turf and in their own language reflect deep-seated trust in the genuine power of God’s love as the core truth of the universe.

Another crucial way the community of faith witnesses is in how it processes its own internal conflicts. “To be human is to have differences,” Yoder writes. “To be human wholesomely is to process those differences, not by building up conflicting power claims but [rather] by reconciling dialogue.”[34] The same vulnerability required of the followers of Jesus in their communicating with the wider world is also required in their internal community life. And for the same reasons—this is the only way to find truth and this is how the watching world will best perceive the nature of truth.

Because conflict follows simply from being human socially, the community of faith can never expect to be free from conflict—nor should it. Unity within this community is indeed important, but the unity must be authentically human. So Yoder makes the point that what is profound in followers of Jesus working together is not that their common work is the fruit of their agreeing with one another. No, the common work is profound when they are open about their differences and commit themselves to “talk together with a view to reconciliation.”[35]

Yoder goes so far as to characterize this “talking together” as a “sacrament”—one of five concrete practices that are ways God acts among believers to show truth to the watching world.[36]

“Truth,” for John Howard Yoder, must be lived. It is best lived in the context of a faith community committed to learning and growing in understanding the good news of God’s healing love. As this “news” is understood, it must be shared with others; and as it is shared the words of those within the community must cohere with their walk.


Yoder affirms that truth indeed is real. All people in all times and places are subject to this truth. However, it is embodied by witness, vulnerability, and openness, not coercion and domination.

The ultimate criterion to ascertain truthfulness is the fostering of peaceable living, more so than carefully constructed, sophisticated, logically impeccable belief systems. Truth is a way of life more than a collection of ideas.

No one perspective can be certain of possessing the entire truth on any issue. Consequently, we all need to listen to others, ready to learn and adjust our understandings. Indeed, we especially need to listen to those with whom we differ as they are often the ones who best may make us aware of limits in our perspective.

The community of faith must seek all points of view within the fellowship. Dissent from majority perspectives is to be welcomed, not stifled. People with differences of perspective must listen to one another in open, safe, respectful conversation or they will not move toward truth.

The viability of the truth the churches witness to is to a very large degree dependent upon people in the churches living consistently with this truth. That is, for example, if the church preaches nonviolence as a core part of its understanding of the “good news,” in order for this message to be credible, nonviolence must be a characteristic of the church’s internal life.


1. The chapter originated as a paper presented to the Believers Church Conference, “The Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, March 2002. A version was published as “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003), 403-415.

2. On the development and main themes of Yoder’s theology, see Mark Thiessen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) and Earl S. Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2007).

3. In The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), Yoder defined “pacifism” as follows: “The renunciation of the sword to which Jesus called his disciples” (9). His book Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, revised edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992) aims to show that “‘pacifism’ is not just one specific position spoken for authoritatively by just one thinker. Instead, it is a wide gamut of views that vary and are sometimes even contradictory” (12). While Yoder certainly develops in detail his own distinctive understanding of pacifism, he also acknowledges a profound commonality with all pacifist—those who “recognize the wrongness of war and…devote themselves to the service of their fellow human beings” (Nevertheless, 142). In the ecumenical statement Yoder helped write (Douglas Gwyn, George Hunsinger, Eugene F. Roop, and John Howard Yoder, A Declaration on Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun [Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991]), pacifism is not directly defined. However the book begins with this statement: “Is loyalty to Jesus Christ compatible with participation in war? We believe that it is not” (11). For the purposes of this paper, I will use “pacifism” in this way: “The in-principle conviction that it is never morally acceptable to participate in warfare or other forms of death-dealing violence.” As will be clear in what follows, this core conviction of pacifism has wide-ranging implications for how one understands all of life. “Pacifism” for John Howard Yoder is a much more positive concept than simply saying no to violence. It is a philosophy of life.

4. Cited in Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 295.

5. John Howard Yoder, “‘Patience’ as Method in Moral Reasoning: Is an Ethic of Discipleship ‘Absolute’?” in Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, Chris K. Huebner, and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 27-28.

6. D. W. Hamlyn, “Epistemology, History of,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 242.

7. John Howard Yoder, “Meaning After Babble: With Jeffrey Stout Beyond Relativism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24.1 (Spring 1996), 135.

8. John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 39.

9. Yoder, “Meaning,” 134.

10. John Howard Yoder, “The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism,” in Louise Hawkley and James C. Juhnke, eds., Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), 34-35.

11. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1992), 69.

12. Yoder, “Meaning,” 135.

13. Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967), 16.

14. John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 314.

15. Yoder, “Burden,” 34-35.

16. Yoder, To Hear the Word, 40.

17. John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy 93.3 (July 1992), 290.

18. Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed,” 292.

19. John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Notre Dame, IN: Shalom Desktop Publications, 1996), 112.

20. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 62.

21. Yoder, Priestly, 94.

22. Yoder, To Hear the Word, 39-40.

23. John Howard Yoder, “Theological Revision and the Burden of Particular Identity,” in Harlan R. Beckley and Charles M. Sweezey, eds., James M. Gustafson’s Theological Ethics: Interpretations and Assessments (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), 76.

24. Yoder, To Hear the Word, 54.

25. John Howard Yoder, “Walk and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism,” in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theological without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,1994), 81.

26. Yoder, To Hear the Word, 38-39.

27. John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 212.

28. Yoder, For the Nations, 230.

29. Yoder, Priestly, 38.

30. Yoder, “Meaning,” 134.

31. Yoder, “Meaning,” 132-133.

32. Yoder, “Walk and Word,” 83.

33. Yoder, “On not Being Ashamed,” 293.

34. Yoder, Body Politics, 8.

35. Yoder, Royal Priesthood, 282.

36. Yoder, Body Politics, 71.

1 thought on “17. Pacifism and Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Epistemology

  1. Albert Steiner

    If I understand this, then it is truth that Jesus sent his Spirit to empower communities of believers to continue his work of salvation, of reforming the personal and systematic sin of us humans. As ambassadors of the salvation system for us humans, we cannot become sidetracked by participation in nationalistic wars, or even “moral” wars to “save the world from greater evil”.

    Our call to redemptive community means that we are wagering our lives on the belief that God’s salvation community is the better way, we are willing to go to stand between combatants, we are willing to go to prison, we are willing to devote our money and our lives to to live and spread this gospel (good news).

    Thank you for putting up this web site, I find the articles very challenging


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