Originally published in The Mennonite (March 3, 1998), 8-9.
John Howard Yoder influenced me tremendously. My membership in the Mennonite church; my vocation as a theologian, pastor, and college professor; and my commitment to being a Christian owe much to Yoder.
He was the first Mennonite writer I read—in fact, one of the first Mennonites I heard of.
In the spring of 1976, my last year of college, I made a personal decision to embrace pacifism. Hours spent soul-searching, talking with friends and reading the Bible culminated in an emotional, prayerful evening of clarity about my certainty that I could not participate in warfare—and a sense that this new commitment was going to be central to my entire understanding of my faith.
That summer, one of my friends took a class from Yoder—on Christian pacifism. My friend came back fired up and remarkably coherent in his theology of peacemaking. My friend also came back with three of Yoder’s books: Nevertheless: Varieties of Christian Pacifism; The Original Revolution; and The Politics of Jesus.
The Politics of Jesus made sense of my entire world. It was a challenging book, stylewise—at least for a beginning in theology like me. Big words, complex arguments. It dealt with so much that was new to me, a whole new vocabulary. A book with dense, content-packed footnotes and a revolutionary message: The New Testament, in all its diverse materials, is unified on one point—the way of Jesus, the way of suffering love, the way of peace, is normative for all aspects of life for all Christians. I agree with those who see Politics as a classic theological text. I have returned to it time after time over the years, almost always finding some new insight.
We spent hours talking, joined by a third friend equally interested in these issues—my wife-to-be, Kathleen Temple. I was a sponge ready to soak up all Yoder had to teach me about Jesus, peacemaking, the Christian tradition, the biblical message of love even for enemies and the Anabaptist alternative to pro-war Christendom.
The next several years were a time for me to consolidate my new awareness and gradually expand it. Kathleen and I learned to know Mennonites in our small Eugene, Ore., church. We read as much as we could.
The books and articles, the people, the ideas—we found ourselves increasingly drawn to Mennonitism. I also found myself wanting more formal education. We didn’t know anything about theological schools, except that Yoder taught at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind.
In August 1980 we boarded a train from Portland, Ore., to Elkhart. It turned out to be a life-changing trip. We found a spiritual and intellectual home.
My two classes with Yoder, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method,” were fascinating. In both classes, students received a set of mimeographed lectures that had been taped and transcribed. What a gold mine! (AMBS later edited and published both sets.) In “Christian Attitudes,” Yoder taught us several wonderful peace hymns, and we began each class singing one. He had a powerful voice. I liked to sit directly in front of him in chapel and pretend I was singing out strongly.
Unfortunately, I found it difficult to connect with John personally. He told us he welcomed office visits. It was true that when he was in his office the door was always open. He did want to be hospitable and available to students. However, when I screwed up my courage to talk with him, it turned out to be an ordeal. He never seemed comfortable, which made this frightened more afraid. His answers were short, his questions few. After two tries, I gave up.
A friend of mine tried harder. However, he also never quite succeeded in developing a close relationship. He gave up after he loaned John the joke book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. John returned the book with a terse, “I fail to see the humor in this.”
My respect for Yoder’s work increased even more during the mid-1980s, when I completed a doctoral program in Christian ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. My school was a consortium of several Protestant and Catholic seminaries. Just about all the schools used The Politics of Jesus as a basic text in their ethics classes for men and women training for the ministry. These students read Yoder’s book with great appreciation.
Numerous theologians, most notably James McClendon (who taught at my school) and Stanley Hauerwas, cited Yoder as one of their major influences. Another of my professors, Robert Bellah, a prominent sociologist of religion, expressed to me in conversation his great respect for Yoder’s work.
Kathleen and I spent the spring semester of 1992 on sabbatical at AMBS. While we were there, accusations toward Yoder concerning sexual misconduct became public.
Like many others, I was shocked and struggled to make sense of it all. It was and remains difficult to hold together the profundity of Yoder’s peace theology with the allegations of pain and trauma inflicted by his actions toward numerous women.
Ultimately, though, I believe that Yoder’s positive contribution to my life, the life of the Mennonite church and the life of the broader Christian church remains. His witness was compromised by his transgressions. However, we are reminded by the Apostle Paul that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Many of our great heroes have had feet of clay.
In January 1997, we saw John when he visited Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. This was his first Mennonite engagement after going through a church discipline process. He gave a typically thorough and insightful lecture. During discussion, he was asked from the floor about the accusations and process. I felt he gave a forthright response speaking openly of the inappropriateness of his actions and his desire for healing for the people he hurt.
John Howard Yoder is a giant in the field of theological ethics. I have alluded to his impact in the wider church—his profound influence in both Catholic and Protestant pastoral training, which has and will for some time filter through the broader church.
He has had an immense impact on Mennonite theology—most directly through his teaching at AMBS and through the work of many Mennonite theologians directly influenced by him (including, among many others, Duane Friesen, Harry Huebner, J. Denny Weaver, and Ray Gingerich).
Mennonite pastors throughout the United States and Canada have been shaped by this theology and have in turn shaped their parishioners with it. Beyond North America, Yoder has also directly and profoundly influenced many Mennonite pastors. My own acquaintances include such pastors in France, Japan, India, Colombia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Somalia, and even a Reformed pastor in Switzerland.
I believe Yoder’s central impact comes from his profound, coherent, thoroughgoing pacifist theology. Without compromise, without equivocation—but also without arrogance or self-satisfaction—Yoder presented the case for Christian pacifism, based ultimately on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the character of the biblical God. When I first encountered Yoder’s thought, I was a pacifist of the heart. And I know he agreed that is where the core of pacifism lies. But he provided understanding for my faith, a way to integrate my heart with my mind.
At the core of this understanding, with much broader significance than simply as a basis for pacifism, Yoder presented a thoroughly persuasive case for the social relevance of Jesus’ entire way of life. “The politics of Jesus” essentially means that Jesus is profoundly normative for Christian existence in all aspects of life—how we relate to God and to our community of faith, but also how we relate to our social world.
A general lesson I learned from Yoder has comforted me in coming to terms with his too-early death. I feel personal sadness at losing a mentor, but I also grieve that the many projects on which he was working at the time of his death will remain incomplete. The comfort I draw, though, comes from Yoder’s own confession of the importance of trust in God as sovereign over history.
A great deal of human violence results form our vain efforts to “make history come out right.” Our calling is not to make history come out right. That task is in God’s hands. Our task is to trust God and to live in response to God’s never-ending mercy.
One of Yoder’s lesser-known books (regrettably) is called Karl Barth and the Problem of War. Yoder studied with the great Swiss theologian in the 1950s. This book is a sincere form of flattery: a serious engagement with the implications of Barth’s theology concerning warfare—and ultimately a pretty sharp critique. However, Yoder expressed his respect for Barth in the book’s dedication: “To the memory of one who faithfully fulfilled the office of teacher in the church.”
I believe these words also apply to John Howard Yoder, and I think he would have felt there could be no higher praise.