Tag Archives: John Howard Yoder

Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” in face of his alleged sexual violence

Ted Grimsrud

[A slightly different version of this essay was published in J. Denny Weaver, ed., John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian (Cascade Books, 2014), 334-50. It is a condensed and revised version from several blog posts I wrote in August, 2013, beginning on August 2.]

The Yoder dilemma

In June 1992, in a series of investigative articles by reporter Tom Price, the Elkhart Truth, John Howard Yoder’s hometown newspaper, reported on widespread allegations about coercive sexual activities by Yoder. These allegations led to a disciplinary process from the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference in relation to Yoder’s ministerial credentials. [1]  In the years since, debate has continued concerning the nature of Yoder’s offenses and their implications for the use of his theology.

In a helpful discussion Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White define violence as “destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.” This definition is meant to include domination and psychic damage as well as bodily harm.[2]  What is known of the specifics of Yoder’s actions is discussed in a following section. It suffices here to say that by this definition, these actions were most certainly emotionally, if not physically, violent.

I was a student of Yoder’s at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s and have long been deeply influenced by his peace theology. And, as a consequence, I have been troubled by what I have learned of the sexual misconduct of my peace teacher.

For all of my adult life, ever since I was nearly drafted into the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, I have thought constantly about issues of violence, its effects and how to overcome the problems it causes. Most of my focus has been on violence in relation to war, but I have thought about violence more generally as well. John Howard Yoder’s theology has been influential for me, but others have perhaps influenced me even more in thinking about violence’s origins and impact on our world.

This conversation about John Howard Yoder as doer of violence links in with my interests on several levels. One is on the level of how to make sense of the alleged actions of my teacher who helped me learn so much about peace theology. This problem calls attention to the fact that theology—at least our Anabaptist theology—is not merely abstract theory, but is also about our life and actions as Christians. Another interest is the broader level of thinking about a terrible and oh so personal aspect of the phenomenon of violence—men acting violently toward women, especially in Christian communities. And finally, there is the discussion of how to apply things I have learned about violence from many sources over the years. Continue reading

Anabaptist versus conventional theologies

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.5

[Revised version of  “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21st century?

John Howard Yoder did not consider himself a systematic theologian, and as far as I know would not have called himself a constructive theologian. However, his work certainly directly related to the task many Mennonites, and others who would also think of themselves as spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists see as vital for the viability of Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities—namely, self-conscious work at articulating their theological convictions in ways that might provide sustenance to their tradition.

Yoder’s model I will call “practice-oriented” theology. To help understand Yoder’s approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engaged in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a somewhat different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger’s contemporary proposal

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship. Continue reading

Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.4

[Unpublished paper, July 2008]

Christian pacifism stems directly from the biblical story of God’s revelation to humanity of the normative pattern for human life.  We see this revelation most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus.  One of our most sophisticated interpreters of this story has been John Howard Yoder.  This essay presents a summary of Yoder’s argument in his classic book, The Politics of Jesus.[1]

The New Testament, centered on the story, presents a political philosophy.  This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism, a commitment based on the normativity of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s intention for human social life.  Christians have tended to miss the social implications of the New Testament story because of assumptions about both politics and Jesus.

Christian ethicists and theologians have generally posited that Jesus’ thought as expressed in his teaching and practice could not have intended to speak in a concrete way to social ethics.  Jesus, it has been said, spoke only to the personal sphere or (more recently) he articulated his ethical expectations in the extreme forms he did because he (mistakenly) expected history to end very soon.

Because Jesus does not speak directly to our social ethics, Christian theology has concluded, we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

We must ask, though, whether, given Christian belief in Jesus as God Incarnate, should we not rather begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics?  We at least should look at the story itself and discern whether it indeed might have social ethical relevance.

Jesus’ identity

We will look first at how the gospels present Jesus, focusing on the Gospel of Luke primarily for simplicity’s sake.  At the very beginning, the song of Mary in 1:46-55 upon her learning of the child she will bear, we learn that this child will address social reality.  He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder.

This child, we are told, will bring succor to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort.  From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms. Continue reading

Pacifism and Truth: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.4

 [Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003): 403-415.]

For John Howard Yoder, pacifism[1] 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?[2]  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.”[3]

These are the issues I will address:  (1) How is nonviolence (or pacifism; in this paper 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”?  I will conclude by reflecting how Yoder’s understanding of these issues might contribute to working with present-day struggles the churches are facing.

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.

How is nonviolence (or pacifism) an “epistemology”?

Let us define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.”[4]  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.[5] Continue reading

Romans as a Peace Book: A Yoderian Reading

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.9

[Published in Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin, eds., Peace Be With You: Christ’s Benediction Amid Violent Empires (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010), 120-37.]

John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian and advocate for Christian pacifism, as much as anybody in the last half of the 20th century, popularized the Christian critique of Constantinianism.[1] “Constantinianism” refers to a way of looking at power in social life.  The term evokes the Roman emperor Constantine who, in the fourth century, initiated major changes in the official policies of Rome vis-à-vis Christians, changes by and large embraced by the Christians.  Indicative of the changes, at the beginning of the fourth century few Christians performed military service due to a sense of mutual antipathy between Christians and the military.  By the end of the fourth century, the Empire had instituted rules that made it illegal for anyone who was not a Christian to be in the military.

Yoder has been criticized for being overly simplistic in his use of Constantine as such a central metaphor.[2]  I think the criticisms are largely unfair, but for this essay I want to concern myself with Yoder’s application of this symbolic label more than whether it’s fully historically appropriate or not.  That is, what Yoder means by Constantinianism is simply this: believing that the exercise of power is necessarily violent, that the state appropriately holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that God’s will is in some sense funneled through the actions of the heads of state, that Christians should work within the structures of their legitimately violent nation-states taking up arms when called upon to do so, and that history is best read through the eyes of people in power.

Most people who have read the Gospels agree that Jesus stands in tension with Constantinianism.  For most Christians in the past 2,000 years, the apostle Paul has been seen as a key bridge who prepared the way for the Constantinian shift in the early 4th century CE.  Thus it is no accident that after Constantine, Paul’s writings become central for Christian theology (much more so than the Gospels)—we see this already the great “Father of the church,” Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Augustine is still considered Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Paul (along with the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther).

For John Howard Yoder, though, the Constantinian shift was not inevitable and certainly not a good thing, and Augustine and Luther are not definitive interpreters of Paul.  In fact, for Yoder, Augustine’s and Luther’s interpretations of Paul have led to great mischief—not least in how these interpretations have leant themselves to presenting Paul (or at least Paul’s theology) as a servant of Empire.

My interest here is to look at Yoder’s non-Constantinian reading of Paul and to suggest that indeed Paul’s theology provides us powerful resources that might help us walk faithfully with Jesus today as peace churches in a world still all too Constantinian.  Yoder devotes his book The Politics of Jesus[3] to explaining what Jesus’ life and teaching have to say to Empire.

A central part of his argument has to do with a way of reading the entire New Testament (and, implicitly, the entire Bible) in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.  This way of reading includes paying close attention to the writings of Paul.  One of the many ways Yoder challenges the standard account of Christian faith is to make the case (in some detail) for reading Paul’s thought as resting firmly in full continuity with Jesus. Continue reading

Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans

I believe that we should understand the Apostle Paul to be presenting a radical message that combines pacifism with resistance to the Roman Empire. What follows is a paper presented August 13, 2008, at a conference, “On Being a Peace Church in a Constantinian World” at Messiah College. This paper utilizes the thought of John Howard Yoder to make a case for this kind of reading of Paul.

Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans—8/13/08—Ted Grimsrud

John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian and advocate for Christian pacifism, as much as anybody in the last half of the 20th century, popularized the critique of Constantinianism, which he understood as a Christian problem. For Yoder, “Constantinianism” refers to a way of looking at social life. Constantinians believe that the exercise of power is necessarily violent, that God’s will is funneled through the actions of the heads of state, that Christians should work within the structures of their legitimately violent nation-states and take up arms when called upon to do so, and that history is best read through the eyes of people in power.

Most people who have read the Gospels agree that Jesus stands in tension with Constantinianism. I remember in grad school, my teacher Robert Bellah stating that John Yoder had convinced him that Jesus indeed was a pacifist. However, once Christians began to take responsibility for society in the fourth century (and it was a good thing that they did, according to Bellah), they simply had to look elsewhere than to Jesus for their ethical guidance.

For most Christians in the past 2,000 years, the Apostle Paul has been a key bridge who prepared the way for the Constantinian shift in the 4th century. Thus, it is no accident that after Constantine, Paul’s writings become central for Christian theology (much more so than the Gospels). For Yoder, though, it is misreading Paul to see him presenting something other than a reinforcing of Jesus’ message.

My interest today is to look at Yoder’s non-Constantinian reading of Paul. I will suggest that indeed Paul’s theology provides us powerful resources that might help us walk faithfully with Jesus today as peace churches in a world still all too Constantinian. Yoder devotes his book The Politics of Jesus to explaining what Jesus’ life and teaching have to say to Empire. He outlines a way of reading the entire Bible in light of Jesus, including paying close attention to the writings of Paul, seeing Paul’s thought as resting in full continuity with Jesus.
Continue reading

Pacifism With Justice (16)

The peace epistemology of John Howard Yoder is the focus of the concluding essay in my book-in-progress, Pacifism With Justice: The Biblical and Theological Case. The essay, “Pacifism and Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Epistemology,” argues that Yoder serves as a model for an approach to pacifism that understands this core conviction to shape the very way one views the world.

Seeing pacifism as a way of knowing shapes Yoder’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus and the relevance of Jesus’ life and teaching to all of life. Such an approach challenges Christianity to its core, suggesting that its core message is indeed a message of pacifism (which I define as the conviction that no value or commitment takes priority over the values of love, compassion, and caring for each human being).