John Yoder is not nearly as widely known as Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr. Yet, he is as significant as they, primarily because he politicizes Jesus in a convincing way. Christianity Today ranked Yoder's The Politics of Jesus as the fifth most important religious book of the twentieth-century (v. 44, no. 5). He is a major influence on Stanley Hauerwas.
Yoder is also a troubling character, having been accused by more than one-hundred women of sexual abuse. His status, institutional cover up, and the absence of the #MeToo movement in the 1970's protected him. I'm not sure how important sexual assault is in judging a theologian's contribution, but I can't believe that the behavior of the man doesn't matter. More on this later in this essay.
Yoder's thesis: Christ was a political actor in a political world
A Mennonite, Yoder argued in The Politics of Jesus (1972), his most well-known book, that if one doesn't think of Christianity as a confrontation with corrupt power, and instead thinks of it in terms of personal salvation, then one has missed the point.
Christianity is confrontation with corrupt political power by the means of non-violent resistance, accepting death as a consequence. This is the most important thing Jesus Christ did, and the main thing we can learn from him. In non-violently responding to the abuse of power, we exemplify the life of Christ, and go with "the grain of the universe."
The yearning to see Christ as offering personal redemption and salvation is strong. He does, but for Yoder this is not his primary purpose. However, it's easy to misread the letters of Paul as an account of an apolitical Jesus.
Jesus proposes a political program
We must conclude that in the ordinary sense of his words Jesus, like Mary and like John, was announcing the imminent implementation of a new regime whose marks would be that the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be freed, and the hearers would have a new mentality (metanoia), if they believed this news. (p 37)
Seen from this perspective, Jesus was crucified for exactly the "right" reasons. He posed a political threat to the rabbis and Rome. They did not misunderstand that Jesus was talking about another kingdom, one in heaven. They correctly understood that Jesus was challenging their rule. Jesus questioned the existing political order, understanding that the consequence would be crucifixion.
Reinterpreting what "carrying one's cross" means
An unfortunate, or at least unkind, consequence of this interpretation is that it is wrong to say to someone facing a difficult personal situation that "everyone has his cross to bear," or something like that.
The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. (p 132)
Effectiveness is not a question, only agape is
Yoder abandons any obligation that our political action be effective, which sometimes requires violence. This was the position of Reinhold Niebuhr. For Yoder, the resurrection forbids us to choose violence under any circumstances. In the end, victory belongs to God, no matter the human suffering along the way, for it shall be redeemed. Yoder takes the teachings of the Gospels seriously and literally. Creeds mean nothing; Christ's words mean everything.
It is commonly held that while Jesus demanded the most extreme action, Paul founded a church and with it made a practical Christianity possible. Yoder disagrees. Paul's contribution is to have found a way to talk about power structures, even if some of the terms he used, such as Satanic powers are uncomfortable for many of us today (2 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Corinthains 10:20—21; 1 Corinthains 8:5-6). Yoder interprets Paul in contemporary language. Satanic powers are power structures that have become corrupt, absolutizing themselves, as though they exemplified the highest ideals. Satanic power is the corruption of power in the service of idolatry.
In [Christ's] death the Powers — in this case the most worthy, weighty representatives of Jewish religion and Roman politics— acted in collusion. Like everyone, he too was subject (but in his case quite willingly) to these powers. He accepted his own status of submission. But morally he broke their rules by refusing to support them in their self-glorification; and that is why they killed him. (p 147)
The resurrection manifests what was already accomplished at the cross: that in Christ God has challenged the Powers, has penetrated into their territory, and has displayed that He is stronger than they. (p 149)
What does this mean for the church?
It means that the church must exemplify how believers can live liberated from the powers. Christians can only preach the wisdom of God to Mammon if their own life exemplifies their freedom from greed and selfishness. This requires that we reject nationalism, for under Christ there is no difference between people. (pp 149-150)
Yoder insists that this does not mean the withdrawal of the church. The church does not attack the powers; Christ has already done this. The church concentrates upon not being seduced by them. By existing the church demonstrates that their rebellion has been vanquished. "It is thus a fundamental error to conceive of the position of the church in the New Testament in the face of social issues as a 'withdrawal.'" (p 151)
I think it is withdrawal
I think it is withdrawal. The most important social movement in the United States in the twentieth-century, the civil rights movement, was organized in and led by the church and its leaders. I met Martin Luther King, I heard him preach. For him civil disobedience was action in the name of God. "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" was a call to march, not just to worship (Amos 5:24).
There is much to admire in a church that will not let itself be corrupted by the pressures of conformity. Yoder's Mennonite heritage makes a difference. Sending aid to Haiti, sponsoring refugees, sheltering refugees, feeding the poor—all are religious acts, and Yoder has nothing to say about acts like these. Nothing for, and nothing against. He is simply not concerned with effectiveness.
Consider Nazi Germany
Leading Protestant theologians, such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, founded an alternative church to the official church approved by the Nazis. (Barmen Declaration). That was a noble act. But consider what the church might have done. In what has come to be called the Rosenstrasse demonstration, about 200 non-Jewish Christians publicly protested against the imprisonment of their Jewish relatives. This was in 1943. They were not attacked, and almost all the prisoners were released. (Holocaust Encyclopedia). This was not, however, a church-based movement, but a social one, organized by the relatives of the imprisoned. The term "Christian" means little more here than "non-Jewish."
I'd go further and argue that the Bielski partisans, a group of about 1,000 members, who lived in the forests of Poland, rescuing Jews from extermination and fighting the Germans, were doing God's work.* Almost never is violence in the service of God; almost always there are alternatives. But against evil as malicious and systematic as the Nazis, there was no alternative. Or rather, the alternative was even more smoke and ashes.
Not concerned with effectiveness
Yoder says that Jesus was not concerned with effectiveness. Neither is Yoder. It doesn't matter whether we save lives in the face of malignant, genocidal power; it matters that we practice non-violence.
It is the Good News that my enemy and I are united, through no merit or work of our own, in a new humanity that forbids henceforth my ever taking his or her life in my hands. (p 227)
The result, or perhaps it is the presupposition, is that we give up every effort to change the course of history.
Jesus was so faithful to the enemy-love of God that it cost him all his effectiveness; he gave up every handle on history. (p 236)
Jesus thereby excluded any normative concern for any capacity to make sure that things would turn out right . . . . the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival. (pp. 236, 241)
Life on this earth now
Perhaps it all depends on how we value life on this earth now. Even from the perspective of eternity (if such a thing were possible), life matters. Even from the perspective of eternity (if such a thing were possible), it matters whether humans can help create a more just and humane world for us to live in. Global warming is in the hands of men and women, not just Providence.
Effectiveness matters. Not as much as we think, but it matters. I have a right to dismiss effectiveness when my own life is at stake. But do I have this right when the lives of thousands of others are at stake, or even one?
We have a responsibility to consider effectiveness, particularly effectiveness in saving lives and protecting their dignity. Violence is all too often the first choice, and Yoder is correct that the means implicate the end. But sometimes humans must risk their moral purity to preserve innocent life. Does your life not deserve this too?
One might argue that I have created an unnecessary split between preserving life and Godliness. But it is Yoder who has created this split.
The challenge to which the proclamation of Christ’s rule over the rebellious world speaks a word of grace is not a problem within the self but a split within the cosmos. (p 159)
If I understand him, Yoder is saying that in this world we cannot always act in a moral manner because to do so would require us to sin. That's just the way the world is. If so, then I would say that sometimes humans must take this burden on themselves. This requires what Yoder calls discernment. For Yoder, and most Christians, discernment reveals God's guidance. I agree, only it wouldn't be Yoder's God, but one who acts through humans to secure the best possible outcome in morally confounded situations.
Yoder's contribution is to reveal Jesus as a political radical. Yoder makes Jesus relevant by interpreting what invisible Powers, as Paul calls them (Col. 1:16), might mean in the world today. They mean the worship of systems of authority.
We are now ready to affirm that the biblical understanding of the powers in history can give us a more adequate intellectual framework of the task of social discernment to which we are especially called in our age. (p 156)
The irony of Yoder's work is that while his "Powers" theory makes a responsible political church possible, his church turned inward makes it irrelevant.
Sexual abuse and theology
Over his lifetime, Yoder sexually abused over 100 women. When finally confronted, Yoder resigned from Goshen Theological Seminary, spending the next twenty years as a professor at Notre Dame. In “Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Rachel Waltner Goossen, who wrote the official Mennonite report, tells of Yoder's desire to develop a new sexual ethic “including the idea that intimate physical contact was an appropriate expression of non-erotic Christian love, and asked select female students to help.” “Research” included fondling, oral sex and intercourse.
The good news is that well before the #MeToo movement, Yoder's students and others spoke out. The bad news is that Yoder never suffered serious professional consequences, dying at the age of 70 in his office at Notre Dame. His New York Times obituary (Jan. 7, 1998) said not a word about his abuses, but a recent collection of essays on his work devotes two chapters to the topic (Weaver).
Might there be some relationship between Yoder's insistence on non-violence even at the expense of millions of lives and the violence he imposed upon so many women? Might his non-violence be a denial of the impulses that led to abuse? Or, as a friend suggests, did he idealize a passivity that he hoped to find in his victims? I don't know, and I don't think there is any way to know. Others may be able to find still more connections, mostly ironic, between the man and his work.
What we do know is that it is possible to find a connection between the most abstract philosophy and personal practice. Martin Heidegger's membership in the Nazi party is a familiar example, even if all would not agree to that link.** Theology is not just about finding a way to talk about God; it is also the measure of a man or woman.
* Tuvia Bielski, their leader, said "I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers." (Kopel, p 119) He did both, and more, killing Polish collaborators.
** Heidegger despised everyday life, leading him to idealize Nazi greatness.