Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2013
A great deal of my energy for “thinking aloud” here about John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence stems from how important Yoder’s theology has been for my life and work. I can’t really put into words how important that theology has been for me. So, how do I reconcile this influence with such deeply problematic behavior? I have been reflecting on the behavior, and now I want to take some time to reflect on the theology—to sketch why I have found it so important. It’s not just that Yoder is famous and important and widely read and cited. It’s that his work has had a profound effect on my own life and thought in many, many ways.
I can probably pinpoint pretty much the exact moment when John Howard Yoder became my most formative thinker. I was a recent graduate of the University of Oregon and in the winter of 1976-7 worked swing shift at a Eugene, Oregon plywood mill. For about two months I had “lunch” all by myself. During those thirty minutes, six days a week, I got a lot of reading done. I read The Lord of the Rings and The Politics of Jesus—a fascinating juxtaposition.
After that winter, I read everything by Yoder I could get my hands on and a few years later, Kathleen and I moved out to Indiana to study with Yoder at the Mennonite seminary where he taught. One of the highlights of that eventful year was receiving copies of two sets of Yoder’s at the time unpublished lectures, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method.” I also photocopied numerous unpublished articles that were in the library.
I have continued to read Yoder and absorb his theological insights. I would like to believe, though, that I have followed a path he would have approved of, which is using his ideas as stimulants to develop my own. Yoder himself did very little writing where he focused in detail on other people’s theology. He mostly referred to the Bible, history, and to the practical outworking of the ideas. It was not theology about theology but theology about life.
As my friend Earl Zimmerman presents it in his fine book on Yoder’s intellectual development, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics, Yoder’s decision to become a theologian came a young adult working in post-World War II Western Europe. He became convinced that the epic disaster of that war was an indictment on Western Christianity. What the world needs is a different way to think about faith and social life. Yoder believed that the 16th century Anabaptists provided a good model, but that what was needed was something more universal—which he found in the life and teaching of Jesus.
So, what I see as the model Yoder provided was an approach to theology that cares deeply about contributing to peaceable social life in the world for the sake of the world and draws deeply on the Bible and the Anabaptists. Yoder’s theology was anything but “sectarian.” The on-going power and influence of his work witnesses to the perceptiveness of his insights. I have been inspired to follow his method and construct theology that is socially engaged based especially on the Bible and inspired by the Anabaptists. Yoder’s ideas are catalytic for my own constructive work—which I would call “peace theology,” not “Yoderian theology.” Continue reading