Defending Yoder: Part Two—Earl Zimmerman’s Account

In response to a critical review of his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by John Nugent that challenged his reading of John Howard Yoder, Peter Leithart suggests that it is important not to read his book as mainly about Yoder but mainly about his effort to rehabilitate the image of the Emperor Constantine. I certainly defend the right of an author to try to set the frame for how her or his writings should be read. However, I do tend to think the main point of Leithart’s book is to challenge Yoder’s influence among contemporary evangelical Christians. Or at least this is a main point.

In Part One of these blog posts on “Defending Yoder,” I critiqued Defending Constantine and gave reasons for why I see it as a flawed book. I will return to Leithart in Part Three and discuss several of the reviews I have read that also challenge his perspective. In this post, though, I want to step back and reflect on Yoder’s project.

The best study dealing with Yoder’s thought that I have read is my friend Earl Zimmerman’s book, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics(Cascadia Publishing House, 2007). I think this book deserves more attention than it has gotten (Leithart shows no evidence of being acquainted with it); hopefully as Yoder’s stature continues to grow, those interested in his theology will recognize the importance of Zimmerman’s contribution.

One of Zimmerman’s signal insights centers on showing how Yoder’s theological agenda was powerfully shaped by the years he spent in Western Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II. According to Zimmerman, Yoder’s theology, as it took its definitive form in his epoch-shaping book The Politics of Jesus"", had three crucial influences: (1) his Mennonite tradition, especially as filtered through the perspective of his two most important teachers, Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger; (2) his direct experience in war relief and general encounters with the devastation of post-War Europe; and (3) his doctoral studies over the course of several years with the distinguished faculty of the University of Basel (Switzerland), especially with world-renowned scholars Oscar Cullmann (New Testament), Walther Eichrodt (Old Testament), and Karl Barth (Systematic Theology)—listed in descending order of importance to Yoder based on the number of their classes taken by Yoder.

Zimmerman asserts that to understand Yoder we must recognize that his pacifist ethics were not the product of disengaged contemplation in isolated and comfortable North American Mennonite communities. Nor were they simply an updated echo of his sectarian tradition that had focused on community faithfulness over involvement in the complications of the “real world.”

As presented by Zimmerman, Yoder developed his understanding of the “politics of Jesus” due to his immersion in the rubble (physically and culturally) of a Western Europe decimated by what we now recognize as one long war, 1914-1945. Yoder came to understand first hand the failures of Christian churches to provide an effective counter-weight to the forces of imperialism, militarism, and tyranny that created the catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century.

So, Yoder’s was very much an engaged pacifism that was forged in the fires of the direct consequences of war and had as its goal social transformation done right. He came to the conviction that one of the keys to understanding the catastrophe that befell western civilization was to recognize the failure of the Christian churches to be faithful to the message of their founder and Lord. Thus, the way out (not in order to “save” civilization but more simply in order to create humane space for human flourishing) was to recover and revitalize that message.

Yoder became convinced that such a recovery was possible, and he recognized as crucial support for this recovery the work of biblical scholarship to make more accessible to the modern world the power and realism of the biblical story. Cullmann and Eichrodt were important examples of this kind of work, as was Barth in his own way. According to Zimmerman, probably the most important contribution Barth made to Yoder’s development was his affirmation of the centrality of the Bible (understood most fundamentally as a witness to Jesus) for contemporary theology and ethics. Yoder, of course, believed this already—but Barth’s warrant surely served to embolden Yoder in his audacious hope to speak far beyond his own Mennonite arena.

So Yoder became confident that present-day Christians may (and must) gain direct access to the power of the biblical witness to God’s transforming love embodied by Jesus and his community. Jesus’ message was clear and relevant. And a critical mass of Jesus’ contemporaries recognized that and put it into practice.

However, of course, this “politics of Jesus” was not sustained by Jesus’ spiritual descendants—as witnessed by the fate of Western Europe by the mid-1940s, the most heavily concentrated Christian “civilization” the world has ever known.

Yoder’s use of the motif of “Constantinianism” emerges, then, as a way of explaining this failure. One of Peter Leithart’s failures in Defending Constantine is that he focused on trying to chip away at Yoder’s historical account of the 4th century Roman emperor rather than addressing the problem that was the catalyst for Yoder’s critique—not really a critique of Constantine himself so much as a critique of the Christian churches and their failure to sustain their commitment to the way of Jesus. Constantine symbolizes this failure in the sense that prior to his reign, the church understood itself as separate from the rulers of the Empire and after him this changed—forever since.

The stated emphasis in Yoder’s critique of this Christian acceptance of placing such stock in linking with people in power is that it contradicts the teaching and example of Jesus (as well as the message of the Old Testament prophets and the teaching of Paul and the book of Revelation). The unstated emphasis, as Zimmerman shows us, is that this linking with people in power made the churches powerless to prevent the terrible disaster of 1914-1945 in Western Europe and, consequently, the entire world. One reason for this disaster was the loss of Jesus’ message of servanthood over domination as the normative political dynamic.

Leithart is correct, to a certain extent, when he points out the link between Yoder’s pacifist social ethics and his identity as an Anabaptist-Mennonite. Leithart is profoundly mistaken, I believe, when he uses this as evidence for Yoder’s “misreading” of the Bible and Christian tradition. And unfortunately, he mainly simply asserts that Yoder’s is a misreading more than provides an argument for that conclusion.

In Zimmerman’s account, we learn of the role Yoder’s study of 16th-century Anabaptism played in the development of his mature statement on “the politics of Jesus.” Being a Mennonite, trained in Mennonite higher education, and closely affiliated with the greatest North American minds of the time (e.g., Bender and Hershberger), Yoder naturally had an abiding interest in the first Anabaptists. His interest was shaped and stimulated by Harold Bender’s famous account of the recovery of the “Anabaptist Vision.”

However, when Yoder went to Europe in 1949 and paid close attention to the situation he encountered there, he recognized that what was needed was a message that would speak to all Christians and ultimately all modern people (not simply speak to Mennonites). And this message had to be based on Jesus, not on a tiny “sectarian” closet in the bigger church building. So his focus in his three years of full-time doctoral studies was mostly on biblical studies, with some theology and a bit of philosophy (he studied briefly with another world famous Basel professor, philosopher Karl Jaspers). However, he knew all along that the theological program he was pursuing would take a decided Anabaptist bent as a means of then speaking to the larger world—quite distinct from mainstream Protestantism or Catholicism. At that time, it simply was not possible in Europe to get a theology dissertation approved that took an Anabaptist angle. So, Yoder’s choice was to write a more conventional (i.e., non-Anabaptist) dissertation or instead write a dissertation on Anabaptist history. He took the latter path, and turned this necessity into a virtue.

Yoder’s dissertation (recently translated and published in English as Anabaptism And Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogues Between Anabaptists ad Reformers) looked closely at the earliest Anabaptists, those in Switzerland in the Zurich area, and their encounters with mainline Protestant reformers. As Zimmerman presents it, the appeal of the Anabaptists to Yoder was their critique of the change in the churches’ relationship to the state symbolized by the Constantinian accommodation. As well, though, the Anabaptists Yoder studied modeled the kind of ecumenical engagement that Yoder himself sought to pursue (and in fact did pursue with remarkable effect for the rest of his life). The Anabaptists initiated the conversations with the mainline Reformers because they believed the message of Jesus as they had encountered it was true for the whole world, including first of all the broader Christian church. They sought through non-coercive conversation to witness to that message.

About ten years after Yoder’s dissertation was first published (in German in 1962), he gained much wider fame by publishing The Politics of Jesus, clearly one of the most influential books written by any North American theologian in the 20th century.

The issue in relation to Yoder’s project for contemporary Christians is not his reading of the historical Constantine. Even Leithart ultimately admits that in Defending Constantine. But unfortunately, Leithart does not even then clearly identify the key issues that Yoder does pose.

I will suggest what I see the two most fundamental challenges Yoder offers. First, is his account of the New Testament message basically accurate (in a nutshell, that Jesus did articulate and put into practice a directly practicable and normative political agenda)? Second, is Yoder’s account of how tradition works accurate (in a nutshell, that it works in a way analogous to a vine that remains close to its roots as opposed to a tree that grows away from its roots—see especially Yoder’s essay, “The Authority of Tradition” in The Priestly Kingdom)?

If Yoder is on the right track with both of these arguments—the normativity of a political Jesus and the on-going authority of that originating message—then, of course, the symbol of Constantine and what this embodies is a terrible problem for Christianity. If Yoder is right, then the catastrophes of the 20th century are understandable in relation to the Constantinian problem. And, the need today, as much as in the 4th century, the 16th century, and the mid-20th century, remains for people of good will to strive for a politics of compassion to replace our disastrous politics of domination.

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