Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—July 31, 2011

With Gordon Kaufman’s passing, an era in the Mennonite world is nearing an end. Kaufman, like his contemporaries, was decisively shaped by his personal experience with World War II and its immediate aftermath. (The era isn’t quite over given the still-productive pen of the remarkable Norman Kraus, an exact contemporary of Kaufman’s and John Howard Yoder’s—here’s Norman’s most recent book.)

In an interview given near the end of his life, Kaufman talked briefly about how as a young adult he was planning to pursue a career in mathematics. Then he was drafted in the midst of World War II and chose to be a conscientious objector. He served for several years in Civilian Public Service in lieu of entering the military. By war’s end, he had redirected his aspirations.

John Howard Yoder, the other Mennonite theological giant of the 20th century, also had his life’s aspirations redirected by World War II-based service. Yoder, who was a couple years younger than Kaufman and thus not liable to the draft during the war, went to war-devastated Western Europe on a service assignment shortly after the end of the war, an assignment that determined his educational and vocational pursuits.

With all their differences, Kaufman and Yoder shared something quite profound. They both obviously were brilliant and ambitious young men who had multiple options for career paths. Both also were deeply committed Mennonites. Contrary to the stereotype of Mennonites as withdrawn, “sectarian,” and purity-focused, both of these two extraordinarily gifted people decided to devote their lives to grappling with the world’s most complicated and relevant issue: how to live humanely in a war-devastated environment still in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence.In both cases, the discipline that seemed best suited for this kind of ethics-driven agenda was theology. Because Kaufman and Yoder chose quite different theological approaches to carry their social concerns, they attracted quite different audiences. Each one, though, has had significant influence in their disciplinary realms of theology and Christian social ethics.

Gary Dorrien, the chronicler of American theological scholarship, devotes a major section to Kaufman in his history of liberal Christian theology in North American in the second half of the 20th century (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity: 1950-2005). And he devotes a major section to Yoder in his history of American Christian social ethics (Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition). In both cases, Dorrien makes clear how central peace concerns were to each of these Mennonite scholars.

As one who has read with avid interest most of what Kaufman and Yoder published, I am convinced that their common ground as peace theologians significantly outweighs the differences in their respective approaches to theology. They sought the same basic goal and, I am suggesting here, set off on their journeys for almost exactly the same reasons.

Both men experienced close up the failure of Western “civilization.” They both recognized that the standard account that saw the massive violence of World War II as necessary for human flourishing had things almost exactly backwards. They both believed that while Western Christendom was directly complicit both in the breakdown of the peace and in the on-going valorizing of violence, it is also the Christian tradition that provides us with crucial resources in our quest to break this spiral of destructiveness.

So, I believe strongly that our future work in peace theology should draw heavily on the thought of both Kaufman and Yoder, rather than pitting them against each other. Yoder took the inside-the-church route, drawing most heavily on the biblical stories and Anabaptist experiences. Kaufman took the outside-the-church route, drawing most heavily on modern science and philosophy. Yoder was Jesus-centered and, while he did do some important work on Jewish-Christian connections, spoke as a Christian to Christians. Kaufman was much more involved in inter-faith conversations and sought to write in a way that did not presuppose any particular religious commitment from his readers.

And these differences should not be minimized. The differences in method and audience means there are quite substantive differences all the way down between the two thinkers. It’s not accidental that outside of Mennonite circles, there seem to be very few people who utilize both Kaufman and Yoder’s work (I imagine if one scanned indices and bibliographies of books that deal substantively with one of these thinkers, you would find precious few references to the other thinker).

However, what Kaufman and Yoder have in common links them closely together in the same broad project—the on-going task all people of good will have to find ways to challenge our societies’ trust in violence and to find ways to bring people together in humane and healing ways.

In fact, if we think of Kaufman and Yoder both as major resources for this broad project, we might rejoice at the reality that they traveled such different paths in their work. There is certainly little that is redundant in relation to the other thinker in their writings!

I also believe that recognizing the centrality of peace to each one’s work, stimulated by their direct encounters with the massive violence of World War II, is of utmost importance in shaping the legacy of each one’s work.

Unfortunately, many of those who interact with Yoder (while no one could possibly deny his pacifism) seem most interested in a Yoder without the Bible and without the Anabaptists. Earl Zimmerman’s excellent book of Yoder (Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics ) helps us a great deal in understanding just how central Yoder’s concern with overcoming the curse of war, and especially World War II, was to everything he did. It was because of this concern that Yoder turned to recovering the biblical message of Jesus with such passion—and nothing about his work can be properly understood without keeping this passion about the Bible and peace front and center.

I’m not as familiar with responses to Kaufman’s work, but I get the sense that for many, it is his reflections on how modern science challenges traditional understandings of God and similar themes that are seen as most interesting. This is probably appropriate, except when the discussion fails to note why Kaufman pursued this line of inquiry. His masterwork, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology, makes it quite clear that this inquiry is all in service of the quest for “humanization” (human flourishing, authentic peace)—and that the definitive Christian symbol for the shape of this humanization is Christ (not the “Christ” of dogma but the life, teaching, and community of Jesus of Nazareth).

Yoder’s own all-too-brief comment that the way of Jesus “goes with the grain of the universe” provides a glimmer of common ground with Kaufman’s extensive work with modern science and philosophy in constructing his humanizing theology. Kaufman’s own reflections on Christ as the central symbol for Christian theology that would be humanizing and clarity that this symbol for him links with the Jesus of the gospels more than the Christ of the creeds provides some common ground with Yoder’s own Jesus-centered theologizing.

I also think each one provides some important correctives to possible extremes in the other’s work. For example, Yoder can challenge Kaufman’s tendencies to give science perhaps a bit too much authority and to give short shrift to the centrality of cultivating communities of resistance. And Kaufman can challenge Yoder’s tendencies to accept too uncritically elements of the biblical tradition’s portrayal of God (e.g., as a warrior) and to use insider language in reflecting on the issue of how the “church” relates to the “world.”

Most of all, though, I believe both Kaufman and Yoder stand as exemplary theologians, best read as complementing each other, and each in his own way providing essential guidance for our on-going efforts at constructing peace theologies. Of course, both would very much agree that theology should be done in the present. We learn from our theological forebears, but our main theological task is to develop our own current responses to the issues of our day. Kaufman and Yoder both wrote refreshingly free from the all-too-common tendency among theologians to write theology about theology. These two great Mennonite theologians both were attentive to the tradition, but their focus was on the present, on applying the message of Jesus to the real world. For both of them, theology was inextricably linked with ethics, theology was concrete and meant to be lived.

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