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 One of the highlights of that eventful year was receiving copies of two sets of Yoder’s at the time unpublished lectures, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method.” I also photocopied numerous unpublished articles that were in the library.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.”
What I have learned from Yoder’s theology
To make this specific, I will briefly mention ten of Yoder’s key contributions to my theology. This is a list drawn quickly, and there are many more contributions I could mention.
1. Surely the most important for me is Yoder’s presentation of the case that Jesus was indeed “political”—and political in a specific way. Yoder helped to take the imagery of God’s “kingdom/empire,” of “messiah/king,” “savior/liberator,” “gospel,” “congregation/ekklesia,” in the political sense they had in the first century. Jesus—and the rest of the Bible—are political through and through. Political, that is, in the sense of “politics” referring to how people operate socially. The politics of Jesus is indeed about how people relate—and its main emphasis is on compassion and caring for others. So it is a “kingdom” and Jesus is a “king,” but in ways that overturn the ways of power politics.
2. Yoder has helped me to view everything through the lenses of my pacifist commitment—what I now call a pacifist way of knowing. Let’s understand pacifism as an orientation toward the world wherein we see that nothing takes precedence over the call to love the neighbor. This should effect everything—including how we read the Bible and how we construct our theology, not to mention, of course, every aspect of our social lives.
3. The book of Yoder’s I read first was The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, and the chapter that had the most impact initially was the discussion of violence in the Old Testament. I have developed my thinking far beyond Yoder’s ideas in that chapter, but his emphasis (leaning heavily on the work of his colleague Millard Lind) on how the Old Testament actually presents an alternative sense of political power to the ways of the nations, putting God and Torah at the center instead of King and State remains central to my own thinking about how to navigate the Old Testament-as-violent conundrum. Yoder and Lind helped me to see that the Old Testament should be approach as a positive asset for peace theology, not a problem to overcome.
4. Toward the end of his life in essays published posthumously in the book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Yoder developed further his way of reading the Old Testament as being in continuity with the politics of Jesus. He points to the words of Jeremiah during Israel’s time of exile—”seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves”—as a kind of programatic call to give up on channeling the Promise through a traditional kind of kingdom but instead to embrace the calling to be prophetic minorities in various settings that they do not try to rule.
5. Yoder introduced me to the exceedingly fruitful way of analyzing power through use of the language from the Pauline letters of “principalities and powers.” Walter Wink’s later work, in part inspired by Yoder, fleshes out the ideas much more. And both Yoder and Wink are indebted to the earlier pioneering work of Hendrikus Berkhof. Use of the “powers” motif helps us understand the institutional and cultural dimensions of life, especially of the dynamics where the “fallenness” of the powers shapes us in profound ways (for example, the dynamics of racism, militarism, sexism, et al, that in a genuine sense transcend individual choice and action).
6. Yoder’s writings address the challenge people who have a vision for biblical shalom face in trying to embody that vision in a broken world. One motif he addressed often is the notion of “patience,” where we cultivate a sense of trust in that the “grain of the universe” runs toward wholeness (I’m more comfortable using this more imprecise language; Yoder would often talk more directly about trusting in the sovereignty of God). Such trust helps guard against the constant tendency to try to take things into our own hands, to seek to “be in charge,” a tendency that often leads to violence and ultimately self-defeating compromise and exaggerated senses of self-importance. He refused to accept an absolute dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness, insisting that in the long run faithfulness is our most effective approach.
7. Yoder helped me understand that the vision for salvation in the writings of Paul stood in harmony with Jesus’ vision and, overall, with the Old Testament vision. Paul’s sense of “justification” was not strictly about an individual getting right with God, but as with the rest of the Bible Paul believed salvation is a social event. The key effect of Jesus’ ministry was to empower enemies to be reconciled, Jew and Greek to become part of one community, even ultimately blessing all the families of the earth.
8. Yoder also helped me understand that the biblical themes of eschatology and apocalyptic have a lot to do with how to understand God’s work in the present and not only in the future. He stated that these themes in the Bible, especially in the teaching of Jesus, are not focused on the idea that history is ending but rather they are emphasizing why history continues—that people of faith might embody biblical shalom in history.
9. Yoder helped me understand the Judaism and Christianity should be seen as more complementary that has traditionally been the case. His discussion of what he calls the “Jewish-Christian schism” with the conclusion that “it didn’t need to happen” challenges many received ideas about Christian origins and the disastrous idea that Christianity “replaced” Judaism. This motif is not only interesting for historical purposes but it actually provides a challenging angle for better understanding how the Old Testament can work as a Christian book and for enhancing the unity of beliefs and practices in Christian understandings.
10. Finally, Yoder is an important resource for sustaining a continuing affirmation of the present relevance of the 16th-century Anabaptists. His dissertation, written in German and only recently published in English, provides an important study of how the Anabaptists remained committed to continue talking with mainstream reformers in pacifist ways. Among other things, Yoder argues that it is a mistake to see in the Radical Reformation an inevitable separatism and inclination toward withdrawal. He suggests that they actually in the early years at least modeled ecumenical initiative and a vision for social transformation.
As I reflect on Yoder’s theology and its impact on my work, summarized in these ten points, I conclude that his theology (as with all other good theology) is best approached as a catalyst for on-going constructive work that builds on earlier theology but doesn’t keep its focus on that earlier theology. Yoder’s ideas, I believe, are best appropriated in ways that move theology beyond Yoder. His method was to draw especially on the biblical story, informed by later theological work, and apply theology to fruitful living. When our theology imitates this method we will not be writing a lot about Yoder but using Yoder’s insights along with other sources to create new theology.
Theology and practice
So, as I struggle with the issue of what we do with Yoder’s theology in light of his sexual violence, I still feel somewhat in flux. I welcome the stimulus provided by Barbra Graber’s manifesto and the resultant conversations to continue on my personal intellectual struggle. These are my tentative conclusions for now:
(1) The reality of Yoder’s sexual violence is, of course, very relevant for accounts of Yoder’s life story. I welcome careful biographical studies of that story because of Yoder’s importance for the Mennonite world and beyond. And such studies will be useful for any theological reflection that draws on Yoder’s writings.
(2) The relevance of Yoder’s sexual violence seems more complicated when we focus specifically on approaching Yoder’s theology itself as the object of study. If our focus is exposition of Yoder’s theology, then we surely do need to consider the possible implications for how he construed theology of what we know about his problematic behavior. My sense of the discussion so far, though, is that people tend to pick up on themes in Yoder’s theology that they already have questions about and suggest that that is where the link with his problematic behavior might be found. I’m not sure how fruitful this work will be. I still tend to suspect that the roots of Yoder’s actions lie elsewhere than his theology and are not likely to be visible in the theology. But it is totally appropriate to scrutinize the theology with this problem in mind.
(3) The way I want to think of Yoder’s theology in my own work is more in relation to drawing on his ideas in ways that emphasize the insights and applying the helpful aspects more than thorough analysis of Yoder’s thought for its own sake. For this kind of work, his problematic behaviors are less relevant. The ideas, such as those listed above, remain perceptive and helpful regardless of what I learn about his life. This makes the details of his life of less interest to me theologically. Those details are interesting, of course, but to some extent the interest may be prurient and to that extent should probably not be cultivated.
In my final post in this series, I will reflect more on how I think about this discussion in relation to issues beyond my own theological work.