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Violence and Messianism

John Howard Yoder makes an interesting point in his quite critical book on the variety of Christian pacifisms, Nevertheless:

The invocation of violence to support any cause is also implicitly a messianism. Any national sense of mission claims implicitly to be a saving community. One cannot avoid either messianism or the claim to chosen peoplehood by setting Jesus or his methods aside. One only casts the aura of election around lesser causes. (p. 138)

This gets at a crucial Christological point, at least as it bears on the proper interpretation of Yoder’s theology of nonviolence. For Yoder there it is never a question of whether a messianic ethic is possible, rather it is simply a matter of what sort of messianism one participates in. For him, the use of lethal violence to accomplish any goal is inherently messianic given the sacrificial nature of taking life.  As such, given the nonviolent politics of Jesus, any other such messianisms must be seen as ultimately idolatrous. Interpreting Yoder’s engagement with the just war tradition without understanding the importance of this messianic theological framework is only going to end in over-eager misinterpretations of Yoder’s thought.


  1. Doug Harink wrote:


    That is a brilliant little quote: it repeats Yoder’s fundamental thesis, but casts it terms of messianism and election, which is very helpful in responding to critiques of the “sectarian” nature of the Jesus-messianic community.

    One question: what do you mean by “over-eager misinterpretations of Yoder’s thought”?

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Those that want to find Yoder creating a comfortable space for just war theory as a viable Christian alternative to pacifism. I’ve seen too many examples lately of folks taking Yoder’s engagement with just war as indicating a general acceptance of it as a legitimate ecclesial option.

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Doug Harink wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. I kinda guessed that — the conversations with Craig Carter, etc. And I agree with your reading.

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I think I will write more about this as, the sort of ‘share the house’ rapproachment interpretation of Yoder and just war actually misses something really important in Yoder’s ecumenical and ethical style, namely the whole issue of how, for Yoder “patience” is his method of moral reasoning. That hermeneutic (and the article of the same name in The Wisdom of the Cross) should inform how we understand what Yoder was doing in his conversations with just war and ecumenism more generally.

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  5. kim fabricius wrote:

    Bang on, Halden, that Yoder’s askesis of patience hardly constitutes an endorsement of pluralism. As Chris Huebner observes in his excellent A Precarious Peace (2006), for Yoder patience has a methodological and epistemological significance – and, yes, as you say, a moral significance too. It has to do with the practice of courteous conversation, of listening, of not occluding alien voices (Rowan Williams’ way of theologising is similar) – but it certainly doesn’t foreclose saying Nein!. Yoder remains a confessional theologian.

    Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 1:08 am | Permalink

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