In John Howard Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State, Yoder offers a brief analysis of just war theory, in the context of his examination of “examples of political judgment.” In this section, Yoder is investigating and exploring the logic of various forms of ethical-political analysis that diverge from the calling of Christian discipleship, but must be understood in the context of the Christian engagement with political powers.
Thus, Yoder claims at the outset that just war theory is among “certain concepts,” which are unequivocally “illegitimate for guiding Christian discipleship.” However, these same concepts, which while categorically excluded for Christians, are “still relevant in the elaboration of an ethic for the state.” In other words, given that the state, by definition utilizes violent force, the just war theory is one of a number of concepts which might be good for the state to adopt to minimize the spread of violence. As a Christian Yoder has an interest in minimizing state violence as much as possible and this informs his recommendation of just war theory as an ethic for the state.
However, in regard to the path of Christian discipleship, Yoder is clear. “That there can be a just war in the Christian sense of the word just or righteous is, of course, excluded by definition; we can make the point only negatively. When the conditions generally posed for a just war are not fulfilled, then a war is unjust to the point that even a state, resolved to use violence, is out of order in its prosecution. This is the basis of our condemnation of the atomic bomb even for the warring state.” (p. 49)
Thus, for Yoder just war theory is not an acceptable mode of Christian faithfulness, but rather the least malignant form of unfaithfulness that Christians should expect from the state. As such it can be given a penultimate recommendation as far as the state is concerned, but must be roundly rejected by all Christians as a possible path of faithfulness.