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Yoder on Just War 3

As Yoder draws his trenchant analysis of just war theory to a close in his essay “Christ, the Light of the World,” he really drives home the all-important point regarding the question-begging nature of the just war tradition. This essay is, to my mind, one of the most logically sharp pieces of writing that Yoder ever produced, and frankly it is quite difficult to argue with. I’ve never seen any argument so thoroughly demolish another position in the space of one paragraph before.

In bringing his case against just war theory to a close, Yoder argues that

the total body of doctrine of the just war is a kind of begging the question. It is assumed that a great number of other moral values are solidly known and accepted, so that they can provide a perspective from which to evaluate a given war or the use of a given kind of weapon. It is said, for instance that war need be waged only by a legitimate authority; but where do we get the definition of legitimacy for political authority? It is said that only such weapons may be used that respect the nature of humans as rational and moral beings; but who is to define just what that nature is and what means of warfare respect it? The evil that is sure to be brought about by war must not be greater than the evil that it seeks to prevent, but how are we to measure the weight of one evil against another? A just war can only be waged when there is a clear offense; but what is an offense? In a host of ways, the total heritage of just war thought turns out to be a majestic construction whereby a case is made, on the grounds of self-evident values that seem to need no definition, for setting aside the examples and instruction of Jesus with regard to how to treat the enemy. In order thus to function, the other values, as well as the logic whereby they operate in the given case, must have a kind of authority for which the best word is ‘revelatory.’ Otherwise they could not be weighed against Jesus. (p. 190)

Here Yoder makes several important points about just war doctrine that are fundamental to understanding his perspective on the matter. First, he makes clear that just war theory itself rests on utterly dubious rational foundations. Its claims for rationality, efficacy, and intelligibility are in fact massive exercises in begging the question. Second, the values that give just war doctrine its shape constitute a competitive revelation claim over against the claims of Jesus with regard to how to treat the enemy. Yoder is clear on this point. Just war doctrine, in so far as it posits a different revelation claim is in fact an alternative messianism to the messianic politics of Jesus and the church.

As my other posts exploring Yoder’s understanding of just war have demonstrated already, all of this militates utterly against the notion that Yoder viewed just war doctrine as an acceptable mode of Christian ethical thought. Rather, in so far as just war doctrine legitimates violence against the enemy it constitutes an alternative messianism to that of Jesus and as such must be seen as a form of unfaithfulness and idolatry that must be rejected.


  1. Nathan wrote:

    In the recent discussion on abortion violence, I noted how some just war principles (namely chance of success and last resort) can be stretched to amazing lengths to condemn the prospect of war. That is, it seems the question-begging nature of just-war theory is a double-edged sword, both facilitating the justification and condemnation of war, depending on which is needed.

    Friday, June 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Or which is convenient. All the more reason why I think Yoder is right to condemn it as a viable tool of Christian ethical reflection.

    Friday, June 12, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  3. NJL wrote:

    While you are totally right that Yoder rejected Just War Theory as an acceptable conclusion for Christian ethics, your interpretation of his emphasis seems to be a bit off. Yoder’s whole grand project was basically to bring Anabaptist thought into conversation with mainstream theology, a sort of disproval of the “Christ Against Culture” paradigm. Yoder doesn’t write these words as a polemic against JWT but as an attempt to contribute to Just War thought. He points out the assumptions made by Just War thought as a challenge to Just War theologians to take those questions seriously. Yoder sincerely wanted to contribute to JWT from a pacifist’s perspective, and he fought a lot of opposition from Just War theoroticians who said pacifists had nothing to contribute to JWT. He even reciprocated by writing articles on how JWT could inform pacifism.

    Now, it is true that those questions are pretty hard to answer satisfactory, which is why pacifism makes a lot more sense. Much like When War is Unjust, Yoder is attempting to make an honest contribution to the conversation of JWT, but it is hard to come away from reading that book without the feeling that JWT is totally unworkable. Maybe that might be considered a sort of “left-handed contribution,” but I think he approached it sincerely.

    Friday, June 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I think in the essay quoted here, Yoder is being more polemical. He says pretty clearly that if you hold to just war, you believe in another source of revelation that contradicts Christ. Not exactly soft-peddling.

    However, I agree that Yoder very seriously engaged just war thought and challenged just war theologians to take their tradition seriously. However, he’s also very clear that he’s calling them to account on their own merits as something of a prerequiset for him having to take them seriously as his interlocutors. In other words, much of Yoder’s engagement with just war amounts to an insistence that just war adherents must show that their views have some sort of moral credibility before pacifists take their perspective seriously.

    In a sense that is making a “contribution” to just war thought, but not in the sense that he felt just war was a worthy project that Christians should adhere to. He clearly does not, at least to my reading.

    Also, in regard to your statement “He even reciprocated by writing articles on how JWT could inform pacifism.” Could you let me know what those articles are? I’d be very curious about them.

    Friday, June 12, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  5. Alain wrote:


    Long-time lurker, first-time poster. I simply want to affirm that your reading of Yoder is, to my mind, dead-on. Yoder can’t be used as support for some of the current efforts to find convergence between just war thinking and Christian pacifism.

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Thanks Alain. And thanks also for your own great book on Yoder. I blogged about it here, when it first came out.

    Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  7. Myles wrote:

    Yes, Yoder thought the convergence of the two could only happen when JW was honest about itself and realize that it was a dead option. “Just policing” and “just peacemaking” have tried to bridge the gap, but those seem like equally lost causes to me, as they’re equally based on the premise that some violence is permissible activity for the Christian.

    I question whether Yoder’s really advocating an alternative messianism in the way that you’re seeing that he is, though. What Yoder does here and other places is more of Jesus-as-model, which at the end of the day, I’m not sure that this doesn’t lead us back to the ‘effectiveness’ motif of JW.

    Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  8. NJL wrote:

    Actually, I miswrote. I should have said that Yoder wrote papers on how JWT could inform nonviolent direct action. I think Yoder would say that pacifism is at all times forced to be in dialogue with JWT. Unfortunately, the two papers I know of where Yoder discusses JWT and nonviolence have not been published yet as far as I know, so I can point you to anything.

    Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

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