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.