Skip to content

Yoder on Just War 4

To my mind this quote is the final nail in the coffin to any who would argue that John Howard Yoder’s engagement with the just war tradition amounted to a claim that either just war or pacifism are acceptable options for Christians:

. . . we must proclaim to every Christian that pacifism is not the prophetic vocation of a few individuals, but that every member of the body of Christ is called to absolute non resistance in discipleship and to abandonment of all loyalties which counter that obedience, including the desire to be effective immediately or to make oneself responsible for civil justice. (The Original Revolution, 72)

Whether or not one ought to agree with Yoder’s terminology and force on this point here, no one can plausibly argue that he ever viewed pacifism as just one possible form of Christian witness. Rather, for Yoder it is the very form thereof.


  1. myles wrote:

    my counter to this (for the sake of argument…partly) is that this quote is from 1972, and Yoder wrote on JW until his death, dialoguing more closely as he went with JW theorists. Early on, he’s not directly engaging them in his work or in person.

    Friday, August 14, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink
  2. Alain wrote:

    FYI: See the following promotional blurb for Yoder’s The War of the Lamb, edited by Glen Stassen and Mark Thiessen-Nation, forthcoming from Brazos in late 2009:

    “War of the Lamb covers pacifism, just war theory, and just peacemaking theory. It crystallizes Yoder’s argument that his proposed Christian ethics is not sectarian and a matter of withdrawal. Yoder also clearly argues that Christian just war and Christian pacifist traditions are basically compatible–and more specifically, that the Christian just war tradition itself presumes against all violence. Theology and ethics professors, students, and scholars will value this final work from Yoder.”

    I’ve read a fair amount of early and late Yoder, both published and unpublished. I have yet to see anything that would be tantamount to Yoder saying: “Pacifism and just war are two equally faithful forms of Christian discipleship.” To my mind that is what “compatible” would mean, and therefore my suspicion is that the promotional blurb is misleading. What Yoder does do at various places is to say something like: “If just war Christians were to follow the just war tradition to its logical conclusions, then they would be pacifists in practice.” Perhaps this is what the promotional blurb has in mind by “compatible.” My guess is that the essays in The War of the Lamb display the latter form of compatibility (which I think is a bit of a misnomer), not the former form: but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

    Friday, August 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I eagerly await that book. I have suspicions that Stassen’s fingerprints might be too heavy on this book though.

    Friday, August 14, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  4. NJL wrote:

    I have read an early manuscript of the book, and I think the blurb goes a bit far is saying that Yoder argues that JWT and pacifism are “basically compatible.” This is at least poor word choice. He compares them, and he argues that they both are rooted in a presumption against violence, but I wouldn’t say he argues that they are compatible. Yoder, in anything I have ever read, always held that pacifism was the true witness of the church. However, he did have a great interest in JWT, especially in his later work, and wanted to contribute to it from a pacifist/Anabaptist perspective (I think the whole body of his work could be described as attempting to bring the Anabaptist perspective to mainstream theology). His view seems to have been that since most people weren’t going to be pacifists, it was important that they actually take JWT seriously.

    I’m not sure what Halden’s comment about “Stassen’s fingerprints” is supposed to imply. Stassen may not have the exact same emphases in his work as Yoder, but he understands Yoder a lot better than most people. All three of the editors of the book are pacifists themselves, so it’s not like it is some kind of sneaky plan to prove Yoder was open to JWT.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 2:47 am | Permalink
  5. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Thanks NJL. I had seen that description as well and was not happy with it. It woudl fit Glen Stassen’s method to do that to Yoder though, but not Mark Nation. In a forthcoming essay I take Stassen and others to task for misusing YOder on just war (or as they are calling it now, just policing.) Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Unbinding Yoder from Just Policing.” In Power and Practices: Engaging the Thought of John Howard Yoder, edited by Jeremy Bergen and Anthony Siegrist. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2009.

    Here is a quote:

    “In Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen and David Gushee contended that ‘discipleship-pacifists,’ who see nonviolence as a way of life, are ‘slightly more flexible than rule-pacifists,’ who see nonviolence as a rule to follow. They cited Bonhoeffer’s support of a plot to kill Hitler and Yoder’s distinction between war and policing as examples of that flexibility. (Kingdom Ethics, 166–67)”

    In general there is a movement to define Yoder’s legacy in terms of the just war by renaming just policing and appealing to Yoder who made the distinction. I am trying to debunk that use of Yoder, because it turns him not into a dialogue partner with the just war, but an advocate of the position. I am very unhappy with Schlabach, Cortright, Stassen, Wallis and some others who are doing this nonsense.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    NJL, I am in agreement with what Andy has said here. Particularly with regards to Stassen, I think he is pursuing a political project that Yoder would not have had much, if any sympathy with. Stassen wants to be as nonviolent as possible but still turn the wheel of history in the right direction. Yoder would have (rightly) called this just another form of Constantinianism, another species of the very form of political action that Jesus rejected in his cross and resurrection.

    The thing that really irritates me about Stassen is that he just assumes and insists that his project is the same as Yoder’s. That is simply false.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  7. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    just got word that that Yoder book I mentioned was released yesterday:

    Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, edited by Jeremy Bergen and Anthony Siegrist. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2009.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I’ve asked Levi to send it along so I can review it here. Thanks for the heads up looks like a good volume.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  9. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Nekeisha’s article on Black Womanist theology and Yoder is just fabulous.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  10. Brad A. wrote:

    Looks very interesting. Paul Heidebrecht is a friend of mine from Marquette – he’s moving to Canada this month to become senior policy analyst for the MCC-Canada.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  11. John Tyson wrote:

    Andy, I think you would have a lot of younger theologians interested in Yoder who would see eye to eye with you on this one. Whatever movement there is to link Yoder’s legacy to ‘just-war’ is destined for failure.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Yet, whatever movement that denies engagement with the just war tradition cannot rightly be linked to Yoder.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  13. myles wrote:

    Don’t you mean Just Peacemaking, re: Stassen? Just Policing is Schlabach’s gig. The two have pretty different presuppositions, the former being rooted in explicit realism (Stassen’s ‘laboratory of history approach) and the latter being rooted in less realism than the desire to have pacifists join in JW conversations.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  14. John Tyson wrote:

    RO Flyer, you are right, there needs to be dialogue, as Yoder practiced. (BTW, strongly enjoy your blog.)

    But, I think attempts like this by high church mennonites to link Yoder heavily to JW theory is severely misguided. Yoder was a militant pacifist, he did not think JW theory revealed any semblance of the politics of Jesus whatsoever. Whether or not JW theory presumes against violence is not issue, JW theory has done little if anything at all to prevent spilt blood.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  15. myles wrote:

    John, just because Yoder always defended pacifism doesn’t mean that he wasn’t open to multiple ends to how this peace comes about. Varieties, When JW is Unjust, any of the stuff in War of the Lamb, the forthcoming (Feb 2010) Brief History of Nonviolence, etc etc etc. Yoder was MORE than open to saying that (in his opinion) when JW was behaving on its best terms, it was pacifism. In other words, JW, when doing its job right, was pretty darn close to ‘pacifism’ (though Yoder left open what the content of that term might mean).

    What complicates this whole question is that Yoder was NOT a pacifist of principle, but a missional pacifist, or ‘messianic pacifist’ or something along that line, i.e. that if we are in history, but not in charge of it, then we receive that which comes to us as a possible sign of God’s movement in history. Now, whether this is compatible with Yoder’s insistence on the primacy of Jesus or not (given that history for Yoder continued to unfold toward the eschaton offering new avenues for peace etc etc), is a different question. But Yoder was in fact open to JW dialogue and did in fact see promise in it in the instances when it reformed its thinking.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  16. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Looks like I will be reviewing it for Mennonite Quarterly Review, just got permission for when it comes in.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  17. John Tyson wrote:


    There is a clear distinction between pacifism and JW. The latter assumes that in the face of conflict it somehow has the ability (morally, theologically, etc.) to decide. In other words, for the JW practitioner, violence is never out of the question: it remains a possibility when conflict arises.

    For the pacifist, the decision has been made a priori that violence is out of the question. There is no ‘exception’ to which violence may be used. Here is where we find Yoder – messianic, missional, principled.

    Yoder’s engagement with JW was never a move to legitimize it as falling in line with the politics of Jesus. Yoder engaged JW because it was a dominant theory, and because it has never ever lived up to it’s own standards – seriously, how many more wars do we have to endure, while JW Christians salute the flag, before we call their theory bullshit? I see Yoder’s engagement as necessary to challenge it to live up to it’s own “standards.”

    And, it may we be worth pondering, when is it time to entertain the reality that the evolution of war and violence has left the tradition categories of JW and pacifism. In a world where the ‘principalities and powers’ wield weapons capable of destroying the world ten times over, how could any war be just?

    While we are on the topic of Yoder books, keep an eye out for: The New Yoder (Edited by Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner), (Eugene, OR: Cascade) forthcoming 2009.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  18. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I had not heard of this book coming out from Dula and Huebner. Thanks for that reference.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  19. myles wrote:

    John, thanks for the response. First, I’m no JW theorist. My point here is to say that Yoder did in fact argue that JW, if taken to its conclusion logically, is pacifism, i.e. that no war is just and thus by default, JW can argue for no wars. He didn’t see it as unredeemable or as ultimately pagan–when separated from ‘Christendom’. Once unhooked from ‘Constantinian’ assumptions, JW loses its drive toward war and becomes pacifist for Yoder.

    So, the issue for Yoder is not whether JW is good or bad, but whether it could be conceived of outside Christendom. Dan Bell has an interesting book coming out on JW as an ecclesial discipline, which may tease some of this direction out.

    I have my doubts as to whether the Dula and Huebner book is the new Yoder, or rather an ‘other’ Yoder than the original one.

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:58 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site