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Yoder on Just War 5

I’ve been reading The War of the Lamb, the most recent posthumous work of John Howard Yoder’s to be released. I’ll have more to say about some of the problems of the published form of the book later. (Short version: I deeply suspect that Stassen has taken too many editorial liberties in the interest of enlisting Yoder in support of his “just peacemaking” program. But I have to investigate more before I make any strong accusations of that sort.)

However, despite what the back cover claims, that in this book Yoder argues that “Christian just war and Christian pacifist traditions are basically compatible,” Yoder’s true voice cannot be edited away. The book actually provides the most clear statement of Yoder’s firm rejection of just war theory as a credible form of moral discourse:

This is a conversation [between just war and pacifism] I have already analyzed more deeply than most people have. I know from having tested it for thirty years from inside that the just war tradition is not credible. I don’t dialogue with the just war tradition because I think is is credible, but because it is the language that people, who I believe bear the image of God, abuse to authorize themselves to destroy other bearers of that image. (p. 116)

This is perhaps the clearest statement I’ve yet seen from Yoder about his own rationale for his dialogical engagement with just war theory. Those who construe it as some form of advocating “compatibility” between just war and pacifism are doing violence to Yoder’s work. Yoder’s engagement with just war was of a distinctly pacifist sort. He engaged the just war tradition because he loved both those who held to it and those who suffer under its abuse. Indeed, as Yoder makes clear in the The War of the Lamb, his discourse with just war is simply one of the ways he tried to practice the gospel call to love our enemies (see pp. 110-11).


  1. mwerntz wrote:

    Most introductions of Yoder’s work suffer from the same malady: they try too hard to speak for Yoder instead of letting the promise and problems of Yoder speak for themselves.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  2. mwerntz wrote:

    The other note I’ll make on these kinds of collections (Royal Priesthood, For the Nations, Jewish/Christian, and He Came Preaching Peace)–watch the dates of the original writing. Sure they were published in a given year, but if there’s a chronological shift in his attitude toward JW (as I think there is), it will be told in the dates that these pieces from the collection were originally written. Mark Nation’s bibliography in MQR is extremely helpful here.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  3. mwerntz wrote:

    Oh, and one final note: the form of the book was Yoder’s. This was the third one Yoder projected, including which pieces and the theme, prior to his death.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    According to the editors notes, Yoder edited this essay for inclusion in this volume in September, 1997, so I think its safe to take it as his most developed thought on JW.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yes, of course. However the editors have taken some liberties (not to say that I necessarily disapprove of them out of hand) with what essays to include that Yoder had originally indicated. They’ve also added several others that they thought should be added.

    That’s the difficulty of these sorts of projects. Yoder’s skeleton of a project not only gets meat put on the bones, but the line between that and changing out the bones altogether becomes blurry.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  6. aew wrote:

    Your analysis is spot-on, Halden. I don’t think it’s possible to square quotes like the one you cite–and Yoder says such things at all stages of his writings–with the promotional blurb’s description of Yoder coming to the conclusion that pacifism and just war are “basically compatible.” If there is anyplace in his writings where Yoder states that just war is an equally faithful form of Christian discipleship as pacifism, I have yet to see it. I haven’t had the chance to pick up “The War of the Lamb,” but the quotation you cite leads me to think that the promotional blurb is more reflective of Stassen than of Yoder.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    It definitely is. In fact, having now read the essays, it is quite clear to me that Yoder nowhere argues that just war and pacifism are in any way compatible. Yoder’s concern to engage the just war tradition dialogically comes directly from his own pacifism — the commitment to receive, listen to, and engage the other with patience. The one thing that it does not mean is that Yoder thought the just war tradition morally credible. He explicitly rejects any such admission.

    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  8. aew wrote:


    Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  9. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yoder was neither sectarian nor utopian, and he was all for helping the state live up to its own best standards of justice, and for working with the state to resolve conflcts on an ad hoc basis. He also practiced interpretive charity, and, when he could, accepted the terms of engagement of his interlocutors. To that extent Yoder cut just-war theory some slack. But that for Yoder “Christian just war and Christian pacifist traditions are basically compatible” – with Halden, that strikes me as an act of hermeneutical violence.

    Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  10. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    I also affirm your comments, Halden. As I understand it, the two editors of The War of the Lamb were not equally responsible for the blurbs. I respect and like Stassen, but I think it is too bad that this idea that Yoder in the end saw just war and pacifism as compatible is getting circulation.

    I just read the revised version of Yoder’s When War is Unjust, which I think is a great book. He clearly takes the just war tradition extremely seriously and reads it way more sympathetically than just warriors such as James Turner Johnson do pacifism (even when Johnson is trying to be sympathetic). But I read the sum of Yoder’s argument in that book to be that a consistent just warrior will end up being a practical pacifist.

    Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  11. myles wrote:

    I’ll agree with Ted here. The sum of the engagements may very well be to say that JW and pacifism are compatible, but by this, Yoder means to say that JW becomes pacifist, not that the two may remain as they are, and in that pursue compatibility. I take THAT approach to be something akin to Just Policing.

    Monday, November 16, 2009 at 6:41 am | Permalink
  12. Matt wrote:

    It seems he does not agree with the moral foundation of just war, and he especially denounces the outcome of many “just war theorists”. However, he believes that if you were to follow just war theory, you would functionally be a pacifist because there is no war that fulfills the criteria. For those who did not share his starting principles (the state), he accomodated with just war theory while hoping to show them their inability to apply any given war to this criteria “successfully”. In the end, he does not find pacifism and just war theory to be of the same moral value nor does he affirm the violence that is wrongfully named as just war, but he does note that if he convinces you to be a just war theorist, you will not be able to pull the trigger of your loaded gun. However, of course he believes it to be the way of Jesus not to carry a gun in the first place because there are no criteria that actually ever could justify its use or possession.

    Monday, November 16, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  13. DC Cramer wrote:

    You guys aware of Andy Alexis-Baker? He’s written an essay critiquing Stassen for trying to use Yoder for his purposes (as Halden indicates). See here:

    Monday, November 16, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  14. Mike Cantley wrote:

    Heads up all on another shot of Yoder just out too. The second ed. of To Hear the Word is just out from Wipf and Stock.

    Saturday, November 21, 2009 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  15. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Thanks for your thoughts Halden. I got my review copy today. I’m supposed to have a review done by January for Mennonite Quarterly Review.

    Also Glen does not document his claims about Yoder and the book very well in his solo performance in the introduction (take note: Mark Thiessen Nation did not put his name on the introduction. That must have significance). Most of these essays are very old. I have read most of them previously before. The contexts from which the original essays came are missing. But that would be important to understand Yoder’s thought a little more fully. It is not at all clear that Yoder would have ordered them in this way, included all of these, left out specifically theological and biblical essays in favor of “ethics” or subtitled it in a way that seems to bifurcate theology and ethics.

    I edited one of Yoder’s recent post-humous books. Ted Koontz and I tried very hard not to impose any scheme on the work that was not already latent within the work and we tried to use Yoder’s own words for headings and all that (even if we pulled them from notes). The very scheme of this book is set up to give Glen Stassen himself a big pat on the back.

    Yet there are some more essays from Yoder that are more widely accessible, so I am glad for that.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

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