In the last year, several books by John Howard Yoder have been posthumously published, all concerned in various ways with the issue of nonviolence. The biggest of these is, of course, Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. The most anticipated, however, may well have been The War of the Lamb. Less heralded is the most recently published of the three, Nonviolence: A Brief History. However, I would perhaps recommend Nonviolence even more highly than The War of the Lamb.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, Nonviolence and The War of the Lamb have significant overlap—in terms of subject matter, actual content, and size/approachability. They both contain the same chapters—“From the Wars of Joshua to Jewish Pacifism” and “The Science of Conflict”—which to my mind is indicative of how closely tied the books are, yet also how different they are, editorially speaking. It’s the editorial difference that leads me to commend Nonviolence over The War of the Lamb.
My concern is that the editors of The War of the Lamb seem to have taken too many liberties in their work of crafting the book form of these essays. Comparing the shared chapters between the two volumes is quite revealing. In Nonviolence, for example, there are a total of 6 footnotes in “From the Wars of Joshua to Jewish Pacifism,” all of which the editors make clear in their introduction are their own addition to the text. In The War of the Lamb, by contrast, “From the Wars of Joshua to Jewish Pacifism” contains 16 footnotes, many of which speak in the first person, as though they are in fact from Yoder himself, though they appear to be editorial additions (The War of the Lamb also contains some footnotes that the editors claim as their own).
These differences between the books makes me worry that the editors of The War of The Lamb took some liberties that served to blur Yoder’s voice with their own. In particular, it seems that Glen Stassen’s “just peacemaking” project lurks in the background of certain editorial decisions. For example, the back cover summary, Stassen’s introductory essay, the unspecified editorial additions to the footnotes and subtitles of the chapters—these all work to give the impression that the argument of Yoder’s book supports Stassen’s own project, which is centered around a rapprochement of the just war tradition and pacifism. Indeed, the back cover “summarizes” the book as arguing that the “Christian just war and Christian pacifist traditions are basically compatible.” As I have argued on this blog, this reading of Yoder’s work is patently false. Most distressingly, the text of The War of the Lamb actually refutes the back cover’s summary of it. Yoder is straightforward that his dialogical approach to the just war tradition is not because he thought it complementary to pacifism in any sense:
I know from having tested it for thirty years from inside that the just war tradition is not credible. I don’t dialogue with it because I think it 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)
Fortunately, as the above quote demonstrates, Yoder’s voice rings through, and thus the book still has very real and indispensable value. However, those of us interested in Yoder’s work being disseminated simply for its own sake and in its original form have reason to be disappointed by the way in which this book was packaged and slanted towards bolstering a project that was not, in any explicit sense, Yoder’s own.
Nonviolence is a different matter altogether. Many of the same themes are covered in similar depth, but the editorial judiciousness is deeply refreshing. The editors of Nonviolence, no less than Stassen, are invested in advancing arguments about how Yoder ought to be read and the direction of his thought. However, none of this agenda is brought to bear on the text of the lectures in the way that Stassen’s just peacemaking seems to appear in The War of the Lamb. For this kind of editorial judiciousness, I am very grateful.
Both of the books are indispensable and very helpful. I highly recommend both. My preference for Nonviolence reflects my judgment that scholars ought to separate clearly the tasks of presenting Yoder’s own thought from offering their own reflections upon it.