John Howard Yoder was a profound ecumenist and ethicist. In the course of his work he engaged substantially with virtually all Protestant traditions and Roman Catholicism. A substantial part of this engagement occurred in conversation with Christians who subscribe to just war theory. Yoder’s patient, respectful discourse with proponents of just war theory has given some cause to speculate that ultimately Yoder felt that consistent just war theorists and Christian pacifists are so close in their position that the two schools of thought were basically compatible. This is a significant misreading of Yoder’s engagement with just war theory.
In his important essay, “Christ, the Light of the World,” (published both in The Original Revolution and in The Royal Priesthood–my page references refer to the latter) Yoder makes some significant statements about the just war tradition. One of his first observations in expressing his own messianic pacifism is that
In the personal case of Jesus it is made clear that he rejects not only unjust violence but also the use of violence in the most righteous cause. It is no longer possible to misinterpret his teaching as simply a call to vigilance or to sensitivity in excluding improper use of violence; what Jesus was really tempted by was the proper use of violence. It was concerning the use of the sword in legitimate defense that Jesus said that they who take it will die by it. (p. 186)
Here is a crucial point. For Yoder, what Jesus specifically rejected and called upon his disciples to reject if they were going to name him as Lord, was the just use of violence. Jesus’s lordship is defined, not by only utilizing violence in conformity with just regulations, but rather its disavowal in favor of an ethic of kenotic love (see also, The Priestly Kingdom, p. 145) for more on the importance of kenosis for Yoder’s ethical thought).
Having laid out his own messianic theology of nonviolence, Yoder proceeds to critique two other approaches to the question of war, just war theory and Reinhold Niebuhr’s advocacy of political realism. He clearly takes just war theory with much more seriousness than Niebuhr’s advocacy of political realism, arguing that “the doctrine of ‘just war’ must be dealt with far more respectfully than most pacifists have been willing to do. It takes seriously as the other available thought patterns do not, that there can be an ethical judgment upon the use of violence in the name of the state” (p. 186-7). However, in the midst of his respectful analysis of just war, Yoder does not shrink away from searing critique. For him, just war theory, like other non-pacifist approaches to the question of violence
make or presuppose a case for placing our faith in some other channel of ethical insight and some other way of behaving than is offered us through Jesus as attested in the New Testament. All these approaches thereby justify my trusting myself to have the wisdom to know, for example when I may properly sacrifice the life of my neighbor to the righteousness of the cause that I represent. All of them thus find in this other channel of ethical insight also another substance of ethical instruction. Whereas Jesus instructed his disciples to return good for evil, this other light demands or permits returing a certain amount of evil. While Jesus told his disciples that they should expect to be persecuted, this other light indicates that in some grounds under some circumstances we should cause others to suffer. (p. 188-9)
The crucial point here is that Yoder is clear that the acceptance of just war theory as a mode of Christian moral reasoning is predicated fundamentally on the rejection of Christ’s own normativity for ethics. What we have here is not merely an interpretive squabble within a largely coherent tradition but something far more serious. “What we have to do with here is fundamentally nothing other than a competitive revelation claim. If I say it is my duty to make history come out right, appealing to a concept of ‘creation’ or of ‘love driving me to take political responsibility’ or to the call of ‘the situation,’ in all of these cases I am setting up over against Jesus another imperative and another source of imperatives” (p. 189).
Thus for Yoder, the adoption of just war theory, from the standpoint of Christian discipleship is not simply a minor failure to not be fully consistent in our ethical calculus. Rather it is the acceptance of a structurally different source and norm of our whole view of history, Christ, and politics. As such, in no sense can Yoder be seen to be recommending or tolerating just war theory as viable from the standpoint of an ethic of discipleship. To be sure, consistent just war theory is preferable to all other approaches to war, but it too buys into a source of ethical evaluation and substance that is opposed to the politics of Jesus.