John Howard Yoder (1927 - 1997) was a Christian theologian, ethicist, and Biblical scholar best known for his radical Christian pacifism, his mentoring of future theological giants such as Stanley Hauerwas, his loyalty to his
Mennonite faith, and his 1972 masterpiece
The Politics of Jesus.
Yoder was born in Smithville, Ohio in 1927 and earned his undergraduate degree from Goshen College. After World War Two, he traveled to Europe to direct relief efforts for the Mennonite Central Committee. While in Europe, he married Anne Marie Guth, in
1952. He completed his Th.D. at the University of Basel, Switzerland, under Karl Barth. Anecdotally true to form, the night before he was to defend his dissertation on
Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland (2004), Yoder visited Barth's office to deliver an entirely different document—a thorough critique of Barth's position on war which he had written in the meantime. This long essay has
now been published in
Karl Barth and the Problem of War (2000) Yoder was instrumental in reviving European Mennonites following World War II.
Upon returning to the United States, John spent a year working at his father's greenhouse business in Wooster, Ohio, and then began teaching at Goshen Biblical Seminary. He was Professor of Theology there from 1965 to 1984 and served as President
While still teaching at Goshen, he also began teaching at the University of Notre Dame, where he became a Professor of Theology and later was named a Fellow of the Institute of International Peace Studies. He died of an aortic aneurysm in South Bend,
Indiana on December 30, 1997.
Of his many books, the most widely recognized has undoubtedly been The Politics of Jesus (1972); it has been translated into at least ten languages. In it, Yoder argues against popular views of Jesus, particularly those views held by Reinhold Niebuhr,
which he believed to be dominant in the day. Niebuhr argued a particular view of just war philosophy, which Yoder felt failed to take seriously the call or person of Jesus Christ. After showing what he believed to be inconsistencies of Niebuhr's
perspective, Yoder attempted to demonstrate by an exegesis of the Gospel of Luke and parts of Paul's letter to the Romans that, in his view, a radical Christian pacifism was the most faithful approach for the disciple of Christ. Yoder argued that
being Christian is a political standpoint, and Christians ought not ignore that calling.
The Politics of Jesus was named by evangelical publication Christianity Today as one of the most important Christian books of the 20th century.
While he did important writing in the fields of Anabaptist history and peace studies, Yoder is best remembered for his reflections on Christian ethics. Rejecting the assumption that human history is driven by coercive power, Yoder argued that it was rather
God, working in, with, and through the non-violent, non-resistant community of disciples of Jesus, that was the ultimate force in human affairs. If the Christian church in the past made alliances with political rulers, it was because it had lost confidence
in this truth.
He called the arrangement whereby the state and the church each supported the goals of the other Constantinianism, and he regarded it as a dangerous and constant temptation. Yoder argued that Jesus himself rejected this temptation, even to the point of
dying a horrible and cruel death. Resurrecting Jesus from the dead was, in this view, God's way of vindicating Christ's unwavering obedience.
Likewise, Yoder argued, the primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who don't share their faith, but to "be the church." By refusing to return evil for evil, by
living in peace, sharing goods, and doing deeds of charity as opportunities arise, the church witnesses, says Yoder, to the fact that an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence is possible. Yoder claims that the church thus
lives in the conviction that God calls Christians to imitate the way of Christ in his absolute obedience, even if it leads to their deaths, for they, too, will finally be vindicated in resurrection.
Needless to say, Yoder's account of Christian faith and ethics has been controversial. Towards the end of his life, interestingly, he began to think about the use of a global police force as a limited instance where Christians could support the use
of coercive force.
He was a major influence on his colleague at Notre Dame
Stanley Hauerwas who now teaches at Duke Divinity School.
- Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World
- The Christian Witness to the State, Discipleship As Political Responsibility
- Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism
- Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method
- The Priestly Kingdom
- The Royal Priesthood
- When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking
- For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical
- The above is edited material extracted from the Wikipedia article
John Howard Yoder on 10/8/06.