Toward a Theology for Conflict Transformation:

Learnings from John Howard Yoder

MARK THIESSEN NATION*

     Abstract: Conflict transformation is currently one of the cutting-edge disciplines in relation to peacemaking, and one in which Mennonites are fully engaged. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask how the writings of John Howard Yoder-the most prolific Mennonite theologian on the subject of peace-might be brought to bear on this subject. This essay attempts to address that question. It does so by offering reflections on six specific theological topics, providing in the process notes for future conversations that I hope will include theologians as well as those involved in conflict transformation studies and practice.

     The field of conflict transformation studies has come into its own within the last few decades, becoming one of the most important academic (and professional) specializations connected to peacemaking.[1]  This relatively new discipline draws on insights from other disciplines, especially in the social sciences, to understand unhealthy and destructive conflicts and conflictual relationships. Theoreticians and practitioners in the field of conflict transformation seek to create strategies to transform unhealthy conflicts through redemptive structures, processes and relationships.[2] 

     Since this is currently one of the cutting-edge disciplines in relation to peacemaking, and one that Mennonites are fully engaged in, it seems reasonable to ask how the writings of John Howard Yoder-the most prolific Mennonite theologian on the subject of peace-might be brought to bear on this subject. Clearly, the field of conflict transformation and the themes addressed here are quite complicated. Thus, these reflections are really only notes toward future conversations, indicating something of the relevance of Yoder's theology for conflict transformation studies,[3]  drawing on several lectures and writings that Yoder devoted to the subject, as well as the writings of others who have said things consonant with Yoder's, but who have stated them in ways that are more illuminating for the present topic. [4] 

     Yoder began his first lecture on theology and conflict transformation-a presentation to a Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Consultation in 1978-with an important caution.[5]  It is often the case at Christian conferences, said Yoder, that someone is placed on the program to provide either biblical or theological input. And yet, far too often, perhaps especially in practical matters such as conflict transformation, the theological input ends up being peripheral. There is no organic connection between what theologians say and what the sociologists, political philosophers, psychologists and others in practice-related fields advocate-even if everyone involved would claim to be operating from within the same basic theological framework (say, they are all Mennonite). One of the ways this is reflected even in the theological writings is to create what Yoder refers to as "genitive theologies."[6]  That is to say, theologians write "theologies of" this or that. When this is done, too often the subject following the genitive becomes determinative of the content-the theological content is determinatively shaped by the subject in question. Yoder intentionally avoids this error. He does not begin with the "givens" of some science called "conflict transformation" that exist prior to his theological reflections. Rather, having read relevant literature in the field, Yoder offers "a theological point of reference." This signals that for Yoder solid biblical or theological reflections should have a determinative place in deliberations about issues like conflict transformation. The wider corpus of Yoder's writings suggest various theological reference points regarding a Christian approach to the art of conflict transformation that point toward a "theology for" rather than "of" conflict transformation.

TO JETTISON THE PARTICULAR?

     Before turning to the heart of Yoder's theological ethics-namely, his focus on the centrality of Jesus and the vital importance of the church in thinking about a Christian approach to peacemaking[7] -a second set of preliminary issues must be addressed. In a recent, incisive essay, Marc Gopin, a Jewish scholar specializing in conflict studies, reflects on Mennonite peacebuilders with whom he has worked. These Mennonite peacemakers, he notes, have had their souls, their habits, their lives shaped by Mennonite churches; that background has had a profound impact on the nature of their witness. He observes:

     This method of engagement of radical humility, more than an ethical act or a strategy of intervention for Mennonites, appears to be a part of their being, a cultural characteristic that is at the heart of their religious experience of divine closeness and emulation. Every feeling of pain before the suffering of others is a living embrace of the life and person of Jesus. The community prayers, songs, and sermons often revolve around this theme.[8] 

     These gracious comments testify not only to the character of the Mennonites that Gopin has known, but also acknowledge the role of the life and person of Jesus and worshipping communities in shaping these particular peacemakers. And yet-given the centrality of Jesus and the importance of the church in their lives-Gopin also notes that these same Mennonites "rarely used words to describe what they loved about their faith, at least not in public."[9]  In fact, he says that he sees them sometimes "caught in a bind that is rarely articulated"-a bind that is connected to the fact that they are "deeply committed to tolerance and pluralism."[10] 

     The bind Gopin describes-of holding together the tensions between the fundamental significance of the particular commitments of one's own faith tradition and an awareness of the plurality of cultures and religions within which we live-is a bind many of us would recognize. The Mennonite peacebuilders Gopin describes are truly working at the cutting edge of our contemporary global culture; the challenges are bound to be difficult and confounding. Mennonites are often working for peace alongside others who do not share their commitment to nonviolence and yet embrace the broader goal of working toward peace and justice. At times, they are working with people from around the world whose lives are informed and shaped by very different faith commitments, and they are led to acknowledge, out of honesty, that these Muslims, Hindus or Jews are often working in profound and sacrificial ways for the sake of peace and justice-sometimes in ways that their Mennonite brothers and sisters (as well as other Christians) are not. Theologically, these realities provoke important questions that suggest the need for conversations going far beyond the limits of this essay.

     Those conversations could begin with some important insights from the work of John Howard Yoder. Especially in the last two decades of his life Yoder consciously addressed himself to a world shaped by a plurality of cultures, religions and convictional communities. At the same time, he cautioned that our responses in the light of these legitimate sensitivities could easily replicate the logic of the past, albeit in a new mode. Christianity, Yoder suggested, can respond in two ways:

     We can take as a norm the sense of consensus, the unchallenged confidence of that bygone age. In the search for a new consensus we can then jettison the particular, the local, the Jewish, the specific biblical content. Jesus then matters less and agreement more. Universality will be sought at the price of specificity. Dialogue will mean the uncovering of commonality. One will speak of common denominators, of anthropological constants, of several paths up the same mountain.

      But there is another way. It would be possible to say that the error in the age of triumphalism was not that it was tied to Jesus but that it denied him, precisely in its power and its disrespect for the neighbor. Then the corrective would be not to search for a new consensus but to critique the old. Its error was not that it propagated Christianity around the world but that what it propagated was not Christian enough. Then the adjustment to Christendom's loss of ‚lan and credibility is not to talk less about Jesus and more about religion but the contrary.[11] 

     One of the substantial binds, inferred from Gopin's comments, is the potential tension between mission and peacemaking. Mennonite peacemakers he has encountered seem to have questions about straightforward witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: "They would see Jesus' principal endeavors as involving direct service, aid to and healing of those in need, and the teaching of non-resistance, not the construction of an empire of followers."[12]  Gopin conjectures that the reason some of these Mennonite peacemakers have "rarely used words to describe what they loved about their faith, at least not in public," and their reluctance to endorse proselytizing, is related to their awareness of religious pluralism and their embarrassment concerning mission work in the past.[13]  In other words, missionaries in the past were often arrogant, insensitive, aggressive or even brutal; and people in other cultures also have their religions; they also know the truth. So, who are we to proselytize?

     Certainly the history of missions is full of examples in which missionaries have acted in a poor, or even in an un-Christian, manner. Many of us today cannot help but recognize these painful realities.[14]  Indeed, it is precisely this awareness, joined to a heightened consciousness of the plurality of cultures, religions and truth claims, that raises questions about the legitimacy of evangelization or proselytizing.[15]  Such questions are only strengthened by our commitment to following Jesus, to embodying nonviolence.

     However, as Yoder argues, "to jettison the particular" in the face of our awareness of the plurality of convictions, convictional communities and religions is not a helpful response to this apparent bind. To acknowledge the reality of plurality does not inevitably lead to an affirmation of "pluralism." In fact, as the theologian Gavin D'Costa has said, "There is no such thing as pluralism because all pluralists are committed to holding some form of truth criteria and by virtue of this, anything that falls foul of such criteria is excluded from counting as truth (in doctrine and in practice)." D'Costa continues: "By noticing this logical shape, our attention is drawn to the more interesting question as to what precisely are these criteria, how are they justified, and in what fashion do they work?"[16]  The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf makes a similar point: "Though sensitivity to plurality is essential, the affirmation of plurality is spurious. The only way to decide which among many options, all with their different visions of 'the just,' ought to be affirmed, is by appealing to our own conception of justice. Instead of simply affirming plurality we must nurture an awareness of our own fallibility."[17]  So Christians should nurture "an awareness of our own fallibility," a humility, that always informs how we live and relate to others. But just as this humility does not cause us to loosen our commitment to peace and justice, so likewise it should not prevent us from acknowledging that the center of our very existence is the God revealed through Jesus Christ.

     Ironically, many would say that it is precisely what they have learned from Jesus that leads them to minimize the centrality of Jesus and the community, the church, that gathers around him. After all, what it means to follow Jesus is to be humble, just, compassionate and hospitable.

      Those who are struggling to know what it means to be faithful to Jesus when teaching and working among people of multiple faith commitments are to be applauded. They are modeling a kind of integrity that must be appreciated; Marc Gopin's affirming words indicate as much. However, it is also important to consider the reminder from Miroslav Volf:

     [Jesus] was no prophet of "inclusion" for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was the bringer of "grace," who not only scandalously included "anyone" in the fellowship of "open commensality," but made the "intolerant" demand of repentance and the "condescending" offer of forgiveness.[18] 

     Of course those who would be followers of Jesus should be compassionate, humble and kind. But a commitment to kindness need not entail a minimizing of specific religious convictions. As Paul Griffiths and Delmas Lewis have argued:

     the non-judgmental inclusivist seems to believe that you can only be nice to people if you agree with them. This seems clearly false. It is both logically and practically possible for us, as Christians, to respect and revere worthy representatives of other traditions while still believing-on rational grounds-that some aspects of their world-view are simply mistaken.[19] 

     Without question an increased consciousness of the plurality of cultures and religions raises a number of complicated issues. There are varying conceptions of peace and justice, just as there are varying religious beliefs. This is because convictions, including convictions about matters like peace and justice, are formed within the context of particular cultures and traditions.[20]  It necessarily follows that there is a plurality of beliefs.

     For Yoder, to talk less about "religion" does not mean to talk less about that organized, historical continuity of followers of Jesus called the church.[21]  For to talk about Jesus is also to talk about the social reality of the church and a way of life that is grounded in the worship of the God revealed centrally in Jesus the Messiah.[22]  If Mennonites who emigrated from Europe had not constructed "an empire of followers," there would not have been Mennonite authors contributing to a book on "Mennonite contributions to international peacebuilding."

     If in fact Mennonite peacemakers are shaped to be who they are by their church communities, then to denounce as illegitimate the building of such churches is, in Yoder's words, a "cut-flower operation." Roses are beautiful; they enhance our lives. But, without the planting and nurturing of rose bushes we do not have such beautiful roses for long. Since it is precisely the community formed around Jesus that has nurtured us to be nonviolent, to care about justice and to be humble, why would we not want to witness to this Jesus whom we proclaim Lord?[23] 

     It would also be a mistake to imagine-as minimizing the importance of witnessing to Jesus would suggest-that one can simply dispose of the "religious" language of the church and get on with the important tasks of peacebuilding. As William Spohn has noted: "Nonviolence understood as participating in the cross of Christ has a meaning different from Gandhian nonviolence. They are not the same moral practice outfitted in disposable rhetorical garments."[24]  Neither Gandhian nonviolence nor a set of Harvard Negotiation Project's conflict transformation skills should be equated with the life of the church.[25] 

THE CENTRALITY OF JESUS

     Throughout his life, Yoder worked to make credible the claim that "we know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in any other ways." Or stated differently: "the lordship of Christ is the center which must guide critical value choices, so that we may be called to subordinate or even reject those values which contradict Jesus."[26]  This is not to say that other sources of wisdom need be renounced. Rather, the question is "how to keep them subordinate to the centrality of the guidance of Jesus."[27] 

     For years Yoder made such claims about Jesus primarily against the backdrop of alternative approaches to social ethics within the field of Christian ethics. Thus he began his book The Politics of Jesus (1972), not by engaging the Scriptures themselves but rather by naming a number of ways in which contemporary approaches to Christian social ethics has often set aside the authority of Jesus.[28]  He did this to open the way for his claim that the New Testament itself makes the person of Jesus central for its approach to what we call social ethics. Then he explicated the claims of the New Testament in such a way that the guild of Christian ethicists could find it less easy to dismiss those claims.

     By the late 1970s, however, Yoder was quite conscious of the need to address different audiences with a different language. He was especially aware of the need to address those who saw the particularities of Christian language as being overly constricting or narrow, or pursued a more generic language of religion or morality. On a formal level Yoder sought to demonstrate that there is no alternative to particularity. "Reality always was pluralistic and relativistic, that is, historical."[29]  That is to say, particularity is, finally, what we are all stuck with; it is what humans have always been stuck with. Some worlds may seem larger, better, less restrictive than our own; but, we delude ourselves if we imagine that any of these worlds are other than particular.[30] 

     On a more substantive level, Yoder spent much of his life arguing that the gospel of Jesus Christ truly is good news. It is good news not only for those who follow this Jesus; it is also good news for the world. Thus, within our various particular worlds Christians seek to proclaim, and live by, the message of Jesus. "The real issue is not," says Yoder, "whether Jesus can make sense in a world far from Galilee, but whether-when he meets us in our world, as he does in fact-we want to follow him. We don't have to, as they didn't then. That we don't have to is the profoundest proof of his condescension, and thereby of his glory."[31] 

     Yes, we are not compelled to follow Jesus. And Christians who are involved in conflict transformation do not have to make Jesus determinative for their work. But Yoder would argue that they should. Which still begs a question: what would it mean to make Jesus determinative for Christians who are working in the field of conflict transformation? At a minimum, Yoder's response to this complicated question would have included something like the following.[32]  Serious Scripture study and theological reflection would be a significant component of this work. This involves much more than simply lifting out what appear to be immediately "relevant" texts for people involved in conflict transformation. And it involves more than simply using writers whose agenda is relatively close to that of those engaged in active peacebuilding.[33]  It would include a commitment to avoid the temptation to make Jesus over into our own image, or to make Jesus fit easily into a previously defined discipline. For instance, it might be tempting to adopt the Jesus created by A. N. Wilson as depicted by Charlotte Allen. According to Allen:

     Although Wilson's Jesus is supposed to be a first-century Jewish holy man, he is actually a nondenominational 20th-century therapy-group facilitator whose specialty is "enabling [people] to become themselves," and whose message is: "Suppress if you can the yang and exalt the yin! Keep down the urge to dominate, to score, to triumph, to fight, and exalt the urge to conciliate, to understand, to value."[34] 

     Of course, no one who writes of Jesus entirely avoids making Jesus into their own image. But Yoder is a good model here in the way he wrote The Politics of Jesus. He more or less dealt with the whole of the New Testament (and to a much lesser extent, the Old Testament). He drew on much of the best in contemporary biblical scholarship while remaining conscious of questions from the disciplines of ethics and systematic theology. In The Politics of Jesus, where he was seeking to show the social and political relevance of Jesus within his own context, Yoder dealt with such unlikely topics as justification by grace and the apocalyptic. But by dealing with the whole of the New Testament he was fair to various strands of biblical thought and not just those immediately relevant to his case. He showed how even topics not normally seen to affirm his general case did in fact do so. The whole picture was enriched and made even more credible by the diversity of the texts and strands of thought he drew upon.[35] 

CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

     Another component of Yoder's theology for conflict transformation follows from his teaching concerning the centrality of Jesus. "We know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in other ways."[36]  Christians should remember that the God we worship is the same God as the God revealed in Jesus, the Jesus whom we seek to follow faithfully. This worship, this following, has its roots in a gathered body of believers that we call church. It is the life together-as the body of Christ-that helps us discern what it means to follow Jesus faithfully today.[37]  "Worship," as Yoder has said, "is the communal cultivation of an alternative construction of society and of history."[38]  In fact this Christian community helps to remind us, among other things, that "conflict resolution is not only a social science; it is also a set of skills"[39] -skills that are vital for our development as peacemakers. At its core, peacemaking is not a set of skills, of course, but a way of life. As Stanley Hauerwas has observed, peacemaking as a virtue among Christians:

     . . . is an act of imagination built on long habits of the resolution of differences. The great problem in the world is that our imagination has been stilled, since it has not made a practice of confronting wrongs so that violence might be avoided. In truth, we must say that the church has too often failed the world by its failure to witness in our own life the kind of conflict necessary to be a community of peace.[40] 

     Those practices that teach us what it means to live in unity and truth in the midst of our differences shape us to be true Christian peacemakers. Reflecting on these realities of life together in churches that wrestle honestly with their conflicts, Yoder offers the following observations:

     To be human is to have differences; to be human wholesomely is to process those differences, not by building up conflicting power claims but by reconciling dialogue. Conflict is socially useful; it forces us to attend to new data from new perspectives. It is useful in interpersonal process; by processing conflict, one learns skills, awareness, trust, and hope. Conflict is useful in intra personal dynamics, protecting our concern about guilt and acceptance from being directed inwardly only to our own feelings. The therapy for guilt is forgiveness; the source of self-esteem is another person who takes seriously my restoration to community.[41] 

     Yoder lists a half dozen personal qualities and community resources consonant with the Christian faith that are valuable for those who would intervene in conflicts. These include:

a) vulnerability, a readiness to be shot at from both sides;

b) a willingness not to get the credit;

c) the long-range holding power that is rooted in something other than immediate success;

d) a network of understanding people with the same language and values who offer encouragement and acceptable criticism;

e) the commitment of Christians to the dignity of the other party; in Biblical language, "love of enemy";

     f) a concern for the doctrine of gifts; through the richness of God we have been given different things to do and have different capacities and different personalities.[42] 

     At stake here is not whether Yoder or Hauerwas has named the most essential skills needed for peacemaking or conflict transformation. Clearly, other skills could be mentioned. This listing, however, reminds us that there are many skills, virtues and character qualities derived from the life of the church that are invaluable for various peacemaking tasks, including intervening in conflicts. We dismiss a vital resource if we ignore the value of the church community for shaping people to be people of peace.

     It is significant that Marc Gopin, an outside observer, recognizes the importance of the Mennonite community for shaping Mennonites to be effective peacemakers. "The maintenance of community, Mennonite community," he writes, " . . . is a vital component of who they are, and also something the field of conflict resolution in general may be able to learn from them."[43]  Yet gratifying as some Mennonites may find such comments, Yoder is also quick to remind us that the centrality of the Church community is not justified pragmatically. Rather, the centrality of the Church and the Gospel of Christ it proclaims and embodies is a theological claim. In fact, it is vital to remember that the Christian life is a way of life only properly understood within a network of convictions, convictions that are not judged finally by their utilitarian value but by whether or not they offer glory and praise to God.[44] 

FIRST AND ALWAYS THE CHURCH

     Another distinctive learning from John Yoder relevant to a theological foundation for conflict transformation is a clear understanding of the distinction between Church and world. This distinction is crucial for understanding conflict transformation and it has implications for approaching social ethics more broadly as well. We are Christians. The shape that our peacemaking assumes, and the approach we take to conflict transformation, is determinatively shaped by the community that worships and serves the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our central identity and allegiance belong to this people rather than to any nation-state or particular culture. Hauerwas captures a part of what this means in his contribution in 1993 to a symposium on whether the U. S. government should intervene in Somalia.

     If Christians are going to think clearly about American intervention in Somalia, we first need to ask ourselves who we are. It is so easy to be quickly domesticated by the question, Do you not think we should intervene? The problem is in that "we." It makes all the difference who you think the "we" is.

     I suspect part of the problem in thinking about intervention in Somalia is that we assume the Christian "we" and the "we" of government are the same. When we do so we are robbed of what it means for Christians to think differently about these matters.[45] 

     As Yoder put it: "the church's responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church."[46]  "Our" thinking and "our" behavior as Christians should be identifiably Christian; it should be deeply shaped and nurtured by our commitment to follow Christ within the body of Christ. These need not be different on any given issue from the reflections and behavior of others, whether in government agencies or other organizations with whom peacemakers might work.[47]  However, Christians should be prepared that they may be different in many ways, including our unwillingness to use violence. This is because our first commitment is to the Church.

THE RICH AND TEXTURED LANGUAGE OF SIN

     Next, a theology for conflict transformation must be clear about the nature of sin. If Christians have no language to describe evil, then, as literary critic Andrew Delbanco has correctly noted, "we have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world."[48]  Likewise, as Christians, we act foolishly if we dispense with the language of sin. As professor of preaching, Thomas Long, says:

     Like other key theological terms, "sin" cannot be replaced with any other, more accessible, term. "Immorality" is too tame, too attached to the human will and social codes. "Estrangement and alienation," existentialist favorites, are too small, too focused upon the individual. "Evil" paints too broadly and lacks personal bite, while concepts like "co-dependent" and "psychopathic" are located on a single floor of the human mansion.

      No other word gathers up in a single stitch the intrapsychic, the interpersonal, the moral, the ecological, the social, the cosmological, and the theological character of the brokenness of human life and of all of creation. To be able to use the word "sin" is to be able to speak with honesty about who we are with and to each other. Because it places us on common ground, it is the soil of compassion, forgiveness, and hope. An anthropology that lacks a vigorous doctrine of sin is headed for constant disillusionment, chronic and bitter disappointment, and ever deepening spirals of rage over the inability and unwillingness of human beings to act responsibly.[49] 

     Long is right. We make a serious mistake if we drop sin from our Christian vocabulary, including language related to conflict transformation. Stanley Hauerwas exposes the temptation: "One can only think of Jesus' crucifixion as 'an unfortunate but avoidable failure in communication' if one believes that the remedy for sin is merely better training in the techniques of conflict resolution."[50] 

     Reformed theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. offers a helpful perspective:

     The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight-a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.[51] 

     When this web is broken, as Plantinga says, it is "not the way it's supposed to be." Or to put it in the words of his chapter title from which the quote is taken, there has been a "vandalism of shalom." This vandalism-"sin" in biblical vocabulary-involves desire, emotion, thought, word and deed; it is an affront to God as well as a disordering of God's desired shalom.[52] 

     Yoder was convinced that peacemaking must be done with a full awareness of the sometimes ugly, violent and unjust realities in the world. This was partly because as a young man, he lived in Western Europe only a few years after the devastations of World War II. There Yoder saw the ravages of war through the eyes of the orphans and in the relative poverty of the French Mennonites he served during the first half of the 1950s. Throughout the rest of his life he was a frequent international traveler, having many friends who lived in situations of poverty, injustice and violence. Yoder knew that peacebuilders could not ignore oppression and suffering. He also knew that Christian theologians must employ a biblical and theological vocabulary appropriate to these complex realities, including the rich and textured language of evil and sin.[53] 

     Because of the reality of sin in the world, Yoder reminds us, we should not project some future utopian world wherein violence is but a dim memory because all conflicts have been or are in the process of being transformed.[54]  Nonetheless, we still live toward a vision, the vision of shalom.

THE QUESTION OF EFFECTIVENESS

     A final relevant theme from the theology of John Howard Yoder for Mennonite conflict transformation programs concerns the ancient debate over effectiveness. As a practical discipline conflict transformation is geared toward results, toward pragmatism and effectiveness. Contrary to what some stereotypes would project, Yoder did not encourage ineffectiveness. He went to some effort to affirm an appropriate concern for effectiveness.[55]  However, being deeply rooted theologically, Yoder was relentless in arguing that any concerns for effectiveness should be constrained by central Christian teachings.

     In more positive language, Christians need to have their imaginations, their language, their thought patterns and their lives determinatively shaped by the Gospel and the community that attempts to embody it.[56]  It is easy to forget that words like "effectiveness," "responsibility," "conflict transformation," and "peace" and "justice" are not self-defining terms. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon alert us: "Big words like 'peace' and 'justice' . . . are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth."[57]  Arne Rasmusson adds:

     [W]hat is understood as "realism" depends on how the world is seen, which in its turn is related to one's communal practice. An alternative discourse-practice helps the moral imagination and vice-versa. It is this that makes ecclesiology so theologically important. . . . One of the many ways the church can be of service to the world is to nurture alternative ways of seeing the world that question what are thought to be necessities.[58] 

     "To nurture alternative ways of seeing the world" is a helpful way of understanding the theological project of John Howard Yoder. And it is a useful distillation of what he would say to practitioners of conflict transformation as they consider issues related to effectiveness. As he put it in the last paragraph of the revised edition of The Politics of Jesus:

     To follow Jesus does not mean renouncing effectiveness. It does not mean sacrificing concern for liberation within the social process in favor of delayed gratification in heaven, or abandoning efficacy in favor of purity. It means that in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord ("sitting at the right hand"). It is not that we begin with a mechanistic universe and then look for cracks and chinks where a little creative freedom might sneak in (for which we would then give God credit): it is that we confess the deterministic world to be enclosed within, smaller than, the sovereignty of the God of the Resurrection and Ascension. "He's got the whole world in his hands" is a post-ascension testimony. The difference it makes for political behavior is more than merely poetic or motivational.[59] 

     These brief reflections are really little more than notes for future conversations regarding the interface of theology and conflict transformation. In this essay I have touched, quite briefly, on six topics. Each of these topics is important to the conversations currently taking place, though there are also many other important issues as well. I am well aware, for example, that I have only barely dealt with Yoder's pacifism and its theological contours, in part because dealing adequately with this cluster of issues would require an entire essay in itself. Since all of the issues addressed in this essay impinge, in one way or another, on that set of issues, there is rich potential for many fruitful dialogues in the future.


[*] Mark Thiessen Nation is associate professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. This essay is adapted from the second half of chapter 5 in John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006). 1. One of the difficulties in writing about this subject is that the terminology itself is debated. For shorthand I will use the term "conflict transformation." I do this because as Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and John Paul Lederach define the terms, this phrase seems to have the closest affinity to John Yoder's theological concerns.-Cf. Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, "Introducing Conflict and Conflict Transformation," in Making Peace With Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation, ed. Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Lawrence Ressler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1999), 35, and John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 2003), 3-6. The fluidity of the terminology is suggested by the fact that the "Conflict Transformation Program," at Eastern Mennonite University, in recently reaching its tenth anniversary, changed its name to the "Center for Justice and Peacebuilding." Return to Text

[2] . The field of conflict transformation is complicated. For an introduction to and overview of the discipline (or various subdisciplines) see "The Little Books of Justice & Peacebuilding," a series introduced by Good Books in 2002. Also see the most recent book by John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Return to Text

[3] . It should be noted that many Mennonite (and some other) practitioners of conflict transformation would acknowledge John Yoder's influence on their work. See, for instance, John Paul Lederach, "Recollections and the Construction of a Legacy: The Influence of John Howard Yoder on My Life and Work," a keynote address at a conference on the legacy of John Howard Yoder held at Notre Dame University in March of 2002. Return to Text

[4] . Some of Yoder's lectures on this subject are being gathered into a forthcoming volume of essays to be edited by Glen H. Stassen and myself. Return to Text

[5] . John Howard Yoder, "A Theological Point of Reference for an Approach to Conflict, Intervention, and Conciliation," unpublished lecture, Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Consultation, Kansas City, Apr. 6-8, 1978, 1-2. This consultation helped launch Mennonite Conciliation Services, which was a significant step forward in Mennonite involvement in the field of conflict transformation. Return to Text

[6] . Yoder, "A Theological Point of Reference," 2. Return to Text

[7] . One of Yoder's own best and succinct summaries of the heart of his approach is John Howard Yoder, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, rev. ed. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1992), 133-138. Return to Text

[8] . Marc Gopin, "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking and Its Global Implications," in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding, ed. Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 243. Return to Text

[9] . Gopin, "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking," 237. Return to Text

[10] . Ibid. Return to Text

[11] . Yoder, "The Disavowal of Constantine," in The Royal Priesthood, 257. For an example of the way in which Yoder's larger body of writings can be used to respond to the questions raised here see Gayle Gerber Koontz, "Evangelical Peace Theology and Religious Pluralism: Particularity in Perspective," The Conrad Grebel Review 14 (Winter 1996):57-85. For some of Yoder's other comments see Yoder, "Radical Reformation Ethics in Ecumenical Perspective," in The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 119, and "Why Ecclesiology Is Social Ethics," in The Royal Priesthood, 112-114. Return to Text

[12] . Gopin, "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking," 236. The sentence quoted is followed by: "The latter they might see as a by-product of his work but not as its focus. This does not necessarily mean that they would be displeased by more Christians in the world. It is unclear, and that appears to be a sensitive issue" (pp. 236-237). The ambiguity of these two sentences is typical of Gopin's comments on this subject. It is not of great importance, for the purposes of this essay, which particular people Gopin has in mind here; I believe his characterizations, in general terms, would accurately describe a significant number of educated Mennonites at the beginning of this new century. Return to Text

[13] . Gopin, "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking and Its Global Implications," 237. Return to Text

[14]  However, sometimes the critiques are lacking in nuance. See, e.g., the recent sociological study: Robert D. Woodberry, "The Shadow of Empire: Christian Mission, Colonial Policy, and Democracy in Post-Colonial Societies" (Ph. D. diss. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2004). Return to Text

[15] . For reflections on some of these issues see John Howard Yoder, "On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Plularism, and Validation," Faith and Philosophy 9 (July 1992), 285-300. Also see William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989); Paul J. Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991); and Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999). Return to Text

[16] . Gavin D'Costa, "The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions," Religious Studies 32 (June 1996), 223-232, quote from 225-226. Return to Text

[17] . Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 218; emphasis is in the original. Return to Text

[18] . Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 72-73. One of the challenges is to reflect more critically on current understandings of tolerance and intolerance. See, e.g., Daniel Taylor, "Deconstructing the Gospel of Tolerance," Christianity Today (Jan. 11, 1999), 43-52; and Paul Griffiths, "Proselytizing for Tolerance," First Things (Nov. 2002), 30-34. Return to Text

[19] . Paul Griffiths and Delmas Lewis, "On Grading Religions, Seeking Truth, and Being Nice to People-A Reply to Professor Hick," Religious Studies 19 (March 1983), 77. For a response to the claim that "thin" religion is better than "thick" or serious religion, see Miroslav Volf's unpublished lecture "Christianity and Violence." Return to Text

[20] . For two instructive discussions of the way in which understandings of "justice" are always embedded within particular cultures, traditions and communities, see Alasdair MacIntryre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) and Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). Return to Text

[21] . For Yoder's fuller development of his critique of "religion" see John Howard Yoder, "Civil Religion in American," in The Priestly Kingdom, 182-187. Also see John Howard Yoder, The Fullness of Christ (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1987), 1-8, and what is implied by John Howard Yoder, Body Politics. Return to Text

[22] . Anyone who knows the writings of John Yoder knows that for him the church was fundamental. For two of his essays on this see John Howard Yoder, "The Otherness of the Church," and "A People in the World," in The Royal Priesthood, 53- 64, 65-101. Return to Text

[23] . Again, there is a danger here. Our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ should not be because it motivates people to be good transformers of conflict. We are Christian because we trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This entails a way of life for us and any others who would be so committed. This way of life involves many dimensions, including a commitment to being peacemakers in all that that involves. Return to Text

[24] . William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 1999), 15. Return to Text

[25] . I mention the Harvard Negotiation Project simply because it is well known.-See, e.g., Roger Fisher, et al., Getting to Yes, 2d ed. (New York: Penguin, 1991). The point is that the language of peacemaking shaped by Christ and the Church is never simply "a rhetorical garment" that can just as easily be transposed into the jargon of any school of conflict transformation studies. The points of reference for Christians are always centrally derived from Christ and the life of the Church, even if these same Christians are making connections between their own lives and, say, conflict transformation. Return to Text

[26] . Yoder, "Introduction," in The Priestly Kingdom, 11. Return to Text

[27] . Yoder, "Radical Reformation Ethics in Ecumenical Perspective," in The Priestly Kingdom, 120. Return to Text

[28] . John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 1-20. Return to Text

[29] . Yoder, "But We Do See Jesus," in The Priestly Kingdom, 59. Return to Text

[30] . Yoder, "On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel." Return to Text

[31] . Yoder, "But We Do See Jesus," in The Priestly Kingdom, 62. Return to Text

[32] . I am not necessarily suggesting that the following should primarily be done by those who deal with conflict transformation. For truly gifted and ambitious people that may be possible. But it might be that the following suggestions would require serious, and perhaps ongoing, dialogue between those who teach or practice conflict transformation and theologians with various specialties. Minimally it would require serious, attentive involvement in the life and teachings of the church. Return to Text

[33] . I think of the following writers who offer valuable insights but are inadequate as sole guides: Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988); Ched Myers, et al., Say to This Mountain: Mark's Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996); and Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996). Return to Text

[34] . Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, 1998), 310. Allen's entertaining and informative book serves as a good reminder of "the perils of modernizing Jesus," to borrow a phrase from H. J. Cadbury. Return to Text

[35] . Biblical studies are much more complicated now than when Yoder wrote the first edition of The Politics of Jesus. But some of books that I would include would be: Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997); N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); Tom Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999); Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996); Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001); David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995); Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993); Walter Brueggemann, The Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001); Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995). Return to Text

[36] . Yoder, "Introduction," The Priestly Kingdom, 11, emphasis mine. Return to Text

[37] . Reflections on the significance of this for peacemaking are offered in Mark Thiessen Nation, "The First Word Christians Have to Say About Violence Is 'Church': On Bonhoeffer, Baptists, and Becoming a Peace Church," in Faithfulness & Fortitude: In Conversation With the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, ed. Mark Thiessen Nation and Samuel Wells (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), 83-115. Return to Text

[38] . Yoder, "The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood," in The Priestly Kingdom, 43. Return to Text

[39] . Yoder, "Conflict Resolution," 8. Return to Text

[40] . Stanley M. Hauerwas, "Peacemaking: The Virtue of the Church," in Christian Existence Today, 95. Return to Text

[41] . John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 8. Return to Text

[42] . Yoder, "A Theological Point of Reference," 6-7. Return to Text

[43] . Gopin, "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking," 241. Return to Text

[44] . This is one among many things interestingly discussed in Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005). Return to Text

[45] . Stanley Hauerwas, "Who Is 'We'"? Sojourners 22 (April 1993), 15. Return to Text

[46] . Yoder, "The Otherness of the Church," in The Royal Priesthood, 61. Return to Text

[47] . Earlier in his writing career Yoder referred to the distinctiveness of Christian behavior. Later he came to refer, rather, to behavior being specifiably or identifiably Christian.-See Yoder, "A People in the World," in The Royal Priesthood, 81, fn 19. Return to Text

[48] . Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 3. Many of us are also aware of how detrimental the self-serving employment of the language of evil can be. For documentation of this see Michael Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire (London: I. B. Taurus, 2004). Scott Bader-Saye, in a recent lecture, also helps to name how fear is related to our moral behavior in "The Culture of Fear and the Moral Life," Society of Christian Ethics, Jan. 2005. Return to Text

[49] . Thomas G. Long, "God Be Merciful to Me, a Miscalculator," Theology Today 50 (July 1993), 166-167. If I were to explore sin more fully I would consult Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995); Alastair McFadyen, Bound To Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994). Return to Text

[50] . Stanley Hauerwas, "'Salvation Even in Sin': Learning to Speak Truthfully About Ourselves," in Sanctify Them in the Truth (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 67. Return to Text

[51] . Plantinga, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, 10. Return to Text

[52] . Plantinga, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, 13. Return to Text

[53] . This is apparent is Yoder's book The Christian Witness to the State (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001; original 1964), as well as elsewhere. For one account of some dimensions of the role of sin in Yoder's thought, see: Gerald W. Schlabach, "The Christian Witness in the Earthly City: John H. Yoder as Augustinian Interlocutor," in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder's Contributions of Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House), 221-244. Return to Text

[54] . Again, see John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State. For Yoder this is related to his affirmation, along with that of the apostle Paul, that the cross of Christ is central for Christians. This cross includes a reminder that faithful Christians will suffer for their faith, sometimes through martyrdom. Return to Text

[55] . See John Howard Yoder, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, rev. and exp. ed. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1992), esp. chapters 4 and 5; Yoder, "The Lessons of Nonviolent Experience," in Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton (Elkhart, Ind.: Co-op Bookstore, 1983), 487-507; Yoder, "The Kingdom as Social Ethic," in The Priestly Kingdom, 96-101; Yoder, "Christ, the Hope of the World," in The Royal Priesthood, 203ff.; and Mark Thiessen Nation, "Demanding Signs, Desiring Wisdom, or Proclaiming Christ Crucified?: John H. Yoder's Contributions to a Peace Ethic," in Doing Theologies in a Baptistic Way, ed. Parush R. Parushev and Nigel Wright (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, forthcoming). Return to Text

[56] . This is wonderfully conveyed through narrative and theological reflection in Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005). Return to Text

[57] . Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 38. Return to Text

[58] . Arne Rasmusson, "Historicizing the Historicist," in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry Huebner, Chris K. Huebner and Mark Thiessen Nation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999; repr. Eugene, re.: Wipf & Stock, 2005) 234-235. Return to Text

[59] . Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 246-247. If I were to pursue more serious theological engagement with the field of conflict transformation, I would, in addition to references already given, engage writings such as: Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996); L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995); Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001); as well as various biblical and theological works on violence and related issues. 64 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 Toward a Theology for Conflict Transformation 43 MQR 80 (January 2006)