The Dichotomy Between Faithfulness and Effectiveness
in the Peace Theology of John Howard Yoder
Abstract: In his groundbreaking essays and books, John Howard Yoder consistently argued for the primacy of faithfulness over effectiveness in a theology and ethics of peace. At the same time, however, he also argued for the possibility of effectiveness, particularly in the form of witness. Indeed, Yoder ultimately argues that faithfulness and effectiveness, rather than being mutually exclusive, are both instrumental in helping to bring our world ever closer to God’s will for it, or in Yoder’s words, in helping to align it with “the grain of the cosmos.” His profound insights remain relevant to ongoing efforts in Christian peacemaking.
In 1954, John Howard Yoder spoke the following words to participants in a theological study conference held at Heerenwegen, Zeist (The Netherlands):
We must proclaim to every Christian that pacifism is not the prophetic vocation of a few individuals, but that every member of the Body of Christ is called to absolute nonresistance in discipleship and to abandonment of all loyalties which counter that obedience, including the desire to be effective immediately or to make oneself responsible for civil justice.
These words are as radical today as they undoubtedly were when first spoken. They unequivocally declare not only that pacifism is to be normative for all Christians, but also that obedience to that principle must supercede any desire to be effective. And thus, his words appear to create a dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness, a dichotomy having significant implications for Christian ethics, and in particular for the issue of war and peace. Taken to its extreme, this dichotomy implies that being faithful and being effective are mutually incompatible-that one must choose between one or the other. The Christian pacifist thus faces a moral dilemma: are we to follow absolutely the words of Jesus, who told us to love our enemies and to not resist evil, even when doing so might mean allowing evil to persist and even grow? Is it not in fact our moral duty to resist evil, using violent means when necessary for the sake of the greater good?
Behind this apparent dilemma is an even deeper question concerning the very normativity and relevance of Jesus’ teachings. Ultimately, this is the question that John Howard Yoder spent his lifetime addressing, for on it hinged not just the primary premise of his Anabaptist convictions, but also the essence of the Christian faith itself. In the process, however, Yoder could not avoid speaking to the dichotomy of faithfulness and effectiveness, for it kept appearing in the conversation, as though a test of moral and logical integrity.
The question continues to appear today in ongoing conversations about the appropriate Christian ethic of war and peace. Further clarity about the seemingly irreconcilable relationship between faithfulness and effectiveness is vital if Christian ethicists are to move forward. To that end, the purpose of this essay is to clarify Yoder’s position regarding this dichotomy, with particular attention to the relevance of Yoder’s views for current peace theology and praxis.
THE PRIMACY OF FAITHFULNESS
An early indication of Yoder’s perspective on the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy can be found in his essay “Peace without Eschatology'” which was first delivered as a lecture in 1954, then reproduced as a pamphlet in 1961 (and subsequently reprinted in 1994 in a compilation of essays entitled The Royal Priesthood). The essay reveals one of the principal trajectories in Yoder’s writings as a whole-namely, a refutation of the position taken earlier in the century by the influential theologian and realist Reinhold Niebuhr that pacifism was neither relevant nor morally responsible. Yoder framed his critique of Niebuhr in biblical terms, drawing on the eschatological concept of the “two aeons”: the present aeon and the aeon yet to come. Yoder objected to Niebuhr’s view that Christian “responsibility” might require violence in response to evil: while such a perspective is “based on a realistic analysis of the old aeon, [it] knows nothing of the new. It is not specifically Christian and would fit into any honest system of social morality. If Christ had never become incarnate, died, risen, ascended to heaven, and sent his Spirit, this view would be just as possible though its particularly clear and objective expression may result partly from certain Christian insights.” In Yoder’s view, it is precisely the eschatological reign of Christ that supercedes and trumps all other arguments for Christian responsibility. To the specific concern that abdicating direct responsibility and effectiveness would essentially abandon control of the world to evil forces, Yoder countered that control of the world “would be abandoned not to the demonic but to the reign of Christ,” and moreover that “the prophetic function of the church, properly interpreted, is more effective against injustice than getting mixed in the partisan political process oneself.” Anticipating the anxious concern for personal and national survival in the face of evil, Yoder argued that “personal survival is for the Christian not an end in itself; how much less national survival.”
In 1966 Yoder further expounded on the centrality of eschatology to Christian pacifism in a lecture, “Christ, the Hope of the World,” which was subsequently published in 1971 as part of a collection of essays titled The Original Revolution. In this essay, he begins by analyzing the phenomenom of “Constantinianism,” which he essentially equates with the continually evolving human quest to control history under the guise of Christianity, based on a presumed unity (or at least alliance) between church and world. In light of the continual failure of the alliance to achieve its quest, Yoder concludes that “our effort to perceive and to manipulate a casual link between our obedience and the results we hope for must be broken. . . . If our faithfulness is to be guided by the kind of man Jesus was, it must cease to be guided by the quest to have dominion over the course of events. We cannot sight down the line of our obedience to the attainment of the ends we seek.” Yet Yoder also made it clear that such obedience, if not motivated by the hope for specific results, is nonetheless motivated by an even greater hope:
We are not marching to Zion because we think that by our own momentum we can get there. But that is still where we are going. We are marching to Zion because when God lets down from heaven the new Jerusalem prepared for us, we want to be the kind of people and the kind of community that will not feel strange there . . . Those for whom Jesus Christ is the hope of the world will for this reason not measure their contemporary social involvement by its efficacy for tomorrow nor by its success in providing work, or freedom, or food or in building new social structures, but by identifying with the Lord in whom they have placed their trust. This is why it is sure to succeed.
Yoder thus acknowledged a link between obedience and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes. Yet, for him “the link is more cognacy than causation. We see it when we find life by way of the cross, power by means of weakness, wisdom by means of foolishness . . . when we save our life by losing it. This is the evangelical norm of efficacy.”
Within a year of that essay’s publication, Yoder published a book that captured, in a more authoritative form than a single essay could achieve, the essence-or at least the leading edge-of his ethical and theological thought. Not coincidentally, it would subsequently become his most influential and widely known work. That book was The Politics of Jesus. Its specific goal was to establish the sociopolitical relevance of the life and teachings of Jesus, a relevance which had been summarily rejected earlier in the century by Reinhold Niebuhr. Yoder proceeded to prove Niebuhr wrong through a careful and comprehensive exegesis of biblical texts that not only demonstrated Jesus’ political relevance, but in the process also made a powerful case for the normativity of Christian pacifism.
Yoder addressed the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy most directly in the chapter “The War of the Lamb,” where he examined key passages from the book of Revelation. He began by challenging three assumptions regarding the meaningfulness of human history: 1) that “the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choices on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will be moved in that direction”; 2) that “we are adequately informed to be able to set for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it”; and 3) that “effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yardstick.” With regard to the latter assumption, Yoder countered that “even if we know how effectiveness is to be measured-i.e., even if we could get a clear definition of the goal we are trying to reach and how to ascertain whether we had reached it-is there not in Christ’s teaching on meekness, or in the attitude of Jesus toward power and servanthood, a deeper question being raised about whether it is our business at all to guide our action by the course we wish history to take'” Yoder then draws upon the book of Revelation, which he says is precisely about the meaningfulness of history, and in which the central message is that “the key to obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.” Indeed, Jesus himself was the model: “Jesus was so faithful to the enemy-love of God that it cost him all his effectiveness; he gave up every handle on history . . . . The choice that he made in rejecting the crown and accepting the cross was the commitment to such a degree of faithfulness to the character of divine love that he was willing for its sake to sacrifice ‘effectiveness.'” Put differently, what Jesus renounced, claims Yoder, was “the claim to govern history” and “the untrammelled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amidst which he came to dwell.” Indeed, as the book of Revelation declares-and what ultimately most matters-is that Christ’s acceptance of defeat has been judged victorious by God, and because of this victory one sees in Jesus’ apparent renunciation of effectiveness a paradox of calculated accomplishment. Nevertheless, “the key to the ultimate relevance and to the triumph of the good is not any calculation at all, paradoxical or otherwise, of efficacy, but rather simple obedience. Obedience means not keeping verbally enshrined rules but reflecting the character of the love of God.” Thus, “that Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assumed survival.”
THE POSSIBILITY OF EFFECTIVENESS
Given the authority and forcefulness of Yoder’s argument, one may be tempted to conclude that he was thereby declaring unequivocally and for all time that true faithfulness requires the renunciation of all concern for effectiveness. But it would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion, for throughout Yoder’s career, even as he was arguing for the normative priority of the way of the Cross, with its renunciation of control and outcome, he also argued on behalf of the Christian’s mandate to be involved in sociopolitical affairs, principally in the form of witness. One of his earliest publications, a booklet called The Christian Witness to the State (1964), was essentially an argument for the church’s mandate to hold the state accountable. In building his rationale for this mandate, Yoder began by affirming Christ’s lordship over all principalities and powers, already a fact in the present aeon but to be made complete in the aeon to come. In the meantime, the God-ordained purpose of the state (as described in Romans 13) is to maintain order, thus allowing the church to fulfill its mission as herald and messenger. The state as worldly power can neither perceive God’s reign nor understand its own function within that reign, and therefore it is the church’s prerogative to hold the state accountable to standards the state cannot fully understand.
Yoder is remarkably optimistic about the relative efficacy of the church’s witness. While its primary task is simply to be present and visible as a model society, “the Christian fellowship contributes in numerous indirect ways as well to the development of generally recognized moral standards outside the circle of her own membership.” It is the church’s task to model and maintain the normativity of love; while it must be realistic in expecting the world to fall short of this standard, it nevertheless may consider love “to be a relevant historical possibility.” Even though “we cannot calculate how obedience and success are connected . . . in the long run the right way is also the most effective.” Still, Yoder acknowledges that “the good action is measured by its conformity to the command and to the nature of God and not by its success in achieving specific results.” And thus, notwithstanding his optimism about the relevance of the church’s political witness and the assurance of its eventual outcome, concern for effectiveness remains subordinate to the simple mandate to be faithful.
This carefully nuanced optimism concerning the potential effectiveness of the church’s peace witness in faithful service to the way of Christ can be found throughout Yoder’s writings. In “Peace without Eschatology” Yoder referred to the church’s witness to the world as a kind of “leavening process,” through which “Christianized morality seeps into the non-Christian mind through example . . . with the result that the whole moral tone of non-Christian society is changed for the better.” Even so, he reminds the reader that it is the church’s eschatological vision that makes the most difference: “The most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new.”
In “Christ, the Hope of the World,” Yoder qualifies his emphasis on faithfulness, and his critique of efficacy as a goal to pursue, by focusing on the primary rationale for the church’s obedience. “Why then is it reasonable,” he asked, “that we should continue to obey in a world that we do not control? Because that is the shape of the work of Christ.”  Yoder went on to describe the church’s obedient witness as a kind of “sign,” of which the referent is the presence and posture-although, significantly, not the productivity-of Jesus. Expounding on the efficacy of this sign, he listed the various ways in which the church’s “transcendent ideal” is made relevant. First, it makes room for “wonder,” in the sense that it gives “serious attention to the dimension of the unexpected and unprogrammed.” Second, it serves to unmask idolatry in its many forms. Third, it sometimes functions as a pioneer, particularly in the way it uses its creativity to form institutions and agencies that serve the concrete needs of humanity. Fourth, it may sometimes be that of the “spring in the desert,” a “seemingly miraculous source of sustenance” that appears unexpectedly, but as a consequence of a slow, persistent seeping into the ground of water elsewhere. And fifth, the church’s witness may be that of a “mirage,” not in the sense of hallucination or the mere imagination of something that does not really exist, but rather the appearance of something truly real on the horizon, indicating the direction in which it is ultimately to be found.
The most concrete justification of the church’s peace witness in this essay is the alternative Yoder offers to the notion that peace can be ensured only by preparing for war: “The alternative is the concentration of Christian attention not on the pragmatic predictability of good results promised by recourse to coercion but on the creative construction of loving, nonviolent ways to undermine unjust institutions and to build healthy ones.” Such a statement seems quite distant from others that appear to call for a total renunciation of effectiveness.
Yoder’s book Nevertheless: Varieties of Christian Pacifism appeared one year before Politics of Jesus. His purpose in writing it was to “bring clarity to the many-sided conversation about war” through a sharpened awareness that pacifism “is not just one specific position.” Yoder looks in turn at nineteen different models or variations of pacifism, with an honest attempt to understand each on its own terms. With each model, after summarizing its central tenets or strengths, he identifies what he considers its “shortcomings,” but follows that up with two paragraphs-one entitled “Nevertheless” and the other “After All,” in which he both reiterates the strengths and demonstrates how they serve, each in their own way, to negate the validity of war.
The fifth model, “The Pacifism of Nonviolent Social Change,” is the one most focused on outcome and effectiveness as traditionally understood. As with the other types, Yoder identifies its strengths, which include its practical appeal-especially for “the poor and the weak” and as an option where other methods of resolution have failed. The shortcomings of the model include the uncertain implications when nonviolent approaches themselves fail. He also points out that nonviolent techniques are “not in any way specifically Christian.”
Even more relevant for the larger question of effectiveness is Yoder’s final type, which he claims as his own and calls “The Pacifism of the Messianic Community.” This type is centered upon the Lordship and normativity of Christ: “in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement.” However, it also includes a weakness:
it does not promise to ‘work.’ It cannot promise ‘success’ as, for example, programmatic pacifism . . . can do to a modest degree. We cannot sight down the barrel of suffering love to see how it will hit its target. The resurrection is not the end product of a mechanism which runs through its paces wherever there is a crucifixion. The Christian hope in the kingdom embraces that peculiar kind of hoping assurance which is called faith.
That is not to say that the model is totally unconcerned with effectiveness. It does include “the practical concern of the programmatic views . . . without placing its hope there.” Yoder’s emphasis on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as the most authentically Christian model for pacifism anticipated the position he would take in Politics of Jesus where he once again subordinated the concern for effectiveness to the absolute primacy of faithfulness.
In 1983, eleven years after the initial publication of Politics of Jesus, Yoder published Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton. Essentially a compilation of lectures delivered in a course by the same name (minus the subtitle), the book represents a detailed and sustained discussion on the topic of pacifism. Not surprisingly, it is here that we find Yoder’s most frequent and extensive-as well as objective, given the book’s didactic rather than polemical or apologetic nature-discussion relevant to the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy.
Yoder’s first explicit reference to the theme occurs in his assessment of the influence of Leo Tolstoy, whom he credits for “finding that nth option: resources related to community, to system criticism, to constructive utopianism, to the potential for wholesome social change . . . which can free us, both in logic and in practice, from the dilemma of a pure but ineffective ‘faithfulness’ over against a compromised but effective ‘pragmatism.'” A few paragraphs later Yoder declares that “H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr, in different ways, have done the most to popularize the ‘faithfulness versus effectiveness’ polarity as the right way to understand the critical impact of Jesus.” Thus, even as Yoder acknowledged the dichotomy, at least in principle, he also called into question its validity and usefulness.
Later in the book Yoder responded to a student who had asked Yoder how he would resolve “the question of effectiveness” by saying, “the longer I look at the question of effectiveness the less I trust that way to put the issue to be of any help.” The problem, Yoder explained, is that there are different kinds of effectiveness: for example, short-term effectiveness and long-term effectiveness. Furthermore, the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy often masks what is actually a debate between two competing principles or worldviews. “Effectiveness reasoning . . . assumes a system-immanent causal matrix. It assumes that our knowledge of what can happen is adequately modeled by a process model drawn from the material of the mathematicizable world.” In other words, the modernity-based paradigm of cause and effect is not adequate or qualified to measure effectiveness according to a Christian, Gospel paradigm. For Yoder, the latter paradigm hinges on the Resurrection:
The present meaning of Resurrection for ethics is that we are never boxed in. We are not, as believers, to be calculating on the basis of the assumption that we are boxed into a world in which there are no new options. Many “saving events” in history were unforeseeable, unplanned, but they happened. The Resurrection was an impossible unforeseeable new option, and it happened . . . we are committed to confessing as relevant for our ethics that there is a power around in history that reaches beyond the boxes in which we find ourselves. . . . Resurrection is a Christian model for reading history . . . that’s one more reason that we don’t work on ordinary effectiveness and lesser-evil calculations.
In a later chapter on “The Lessons of Nonviolent Experience,” Yoder returns again to the theme, now in terms of the relative success or effectiveness of nonviolent action. He again begins by addressing the difficulties inherent in “effectiveness reasoning,” including the time frame, as well as the relative directness of relationship between action and result. He then compares two contrasting approaches to interpreting the effectiveness of Christian nonviolence. The first is represented by William Miller who, operating under Niebuhrian assumptions, made a clear distinction between nonviolence and nonresistance. Nonviolence depends on power, planning, calculation of effects and willingness to compromise. Nonresistance, on the other hand, is “loving like Jesus without calculation, without concern for effects.” Indeed, Miller claimed, “the more you appeal to Jesus, the more you must abandon effectiveness.” In contrast, James Douglass-a Catholic who nonetheless represented a liberal Protestant pacifist view-“does not presuppose the necessity to choose between effectiveness and faithfulness . . . the Gospel is not (as in Niebuhr) moral principles unrelated to effectiveness, but rather the belief that moral principles, especially truth and suffering, will be effective to overcome the world.”
Yoder agreed with Douglass’s optimism to the extent that it is derived from faith in the Resurrection; yet he agrees with Miller’s pessimism to the extent that it is derived from a realistic (and biblical) assessment of the sinfulness of the world. Yet, both Miller and Douglass are nonetheless limited, each in their own way, by a mechanistic understanding of history, based on the belief that certain actions will lead to certain outcomes.
Yoder then suggested a “third possibility,” namely that once we say that “Christ is Lord,” we then no longer “try to prove our hope.” As he explains, “to prove our hope is logically and theologically illegitimate, since to prove it we would have to subject it to, or locate it with reference to, some other more fundamental or more visible or more sure standard. That, however, would mean another Lord.” In the long run, Yoder claims that he will continue to use the language of effectiveness “in order to proclaim the hope which I cannot prove. In order to reaffirm, to illustrate, to translate the meaning of that hope, I will use effectiveness language . . . but without my hope’s being founded upon that language or its apparent proof claims.” Then, in summation of his “third possibility,” he says this:
Thus as testimonies of relevance, I will use the effectiveness language of Douglass. I will not base my claim to Christian ethics upon those projections and especially not upon my capacity to deliver. As ethics, I agree with Bill Miller in his realism. The cross gives no promise of manageable success, and its claim upon me is not dependent upon any such promise. But as faith I accept the absolutism of Douglass. If faith says this is what to do, we have no time to waste on discussing when and why it cannot be done.
Beyond his straightforward premise that this is what faith says to do, Yoder also acknowledges that “there is some promise” regarding the efficacy of nonviolent action, and in fact there has been
a change of consciousness among many morally insightful persons of all religions and no religion: namely that there is at least some still untapped effectiveness in nonviolent direct action techniques in some times and places . . . the notes with which this affirmation was hedged about at the beginning of this lecture should not be taken as setting aside this basic learning.
As regards the question of faithfulness versus effectiveness-of having to choose whether to be a pragmatist or an absolutist-Yoder concludes, at least in the context of a seminary classroom, that we do not need to answer that question; we simply don’t need to be “prisoners of that split.”
We have seen that throughout his career, Yoder was consistent in his attempts to acknowledge both sides of the dichotomy while avoiding its limitations. He was able to carefully articulate the primacy of Christian faithfulness, without completely sacrificing all concern for effectiveness. Nevertheless it also appears, particularly from his statements in Christian Perspectives, that there was some evolution in his thinking.
Twenty-two years after the initial publication of Politics of Jesus-and eleven years after the publication of Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution-Yoder had the opportunity to revise Politics of Jesus as part of a new second edition. At the end of his chapter on “The War of the Lamb,” the chapter in which he authoritatively announced that through the work of Christ “the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken,” he added an epilogue in which these words appear:
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 . . . it is that we confess the deterministic world to be enclosed within, smaller than, the sovereignty of the God of the Resurrection and Ascension.
It seems clear that his thought regarding the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy had indeed evolved during the twenty-two years between editions. Or perhaps he had simply found a better, more straightforward way to express what he had thought all along. Far from merely declaring the dichotomy false or unhelpful, in this passage Yoder succeeds in bringing the two poles together, perhaps still in tension, yet paradoxically working together toward the same conclusion. And far from contradicting anything he had written earlier, they serve to clarify and deepen his earlier writing. God is sovereign, Jesus is Lord, and by following him faithfully, we participate in the very “grain of the cosmos,” a grain that leads ultimately and effectively to the fulfillment of a perfect peace.
What is the the enduring significance of Yoder’s views on the dichotomy of faithfulness and effectiveness, and how might they be helpful for ongoing efforts in Christian peacemaking, be they theological or practical?
Yoder was right to give theological priority to the Cross and Resurrection. These twin concepts are the essence, the “crux,” of the Gospel. Unless a Christian ethic is founded upon them, it is not truly “Christian.” He was also right to retain Niebuhr’s realism about sin and the fallenness of the world, just as he was right to reject Niebuhr’s dependence on a mechanistic view of the world. Christian faith, and the Gospel it proclaims, affirms that there is another way to view the world-another, bigger reality that envelopes it. Yoder appropriately emphasized the essential place of eschatology, for it is the telos-the conclusion or goal-of that bigger reality.
Similarly, Yoder correctly and persistently argued that Christian faithfulness involves renunciation of both control and outcome. For although Christians are empowered to live already in the new aeon, the world continues under the domination of the old, and their efforts, at least as measured by worldly standards, will not always be successful. At the same time, Yoder recognized and affirmed that Christians need not exclude or completely renounce a concern for effectiveness. Christians can trust that there is a God-created grain to the universe, a grain according to which means and ends often, perhaps even eventually, align themselves, as long as the means grow out of faithful discipleship. Yoder was right to allow room for the unexpected, for wonder and miracle, and to emphasize the role of patience. For if Jesus is truly sovereign, then Christians must ultimately surrender both means and ends to God’s wisdom and power.
In what ways might Yoder’s thought be relevant to current developments in peace ethics? At least two different approaches or streams of development can be identified, both of which build-albeit in different ways-on Yoder’s groundbreaking work. The first approach, represented by some of the works of Walter Wink, Richard Hays and Glen Stassen, follows Yoder’s example by being based upon a careful, scholarly exegesis and interpretation of Scripture. The exegetical insights of Wink and Stassen in particular have powerful implications for a theology and ethics of peace, insights that further develop, if not qualify, some of Yoder’s conclusions. Yet such study, if it is to be responsible and have integrity, must also abide by certain “rules” of responsible exegesis and hermeneutics, as Yoder himself demonstrated admirably.
The second stream is represented by such books as Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War and At Peace and Unafraid: Public Order, Security, and the Wisdom of the Cross, both of which further explore pragmatic possibilities of peacemaking initiatives. This stream probably depends more on social science and empirical study than it does on Scripture, yet it has the potential to further align both means and ends with “the grain of the cosmos.” In other words, it has the potential-a potential also recognized by Yoder-to achieve considerable results in the quest to bring the world closer to God’s will for it. To the extent that such a quest is motivated by Christian faith and theology, as opposed to more generally humanistic ideals, it needs to let itself be shaped and, if necessary, corrected by that faith and theology.
Certain questions need to be answered by proponents of any “Christian” peace initiative: Does it take into account an eschatological perspective on the meaningfulness and movement of history? Are its methods consistent with the Cross of Christ? Does it acknowledge the absolute and final sovereignty of God? Does it adequately model, serve as a sign of, or witness to the shape and substance of Christ’s own witness in word and deed?
These are questions John Howard Yoder would no doubt ask if he were still alive. And to the extent they are answered in the affirmative, he most certainly would have rejoiced in whatever effectiveness such initiatives would yield. For in the effectiveness, as well as in the faithfulness that produces it, signs of God’s reign of peace can surely be seen.
[*]Tom Harder is Co-Pastor of the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan.
1. Yoder, “Peace Without Eschatology,” reprinted in The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 158.
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. “Dichotomy,” defined by Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (2002), is a “division or the process of dividing into two . . . mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.”
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. The task of clarifying his position on this issue is made more difficult by the fact that Yoder’s opus consists primarily of individual essays addressed to particular topics, none of which focused exclusively on this issue. He wrote no systematic theology, no single definitive or final statement of his positions on any issue, let alone this one. Yoder’s principal biographer and bibliographer, Mark Thiessen Nation, proposed to this writer that “one of the difficulties is that, in some ways, all of Yoder’s thought is interrelated. So, one has to understand Yoder as a whole to know how this question fits in.”-e-mail message to author, Apr. 21, 2006. Nation’s correspondence, and especially his newly released book assessing the ecumenical relevance of Yoder’s writings-John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006)-were immensely helpful in finding those writings that specifically address this issue.
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. Reflecting back on the essay, the editor of The Royal Priesthood notes that while Niebuhr’s name doesn’t appear until the end of the essay, “his writings are clearly in view” (143).
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. Yoder, “Christ, the Hope of the World,” The Original Revolution: Essays in Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971), 148-182; rprt. in The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 192-218.
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. Indeed, it was the perceived ineffectiveness of Jesus’ teachings regarding love for one’s enemy and nonresistance in the face of evil that caused Niebuhr to declare them irrelevant as a real response to the world’s sinfulness. While he considered pacifism admirable as a minority vocation, he deemed it morally irresponsible as a principle of Christian ethics. Thus the faithfulness/effectiveness dichotomy arguably originated with Niebuhr.
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. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972; rev. ed., 1994), 235. Yoder may have had Niebuhr specifically in mind when he challenged these assumptions. Indeed, he mentions Niebuhr in the very next paragraph.
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. Ibid., 238. The theme of patience would appear in a later essay entitled “‘Patience’ as Method in Moral Reasoning: Is an Ethic of Discipleship ‘Absolute”” in which he discusses the variety of forms that patience may take for the Christian ethicist. Several of these forms are pertinent to the present topic. This essay was first written and informally distributed in 1982, was repeatedly revised over the next fifteen years and was subsequently published in Stanley Hauerwas, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999.)
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. Ibid., 239-240. Yoder concedes the possibility of arguing that in the long view Jesus’ renunciation of effectiveness “was in fact a very effective thing to do,” but maintains that Jesus nevertheless “excluded any normative concern for any capacity to make sure that things would turn out right.”
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. Ibid., 165. In the same essay, Yoder’s proclamation, quoted above, of the Christian’s call to absolute obedience and abandonment of “the desire to be effective . . .” is carefully nuanced by the qualifier “immediately” (158).
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. Interestingly, Yoder adds that “Christians can undertake pilot efforts in education and other types of social service because, differing from public agencies, they can afford the risk of failure.” He was referring, presumably, to the church’s eschatological perspective (206).
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. Yoder observes, “In some ethical systems, the calculation of effects is a minor consideration helping only to choose between available permissible ways of applying unchanging principles. In other cases the concept of effectiveness completely takes over the field of ethical deliberation, and there is an explicit avowal of the place of such calculations.”-Ibid., 52. Noticeable in this statement is the absence of any value judgment on these two very different approaches to the importance of effectiveness.
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. Yoder points out that what we learn from peace activists such as King and Gandhi, as well as from ethicists such as Douglass, is that there is both theological and practical consistency whenever there is a perceived unity between ends and means. Such a unity needn’t be proven in order to be posited. But it requires a certain way of viewing the world, whether “non-Western” (in the case of Gandhi), rooted in Black Baptist experience (King) or “a vision of the unity of all the world in the mind of God [which] is prior to any of our analytical tools.”-Ibid., 503.
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. Mark Thiessen Nation notes that in Yoder’s earlier writings he was “quite willing to use clear contrast language like ‘dichotomies,’ and to appropriate them for his own use.” However, “in later writings he is less comfortable with this language, and softens it.”-Nation, John Howard Yoder, 155.
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. This is not to say that a “non-Christian” peace ethic has no validity. I am convinced, however, that the only ethic that is based on an authentic balance between failure and success, between determinism and possibility, balance between despair and hope-in short, the only ethic that “makes sense”-is the Christian ethic, well-articulated by Yoder.
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. Examples include Wink’s study of the Greek word antistemi, and whether it is most accurately translated as “resist”; Wink’s interpretation of several of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount as being more confrontational than nonresistant in nature; and Stassen’s three-part reinterpretation of these antitheses, shifting the emphasis in each one away from an impossible ideal and toward a practical, “transforming initiative.”
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. In addition to textual matters, such rules would include attentiveness to consistency within the canon as a whole, one of the strengths of Yoder’s hermeneutic. See Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament for a thorough and insightful discussion of the important role of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics in Christian ethics.
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. One might include some of Walter Wink’s works in this category as well, since he (like Glen Stassen) is clearly as concerned with pragmatic peacemaking as he is with faithful biblical interpretation.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Faithfulness and Effectiveness in Yoder’s Peace Theology
MQR 81 (April 2007)