[Book Review] Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution / John Yoder

Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution
John Howard Yoder; Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker, editors.  Brazos Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Nathan Hobby.

Like Preface to Theology (2003), this book is the material for a unit Yoder taught, edited posthumously. It was published in rough form as a textbook for students taking his unit. The students who had access to this original publication for decades before the rest of us were very fortunate. This book is longer than anything else ever published by Yoder and is a significant work. It is a historical survey, tracing in Yoder’s refreshing and provoking way the attitudes of Christians toward war, peace and revolution through the centuries.

For me, the book is a lesson in the importance of history, a testament to the importance of knowing the history of a subject before you can claim to understand the subject at all.  In their preface, the editors’ sum up the book’s power:

In stating other perspectives in their strongest form, a surprising history unfolds. For Yoder, the history of Christian attitudes toward war and peace is clearly not a mainstream account that sees the church faithfully responding to the gospel by outgrowing its early pacifism, maturing and coming to accept responsibility, including the need to wage war. But neither is it a story of simple decline from the New Testament to the Anabaptists, as some within Yoder’s Mennonite tradition have told it. The most striking aspects of this story are the resilience through the centuries of the gospel of peace, and the abiding power of Jesus’s hold on people that invites them to imitate him in seeking peace and shunning violence. Again, and again, Yoder demonstrates, people throughout history have seen Jesus, and been drawn into the power of the cross. (p.8)

One striking example, which I’ll summarise at length as an example of Yoder’s method, is his re-reading of the Middle Ages in chapter 9, “The Peace Dimension of Medieval Moral Concern”. Yoder describes various ways in which violence and war were restrained in the Middle Ages (476-1453), and the church embodied a partial peace witness. These include:

  • Holy times and places – fighting was forbidden in certain places (cemeteries) and at certain times (Good Friday, after sunset)
  • Penitents – when a person confessed to a major offence, they might commit several months of their life around being a penitent, perhaps going on a pilgrimage as a penitent. A penitent was to be nonviolent and unarmed. ‘In the life of medieval Europe, therefore, people renouncing violence because they were Christian were a visible minority.’ (p.119)
  • Priests admonished princes when they went too far. There was an element of accountability.

Yoder argues that the shifts involved in the Reformation actually increased the church’s support of war:

Protestants have been taught to think of the Reformation of the sixteenth century as undoing the mistakes of the Middle Ages – papacy, sacraments, justification by works, and other things. But on the morality of war, our model for interpreting the Reformation has to be turned around. The Protestant Reformation goes further in the direction of making war acceptable. (115)

Yoder identifies a number of ways in which this happened:

  • The Reformation dismantled confession and penance, both of which had restrained bloodshed.
  • The Reformation desacralized the world – everything was equally holy, or equally unholy; there were no holy places or holy times to avoid bloodshed.
  • Instead of the priest admonishing the prince, the chaplain emerges: ‘In the Reformation, the Protestant chaplain increasingly gives a religious mandate to what people do, whether it is celebrating marriages or justifying causes and crusades… The preachers are the people to make the case for the next war.’ (p.119)
  • The Reformation created nationalism – wars in the Middle Ages occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. Both parties ‘were at home in the same world, had the same moral heritage, and used the same yardsticks. They had a sense of being part of a wider civilization… The Reformation broke up the unity of the church and of the empire. It set aside the notion that enemy nations and adversary institutions have a claim on us. The beginning of nationalism in the modern sense – the notion that a nation constitutes a moral unit with no accountability to a wider community or culture – is a product of the Protestant Reformation.’ (p. 120-121)

The obvious objection is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Yoder spends a couple of pages dealing with them, but not with the same questions we have in mind, and so his explanation is not satisfactory. He looks at how the Crusades were justified by priests (and the limits – not always followed – which they placed on them) and the sense in which the Crusades were a synthesis of the holy war and the just war. He seems unaware of the damage the existence of the Crusades do to his case.

Another chapter of particular interest to me was “Pacifism in the Nineteenth Century”. The nineteenth century seems to have been so formative for the current state of the evangelical church, seeing the rise of Churches of Christ, the Brethren, Wesleyanism and just afterwards, the Pentecostal movement. Within each of these restoration and renewal movements was a seed of pacifism –  now lost. Yoder makes this astute comment about Pentecostalism:

The Pacifism and racial integration of the movement as a whole were not deeply rooted, because Pentecostals did not believe in being deeply rooted. They thought history, theology and church structures did not matter, so they had no historical consciousness from which to sense a radical ethical position in the world. (262)

Interestingly, in Yoder’s account, Pentecostalism abandoned its original pacifism firstly in order to evangelise troops in World War One. He writes, ‘By the time of World War II, they created seminaries, because military chaplaincy required a seminary degree. They did not believe in seminary for their churches, but they gave chaplains a seminary degree in order to get them into the army.’ (263)

At the end of this chapter, Yoder asks a question deeply relevant to the AAANZ today:

Should we concentrate on trying to talk with institutional churches with long-established theological positions? If we are interested in propagating a witness against violence, should we instead look to the non-traditional renewal frontier, where people do not have as many good reasons for not listening, but also will be not as profound in their support or as thorough in their appropriation if they do hear? (270)

The ‘non-traditional renewal frontier’ which comes to mind for me is the house church and emerging church movements, and it seems to me that he has anticipated their response well.

There is just so much history I didn’t know in this book. The next chapter, “Liberal Protestant Pacifism”, paints a fascinating picture of the brief flourishing of pacifism amongst the liberal Protestant mainstream in the 1920s, which came fully unstuck with World War Two. He mentions in passing (p.277) the pacifism of three evangelical/ fundamentalist heroes – Jonathan Blanchard (founder of Wheaton College), Dwight L. Moody and William Jennings Bryan (creationist villain of the Scopes Monkey trial). He says that their successors have ‘falsified’ the record because of ‘their tactical alliance with the heirs of creedal orthodoxy and social conservatism’.

The book has its origins in the 1960s and was last revised by Yoder in the 1980s. The change in context since then is apparent; it is a pity we don’t have Yoder’s thoughts on the ‘War on Terror’, the acceleration of post-Christendom and the effect of church growth and the megachurch on Christian attitudes to war and peace.  He devotes a lot of space to responding to his great sparring partner, Reinhold Niebuhr, only to write in an obviously late addition, ‘By the early 1980s, Reinhold Niebuhr is less known or read, while the analysis of which he was the classical spokesman is more and more taken for granted.’ (p.308) His comment is more true now, which makes it feel tiresome at times to read so much material in response to Niebuhr.

Yoder is never easy to read, and at 472 pages this book is mountainous. (We owe our thanks to the editors, who judiciously trimmed it from a much greater length, as well as tidying up the manuscript extensively so that it is less repetitious and makes more sense.) It helps to remember that it is the substance of a semester-long unit. But who, then, is going to read this book? How many of us are willing to commit ourselves to the equivalent of a semester-long unit (albeit without the exam or essays or extra readings) on our own? Probably not many of us. If it seems too daunting, perhaps you should buy it and read four or five chapters. Save the rest for another time.

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