Catching up with Yoder: An Introduction

John Howard Yoder’s ideas are catching on as the rest of the world catches up to him.

Yoder was always reframing theological conversations, insisting we had the wrong assumptions and the wrong questions. He has important things to say about who Jesus was and what it means to follow him; war and peace; what the church is; and how to do theology – as well as just about every other question. He was ahead of his time, showing the world how to do theology beyond Christendom.

His Anabaptism was not that of a withdrawn Mennonite with nothing to say to the world, but an Anabaptism which was light to the world, even and especially in the peculiarity of its life and worship.

One of the reasons I got interested in Anabaptism was through reading his book, The Politics of Jesus.

Born in 1927, Yoder was an American Mennonite. He studied under Karl Barth and over the course of his academic career, taught many different subjects within theology, but particularly social ethics. At time of his death, he was working at the University of Notre Dame.

He died of a heart attack in his office the day after his 70th birthday on 30/12/1997. In the thirteen years after his death, at least eight books have been published from posthumously edited manuscripts.

For the uninitiated, let me offer three key themes of his work which will orientate you a little for the pages which follow. If these themes seem very familiar to you, it is because they have become foundational for neo-Anabaptists like the AAANZ. They were groundbreaking when Yoder developed them.

1. The Political Relevance of a Non-Violent Jesus

  • The Romans and the Jews didn’t have it wrong when they executed Jesus for being a threat to the political order. Jesus’ non-violent love of his enemies and the rest of his teachings and life threatened the way things were by establishing a new social order—a kingdom of people living at odds with the empire.
  • It was no accident that Jesus chose a path which led to the cross. Loving our enemies even to the point of dying at their hands is the nature of the kingdom itself. As disciples, we are called to follow Jesus’ way of the cross today.

2. The Constantinian Shift

  • The church began as a minority movement, prepared to live differently to the world. High standards were expected of Christians.
  • A few centuries later, Christianity was the state religion and everyone was a Christian. High standards were no longer expected of Christians and the church’s way of life was now identical to the world’s way of life.
  • Yoder calls this shift ‘Constantinianism’, as the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity symbolises the shift.
  • The alliance between state and church over the centuries since has watered down the church and discipleship and the challenge of Jesus to the status quo has been lost.

3. The Church’s Life and Worship Embodies the Good News

  • We don’t follow the way of the cross alone. We are part of a new people, the church, which lives out the good news together.
  • The practices of the church give the world a taste of the good news of the kingdom. In the church, old enemies like Jews and Greeks are made brothers and sisters. Food is shared between the rich and poor. Spiritual gifts are poured out on both the lowly and the important. Everyone is given a voice.

There are plenty of other themes we could choose to sum up Yoder’s work. The three I chose reflect some of Yoder’s original thinking. Yet much of his important work was done in re-reading history and theology in terms of these and other themes.

He also spent a lot of time engaging in conversations in other people’s contexts and using their assumptions, in order to call them to greater consistency and to live up to the best in their own tradition. Thus, for example, in When War is Unjust, he calls people who believe in just war to live up to their own convictions and be ready to declare when a war is unjust according to just war criteria—which would probably be the case for all the wars fought since World War Two. These conversations are another valuable part of his contribution.

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