John Howard Yoder – Yoder for Everyone [Review]

February 27, 2015

 

Learning to Live with Others

A Review of

Two Recent Books by John Howard Yoder:

Revolutionary Christian Citizenship
Paperback: Herald Press, 2013.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

 

Real Christian Fellowship
Paperback: Herald Press, 2014
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Justin Bronson Barringer
 

A friend once told me he loved reading John Howard Yoder’s work because Yoder is a master of systematically building a careful argument, but often the complexity of his writing makes his work inaccessible to laypeople. I, for one, am convinced that even the best theology is worth little if it cannot find its way into the hearts and minds of God’s people.

In Revolutionary Christian Citizenship(RCC)  and Real Christian Fellowship (RCF), the second and third volumes in the Yoder for Everyone series, the editors have collected some of Yoder’s sermons, magazine articles, and other popular level material so that his distinct voice calling people to the peaceable heart of Jesus can be heard by ordinary folks in the pews. Not only have they achieved this task, but these books have also helped me as an aspiring scholar see more clearly the places of agreement and disagreement I have with Yoder. His essay on voting in RCC, for instance, was enlightening because it made clear that Yoder and I would disagree about how the politics of Jesus inform Christians in this realm. Yoder argues “systematic abstention from voting, [and]… holding office, is neither desirable nor possible” (RCC 93), whereas I would say that this seems incongruent with some of his other thoughts about coercion and lording, even within his chapter on voting in RCC. On the other hand, I agree with Hauerwas’ endorsement that the chapter on paying taxes is excellent; it not only provides theological insights about the whole enterprise, Yoder offers truly tangible suggestions drawing on his own tax paying practices. It seems that the essays in RCF are less controversial, though they are no less informative and challenging.
 
In my experience as a pastor, I have found that folks in church pews often have questions when they hear about the revolutionary, subversive, holy peacemaking message of Jesus. Some of them relate back to other messages they see in Scripture: “How does Jesus’ message of peace fit in with the violence in the OT”? Others are about everyday living: “In light of Jesus’ other-worldly kingdom should I pay taxes, or vote, or celebrate patriotic holidays”? These are precisely the sort of questions Revolutionary Christian Citizenship seeks to address, while Real Christian Fellowship takes up the task of explaining how we live together as followers of Jesus. For instance: “Why is our corporate singing time important”? “How should we evangelize”? and “Who ought to be making decisions in our congregations and communities”?
 
Many of those questions were addressed in Yoder’s scholarly works, but the answers might have been too complex or technical for the average reader. Or in the case of his most famous work The Politics of Jesus, readers would need to be aware of the folks with whom Yoder is conversing, but in these volumes readers of all sorts can begin to get their heads around Yoder’s views on the radical Christian life.
 
Yoder believed strongly, as is indicated in virtually all of his work, that “what we do in this life matters in eternity” (RCC 115) [1] Yoder, in fact, claims in Real Christian Fellowship that “Faith is first of all obedience” (23).It is insufficient to simply say that we believe something, we must live that belief. Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds, especially when we are not sure how our beliefs translate into actions. RCC and RCF give Christians from the academy to the pews insight that make this translation process a bit easier, or at least clearer.
 
These books go together because they are both about living with others, and in fact it seems that a proper approach to Christian citizenship would be impossible without Christian community because as Yoder says, “Faith means that we accept being cut off from the normal ways in which a society is put together, in which a family takes care of its future, in which a social unit defends itself” (RCF page 22), precisely because “Christian obedience will be indifferent to national and ethnic borders and will take delight in overriding them” (RCC 38). Yoder helps us learn to live with others who have already declared the Lordship of Jesus, and with those whose tongues will someday make that same confession.
 
In some way, I have left this review a bit vague, mostly only using short quotes that broadly illustrate Yoder’s thought, and that was somewhat intentional because these books cover so many specific topics there was no way, in a short review, to cover them, and because I believe the very purpose of this series is that you read Yoder’s words for yourself.
 


[1] Of course, it is worth mentioning that Yoder had some very big shortcomings in his own life. In fact, even as I was writing this review today, I came across a link regarding a meeting focusing on Yoder’s now very public abuse of multiple women. This cannot be overlooked, but nor should it discount the truth in Yoder’s words even though he was not able to live up to his own ideals.

 




3 responses to John Howard Yoder – Yoder for Everyone [Review]

  1. I think that trying to understand Yoder’s legacy in light of his astonishing moral and behavioral failings deserves more than a footnote mention. This is tough stuff. What are we to do with the brilliant theological reflections of a Christian ethicist who repeatedly harassed and victimized more than 30 women over a 20 year time span, while displaying few signs of repentance? It boggles the mind. The work of Christian scholars has to be evaluated on more than merely intellectual grounds.

    • I think the footnote is appropriate and while more could be said, I am glad that not less was said. I have been thinking about this in regard to Yoder, and Edwards and others that fell far short of our expectations for Christian leaders. Essentially I think that those that are alive and are in sin needs to be dealt with in a different way than those that have passed away.

      As Christians we have to acknowledge the real presence and destructive nature of sin in the life of Christians. But also that sin continues to work in the life of Christians even after they become Christians.

      I wrote up some questions to start a conversation about Yoder and others in a post last year. Certainly not the end of the discussion, but I think we as Christians need to have these discussions publicly to talk about what the role is of sin in the life of active Christians, and especially leaders.

      http://christian-intellect.blogspot.com/2014/09/what-do-we-do-with-fallen-theologians.html

    • Justin Bronson Barringer March 3, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      I concur. If it was possible to do so in this short review format I certainly would have. Thankfully there are a lot of people doing some great work on the topic.