Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Two New John Howard Yoder Books [Vol. 3, #5]

“A Prime Season for Yoder Studies”

A Review of
The War of the Lamb:
The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking

by John Howard Yoder
The New Yoder
Peter Dula and Chris Huebner, eds.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The War of the Lamb:
The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking

John Howard Yoder.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

The New Yoder.
Peter Dula and Chris Huebner, eds.
Paperback: Cascade Books, 201o.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

THE WAR OF THE LAMB - John Howard YoderWe are apparently in a prime season for the release of books by and about John Howard Yoder.  In the year beginning with the release of his Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace and Revolution last spring (our review is here), there will be about ten new books on Yoder that hit bookstore shelves.  I have recently had the opportunity to read two of these books, and also have played host to the conference that produced a third (see an exclusive excerpt of this book below and watch for a thorough review of it coming soon in the ERB).  The two books that I have been working my way through of late are The War of the Lamb, an exploration of “the ethics of peacemaking”, which Yoder intended to be his final book (but he died before he could finish it), and The New Yoder, a diverse collection of engagements with Yoder’s work from Cascade Books.

The War of the Lamb is a wonderful supplement to Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace and Revolution (both are recent publications of Brazos Press), which takes a historical look at Christian theology related to war and peace.  The War of the Lamb, extends this project by exploring how Christians committed to nonviolence can exist in dialogue both with other Christians who hold Just-War perspectives and with the (presumably violent) nation-state.  One of the major themes of the work, as highlighted by Glen Stassen in the book’s introduction is that the ethics that Yoder is proposing here is not sectarian.  Ultimately, I think Stassen and Yoder are correct in that the ethics of Jesus are for all humanity.  However, for those of us entrenched in deeply domesticated churches, some level of sectarianism will be needed in order to form our identity – as Phil Kenneson has poignantly argued in his little book Beyond Sectarianism.

Yoder’s text begins with a “theological critique of violence.”  His critique here is – as is characteristic of his work – distinctively Christological, namely that the sacrifice of the cross is necessary in overcoming our penchant to return violence for violence.  Violence, he observes, “is not a sin like any other,” but rather the fundamental nature of power in a fallen world, which must be overcome:  He says:

[V]iolence is judged – critiqued in the deep sense of the verb- because of the passion events.  We participate in that judgment by participating in the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and the pouring out of the Spirit.  That we thus participate in the gathered life of believers goes without saying.  What matters for our preset study is to appropriate it as grace so that we can participate in the same process no less within the struggles of our wounded world (41).

Yoder traces the history of nonviolence and nonviolent direct action through church history and from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He also explores the history of Jewish pacifism, which has been predominant since the time of the prophet Jeremiah.  This chapter is intended as a corrective to the view that the Israelite people in the Old Testament were fundamentally a violent people and that Jesus came offering a different way.  He calls us here to regain a sense of the “profound theological roots of Jewish nonviolence through the centuries.”  (75)

At the heart of the book are four chapters in which Yoder argues for engagement and dialogue with those in the Christian tradition who adhere to just war perspectives.  These chapters build upon Yoder’s earlier book When War is Unjust.  In the final section of the book, Yoder makes a case for “proactive alternatives to violence.”  In what are perhaps the book’s finest chapters, Yoder explores “the science of conflict” – what is it, why do we avoid and what does the Gospel of Jesus teach us about conflict resolution?  Yoder defines in clear terms the church’s role in resolving conflict:

The prophets of God and the prophetic community in our time proclaim the wrongness of sin.  They proclaim the demands of the kingdom of righteousness, which cannot be separated from a negative judgment upon unrighteousness and disobedience.  This kind of conflict cannot be avoided except by unfaithfulness to the proclamation of the righteousness of God.  Yet what the God of the gospel does with the unrighteous is not the same as in the age of Saul or of Joshua.  God’s intention is not destruction but repentance and restoration.  God takes up God’s self the costs of that restoration, through costly means, which neither sell short the demands of justice nor exact from the unrighteous the price of their sin (141).

Yoder, then explores the way that conflict has been dealt with historically in the Anabaptist tradition.  The book concludes with two chapters that challenge churches to engage sacrificially in the redemptive work of Christ.  At the close of the book, he offers a compelling challenge:

[P]eople who believe in the resurrection are responsible, on the grounds of that faith context, to go through life believing that problems can be solved for which the solution is not yet evident.  Such people are more likely to find new answers than people who believe there are none.  The solution will be more likely to come if you don’t shortcut for a violent solution.  If you allow yourself to resort to violence, then you won’t wait for the resurrection.  If you don’t authorize violence, you might not get a resurrection, but at least there’s also room for an unforeseen saving outcome (197-198).

The War of the Lamb is an important work for imagining a public theology for the life of the church.  The nature of our existence as the people of God, as Walter Brueggemann has argued in An Unsettling God, is to exist in dialogue.  Yoder here fleshes out what it might look like for us to be a people in conversation – both with brother and sister churches of differing perspectives and with the external powers that be.  As a text that Yoder left unfinished, there are some rough spots, but overall it promises to be a valuable resource especially for those of us who reflect on the public nature of the church’s participation in the redemptive work of Christ.

On the other hand, The New Yoder, edited by Peter Dula and Chris Huebner, is one of the most dense books that I have read in a long time.  Its introduction, which explains the term “the new Yoder,” a phrase I had heard before but on which I was unclear of its meaning.  This intro is a rich resource by itself.  The essence of its definition of “the New Yoder” is:

[T]hese essays are not first of all intended as interpretive efforts designed to make sense of Yoder’s work.  They do contribute to and enrich our understanding of what Yoder said.  But to assume that their primary focus is with Yoder’s work itself is to miss their full significance.  They typically engage him in conversation as part of a larger constructive enterprise of some sort.  They turn to Yoder because they have found him helpful in an attempt to explore a range of contemporary questions and concerns, many of which are not given explicit or extensive treatment by Yoder himself ( xv).

I am very intrigued by this “New Yoder” project, and generally am sympathetic to it, but the sweeping range of interlocutors, from Foucault, Said and Derrida to Jeffery Stout, Rowan Williams and Certeau, with which the authors here engage Yoder’s work made it treacherously difficult to proceed.  I imagine this work will eventually prove a significant resource for theologians, but it is not a book I would recommend reading from cover to cover…unless, of course, one is a masochist.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

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