Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: Nonviolence: A Brief History by John Howard Yoder [Vol. 3, #17]

JH Yoder: NONVIOLENCEA Review of

Nonviolence: A Brief History.
John Howard Yoder.
Hardback: Baylor UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith

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Over the last year, several previously unpublished works of John Howard Yoder have hit the shelves of bookstores.  The most recent in this series is a new volume from Baylor University, Nonviolence: A Brief History, which is comprised of the Warsaw lectures that he presented in Poland in May 1983.  There is much here that resembles other works by Yoder, particularly the recent books Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace and Revolution ( Read our review )and The War of the Lamb ( Read our review ), as well as his classic work The Politics of Jesus.  In the first chapter, Yoder fleshes out the role of nonviolence in the work of Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi and also examines the influence that Tolstoy’s work had upon Gandhi.  This chapter is Yoder’s most thorough treatment of these key figures in the history of nonviolent thought.  In the second chapter, Yoder explores the nonviolence of the American civil rights movement and in particular the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the connections that his work bore to that of Gandhi. This chapter is also — to the best of my knowledge — Yoder’s most focused exploration of the nonviolence of the civil rights movement.  Chapters six through eight overview the development of the Judeo-Christian commitment to nonviolence from the Old Testament era through the time of the early church.  In Chapter Eight, “Early Christian Cosmology and Nonviolence,” Yoder seeks to understand the early Christian theology of the powers in the context of that era and especially its bearing upon the commitment to nonviolence.  In the book’s final three chapters, which might likely be the book’s most significant contribution, Yoder explores “Varieties of [Contemporary] Catholic Peace Theology,” focusing first on noniolent spirituality and especially the Catholic Worker movement, and then on “Pastors and Professors” who have been nurturing nonviolent thought within twentieth century Roman Catholicism and then finally on Latin American models of Catholic nonviolence.  Although there is much material in Nonviolence: A Brief History that is reminiscent of others of Yoder’s works, it is still essential reading for those who appreciate Yoder’s theology —  especially for its first two chapters (on the Tolstoy/ Gandhi/ MLK development) and the final three chapters on the Catholic peace witness in the twentieth century.  Although Yoder’s work here, as elsewhere, is distinctively Christian, this volume is also significant because it might perhaps be the most accessible book of his for those outside the Church, specifically those who have an interest in the philosophy of nonviolence and its historical development.

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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  1. Justin Anthony Knapp


    While I’ve not read this book of Yoder’s yet, I would recommend that persons interested in the history of non-violence check out Mark Kurlansky’s book on the topic. It’s accessible, short enough, and covers the topic broadly through history–he *is* an historian–as well as the philosophy underlying theories of non-violence.