Yoder on Powerlessness

I’m currently reading John Howard Yoder’s seminal The Politics of Jesus, and there are many times when I could have posted excerpts. Yoder discusses how modern ethical theory is obsessed with first defining the meaning of history and then grabbing the right handle to move it in (what we have identified as) the right direction. Most conflicts assume that a handle exists, and argue about which one to grab and strategies for grabbing it. Yoder thinks that the gospel provides no such handle, only obedience in the way of Jesus:

[The] gospel concept of the cross of the Christian does not mean that suffering is thought of as in itself redemptive or that martyrdom is a value to be sought after. Nor does it refer uniquely to being persecuted for “religious” reasons by an outspokenly pagan government. What Jesus refers to in his call to cross-bearing is rather the seeming defeat of that strategy of obedience which is no strategy, the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal is to be faithful to that love which puts one at the mercy of one’s neighbor, which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one’s own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged…

This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads mean to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb. (243-4)

This is a serious indictment of those advocates of nonviolent resistance in the wake of the successes of Ghandi and MLK Jr. Further on, Yoder makes his point more theological:

Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, “relevance,” itself a good in the name of which evil may be done…

It what we have said about the honor due the Lamb makes any sense, then what is usually called “Christian pacifism” is most adequately understood not on the level of means alone, as if the pacifist were making the claim that he can achieve what war promises to acheive, but do it just as well or even better without violence. This is one kind of pacifism, which in some contexts may be clearly able to prove its point, but not necessarily always. That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival. (245-6)

2 responses to “Yoder on Powerlessness”

  1. R.O. Flyer: Agreed. Most fundamental, and most fundamentally disturbing.

    I just discovered that the city library has Huebner’s book (helps that he’s a local I guess) on the shelves, so I’ll be picking that up soon.

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