From the March 2010 E-Block.
John Howard Yoder, who is regarded by some as [OR1] “the most powerful apologist for Christian pacifism ever,” was one of the more demanding reads I have encountered, but it was not because any of his ideas or arguments were challenging. Indeed, it is hard to even find anything resembling a sustained argument in Yoder’s work. His style is rambling and disconnected, and he spends far more time assuming his pacifist views are correct than proving that they are. It would be fair to say, without exaggeration, that he spends 99.9% of his writing with this assumption, or else engaged in historical survey that is interesting, but proves little.
In addition, when confronted with rebuttals, Yoder seldom resorts to sound, documented answers, preferring instead to ask a series of “how do we know” questions that he supposes would be difficult to answer, but generally are not. At WL37, for example, he speaks of how in just war theory, “[t]here is the assumption that we possess a very high level of accuracy in information about the facts of the case.” Why “high level” as opposed to sufficient level? What reasons do we have to doubt that sufficient accuracy can be achieved? And at OR130-1: “Such calculations are highly uncertain, due to the limits of human knowledge and to the distortion of objective truth by man’s pride.”
This is odd: Isn’t Yoder himself human, and therefore subject to error and pride? Then why can’t we say that his own pacifist leanings are a distortion on the same basis? In essence, this amounts to a rhetorical attempt to persuade a non-pacifist to put off action until Yoder is satisfied that every I had been dotted and every T has been crossed.
For this article, I was able to secure and read these four Yoder works:
- The Original Revolution [OR]
- War of the Lamb [WL]
- Politics of Jesus [PJ]
- Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution [CAP]
Regarding the Decalogue command, we have said this:
The Original Meaning of Ratsach
Our modern translations render the word "murder" rather than "kill" -- but is that really a parallel definition? It is hard to suppose that we have adequately grasped every nuance of this term, and then suppose that we can make it equal exactly some concept of Western jurisprudence.
Studies of the word by Hebrew scholars and historians are equivocal. It does seem to fit well for descriptions of what we would call manslaughter -- killing in anger. Some have suggested that it only applies to "blood revenge" killing. While scholars do disagree on some points, there are indeed certain limitations that are agreed upon one way or the other. Figuring these out comes of careful study of the text in its social and legal context.
Ratsach is used only a few times in the OT. In long passages in Numbers 35, Deut. 19, and Joshua 20-21, it is used to describe the act of someone who has committed what we might call manslaughter, or negligence; but it seems that there is more to the matter. Passing by places where the word is used but there are no contextual clues (Is. 1:21; Jer. 7:9; Hos. 4:2), we have this:
- In Judges 20:4, it describes the killing of a woman who was in a house that was beset upon by night by a gang of evil men.
- In 1 Kings 21:19, the Lord rhetorically asks Ahab if he has ratsached. This is after Ahab has concluded a plot to do away with Naboth by having two fellows say they have heard Naboth blaspheme. (This word also describes Ahab in 2 Kings 6:32.)
- In Job 24:14, it describes one who in the light sets upon the poor and the needy, and is a thief at night.
- In Ps. 62:3, it describes the fate of someone who is not prepared for what will happen to them, for they have no foundation in God. In Ps. 94:6 it describes the wicked who kill the widow and the stranger -- those who are helpless and disoriented.
- In Prov. 22:13, it describes something a lion will do to the slothful man. This verse, we shall see, is the key to the whole puzzle.
- In Hos. 6:9, it is applied to priests who commit iniquity, with a comparison to a troop of robbers waiting for someone.
- as an angry reaction to stimulus; or
- lying in wait, as one waits for prey.
Regarding the critical portions of the Sermon on the Mount, we have said the following:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.Smith interprets these commands as directives to tolerate injustice and be a doormat, and says "such precepts require the obliteration of one's capacity to distinguish the good from the evil." 
Taken in their social context, these commands require no such things. "Resist not evil" is a well-known Jewish proverb (Ps. 37:1, 8; Prov. 24:19) and actually means, do not compete with evildoers by trying to outdo them in terms of getting back at them. Three examples for the teaching follow: Turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for your cloak, also give them your tunic; if you are forced to go one mile, go two. All three of these things refer to what amount to inconvenient, but nevertheless perfectly legal, impositions on the person. The "slap on the cheek" is a type of personal insult, so that the command to turn the other cheek is essentially a command not to start trading insults, but take the higher ground and turn away from the exchange.
It is not, as many Skeptics have supposed, a license to allow yourself to get beat up. The cloak/tunic bit must be recognized in terms of the ancient Jewish customary process of making good pledge on one's debts by handing over a valuable item as collateral; for most people in this time, items of clothing were the only thing suitable. In essence, the teaching is to provide surety of repayment of a justly-decided debt, even to those who are enemies.
Finally, the double-mileage command refers in context to the legal right a Roman soldier had to make any person carry their belongings for up to one mile. As you might imagine, this was not a popular requirement in the neighborhood of Palestine, but it was the law, and the teaching again is in essence, do it, and do it without complaint, even though the Roman is your enemy.
Taken contextually, there is very little here to support a pacifist view. These all refer to insults to personal honor, and so do indicate a non-resistance policy when insulted; the believer is to let God be the one to avenge, or some other person. Malina and Rohrbaugh say of these passages in the social-science commentary on the Gospels, “Allowing others to come to one’s defense enables one to be reconciled later with the one who dishonored and not proceed to a demand for satisfaction and feuding.”
If anything, these reactions – especially the one involving the tunic -- would amount to publicly shaming those who made their demands, or indicating that they were beneath an equitable response; just as Jesus’ silence before Pilate was an indication that he didn’t consider Pilate worth a response. To that extent, they were also a sort of insult. This seems to be a point Yoder misses entirely, for he shows no awareness of the honor-shame dialectic that governed the New Testament world. Put another way, violence was done to reputation rather than to the person’s body – and it is the last thing that could be called “passive nonresistance”.
Indeed, it is an excellent point that nonviolent resistance works well precisely in situations where the oppressors are publicly shamed by their acts against the pacifist. In that, we can see how the methods of Gandhi and King would have worked well, against persons and nations both with a moral conscience and which were sensitive to public perception; but we can also see why they would have failed miserably in Soviet Russia and Communist China, to say nothing of Hitler’s Germany. One example Yoder cites of Jewish non-resistance, at PJ90-1, illustrates this perfectly: Josephus Antiquities 8.3 records a story of when Jews all bared their necks before Pilate saying they’d rather be executed than allow him to have his will. In this, Pilate was being forced into a conundrum in which he would be shamed if he slaughtered these non-resisters.
More than this, there is simply no application in these passages for relations between nations where one nation has invaded another, or has enslaved another, or declared war on another. These are not acts of insult to honor and reputation, which is what these directives are all about. Yoder has falsely extrapolated a wide-ranging non-resistant pacifism from these texts.
In light of the above, let us now consider Yoder’s sparse attempts to justify thoroughgoing pacifism. Please note that in so doing we are not arguing for the justness of any particular act of violence, just arguing against a “no violence under any circumstances” approach of the sort Yoder argues for.
- OR48: Under the assumption that personal relationship directives
like Matthew 5:39 above apply to nations, Yoder calls this command one
of “nonresistance”. As we have seen, it is not that at all; Yoder also
denies the contention of the atheist critic above referenced that it is
“a weak acceptance of the intentions of the evil one...” Rather, he
says, it is an acceptance “to his person, not to his purposes” and also a
“creative concern for the person who is bent on evil, coupled with a
refusal of his goals.”
The problem with this idea is manifest, if we follow Yoder’s
reasoning: In accepting to aid this person, do we not also aid his
purposes? Does not carrying the Roman’s pack enable him to save his
strength for other purposes, which would include evil intentions?
Yoder’s interpretation simply fails to consider the long-term results.
However, this is all moot, since as noted above, insult to personal honor is what is behind the command. If anything, carrying the pack further only shames the solider, or else imposes (under the strictures of honorable behavior) an obligation on the solider to repay for the extra work. Broader matters of evil intentions are hardly the point.
Yoder is aware of a much simpler version of our reply (CAP323-4) which he refers to in terms of a “different vocations” argument – that is, a king is subject to different rules than the average person. As noted, there is far more to it than that. However, his response amounts to a single paragraph, which boils down to these arguments:
First, he resorts to a series of “how do we know” questions, such as, how do we know “what slot we are in at any time.” Such questions don’t seem that difficult to answer.
Second, he asks what we do with the NT claim that we have moved into a different era. However, here he merely begs the question that matters of just war and violence have radically or totally changed. While the new covenant did inaugurate many changes, he has provided little evidence – most of it involving misplaced exegesis – that war between nations is on this list. At the same time, Yoder has freely used two primary OT texts (the command against killing, and image language; see below) to argue that these pacifist requirements were already in the “prior” era!
- It is worth noting as well that Yoder commits a standard error [OR50] when he reads the “brother” in Matt. 5:22 to refer to “fellowship between man and man.” (See also WL36, where he takes it to mean “fellow human.”) This is not the case at all: “Brother” would refer only to one’s fictive kinship group – here, fellow disciples of Jesus. Expanding “brother” to all other humans is simply wishful, deconextualized exegesis. (See more on this here.)
- Yoder also offers some arguments based on a definition of agape
[OR56] as “self-giving, nonresistant love” which would have included
“the refusal to use political means of self-defense.” He also defines
it [OR61] as “leaving evil free to be evil, leaving the sinner free to
separate himself from God and sin against man…”
As our study has shown here,
apart from the “self-giving” aspect, this definition is entirely
fanciful. Yoder has falsely extrapolated intentions from a particular
act of agape, here, Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus’ non-resistance here
was not a function of pacifism, but a mechanism that enabled atonement,
and so was an act of agape love on behalf of all men. Nor is there any
place for the idea that it includes “leaving evil free to be evil” –
rather, it would indicate that doing such a thing would be an act of
anti-agape, of refusing to act for the sake of the greater good.
Yoder is compelled to admit that his interpretation of agape is “apparently complicity with evil” and that this is a “stumbling block to nonpacifists.” However, rather than resolve the moral issue, Yoder resorts to a petulant sort of tu quoque, in which he says that if this is being complicit with evil, then “God Himself must needs be the guilty one for making man free and again letting his innocent son be killed.” In this, Yoder again ignores the atoning intent of the death of Jesus. At the same time, Yoder’s logic is somewhat akin to that of the atheist Comte-Sponville, who tried to blame God for television violence: He admitted that people crate television violence, but replied that since God created people, He in turn is responsible for television violence! As I said in reply to this in the Christian Research Journal, this is like blaming Henry Ford for all accidents involving Ford vehicles. Yoder’s attempt to invoke the idea of God being guilty for the acts of free men is merely a desperate counsel. It remains that he has failed to rebut the contention that his thesis makes us complicit with evil. Such would only be justified if greater good resulted from allowing evil to succeed in some lesser action. (Eg, the popular analogy of tripping an old women so that she falls out of the path of a gunman’s line of sight.)
Compounding the display of misplaced piety, Yoder equates a refusal to deal with evil with “patience” in waiting for God to deliver justice. The reasoning here is little different, ironically, from that of members of the Popular Pastors and Prosperity Preachers series who say we should be careful not to “run ahead” of God’s will, and that we will fail if we do. However, Yoder takes this premise to even greater absurdities than Osteen or Stanley did; at WL39 he argues that Jesus is in charge of the universe, so when we use violence, we “short-circuit that providential potential when we decide to be providence ourselves…”
It is hard to see how Yoder missed the logical implications of this statement. The same logic would apply just as readily to total inaction, or to nonviolent protest, or to any choice we make in daily life. If the argument is that we short-circuit providence by some act of violence, why are only violent acts capable of short-circuiting providence? This is just another form of fallacious “parking space theology” – just as readily might Osteen argue that by looking for a closer parking space rather than taking one far away, we are “short-circuiting” God’s providential provision that would allow us to get more exercise and fresh air!
Finally, regarding agape, at OR83-4 Yoder discusses the problem he sees with defending a loved one from an evil person to prevent greater evil. After appealing to his own incorrect definition of agape, he says that the former situation implies “[T]hat ‘one’s own’ family, friends, compatriots, are more to be loved than the enemy...the life of the aggressor is worth less than that of the attacked...that the responsibility to prevent evil is an expression of love when it involves the death of the aggressor...that letting evil happen is as blameworthy as committing it”.
The first two points are curious ones: By Yoder’s logic, permitting evil to be done to one’s loved ones therefore implies “that one’s enemy is to be more loved than one’s own family, friends, compatriots” and that “the life of the attacked is worth less than that of the aggressor.” The second two points indicate much the same. So if we are to avoid value judgments of this sort, why are they not to be avoided in all directions?
In any event, Yoder’s view here is rooted in a mistaken interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount strictures: We are not talking here about evil people performing aggressive violence, but people (evil or not) insulting person honor.
- One of Yoder’s repeated refrains is that Jesus did not accept the methods of the radical Zealots, and the fact that he did not shows that he advocated pacifism. In arguing this, Yoder uncritically accepts the findings of a small group of scholars – now widely rejected –that the Zealots were contemporaries of Jesus. However, his argument might still stand since there still existed at Jesus' time those who would have preferred military action against the Romans. Is it meaningful that Jesus did not use these tactics? Hardly, though it is arguable that he might have put some military hurt on the Romans had he been accepted as Messiah; or perhaps, simply removed their power with a wave of his hand. That said, Jesus’ mission was salvific; to make an issue of his lack of use of military tactics is like pointing out that someone did not use a howitzer when they went grocery shopping. This hardly excludes the use of targeted force in other situations and for other persons.
- One of Yoder’s most difficult problems is reconciling the
frequent use of war in the Old Testament, as God’s command, with his
pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. In his various works he
contrives a variety of answers, all of which amount to category errors
At OR98-99, he says that OT holy war was a “ritual event” and that
all deaths were a “sacrifice to God” and not seen as “the taking of
individual lives of persons, each of whom could be thought of as a
father or a mother or a child.” They were also “not a result of
strategic planning but an ad hoc charismatic event.”
It is hard to see what the point is here. Yoder may as well point out that the people of the OT wore different types of sandals than persons in the NT. The logic here is that war is permissible as long as it is a “ritual event”. Where is this to be found either in Scripture or in logic? It is not found. Yoder’s argument is an ad hoc attempt at reclassification.
Beyond this, it is hard to see how OT war would not have been seen as “the taking of individual lives.” Although the people of this society were foremost group-thinkers, this does not mean they did not recognize themselves and others as individuals, or their roles. Yoder is again simply manufacturing an ad hoc classification.
At WL70, Yoder tries a different tack: He says that OT wars intended to “document...that Yahweh takes the side of his people” not help us decide on whether war is sin. Therefore, he tells us, the lesson should be trust God for survival. This again is merely ad hoc classification. Moreover, it seems likely that if Yahweh takes the side of the righteous in one war, He might do the same for another. At this point, we expect Yoder would resort to his tactic of asking a series of “how do you know” questions, such as, “How do we know which side is righteous?” The question would hardly be as difficult to answer as he supposes, but for the sake of argument, suppose we did have a hard time deciding which side in a war was righteous – would Yoder expect us to do nothing while one side slaughtered the other? (No doubt we would be “short circuiting God’s providence” by interfering.)
At WL72-3, Yoder notes that in later times, Israel did not go to war (the day of Jeremiah and Isaiah). What escapes Yoder here is that in those times, the Jews had no purpose in going to war; they had claimed all of their territory ascribed to them by God, and they were also under the yoke of much more powerful nations like Babylon, which would make war fruitless. In addition, the Jews would have been much more occupied with the possibility of their own brethren (Israel vs Judah) attacking. Using these circumstances as an argument for pacifism is rather short-sighted.
At PJ84n, Yoder also notes that armies of the time had no professional soldiers; all members were volunteers. This again is little more the an ad hoc classification argument.
- At OR130-1, Yoder says, “It was concerning the use of the sword in legitimate defense that Jesus said that they who take it will die by it.” Indeed? It is hard to see how this is so: Jesus’ words amount to a truism or a proverb, hardly subject to universal applications. Moreover, Jesus’ note that he could call on angels for defense if he wanted indicated that the defense was not necessary, legitimate or not. At the same time, while this proverb is due food for thought for those who go to war, it does not forbid it.
- WL 38 offers an argument noting that man is made in the image of God, so that in violence upon other men, “the majesty of the Creator God is what is under attack.” And thus, we are told, violence to other men is “blasphemy.” At PJ117 it is added that with image language, “man somehow corresponds to God’s own being.” This reading of image-language is not quite as creative as Mormon arguments that the “image” language means that God is a glorified human, but it comes close. As we have noted in response to that Mormon argument, “image” language means that we are God’s authorized representatives on earth. In that light, it is not the “majesty” of God that is attacked, but at most, His authority – and where authority is concerned, there is something that can be abandoned or misrepresented or abused. Yoder’s argument therefore fails.
- Finally, though it is not a Scriptural argument, it is worth noting one of Yoder’s frequent responses to philosophical defenders of “just war” theory: He disdains it because “just war” reasoning has been abused to pursue unjust wars and validate wars popular at the moment. As he says at WL110, “I question the [just war] doctrine’s legitimacy by showing that people who say they hold to it do not in fact honor its restraints.” Logically, this is nonsensical; it is like denying all motorists the ability to drive because some of them have been guilty of DUI, or of parking tickets, or of driving while using a cell phone. But once again, Yoder is also arbitrarily raising the bar before action can be permitted, and as he does so, waiting for just war theorists to become perfect persons before they can act.