Archive for January 2008


January 28, 2008

I’ve been reading and writing on the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder non-stop for the last month. This has been a labor of love, as Yoder is my favorite author, but I’m also looking forward to getting on to new things soon.

The first bit of my research was focused on revising a paper I’ve submitted to an academic journal for publication. The paper is a defense of Yoder’s ethics as speaking incisively to a globalized world. I argue that many of the various church practices Yoder recommends are directly relevant to a scenario in which global capitalism dominates. But I question the thesis of capitalism’s hegemony by reviewing various theological and social science perspectives that indicate alternative patterns of domination (i.e., that the nation-state still has some strong role). I conclude by returning to Yoder’s theological assertion that the “state”–that which has been mandated by God to wield the sword to promote “order”–is fairly stable over time. Whoever holds the reigns of global power–be it corporations or nation-states or whatever–we can expect them to oscillate between relative decency and tyranny. The state will never be perfect, so we can always critique it; but it will never be so evil that our only option is revolt. Yoder has been accused of reducing theology, and in particular the sacraments, to ethics, so I include a section showing how all of the church practices Yoder recommends are within the context of Christ’s reign over the world and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church.

That essay ties in directly to my dissertation, so I’m expanding on that research to write a short summary of how I think Yoder’s theology works for church activism, especially in comparison to Milbank’s work. Basically my argument is that by placing Christian witness in the context of Christ’s reign, and under the life of Jesus’ life as its standard, Yoder’s theology is far more concrete than Milbank’s, and thus more easily adaptable to the work of churches. Because Jesus’ life, and preeminently the cross, is normative for the church, the church expects to be a minority within society, which frees it to experiment with solutions to social problems. It also frees the church to take up the language and concepts of society provisionally, neither accepting them as normative, nor refusing them outright–which means relationships with outsiders can be irenic, even if always critical. All of this adds up to an alternative Christian sociology to that proposed by Milbank, a way to describe and live in the world that is rigorously theological yet practical for churches.

That essay is due to my supervisor on Friday, so I expect this week to be pretty intense.

For anyone interested in learning more about Yoder, Notre Dame (where he taught) has a resource site with unpublished writings, as well as his obituary from the New York Times.

The Mennonite Quarterly Review has a short article by Mark Nation on a Yoderian view of conflict transformation, and something by Tom Harder on “the dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness” in Yoder’s work.

Mennonite Life has a very brief piece by Anthony Siegrist on the apocalyptic in Yoder’s theology.

Wikipedia, of course, also has a short overview.