Remembering John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder

Appeared first in First Things.

The 1978 Festival Quarterly featured a profile of John Howard Yoder. The interviewer asked John if he enjoyed his significance. “Oh, time has passed me by,” he responded. (The questioner noted he said this “without feeling.”) “I won’t strategize making sure I get my monument.”

Failing in his first effort to get Yoder to be introspective, the interviewer tried again by asking him if he was happy. “I haven’t found it very useful to ask that question,” John replied. But, he conceded, he was thankful. “So far our children haven’t hurt their parents much. I have tenure. And I don’t think I’ll run out of Anabaptist sources.”

For those of us fortunate to have known him, this exchange from Festival Quarterly is quintessential John Yoder. He viewed his own life with a godly indifference. Such indifference could be mistaken as a kind of arrogance, but it was anything but that. Yoder, born with extraordinary mental powers, had those powers shaped by a people for whom all power is a gift for service. Accordingly, he never sought a career, an authorship, or even personal influence. “I’m not concerned with building an empire,” he told his interviewer.

I feel the duty to note for the record John’s professorships at the University of Notre Dame and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, which he also served as president from 1970 to 1973. And I should mention his books as well. The Politics of Jesus (1972) was the best known; some of the others included The Priestly Kingdom (1984), The Royal Priesthood (1994), and For the Nations (1997).

Still, John’s personal reticence puts anyone who comes to praise him even on the occasion of his death in a tough spot. As Christians we already know better than to try to insure we will not be forgotten-not, as the Stoics thought, because that is a fruitless task but because it is the deepest sign of unfaithfulness. Any attempt to insure our memory in this world is the denial of that community-the communion of saints-that John now enjoys. We also know that John would not like any of us to say anything about him that would seem to make him more important than what he most cared about, that is, God’s nonviolent kingdom. As Michael Cartwright, one of the ablest interpreters of Yoder’s work, observed, John has certainly gone to extreme lengths to make sure he did not have to respond to the Festschrift some of us are in the process of preparing.

Yet like it or not John changed my life, and I think he ought to be held accountable for that. Reading Yoder made me a pacifist. It did so because John taught me that nonviolence was not just another “moral issue” but constitutes the heart of our worship of a crucified messiah. Of course I know that John was never quite sure what to make of my “conversion” to nonviolence. He never sought easy victories. You have to work to read a lot of what John wrote, not because he wrote obscurely but because he found a way to publish in the most obscure places. Even though I had read much he had written, I suspect he suspected that my taking up his cause may have been too easy exactly because it fit too well with my general temptation to be “against.”

At an event arranged by Father James Burtchaell to introduce new graduate students at Notre Dame to selected faculty members, John and I were asked to give short accounts of our life and work. John said he was a theologian only because he was no good at his father’s greenhouse business in Ohio. He said he had no real field-dabbling in Reformation history, biblical studies, theology, and ethics. He did note that for many years he had written in defense of Christian nonviolence. But he confessed that as far as he knew, he had only convinced one person (me) to become a pacifist.

In truth I know I was a burden for John. In speech and writing John was exacting. He had the kind of exactness only an analytic philosopher could love. He never said more or less than needed to be said. Thus the response to the question about whether he was happy: “I haven’t found it very useful to ask that question.” Notice he did not say it is wrong to ask if one is happy, he said it is not useful. Such exactness can be quite exasperating. I, on the other hand, love exaggeration. Why say carefully what can be said offensively? I know that John, committed as he was to the ministry of careful speech, found exasperating how I said what I thought I had learned from him. Yet he was patient with me-which is but an indication that he knew he had to treat even me nonviolently. I know at times it was not easy.

I suspect that was particularly true given my polemical style. Among Mennonites John not only could be but was combative. But he approached those outside the Mennonite world, Christian and non-Christian alike, first as a listener. I kept getting into fights because of what I had learned from him; but far from giving me comfort, he thought I was at fault. In truth I think he was right. He knew how to be nonviolent because he had all those witnesses, those Anabaptist sources, to teach him how. So rather than showing the incoherence of this or that version of just war theory, John would try to find a way to hold advocates of just war to their own best insights. He really lived and thought that God is to be found in those whom we think to be our deepest enemies. As one new to the practice of nonviolence, I know that is a skill I can at best only dimly imagine, much less manage to live as John lived it.

Which means I simply cannot with truth accept his claims to his own insignificance. For many of us, Mennonite and non-Mennonite, he changed our world through how he lived and what he wrote. For example, I cannot imagine a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, a society in which John served as president, without John Yoder. I am sure that I, along with many others, will expect to see that enigmatic figure in the back row taking notes but saying nothing, though it may be a session on a topic that he knows more about than anyone in the world. (It was regularly the case at sessions of the SCE that he knew more about the topic than those doing the talking.)

So in a mode uncharacteristic of Yoder’s way of working, I think it best to end with some of John’s own words. This beautiful and exacting passage, beautiful because of its exactness, comes close to the end of The Politics of Jesus . I believe that what John said in it is not only the heart of his work, but also the heart of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ:

The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.

Therefore it must be true, as John put it, that “the people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.” A life capable of producing the passage above is not replaceable. But the very God that makes such a life possible will, we can be sure, send us new, and no doubt quite different, John Yoders. In the meantime, we can rejoice in that grain of the universe God made present in the life of John Howard Yoder.

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