Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology

January 21, 2014

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

In an earlier blog post, I called this A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment in the life of our church. A number of AMBS faculty offered ideas about conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This is the first of two guest posts by Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies Jamie Pitts. In this first post, Pitts names some of the problems for Yoder’s theology raised by his actions and suggests that revisionary criticism is necessary. A follow-up post will explore positive possibilities for a post-Yoderian theology constructed in dialogue with feminism, theological studies of sexual abuse, and a deeper contextualization of Yoder’s thought.

As Mennonites and others continue to grapple with the complexity of John Howard Yoder’s legacy, the question of what to do with his theology remains. For many around the world, Yoder’s statement of the interconnections among Jesus, nonviolence, and the church is regarded as an essential insight into Christian faith.

Popular Christian movements such as “neo-Anabaptism” in the USA and “radical evangelicalism” in Latin America and the UK have been inspired by Yoder’s theology, and his work is widely discussed in a range of academic settings. Stanley Hauerwas is not the only one who converted into a “Mennonite camp follower” by reading Yoder. Many of us have taken additional steps from the camp into Mennonite churches.

Yoder’s influence is indisputable. The problematic nature of his sexually abusive behavior is likewise indisputable. Although some interpreters continue to insist that Yoder’s writing can be isolated from his deplorable actions, there is growing agreement that such a separation is untenable. Even Yoder’s staunchest defenders finally have to respond to this reality.

Yoder claimed repeatedly that living testimony was inseparably tied to the integrity of one’s verbal proclamation of the gospel. If Yoder is right, then failed performance of the gospel should lead, at the very least, to suspicion about the words used in that performance. Some of Yoder’s actions were very bad news; it would be surprising if all his words were good news, were gospel.

The subtitle of my recent book is Revising John Howard Yoder’s Sociological Theology. Throughout the book I investigate criticisms of Yoder’s work and suggest revisions that could lead us into a post-Yoderian theological space. I talk about revision rather than repudiation, and being post-Yoderian rather than anti-Yoderian, because I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss or discredit Yoder altogether.

What is valuable about his theology is precisely that it directs our attention to the intimate interconnections between doctrine and politics, faith and power. Yoder is of course not the first or only theologian to make these connections. But he did so powerfully and influentially. Phrases like “the politics of Jesus,” “church as polis,” and “anti-Constantinianism” will long be associated with his name, for better or worse.

In my book I respond to criticisms of Yoder’s work by proposing a post-Yoderian Anabaptist theology that avoids reducing theology to ethics, and ethics to a narrowly conceived ecclesiasticism. Yet it remains a fully sociological theology, a theology attuned to the power-laden structures of embodied faith. Although I take inspiration from Yoder, I also find him to be ambiguous, reductive, and idealistic.

After writing the book I learned of Yoder’s sexually harassing and abusive behavior. It quickly became apparent that my critical analysis of Yoder’s theology was woefully incomplete. Although I had grappled with the empirical and moral complexity of Yoder’s writings on social practice, I had failed to grapple with the complexity of his own social practice. Although I had attempted to articulate a more subtle understanding of theological power, I had failed to integrate into my theology an understanding of Yoder’s egregious abuse of his own power. More work is needed for a genuinely post-Yoderian theology.

Theology cannot be the product of one man, or even a collection of men. The almost total failure of the Yoder guild to publicly engage feminist scholars and scholarship must end. Left, right, and center, the field of Yoder studies has largely been dominated by white men talking amongst ourselves, in spite of significant contributions from Gayle Gerber Koontz, Nancey Murphy, Cynthia Hess, and other women. We have produced a reduced and impoverished theology as a result. We must do better.

Tags: john howard yoder

Bleak Mid-Winter Lament

January 09, 2014

Deutsche Fotothek, Baume in winterlicher Gebirgslandschaft 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)

Deutsche Fotothek, Baume in winterlicher Gebirgslandschaft 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the recent long days of snow and extreme cold in northern Indiana, Chanticleer’s “In the bleak mid-winter” held me in its grip. Not sure why. I turned to it over and over again for solace as I read through several dark chapters of our church’s history—files that have been off limits because they tell a story we would rather not have to remember.

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long, long ago.

There is much about our history, whether personal, familial, congregational, institutional or denominational, that any one of us wishes would be different. Reading through dark chapters of things we regret about our story is anguishing work, but I did it as a labor of hope. I long for us as a people to learn to be more honestly transparent with each other, to name our fears, confess our failures, and awaken to the gift of grace freely given.

“The truth will set you free…but not before it’s done with you.” That’s what Nadia Bolz-Weber says in Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint. “Jesus goes on and on about how we really actually like darkness more than light because, let’s face it, the darkness hides our bullshit.” And she continues, “The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens.”

The stories I was reading tell of seminary and church leaders’ painful, costly effort to work with integrity amid enormous pressures. There is much that witnesses to their faithful commitment and firm resolve. And there is much to lament with deep sorrow for how we as a people failed each other. Why were we blind to the true nature of the evil being perpetrated and deaf to those who knew the Body was being seriously harmed? Why? Why? Why?

The more I’ve read about others from years gone by, the more I am drawn to reflect on our own times. How open to scrutiny am I? What are our blind spots as a learning community? As a church? In what ways will our children and grandchildren look back and wonder why we couldn’t see what will seem so obvious to them in hindsight? The conflicts that threaten to tear us apart now—whether about sexuality, economic disparity, environmental justice, race, biblical interpretation, will no doubt look starkly different when held up in the light of painfully learned historical perspective.

Tears of lament give way amid Chanticleer’s exquisite harmonies to renewed confidence that the truth when spoken may crush us, but will also put us back together.

In the hours before dawn, the prayer of the psalmist became my prayer for all of us: “Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from our sins, and blot out all our iniquities. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Do not cast us away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:8-12, adapted).


This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.