Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology

Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology

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.