Which type of Pacifism?

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2004 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact Tim Geddert.

By Tim Geddert

John Howard Yoder, an influential ethicist, church theologian, and Anabaptist scholar,wrote numerous books and articles during his long and varied academic and ministry career. His influence extended far beyond Mennonite circles.

What might surprise some people is that his writings were not limited to the English language. Several of his books have been translated into German, Spanish and other languages. A few years ago I learned that Yoder had also written in other languages and some of that material had (and has) not been translated into English. One such work, a short German book entitled Nachfolge Christi als Gestalt politischer Verantwortung(published in 1964 and re-published in 2000) was until recently not available in English.During my recent study and ministry leave to Germany, I had the privilege of translating this book into English. Herald Press recently published it under the title Discipleship a Political Responsibility.

In his writings, Yoder distinguishes between various kinds of religious pacifism such as pacifism as a personal ethic, pacifism as a public policy, and pacifism as the stance of the Messianic community. The book I translated presents and biblically defends one way of
conceiving our political responsibility as people called to follow the peace-making Jesus.

Yoder’s view highlights the separate mandates of “the state” and of “the church.” Yoder acknowledges that, according to Scripture, “The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand.” (p. 18) That means that the use of deadly force ("the sword") falls within the mandate of the state (see especially Romans 13). The state is not, and cannot, be a follower of the slain lamb (see Rev. 4,5,12, etc.) As followers of Jesus, however, we have a higher calling. “The mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross” (p. 21). Thus, as followers of Jesus, we must resist participation in some aspects of the life of the state, in particular those that involve “the sword.” Our calling is to witness to and promote peace through the way of the cross, following Jesus in self-giving, self-sacrifice and active peacemaking, even if it should cost us our lives.

Critics will quickly respond: “But then we are just getting others to do the dirty work for us!” Or: “If we benefit from freedom and security we have a moral obligation to contribute to it!” Or: “Then we cannot be involved in politics at all, can we?!”

Yoder gives carefully nuanced responses to these and other objections. To the above critiques, he might reply that ministries of peace-making are no less risky or demanding than any military participation. We are not taking the easy way out! The State does not define for us our “moral obligation", Jesus does. Moreover, we do not rest in freedom and security – we take risks ministering in Christ’s name. While we can and should be involved in politics, we need to be ready to draw the line when participation compromises our Christian commitment. In Paul’s day the state’s primary role was to "wield the sword.” Today the state builds roads and hospitals, and administers services
including a postal system, social security programs and a thousand other things. We as Christians can and should be involved in many political levels that do not compromise our convictions as followers of the Lamb.

In his writings, Yoder distinguishes between various kinds of religious pacifism such as pacifism as a personal ethic, pacifism as a public policy, and pacifism as the stance of the Messianic community.

The book I translated presents and biblically defends one way of conceiving our political responsibility as people called to follow the peace-making Jesus. Yoder’s ideas and his responses to the objections readers might raise may not persuade everyone, but they are worthy of serious consideration.