A Nonviolent Way of Doing Theology (ala J.H. Yoder)

Below is a companion essay to my previous Church and State post… The same caveat still applies. And for you lay theologians out there, “epistemology” is essentially a flowery word for “a way of knowing things” or for the often-complicated answer to the question “how do you know what’s True?”

This essay is based on the books A pacifist way of knowing, a collection of some of Yoder’s writings; A Precarious Peace by Chris Huebner; John Howard Yoder by Mark Thiessen-Nation; and Salvation at Stake by Brad S. Gregory.

Yoder’s epistemology is a truly complex but essential part of his theological framework. In fact, in my experience misunderstandings of his epistemology are some of the most common causes of general misunderstandings of his theology. Ultimately, as two of the three books I read for this week suggest, Yoder’s epistemology and methodology (or lack thereof) outline a nonviolent way of doing theology, with Yoder’s peace theology vitally informing his very way of being a theologian. His is an “epistemology of peace that assumes that the truth about God is not something that can be possessed or secured through some kind of theory of justification… There is something about Yoder’s ad hoc, dialogical, and unsystematic way of proceeding that is central to his very understanding of peace itself.” (Heubner, Kindle loc 1090)

Yoder, in his characteristic railing against the Constantinian or Christendom vision, also rails against the underlying assumptions of establishment epistemology. These assumptions include the premise of a normative framework that is publicly and generally accepted, to which all reasonable people either assent or are wrong. This, he says, though it promises a wider world, is just as particular as any other framework: “There is no non-particular place to stand. Any claim to have access to a kind of truth which is by definition the same for everyone is epistemologically pre-modern. The theory of truth… which can claim to put the ‘particularity’ of others in a box only because it thinks that its own ‘necessary truths of reason’ are universal, is in fact no less in a box itself.” (Yoder, loc 1125) Truth claims inescapably come from within a context, out of particularity, and are formed and expressed in a historical setting. This need not be an embarrassment to Christians (whose God chose to become very particular), but rather embodies a kind of vulnerability that does not allow coercion. The Christian faith must be assented to before it can be believed, he says, and no closure can ever be found.

This freedom from coercion is an important theme for Yoder and shapes his epistemology radically. The most emphatic theme for Yoder is that the church itself becomes witness, foretaste, and locale of communal discernment. The church’s task is to be, to witness with its life to the One it follows and the One whose body it is. But more than that, all knowledge claims must come from within relationship and discernment of the community. This necessarily makes epistemology a kind of dance for Yoder. He chafes at what he calls methodologism, because he sees it as yet another way to gain control of a conversation. Furthermore, a devotion to a particular method is far too confining for Yoder, who insists that ways of doing theology must change depending on the needs of the moment and the discernment of the people.

In this dance, it is also imperative for Yoder that theologians neither see themselves as starting from scratch nor as having the last word. Any attempt at clean beginning or closure is another attempt to control conversation. Instead, theologians are to be ready to repent, to be converted by the witness of another, and to change methods, frameworks, or theological constructions as inspired by the Spirit, in discernment and practice in community, and in the acting out of discipleship to Jesus. Heubner says (echoing Millbank) that this makes Yoder’s theology fragmentary and slow – a kind of theology that opens conversation without knowing where it will lead, that resists any kind of closure, that actively pursues conflict as potential sites of revelation, and that maintains a posture open to self-criticism. Over all, this theology seeks to emphasize and act out of vulnerability rather than “employing an accelerated and possessive hermeneutics of mastery and control.” (Huebner, loc 451)

The primary foundation for this kind of theology, epistemology, and hermeneutic is an eschewing of any possessiveness in regards to the Gospel. Evangel (as Yoder names it) is a free gift of God, one that does not depend on us for its survival, and one that can only be received as good if it is not forced upon the other. Huebner writes, “The most profound truth about God – and that which Christian nonviolence most significantly turns on – is that God’s continued survival is not dependent on us.” (loc 451) One of the biggest problems with the Christendom vision for Yoder is that a theology that seeks to hold the people of the world (outside the church) to Christian ethics, an ethical practice that cannot be achieved, in Yoder’s mind, without prior covenant, is a theology that does not allow God’s creation to reject God, an option that God always leaves open. In contrast, faithful witness means giving up the assumption that it is up to us to change the world or bring the kingdom.

Instead, Yoder suggests the living witness of community as a messy and vulnerable truth claim that is always in process. Again, Huebner is helpful here: Yoder’s epistemology “assumes that truthfulness is an utterly contingent gift that can only be given and received and that it emerges at the site of vulnerable interchange with the other. Accordingly, it is fundamentally open-ended and radically concrete, refusing any self-legitimating appeal to theoretical abstraction.” (loc 1413) This is the theology and epistemology of “come and see.” To enter vulnerably into conversation, for Yoder, especially true ecumenical dialogue, means engaging so fully that the witness of the Other risks changing our minds and converting our hearts. To enter vulnerably into conversation also means engaging in a way that does not seek to protect one’s theology from rejection, but rather trusts the witness to speak as it will, and trusts the Spirit to move where it will.

Yoder puts forth, as alternative to a theological method that includes coercion, a theological method that begins from patience. He gives nineteen different examples or kinds of patience that are to be incorporated into a truly nonviolent epistemology: pedagogical, corrective, pastoral, ecumenical, multicultural/cosmopolitan, anti-methodologistic, therapeutic, subjective (subordination), corporate, collegial, exilic, contrite, modest, gelassen (yieldedness), honest, resigned, apocalyptic, audience-sensitive, and political. Each of these has a different context and slightly different meaning for Yoder, but each turns on two concepts. First, the trust in the providence of God allows a measure of hopeful patience that does not need to “white-knuckle” the bringing of the kingdom. Second, the utter humility in face of the ultimate mystery of God allows a measure of anticipatory patience that looks for God’s work in all places, even surprising ones.

This brings me (as it does Huebner) to a consideration of martyrdom. Thanks to Gregory’s book Salvation at Stake, about martyrdom in the 16th century across all Christian groups, I have come to see the posture of martyrdom in a framework akin to middle voice. In most languages, active voice suggests direct action, often on an object. Alternately, passive voice is used to indicate the passive receipt of an action. In some languages, a third voice called “middle voice,” is used to indicate a particular kind of action, namely an active choice to allow. It seems to me that Yoder’s conception of patience, as he works to define it, is perhaps in the realm of middle voice. It is neither entirely passive, subject only to the whims of history, nor entirely active, forcing or moving. Instead, it is an active allowing, a dynamic standing in faith, in the face of rejection and even martyrdom. If, indeed, this is what Yoder is pointing toward in his epistemological patience, this is a stance entirely opposite to coercion.

In my opinion, Yoder’s patience does not go far enough in emphasizing the active portion of this middle voice concept. His patience can edge toward resigned, almost grudging powerlessness if it is not combined with a robust enough understanding of the rest of his discipleship ethic. Instead, I propose a further exploration of the early Anabaptist word Gelassenheit, which has echoes of this middle voice meaning, as well as layers of meaning related to a yieldedness to God’s providence, a self-emptying akin to kenosis, and a mutual submission within community.

Ultimately, martyrdom is a reality that Yoder’s kind of nonviolent epistemology must be ready at any moment to suffer. Martyrdom, far from being a denial of life, insanity, or a death wish, is actually a supreme act of trust in God’s providence. Giving one’s life willingly requires an understanding of life as a precious gift, not as something that one can grasp. Giving one’s life for one’s beliefs requires an understanding of individual survival as a good that is not ultimate but rather relative to communal well-being or faith claims or integrity. This is a kind of surrender and sacrifice in relation to a larger good that is understood without question in regard to military pursuits, or, less violently, in regard to service people like firefighters. For early Anabaptists and current radical pacifists to be willing to die for their faith but to refuse to kill for their faith is an affirmation of the providence of God and the precious gift of life, a position that sets discipleship above survival when the two values conflict. (See Gregory’s book Salvation at Stake for more history in this regard.)

This stance can never healthily be assumed outside of relationship with God and discipleship of Christ. If God is not continually transforming, our dynamic standing in the promise of faith becomes nothing more than a provision of a doormat for oppressors. If obedience to the foolishness of discipleship is not, somehow in the grand scheme of things, used by God to create good, then yieldedness to one another simply becomes passive enabling of evil. This is where we approach the end of our ability to “logic” our way into certainty. Although academic theology tends to see this as a failure or as proof that this system is not true, Yoder would point out that this is the gift of the Gospel. None of us must believe it because of its flawless logic. Rather, each of us is invited to experience it through living scripture, practicing community, and reconciling Spirit. None of us can know exactly where the road of this kind of logic will lead until we step out into the path. We are invited to “come and see,” because if it were an order rather than an invitation, then our freedom for full encounter or full rejection would be curtailed. This is the risk of the Gospel, for Yoder – the cross shape that evangelism must take.

All that said, where does that leave us in regard to feminist concerns? I believe that yielding passively to the oppression of others is not holy, and violence against the weak is not a cross to be silently borne. Does the yielding of Gelassenheit, then, imply a weak resignation to the evils we deplore? The key to this answer, I think, is to whom and what we are yielding. For early Anabaptists, Gelassenheit was first and foremost a sense of peace in God’s providence and the yielding that is enabled by trust in One who is unfailingly good. In light of this, everything else falls into place under that measuring stick. If God commands it, if Jesus encourages it, then it must be good because Jesus is God, and God is unfailingly good. This Jesus demonstrates a costly love that does not hesitate to confront evil but also a relentless love that reaches to every person, even those who do evil. Yieldedness to God will look like a similar confronting of evil and loving of persons, even when that goes against the grain of our human desires and even when it looks like foolishness and can’t possibly guarantee efficacy. In this, only the trust in God’s faithfulness can sustain, and that trust is only built in relationship and experience.

Looking for an example to domestic violence, the yieldedness of Gelassenheit is not the denial of violence nor the poisoningly-sweet insistence that allowing one more punch will perhaps change the abuser for the better. The yieldedness of Gelassenheit is a seeking after fierce love – love of self, love of community, and love of other. Fierce, costly love knows that allowing another to do evil, to remain enslaved to cycles of committing violence, is not loving. Neither, however, is demonizing or dehumanizing the person nor retaliating with more violence. For the victim to show fierce, costly love in a situation of domestic violence entails a naming and renouncing of the evil behavior; this love is predicated on the victim’s being able to stand in the truth of their own belovedness and identity in relation to God, as well as on the victim’s trust that following God in love will require making choices that feel dangerous (as breaking away from an abusive partner certainly is) but that God will provide. Standing firm in the truth of these things without retaliating and getting caught up in the cycle of violence requires a courageous, long-term, middle-voice posture, but it is the only way toward freedom from the power exerted by the oppressors. If God’s power, the power of Love, is the only power to which we yield – and if any other yielding we do is in service to and in relation to that yielding – evil’s power loses its hold on us. This is Gelassenheit.

Yoder’s concept of patience is perhaps a pendulum swing away from the coercion of modern methods of theology, which he identifies with a vestigial Constantinianism, and in that it is helpful. It is certainly a part of the toolkit involved in Gelassenheit, but it is not full, especially for those who suffer under direct and unrelenting violence and oppression, without a more active move toward a middle-voice posture. Yoder supplies this in his ethics and moral theology, but the lack of explicit tie between his epistemological method of patience and his active seeking of peace and justice is disturbing. Perhaps the tie between the two was so deeply carried that it seemed common sense to Yoder, but in this world where violence is portrayed and experienced around every corner and apathy and denial is just as prevalent, this connection must be further explored.

2 thoughts on “A Nonviolent Way of Doing Theology (ala J.H. Yoder)”

  1. Oh sister. Will you post everything you’re writing? This is great. I’d almost forgotten how epistemology and its explorations could directly impact the living of life.

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