What a Mennonite Theologian’s Quietist Reading of the Hebrew Bible Gets Wrong

In his influential book The Politics of Jesus, the prominent Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) put forward a Christian case for pacifism and abstinence from politics. Unlike other pacifist Christian thinkers, Yoder did not wish to ignore or reject the Hebrew Bible; rather, in a series of separate essays, he argued that it be seen as a story of the education first of mankind, and then of the Jews, in pacifism—preparing them, in his view, for the purely nonviolent message of the Christian messiah. Peter Leithart identifies the flaws in this approach:

Yoder read the Old Testament as a history of Israel’s maturation. Fundamentally, it is a pedagogy in faith, beginning with the call that cut Abram off from all natural means of support. It is also a pedagogy in a particular kind of warfare, . . . in which Israel depends on God as the warrior who will fight its battles. By the end of the Old Testament period, Israel has no armies of its own and is forced by the circumstance of exile to rely on God alone. Jesus [then] takes up the mantle of Jeremiah, urging his disciples to seek the peace of the city and not to take control of the empire themselves. . . .

[T]here are fairly glaring oversights and weaknesses in Yoder’s work. His account of kingship, especially David’s, is one-sidedly negative. . . . And [the exiled Jews] were hardly non-violent: Yoder cites Esther several times as an example of faithfulness in exile, but he ignores Mordecai’s effort to organize an armed resistance with the permission of the Persian king. At several points, in short, Yoder’s telling of Israel’s story clashes with the canon.

More globally, Yoder [creates an exaggerated distinction between] wars fought by God and wars fought by Israel in a way that the Bible does not. At times, Israel does nothing and watches God defeat its enemies. Other times, Israel fights in faith while God defeats its enemies. I wonder if this betrays a more fundamental flaw in Yoder’s theology, a tendency to treat divine-vs.-human action as a zero-sum game.

Besides, the story of maturation could be told differently: growing up might mean that the kids learn to fight alongside daddy, rather than watching him handle all the bad guys. There is plenty of biblical evidence for this narrative line.

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More about: Christianity, Hebrew Bible, Pacifism, Religion & Holidays, Theology

 

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy