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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