Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder
ed. Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2009. 188 pages.
Power and Practices is a collection of essays originally presented at a Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre conference exploring the theological inheritance of John Howard Yoder. Rather than rearticulating or systematizing Yoder, Bergen and Siegrist intend this volume to be an extension of “a Yoderian mode of theological analysis into new domains.” The critical appreciation of Yoder’s thought and dialogical method is taken up by a group of younger scholars with an appreciation of or affiliation with Anabaptist theology.
Chris Huebner argues that to inherit Yoder is not to manage and control a closed canon but to take over a practice of ongoing receptiveness and discernment of what is inherited as well as what new dialogue partners offer in unpredictable encounters. The subsequent nine essays present a diversity of such engagements, each addressing different themes in Yoder’s work. Some familiar issues such as a theology of the cross or warfare in the Old Testament are critically corrected or expanded. Other authors explore shortcomings or inconsistencies in Yoder’s method, such as an oversimplification of scholasticism or his pejorative presentation of engineering. Other chapters include recent appropriations of Yoder in secular socio-political works or for theo-ethical arguments regarding international policing.
More specifically, critical explorations of familiar Yoderian themes are found in Nekeisha Alexis-Baker and Richard Bourne. Acknowledging the limitations of Yoder’s term ‘revolutionary subordination,’ Alexis-Baker puts Yoder in dialogue with womanist theologians and helpfully outlines where Yoder’s theology of the cross might be used as a tool in addressing the oppression of Black women. Bourne presents Yoder’s thoughts on the church’s witness to the state with Foucault as a new conversation partner. Analyzing legitimacy, sovereignty and governmentality, Bourne seeks to articulate how Yoder and Foucault can assist Christian communities in complex and appropriate analyses which can serve formulations of social and political critique and resistance that are communal, relevant, local, non-Constantinian, but not powerless.
Philip Stoltzfus explores shortcomings in Yoder’s writings, challenging Mennonite theologians to take seriously the constructive theological task involving concepts of God. Stolzfus argues that when using “God,” Yoder avoids the critical carefulness he employs in conceptualizing a nonviolent ethic of Jesus, for example, and so allows for violent images of a vengeful God to persist. For Stoltzfus, Mennonite theologians can draw critically from Yoder as a theological resource, but they also need to engage in corrective work where Yoder failed to propose imaginatively nonviolent symbols and concepts for God.
Paul Martens provides an intriguing critique of claims of consistency in Yoder’s work, analyzing important shifts in Yoder’s writings from a strong Jesus-centered social ethic to a later, less particularly Christian, position. Investigating Yoder’s interpretation of Jeremiah and his diverse conceptualizations of history, Martens detects a shift from claiming Jesus’ life and death as definitional in the seeking of peace as patient endeavor, to equating peace with the political and social salvation of culture in which the oppressed (not necessarily Christian) minority is the bearer of progress and change. This line of thought in the late Yoder explains his attractiveness to secular political thinkers. To Mennonite theologians seeking to inherit and receive Yoder’s theological legacy, the direction that Martens outlines here is an important one, especially when one seeks to take seriously Yoder’s theological method of a nonviolent, open epistemology that does not close in on itself or seek to control a certain stance, even concerning christocentric perspectives.
This collection of essays is at its strongest when it makes use of the style assigned to Yoder—“a complex exercise of receptivity that will no doubt encounter numerous surprises, ruptures and difficulties” (23)—and in the process pointing to new directions and conversations of which Mennonite theology need not be afraid. Anabaptist theology that seeks to be faithful to its inheritance of providing political and social witness ought to engage in attentive listening to diverse indigenous perspectives on empire, citizenship, territory and sovereignty, for example. Some of the directions presented in this book put on display a promising start in discerning how this might be possible: appropriating what is useful in Yoder’s style while allowing critical corrections of failures or shortcomings to respond to ever different and complex contexts.
This book requires familiarity with at least some main features of Yoder’s work. It is a helpful collection for scholars interested in seeking to read Yoder “outside the pacifist box” and looking for new ways of engaging with and discerning the inheritance of this influential Mennonite thinker. ?