Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Questioning John Howard Yoder

10 December 2008

Let me state a few things before I note my concerns with the work of John Howard Yoder who, despite disagreeing with him, I admire very much. I am not a Christian and could never be any variety of Christian for a variety of different reasons. Despite this I have long been fascinated with Christian social ethics particularly the social ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder. Weird, eh? Anyway, it has been a long time since I engaged either so I hope you will forgive any howlers.

Yoder's work, of course, is, at least to some extent, the product of his engagement with the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was very critical (as I am) of worldly varieties of Quakerism (I don't see any way that you can make the world pacifist given the nature of sin and thus I find "modernist" varieties of Quakerism, like some varieties of Enlightenment, fatally flawed by virtue of their naive utopianism). On the other hand, Niebuhr praised the separatism of some Anabaptist groups (I assume Niebuhr, if he were around today, would be critical of the "modernist" pacifist strains of academic Mennonitism). All this is a long winded way of coming to my point: while Niebuhr does offer a way to square "church" and "world", gradations of sin and evil, Yoder's conception of the church is to see it, in Schleithem form, as totally distinct from the "world" and as witnessing to it.

I am not sure I am comfortable with this position. Are those of us who care about human rights supposed to sit back and watch human rights be abused? Pacifism may be the only position on war that is consistent with a hard shell human rights position but does it really work in the face of what happened in Europe in the 1940s? in Cambodia in the 1970s? in Rwanda in the 1990s? in Darfur today? Isn't pacifism simply ineffective in the face of militant human rights abuse and abusers? Is there anything that a church which separates from "unbelievers" (others) really do about these things? Can separatist prophetic pacifism really do anything to stem human rights abuses? Don't interventions like Joschka Fischer and Bernard Kouchner, who argue that one sometimes has to intervene militarily to stop human rights abuses, have a point?

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