“Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, & Revolution” by John H. Yoder

Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and RevolutionChristian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution by John Howard Yoder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yoder did not publish his book on Christian attitudes during his life because he did not want to detract from Roland Bainton’s work by the same name. Instead, he described his lectures on the topic as a supplement to Bainton’s book and required it for use in the course. Yoder does not use the language of “theory” in relation to just war, as he identifies that it has evolved over time and that there are varying schools of thought. Therefore, he prefers the phrase “just war tradition,” and he distinguishes it with the “crusade” and “blank check” tradition. When he uses the word “theory,” he seems to use it as a pejorative term, as a way of highlighting its inconcreteness and permeability. He critiques the just war theory for having “a bias in favor of the civil order.” But having a robust doctrine of sin, as Christians are called to, and Niebuhr was right to articulate, means “then the system would not work.” His work in describing justifiable war, then, is done mostly tongue in cheek, which he would say is proper given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. After all, he agrees with the early philosophers at least in that justifying war requires equally yoked rulers. Instead, we live in a world that lacks “a wider network with mutual recognition among rulers.” The United Nations, Yoder might suggest, is dominated by the superpower status of the United States. When a single state has unequal power, evidenced by the language of responsibility to protect, war cannot so easily be justified, if at all. However, Yoder’s history is astute and worthy of careful consideration.

Unlike Bainton, Yoder relies heavily on this distinction between the three strands of war traditions that he relates to law, justice, and holiness. The first strand is traceable to Cicero (the jurist), and it works in the arena of law and explicit agreements between equal states. The second is more fluid across time and was founded by Aristotle, which defined justice as relating to a nature (fought to restore slaves to their lowly status). Holy wars and crusades, the third tradition, found its source in sacred texts and the book of Joshua in particular for Jews and Christians. Yoder claims that the strands were generally distinct before the Middle Ages, when each was relied upon in some extent to justify wars not of necessity but of convenience. He traces the history of war traditions with each strand in mind, articulating how various theorists and theologians relied upon them to provide revisionist accounts thereof to suit a changing world and evolving state interests.

One particular point of interest Yoder draws into discussion is the issue of defeat and martyrdom, which ties into earlier readings. Yoder claims that the crusade paradigm has left modern western Christians with two peculiar elements. First, because the command to and justification of war comes from God, such transcendence “justifies downgrading the rights of the enemy.” In fact this is a convention of perhaps even post-modern thought, as numerous accounts exist during even the nefarious Second World War in which enemy combatants conducted themselves with surprising dignity. More poignantly, Yoder says the second element left with the contemporary world by the crusade mentality is the equation of martyrdom with something like holy defeat. Martyrdom in our age has taken on a very different shape than it had for the early church, evidenced by the veneration of such conquered heroes like Che Guevara or the liberationist priest Camilo Torres. While I take issue with Yoder’s claim that the soldier “went out to kill,” I would agree that “The legendary quality of defeat”… “is a mark of the crusade, not the just war.”

Here, Yoder returns to the three strands to clarify that even the “nature” language of Aristotle was present as late as the 15th century, with the colonialist presumption that uncivilized, indigenous peoples had no souls and therefore were subject to slavery, or worse. The work of the humanists, therefore, did much more than Aquinas in legitimating just war as an authoritative set of propositions, causing “people to believe that the doctrine had some integrity.” Even the legal strand of war gained increasing prominence in the modern discussion of human rights and succeeded in delegitimizing the crusade mentality (at least on the surface). Finally, Yoder carries his three strands further forward in time, past the Middle Ages, through theorists like Machiavelli and Hobbes, who inaugurated the blank check strand of war. He and Bainton both cite the Reformation as problematizing the relationship between church and state insofar as it reinforced assumptions about the legitimacy of war making. Yoder brings the just war tradition into line with the popularly construed creedal nature of the current Just War Doctrine only through his critique of the Reformation as “the beginning of nationalism in the modern sense.” He cites everything from the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England to the Augsburg and Westminster Confessions as being inherently invested in securing the irrevocable right of the state to wage war without significant objection; in fact many of the documents are overt in their anti-Anabaptist screeds, who famously refused to assent to the nationalizing of war. The central effect of these documents for Protestants was to compel individual Christians that to disobey the prince was to be insubordinate to God, therefore compelling them to intellectual assent to justified war. The issue of individual conscience is left out of these pre-enlightenment documents, though in contrast to Protestant texts, Catholic doctrine does not compel its adherence because no such conscientious acquiescence is expected. Indeed, just war “has never been promulgated by a pope speaking ex cathedra,” no Catholic is bound by doctrine to assent thereto. Put another way, a Catholic “can deny the whole” idea of justified war and not be called a heretic. Though they might be called an Anabaptist. After all, it is a title Bainton and Yoder share.

• If indeed the theologians effectively said, “that the justifiable war criteria are political, and not religious, not transcendental” and that even their cause is “political rather than religious,” (Yoder, 113) is there really anything theological at all about ancient or modern war? Is the just warrior really anything other than a good citizen?
• Yoder has an incredible insight about how defeat operates in the modern imaginary How is our Christology affected by labeling as martyrs those people who were “defeated,” at Little Big Horn or the Alamo, or people like Tomas Young, Camilo Torres or… Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

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