A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking

Malinda Elizabeth Berry

The Conrad Grebel Review 23 no. 1 (Winter 2005)

Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds. A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Cascadia Press, 2004.

In March 2002, a group of scholars, church folk, and the curious gathered, under the auspices of the Believers Church Conference series, to assess John Howard Yoder’s theological, ethical, and peacemaking legacy. As one of the participants, I was glad for the opportunity to re-visit some of the papers presented there. Considering these essays now in book form, I was struck by the fluidity of who this legacy is for and how it ought to be regarded. There is no clear consensus about the legacy we have inherited from Yoder.

One has only to look at this volume’s table of contents to see that among Yoder’s most immediate constituency (the Believers Church) there is a pleasing diversity of approaches to both affirmation and critique of his work. Something uniting the chapters is how they all seem to “take it to the next level”: each writer wants to take Yoder along with them as they pursue their own intellectual and spiritual questions, believing they are indeed asking the right questions. Lest this comment be taken as an attempt to harmonize the diversity in this volume, let me quickly reassert that there is no lack of scholarly debate among Yoder’s current interpreters, especially those included here.

For us Mennonites, academic conferences and gatherings are simply another way of doing and being church – a dynamic to which Stanley Hauerwas’s caution in the introduction speaks, at least in part. Hauerwas writes, “the Mennonite character of this book could give the impression that Mennonites are more likely to understand Yoder than those outside that community. . . . Because Yoder is equally challenging to everyone, non- Mennonites should not let the Mennonite ‘ownership’ of Yoder deter them from reading this book” (12).

What this means is that we have a sense that our academic work is part of our corporate Christian witness as a church. The reverse is also true: for many of us in the academy, our scholarly work is as a noisy cymbal if it is disconnected from congregational life. This is why I find the essay by Gerald Biesecker-Mast, “The Radical Christological Rhetoric of Yoder,” particularly helpful. He uses Yoder’s own rhetoric and what we might call “method” to ask about the rhetorical force we employ in our own speech, and urges us to take seriously Yoder’s conviction that “the church . . . must in its very social and institutional character make visible the patience and nonviolence intrinsic to the witness given in Christ” (48). “God’s speech performance in . . . Jesus Christ” has everything to do with the character of Christian witness (47).

Harry Huebner’s essay, “The Christian Life as Gift and Patience,” reminds us that Yoder’s critique and ultimate rejection of liberation theology was based on its methodological and, I would add, rhetorical choice to “ignore nonviolence and divine agency “(36). This emphasizes the need for continuity in how we speak about God and practice the rituals and ordinances of Christ’s church.

Biesecker-Mast’s essay also creates space to voice a couple of persistent questions: (1) Why are so few women writing about Yoder from a feminist perspective? (Rachel Ressor-Taylor’s “Yoder’s Mischievous Contribution to Mennonite Views on Anselmian Atonement” is the sole representative of women’s work with Yoder; however, she does not find much value in feministoriented readings and critiques of Anselm’s theory.) (2) Why are so few men bringing feminist perspectives into conversation with Yoder in their own work?

The event occasioning these thoughtful essays took place ten years after a conference at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries concerning Mennonite peace theology and violence against women. At that time another collection of thoughtful essays wrestled with another persistent question: If we as pacifist Christians cannot make peace and live nonviolently in our own homes, what integrity does our peace witness have in the wider world? This question was raised again this past summer as part of the Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored Peace Theology Research Project. As a church, we continue struggling to offer an answer that has the theological weight Yoder taught us to demand of ourselves.

Surely, Yoder’s legacy does not lead us to turn away from immediate and pressing questions of justice, a point made by Alain Epp-Weaver’s piece comparing the work of Yoder and Edward Said, titled “On Exile,” and Willard Swartley’s examination of jubilee, titled “Smelting for Gold.”

As we continue reflecting on who Yoder is for us as (a) church, should we consider how impatient he could be with those who had allowed their minds to become tamed by asking easy questions?

Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Union Theological Seminary, New York