I have been, for several years now, a serious student of John Howard Yoder. Yoder represents a strand of religious and social thought that has its roots in Anabaptist theology. He is a very strong apologist for Christian Non-Violence and a dissident form of Christian Pacifism. I think my obsession with Yoder has been rooted in my own personal struggle with violence, my own tendency toward violent reactions, and my disdain for religious endorsement of widespread war. This doesn’t mean that I subscribe to Yoder fully, or that I am myself a vocal advocate of Anabaptist Pacifism; only that my seeking and spiritual thirst lands me in the arena of violence and what Christian responses are. I take it very seriously, and I would like to think I am less violent because of Yoder’s influence in my life.
But, as difficult as it may be, I would like to detach Yoder from the argument about justifiable war and non-violence for a moment. I want to explore something else, that doesn’t necessarily lead us to debates about violence and warfare. That is Yoder’s “5 Ways” that he outlines in his foundational book “The Original Revolution”.
Yoder, is obviously interested in taking us straight into a theology of nonviolence from these “5 Ways”, but I am more interested in what these 5 Ways say about how we engage the world as Christians in a more general sense (not in the particular sense of violence).
Here is the basis of Yoder’s argument. He says that Jesus is confronted, as he sets out to launch his public ministry and career, with 4 religious options for pressing for change in the world. Here are the 4 (the 5th option coming in the person of Jesus himself and the ministry he embodied):
#1: The Herodian (and Sadducee) Option: One way to begin, which was open to Jesus as it is today, was that of realism; to begin by accepting the situation as it really was. The Romans were in control of Palestine; any hope for change must begin with that reality. A brand new start is not an available option; we must save what we can by aiming at what is possible. This was in Jesus’ age the strategy of the Sadducees and Herodians. These were not, as a superficial reading of the Gospel narrative might make one think, a nasty and scheming people; they were intelligent leaders following a responsible strategy. Their concern was to do the best one could in the situation. Their rationale was simple and honest; one could not change the fact of Roman rule whether one desired to do so or not. “Let us then save what we can by aiming at what is possible.” But for Jesus, the strategy of “infiltrating the establishment” (and relying on its power for change) was not a temptation at all. Of the four available options, it was the only one which never could have come to His mind. This party was against Him from the beginning… (Yoder; O.R. pg.19-21)
This ‘realist’ strand of thought is indeed the most popular way contemporary Christians choose to engage the world for change. Many of us, if not in theory or theology, then certainly in practice, believe that getting the right man in office, or getting our hands on the mantle of power, is the way we change the world. It has not occurred to us yet, through a misreading of the gospels, that the entire social order (no matter which country is in question) has been called into subjection to the reign of an entirely different King with an entirely different sort of Kingdom.
#2: The Zealot Option: The clearest alternative to the establishment path (Herodian/Sadducee path) was that or righteous revolutionary violence. It was presented in Jesus’ time by the underground political and military group called the Zealots, men in the heritage of Joshua and the Maccabees, for whom the ‘zeal of the Lord’ was to express itself and holy warfare against the infidel Romans. The Romans (the world) understood no other language than that of force; no other means can be effective than a response to them in their own kind. The Zealot option represented a real possibility, in fact, a real temptation for Jesus. It was this possibility to which He was drawn in His debate with the tempter in the desert at His baptism, and again at His trial in Gethsemane. More of his disciples came from the Zealot group than from any other part of Palestinian society, and their expectations were clearly along this line. he was perceived by some of His followers, and by the Herodians and Sadducees,as the nearest thing to a Zealot, and executed by the Romans on that grounds that He was one. He used their language, took sides with the poor as they did, condemned the same evils they did, created a disciplined community of followers as they did, prepared as they did to die for divine cause. (Yoder, O.R., pg. 21-23).
Yet Jesus did not take the path of the Zealots. He rejected their path because the sort of Reign that he was ushering into the world did not effect change or bring transformation by top-down societal reform, or by merely replacing leaders. The problem with reforming the world with violence is not that it changes too much, but that it changes too little, and it changes the wrong things.
#3: The Essene Option: A third logical possibility available to Jesus was the desert. He could withdraw from the tension and the conflicts of the urban center where government and commerce constantly polluted even the most well-intentioned son of the law, seeking to find a place where He could be pure and faithful.
Jesus was probably raised, if not heavily influenced, by some vision of Essene withdrawal and faithfulness. There can be little doubt that the Essene’s have left us a beautiful gift in their writings and especially in their ordering of a worship life for spiritually shaped life with God. But Jesus did not accept this option because it is not finally love. Love must engage at the risk of being hurt, abandoned, and rejected. Love engages the world, it does not escape it.
#4: The Pharisee Option: There is yet a fourth possibility which, like the first, lay close to the path of Jesus. This was the option of “proper religion,” represented in His society by the Pharisees. The Pharisees lived in the midst of urban society, yet they sought, like the desert sects (Essenes), to keep themselves pure and separate. “Pharisee” means “separate.” They kept themselves pure in the midst of the city by keeping rules of segregation. Certain areas of life where to be avoided; certain elements of culture are not for the Pharisee. Certain coins, certain crops, certain persons, certain occupations, certain days were taboo.
Jesus rejected this option as well. He found it wanting, not because it was so demanding, so exacting, so burdensome, so morally lofty; but because it was so inept and ineffective to bring about any real change. For a full picture of what Jesus saw was lacking in the way of the Pharisee, see Matthew 23.
The One: The option remaining for change is the way of the Cross. John Howard Yoder called it the Way of Non-Violent Revolution. It does not partner with the world to see what it can get done (Like the Herodians or Sadducees). Rather, it names what is not working. It does not violently overthrow the world. Rather, it serves the world with suffering love. It does not retreat from the world. It enters the world and bears its inequities. It does not condemn the world. It dies for the world. It is the Way of the Cross.
Who, like God, will give their life away? This is the One Way.