NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Mennonites today are viewed as more than an antiquated sect, and the Anabaptist peace witness is seen by a global audience, due in part to the influence of John Howard Yoder.
So believes a group of Yoder’s students, friends and colleagues, who gathered for a conference on the late theologian’s legacy at the University of Notre Dame, March 7-9.
The conference, attended by about 300 people, drew on a diverse group of nearly 40 academic and theological voices, from a spectrum of Anabaptist and Roman Catholic thinkers, to Duke Divinity School ethicist Stanley Hauerwas.
Perhaps best-known for his 1972 book, The Politics of Jesus, Yoder was a teacher for more than 30 years at Notre Dame and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary at Elkhart.
A fearless spokesman for a bold gospel of peace, ecumenism and radical discipleship, Yoder forged ties with a broad array of Christian groups. Yoder died unexpectedly at Notre Dame in 1997, at age 70.
The tribute and assessment of Yoder’s work as a thinker, peace activist and evangelical ecumenist was the focus of the 14th Believers Church Conference, organized by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at AMBS and sponsored in part by the Joan Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame.
Mark Thiessen Nation of the London Mennonite Centre, a longtime Yoder student, said his mentor “was largely responsible for putting Mennonites on the theological map at the end of the 20th century and now at the beginning of the 21st century. . . . The name John Yoder is largely synonymous with what it is to be Mennonite.”
Nation gave an overview of the education and influences that shaped Yoder’s early thinking, from his days at Goshen College under the influence of Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger to his later studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and his peace work in France with Mennonite Central Committee.
Nation said Yoder’s complex and many-sided theology drew on classical Anabaptist ethics and tempered them with a distinctive evangelical sense, as well as a global, encompassing view of the body of Christ.
This fresh brand of theology, Nation said, led to Yoder sometimes enduring “a love-hate relationship with the Mennonite church,” which Yoder hoped would become more radical and genuinely Anabaptist as it encountered and addressed the social storms of the 20th century.
“The Mennonite church did not know what to do with John Yoder,” Nation said, “nor did John always know what to do with the church.”
Still, Nation said, Yoder submitted himself to the church’s authority and influence throughout his life, including a well-publicized period of church discipline that began in 1992, amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Nation also pointed to Yoder’s evangelical side, rooted in his mission-minded Mennonite forebears and the church where he was raised in northern Ohio. During his college days, Yoder sometimes went door-to-door among Elkhart’s poorest residents, evangelizing, counseling and praying with those he met. “This world taught him not to be afraid of the gospel,” Nation said. At the same time, “he was also critical of the evangelical world and as an adult did not feel himself fully a part of it.”
Nation also examined Yoder’s ties to Notre Dame and to Roman Catholic theologians of the 1960s and ’70s, when the Catholic Church underwent a vast range of radical changes and reforms.
Yoder “felt considerable distance in some ways from Roman Catholic theology,” Nation said, and “his ecumenical sensibilities prevented him from pressing his own views upon them.”
Yet his drive to find a global theology that applied to the entire church of Christ resonated in many ways with trends in contemporary Catholic circles. “He sought to be broadly ‘catholic’ and ecumenical,” Nation said, “studying other Christian traditions and engaging them. . . . One of John Yoder’s theological passions was his devotion to the church universal.”
Nation said Yoder’s “profound and sometimes transformative influence” continues to shape the lives and ideas of many not only in the Mennonite church but other denominations.
“The theological legacy of John Howard Yoder is bequeathed to us,” Nation said – “the ongoing call to embody the politics of Jesus.”
Many at the conference said Yoder’s inspiring influence on his students and others in the church had done much to chart the future of Anabaptism.
John Paul Lederach, a professor at Notre Dame and Eastern Mennonite University at Harrisonburg, Va., said he had been deeply influenced by Yoder, despite never having been his student. Instead, Yoder’s books, friendship and letters helped shape Lederach’s thinking, and ultimately his work as a global conciliation and mediation expert.
“In Yoder I found an example of a faithful but nonsectarian Mennonite,” Lederach said.
Reading The Politics of Jesus and Yoder’s 1971 volume Nevertheless while a freshman at Hesston (Kan.) College, Lederach saw Yoder as a courageous if pragmatic visionary who glimpsed boundless hope and possibility in the church’s messianic charter.
“I think I have given away more copies of The Politics of Jesus than I have of my own books,” Lederach said. “Whenever I am asked what do Mennonites believe, I ask, ‘Have you read The Politics of Jesus?'”
Yoder’s books taught him that “it is possible to be in dialogue with a number of positions” simultaneously, Lederach said. “His seminal thoughts were the shoulders on which I stood. . . . Yoder’s work stood at the rising base of a new generation of Anabaptists.”
Though Yoder’s theology has been widely acclaimed, it remains complex and occasionally obscure.
Marion Deckert, professor of philosophy at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., discussed some of the paradoxes and puzzles in Yoder’s theology. His presentation was typical of most, dealing with important but often esoteric issues of theology or linguistics.
“I have problems with his terminology,” Deckert said amid a spirited discussion with other conference participants. “I don’t have problems with his thought. I’m a Yoderian.”
Among the other programs presented were:
* Duane Friesen of Bethel College, speaking on “Yoder and the Jews: Cosmopolitan Homelessness as Ecclesial Model.”
* J. Denny Weaver of Bluffton (Ohio) College, addressing “The Taming of John Howard Yoder’s Legacy.”
* Thomas Heilke of the University of Kansas at Lawrence, speaking on Yoder’s theology and how it differed from that of prominent Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr.
Throughout the conference, nearly 40 papers were delivered and discussed. One event, however, drew the attention of most, if not all, of the conference participants, and even sparked mild dissent among a few.
On March 8, an open group discussion addressed Yoder’s sexual misconduct and how it was dealt with by church authorities and others.
Gayle Gerber Koontz of AMBS outlined the accusations against Yoder, and his subsequent church discipline, which lasted from 1992 to 1996. Michael Baxter of Notre Dame then spoke of the lessons to be learned from the handling of Yoder’s case, which at times even attracted media attention.
Though Yoder had been an important guide for Baxter, and the charges against him were troubling, Baxter said he was encouraged by the process of Yoder’s discipline, and contrasted it with current allegations of sexual abuse involving Catholic priests.
“Would that my community, the Catholic Church, would be so humble,” Baxter said. “Here were the Mennonites once again taking up Christian discipleship with authenticity and honesty.”
A group of about 10 conference participants, chose not to attend the session but did not lodge any formal protest of the discussion.
They said Yoder’s discipline was a closed church matter and that an academic conference was not the appropriate place to raise those issues again.
This story was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.