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Posted by on Nov 11, 2013 | 12 comments

The Underside of Nonresistance

I am new to the conversation of pacifism. It has always been an uncomfortable one for me to engage in—both because people tend to get heated in debate, and for this anonymous discomfort I always have felt in the pit of my stomach whenever conversations arise. But, alas, for the good and the bad, I am being faced head-on with the conversation of non-violence in my coursework this term.[1]

One of the conversation partners I have been engaged with is John Howard Yoder.[2] In his essay “Peace without Eschatology?” he expounds on his pacifism this way:

The church’s suffering, like the Master’s suffering, is the measure of the church’s obedience to the self-giving love of God. Nonresistance is right, in the deepest sense, not because it works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain… God’s love for us being right at the point where God permits sin again himself and against others, without crushing the rebel under his/her own rebellion. The word for this is divine patience, not complicity.[3]

By suffering in this way, Yoder argues that we are living into the eschatological reality rather than living as though Christ’s death and resurrection has not already occurred. Much of this essay is focused on the political realm of violence and nonresistance, but there are points along the way where Yoder makes clear that he is not only of corporate nonresistance, but also the personal—the two go together: “Personal survival is for the Christian not an end in itself; how much less national survival.”[4]

In another essay, where he is responding to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian ethics, he describes this kind of nonresistance as living in the reality of “what ought to be… what is in Christ.[5] Near the end of the essay, he writes: “Sin is vanquished every time a Christian in the power of God chooses the better instead of the good, obedience instead of necessity, love instead of compromise, brotherhood instead of veiled self-interest.”[6] Here again we see the personal day-to-day playing out of nonresistance. Patience in the face of suffering—rather than protection of self-interest and ultimate concern with personal survival—is what it means to live a life in the ought, a life in Christ.

In reading these articles that discomfort in my stomach, which for so long had sat dull and wordless, suddenly found its footing: nonresistance for me means nonresistance to the nature of being a woman in a broken world and this might mean, well, really horrible things.

Being that I am studying theology, a field dominated by men, within a program also dominated by (wonderful) men, I have had a keen sense of what it means to be a woman reading theology. There have been a number of points where my antenna has gone up and I have thought: “would a woman ever be so quick to assume this? or jump to that? Or be so concerned with this other thing?” This is not an issue of ontology (well it might be, but I am not going to get into that here. Eva, however, dealt with this  a bit here), but it is an issue of belonging to a system where the experiences of being male and being female are at times concretely different. For me, this particular conversation of nonresistance is one of them.[7] When I go out for a run around the Baylor campus, I get hollered at, men my father’s age slow down in pickup trucks and stare at me as though I was a creature in the zoo and I always run before the sun sets because I am aware of the dangers that lurk in the shadows at night. If I ever were to be cornered, fighting like hell may not get me out of the situation, but the thought that I should not even try makes me feel sick. What would it mean to choose the “better instead of the good” or “brotherhood instead of self-interest?” I am not sure what else Yoder’s nonresistance would look like in this situation other than to NOT RESIST being assaulted. Is that what it would mean to live in “what ought to be?” Does this exemplify what it means to suffer in anticipation of the triumph of Christ?

Maybe it does. Maybe I am missing something.

What I hope to ultimately propose here is that  it may, at least at times, be easier to make the kind of argument Yoder makes when you stand in a place of privilege, a place of power: when your standard position in society is not as victim, when in your mind you jump to protection of family or nation long before considering the real, ever-present reality of a violation to self.


[1] Luckily, I study with a group of people who are civil in their conversation.

[2] I am not going deal with his personal life in this article. I am sure in a different article bringing that discussion in would be helpful. In this one I think it may distract.

[3] John Howard Yoder, “Peace Without Eschatology?” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G Cartwright (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 151. Italics his.

[4] Yoder, “Peace,” 165.

[5] John Howard Yoder, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 29 (April 1955): 113. Italics his.

[6] Yoder, “Reinhold,” 116.

[7] I know there are women pacifists. I did a search around for women speaking to this point and couldn’t find anything—but I know there is stuff out there. If YOU know what I should be reading, please leave it in the comments. Thanks.

photo credit: Pensiero via photopin cc

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Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • MDM

    I see and respect your second footnote.
    But still…
    In a world where even political and Hollywood careers can be irreversibly damaged by scandal, it’s a wonder of wonders that a man who who didn’t give a **** about the shalom of countless women can be taken seriously as an authority on non-violence.

    • MDM,
      And alas the “but still…” Clearly many people have much to say on your point (and helpful things at that). My point, however, is related to the fact that some sort Yoder’s presentation is shared by a number of prominent Christian ethicists. Thus, my main argument stands (one that rkrohn gets right in her comment). And I would really NOT want to deflect from this point by making this into a neighboring, yet different conversation.
      Fair enough?

      • MDM

        I guess I should’ve just left it with “I see your footnote.” 😉

        I agree – your main argument is 100% valid. No argument there. I just question whether it’s actually possible to consign Yoder’s acts of violence to a “neighbouring conversation” given the implications of his position. You could say it might distract, but it also might illuminate or at least humanize.

        I once took a class where Yoder figured heavily into the course material. It wasn’t until the end of the term that the Prof let us know about Yoder’s offenses; he didn’t want it to “distract” us from hearing Yoder’s arguments. Many of us felt a peculiar sense of betrayal and deception. It’s really caused me to think about what it means to do theology as a human embedded in body, time, fallenness, etc.

        Sorry for the uninvited hijack 🙂

      • LA Green

        It makes sense to deal with the ideas, not the man…. but there is always a suspicion. As someone in love with Heidegger’s work, I can’t help but shake my head at his social failures.
        But this bracketing often proves necessary…

  • rkrohn

    Really good post Rachel, thank you. I love the idea of not resisting “the nature of being a woman” – I will be thinking on that for a while. As I raise my children full-time, I often find myself having to resist demeaning thoughts about what it means to be a “stay-at-home-mom”. Until I became a full-time disciple-er of my children, I did not realize how much I had unconsciously adopted the non-value our culture still puts on this role in society.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say “that it may, at least at times, be easier to make the kind of argument Yoder makes when you stand in a place of privilege, a place of power: when your standard position in society is not as victim, when in your mind you jump to protection of family or nation long before considering the real, ever-present reality of a violation to self.” It is easy to hold a pacifist position if one never encounters any physical danger. The idea of not resisting an assault not only scares me on an emotional level, it seems wrong to me on a spiritual level. If assault or rape is a sin, then I think it follows that NOT resisting assault or rape is also sin. I think the concept of “appropriate force” is helpful here. If, (God forbid), someone attempted to sexually assault me, I hope that I would be able to extract myself from the situation. If I managed to knock my assaulter unconscious in self-defense, I don’t see that as morally problematic. What would be morally problematic, however, would be me acting in revenge by causing more harm than necessary once the assaulter was incapacitated.

    I recently listened to Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West’s Oct 31 discussion of pacifism and non-violence with Peter Gelderloos, author of “The Failure of Nonviolence”. It’s worth listening to, especially if you want to reflect further on the role non-violence plays in systemic violence (you can search “Smiley & West” on iTunes).

    Thanks again for a great post.

  • You make some good points and raise some legitimate concerns here, Rachel. Posts like this remind me why I’m skeptical of “arguments for pacifism,” in the same way that Cora Diamond and J.M. Coetzee seem skeptical about “arguments for veganism” (despite being vegans, so far as I can tell). Yes, arguments (including those by Yoder) helped cement my shift from nationalism to pacifism (of course there are many degrees in between!), but the shift probably ultimately took place at an affective place first. (How do you ARGUE that Christians don’t kill other human beings? It seems like something you either see or don’t. And I know that sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way.) I also agree that much thought needs to be put into the social location of those making arguments for pacifism. It currently does feel like a white male dominated discipline. Then again, historically, the pacifist martyrs from the early church, the radical reformation, the black community, India, etc., were not in positions of power and privilege (or perhaps some were and some weren’t and some were with respect to some but not others, etc.). So, the questions of social location and power dynamics are tricky indeed. Regarding women writing on the topic, see Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, “Freedom of the Cross: John Howard Yoder and Womanist Theologies in Conversation” in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, ed. Jeremy Bergen and Anthony Siegrist (Herald, 2009); C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, “Isn’t Pacifism Passive?”; Amy Laura Hall and Kara Slade, “What Would You Do if Someone Were Attacking a Loved One”; and Ingrid E. Lilly, “What about War and Violence in the Old Testament”, all in A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence, ed. Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer (Cascade, 2012). (I have both of these books if you are interested in borrowing them.) Finally, I would caution the “violence vs. do nothing” dichotomy, as it seems to leave out a lot of alternatives, such as carrying Mace when you jog, etc. That’s not really an argument but just an observation about certain nonviolent alternatives, although admittedly there’s nothing one can do to protect oneself from all the dangers in the world, I’m afraid.

    • Thanks DC. I knew you would bring some resources 🙂

      I do agree with the false dichotomy, but I guess with the small, small bit I have read from Yoder it is hard for me to see the real middle ground. Isn’t my carrying mace still me putting myself over my brother? Isn’t it still ultimately an indication of my own self-interest? Does this make sense?

      • Yeah, some people have read Yoder that way (I know, for example, that Dr. Martens has read Yoder’s Jesus as an example of complete self-negation, but, ironically, I think that’s more Reinhold Niebuhr’s Jesus than Yoder’s), but I think if you read his little book, What Would You Do?, you’d find that his main concern is with guarding the physical integrity of one’s enemy, which might include nonviolent resistance (like Mace). Yoder’s main argument in that book, as well as elsewhere, is against arming oneself and planning to use potentially lethal violence against an attacker. I know there’s not a hard-and-fast line between forms of resistance, but I think somewhere in the balk park of shedding blood or otherwise harming the attacker would be his concern.

      • Robyn Boeré

        I’m not sure I understand this ‘ballpark of shedding blood’ as being a sort of line in terms of appropriate resistance. This is my problem with the concept of nonviolent resistance, I suppose. Running away is probably nonviolent. But mace causes harm to the attacker. It’s distinctly painful; and designed as such. What is the difference between mace and a well-placed karate chop to the neck? Or a kick in the groin? The problem is: once you start allowing resistance, where do you draw the line? If you draw the line at nonviolent, then you have to be truly nonviolent. That leaves the options of running away, and… I’m not sure what else. It seems like a nice concession to say: ‘well, you can use mace’. Or, ‘as long as you don’t shed blood, that is okay’. But it isn’t. Once you make those concessions, you allow for violent resistance. And, as far as I can tell, there is no place for that in Yoder’s thought. So Rachel’s concerns still stand.

      • Robyn,

        Thanks for the push back. You are right that there is no clear “line” between nonviolent and violent forms of resistance. But it doesn’t follow that there are no important differences and that violent resistances cannot be distinguished as such. (This is called the “argument from the beard”: just because there’s no clear line between clean shaven, five o’clock shadow, and proper beard, it does not follow that we cannot recognize a beard when we see it.) Yoder clearly allows–in multiple places–for forms of nonviolent resistance. He is not against all forms of physical force and coercion. His concern is with respecting the (physical) integrity of the attacker/enemy, which, minimally, means not killing them and probably means not shedding blood. (Thus, the whole thrust of his book, What Would You Do?, is that you shouldn’t prepare for lethal violence by owning a gun or other lethal weapon for the purpose of self-protection.) In the short and often overlooked chapter 5 of Politics of Jesus, appropriately titled, “The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance” (89-92), Yoder specifically addresses the question suggested by the title, concluding that his argument suffices “to negate the sweeping assumption that in rejecting the Zealot option Jesus’ only other conceivable alternative would have been the end of the world or a retreat to the desert; in other words, to reject the responsible sword is to withdraw from history” (92). Clearly, then, Yoder’s pacifism is not simply a “retreat” or “withdraw” but includes forms of active (nonviolent) resistance. And, while there is indeed no clear “line,” I think such resistance could include things like Mace and defensive martial arts (both of which maintain physical integrity and allow for reconciliation), while not including things like knifing and shooting.

      • BobTrent

        Any physical resistance has the potential of bodily harm or death to the person upon whom it is inflicted. Pepper spray has been known to cause one to fall or to attempt to escape and thereby be injured.

      • Nate Lee

        I think it’d be worth trying to separate the Yoder question from the nonviolence question a bit too. That is, not all forms of nonviolence are equal. I tend to think the danger for that dichotomy is there as long as your pacifism is individualistic, voluntaristic (etc.) as it was with Yoder. This is (one of) the genuine improvements I think we get with Hauerwas. Hauerwas also has a little street cred here (at least if we can trust the narrative in his memoir) in that he was himself the subject of an abusive relationship.