There appears to be no argument in the arena of Christian peace and non-violent studies left untouched by this very important work, but one can only imagine the concerns faced by the editors in determining just what kind of vehicle to employ in delivering John Howard Yoder’s final work. Clearly, leaving this material un-compiled and unpublished was not an option. The reader would be well-served to know in advance that some material flows like the chapters of a cohesive book; other material the editors determined to leave in more original form. This includes reviews or responses to the works of other rising theorists in the field and addresses to scholarly bodies. The resulting compilation is not carried by a single overt argument, but it is possible to discern Yoder’s lifelong effort to engage nonviolent studies with the so-called pragmatism of Just War theorists. With these base understandings in mind, the book is best read for its series of highlights which should inform peace studies for the next generation.
Among the theorists that Yoder brings into dialogue are the Niebuhrs, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., René Girard, and others. Beyond crossing theoretical lines, Yoder is comfortable in conversation with numerous religious denominations, while retaining his own Barthian grounding in the lordship of Christ as an influence on all aspects of life. He describes the Church as a “community dedicated to a deviant value system,” which gives it transformative power (13). He points out that this capacity requires the negation of a “two-kingdom dualism” separating the religious from the secular (18). Such a dualism is what allows for Just War Theory. He links this with a consequentialist philosophy which situates morality in support of a workable society rather than more absolute principles. In his study of Gandhi and King’s political action he noted that these individuals were successful simply because they did not allow the ends to justify the means, as a cosequentialist approach could.
In contrast to the stereo-typical, “why can’t we just get along,” crowd, Yoder is well aware of the conflictual nature of the human being. He acknowledges Girard’s findings about the “destructive reflexes” and “retributive impulses” that shape human reaction to violence (30). He also identifies violence as an evil which demands a response, but his point is that a violent response to violence continues the chain of evil. In place of retaliation he offers non-violent, non-retaliatory conflict resolution, which is clearly not conflict avoiding passivity. This is an area where he counters the two-kingdom dualism with an alternative pragmatism that he is able to anchor in numerous religious traditions, in part through a focused exegesis of the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures. His alternative pragmatism is supported by a very coherent explication of conflict, its causes, and the traits needed to overcome it. He also delineates a series of counter options to military violence, knowing that the final trigger to engage in a “just war” is that violence must be a last resort. If other options are made available, they must be explored. His willingness to enter conversation with Just War Theory is founded on the notion that both this theory and his own non-violent response determine violence to be an evil. Where he diverges is the notion that an evil can ever justifiably be overcome by another evil. On this point he is challenged by the claim that non-violent, non-passive responses are still coercive. He responds fairly well to this tough issue, but still leaves it somewhat unresolved. One would wonder if coercion could ever be a non-evil? In any instance the form he advocates is not a direct confrontation with the evil of violence. Instead, he finds, from Tolstoy, that evil must be challenged by embracing suffering. This is the only way to break the chain of violence and the least autonomously coercive, it appears.
Knowing the compiled nature of this volume, it is still thoroughly valuable as a course text book in a graduate or upper level peace studies course. Because it touches on so many arguments, a course could be shaped around it, although creatively. Anyone interested in peace studies should read this with care and enable the conversation with Yoder to long outlive the author. His discussions with Catholic colleagues at Notre Dame are evident in the shaping of some of his thought. This makes the work even more significant to the Catholic reader. There are numerous points throughout which parallel John Paul II’s personalist philosophy. This is also an area which Yoder has opened up to further study, the cross-connection between personalism and non-violence. Throughout this collection of writings, his is one of the most intellectually rigorous and incisive minds to take up the topic of violence since St. Augustine.