John Howard Yoder on The Church as Witness to Peace

The Trump regime has brought us to the brink of disastrous war.  Facing this crisis, will we as a religious community give witness to peace?  The following address is as timely and  challenging today as it was when first presented by John Howard Yoder in 1984. The text is transcribed from Yoder’s James Luther Adams Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in Columbus, Ohio.  Yoder (1927-1997), held professorships at the University of Notre Dame and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  Author of The Politics of Jesus (1971) and other works, he exemplifies the radical wing of Christian evangelicalism praised by Jim Adams (see “Liberals and Evangelicals,” An Examined Faith [1991)].

“The Church as Witness to Peace”

by John Howard Yoder

Close to the center of the bundle of the many many strands of the omnivorous erudition of James Luther Adams, in whose honor it is my privilege to address you, is the power and the promise of voluntary associations within a free society—or even within an unfree society.

In an époque in which real social freedoms are put to constantly new tests, and the word “freedom” is claimed as battle-flag for the most diverse and unholy causes, it is especially fitting that we be called: to consider how the community of faith—not as hierarchy or as bureaucracy but as body, as voluntary association—can be a witness to peace.

To be witness is to make a statement.  How then can a body of people make a statement?  The simplest answer is to quote some of the best-known words of Jesus:

“You are the light of the world.”  “A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.”  “You light must shine in the sight of others, so that, seeing your good work they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”

By definition a witness—as different from many other social functions—is not self-authenticating.  To be a witness is to point beyond oneself, to some fact or event that one has seen or herd.  To “attest” has an object beyond oneself, which one is not free to change; which one did not create.

Thus the “peace” of which we are speaking here is not a peace we can make.  It is not first a product of our skill or wisdom in negotiating or manipulating—although such activities will follow, and such qualities will be needed.  The peace we are called to attest is already there; it is a given, it has been given.  Precisely because it is not of our own making, our pointing to it is an act of humility, not of presumption.

In what sense is peace “already there”?  One answer is found in the same text where Jesus spoke of the church as a hilltop city.  He had said a few lines earlier that the makers of peace are blessed in that they are God’s children.  He says again a page later that the way in which they are God’s children is that they love their enemies—whereas other people tend to love only their friends—and that God too loves without distinction.  “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” is not Hebrew hyperbole or an impossible demand.  It is a call to let one aspect of the disciples’ behavior be a reflection—an attestation—of God’s character, namely that the Heavenly Father loves every creature alike.  By loving the enemy, by turning the other cheek, we say something about God.   That is an important deepening of what we usually call ethics.  At the outset we think of ethics as guided by rules; right action is that which conforms to prescription.  Rules are needed for societies; yet when moral reasoning is no deeper than that, it tempts us to look for loopholes and to twist the words in our favor.  At other times we think of moral choice as validated by results.  Ends justify means; the good act produces good results.  This kind of reasoning is also needed for societies; but taken alone it tempts us to be manipulative.  We deceive ourselves about our own wisdom and generosity, especially when we claim the authority to rule over others for the good of the whole.  Nowhere is this danger more blatant than in the justifications given for war.

Yet another mode of moral discourse seeks to let the self be the guide; do what is right for your conscience; do what you feel comfortable with.  This modern view is sometimes needed for therapy.  It does not serve society, and ultimately it leaves the individual dangling between conflicting pictures of who she or he “really wants to be.”

Thus, it makes more difference than we may have noticed at first that Jesus’ mode of moral reasoning is none of the above: not rules, not ends, not self.  “Behave in such a way”—he says—“that people may see what God is like.”  Let your deeds bear witness to the enemy-loving nature of your heavenly Father.

(In our age of concern for the gender biases of our language, we note that what Jesus says about the heavenly Father, as marked by non-discriminating  compassion might elsewhere more appropriately be said of a mother.  For present purposes I stay by the usage of the Gospel text; but the dissonance must be noted.)

There is another way in which the peace we attest to is before and beyond us.  It is said in a very different part of the New Testament: Christ is our peace, the author of Ephesians says, because he made peace between two peoples, two societies, two cultures, two religions, two stories.  Jewishness as a society and a story, rooted in centuries of religious and moral culture, has been reconciled with Anatolian Hellenistic urban, pagan society, with its many confused stories.  That peace has already been made.  The Christians at Ephesus are not supposed to achieve it or to negotiate it. They are to appropriate for themselves a possibility that is already there.  It is already there because it is the effect of the Cross of Christ.

It is not easy to explain how in the author’s view the death of Christ worked that reconciliation and thus created a new humanity.  I shall not attempt to explain how that works, or worked.  Nonetheless the statement stands.  The Church witnesses to a peace already made, and the mode of that witness is the concrete social interaction of different kinds of people in Corinth or in Ephesus; people of Jewish and non-Jewish background who learn so to accept one another that they can pray together and eat together.  Not always is the trans-cultural unity of the Church seen that deeply, or given that weight.  Often, in fact, especially in our North American pluralism, the church becomes a special bulwark of ethnic distinctiveness, a witness against rather than for the trans-cultural reconciliation that the Cross was supposed to mean.

A second constitutive dimension of the function of the witness is the context of contestation.  The facts are objects of debate.  Often witnesses testify to contradictory truths.  Opposing attorneys may challenge the witness’s right to speak; a judge must rule on whether he can be heard.  The jeopardy involved in testifying is a familiar part of our federal justice system, whereby past or future witnesses in gangland prosecution are given new identities.

It is the same sense of the witness being at risk which brought into our language the Greek word for witness with the meaning of victim or martyr.  To witness is to tell the truth at cost to oneself.  The truth-finding enterprise of the tribunal before which the witness is summoned constitutes real jeopardy.  In Hebrew law the penalty for perjury was the same as for the crime of which the defendant was accused.  In Hellenistic or Roman courts where the juxtaposition of “witness” and “martyr” arose, the judge could be expected to be hostile, and the witness easily became implicated in the accused offense.

What would it mean if in consideration of this original meaning of my assigned topic were “The Church as Martyr for Peace”?  Such a phrase sounds ludicrously out of proportion to the scale on which our understanding and our commitment have to be measured: yet it may be better to name the goal we are falling far short of, than to lower our sights to some target less out of reach but also less faithful.

There are times when certain elements of a witness against military madness may coincide with the reasonable self-interest of a national elite.  In a society that tolerates loyal oppositions, one may then favor peace without sacrificing much.  In the times and places where it really maters, however, the cost is real.  It has in the past meant loss of livelihood, prison, exile, or death, and it can cost that again.  A national establishment readying itself to destroy life in enemy cities should not be expected, in critical times, to be patient with internal dissent.  Long ago Jesus warned his listeners that the cost of following him would be social dislocation, broken family bonds, and a fate like his.

That degree of commitment, that level of counter-cultural faithfulness has as well a conceptual component.  It presupposes a certain concept of God.  The God of the martyr must be real, and must stand above the system within which we struggle.  For some of us, “God” is a code word for our own best value insights.  Whatever consensus a civilization can feel about the good and the true is called “God”; such ideas, as the cultural anthropologist may describe them, may be more the product than the cause of religious experience.

By the nature of the case, such an “established” God is unlikely to inspire or to demand martyrdom.  He or she satisfies the community’s power interests and helps them against their enemies. It is unlikely if not impossible to sustain a stance of resistance without lively internal structures to inculcate, to celebrate, to renew, and with time to modify the shared counter-cultural values.  A church preparing for costly witness cannot be a mere mailing list or an audience gathered by a quality program.  There must be persons whose lives and commitments interlock all across the week’s agenda of concrete concerns.

The first Unitarian church was Anabaptist.  Membership in the Christian cause was seen as properly a matter of adult decision and commitment, implying as it did then a costly personal witness.  Only a volunteer church can expect of its members that they be ready for costly witness.

The God of Jesus, on the other had, transcends all peoples and systems.  That is what ratifies in every culture the reach beyond it; namely, God’s advocacy of the interests of the outsider and the underdog.  Functionally described, “God” defends the dignity of our enemies and victims, not our own.

There is therefore a more-than-pragmatic ground for the church’s peace witness. Downgrading military preparedness and upgrading international cultural exchange is good for the economy and for mental health, but that is not why it is right.  It is right because the holy transcendent God loves his enemies and enables us to love ours.

Counter-cultural heroics may meet the masochistic needs of some children of comfortable families, but that does not make opposition itself either right or wrong.  What makes suffering morally mandatory is its becoming, in one time and place, the price of participation in Christ’s peacemaking mission, in a world where ruling powers persist in destroying their opposition.

My last formal note is a platitude.  Only peace can witness to peace.  The church that witnesses to the peace made by Christ in the past and to the reconciliation intended by God for the future must be a peace church, a community living reconciliation now.  The first Unitarian churches were pacifist, in a day when wars between one barony and the next were as routine as today in Central America.  Abraham J. Muste is widely credited with the authorship of the dictum: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”  Muste himself said he heard it from a veteran of the nonviolent wing of the French resistance, one Dr. Schwarz.

There you have it; an analysis as formal and as abstract as I could make it.  The phenomenon of testimony demands:

  • A God transcending the system as many Gods do not;
  • A God who makes peace, loves enemies as many Gods do not;
  • A community distinct in both values and structure from the dominant society, as many churches do not;
  • The objective reality of Peace as gift and as given, to which the witness attests;
  • Suffering as the (possible) price of fidelity.

Now permit me if you will to put meat on the bones of that outline by unfolding the message of one of the most familiar words of the Hebrew prophets.  Here too there is a city on a hilltop.  Here too there is an act of God demanding attestation:

“In those days to come the mountain of the Temple of Yahweh will be put on top of the mountains and be lifted higher than the hills.  The peoples will stream to it, nations without number will come to it; and they will say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths; since from Zion the Law will go out, and the oracle of Yahweh from Jerusalem.’  He will wield authority over many peoples and arbitrate for mighty nations; they will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles.  Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.  Each man will sit under his vine and his fig tree, with no one to trouble him.  The mouth of Yahweh Sabaoth has spoken.”  (Micah 4: 1-4, Jerusalem Bible)

The reader is struck by the sociological seriousness of it all.  Apart from the initial geological miracle, which raises the Temple Mount of Jerusalem above the higher hills that surround it today, all that follows is humanly, socially normal.

The nations need and want to learn.  The phrase “let us go up” is the language of pilgrimage, yet they do not go to observe the temple ritual or revere the bones of prophets.  They go to learn the Law of Yahweh.  Peace must be learned.  It is not something we already possess by nature or by intuition.  We need to be told.  The other nations need to learn it from the children of Israel, who themselves had had to learn it before.  There is no miracle of motivation whereby, with a change of heart, the details will take care of themselves.

How is making peace to be learned?  There are ancient disciplines like political science and law, and new ones like peace studies.  There are old arts like diplomacy and new specializations like conflict resolution.  One of the profound weaknesses of the opponents of the militarization of our culture is the temptation to think that since peace is normative, normalcy, it ought to come naturally, without effort.  Even the ancient prophetic vision did not make that mistake.  War does not come naturally: it too needs to be learned.  Equipment must be created which has no other use.  Shells must be created, which do not belong in ordinary life.  At the very end of the prophecy it is said that the nations will study war no more.  But first they needed to come to learn the ways of Yahweh.  So first of all peace is education.

Secondly, peace calls for adjudication.  History does not end, and the nations do not stay at Jerusalem.  National identity does not end, nor do conflicts.  But there is a new resource: a court of international justice.  This is no world government, with a parliament and armies, which imposes its imperial peace; it is a world court, to which the nations freely come, as they had freely come before.  The oracles of Yahweh which resolve their clashes are accepted without enforcement.

Few prophetic pictures have stuck in our minds so firmly as the transformation of swords into plowshares.  Already, then, the making of peace meant technological change.  The smelter and the smith move from arming to farming.  Plowshares are not easier to make the swords; they must keep their edge longer.  Just as today the armament industry is the least competitive and efficient, even apart from the economic uselessness of its products, so the prophet’s vision was not cultural primitivism but progress.

A further economic component of peace is described: every person will have his own productive plot of land; everyone can sit unafraid under his own vine and fig tree.   This is not capitalism, in which some person owns the means of livelihood of others; nor is it state socialism.  It is an economy of jubilee, according to the Mosaic vision of starting the economy over again ever every fifty years, which Jesus renewed in the Nazareth platform proclamation at the beginning of his ministry.

To all of this poetic concreteness there is added one brief description of mood: “There will be no more fear.”  Fear is obviously both the cause and the effect of the culture of war.  The prophet does not help us to speculate about the precise point where the vicious circle is broken.  Does economic justice remove the reason to fear and then the technology changes?  Or is it the other way around?  Does it matter?  Or can grace break into the circle at any point?

Thus the prophet’s vision of the making of peace is concrete and translatable.  Ripples of cultural transformation are to roll outward from Jerusalem once the nations have come to learn Yahweh’s law and submit to His mediation.  But what is it that draws them?  They are not dragged in as captives by triumphant armies, as in Psalm 68, or by the reputation of a great king like Solomon for wisdom and pomp.  Not technical or trade missions, not travel agencies or university exchanges.  What brings the nations in is that Yahweh has renewed Jerusalem.  That one component of the prophetic vision is hardly translatable into our terms.  To raise the Temple Mount above all the other hills seems to be a geological miracle.  At the other end of the Bible, [Revelation], the miracle is aeronautical: the New Jerusalem is brought down from heaven.

This is the point where Jesus’ adoption of the hilltop city vision brings it back into touch with historical reality.  The difference is that, here, the law and the prophets will be fulfilled.  “Fulfillment” means the clarification of the demand and promises of the Law which Jesus as teacher goes on to provide.  “Fulfillment” means the real accomplishment of those demands and promises in the very human, social career on which Jesus is about to embark, including the style of nonviolent revolutionary leadership which led religious and civil authorities to conspire in his death, including the events of Easter and Pentecost which made of his followers a disciplined subversive community.  “Fulfillment” means the annunciation of the Rule of God as imminent, as beginning to break into human affairs in ways that previous ages had foreseen but never seen.  In other words—those of my assigned topic—“fulfillment” means that the believing community is now qualified as witness.  Peace is now a reality, beyond but also within the community’s life. Truth telling, sexual integrity and love of neighbor are radicalized and enabled.  Their life draws attention not to their own virtues or privileges but to the divine power which had made this fulfillment possible.

Let us not claim an exclusivity.  There may well be other “cities” as well witnessing to peace.  The university may be such a cosmopolitan community of witness.  The theater, the communications media, the marketplace, or the workplace can undergo something of the swords-to-plowshares fulfillment.  Where the church fails her mission, these other “cities” sometimes may fill in.  When the church accepts her mission, their work is empowered by her announcement that the new age of God’s Rule is in fact dawning, and upgraded by her emphatic critique.

I have let my description be guided first by the concept of “witness” in itself, and then by one prophetic text.  I have thereby neglected some other themes which would have belonged to an encyclopedic survey.  I have said little about the dark side of the prophetic view of history, what the New Testament calls “the power of the prince of this world.”  I have only barely alluded to what we all know about the escalating dimensions of the political and technical threats to peace in our decade.  I have taken for granted the network of agency services, some already in existence and some yet needing to be created, to inform, to lobby, to foster intercultural understanding, and to throw sand in the gears of the military machine.  I have barely alluded to the promise of new social science services to help interpret and manage conflict.  I have not mentioned the new levels of responsibility taken by religious leaders recently, notably by the pastoral letter issued by the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States.  I have not detailed the needs and the promises along the open frontier of a spirituality of nonviolence and servant-hood, where resources long forgotten and others yet undiscovered must rescue us from our manipulative and individualistic rationalism.  I have not lifted out the obvious linkage between the prima facie meaning of peace as the opposite of war between nations and all the other kinds of “un-peace” based on sex, race, culture or ability.

We all know all that.

We all know as well that the churches we know, and the churches we are, do not correspond to the prophetic promise of that quality of life in voluntary association which the announcement of the Rule of God was supposed to enable.  That is why we need to be reminded, at the heart of our struggle for a share in Yahweh’s renewal of His creation, that our own role is not that of viceroy but of witness.  We do not achieve God’s peace for God.  We point to a peace already achieved for us in the New Humanity initiated by the blood of Christ (in the words of Paul, in Ephesians).  We point to a peace ahead of us when the nations will have learned Yahweh’s law.

As the church lets itself be renewed in the humility of both those witness functions, the tension between pointing past-ward and pointing forward may renew as well her integrity as participant in that to which she points.  The New Testament spoke of our age as the “first fruits,” the down payment, the beginning of what must come.  Such a memory and such a hope might make the church today a worthy witness.


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