Monday, March 24, 2008

Yoder's "Nevertheless"

In Nevertheless: the Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (Revised and Expanded Edition), John Howard Yoder does not explore the biblical or theological grounding of a pacifist stance. Instead he examines different forms such pacifist stances can take. Most chapters are structured similarly (though later chapters cover other types of pacifism more briefly): Yoder explains a particular nonviolent stance, followed by:

"Axiom" the underlying principle driving this stance

"Shortcomings" fair and reasonable arguments against this stance

"Nevertheless" why despite its shortcomings this stance is still a respectable, valid stance (later Yoder writes that "In each case we were able to criticize but not really to refute")

"After All" how war advocates also use the logic of this particular pacifist stance, but in a deeply flawed and terribly destructive way.

Perhaps the strongest arguments in the book are in the "After All" portions. Yoder shows that despite any shortcomings of a particular pacifist stance, it is still preferable to any equivalent violent stance. For example, in the chapter called "The Pacifism of Utopian Purism," Yoder writes:

"This utopian pacifism trusts less to an irrational leap of faith than does the rhetoric which tells us that by forcibly making refugees, we are defending self-determination; or that by supporting a puppet government, we are enabling democracy to grow. There is no more utopian institution than an idealistic war. [...] War is utopian both in the promises it makes for the future and in the black-and-white way of thinking about the enemy, which it assumes."

A pacifist can read this book and find easy counters to any war advocate's objections; the war advocate often uses arguments similar to the pacifist, but in manner that frequently ignores the way in which war dehumanizes, and in a manner that justifies deadly destruction (as Yoder writes, "every serious critique one can address to the pacifist, if taken honestly, turns back with greater force upon the advocate of war").

But with Yoder, the point is not to win an argument: if all that happens after reading Nevertheless is that I'm able to pull out a stronger argument and counterargument when debating a war advocate, then my pacifism is empty. A religious pacifist reading Yoder should come away with greater conviction, greater spiritual commitment, greater desire to put belief into action and practice. While Yoder asks that "each type of pacifist reasoning be respected in its own right," he also writes that "the moral commonality of all of them is greater than the systematic diversity."

My enemies are my neighbors and I am commanded to love them.

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