Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Pacifism and Knowing: "Truth" in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Pacifism and Knowing: "Truth" in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder

Article excerpt

Abstract: John Howard Yoder's epistemology offers a creative alternative to foundationalism and to relativism. Yoder provides an understanding of truth that affirms that truth is a meaningful category, but that does not operate in the realm of intellectually coercive absolutes. The key to Yoder's approach to knowledge and truth is to be found in his pacifism. Yoder based his pacifism on an affirmation of truth that is utterly non-coercive. Yoder's approach provides a basis not only for the continuation of pacifism as a core Christian value, but also for a viable postmodern epistemology that is nonrelativist and nonfoundationalist.


For John Howard Yoder, pacifism (1) was unequivocally true. But what would this statement have meant for Yoder: "Pacifism is unequivocally true"? What would have been Yoder's basis for making such a claim? And how did this "truth" work for him?

Reflecting on these questions is a useful way to consider even bigger questions: How do we find our way between foundationalism and relativism? How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values? How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the words of Robert Nozick, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one's interlocutors must either give in or have their brains explode? (2) On the other hand, how do we avoid the paralysis of many contemporaries who cannot find a way to condemn evil and do not have the clarity of conviction that would empower them to suffer, even to die, for the cause of peace?

In his posthumously published essay, "'Patience' as Method in Moral Reasoning," Yoder provides in a sentence the basic outline for my paper. He wrote, "Nonviolence is not only an ethic about power, but also an epistemology about how to let truth speak for itself." (3)

These are the issues I will address: (1) How is nonviolence, or pacifism (in this paper I will use these two terms interchangeably, as Yoder often did), an "epistemology"? (2) What is the "truth" of which Yoder speaks here? (3) What is involved in letting "truth speak for itself"? I will conclude by reflecting how Yoder's understanding of these issues might contribute to working with present-day struggles the churches are facing.

To state my central argument in a nutshell: Yoder's pacifist epistemology is clearly an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition. For Yoder, the way we approach knowing as Christian pacifists is qualitatively different from the approach to knowing that has over the centuries relied in one way or another on coercive power--either literally, as in the use of the sword against "heretics," or more intellectually, as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.


Let us define epistemology as "that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis." (4) In line with this understanding, we may say that when Yoder speaks of pacifism as an epistemology, he is asserting that a pacifist commitment actually shapes how a person knows. A pacifist sees the world in a certain way, understands in a certain way. The commitment to nonviolence is a life-shaping, mind-shaping kind of conviction--a conviction that shapes all other convictions. (5)

Yoder refers to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in asserting that pacifism is more than simply "a position in political ethics." "The renunciation of violence ... is ... an epistemology." That is, pacifism is a way of knowing that has at its center the decisive commitment to offer "good news for the other." (6) Gandhi and King both shaped their pragmatic strategies in line with their underlying core philosophical commitment to nonviolence.

In aligning himself with Gandhi and King in this way, Yoder commits himself to a process of knowing and understanding that is unwilling to rely on power over others. …

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