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Book reviews >

Bring this social ethicist out of the shadows

John Howard Yoder: Mennonite patience, Evangelical witness, Catholic convictions
Mark Thiessen Nation

Eerdmans £11.99 (0-8028-3940-1)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

Sam Wells commends a thinker whose work is too little known inthe Church of England

THE AMERICAN John Howard Yoder (1927-97) is one of the great figures in Christian social ethics of the 20th century. That he is largely disregarded in the British academy, and almost unknown in the British Church, is largely for two reasons: first, he was a Mennonite, a denomination that is obscure to the British theological imagination; second, he challenges just about every assumption dear to the mainstream Church of England ethos, with its ready access to the officers of state and its cohort of diocesan social-responsibility officers.

Mark Thiessen Nation, a convert to the Anabaptist tradition and a former director of the London Mennonite Centre, has written an outstanding overview of Yoder’s work. Nation, who has an awe-inspiring and personal knowledge of this “brilliant, relentlessly consistent, and incredibly prolific” man, traces a narrative through Yoder’s career. (In this he contrasts with the other major work on Yoder, Craig Carter’s The Politics of the Cross, which takes a cross-section through his theological position.)

Nation points out the importance of Yoder’s early writing on Anabaptist history — a very helpful anchor for those of us rather eager to skip on to Yoder’s more accessible work. He goes on to outline Yoder’s ecumenical arguments, which would be considered outstanding if they were more widely known.

Only in the second half of the book does Nation turn to Yoder’s signal achievement, The Politics of Jesus, and the debates around pacifism and social responsibility with which his name is most frequently associated.

This is an exemplary book. It offers a simple framework for comprehending a vast literature and long career, but does not try to squeeze every elusive detail into a tidy scheme. It is readable and accessible, but still offers an impressive scholarly apparatus to support its claims. It is not uncritical, but takes time to set out key arguments thoughtfully and faithfully.

I would still say to interested readers that they must read The Politics of Jesus, and preferably The Original Revolution and The Priestly Kingdom as well; but if they are looking to understand why Yoder is so remarkable and so important, Nation will be their guide.

My only query about this admirable work would be why it seems to say so little about the cross. For Yoder, the cross and resurrection were the “axis of history” — as is highlighted by the title of Craig Carter’s book. Yoder’s central tenet is that we must imitate Jesus in one respect above all: his renunciation of violence in his humble walk to the cross.

Nation’s illuminating treatment of Yoder’s neglected themes perhaps has the unintended effect of taking attention away from Yoder’s central message — which is why Nation’s book, like all such analyses, should take the reader back to enjoy the original work at first hand.

The Revd Dr Wells, an Hon. Canon of Chichester, is Dean of the Chapel and Research Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University, USA.

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