grew up in a small Mennonite church where I learned one thing well in Sunday school. It was that "Jesus boys" were supposed to live like Jesus or use Jesus as the model for their behavior. John Howard Yoder learned a version of that same lesson, but he took it much farther. Yoder saw that if that lesson were true, then both ethics and theology should reflect it, and the result could impact virtually all of life and thought. Earl Zimmermans book reveals that progression. In a word, Practicing the Politics of Jesus is an exposition and analysis of how John Howard Yoder developed that early Mennonite Sunday school lesson into his widely known book, The Politics of Jesus.
Practicing the Politics of Jesus is the first book-length treatment of the thought of John Howard Yoder that makes use of the voluminous collection of Yoders papers, now in the archives of Mennonite Church USA at Goshen College. Zimmermans research in Yoders correspondence and writings such as committee reports adds important new depth to the understanding of Yoders thought.
In what is a paradox only at first glance, this book shows how thoroughly Mennonite Yoders theology was and simultaneously how much more than a Mennonite theologian he was. Zimmerman shows that Yoder was clearly shaped by and a product of his Mennonite upbringing. That ought not to surprisepeople do not develop unimpacted by their surroundings. The more significant observation is how Yoder learned to do theology that reflected his peace church background but was accessible to anyone regardless of background and with no need first to run it through a Mennonite filter. Yoder understood that if a denominational view did not make sense first of all as an expression of Jesus Christ, and if it could not be explained in ways that made sense to those outside the denominationwhether or not they agreed with itthen it was not worth saying at all. Zimmermans book shows how Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, could speak to any tradition.
Just as Yoder wrote in a way that could address the spectrum of Christian traditions, people from any tradition interested in Yoder should read this book. It may be that Mennonites actually need the book more. Mennonite academic writers aside, Yoders actual thought has not penetrated or spread very far among Mennonites at the congregational level. That is an unfortunate development when one recalls that Yoder is considered one of the most influential theologians of any stripe for the twentieth century and is arguably the most important Mennonite writer since Menno Simons.
Zimmermans work speaks to many issues in the thought of John Howard Yoder. It shows that for Yoder, rejection of violence is an intrinsic element of Christian profession, even as it is not the only element of Christian profession. That should help readersboth from Yoders Mennonite tradition and from other traditionsnot to shy from a theology shaped by peace church commitments. There has been something of an ongoing debate about whether Yoders ethics were based on standard Nicene Christology. Zimmermans work in Yoders correspondence provides about as close to a definitive answer as one can get to that question. It seems that from early on, Yoder considered his work to be in conversation with but also an alternative to the standard theological line of Christendom.
Some of Zimmermans most interesting findings come from his analysis of Yoders graduate study. Related to the question of Yoders dependence on Nicene Christology is Zimmermans analysis of Yoders dissertation. Yoders choice of a dissertation topic in sixteenth-century Anabaptism was neither a deviation from nor a false start for his later focus on ethicsnor was it an area that he abandoned to pursue theology and ethics. Rather, Zimmerman shows, Yoder used his scholarship in Anabaptism as a way to do theology when his graduate program did not recognize Anabaptist theology as a credible area of study. In addition, with his Anabaptist scholarship Yoder specifically intended to chart a theological path that was an alternative to the standard theology of Christendom.
Zimmermans analysis of Yoders graduate work adds a kind of human dimension to Yoder as well. For decades we have marveled at Yoders great intellect and tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge, in biblical studies as well as in theology and ethics. What Zimmermans work shows is where that breadth and depth of knowledge came from. He learned it. In graduate studies, Yoder learned theology from Karl Barth, as is rather well known. But the majority of Yoders graduate school course work was in biblical studies, and he had more courses from Oscar Cullman than any other single professor. Of course Yoder added to and developed his knowledge beyond his graduate school courses, as does any competent scholar. But Zimmermans work shows that there was a beginning to Yoders knowledge, the same beginning as any other scholar. That is both encouraging to the rest of us and also humbling when one considers how far Yoder developed that beginning.
These points and more mean that Practicing the Politics of Jesus marks a new stage in the study of the thought of John Howard Yoder. This book should rapidly become a reference point for all further discussion of Yoders work.
It has been a pleasure to work with Earl Zimmerman in the development of this manuscript. I appreciate his willingness to consider editorial suggestions, and I am grateful for his decision to grace the C. Henry Smith Series with this volume. On behalf of the C. Henry Smith Series, I extend warm appreciation to the individuals who contributed to the publication of this manuscript through the Orie Miller Center of Eastern Mennonite University as well as to the Mennonite Historical Society for its support of this book.
J. Denny Weaver, Editor
© 2007 by Cascadia Publishing House