Yoder’s Epistemology of pacifism

I agree with Yoder that pacifism is not simply a moral statement but an epistemological one as well. Like Gandhi, Yoder advocated that nonviolence is an experiment with truth. The rejection of violence is precisely so that our opponents can hear us, but also, so that we can hear our opponents (Yoder 1992: 69). Life is inherently an experiment with truth (Yoder 1996: 134). For both Gandhi and Yoder, truth is not something we can ever possess. It is an open-ended process that we consistently move towards but something we never achieve because a) we are too finite and b) it is too big to possess. Therefore, we can never stave off the possibility of learning from our opponents. Killing assumes absolute certainty.

I would go farther in asserting my Butlerian convictions that we should never turn our opponent into our enemy; we should not dehumanize them. Our obligation is to constantly find ways to humanize the other. Violence is a process of dehumanizing the other. Loss reveals not only that we have lost the other in terms of love and friendship but that our very identities are lost in the process. I am moving towards the notion that truth’s elusiveness is not because it is “out there.” But rather because truth is “with us.” It is constantly being re-articulated. It is socially constructed. There is no individual, no self that is static. We are dependent upon others for the articulation of truth and truth will change as social relationships change. Identities themselves are communities because our body is never entirely under our own control. This reveals our interdependence upon others and this is precisely why I feel the call to pacifism.

Again, I agree with Yoder in that epistemology needs to be grounded in community and in ethics, which is very Levinasian: ethics is a first philosophy and that all philosophies inherently articulate an ethical position. Truth is “an historical judgment about the statement’s compatibility with the life directions and value insights, the narrative memories and the practices, of that community” (Yoder 1999: 40). Truth-claims stand or fall on their ethical implications. Truth-claims are most authentic, if and only if, they seek to foster the greatest sense of community. If truth-claims are oppressive, then we must challenge them.

It is obvious that there are certain aspects of Yoder’s pacifism that I cannot accept. Yoder’s pacifism is intertwined with his commitments to Christianity. Specifically, Yoder’s pacifism relies on the hope of resurrection: Christians are people who are called to pacifism and that alternative has been made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the imitation of Christ’s obedience, even if that obedience leads to our deaths. This is not necessarily contra to Judaism, which has traditionally advocated for the bodily resurrection of the dead. However, I cannot root my own pacifism in resurrection of Jesus. I might personally rather root my pacifism in creation, specifically imago dei: all human beings are the carriers of the Sacred’s transcendent image because this inherently reveals human interdependence. Human diversity is dependent upon human interdependence. My identity cannot exist without the various relationships that sustain me. I am me because of others. In other words, I would rather root my nonviolence in the very fabric of creation itself rather than in an event that is creation’s erruption: the eschatological resurrection of the dead; although this does point to the link between creation and new creation.

However, there is more I have to critique with Yoder. Yoder’s pacifist epistemology is one that I accept, in part but reject because Yoder argues that we need to have a system of truth that is relatively powerless, that truth should speak for itself (Yoder 1999: 39). This is modeled off the fact that Jesus modeled a willingness to respect the freedom of others in accepting or rejecting his message. This reveals a Jesus who speaks the truth but is powerless. The issue with this is that all truths contain inherent power in them. I am too indebted to Foucaultian and by extension Butlerian thought: you cannot have knowledge without power and there cannot be political power without knowledge. Power relations produce knowledge and therefore, all truth claims inherently establish a power dynamic. Yoder confuses power with domination and in the process seems to revoke agency. Here, I think agency and prophetic thought are somewhat compatible, although the prophets speak on behalf of the innocent whereas in my thought the innocent speak for themselves.

This is where I disagree most with many forms of Christian Pacifism: there is no sense of agency at all. The Church becomes sectarian because it does not want to embrace the use of power. It is understandable when the Church has exercised the use of power in the form of domination. But it is a luxury to completely disavow power and it is a misunderstanding that power is violent.

My own work is to approach political struggles in a dialogical way. However, at what point does dialogical work do no good? I have been thinking a lot about the Religious Right and their relationship with the issue of homosexuality. There is very little dialogue with queer theorists or queer theologians. Moreover, their use of scripture is a means to speak for us rather than to allow us to speak for ourselves. The issues is that there is truth in queer theory, yet at the same time, I think disavowal of power is a place of privilege. It is easy for those with power to give it up, when queer lives depend on power in order to obtain cultural intelligibility, so that we can be recognized. Queer people require agency and I think this is true of all subaltern persons. To use King’s statement, we need to share power. I think my nonviolence is not about giving up power, but advocating for better uses of power: to advocate for a greater inclusiveness in terms of power.



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