Thursday, February 17, 2011

John Howard Yoder on Liberation Theology, Marxism, Exodus, and the Freedom Proclaimed by the Gospel

"Many are morally offended that some of the definitions of liberation make use of categories of analysis that are derived in more or less direct ways from the impact of Marx on social thought in the West. By no means are many liberation theologians philosophically Marxist, in the sense of dialectical materialism and atheism. More of them are vaguely Marxist, in the sense that categories of class struggle fit the world they know and the exploitive capitalism that they have seen at work. As Jose Miguez Bonino . . . has described it, this commonality of perspectives is pragmatic. It is a coalition in the face of a problem which both Marxists and Christians care about: how to understand and then to transform the oppressive structures under which they suffer. It is no more a betrayal of Christian theism than it was when Augustine borrowed from Plato or Aquinas from Aristotle. It is less a betrayal than it is when our contemporaries borrow their visions of economic justice from Milton Friedman or their vision of personal flourishing from Freud.

"What cannot be wrong is recognizing that the commitment of Jesus to the cause of the poor was not marginal, nor derivative, but constitutive of his ministry. The Magnificat and the preaching of John demonstrate that economic redistribution was part of the salvation expectation of the suffering people to whom Jesus came. His desert temptation and his first 'sermon' in Nazareth confirmed that intention. As an anticipation of its fulfillment, he made his disciple circle an itinerant commune, and, as high point of his public ministry, he fed thousands in the desert. If by 'Marxism' we mean that an elite will impose a new order by the violence of the state, that is wrong, just as it is wrong when Christian patriarchalism, Christian imperialism, and Christian nationalism have done it. If by 'Marxism' we mean an atheistic materialistic determinism, that too is wrong, in the same way as is the commitment of Reaganomics to the sovereignty of the laws of the marketplace. If, however, by 'Marxism' we mean sobriety about the reality of class interest, if we mean the recognition that where one's treasure is there one's heart will also be, and if we mean a moral bias in favor of the underdog, then that cannot be what is wrong with liberation theology.

"[Another] axis along which liberation visions vary among themselves is the extent to which they promise quick success. Triumphalism has become the code label for visions of God's victory that shorten its time frame and narrow the circle of its beneficiaries. That 'we shall overcome some day' is simply not true, if by 'some day' we mean tomorrow and by 'we' we mean only ourselves. That distortion of the promise has sometimes been fostered by a too-simple application of the exodus metaphor. It is clear that the event at the Reed Sea was foundational for the identity of ancient Israel. Our texts of the Decalogue and the rest of the self-definition of the Hebrew people arise from their having been brought forth by the mighty acts of God. But there was only one exodus. It is not a paradigm to be replicated any time we wish. It would not have happened in the first place without prior people-building events in the land of bondage, and it would not have been remembered had it not been followed by many other people-building events at Sinai, in the wilderness, and in Canaan. Had it not been for the failure of kingship and the new mission of Diaspora in the age of Jeremiah, the exodus would not have been transformed from the mission of Israel into the mission of Judaism for the blessing of the nations. All of this together is the shape of liberation. If our reference to the metaphor of exodus refers to all of that, in an authentic synecdoche, that is fine. If, however, we foreshorten the image, concentrating on our survival at the cost of drowning the Egyptian cavalry and slaughtering the Amalekites and assorted Canaanites, then we have made of the imagery of liberation a new engine of oppression. The only use of the word exodus in the Gospels is to refer to the face Jesus was to encounter in Jerusalem, as he spoke of it with Moses and Elijah on the mountain.

"Crucifixion and diaspora, not conquest and revenge, are thus the shape of the liberty through which Jesus's victory frees humankind. When the apostles use eikon language, it is of the crucified Messiah that they speak, not of some other kind of hero or victor figure.

"In sum: Jesus as unique bearer of the divine image cannot but be a liberator, since Yahweh is a liberator. Yet, in our conformity to that image, we shall be mistaken if we assume that freedom can be the product of coercion. We shall hold lightly any of the human sciences whose language we borrow, whether it be Marx's or someone else's. We shall proclaim God's freedom as imminent and incipient, as present in Jesus and in ourselves and in the victims of our world. We shall provide no timetables for its final victory, however, and we shall not repeat the mistake of the twelve in the upper room, debating about which of us belongs at the head table."

--John Howard Yoder, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (ed. Glen H. Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, Matt Hamsher; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 171-72


  1. Thanks, Brad, this was great. This is Joshua Alkire, by the way. I'm friends with Garret and David, and I think I may have met you once or twice while you were at ACU.

  2. Devastating. He is pretty convincing that even if Christianity looks like Marxism in some cases, it is overly simplistic to conflate the two. Thanks for posting.

  3. We just finished editing a volume of lectures he gave in South America in 1966 last night, coming out this Fall with Wipf and Stock. He makes much more, shall we say, bolder claims there, i.e. that secularization brought by Marx was in fact a good thing, and that the Gospel's impulse is hidden within these movements which appear antithetical to the Gospel.