"PATIENCE" AS METHOD IN MORAL REASONING: ISAN
ETHIC OF DISCIPLESHIP "ABSOLUTE"?
John Howard Yoder, unpublished, drafted September 1992; last
updated, August 1997. Previously circulated to students as "moral
Being careful about the difference between good and bad kinds of "compromise"
or good and bad kinds of "absolutes":
A. Itemizing the ways in which "absolutes" are
It is not always meant as a term of abuse, but it is always inaccurate, when the views I represent are called "absolutist." I do hold
(a) that the authority of Jesus in moral matters is greater than that of other teachers, or of "reason," or of "intuition." I do hold
(b) that the prima facie burden of proof lies with those who would advocate exceptions to the general guidelines of Christian morality, rather than with those who advocate respecting them. I do argue
(c) that certain of the looser kinds of "situational" and "consequential" moral reasoning, and certain loose forms of exception-making which have been fashionable in the last generation are irresponsible.
Yet none of these positions (a through c) can properly be called
"absolutist," if that term is meant as a distinguishing
characteristic. In each of those debates (a through c) the other
value, which according to others should ovveride my commitment, is no
less subject to be called an "absolute."
These following considerations, itemized and distinguished from
one another for the sake of clarity, may tend to coincide or to
overlap in their application more often than they will contradict one
another. It is nevertheless important to be able to distinguish among
the different kinds of reasons for what I here call
"patience," i.e. considerations which call for
purported "absolutes" to be mitigated, yet without justifying the
dominant alternative constructions, usually called "relativist" or
"realist," of moral logic.
The term "absolute" (which I regularly used above in scare
quotes, to signal its power to mislead) is misleading. I accept it
only under protest and in order to get on with the real debate. It is
not in itself appropriate. A few other comments of a prefatory or
contextualizing nature are added at the end of the text.
1. Pedagogical patience takes account of the fact that human
learning takes place in sequences and stages. Usually it is difficult
for a learner to learn D before learning A, B, and C. Sometimes the
alignment of the elements in the series has to do with the logic of
the matter to be learned, as in a sequence of theorems in geometry.
Sometimes other information, or skills, like language knowledge must
precede new learning. Sometimes it has to do with the neurological or
psychological readiness of the learner. Sometimes the very structure
of a field (e.g. spiritual direction in the contemplative life, or
professional training), or engineering based on mathematics, calls
for sequential stages in learning a set of skills or of insights.
Thus (e.g.) I cannot expect someone to discuss with care the meaning
of discipleship who has never entertained the possibility that church
and world might not be identical, or that Jesus was Jewish, or that
God is person-like.
The last decades have seen a proliferation of quasi-scientific
approaches to the pedagogy of moral and spiritual insight. Building
on the theories of early childhood learning associated with Piaget,
Kohlberg in "moral development" and Fowler in "spiritual development"
have constructed scales of stages up which a person does (or should,
or may, or is assumed to) grow. The limits of this approach are
numerous. This is not the place to spell them out at any
length(1). Yet the basic insight
contains a serious element of truth. We cannot deny that some
important understandings and operations are possible in the human
mind only after certain prerequisite capacities (neurological,
linguistic, intellectual, cultural) have been acquired.(2)
A similar kind of teachability sequencing applies to societies. A
state which plays fast and loose with habeas corpus can hardly be
asked to forego the death penalty. A culture which despises the just
war constraints need not be invited to rise to the challenge of
nuclear pacifism. Jesus' words about pearls and pigs represent not
speciesist antiporcinism but realistic audience criticism. There can
well be persons or audiences where I will not expect to be able to
communicate all that I need to say about the sacredness of life.
2. I called the above kind of "patience" "pedagogical" because the
"stages" in question are located in the learning trajectory of the
subject, for whom certain "truths" (or perhaps certain "skills")
which are valid in themselves would be premature. There is another,
different category of reasons for timing and spacing different
truths, which we might name "corrective", whose locus is in a
dialogical social setting. Many needed arguments are true in their
context but not finally. They use concepts which if absolutized
become false, yet serve as part of a valid process. Examples:
a) Sixteenth-century protestant criticism of what had come of
Medieval Christianity appealed to "The Scriptures" in a way that was
needed, although when systematized it became wooden and
b) The exact meaning of a text (most significantly of a Biblical
text) in its original context can never beknown with absolute
certainty: if once completely grasped its meaning for now
would still be unclear. Nonetheless it is worth seeking to
approximate a basically correct interpretation.
c) Nineteenth-century historicism thought that with proper
critical use of sources one could establish the record of events "as
they really happened"; this offered a necessary correction for
legend-formation and self-serving readings. Yet there is no really
accessible fully solid "factual" ground floor.
d) More recently, 20th-century relativism has overcorrected in the
other direction, claiming that all meanings are community-dependent.
This too is an overdone corrective. I deny that my views are in that
sense arbitrary or unverifiable. The fact that all meanings are
community-dependent does not mean that all views are equally
e) The awareness of the dangers of subjective bias led people to
try to reach "objectivity" or a "view from nowhere." The idea is
deceptive; yet the effort is valuable.
f) Most theological systems distinguish at some point or other
between "religious" and "secular" or between "individual" and
"social," or between "inward" and "outward." Often these dichotomies
are ultimately abusive. In the substance of moral discourse the
splits they impose are usually wrong. Yet along the way they
sometimes have a positive corrective function.
g) Many moral systems distinguish between "levels" of generality
of specificity such as "rules", "policy", snf "pastoral application"
or between "ideals" and "realism" or between "norms" and "justified
exceptions." Such distinctions are often used to cover up
irresponsibility or disobedience, or as trup cards, but they can be
Thus there will often be proper corrective uses of
arguments that are not ultimately valid. We might call this "the
right use of wrong theology.(3)" There
are valid points needing to be made whose validity should not be
negated on the ground that in a given setting the only way available
to make them is subject to criticism from some other level.
3. Pastoral patience takes account of other dynamic dimensions,
likewise located within the person learning, which may hinder or
facilitate the appropriation of normative truth. They are matters of
the will, of trauma and healing, of trust and commitment. Some points
cannot be made in certain settings, or to certain persons, or by
certain persons, because of those dynamics. E.g. I have long argued
that certain intrinsically valid points about some limitations of
latin "liberation theology" as a system cannot credibly be argued by
gringos. The ecumenical notion of the "epistemological privilege of
the oppressed" articulates such a corrective. Some concerns about
overdoing feminist victim language, although intrinsically valid,
cannot credibly be argued by a stronger older man.
4. Ecumenical patience is the result of our accepting willingly
and not just grudgingly the fact that we are conversing with people
who have been educated otherwise than ourselves, in ways that we
think theologically wrong, yet which are for them for the present the
framework of their integrity and accountability. In most cases where
my own convictions, or some distinctive confessional Christian
position which I might hold (which are not the same) must be argued,
the other people whom I differ with not only have been taught their
position, which already rejects mine, solidly and accept it
sincerely; they are also in most cases in the majority numerically
What I have said thus far should be true for everyone. For me
personally, this dimension is further reinforced by a special
ecumenical vocation, sometimes operative in interconfessional
institutions and sometimes in teaching the history of Christian
thought, in which it has often been my role to interpret
empathetically other views than my own, and to articulate the present
pertinence of my view by using the concepts of others.(4)
5. There is a multicultural or cosmopolitan dimension to this
"patience.." In contrast to most of the contemporary moral theology
and philosophy which are overwhelmingly anglophone, carried only by a
network of people in Oxbridge, New England, Durham and Berkeley, I am
more at home in other languages, other worlds, and therefore other
formulations of what is to be debated. That would be even more the
case had I been privileged to learn slavic or semitic or asian
6. David Neville has reminded me that such "patience" is at work
as well in my suspicion of the drive of many for a single master
method(5) and of the "foundationalist"
claim to a privileged point of departure(6).
My meeting the interlocutor on his own terms is not merely a matter
of accepting the minority's conversational handicap(7)
although it is that. It is also a spirituality and a life
style.(8) So I discuss war in just-war
terms with nonpacifists. I discuss exception-making with the
casuists, rather than sweepingly denouncing casuistry as do Barth,
Ellul, and some Lutherans.
7. There is a (psycho=) therapeutic patience which goes
even farther in yielding (for a time, for a reason) to the other. The
language of individual self-fulfilment, although ultimately
semantically vacuous and destructive, may be functional
transitionally to free a person victimized by wrongly authoritarian
structures. Similarly the notions of pluralism, value-freedom,
"rights", "contract", "empowerment", may serve in transitional
corrective ways, without their being ultimately tested for their
truth value. This differs from the general "right use of wrong
theology (2 above)" in that the particular abuse for which it
corrects is one peculiar to the realm of doctrinal authority. It
differs from "pastoral patience (3 above)" in that the offense to
which one grudingly yields is located in intellectual history, not
only in intra= or interpersonal dynamics.
8.. There is the patience of the "subject," which the New
Testament calls "subordination," as it applies to the state or to any
other super-ordinate power.(9) We
accept it as a fact, without accepting it as the best, that we live
in a society ruled by the sword, in which, as long as the fallen
state of things persists, the only alternative to being ruled by the
sword of one violent party is to be ruled by the sword of another
party whose power is greater and whose injustice may at best (we
hope) be (at least marginally) less. We thus accept it, let it be,
subordinate ourselves to the fact of the sword, without its being
morally normative for ourselves, either in the sense of divine
institution or in that of call to us to guide our discipleship. In
this broad acceptance of what is in principle unacceptable, there is
no formal or fundamental difference between the pacifist and the
non-pacifist; it is only that the pacifist has had more occasion to
think about it.(10) Neither the
protestant "Radical Right" nor the "politically correct" postmodern
left has wholeheartedly accepted this component of modern
9 There is a special kind of "corporate" patience dictated by
respect for the roles of others. As member of a (parish)
congregation, or of any other living institution whose values I do
not dictate, and which has not called me as a teaching elder, I am
not responsible to bring my academic "better wisdom" as theologian to
bear to evaluate whether the preacher (or the amateur theologian
teaching Sunday School) uses terms rightly. Nor am I called, as
social process thinker, to evaluate how the congregation as
institution makes its decisions. This is the special point of some of
the literal imperatives in Romans 12 and I Cor 12.
In fact: my focussed role as academic didascalos makes me
less not more responsible to intervene in the "lay" processes which
carry the week-by-week freight of intellectual and social community
formation. There is here again such a thing as a "right use of wrong
theology": i.e., the acceptance as legitimate, within their "lay"
settings, of formulations with which academic rigor or ecumenical
sensitivity will find fault.
10. There is the "collegial" patience of the outvoted theologian.
On numerous subjects, not only on the issue of the morality of war,
being outvoted by the majority and sustaining my views "against the
stream" is my accustomed stance. Other examples in my own experience
are abortion, authority roles, feminism, the dignity of singleness,
divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, "the pastorate," war, how to
structure a denomination, how to administer a university, or the
social use of punitive process. Coming to terms with being hopelessly
out-voted is quite different from being convinced.
11. There can be a cumulation of the "ecumenical" setting (4
above), the "political one(6)," and the "disciplinary" one(10),
whereby one settles into the need to use over the long haul the alien
categories of those who rule the society. This is what Jeremiah (Ch
29) told the Jewish exiles to do in Bablylon.(11)
I have been called more than some others to make this kind of
grudging obeisance,(12) most
In the numerous conferences, papers, courses, and a book in which
I have interpreted, refined, and challenged respectfully the just war
In the tactical acceptance of the place in the University of Notre Dame of Reserve Officer Training programs, and in collegially recognizing the men who lead them. Catholic pacifists, who although nonviolent still feel more magisterial about how to teach morality, generally are less "patient" with ROTC on a catholic campus than I am. They have a right to be.
12. There is the "contrite" patience of repentance. Assuming that
our position is the correct position, we must recognize that it has
often been represented inadequately or even unfaithfully, by persons
whose claim to represent it has therefore decreased its credibility,
including ourselves. Sometimes these inadequacies were mere human
frailty, personally irreproachable. Other times (e.g. empire,
paternalism, sexism, the abuse of office, racism), they were worse
than that, and call for outright condemnation and for repentance in
the full sense of the term. In either case we have to recognize that
it is not simply through the faults or ignorance of those other
people that they do not accept what we think we know to be correct.
Recognizing our own complicity (e.g. in colonial exploitation, even
if I never personally owned a slave or took anything away from an
"Indian") is grounds for real guilt, and thereby also for patience in
advocacy. Even more strongly should this obtain if/as one recognizes
having in fact culpability participated in the wrong.
13. There is the "modest" patience of sobriety in finitude.
Although we have good grounds (if we have adequately studied a
matter) to believe that in its main lines the things we are sure of
are worthy of that assurance, we must always keep open spaces where
sometimes our ignorance and at other times our sinfulness will have
kept us from seeing all the truth. This modesty is not a reason to
yield on specific points to others whose positions are no better. It
is no grounds for our affirming the opposite of what we are now sure
of, nor for relativizing the concrete accountability of our concrete
decision making,(14) which must
always take place under conditions of finite knowledge; but the
certainty in which we have to act one day at a time must never claim
finality. Our recognition that we may be wrong must always be
visible.(15) One way to say this
would be to begin every statement one ever makes with "as far as I
know" or "until further notice." That I do not begin every paragraph
this way does not mean that I do not mean it.(16)
This is or ought to be true for any statement true of any honest
intellectual, all the more when the subject matter under discussion
is contested. It is in no way either more or less pertinent to my
views than to everyone else's.
14. There is the "gelassen" patience of yieldedness in response to
justification by grace alone. My attitude to views/actions I disagree
with, which I nonetheless "let be," does not constitute a judgment on
whether those persons may be saved, or may be loved. Much popular
religion, much of fundamentalism, and much of pre-modern Roman
Catholicism, do deal with disagreement in those terms, as if my
integrity called me to deny the salvation of those who differ with
me; thus this does need to be said. Agreement is not a condition of
salvation or of honor.
15. There is the "honest" patience of ignorance. In any moral
system, a part of the determination of the values at stake is based
upon empirically derived information, known with various degrees of
certainty, about the values at stake and about how different lines of
action will produce different costs and benefits. Positions calling
themselves "utilitarian" or "consequentialist" tend to count on this
information to be relatively knowable and, when known, to be
decisive, and usually to be self-serving.. That does not mean that
other views give to such data no weight at all. The knowledge that
all such data is knowable only to a finite degree of accuracy, and
that in some cases too little is known for a cost/benefit calculation
to help to tip the scales of decision, is one further element of
uncertainty in any view, and of course in my own view.
16. There is the "resigned" patience with which one faces honestly
the authentically insoluble tragic dilemma. There can be situations
in which there is no visible acceptable way out, where prima facie
binding obligations evidently cannot all be satisfied at once. More
"casuistic" approaches try to resolve these matters with a lexical
ordering to be followed in case of collision:
--rather lie than be killed;
--rather kill than be raped;
--rather kill an enemy than let him kill a friend;
and more of the kind. Once the hard cases have been resolved by
such a casuistic answer one can claim to be "right" after all. I am
less easily convinced by such arguments, from which it follows that I
am more "patient," than such confident casuists. As I spelled it out
in What would you do...?(17),
there are more options than the evident ones; miracle and martyrdom
are possibilities not to be excluded. Thus consequentialist argument
can never be leakproof. But I do not claim to know ahead of
time that either miracle or martyrdom is promised or commanded
(18) I know I can never
justify killing, or adultery, or blasphemy. I know I can never
approve institutionally and in principle of
preparations before the fact to be in a position to do those
things, as war does. Some may call this position of clearly not
knowing "absolute," though I think it a wrong use of the term. I do
not know, however, that life will spare me (or anyone or
everyone else) needing to face any situations where I may be part of
a process whereby such things happen, and nothing about my ethical
approach makes such a promise, or claims that God has made it
(19). I make no claims for my
capacity either a priori or in the situation to find an
acceptable solution to every dilemma; it is the mainstream traditions
which make that claim(20). Nor is it
my business (nor the business of ethics) to set limits to what God
can or will forgive ( or to promise that He will) in such situations
(or in any others).
17. There is the "apocalyptic" patience of waiting in hope (Rev.
6:10). Liberation ethics speaks of the "power of fragility" to
accredit the people, in their own eyes and in those of the
oppressors. Part of my not pressing my case comes from the overlap
between the ethos of advocacy and the ethos of social struggle. To
argue one's case too aggressively may forsake the grace which is
"made perfect in weakness (II Cor 12:9).
18. There is the "audience-sensitive" patience of not making a point which in a given setting a given audience is not willing or not able to hear. This brings together several of the above strands:
a) The gringo may be burdened with postcolonial guilt, and may not
feel credible in making some point, e.g. a point critical e.g. a
liberation theologian, even though the point is intrinsically valid,
because in that setting "coming from me" it would not be
respected.(21) This might be called
the reflexive form of the ad hominem argument. It can be that
the only honest way to represent what I stand for is not to speak
just now. In this connection I have sometimes offended Mennonite
pacifists by not arguing back at latin liberationists.
b) There may be dialogical settings where the culture-dependent
meaning systems of two interlocutors are so far apart, so
incompatible, that the only honest thing to say is nothing, until one
can come closer to finding a common language. Until a "higher court"
or a "common language" can be found, there may in certain settings be
no way to do apologetics. Classical "natural law" or "reason"
arguments make (or presuppose tacitly) the claim that the person
arguing has the right and the power to dictate what the common
language is; a nonviolent epistemology cannot do that. Some times the
only nonviolent response to a skewed dialogical situation is silence,
as refusal to collaborate in epistemological tyranny.
c) The total symbol system is skewed. This is true in
general by virtue of the fallenness of reason and nature; it is
true even more dramatically in a setting where a particular ideology
dictates the only way to reason. There may be settings where there is
no coherent way to make some specific point because of the way in
which one grammar has been imposed.
19. There is the "political" patience of the outvoted citizen or
subject (like but different from 6 and 8 above, moving on from 9). As
pacifist citizen in a nonpacifist civil community I can participate
discerningly, conscientiously, in public discourse and
decision-making when the terms of reference are not my own. Some
(some pacifists and some nonpacifists) think this is excluded; the
person who is outvoted should emigrate, they think.(22)
The question obviously has more complexity for a person for whom
being outvoted is likely than for someone whose expectations are
constantinian(23). People otherwise
as discerning as Paul Ramsey, Richard Miller, and Russel Sizemore
have claimed the right to forbid my using their Just War language to
converse with them, since (in their view) for the pacifist all wars
must be equally bad. They thus demonstrate their lack of imagination
for how moral discourse may have to be done in a kairos or
status confessionis where by the nature of the case the
moral truth can count on no fair public hearing.
This kind of patience is beginning to become understandable to
some Roman Catholics who without considering abortion morally
acceptable no longer advocate seeking to criminalize it against the
will of the majority of a population.
Summary of part A:
As far as I can see, all of these considerations will apply to
any kind of decent person taking a position on the grounds of
moral conviction on any important subject. There is nothing
peculiarly Christian or Mennonite or (God forbid!) "Yoderian" about
these considerations. Any honest Catholic or Methodist or Jewish or
atheist ethicist should say the same, although for one or the other
of those persons different priorities or frequencies might obtain
among the 19 types. If my formulation of these above arguments is
fuller or more careful than what some others might offer, that may
itself bear witness to the "patience" which I am discussing, or to
the fact that my location in a Catholic University or my
participation in ecumenical dialogue aid me toward being more
self-aware in these matters. Yet the "Catholic or Methodist or Jew or
atheist" could make all the same points. There is nothing
"sectarian" about them. They are by definition radically
The weight of some of these considerations might however tend to
be heightened if one held, as I do, to the view that the dignity of
the enemy is such that one should especially love one's enemy and not
do violence to his or her dignity.
They would be especially weighty if one were convinced, as I am,
that membership in a believing community is voluntary rather than
imposed by a parental covenant.
They would be especially appropriate if one believed, as I do,
that decision making in the church should be free from manipulation
by the power of the civil order.
They would be especially appropriate if one believed, as I do,
that authority in the faith community is decentralized and
consensual, rather than pontifical.
Thus while none of these considerations is unique to me or
to advocates of "radical discipleship," they should and do have a
special degree of cogency for us. I.e. people holding views
like mine should by the nature of things be (and in some cases with
God's help may be) more "patient" in these ways and less
"absolutist" than the advocates of other views.
B. As a second chapter we turn to list the ways in which
Anti-Absolutist arguments (which one usually qualifies as
"realist" or "relativist") are nonetheless wrong, in such a
way that, although people are wrong who call me "absolutist," they
are right in recognizing that I challenge them in a way they are not
It is, as the above demonstrates, not at all clear why the
ascription (usually pejorative) of "absolutism" should be addressed
any more to my position than to others. Yet it does seem to be the
case that it is addressed to those who challenge violence more than
to people who advocate costly discipleship in other realms, addressed
to advocates of discipleship more than to advocates of other
principled ethical modes, addressed to pacifists more than to
principled non-pacifists, and to Christological pacifists more than
to pragmatic ones.
Before entering seriously into conversation with this reproach, I
must insist that it is structurally illogical and unfair. There is
nothing more absolute (for the person involved) than the claim that
it is my business to terminate someone else's life. There is nothing
more legalist than the statement in principle that the government of
any state has the authority to order me to kill people. The fact that
someone may be intellectually flexible or fuzzy about stating the
conditions under which they plan to do that killing does not make the
lethal act any less absolute in its impact upon the neighbor or the
enemy. I thus object to the term "absolute," if it is held to be a
description of my view as it differs from others. The term in that
usage is an inept and deceptive instrument of ethical
Another term sometimes used as near-synonym is "exceptionless".
That does not clarify as much as one thinks. It may mean the claim
that no situation will arise where that norm cannot be satisfied.
Such a negation may be understood as a social-statistical prediction
or as a cosmological confession of faith. Or it may mean that one
cannot conceive ahead of time of any case in which one could justify
disregarding that norm.
I do not claim that sinless or harmless perfection is humanly
possible. I do not deny that there can be specific decision
situations in which it will be impossible to avoid falling short of
the demands of some of one's firm moral commitments. I spelled this
out in A/16 above. I shall call these, for the purpose of this
outline, "casuistic crunch situations." Classical Catholic casuistry
called them situations of "collision" between prima facie duties, and
resolved them with a set of lexical rules about which values come
first in which cases.(24) Above I
called such cases "tragic dilemmas."
What I do deny is (1) that such hard cases should be made, as they
tend to be, the center of ethical deliberation, as if the
fundamental moral question were ever simply either (a) whether in an
imperfect world we can't have everything we want or (b) in case of
collision which values take priority.
What I do deny is (2) that such crunch decisions are prototypical:
i.e. that they represent the essential nature of ethical
deliberation, so that it is by lining up crunch cases that one can
prove a point, with regard for instance to the morality of war or
abortion or lying, or that it is by listing hard cases that one can
best teach and learn ethics. As has been said more fully by a roster
of colleagues (Hauerwas, McClendon, MacIntyre...) in the fields of
philosophical and Christian ethics recently, such "quandarism," or
"decisionism," or "punctualism" sets aside precisely those elements
of moral discourse which are the most fundamental, those where the
specificity of a Christian perspective counts the most, and those
where there is the most room for improvement.
What I do deny is (3) that such casuistic crunch decisions are
typical: i.e. that most people most of the time are making decisions
of that kind, which test at their outer edges the applicability of
basic rules. Most of the time the basic rules do suffice, once one
has identified an issue honestly. To concentrate only on where the
basic rules do not quite reach, or on hard cases where two basic
rules are in inevitable collision, is precisely to concentrate on the
atypical. "Hard cases make bad law." Preoccupation with looking for
loopholes is one of the most insidious ways to undermine the claims
of ordinary moral obligation, and the viability of ordinary community
What I do deny is (4) that powerful people have more crunch
decisions than weak people or victimized people or middle level
people do. It is usually such questions as, "what would you do if you
were the president?" which people use to test how far general rules
about love of the enemy can reach. Making the ruler in that way the
prototype moral decider is part of the constantinian legacy to which
our culture is heir. But the person in a position of much power is
less torn between conflicting pressures and obligations than is the
subordinate: the middle level bureaucrat, the lieutenant or NCO, the
member of a team who shares equally in discussion but not in
decision, the member of a minority whose priority wishes are never
heard. Such middle-level people, who know enough to dissent but have
less authority, are in the worse moral bind.
What I do deny is (5) that such casuistic crunch decisions are the
definition of tragedy. Since Reinhold Niebuhr, the notion of
"tragedy" has been cheapened by being appealed to by way of
self-justification when a person in political responsibility decides
he must hurt someone (regularly an adversary; not himself) in order
to serve someone else or some cause. Those are hard choices, although
it is because of his desire to be able to make them his way (this
usually is a masculine stance), rather than letting someone else make
them otherwise, that the person in political responsibility got
himself into that difficult position: to call them "tragedy" (or
sometimes "courage") domesticates and exploits the concept. Its basic
assumption, that moral obligation usually takes the form of a
prohibition, in such a way that its moral courage most of the time is
a question of justifying exceptions, is itself antijudaic and
unevangelical. To claim the label of "tragedy" for regularized and
justified arrangements, whereby the defense of one's own
interests is favored over the dignity or life of others, and further
to claim, tacitly or overtly, that being "tragic" is itself a mark of
being true, is a self-righteous abuse of language. It adds blasphemy
to injury. It too is part of what has given "casuistry" a bad
We would do better to retain the word "tragic" for situations
truly beyond our wisdom or beyond our control, rather than using it
in self-justification for those cases where we think we have figured
out the right though painful thing to do. We should save the
adjective for situations where the powers of evil are overwhelming or
incalculable, rather than claiming it for situations subject to our
own sovereign determination of the outcome which we ourselves claim
the authority to declare is less evil then another and therefore to
impose on others. We should reserve the label "tragedy" for cases
where there is less reason to trust in our own capacity (in terms of
information, will, and virtue, as well as power) to do the right even
when we think we know it.
What I do deny is (6) that my critics are any more temperate or
moderate, any less "absolute" than I, in what they consider decisive
for obedience. They challenge my values because they prefer other
values; but those other values are no less determining for them.
After all, what they want to convince me of is that in the crunch
case their values should overrule mine. They are willing to kill for
their other values, as I am not. In the light of this fact about the
lay of the land in the debate, the very popular use of terms like
"ambiguity" or "ambivalence" to describe their view is misleading.
Such terms seem to suggest fine differences of shading, debatable
readings in complicated situations; - but in fact the real choices
usually being talked about are something very decisive and simple
like bombing or not bombing a city.
What I do deny is (7) that these borderline cases are so probable,
so frequent and so predictable that we ought institutionally to honor
them by planning ahead of time to be ready to respond to a worst-case
projection of how bad it might be. To institutionalize readiness for
war is already to deny that it is, as the theorists claim, an extreme
last resort. One does not prepare ahead of time to be able to inflict
overkill in a situation of last resort. Especially one does not
delegate the decision about the cases which meet the logical
requirements for the extreme case to professional pentagon people
running through the provisions of their briefing books.
Thus the very fact of institutionalizing the readiness to do
something extreme means that it is no longer truly being considered
extreme. It has been brought into the realm of the thinkable and
therefore of the likely. Not only has it been built into an
hypothetical scenario; it has been written up as an authorized
"standard operating procedure" in the officers' manuals. This can be
demonstrated by the fact that the real historical cases in which
cities and populations have been destroyed in war have not been like
the extreme imaginable borderline crunch cases with which the
speculative debate of ethicists seeks to demonstrate that not all
killing can be avoided. They are worse, less justifiable, and could
have been more avoidable, but they were not avoided, because
readiness for them was institutionalized, as the restraints were
What I do deny is (8) that an ethic responding to the Gospel of
Jesus Christ is any more open to be strained, tested, challenged, or
called into doubt, by facing "hard cases," than is an ethic claiming
to possess as a warrant a non-dialogical knowledge derived from
"nature" or "reason" or even realistic self-interest. In fact, an
ethic claiming to be founded in "nature" or "reason" is by definition
less able to be "patient" in the sense I am talking about. It must
by the nature of its argument claim that those values are defined
self-evidently i.e. nondialogically.
What I do deny is (9), deepening the point of 2 above) that the question "can there be an exception?" ought to be one of the primary ways to test and exposit a rule. This is the methodological error of "quandarism." To look for exceptions, especially to be driven, before the hard case and as a general exercise in method, by the concern that there must be an exception to every rule, is the mirror image of the legalism it rejects (25). To use the general formal statement that "there may be exceptions" as a basis to institutionalize the infractions, as Daniel Maguire does with abortions, as "The Challenge of Peace" does with deterrence, and as the just war tradition does with killing, is ultimately dishonest, since it clothes as an exception to one rule what is in fact a commitment to the greater authority of a different rule.
What I do deny is (10, extending 9) the appropriateness of the
special tilt toward permissiveness which once gave to the adjective
"jesuitical" (not to Ignatius of Loyola himself) a bad name.
Casuistry is not wrong, but essential. The same is true for
exception-making, an indispensable part of casuistry. But when the
analysis, either in the actual practice of the sacrament of
absolution or in the intellectual ground laid in manuals of moral
theology for the exercise of that ministry, is tilted toward the
individual convenience of the penitent and away from the values borne
by (or in modern parlance the "rights of") the other parties to the
case, with the result that one invests or more concerned ingenuity in
authorizing exceptions than in helping to keep the rules, then the
discipline has gone wrong.(26)
What I do deny is (11) that in holding to the priority of the
prima facie duty more strongly than others do I am thereby
either in thought or in action more "pure" than others.(27)
It is the Augustana Confession XVI, not a "sectarian" or "puritan"
document, which says of war that it can be waged "without sin,"
whereas there are other things that one may be asked to do which
cannot be done without sin and which one should therefore not do. It
is the Catholic casuistry which by cleanly distinguishing between
physical and moral evils fosters the notion that moral purity is
possible.(28) The Niebuhrian or the
Sartrian has no corner on dirty hands. The question is not whether
one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kind
of inevitable evil is preferable.
Summary to part B;
Both of the sections of the above survey are appropriate when I
defend myself against the easy accusation of not taking account of
the fallenness and the limited potential of the real world situation.
It is however strange to see it suggested in the first place either
that my position would not make such adjustments, or that the need to
recognize such matters would be peculiar to my position. All of the
above adjustments are made or implied as far as I can see in
any systematic ethical tradition, if honestly held. They are
not peculiar to pacifism or to discipleship ethics. If others who
make the same moves describe them less fully or less clearly than I
have tried to do here, it may be because their being (or assuming
that they are) in a majority situation enables them to get away with
being less careful, taking less account of their critics.
Likewise the negation of these dimensions of adjustment is not
something that may fairly be attributed specifically to me or to
Anabaptists or to discipleship ethics: "absolutisms" which deny such
"patience" can be found no less in Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and
Prefatory comments: the following considerations were
presupposed in the preparation of the above text. They are placed
here at the end rather than at the beginning, because to place them
first would have appeared diversionary.
a) The first draft of the following outline was prepared in
response to a request from Gayle Gerber Koontz, now Professor of
Theology and sometime Dean and Acting President at the Associated
Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, years ago as a part of her
dissertation preparation.(29) I am
grateful to Gayle for that prodding. My first effort, part of which
she cited in her dissertation,(30)
was quite incomplete. I therefore have returned here to the attempt
to itemize, not currently for publication, the series of different
kinds of "patience" which qualify, modify, mitigate, or nuance the
application of any ethical standard, in the shift from the
stance of normative exposition, which is the duty of the teacher, to
the level of applications in concrete ministry and decision.
b) One reader characterized the above exposition as claiming that
I am "right".(31) Certainly no-one
would bother to exposit a position that they thought wrong; yet the
stylistic or psychodynamic overtones of the criticism are off the
mark. The authorial "I" here speaks for the coherence of a mode of
moral discourse, a position, not for a person. I as the person John
Yoder am not generous, or consistent, or transparent, or adequate. If
I were to claim certain other virtues there would be something wrong
with making the claim.
c) Because that decision was made for me by the environning
intellectual culture, it has been easiest to make the wrongness of
killing and the obligation of enemy-love the simplest test specimens
along the way through the argument. I have accepted that frame of
reference for the sake of discussion. That does not mean my granting
that the moral issues of truth-telling, promise-keeping,
bread-sharing, sexual integrity or honoring parents would be shaped
in a fundamentally different way. (but JWar, holy)(32)
d) Because that decision was made for me by the environning
ecumenical intellectual culture, I have acceded in this entire survey
to the moralizing mode which asks "is this obligation binding?" As
anyone who has read my less methodologically focused publications
knows, that very mode is alien to my own convictions. Normal
Christian moral discourse should be about enablement more than
prohibition; about law as a form of grace, not a polar alternative to
it; about pardon more than duty. Yet if I had put this paragraph at
the head, it could have been misread as an effort to trump the debate
by reaching for other warrants than those admitted in rigorous moral
discourse, or asking for a softer style of acccountability.
1. For example: a) Kohlberg's scale mixes empirical and ethical valuation claims in a challengeable way. b) His particular sequence is gender- and culture-specific; c) the moral agent is the individual, with only glancing account taken of community dimensions.
2. The obverse seems also to be true. After a certain age some learnings seem no longer to be possible. A child reared for years without human society becomes incapable of learning language. A duckling after a certain age cannot learn to swim.
3. "..a decision made for the wrong conscious reasons may yet by the grace of God be the right decision." In my Karl Barth and the Problem of War Nashville, Abingdon, 1970, p. 26.
4. For several years in the work of the Faith and Order Colloquium of the National Council of Churches, I was assigned to serve as secretary of the findings committee.
5. David Neville edits the Australian (largely Baptist) journal Faith and Freedom. Cf. my "Walk and Word: Alternatives to Methodologism" a point also made in The Priestly Kingdom 111-115
6. Cf. my "Meaning after Babble: with Jeffrey Stout Beyond Relativism" in Jjournal of Religious Ethics 24 Spring 1996) 125-139.
7. It is that too cf. Priestly Kingdom 111
8. Like the early Quakers, Gandhi and King on how nonviolence is not only an ethic about power but also an epistemology about how to let truth speak for itself.
9. Everyone does this, but in our age of empowerment rhetoric few would be caught admitting that they do it. The chapter in my The Politics of Jesus on the place of this theme in the moral thought of the earl church has been found objectionable by most readers, even though such different readers as Eduard Schweizer and Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza agree with its thesis (Cf. 188ff in the second edition of Politics of Jesus..
10. cf my very early essay "Witness to the State". I do not know of many other authors making the ecumenical effort to communicate within a system which they fundamentally challenge.
11. cf. My papers on the exile; and similar writings of Daniel Smith and Miguel Brun.
12. Above par. 6 this was described as a spirituality and life style. Here the same examples are noted as matters of vocationally assigned tasks.
13. Some of these are accessible elsewhere on this website.
14. This is what HRNiebuhr seems to me to have been doing with the notion of divine sovereignty. Because our knowledge is finite and we cannot secondguess the divine wisdom, therefore we should not be too sure of our sense of being called by Jesus, so we should be less critical of the claims of our environning "culture." His pupil J Gustafson carries the same logic farther, by using the label "theocentric" to undercut all value claims except his own anthropocentric vision.
15. Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Denck, among the most gifted witnesses of the first generation of sizteenth century Anabaptism, both used the proverbial "I may be wrong but I cannot be a heretic, since I am asking you to correct me."
16. I said this p. 72 of my Karl Barth and the Problem of War. In principle it applies to anything an honest intellectual says, but to begin every sentence that way would be tedious.
17. Scottdale. Herald, 2d e. 1992.
18. Cf. G.G.Koontz dissertation (cited above) pp. 106f., a point further elucidated in part B below).
19. This disavowal is not redundant or trivial. There are people who promise a miraculous way out as validation of apparently risky right action. I have heard such testimonies concerning doing without military violence. Some who reject abortion when the mother's health or life is threatened make such claims.
20. That is the whole point of the casuistic method.
21. This is a more complex form of the "readiness" considerations with which I began in (1) and (1) above.
22. I addressed this already in 1955 in the text which later became The Christian Witness to the State.
23. I also dealt with the problem of using others' language in "The Christian Case for Democracy" in The Priestly Kingdom pp. 158ff.
24. "Double effect" rules are one subset of this approach. Cf. my packet exceptio probat on the varieties of such arguments.
25. Cf. the place of the Grenzfall in Karl Barth's writing on killing. Barth ticks off the kinds of killing and the reasons, asking each time "is an exception justified here?" The question "is this a moral absolute?" with which this outline began skews even the most careful theologian's approach.
26. My notes from a session of the Society of Christian Ethics, where Charles Curran and I were assigned to respond to Toulimin/Jenson Abuse of Casuistry, are now in the packet exceptio probat. Curran and I largely agreed.
27. This misapprehension is spelled out at special length by Leslie Griffin when she unfairly uses me as target in her "The Problem of Dirty Hands" JRE 17/1 Spring 1989 pp. 31ff. After beginning by referring to me, Griffin later admits that what she is dealing with is not my position. That does not keep her kind of argument from belonging in this picture.
28. This is what is going on when the classical "double effect" theory says that there are some "intrinsically evil" acts which must never be committed.
29. Confessional Theology in a Pluralistic Context Boston University Dissertation (University Microfilms) 1985 p. 272
30. Confessional Theology in a Pluralistic Context (Yale 1985) p.272,
31. The grounds for reproach are not clear. Obviously she thought that in so characterizing me she was right.
32. It is however oddly the case that not all those other themes are subject to the same kind of modification which mainstream positions impose on the Gospel command of enemy love. There is no "just" or "holy" alternative seriously advocated to monogamy, or to promise-keeping, or to monotheism, as there are to not killing. There are exceptions made by some systems to the obligation of truth-telling, but even in that realm there is no counterpart of the Pentagon and the War Colleges to institutionalize unavolidable lying.
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