Walking out of the theater with my friends, the topic of discussion was the ethics of torture. We had seen Zero Dark Thirty and since all the talk around the film centered on the torture stuff we found ourselves joining in the discussion of its ethics implications. Somehow the larger question of the ethics of the whole mission to kill Osama was left untouched as a given. Like many who had engaged in such a debate we found ourselves lost in the mire of “reliable intelligence” and “actionable information.” Lost was the more looming issue, meant to be a mainstay of ethical debate, about what it was ethical for one human being to do to another. Utilitarianism ruled the day
It is questions like this that began my thinking on my religious heritage. Since it is in vogue to talk of about our spiritual pilgrimage — being “on a journey,” living “in the questions,” “with doubt,” “in tension” — I find myself wanting to revisit some of the points upon my theological path. I grew up in a Mennonite church which I attended until I was twenty-two but over the last decade moved into a more charismatic expression, culminating in four years at The International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Having separated from that movement I am now trying to build relationships at an Anglican church I have been attending off and on over the past two years.
Having in many ways naively embarked on this journey, I was not immediately apparent to me the theological gulfs that lay between the Mennonite Church I left and the charismatic expression which I found myself in. I came from a tradition with a strong emphasis on the Jesus of the gospels and found myself in an expression where militant language, the “Jesus in red,” end times timelines, and newspaper exegeses were the order of the day. The discussion of pacifism that had sat shotgun during many theological debates and hypothetical scenarios on bus rides home from youth retreats and conventions was dismissed as impractical at best or at worse, simply unimportant.
In an attempt to reinvigorate, at least within my own thoughts, the discussion of an appropriate gospel-shaped ethnic and to attempt to expand my appreciation and connection with Mennonite thought, over the next weeks I will be blogging though Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder’s seminal work The Politics of Jesus. First published in 1972, during the final years of the Vietnam War, and later revised in a second edition released in 1994, seeking to incorporate the discussions of the subsequent twenty years since its publication yet not wishing a complete overhaul, the book represents a milestone of pacifistic thought and Mennonite theology.
Almost another two decades have passed since the publication of that second edition, yet does this render Yoder’s writings passé or too dated for the current debate of ethics. Looking at the complications of a post 9/11 America it may be tempting to think so. For sure some of the debates with which Yoder was embroiled are now unnecessary. The idea that Jesus did not have a political aspect to his message is becoming increasingly laughable within many circles of gospel studies. Yet Yoder’s writing represents a significant part of that debate, and his ethical vision is one from a unique vantage point within the Christian conversation and should as such not be dismissed glibly.
Over the next weeks I will be blogging through the contents of Yoder’s book, attempting to outline his positions and voice my questions, agreements and concerns. Hopefully this with be an enlightening endeavored that will begin to provide a language for all these ethical questions of which our current discussion seems to be bankrupt. The next time my friends and I walk out of a theater, or perhaps a situation whose ethics demands are even more immediate, there will be more to ask than whether water boarding routinely reveals reliable intelligence, or if sleep deprivation, sound bombardment, extreme temperature exposure yields the location of terror networks or the site of a future target. Even more perhaps we will have the language to tackle the bigger questions, like is it right to shoot Osama, who gets to decide, and what might I, given the same opportunity, do.