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Further footnotes on rhetoric, Yoder, and Boyarin.

Desire and Rhetoric

I want to begin by expressing gratitude to Professor Boyarin for the extraordinary gift of his essay. For me, at least, and I hope for others among us, this gift is extraordinary for several reasons. First, it offers a close reading of a text by a Mennonite writer whose works many of us have found to be intellectually transformative and life-changing; some of us have been literally saved by John Howard Yoder's recovery of the political, fleshly, and, yes, Jewish Jesus.

Perhaps more significantly, Professor Boyarin contributes to our understanding of John Howard Yoder's writing by offering a perspective on his work from elsewhere than Christendom, from a space other than the familiar places in which Yoder has been received, whether that be the Mennonite academy or the evangelical left or the post-liberal theological establishment. That other space might at first simply be characterized as a radically orthodox Judaism.

But as the essay unfolds, it becomes clear that the most extraordinary feature of Boyarin's gift to us is his forthright acknowledgement of a divided desire--a Jewish passion for Christian texts on the one hand, and a messianic refusal to simply consummate that passion on the other. One senses that Professor Boyarin carries in his own body--both his flesh and his work--the marks of the Jewish-Christian schism, that his reception of John Howard Yoder's call to visit again that schism is an occasion for a deeply ethical interrogation of the historical and contemporary forces unleashed by the division of Christianity from Judaism, forces that have overwhelmingly shaped both geopolitical alignments and spiritual boundary lines, forces that have been central to Boyarin's life and work.

Indeed, in describing the effects of that division and his own difficult response to reconsidering a future that does not take the division for granted, Boyarin invokes the term that has been assigned to me for this response. "These questions," he says, "are real, not rhetorical, questions for me."

As a teacher of rhetoric, it is tempting to respond reflexively to this posing of the rhetorical against the real; to say, as I often do, that there is nothing insubstantial or unreal about rhetoric. But before pushing that point, I want to first acknowledge what I take to be the profound stance announced here. For Boyarin, the question of whether to reconsider the past in such a way that an undivided future could be imagined is not merely an intriguing intellectual exercise with no expected answer, nor simply a question of logic. It is, rather, a matter of life and death. The possible loss of a Judaism that is other than Christian is a loss that Boyarin contemplates in terms of his own personal future or lack thereof.

The "ethics of preservation" that Boyarin invokes is familiar to Mennonites, who in recent years have reconsidered the Anabaptist/Christendom schism. We have debated whether or not the spiritual and practical gifts of our community can best be preserved by resituating them within the theological and cultural paradigms of classical Christian orthodoxy, by aligning them with the best of American evangelicalism, or by locating them in solidarity with other dissenters from Christendom, including black theology, liberation theology, and feminism. (1) Thus, many of us Mennonites who have come to share Boyarin's passion for early Christian texts, including the texts of the church fathers, have also shared Boyarin's anxiety about this very desire. We too worry about the loss of who we are in a powerful and historically imperialist discursive formation. For many of us, like for Boyarin, these questions are real in a deeply personal way; they impact our deepest longings and worries. These are questions that arise from desire.

Thus, these questions are also rhetorical. That is to say, these questions are matters for which there is no satisfactory shortcut to an answer, other than through the provisional adjudication that occurs in the give and take of discussion, where our desires are subjected to persuasion. Boyarin acknowledges this when he affirms Yoder's interest in what Boyarin calls "genuine dialogue"; that is, dialogue in which both partners in the discussion are open to change, rather than only making the case for their own perspective. When Yoder identifies a missionary stance with the peace church perspective, he is in my view assuming exactly this sort of a vulnerable stance, where missionaries are prepared to "lose their identity and even their names" through cultural immersion. (2)

So, I want to elaborate what I think is Yoder' view of the role of persuasion and communication in the adjudication of religious and cultural difference. But before I do that, I would like to briefly summarize what I might mean by arguing for rhetoric. I am going to ignore, for the purposes of this assignment, Plato's denigration of rhetoric as flattery or decorum, even though that is perhaps still the most common view of rhetoric. (3)

I will instead begin with Aristotle, who, in his book on the subject, defined rhetoric as the "ability in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." (4) For Aristotle such means included the character or ethos of the speaker, the emotions aroused by the speaker, and arguments based on reason. (5) This approach emphasizes rhetoric as a functional and useful art that can be employed on behalf of desirable goals--especially those that involve public deliberation.

An older view of rhetoric, associated with the sophistical movement of the fifth century B.C.E., stressed the capacity of persuasive speech to overturn standard hierarchies, to adjust to cultural relativities, and to overwhelm audiences as if they were subject to some kind of drug. As John Poulakos has pointed out, because the sophistical practice of rhetoric emerged in association with developing democratic practices in Periclean Athens, it can be seen as a "partial empowerment of the traditionally weak and the partial disempowerment of the hitherto powerful," thereby creating the possibility of a "new world." (6)

Walter Brueggeman has described the Jewish practice of rhetoric found in what Christians call the Old Testament as constitutive and risky speech that addresses an unsettled dispute with controversial testimony. (7) For Brueggeman, such risky and open-ended speech contrasts with the Greek, specifically Platonic, tendency found in Christian theology toward a transcendentalist desire for closure. (8) One version of Jewish rhetoric to consider is prophetic rhetoric, which James Darsey has contrasted with the Aristotelian tradition. According to Darsey, rhetorics of radical reform that rely on this prophetic tradition are less interested in adapting truth to an audience through practical application of the means of persuasion than in bringing "the practice of the people into accord with a sacred principle" though an "uncompromising, often excoriating stance toward a reluctant audience." (9)

Although the Apostle Paul is often understood to have adopted a Greek idealist posture in his speech and writing, some writers, Boyarin among them, have come to understand Paul's texts as a Jewish testimony shaped perhaps more by a response to sophistical rhetoric, than to Plato. (10) This apostolic rhetoric has been described by Agamben in his recent commentary on Romans as a post-prophetic speech; that is, speech that no longer speaks for God toward a future messianic event, but rather "speaks forth from the arrival of the Messiah." (11) While the prophets of old anticipate a time when prophecy will be over, when the prophet will be ashamed to speak (Zechariah 13:2), Paul can insist that "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:16). According to Agamben, the announcement made in such apostolic speech performs the actuality of what had previously been assumed only to be potential or possible; it is the content of faith, which Agamben defines as "being fully persuaded of the necessary unity of promise and realization." (12) This sense that words, or more precisely the Word, has constitutive power to act, to be fulfilled, and indeed to fulfill the desire of the nations, through human beings, is a dimension of Logos theology that has at times been understood primarily as an idealist posture adapted from Hellenic culture. Boyarin has shown in his book Border Lines that the Jewish roots of this perspective are as strong as any Greek origins, although the insistence that Jesus is the Logos becomes a mark of a distinction that is eventually drawn between Jews and Christians, largely due to the work of heresiologists on both sides. (13)

Defenselessness and Persuasion

It is this unashamed, vulnerable proclamation of the good news--this apostolic rhetoric--that John Howard Yoder can be seen as performing and advocating in his essay entitled "On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism and Validation." In the abstract at the beginning of the article Yoder sets out in the simplest terms what the goal would be for an apostolic rhetoric. The gospel, he writes "is a genre of communication which is at once particular and communicable, by virtue of the communicators' uncoerced and noncoercive submission to the host culture." (14)

Such a particular and vulnerable rhetorical posture challenges all efforts to coerce assent through not only institutional and political force, but also through epistemological games that manipulate people into feeling obliged to assent, games that typically involve making people embarrassed about the cultural particularity of their own perspectives in light of some presumed "wider world" that beckons with a more universalistic appeal, a claim to account for more of the cosmos than their own scandalously specific subjective space. As Yoder notes, however, the effort to abandon particularity in the name of a wider wisdom comes not so much from humility about the limits of one's own perspective than it does from the desire to dominate others with a theory that will account for more variables and seem less vulnerable to cross-cultural subversion.

Yoder's argument is not that one should cling protectively to one's own cultural specificity in the face of threatened assimilation but rather that one should freely offer the gifts associated with one's historical and cultural particularity in the context of engagement with other histories and cultures. In the case of the gospel, which Yoder wants to return to its specific Jewish conditions of emergence, any effort to protect its message by rendering it in more universal or more general terms is to improperly identify the gospel with an imperialist project--making the gospel appear as the bigger and broader thing, rather than as the specific historical event witnessed by Jews in Palestine over twenty centuries ago. This Jewish particularity is emphasized so strongly by Yoder that it calls into question even my effort in this response to characterize the gospel as a form of rhetoric: "'Incarnation' is not first a concept in communication theory; it is the code word for the uniquely theocentric palestinian jewish man Jesus, communicating God to us." (15)

At the same time, Yoder insists that the gospel can travel, indeed must travel, and be offered in terms that are available to the cultural worlds it encounters: "Evangel has to submit--wants to submit--vulnerably to the conditions of meaning of the receptor culture." (16) This sense that the gospel is both on the move and resistant to imperialist appropriation is stated by Yoder with playful metaphors: "The Logos dwelt in a tent, not in a castle, nor in a self-contained motor home fabricated elsewhere." (17)

This vulnerable offering of the gospel as described by Yoder is perhaps nowhere more directly at odds with Aristotle's theory of persuasion than in its expectation and acceptance of rejection. Yoder argues, for example, that rejection is part of the validation of the truth of the gospel: "Readiness to bear (the audience's) hostility is part of the message." (18) By way of contrast, the "foundationalists" want to "tailor their message for a 'world out there' which they trust will be willing to and will in fact have to listen, reasonably, as long as our tongue is not alien or odd." Such an approach to communication shares with Aristotle an interest in the available means of persuasion but insists against Aristotle that acceptance of the message is not a criterion for evaluating effectiveness.

Thus, I return to a question asked by Boyarin toward the end of his presentation: "Can there be for Yoder a messianic Judaism that does not accept Jesus?" I think it is quite clear that the answer to this question is "yes." The gospel could not be good news if it could not be rejected by the messianic community. In fact, the ongoing rejection of the gospel by rabbinical Judaism is arguably a gift to be received by Christians as a condition of possibility for the gospel's existence in the light of centuries of violent efforts to coerce, bludgeon, and manipulate the world's peoples into accepting what passed for the gospel. That there has been a stubborn Abrahamic community who has said "no" is vital for the gospel to retain even a semblance of its original defenseless vulnerability.

I am not here establishing a semantic trap whereby even the denial of the gospel constitutes acceptance, so that once again there is no meaningful way for a stubborn minority to either say yes or no. That the refusal of Jesus as the Messiah by rabbinical Judaism is a gift to Christians does not, from my perspective, implicate Jews in proving that Jesus was the Messiah, even though for Christians this rejection has contributed to the memory of the gospel's original defenselessness, and thus helped, perhaps in the providence of God, to save it. (19)

Controversy and Messianic Time

What would it mean then to accept Yoder's argument that for the gospel to in fact be good news, it cannot be coerced? One practical possibility is that if it took an army to enforce the kind of doctrinal orthodoxy that separated Jews and Christians, we might become convinced that this sort of orthodoxy--namely Nicene orthodoxy--will need to be revisited. (20) We might decide to reopen for discussion such questions as whether Jesus is the second member of the trinity or whether he is of one substance with the Father or whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son (to raise the question of another schism). (21) We might decide that such discussions ought to take place not simply among people who have already agreed on the truth of such statements but to include the perspectives that were silenced prematurely by force, coercion, and schism. The point of such conversations would not be to eliminate difference, to seek some new consensus, or to build some new interfaith structure, but rather to receive the particular and distinctive perspectives of Jews and Christians as gifts that are potentially transformative--even if we cannot really imagine an outcome in advance (and perhaps especially if we cannot imagine such an outcome).

Such a conversation would recognize that while the Jewish-Christian schism was a historical event by which great gifts were preserved and even generated, it has also been a disastrous event whose aftershocks are still felt in the contemporary geopolitical order. A conversation that sought to redeem and exceed this disastrous past would seek--through rhetoric--to recover with love the controversy of the Jewish--Christian schism, to take up once again and without armies and heresiologists, the questions that divided and that still divide, including the question of the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, such a controversial conversation would need to become a rhetorical home in which Jews and Christians are willing to dwell without recourse to some new final resolution or solution, like an established creed or an authoritative organization.

A loving controversy such as this would also be a real event. It might be described as taking place in what Agamben has called messianic time, a time in which we reconsider and represent the time that has passed, thereby constituting a remaining time that cannot simply correspond with chronological time--the time that flies by. (22) Such a real time--the only time we actually have, according to Agamben--is an occasion to live in the manner called for by Paul the Apostle, as if we were not in the stations in which we find ourselves, whether that be married or not, male or female, Jew or Christian, theologian or rhetorician. It is an occasion to recapitulate the past in a way that seeks what has been lost and that which might be recovered. It is through such real work, the work of love and the work of mourning, that moments of grace and possibility appear. (23) I take Daniel Boyarin's response to the work of John Howard Yoder on the Jewish-Christian schism, and then also the opportunity to respond to his provocative text, as precisely moments full of such real possibility, as rhetorical gifts of messianic time.


1. Thomas Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2004), A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics, vol. 1. Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001).

2. John Howard Yoder, As You Go: The Old Mission in a New Day (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1961), 18.

3. Plato, Gorgias, trans. W.C. Hembold (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989), 500-06, Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, trans. Walter Hamilton (London: Penguin, 1973), 260-73. I am citing the established pagination for Plato's works.

4. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George Kennedy, Second ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 37.

5. Ibid., 39.

6. John Poulakos, Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 14-15.

7. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 82-83.

8. Ibid.

9. James Francis Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 16.

10. Bruce Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002), 241-43.

11. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 61.

12. Ibid., 91.

13. Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 89-98.

14. John Howard Yoder, "On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation," Faith and Philosophy 9 no. 3 (1992): 285.

15. Ibid.: 295.

16. Ibid.: 291.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.: 293.

19. My claim here does not simply mirror Augustine's view, which was that the Jews' rejection of Jesus was somehow foreordained by God and thus was not a reason to persecute the Jews. In contrast to Augustine, I argue that the rabbinical rejection of Jesus as the Messiah needs to be considered by Christians as a valid biblical response to the gospel, one which may be discussed and countered, but never dismissed or neglected. For a discussion of Augustine's response to rabbinical Judaism see James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 208-19.

20. Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity, 214-25, Hal Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 441-83.

21. See, for example, an important but neglected article by a Mennonite pastor challenging the doctrine of the Trinity. Mitchell Brown, "Jesus: Messiah Not God," The Conrad Grebel Review 5, no. 3 (1987): 233-51.

22. Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 67-68.

23. Ibid., 75-77.
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Author:Biesecker-Mast, Gerald
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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