Remembering Yoder Honestly

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September 29, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Ever since I read this article by the current president of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and this editorial in a recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite, I’ve been thinking about how to think about Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. And I’m by no means the only one. This blog article by Tim Nafziger has been circulating among Mennonites on both sides of the border, and points out some important, if controversial, aspects of navigating Yoder’s legacy, the main issue being, of course, how to reconcile his theological brilliance with his sexual harassment of a number of his female students.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with for some time, ever since I first learned about Yoder’s abusiveness when I was an undergraduate at Canadian Mennonite University. At that time I remember being impressed, as my prof was, that Yoder had submitted to a disciplinary/reconciliation process, and took that as a sign that the issue had been dealt with (a similar argument is made by Andy Alexis-Baker here). But since then, I’ve come to believe that this issue is much more complicated than that.

For one thing, I’m not of the opinion that we should (or can) boycott Yoder’s work entirely because of his abuse of students. His articulations of the Mennonite tradition and of radical Christian pacifism have been enormously influential in both the church and the academy. He provided me with compelling reasons to embrace absolute pacifism/peacemaking, influenced my conception of Jesus’ life and ministry, and inspired me to continue on the path toward becoming a Mennonite theologian. He truly was an academic pioneer, prompting many to identify as “Yoderian” thinkers, and though I don’t identify as one of them, I believe that God can and does speak through his work despite his significant failures.

However (and this is a major however), I don’t think Yoderians have been sufficiently conscientious about acknowledging and naming Yoder’s abusiveness and its ongoing ramifications. Firstly, I don’t buy the argument that his personal life had no effect on his theological thought and writing. Ted Grimsrud argues along these lines in this article, asking, “If we didn’t know he was a serial sexual harasser, would we be able to find hints in his published theology that might make us suspect that he could be?” and responding, “At this point, I just don’t see anything.” I, among others, beg to differ (see Hannah Heinzekehr’s article). Yoder’s argument for “Revolutionary Subordination” in The Politics of Jesus never did sit rightly with me, as it presented an abstract, context-less gender equality without sufficiently analyzing the deep-seated power imbalances that presently exist between men and women. To ask men or those in power to practice submission can be revolutionary; for most women, however, it’s anything but. Instead, such an ethic reinscribes the harmful self-effacing tendencies that many women are socialized to adopt – including, clearly, the students whom Yoder harmed. On this basis (unlike Andy Alexis-Baker), I’ve come to think that Yoder’s work on gender and sexuality cannot be authoritative for Mennonites (or others) in any way; it’s severely compromised by his harmful actions.

Secondly, Yoder’s actions have affected the Mennonite theological landscape more generally, in effect ensuring that there is a generation of female academic theologians missing. It’s really quite striking to notice the gender imbalance at most Mennonite post-secondary institutions, where women make up a minority of the faculty, especially in biblical studies and theology. This translates into fewer theological publications by Mennonite women and fewer female mentors influencing the next generation of scholars (though not, thank God, fewer pastors who are women in the Mennonite church). And it’s partly Yoder’s fault. As Nafziger points out, “Yoder systematically sought out dozens of these emerging [female] leaders, grooming them with compliments about their work and asking them to read his articles, leading them to believe they had a special mentor-protégée relationship with them. …Then he harassed and abused them.” “Is it any surprise then,” Nafziger wonders, “that most leading Yoder scholars are men? That the leading voices in movements influenced by Yoder are also men?” And most poignantly, he asks, “How can we as a church begin to heal from the loss of these women’s voices and leadership?” It’s a devastating loss, and it’s going largely unnoticed.

Thirdly, as Nafziger argues, the church discipline process which Yoder underwent (reluctantly, by several accounts), didn’t hold him sufficiently accountable. According to Nafziger, it was a highly closed and therefore secretive process, and didn’t actually involve the abused women themselves. “A promised public statement of apology did not materialize, and [according to Ruth Krall,] ‘No visible efforts were made by him or by the institutional church to heal the deeply wounded relationships between him and the women he victimized.’” Not only that, but it’s unclear whether the process actually addressed Yoder’s actions as abuse instead of as (consensual) extra-marital affairs.

All of this leads me to seriously question our ways of dealing with this kind of issue as a Mennonite church. It seems we still have a lot to learn about how to practice restorative justice, especially when it comes to sexual violence. Too often we cry “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11), using “restorative justice” as a way of letting the offender off the hook through quick “forgiveness” instead of doing the slow and difficult work of true reconciliation. Recognizing that the legal justice system offers no room for forgiveness, we champion it as a simple inversion of punitive justice, but end up neglecting the victims just as much as the courts do. Canadian Mennonite-feminist theologian Lydia Neufeld Harder talks about how the Mennonite church tends to sacrifice individuals for the sake of the community, and that often, those individuals are women. We need to be careful how we proceed when it comes to Yoder, and this article by Barbra Graber provides some constructive suggestions. I for one will be following her third point and mentioning Yoder’s abusiveness when I use his books in my own theological work. That’s my way of remembering him honestly: by holding his brilliance and his brokenness together.

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