John Howard Yoder and Sex: Wrestling with the Contradictions

May 24, 2012Andy Alexis-Baker

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During the 1970s through the mid 1980s, John Howard Yoder engaged in a range of inappropriate sexual behavior that abused his power as a professor of theology. According to one of the women who spoke publicly, “It can range from suggesting, ‘sit on my lap,’ to actually pulling people down on his lap, inappropriately kissing and hugging.” Another woman, who was married at the time, said that Yoder moved close to her on a couch while her husband was away and suddenly pushed her over and laid on top of her. “When I pushed him away and confronted him, he denied there was anything sexual about it.” At the time of the incidents, the Mennonite Church had only just begun to allow women into pastoral ministry. Consequently, the women Yoder wronged felt powerless to confront him for fear that doing so would jeopardize their newfound access to the pulpit. Moreover at first many of them felt flattered. As one woman said,

“I realize now that it was intellectual seduction. For a Mennonite woman who is bright to be taken seriously in the church doesn’t happen very often. To have John Howard Yoder acting like my ideas were profound and significant—it was real heady stuff. He probably wrote me five times for every time I wrote him, He was a wonderful resource. He started networking me with women around the world. It was incredible to me that he knew women around the world.”

Yet Yoder abused the professional relationship they had by writing her sexually explicit letters. It was only after a broader public outcry and cultural shifts during the 1980s that these women came forward and spoke out publicly, but it was still not easy for them. As one of the women later said, “To confront Mr. Mennonite, a man of John’s stature in the church, is terrifying. When you’re dealing with a woman lay person in the church and John Howard Yoder, there is no way mediation will work because there is a gross imbalance of power.”

That a prominent, respected Anabaptist leader and staunch advocate of nonviolence committed these actions against women who trusted and respected him is appalling and disturbing, to say the least. What is all the more sobering is realizing that Yoder is not alone in his abuse of power. Indeed, there is a long list of dominant male thought-leaders who have used their influence to engage in sexual misconduct both within and outside of the church. Karl Barth, whose theology is unparalleled in Protestantism, had a mistress that he fraternized with openly and whom he did not credit for her written contributions to his thought. Paul Tillich, a brilliant philosopher, was well known for his womanizing. Stokely Carmichael, a pillar of the Black Power liberation movement, explicitly stated, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exploits with women other than his wife are as much a part of his legacy as his tireless work for Civil Rights. Each of these men—and too many others—has left a trail of pain, anger, and ugliness that is inseparable from their remarkable achievements. How can people of conscience respond to this tension? What do we make of Yoder and others like him in light of this history?

One response is declining to see Yoder as an authoritative voice for personal and/or corporal Christian theology and ethics. This is an understandable position, especially when held by people who have experienced sexual abuse and harassment, or who have been allies to individuals living in the shadow of sexual trauma. For people in these situations there is just no way to see Yoder as a meaningful leader given the intimate hurt he caused. This is a legitimate stance. Indeed, the very suggestion that someone with those experiences should “Get over it” and embrace him is repugnant.

A second response is to protect Yoder from scrutiny and critique so that he and his message remain untarnished. Although I have not heard anyone who has been deeply influenced by him advocate this approach, I also know of very few Yoder scholars or publications who have openly addressed his actions in their writing (myself included). In Hannah’s Child, Stanley Hauerwas writes very frankly about Yoder’s sexual misconduct. Ted Grimsrud has also written a reflection on Yoder’s sexual misconduct, even posting the newspaper articles from the time about it. Yet little else has been done to name this discrepancy between his thought and actions. In some ways, this silence reflects a well-intentioned desire not to cause additional harm to the other victims of Yoder’s choices, namely the people closest to him who loved and love him and who don’t want to relive the experience continuously. But this type of silence nevertheless communicates defensiveness on Yoder’s behalf for the way it can serve as an excuse to pretend nothing happened.

A third approach is to acknowledge that Yoder did something wrong on one hand but then say it has no bearing on the important parts of his thought. For example, I once heard a major interpreter of Yoder’s work say that, the church should not listen to anything he said about sexuality because of his conduct in this area. But bracketing off everything he said about that topic would preclude us from discovering the way Yoder supported women in ministerial leadership in his unpublished writings; preached against mandatory head coverings for women in church as early as the 1950s; and publicly lectured in ways that suggested inclusivity toward homosexuals during the 1970s and 80s. Compartmentalizing Yoder’s thoughts on sexuality would also prevent us from exploring his unpublished writings on singleness and marriage in which he sought a third way between the poles of singleness and monogamous marriage such that a married person could ethically maintain a consensual, physically intimate relationship with another person without crossing the line into sexual intercourse. Both the progressive stances he took for his time as well as the irony of Yoder betraying his own emerging thought by engaging in secretive, coercive interactions with his female colleagues would go unnoticed by sweeping away entire aspects of his work. But on a more negative note, it also can preclude us from examining the process he advocated for dealing with conflict, in which individuals confront individuals. That process found in the Gospel of Matthew allowed Yoder to hide behind his power and a biblical proof text. It is not self-evident that that process for dealing with abuse can actually work.

A fourth and final response—and the response I try to use in my ongoing study of Yoder—is to acknowledge his sin, to read him critically as a result of his actions, and to remain open to hearing what he has to offer that is good and true. Maintaining this posture is a reminder that nobody is pure evil or pure good. We are always walking in the shades between them and those of us with power are often walking that tightrope even more.

When I look at Yoder, I see a mixed bag. He was harmful to several women in his role as a professor and a leader among Mennonite Churches in the U.S. and beyond and his work on Christian discipleship and his broader theology has the power to transform Christians who are willing to listen to the other side of the Constantinian divide.

The one thing we can say about Yoder is that he eventually admitted he did these things, and even before that he stuck to the long process. In that regard there was a consistency in his thought and action. He did not have to confess or submit to the Mennonite Church’s disciplinary process. He was a professor at Notre Dame, had stature across the globe, he could have just refused to participate and denied it all. He never faced any legal charges or lawsuits, so this was not a “jailhouse” confession. That is more than we can say for many male leaders who have committed sexual abuse in the church. But many of the women involved in Yoder’s case never received an apology from him, which again shows the two-sided nature of this thing.

I have been involved in publishing Yoder’s works and continue to be involved in forthcoming projects. But that does not mean I am unaware of or want to protect his legacy from this ugly side. His arguments for pacifism have had an enduring influence on my life in many ways. I continue to think that his arguments in that regard should become more and more accepted across a wider and wider swath of the Christian churches. But I can’t cover up or ignore the parts I don’t like.1

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  1. I must thank my wife, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, for helping me process this and for her editing skills.
  • Justin Anthony Knapp

    I read Hauerwas’ memoir last year and was disturbed at his discussion of Yoder’s misconduct. It’s a simple fact that, he, King, Gandhi, et. al have some repugnant behavior and they somehow used their intellect and otherwise trenchant moral insight to justify their conduct. But when I reflect upon these men and their achievements, I can take heart in the fact that they were not otherworldly. To the extent that we can call them saints, they were still human beings–flawed and fallible.

    It does nothing to undermine King’s message to say that he was a serial philanderer, but if he was somehow morally perfect and beyond temptation, then that would make him difficult for me to relate to as a moral visionary. When the Bible speaks of the Messiah being tempted in every way, I find that humanizing. So even if I can grant that one human life was sinless, it still was not without temptation and many other human lives have had their pitfalls (including some that were egregious) but which still contributed to the world in a positive way.

    After I read Hauerwas’ memoir, I was inspired to read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer–a subject about whom I knew too little. It gives me strength to think of him as a failed pacifist. He was a human being and a great one at that. If I can’t forgive him, Yoder, King, or Gandhi for their flaws (which were never even directed at me), then how can I forgive my brother?

    • Kathryn Price

      Justin, I’m uneasy with putting Bonhoeffer’s actions in the same category of the “flaws” of men who used their positions to pursue or trifle with women, for which you say you can forgive them as you forgive Bonhoeffer for being a failed pacificist. I don’t regard Bonhoeffer as a failed pacifist, but I won’t argue that here. I will say that I don’t see his situation as remotely analogous to the other individuals you cite. I would suggest reading his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison, especially the Prologue. Bonhoeffer insisted throughout his writings that the Christian life does not consist of abstractions, that it is not a program or a principle, and that we are responsible to concrete circumstances. He was willing to enter what he called “the fellowship of guilt” for the sake of other human beings and did not believe in elevating the desire for personal innocence over responsibility. Whether or not you agree with his decisions, I think they are in a completely different category from experimenting with, or just plain using, or frankly, trifling with women’s sexuality. You can’t read his Ethics and not know how he was deeply considering the concrete circumstances of his time in light of his responsibility as a Christian and a human being. He knew that he was risking his life. I just don’t see that as on the same order as what you’re talking about with these other men.

  • JamesH

    Thanks for writing this. Yoder’s writings have had a huge impact on me, but I only recently found out about his sexual abuse, and I have been struggling with what to do with all of it. Breaking it down into four responses will be helpful as I continue to process this. Do you know if there are any plans to publish his writings on singleness?

    • JamesH

      I really hope that becomeS a reality, even if it takes several years. When I recently started hearing about all of this (in Hauerwas’ book and the stuff Ted Grimsrud has posted) I was appalled by the seemingly abusive nature of Yoder’s actions, but at the same time I was really intrigued by the hints of Yoder’s thinking on physical touch outside of marriage. As someone who has chosen the celibate life as an act of resistance questions about all forms of interpersonal intimacy are personally relevant to me, but particularly questions surrounding physical touch. Neurotic Christian and cultural taboos and the emphasis on ‘family values’ create all kinds of problems for Christians who choose the celibate path (particularly those of us in Protestant traditions), and I find this is particularly the case in the area of physical touch. The idea of physical intimacy without sexual intercourse within the body of Christ is something that needs to be explored more. Even though some of the things Yoder did were abusive and horrible, I wonder if celibates and the church in general might benefit from his reflections on these topics, just as we benefit from his contributions on so many other subjects.

  • Victor

    Thank you for this but, while I largely agree with your “fourth response” conclusion, I believe your reflections, like those of Hauerwas, Grimsrud, and others, remain deeply inadequate.

    When the record is fully considered I believe JHY serves primarily as a symbol of the tendency of our Mennonite church (and many other inbred communities – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/us/native-americans-struggle-with-high-rate-of-rape.html) to empower abusers through unjust community pressures. As you note those anti-justice pressures persist even today in relationship to Yoder. The heroes of the Yoder story, who remain uncelebrated, are the handful of women who ultimately resisted cultural pressure to such a degree that their threat to Occupy JHY’s speaking engagements forced denominational officials into nominal action (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howard_Yoder). The decades of cover-up, both before and after the “discipline” illustrated, and illustrate, much of the character of our Mennonite church in which powerful abusers are often promoted rather than confronted.

    The comparison of JHY’s actions to King and others is profoundly inadequate. Your article, with one word, illustrates why. That word is “coercive”. We cannot adequately compare JHY’s actions to any figure that did not engage in coercive, illegal, sexual abuse of those under his institutional power. Preying on students, over whom he had the power of impacting grades and careers, would be akin to King demanding sexual favors of a young secretary in his employ – we have no record of such a thing. One must recognize that this coercive, illegal, abuse of power is quite different than grievous infidelity in marriage.

    Further, it is not clear that JHY ever apologized. Apparently he told some that he had been instructed by the Mennonite denomination not to apologize (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howard_Yoder). If this is the case it further illustrates how deep this scandal runs and how inadequately the community around Yoder had formed his capacity to recognize abuse (surely a truly repentant abuser would ignore this instruction). If one need further evidence of Yoder’s nauseating unrepentance one need only read his unpublished book reflecting on the young female upstarts who had unjustly savaged the “old man” (the book “A Case For Punishment” was available for download until recently on the Notre Dame site – Jesus Radicals could repost it – among other things Yoder manipulates the work of Rene Girard to describe how he was scapegoated by his abused accusers). If, after review of that book, one can still introduce others to a Yoder turn of phrase, without use of the word “scumbag”, one is surely made of different material. While one can respect JHY’s capacity to turn a theological phrase one can, as noted, recognize that he regularly utilized this capacity to manipulate and harm those who were vulnerable.

    It’s not like we don’t have other sources to turn to. Much of Yoder’s work on nonviolence is simply a less thoughtful repetition of the insight of Adin Ballou over a century earlier. Tolstoy recognized the brilliance of Ballou’s work and life. While Ballou had his own eccentricities they did not include sexual assaults and his lived example in the formation of the Hopedale Community makes both his teaching and practice far superior to Yoder. What is lacking in Ballou, I suppose, is a contemporary marketability among publishers – which, of course, should be a central consideration in all graduate study. Still, one can recognize that much of what JHY contributed in his writings has been covered by people of character, many of them fellow Mennonites, both before and after his time. We can permit the harm truth will do to Yoder’s reputation knowing that we lose only marketability and not the content of any truly unique thought worthy of more than a passing footnote.

    We may be able to agree that, until the heroism of the women of the Occupy movement at Bethel College in 1992 comes to mind with every mention of JHY, justice has not been done.

  • Victor

    Sorry, late thought, given the withdrawal of his speaking invitation by the threat of the Occupy women this may not have been a jailhouse confession but, while we must remember there was no real confession, the discipline process occurred only in the context of this threat to JHY’s career. Every aspect of his “voluntary submission”, “confession”, “apology” surrounding the discipline process is another willful misinterpretation of what actually occurred.

  • Sufilizard

    Thanks Alex, I like the way you address this.

    • Sufilizard

      Sorry Andy, I was thinking “Andy” but typed “Alex”

  • Mark H.

    Thanks for this post Andy. Do you consider yourself a “Yoderian”? Why not focus on your own work rather than distributing the work of a person as flawed as Yoder seems to have been?

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    It seems your various possible responses are well represented in the comments section! I would hope there’s some middle ground between the “everyone is fallen, so it’s all good” and the “Yoder is nothing more than a scumbag” approach. The irony of the former is that Yoder explicitly argues against the “moral realism” approach that suggests that since no one is perfect, our ethic needs to allow for exceptions. Of course, he was writing primarily about violence rather than sexuality, but it seems that the same principle would apply. Yet, unlike other commenters, I don’t think Yoder’s significance can be reduced to a single footnote. His creative dismantling of the logic of violence is a gift to the church, even if he did not live up to his own ideals. In short, I agree that the fourth response is probably the best way to go. Indeed, in the “Theological Legacy of JH Yoder” and “Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution” courses at AMBS, this is precisely the way the Koontz’s begin their respective classes. Thanks for sharing, Andy.

    • Victor

      David, I only suggest that Yoder earns the title scumbag after review of his unpublished book “The Case for Punishment” (and certainly he is more than just this). If you, or anyone else, can review this blatant re-victimization of those he abused, and casting of himself as the innocent martyr – under the guise of the work of Rene Girard – without reaching the same conclusion I’ll be surprised. Of course this book is written near the end of his “discipline” as if to ensure we all understand how much was gained through that process.

  • theamishjihadist

    Thanks Andy. I’m going to link this to an upcoming post in order to direct some more folks here. By the way, the quotes and information you have in the first few paragraphs, where are those sources? I may have glossed over that in the read. Were you getting those from Grimsrud’s pieces? Many thanks.

    • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

      They’re from the Elkhart Truth newspaper coverage, if I recall correctly. Grimsrud has those articles on his site.

      • theamishjihadist

        Ah, I see now. Thanks, David!

  • Victor

    To be clear. I too have been moved by words of Yoder. But there are many just as eloquent and often more thoughtful (at least in the area of nonviolence) who did not also make a mockery of living the ideal by victimizing others (King didn’t have “victims” other than Coretta – Yoder has innumerable victims starting with Anne).

    Take the time to read Ballou – Yoder and Tolstoy both did and then imitated him. And yet, despite the imitation, Ballou is simultaneously both more sophisticated and clear than Yoder ever was on questions of coercion (a more central matter than nonviolence) and the relationship of Christians to the state. Of course Ballou’s books are all free and in the public domain so merchandising his name is more difficult (his royalties will never endow a Chair at a university or subsidize a lecture series) but why settle when you can read and research someone who inspires like Ballou both by his words and lived example?

    As Father John Dear reports, when Tolstoy was asked who was the greatest American writer he responded, “Adin Ballou” (http://www.fatherjohndear.org/articles/adin-ballou.html). Andy has taken a great step toward an honest assessment of Yoder. But there are more worthy and forgotten authors, and there are courageous female victims who deserve the spotlight long given to this abuser who is often still protected by a Mennonite culture of cover up.

    • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

      Victor, I think you are largely correct that the women victims are the heroes of this story–if indeed this story needs heroes. (I’m not sure whether many of them would desire the “spotlight” that you rightly suggest they deserve, though.) Yet, is it not a bit unfair (if not a bit simplistic) to suggest that Mennonites (and “many other inbred communities” as you stated earlier) are somehow unique in their mishandling of this problem? It seems, rather, than sexual abuse and coverups/mishandling thereof are pervasive in our society. And, despite obvious errors and the many caveats you raised earlier, isn’t the fact that Mennonites at least tried to discipline their theological hero noteworthy?

      • Victor

        I don’t think the discipline is noteworthy except as a reminder of how deep the prior failures were. After decades of JHY’s abuses being a known secret among Mennonites a group of women had to force the Mennonite church to respond. It’s like saying what is remarkable about the scandal of Catholic priests is that it ever came out rather than being appalled that it took so long to come out and the cover up was so extensive.

        Remember that the main outcomes of the “discipline” are endorsements from the denomination to continue his previously threatened career and not apologize. What we note, even in Andy’s post, is that there are strong cultural elements continuing to cover up what Yoder did and, on the rare occasions it is described, to describe it as if King and Yoder were remotely culpable of the same behaviors. The “discipline” was as much a face-saving cover up for the church and Yoder as it was any real source of accountability.

        In some respects what matters here is not Yoder. Yoder is simply a powerful symbol of a culture less healthy in some respects when compared to mainstream American culture. What is needed is a, “People’s History of The Mennonite Church” so that, having laid bare all the covered up lies, one can build a culture where abusers are lovingly held accountable and victims are given the loudest voice. Mainstream U.S. culture currently practices this better than the Mennonite ethnic elite. Truthtelling about Yoder has the potential to help Mennonite culture catch up, and, God willing, surpass the ethics of mainstream America.

        • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

          You mentioned the Catholic priests’ scandal(s). Would you consider the RCC another of your “inbred communities”? If so, it’s a rather large one, no? If not, why make it seems as though Mennonites (and Native Americans) are somehow uniquely prone to these abuses?

  • Myles Werntz

    Good word, Andy. Those of us interested in thinking through his work and its implications should never shy away from the dark edges. In your post, I’m reminded of Cynthia Hess’ work, where she worries that Yoder’s emphasis upon confession of God’s peace combined with a discursive ecclesiology actually leads to silencing voices of pain and violence in favor of those who speak of God’s peace.

    Does anyone have access to the original Eklhart articles? I tried to ILL them once upon a time but couldn’t get them.

    On another issue, looking forward to the trilogy of “Yoder for everyone”.

  • ric hudgens

    Yoder is (in my opinion) such a deep well to draw from on so many issues that it is hard to think of prohibiting his use altogether. A year ago I was doing some research and writing on a particular topic where Yoder’s relevance was clear to me, but I was afraid that the concerns described in your essay had poisoned that well for this particular audience. I didn’t want my use of Yoder to handicap my argument. I tried to write the article as if Yoder didn’t exist, and then was challenged by my readers (who knew my Mennonite affiliation) for not including Yoder’s perspective!

    Although I agree with the need to read all theologians including Yoder critically, it also seems a bit more complicated than that. The Elkhart newspaper articles mention unpublished writings by Yoder on sexuality. I can well understand why those articles have not been made public. Another part of that difficulty is that power and submission to power are so central to Yoder’s work that his own misuse of power must be taken into account. This is another difference here between Yoder and say King, Barth, or Tillich (your examples), in that to my knowledge King, Barth, and Tillich did not try to theologically or ethically justify their actions. Whether Yoder did is a question we can’t really answer without seeing those unpublished writings. It troubles me to think that he did try to justify it (and I suspect that he indeed did do so), and because of that it requires me to read Yoder even more suspiciously than I otherwise might.

    We need some women in this discussion.

  • Nekeisha

    Since I worked and talked with Andy a lot about this article, I hesitate to jump in for fear of seeming defensive. But I do have a couple of thoughts and hope they can be said/heard as the words of a fellow-wrestler.

    My personal opinion is that while there are differences between the particularities in the sexual misconduct of Yoder, Barth, Gandhi, King and the others that were mentioned, what they all have in common is that all were centers of respective cults of personality and had attained or were given leadership roles that they all abused. We aren’t just talking about any ole person having an affair or any ole person sending unwanted sexually explicit letters to their peers. We are talking about charismatic men of influence who wielded a lot of power and who used that power to seduce women, to abuse their covenants, and to use the social, intellectual and theological power that they had to engage in activities that compromised their own best ideals (or perhaps confirmed the patriarchal and sexist ideals they held alongside their more admirable political and social insights.) That Yoder made unwanted/coercive advances toward women sets him apart from the others, yes. And that should not be overlooked. But something tells me the women that King or Tillich slept with and had no use for afterward or the young women Gandhi slept next to tp test his willpower, or Barth’s mistress who was never credited for the contributions she made to his even though she was his sexual partner thought may also see themselves (or be seen) as victims of a different stroke and that shouldn’t be dismissed just because they weren’t forced.

    I also think that singling out one denomination or religion over this is a bit ridiculous. Christians of all stripes be they Mennonite, Amish, Catholic, non-denominational, or Baptist, people of other faiths be they Muslim, Hindu, and atheists and agnostics alike are dealing with imbalances of male power that manifest in sexual abuse and sexual trauma as I type. Are there elements of Mennonite theology that can intentionally and unintentionally cause people to suppress the abuses committed against others and the voices of people who experience such abuses? Of course. Hilary Scarsella’s first essay on the Lord Supper in Mennonite/pacifist-minded Christian communities makes that clear and research into other Anabaptist communities has demonstrated as much. But that happens all over the place. I don’t see how judging an entire centuries old faith tradition because of Yoder’s actions and those who failed to support those women gets us any closer to determining what how to increase accountability nor how to wrestle with reading people like him (of which there are too many).

    • ric hudgens

      The Barth-von Kirschbaum relationship seems to have been objectionable to everyone except Barth and von Kirschbaum. It was a relationship between two adults over 35 years, living in the same house, against the wishes of all of their family members on both sides – most significantly against the wishes of Barth’s wife! However, Suzanne Selinger in her sustained examination (see Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology, Penn State, 1984) expressed her own abiding uncertainty as to whether they had a sexual relationship or not. This is difficult to believe, but the entire situation is difficult to believe. Family members, friends, and colleagues all expressed concern and opposition – and yet Barth and von Kirschbaum refused to separate and endured the alienation from parents, siblings, and friends. Barth’s wife remained in the marriage despite full knowledge. Unusual behavior all around. There is nothing similar in Yoder, King, Tillich, Gandhi, or few even less well known individuals.

      • Nekeisha

        Hi Ric…Does Selinger talk about the ways in which gender norms of their time might have played into Barth’s wife’s decision (what was her name by the way) to continue participating in the relationship? I mean, wouldn’t divorce have been a more disastrous choice on her part in that time? Not a rhetorical question–just trying to find out of a sense I have is accurate.

        • ric hudgens

          It’s a good question. I don’t know. Barth’s wife was Nelly. Clearly gender norms must be figured in, but still this is a distinctively bizarre situation. Suppose we find an unpublished Barthian defense of polyamory, Barth still falls short in that Nelly never seems to have given full approval to this relationship. All three were buried in the same cemetery – side by side.

    • Nekeisha

      I am not sure where you see in my statements approval for covering things up. I am saying that it ALL needs to be exposed and not just the ones that are most heinous. There is a problem with leadership that makes victims of other people. That is clearly stated in my response.

      Second, I made two statements that I hold to be true. 1) What Yoder did was wrong and distinct in key ways from what the other men mentioned in this thread did. And 2) There is an oppressive power dynamic in all the stories. I see no reason why the two statements must be made in mutually exclusive ways. This discussion prompted me to do a little reading about Gandhi and although it appears that he never physically forced himself on anyone or made anyone do anything they did not agree to do, he used the power and influence he had over his followers in ways that are disgusting. So we can say, “Oh but it was consensual and what Yoder did wasn’t” and act like the boys and girls and young women he used for his own sexual experimentation and purity tests weren’t victims of a kind of intellectual and spiritual manipulation. Or we can say what Yoder did was wrong and what Gandhi did was wrong and it all needs to be condemned and we need to figure out how to keep it from happening, and at least some of the root causes seems to be the patriarchal and sexist power structures that not only allows people to be victimized but fosters the need to cover it up afterward.

      As for the rest of it, you seem to have made up your mind about a lot of things–and ironically don’t even seem have any idea of the ways your own tone, language and sarcasm might are its own kind of silencing power (and to the only woman in the whole thread nonetheless). Clearly, you don’t need me to continue the conversation so carry on at will.

  • http://twitter.com/waxsublime Adam Langley

    Great article on Yoder’s problems. I think you’re striking a good balance. Thanks for this.

  • John T

    In defense of Yoder,

    Firstly I do not condone sexual harassment. Given the reaction and intervention of a number of women to Yoder’s sexual advances, it is clear that he crossed personal boundaries that he was not invited to cross. Legally (at least in Australian law) this of itself is not sexual harassment unless the unwelcome behaviour persists after being told no. I do not know if Yoder ever continued after “no” but all reports of his misconduct seem to be based on the fact that he acted inappropriately in the first instance – that he broke sexual taboos, not that he raped or molested anyone.

    I do not know the details of Yoder’s exploits beyond the headlines but I note that the bulk of the criticism, including putting him in the same basket as MLK and others, is based on a defense of strict church sex taboos, not on questions of freedom and oppression or rape.

    The women who have complained against him did not claim he raped or molested them, only that he was a hypocrite, or at least they perceived him as one. Now, in terms of sexual harassment, the conservative sexual morality of the women is real and legitimate and Yoder or anyone else has no right not to respect their morality and personhood – but lets just be clear about what Yoder’s misconduct actually was.

    The centrepiece of the FBI’s COINTEL program to divide the black movement of the 1960s was to spread gossip about MLK’s affairs. I do not know if he did have affairs or if he had the consent of his wife to do so, but the power of the COINTAL propaganda was based firmly in christian sexual taboos and it did succeed in undermining MLK’s power at the time and his legacy – as evidenced by its inclusion in this discussion as another example of sexual misconduct of powerful leaders.

    Christian sexual taboos, be it clerical celibacy or the institution of heterosexual marriage, will constantly be broken because the taboos themselves are dysfunctional and oppressive. People will always have sex and the circumstance by which they have sex will always be different. This is just life, nature, the way God made us.

    It is the sexual taboos of themselves that is the real problem. Clerical celibacy is a causative factor in clerical rape. The heterosexual marriage is a causative factor in the oppression of homosexuals. In Yoder’s case it was the sex taboo that turned a man with emerging sexual insights into a monster and those who were disgusted by his sexual insights into victims of his monstrosity.

    I am concerned that the ongoing discussion amongst Christians on Yoder’s sins is of itself a reinforcement of the greater sin of sexual oppression by and within the church.

    • http://www.markvans.info/ markvans

      I’m sorry…but it is hard for me not to hear “Yoder was abusive because his convenant with his wife is oppressive” when reading your comment. It seems to dismiss the experiences of those who were preyed upon by Yoder. As though only the really overt sorts of sexual predation are worth raising a fuss over.

      • John T

        No, Mr and Mrs Yoder’s marriage covenant is not what has caused problems in this case, it is the church’s expectations about what Mr and Mrs Yoder’s marriage should be that is at least part of the problem.

        Mrs Yoder (Anne?) has said nothing in all of this. It could be that she disapproved or felt abused by her husband’s behaviour but was trapped into her marriage because of the social/church expectation to stay in an oppressive marriage. However it could also be that Mrs Yoder had an important part in Mr Yoder’s discussions, explorations and emerging theories and may even have encouraged him. I am sure they at least discussed the issues.

        The assumption that Mrs Yoder (and Coretta King) is a victim, which many have assumed, is itself the imposition of rules and expectations about marriage onto the Yoders (and Kings) and judging them by that imposed assumption – based on nothing but ignorance, gossip and assumption.

        Remember, Yoder was charged with “violating sexual boundaries”. (where have I heard that before?) Amongst his crimes were improper hugging, sexual innuendo or overt sexual language and nudity. While these are not the only allegations (although they are the only specific allegations made public), the fact that these things are considered to be crimes is an indication of the moral standard by which Yoder has been judged. One of his victims says “It certainly violates the marriage covenant and our understanding of that within the church”.

        As I mentioned above, if a person has conservative church values they still have a right to have their values respected. However, the issue of the violation for his victims is that Yoder acted in a way contrary to church morality – this is what hurt them. I am certainly not condoning Yoder’s sexual harassment, just pointing out its context.

        Some people find homosexual hugging in public to be offensive and a violation of sexual boundaries. Some people find unmarried sex a violation of sexual boundaries. Some people find nudity a violation of sexual boundaries. Some people even find sex to be a violation of sexual boundaries.

        When people of a conservative sexual ethic find themselves in community with other people who embrace homosexuality, free sex, nudity and indiscriminate hugging as joyful things, then there is going to be conflict in the community – and some people are going to want to stone the adulterer.

        • Victor

          John, are you, in the case of Yoder, advocating that a pattern of assaults be condoned as an alternative lifestyle?

          • John T

            Victor, I am saying, in the case of Yoder, it was his alternative lifestyle that his accusers considered to be the primary assault. He seems to have had a pattern of hugging and kissing that in some circumstances was clearly inappropriate. However such insensitivity is not a “pattern of assault”. I am sure there were many people who welcomed the old man’s affections and enjoyed his playfulness who would interpret his behaviours as a pattern of love. However, such love was clearly threatening and offensive to some and Yoder was stupid and insensitive to extend it to those people. Clearly his stupidity has manifested in sexual harassment and I do not deny that at all, I just say the plot is a bit thicker than the sinfulness of Yoder.

            The church who formed the charges, judged him, punished him and took total control over information about the matter seems to have escaped much scrutiny in all this, consequently their judgement of Yoder and their world view of what constitutes the violation of sexual boundaries has been largely accepted and reinforced in the discussion, even amongst radicals. I get a bit scared by church sexual witch-hunts and don’t necessarily believe the findings of secret inquisitions represent the whole story.

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

    Many thanks for the post, Andy, and the rest of you all for great comments. I tend to resonate with Andy’s fourth and personal approach to the situation. But as I mentioned in Ted Grimsrud’s posts from last year, I continue to wonder what kind of transformation process can (should?) be constructed for the women who live in the shadow of Yoder’s sinful abuse. Does such a public figure, still influential many years after his death, warrant a public process? Our would this make things worse? Tough questions…thank for wrestling with them in public, Andy…

  • Carl Yoder

    God continues to teach me many things through the words and life of JHY. Much positive …some not so positive. I also learn a lot by the responses of others to his deeds and misdeeds. Mostly He was just a man that figured some stuff out and was able to articulate those things. In my life I have meet many Individuals that have figured out many of the same things without his help.

    Galatians 5:19

    The Message (MSG)

    19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

    This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

  • http://notbyhands.wordpress.com/ Matt M

    My personal take – and I have neither read much Yoder nor researched much of his life – is that nobody’s perfect, and that shouldn’t cause us to dismiss what anyone has to say. There’s no question that Yoder did some despicable, disrespectful, damaging things in his conduct with women. But let s/he without sin cast the first stone… I think of my own life, my conduct, my lifelong struggle with lust and pornography, and realize I’m no better a human being than Yoder. Yet I believe I am taught by the Spirit and occasionally have some insight to share with others, and I would hope my sisters and brothers would not write off what I have to say because of my sinfulness.

  • Rex Wenger

    I’m a person who for the most part find jhy’s books and ethical logic to be useful. But I would never ever compare him to King or Gandhi. In my opinion sexual misconduct was one of his smaller faults. John never related well to his Menno peers. If you did not have a PHD or were working for one, you simply didn’t exist in his world. I think people from outside the church have the impression that he widely appreciated among his own. This is far from the case. His relationship with Notre Dame was very self promoting and was a major source of discomfort with him within the church. I’m a few years younger than him and knew of him casually during his ascendancy at Elkhart. Durring that time I never knew of him ever having any social contact with anyone outside of the academic community. I think it’s safe to say that he was regarded by my peers as a self aggrandizing opportunist.

  • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/ paul munn

    I agree with Nekeisha that it’s important to recognize that Yoder and the others mentioned were “men of influence who wielded a lot of social power.” And yes, the way their wrongdoing was enabled or covered up by the social circles in which they had power is also an important problem. I don’t think we should expect that dynamic to change much, however.

    But one thing we can do that can make a lot of difference is to ourselves avoid the temptations and spiritual detriment of seeking or accepting such positions of social power. Isn’t that avoidance apparent in Jesus’ life? And it’s not just national or international figures who are susceptible. I’ve personally been involved with churches and intentional communities where the pastor or leader fell in similar ways, doing things that you would never expect from that person. Why would such a respected person, who has done much good and is trying to be a help and example for others, fail so terribly, causing such disillusionment and pain in their community? The only explanation I can come up with is that the social power that they thought was an important tool for them to help others ended up blinding them to their vulnerabilities and faults and thereby causing significant damage among those they thought they were helping.

    I think it’s vitally important to ourselves and our communities to follow Jesus’ example when those around us try to make us king.

    • http://www.markvans.info/ markvans

      Yes! This is a systemic issue, not just the issue of Yoder. I’ve found that having relational power can be very alienating and confusing. Yoder was in error, but it was an error that had space to grow. Our response to sexual abuse isn’t simply to tell folks to try harder not to make a mistake, or to castigate folks like Yoder as some sort of rare anomaly. Rather, we should recognize it as a systemic problem as much as a personal one. How do we create communities of respect, mutualilty, and integrity?

      • Kristin

        I don’t know about connecting abuse like this to positions as such. There seems to be differences between kings, pastors and professors that are worth acknowledging rather than homogenizing those different roles into one big massive abusive position. The power dynamics are different between those roles. Also, if the issue is the position of professorship or pastor, why don’t we see all kinds of women getting caught up in scandals of abusing their power when they too are professors or pastors, or in some kind of leadership position.

        • http://www.markvans.info/ markvans

          But Yoder wasn’t merely a professor. He was instrumental part of a renewal movement within the Mennonite world, its most esteemed thinker, and (in some significant ways) its most recognizable spokesperson. So while it is true that kings, pastors, and professors have different sorts of power, Yoder’s sort of power is worth exploring precisely because it wasn’t formal.

          • Kristin

            That sounds like a different topic than what paul munn commented. Obviously John Howard Yoder had both formal and informal power. I am not sure what power is come to think of it. I am also not sure why the additional informal part is worse. Jesus wasn’t a king, but would you say that Jesus had a lot of informal power (whatever power is)?

          • Heather Munn

            Yeah, it’s fairly clear that Jesus did have a lot of informal power (popularity, people listening to what he said.) But over and over you kind of see him fleeing it. Making people promise they won’t tell it was him who healed them, getting away from the crowds by sneaking across the lake in the dark, saying very strange offensive things at the height of his popularity, etc.

            I do think that both formal power (institutional power, the power to punish or fire people, etc) and informal or relational power (influence, having people’s ear, admiration by many people) can create this kind of dynamic. (I think this might be part, though not all, of the reason Jesus acted the way he did about it.) I don’t know that I would say, like I think Mark is saying, that relational power is the bigger problem. I certainly think he has a point, though, in saying that because of his broad influence Yoder was much more powerful than most professors.

            But Mark, I’m intrigued by your comment that you’ve found that having relational power can be alienating and confusing. Can you maybe expand on that a little? For myself, it’s the (very little) formal power I’ve had in my life that I’ve found most alienating. Specifically I’ve found that it causes people to lie to you and/or be less open with you, to protect themselves. This is one of the reasons I don’t like having it!

      • Nekeisha

        This is a reply to Paul and Mark here. I think power has a lot to do with it. And I also think the question has to be What do we do when our communities of respect, mutuality and integrity are violated? How do we deal with those who are abusive of their position and how do we support those who are being abused?

      • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

        Actually Mark, I think any community we create is going to exhibit the power dynamics that hinder relationships and tempt us towards abuse and are ultimately a detriment to our spiritual life. Yes, as others have pointed out, there are “different” forms of power. But everything being discussed seems to me to be merely different points on the same spectrum. The greater the extent of power granted by the group, the greater temptation towards abuse. But I’ve seen damage done to relationships by both men and women in various positions of institutional authority, though it might not be categorized as “abuse,” the damage to the people and community was real–and what makes it stand out is, I’m convinced those leaders would not have acted that way as peers or simply as persons. They felt, as leaders, they had to do it. They felt it was their job. And others were pressuring them to act that way. And I was so disheartened to see people I trusted acting so differently than I had come to expect from them, because of the pressure (or temptation) of the power granted them by the group.

        The only community that I believe doesn’t exhibit these dynamics is the community we do not create. Where “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.”

        I don’t think we’ll be seeing that anytime soon in a gathered, homogeneous group. But we can act that way amidst the human groups we find ourselves among, as Jesus did. That’s why I emphasized not taking the power a group might offer us (and not helping put that power on others, to their detriment). That’s the only way I see of resisting the usual power consolidation in any human group, setting a different example, and keeping that particular temptation out of our relationships and spiritual life.

  • Scott Holland

    Andy, it should be recognized that Yoder had “a theology” of transgression not only from the Emperor’s armies but also from the Emperor’s sexual morality. In discussing this with JHY, he explicitly declared, “When Jesus said no to the Emperor’s armies he also said no to the Emperor’s politics, economics and morality.” Although Yoder was personally clunky and perhaps ethically inelegant in his own sexual anarchy against Empire morality, there is a radical theology underwriting his transgression that your blog and bloggers miss. Many of these responses appear to be written by good Christian puritans upholding conventional family values rather than by radical Anabaptists inspired by experiments in anarchy.

    • http://www.markvans.info/ markvans

      Hmmm. Puritan? One can be sex-positive and still see abuse in the descriptions of Yoder’s relationships with students. Is the problem that poor old Yoder was merely trying to explore polyamory in the context of mutual relationships? Or is it that he was extending unwanted sexual advances to women that he had power over?

      Ultimately, I don’t really think it is possible for me to know what Yoder did and didn’t do. But I think it is a helpful case-study for us exploring what constitutes sexual integrity in our own contexts. And, it seems to me, a lot of leftist sexual abuse can be wrapped up in the self-justification of “liberated” sexuality. A liberated sexuality is attentive to issues of power, not dismissive of them.

      However, I recognize that I don’t have all of the information about Yoder’s case.

      • Sarah Lynne

        From what I’ve read of Yoder, my main criticism would be that he tends to be unreflective of current power dynamics. For example, one one level I completely agree with his discussion on “radical submission” but in a lot of cases I don’t think it is the most helpful first step in understanding how women should respond to oppression. He seems to assume that we can just change our mind about things and start living in certain ways and everything will be righted… we wouldn’t be racist or sexist or patriarchal or what-have-you. In my example above, men and women should just decide that they are equal and mutually submit… women can be told that they should submit because it is the right thing to do, as long as they know they are equal its no big deal. Maybe I am over-simplifying, but I don’t see a lot of concern for the work that needs to be done for women to real feel empowered and men to unlearn habits of coercion and patriarchy.

        That said, for what I’ve read of Yoder’s misconduct, it seemed to me that he was (either willfully or ignorantly) unaware of the power dynamics at play in his conduct. He was writing and thinking about how to explore physical closeness in between Christians outside of marriage relationships. He also seemed to be experimenting with that and it was in an entirely inappropriate way. In that sense I think John T.’s statements above are helpful. We don’t need to totally demonize what Yoder was doing, on the other hand I did find those statement’s dismissive of the experience and effect this had on the women Yoder interacted with. Whether or not Yoder was aware of the power dynamics or that his “fun” and experimentation was disempowering doesn’t make it any less true than it was.

        One way to approach this would be to look at the things missing from Yoder’s perspective that allowed him to justify his actions to himself. We certainly don’t need to throw out everything Yoder says, but we can recognize him as emotionally and intellectually limited in some areas, probably partially compelled by physical desires and compulsions I am not sure if he every fully owned up to, but also unable to understand some of the emotional and psychological affects of power and the need to continually self-reflect and uproot all the -isms. From what I read, he didn’t address that well in his writing. It doesn’t seem like he addressed that well in his life either. We can take the good parts, but this (as Andy said in the article) gives us some impetus to turn a critical eye and explore what is missing as well. I love Yoder’s writing on mutual submission, but I wouldn’t offer that without some serious uprooting sexism work as well.

        • ric hudgens

          Sarah Lynne, This is spot on and very helpful. Thank you.

    • ric hudgens

      Scott, I welcome this post as providing some first-hand testimony indicating (if I understand you correctly) that Yoder did not necessarily find his own behavior problematic. To me that distinguishes him from all the others mentioned in this discussion.

      The troubling thing remains that the women Yoder exercised his theology with (against?) neither shared this theology, nor seemed to have the option of rejecting his demonstrations of it. We do have a diversity on sexual mores here at JRad, but there has seemed to my reading to be a consensus about consensuality. Is it your impression that Yoder “repented” of his actions, or merely submitted to a process of discipline? If Yoder’s theology of transgression was as clear to him as you indicate then it will require some documentation and some substantial rethinking of certain areas of Yoder’s thought.

  • Scott Holland

    Ric, my post is only to inform that there was a dissenting, transgressive theology present that was indeed “queer” by normative Mennonite moral standards, which approach war like radical Anabaptists but enter marriage and family life like good Presbyterians. I’m clear in my post that I am not celebrating a bad erotics, a clunky romantics or an inelegant ethics.

    However, realted to this point, I think the Mennonite Church USA and the Church of the Brethren are having such difficulty with the LGBTQ issue because we resist war like Anabaptists but make love like the Magesterial Reformers. Only when we understand Anabaptism as a branch of queer theory and theology will we provide radical hospitality in our communities for the sexual Other.

    • ric hudgens

      There are two narratives here which may complement one another. It could be that Yoder’s theology developed out of missiological reflection and (being an intellectual) he then found both motive and justification for what I guess we have to call his experiments in intimacy. It could be that these reflections helped him to further unfold the transgressive aspects of the the gospel in ways that were experimentally flawed, but still theologically fruitful.

      Still . . .

      It seems to me we can oppose Yoder’s conduct while recognizing the legitimacy of his questions and suppositions (and perhaps even the queer trajectory of his thinking). We all need to navigate theological and ethical borderlands in ways that recognize both the radical directions of the gospel and also the compassionate demands of the moment. If Yoder had only written and taught on these things he would not have been censured, and if he had only acted it would be less confusing (but no less disappointing).

    • Scott Holland

      Andy, Yes, this is complicated to write about. The missions contextual theology connection is insightful. However, his time with European intellectuals in the days of “the Amsterdam Seven” also gave rise to new thought. As you likely know, he has unpublished writings on some of this and spoke of these things in trusted small circles of friends and colleagues who he knew wouldn’t call in the church police. Some of us tried to have these nuanced conversations in public during the terrible days of the Yoder trials and the Mennonite church police came after us. I’ll talk with you about this history off-line sometime if you are interested.

      I’m in Seattle for a speaking gig so I must sign off of this interesting exchange for now and catch a bus.

      • Tom Gyger

        Thank you Andy for your illuminating post. I remember the ripples of this story reaching Europe and Switzerlan in the 90s. I also especially appreciated Scott’s and Sarah Lynne’s “balanced” comments. Scott, when you write about “these things”, I understand that they remain unpublished, that they have been addressed in trusted circles, but could you (or Andy) give more details on JHY’s views here, or maybe there are publications which summarize them?

    • Heather Munn

      I’m sorry, but this is the second time you’ve used that word. Inelegant. In the words of the great Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

      If I ever return to school and one of my professors pushes me down and lies on top of me, I think I will say to him, “Excuse me, professor, but I fear you are being somewhat ethically inelegant.”

      I suspect it’s very clodhopping of me, but when someone elegantly pairs the word “ethically” with a vague negative word, I tend to think that the word he’s groping just might be “wrong.” Such a crude, inelegant word. One can indeed see why it’s fallen out of fashion. Nevertheless, there are certain fine shades of meaning it might still be useful for. Perhaps in the challenge of describing the complex moral overtones of acts of sexual harassment, the word might still find an appropriate use?

      ‘Cause it’s nice to be elegant and all, but if your trusted friend did it, I hope you’d tell him it was wrong.

  • Scott Holland

    To Mark’s question about polyamory, Yoder, like many scholars of radical dissenting movements, knew that in these social-spiritual experiments, there was often the question of how to reimagine sexuality as a social, communal or individual construct. These experiments over the centuries included breaking normative family-church-state models ranging from celibacy to polyamory. Again, a Yoderian question might be whether we only resist the Emperor’s armies whether we dare to also reimagine the politics and passions of normative relational orderings or pair-bondings.

  • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

    I was going to try to fit Jesus into this discussion, but maybe it’s not relevant. He was pretty clear about adultery, but what we’re talking about here is “resisting Empire” by “breaking normative family-church-state models”? And Jesus talked about looking at a woman lustfully, but in this case it was experiments in “reimagining sexuality as a social, communal or individual construct”?

    I don’t know. Can anyone else see a way Jesus’ teachings or example about sexuality might be relevant here?

    • Scott Holland

      Well, Paul, it depends which Jesus we want to remember because I find that even for ‘”radical Christians” and for both naked and well dressed Anabaptists Jesus remains a good family man. However, Rabbi Jesus was rather queer in circle of rabbinical Judaism because as far as we know he didn’t marry. However, he further scandalized the standards of his time by traveling in the company of women. Listen sometime to singer-songwriter Richard Shindell’s lyrics as Magdaline sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know….”

      • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

        I don’t quite follow how those examples of Jesus’ “queerness” (non-normalness?) stand in any contrast to the examples I offered. He didn’t marry, yet there seems nothing in that contradicting his strong and repeated warnings against adultery. He traveled in the company of women, and still took a very radical stand in equating looking lustfully at a woman with committing adultery. If Yoder (and the other Christians mentioned in this discussion) paid more attention to following Jesus’ simple and straightforward teaching on this, instead of their more sophisticated theological rationalizations/experiements, then the pain and damage to their victims, themselves, and their community would not have resulted.

        It seems obvious that just because Jesus was often ab-normal and scandalous doesn’t mean everything ab-normal and scandalous is “like Jesus.” But that seems to be your argument.

        If anything, Jesus held a higher regard for marriage than the religious and political norms of his time. If he did anything to “break” that norm, he did so by making is much more holy and inviolate than any society ever has.

        • Scott Holland

          Paul, I’m only atempting to deconstruct what has become the normative morality of Christendom by inviting us to reconsider Jesus more contextually. In this context, comparing Jesus to American Christian sexual morality makes his ways and words appear not simple and straightforward, as you suggest, but rather complex and crooked.

          I’m enjoying the posts of John T. So, John T., who are you and what is your story?

          • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

            So how about we just speak from what Jesus actually said and did relating to sexuality, instead of starting from “complex and crooked” (compared to American Christian morality), which doesn’t really tell us anything?

          • John T

            Hello Scott,

            Here is one face of the prism of what my story might be
            http://newaustralianwineskins.wordpress.com/

            There is a little bit of biography in the introduction to the essay “Jesus is an Aborigine”

            What’s your story?

            I met Yoder when he toured Australia in the late 70s or early 80s, which why I have been curious about his dramas.

          • Scott Holland

            Thanks John. Pardon my delay in responding but I was traveling from Seattle back to the Indiana flatlands where I teach at two Peace Church seminaries in partnership, Bethany Theological Seminary and the Earlham School of Religion. I like your “Jesus is an Aborigine” piece. As one who does contextual theology, reading your JR posts I guessed that you were a Jesus Radical from the Land Down Under rather than an American Christian, because even “radical Christianity” in the USA is marked by a very familiar self-righteousness and moral earnestness lacking irony.

        • primaltruth

          It is human nature that is involved in putting any seen in a leadership role on a pedestal. All institutions are characterized by that, and religious cults form around devotion to a leader, which can and often does involve abuses. All merely human occupation of roles of leadership will be subject to shortcomings as all people have their sins. There is truth that is beyond leaders as such, the truths are what should be followed in determining our actions. Jesus was the only one that could be reliably followed, his was the way, and although tempted never any sin, which his immediate disciples could see. Beyond him, there should not be much made of human leaders, but the real truths are what is all important and to lead our actions.

          Primal truth

    • John T

      How about “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?

      • John T

        Also, biblical marriage laws involve polygamy and concubines which needs to kept in mind when considering Jesus’ teaching on adultery and lust.

      • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

        Yes, I can see that possibly being relevant. So who was stoned?

        • John T

          Yoder was and continues to be until today including by some in this discussion.

          Jesus did not judge the adulterer, he did exactly the opposite. It was the righteous hypocrites that judged her. All Jesus did was say go and sin no more – and by all accounts that is exactly what Yoder did.

          • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

            I thought he was eventually restored to his teaching position and died of natural causes. Correct me if I’m wrong. But that seems quite different from death by stoning.

            Are you equating “stoning” with confronting someone’s wrongdoing, or calling certain behaviors evil or sinful? While Jesus challenged stoners in that story (and also taught us not to condemn another), he seemed to have often confronted wrongdoing and warned against evil. Didn’t he? That seems to be part of how he showed us to love one another.

            In this case, we can’t love Yoder, but we can try to understand and warn each other about the dangers (of power, for example) that hurt him and many others so badly. So we don’t make the same mistakes.

          • John T

            Paul,

            I do not think the central issue of the story of Jesus and the adulterer is the method of stoning. I believe the story is about hypocrisy and forgiveness. It is these things that I think are relevant to the Yoder story or anything else.

            You ask – “he seemed to have often confronted wrongdoing and warned against evil. Didn’t he?”

            He certainly did! He criticised religious hypocrites with stern words and action. He criticised Caesar and his appointees at the expense of his own life. He criticised the rich and said they weren’t getting into heaven. Can you see a pattern in all this? Do you see that Jesus approach to the adulterer was something entirely different?

          • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

            Yes, I see, and agree. But a lot of the criticism here is directed towards a person who many see as a religious hypocrite (in at least one area) and a person of power. That criticism doesn’t help him at this point, but it can warn us away from making similar mistakes, and putting ourselves in the way of similar temptations.

          • Nekeisha

            Hello John. I agree with what you are saying about the story of the adulterer being a story about hypocrisy and forgiveness. I don’t see how we can exclude that the story is also about a kind of sin related to sexual/relationship choices the woman apparently made.

            Jesus does not, at any part of the encounter, excuse or condone the women’s actions. That he identifies her action as sin, and tells her to go and not do it anymore seems to say that he did not look favorably on her actions any more than he looked favorably on those who wanted to stone her favorably. So Jesus appears to be showing an alternative way to deal with sin that is more grace-filled. I say this because I have heard this story used in some many one-sided ways, namely to critique those who would judge others without seeing the logs in their eyes. But the story does not bless the woman’s sexual engagement either and that often seems to be either deliberately overlooked or left unaddressed when dealing, not only with sexual ethics, but in conversations about ethics in general.

            I just want to say that I really hope to have a constructive discussion about this with you (and others). I weary of our fighting and contentions exchanges, and hope we we can converse in a different spirit here.

          • John T

            Peace Nekeisha,

            John 8:10 “…….Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

            When the pharisees challenged him on this he replied – vs.15 “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.”

            Most people get hung up on “go and sin no more” bit as if it was a confirmation of the legitimacy of the accusation or as if the story was a teaching about sexual morality, but that’s not how the story reads. Jesus did not propose a grace based alternative to stoning as a response to legitimate accusations. He extinguished the whole dynamic of blame and guilt – this was the grace.

            The bad guys in this story are those that accused her, not the woman.

          • Nekeisha

            I agree Jesus isn’t judging her. He is extending to her grace that those who sat in judgment did not show her. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t identify her actions as sin either and that is the point that is often downplayed.

            As I see it, there is a corrective being issued to both sides of the dispute. Now, Jesus’ intervention is most threatening to the male leadership that is present there because instead of applying the laws about adultery equally to both male and females, the gauntlet was fallign on the woman exclusively. Saying, let those who have not sinned cast the first stone levels the playing field and takes away their power to judge her more harshly than they would themselves or the man and saves the woman’s life in the process. But it doesn’t mean the woman walks away without being challenged to change either. Both things are happening at the same time.

            All I am saying is that there might be other biblical texts that do away with categories like adultery or that throw off concepts like sin in relation to sexual conduct. I just don’t think this is one of them and I always tend to disagree with it being used as such.

          • John T

            Jesus seems to have been pretty determined in not making a comment about the accusations of the pharisees so I don’t think we can assume anything of what he thought of the woman’s behavior.

            I think Jesus was speaking more in terms of God’s first commandment -

            Genesis 2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

            This is a concept thrashed out a bit by the writer of Romans –

            Romans 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

            To get off topic a bit,

            While it certainly could be that this story is about personal behaviors, I tend to think that the story is a parable about the people of Israel, their sins and their forgiveness as a nation. The key issue is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who, as the priestly Levite caste, were the tribe that connected all the other tribes to god – they administered the sacrifices that forgave people of their sins – they represent the old marriage covenant with God.

            Jesus is the new bridegroom.

            consider –

            Romans 7:1 “Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. 4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. 6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”

          • Heather Munn

            This was such an excellent, balanced reply, Nekeisha.

  • Chelsea

    Thanks for sparking this fascinating and honest discussion, Andy…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1350897193 H H Brown

    I find it strange that so many of the comments on this post are about sexual immorality and not about violence. Coercion, harassment, and rape are, first and foremost, acts of violence. Discussions of polyamory and sexual liberation seem almost out of place here. No?

    • Nekeisha

      Hi H H–that is exactly why when Andy and I talked about his article at length, we felt it was important not to go into any real depth about Yoder’s thought on sexuality. Because unless his wrestling with singleness and marriage included approval for coercing and making unwanted advances to others–and it didn’t–then it is of no relevance to the abuses he committed, in my opinion. As I see it, this is not an article about Yoder’s alternative perspectives on sexuality. It is an article about Yoder using his power in ways that betrayed his own best values around peacemaking and practicing body politics as the body of Christ, that devastated his family, that caused immense pain to the women he harassed, and that devastated people who trusted and respected him as an influential church leader. And it is also an article about how whether and how we might be able to read him and whether it is possible for him to still be authoritative in light of his actions. To focus on what he thought instead of naming what he did to those women as wrong just seems to be another way to excuse his actions not only during, but afterwards when he dismissed the women, refused to face them and never bothered to apologize.

      • Nekeisha

        Whoops–looks like Andy and I were responding around the same time… Sorry for the double whammy.

    • Heather Munn

      I agree. But I appreciated the article itself, which I thought did speak the truth about the matter, and was balanced. I certainly do take Andy’s point that this was an awkward, un-social guy who may not have known fully what he was doing–and also Andy and Nekeisha’s point that what he did was definitely wrong.

      Maybe my perspective is skewed because I believe the place of sexual liberation is within a committed, faithful, lifelong relationship between two people, but it really bothers me when I see people getting so sex-positive they’re willing to downplay what is plainly sexual harassment and talk about sexual liberation in the same breath. A crucial aspect of true sexual liberation for a woman is her freedom within the act–for any sexual behavior to spring just as much from her enthusiasm for her partner’s soul and body, and for their mutual pleasure, as the other way around. To talk of sexual liberation in connection with events where the women were reluctant, shocked, disturbed, perhaps afraid–just because it’s “breaking the rules” as if that was what liberation meant–well, I don’t even know what to say.

  • Eli Graber

    Having grown up in the Elkhart area, I have heard stories form people who knew him suggesting that he may have had Asberger’s Syndrome. People who have that usually have problems in the area of social skills. I wonder if taht should be taken into account in evaluating Yoder’s legacy and influence, and even with regard to his unwanted advances and physical contact with women.

  • Mike Ward

    I’ve only recently even heard of Yoder and read about his sexual harassments and assaults. I don’t understand how he can be given any respect. I often hear about how Jesus didn’t not condemn the woman taken in adultery, but what about the Pharisees? What did Jesus have to say about them? Which is more like Yoder? The woman used by powerful men as a pawn in their machinations or the powerful religious hypocrits who exploited her for their own selfish purposes?

  • david horstkoetter

    Well done Andy. Perhaps we should carry on a conversation in private about this, but it is worth initially raising in public because I do think it is should eventually be addressed publicly (although perhaps in the form of a long tome): I am interested in considering the sexual abuse within the larger framework of Yoder’s work against violence and abusive power. Sexual abuse and harassment is fundamentally about power. While Yoder may not have seen his advances that way, he did employ the unequal power dynamics of teacher-student to carry out his ‘experiments.’ This isn’t exactly violent in the overt sense, but it is coercive, and in my reading, conflicts with Yoder’s understanding of pacifism. Is this just a failure of nerve (in terms of not staying true to nonviolent power), in combination with his social awkwardness, or does this show that Yoder’s critique of Constintianism and constructive work on nonviolence had a blind spot, or is the problem even more systemic than a subtle mischaracterization of what Christological nonviolence is? In other words, are his personal character flaws related to his theology, and if so, how and to what degree? I ask this because I ask the same thing of Heidegger, and with Heidegger, I come up with the most terrifying answer: his inability see the Nazis for what they were (at least before the war), much less provide a ground for action against them (even after the war), stems from problems in his work. I wonder––and frankly worry–if Yoder’s problems mean more than that he was not exactly faithful in deed.

  • LadyRevBiker

    so, interesting to find this blog, with which i have no qualms with, other than being surprised that a mental health issues should now explain deviant behavior? Not only was JHY’s behavior coercive, abusive of his power, and utterly inappropriate, but i wonder why no one has mentioned yet the demeaning, belittling, and dismissive behaviors that are still tolerated by ‘men of the word’ towards many women in the church today? Another phenomenon i can’t get over is the lack of women’s voices on this issue, women who were the bearers of JHY’s trespasses, and women respondents here on this blog? The good ole boy’s club does exist in MCUSA academic circles today, and any woman who dares open her mouth does not stand many chances, other being dismissed as feminist.

    I did study the JYH controversy during my postgrad work, and many of my research subjects, who were his peers, talked about him, but did not know how to deal with situation. So it became a no-deal issue….possibly not for the women around JHY. Interestingly enough, isn’t it in the area of Ethics, most particularly Christian Ethics that JHY and the theologian from N.C. are writing about, as they both struggle with issue of sexual ethics themselves?

    Bonhoeffer should not be in the same line up with Barth, as Barth seems to have had some sort of triangular thing going on with Ms von Kirschbaum.

    It should not surprise us so terribly though, seeing that we are all saint-sinners and sinner-saints at all times. What surprises me, however, is that sexual violence is still discussed largely as a sexual matter and not as a matter of violence, domination, subjugation, or as it is used most often even in the church, violence as means of control.

    • Mike Ward

      I think it’s all about minimizing what Yoder did. If it is framed as a sex sin, his followers can pat each other on the back for being brave enough to confront this “very troubling” sin while in fact minimizing what Yoder did by downgrading the offense from one of violence and oppression to one of sex.

      Everything I see about Yoder’s sin to one degree or another attempts to reabilitate him. I wonder about all of those women who are still out there some where. I’ve never seen one of them chime in on one of these discussions.

      Perhaps most just want to put it behind them, but I can’t help but wonder if some would comment if not for the fear od the reaction they would get. I doubt there would be too many direct attacks on any of them, but I’m sure the would trivialized in subtler ways. Maybe comments that start something like this, “I greatly sympathize with your pain and feel that what was done to you was a terrible sin BUT….”

      I also wonder how close Yoder came to completely getting away with it, and that make wonder whose getting away with it right now.

  • Nate Wildermuth

    Ray Bradbury wrote, “And all men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors & smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit appetites.”

  • Nekeisha

    Thanks for this Ruth. I think part of the problem I have encountered around this aspect of Yoder’s life is that there remains so much secrecy regarding what he did and didn’t do. As I understand it, some of this secrecy at least seems to be out of deference to his family who likely had no idea this was going on and who experienced their own kind of suffering when this stuff came out. But the “not talking” also has it’s own harmful side effects: it doesn’t allow people who read him and who take (and still take) aspects of his works seriously to critique, engage and truly examine his thought to see where his theology and ethics fails around power; it doesn’t enable us to examine how his theological and ideological ideas about discipleship, body politics etc could have led the church to be so unresponsive to the women who spoke out; misinformation spreads both about his actions (I for one am not aware that Yoder raped anyone but people sometimes speak of him as if he was a rapist–and categories matter) or conversely, people begin to think it wasn’t a big deal (eh he’s just awkward and people took it the wrong way). Most importantly, the “not talking” about it causes the people he hurt to continue to suffer in silence by creating a “victim underground” and allows the church to remain insensitive to what the women went through when we uncritically laud Yoder and all his ideas.

    • ruthkrall

      Because John was fireed at AMBS in December, 1983 – allowed to forcibly resign, it is doubtful his family learned of this in 1992.

      Cerainly, the family has suffered I am sure and no one in their compassionate right mind would cause more suffering. But the silence continues to haunt this church and evangelical disciples ingeneral.
      Eventually I will get my case stufy finished and this will help, I hope.

      Ruth

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