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
- I must thank my wife, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, for helping me process this and for her editing skills. ↩