The Politics of John Howard Yoder: 41 years of tiptoeing around power

This is cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled

The last two months have seen a growing number of articles on John Howard Yoder’s sexual harassment and abuse of women (for a list of articles, see the Women in Learship Project’s timeline and annotated bibliography) led by Barbra Graber’s July 17 article on Our Stories Untold. Many of these pieces have been in conversation with Dr. Ruth Krall’s important book, The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays, which I draw on heavily in this article. I especially recommend her sixth chapter, “John Howard Yoder, D. Theol. 1927-1997: Believer’s Church Theologian and Ordained Mennonite Clergyman,” which looks in detail at Yoder as a case study.

In joining this conversation, I’d like to look particularly at how systemic issues of power and privilege played out in the tiptoeing response of Mennonite church institutions and their leaders to Yoder’s persistent sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women. In her introduction, Krall succinctly names the many power layers of systemic privilege from which Yoder benefitted. He was a “clan-protected, powerful, tenured, white married male.” (Krall, 16) We have much to learn from looking at those layers.

The problem with sexual misconduct

In her introduction to the collection, Krall points out that the term “sexual misconduct,” which has been used to describe Yoder’s behavior, is unhelpful because it does not differentiate between consenting adultery and coercive, violent and dominating behaviors. (Krall, 6).

The vagueness of the term “sexual misconduct” has become part of the problem, and so I think its important to summarize some of Yoder’s actions that constituted harassment and abuse:

  • pushing a woman over and laying on top of her (Krall, 196, 197),
  • pulling women down unto his lap and kissing them on the neck or on the mouth (198)
  • Abusive and intimidating phone calls (198)
  • Belittling and disparaging women who refused to have physical contact with him or protested his behavior (199)

Estimates of the number of women Yoder abused and harassed vary. In 1992, Tom Price reported 80 women beyond the eight victims quoted in “Theologian Accused”. Krall cites Marlin Miller telling her in that same year that he “knew about complaints from more than 100 women” about Yoder (Krall, 370).

For 20 years from 1972 to 1992, victims unsuccessfully sought redress. They, their allies and some Mennonite leaders tried a variety of private strategies to end Yoder’s abuse and harassment of women. These strategies included letters, personal confrontations and group confrontations. Yoder’s response was at best silence and at worst bullying (Krall, 202). In 1984, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., ended his contract because of his harassment of students, but there was no public confession or disclosure of the reason. “None of these behind the scenes and private confrontation efforts changed his behavior. Indeed, his behavior seemed to escalate in both number of incidents and the offensiveness of individual incidents.” (Krall, 204)

This is the part of the story where I find myself struggling for words. 20 years? Really? I’ve written here before about how I was repeatedly and persistently bullied through elementary school. Yoder’s victims went through far worse. Why is it that church leaders so consistently failed them? How many more never came forward out of fear and shame? Why did it take grassroots organizing by victims of Yoder and students at Bethel College in 1992 to finally publicly confront him in an effective way?

The second 20 years

After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, Indiana-Michigan Conference began a four year disciplinary process with Yoder that is still largely opaque to us due to a high level of secrecy (Graber). Krall characterizes Yoder as “resentful” of the process (Krall 232). A promised public statement of apology did not materialize, and “No visible efforts were made by him or by the institutional church to heal the deeply wounded relationships between him and the women he victimized.” (236)

Widely varying views of this four year process characterize the tiptoeing that has continued to this day. “He and his wife went through hell. Let it go,” a friend of Yoder told me when I described my thesis in this article to him. Rachel Halder reports a very similar response from an unnamed woman at Phoenix 2013: “Let it rest.”

Stanley Hauerwas, in his autobiography, Hannah’s Child is more sophisticated in his tiptoeing. He down plays Yoder’s abuse as “experimenting” and “seductions” and uses a folksy tone:

John began ‘experimenting’ sometimes in the Sixties. It is important to note the timing, because Mennonites were not immune from cultural forces that caused many people of the time to think that new possibilities in human relationships might be possible. John began his seductions of “weighty” Mennonite women—women of intellectual and spiritual stature in the community—by asking them to help him with his work. He would then suggest that they touch him, and that he touch them, without engaging in sexual intercourse. John was intellectually overwhelming. He may have convinced some women that what they were doing was not sexual, but they later came to recognize that John was clearly misusing them. They somehow made contact with one another, compared notes, and John was in a heap of trouble.” (244)

Notice that Yoder “was in a heap of trouble.” It was done to him. And again we have the blurring of the line between inappropriate consensual sexual encounters and sexual abuse. Rachel Halder has written at length about the patterns of Yoder’s defenders engaging in victim blaming or some variation thereof.

Hauerwas goes on to describe his role in successfully convincing Yoder in 1992 to submit to the church discipline process. He, along with Jim McClendon and Glen Stassen talked with Yoder on a conference call. “We now expected him to live out what he had taught us,” Hauerwas recalls (245). This was undoubtedly an important moment between these three men and their mentor. However, Hauerwas completely leaves out the many times Yoder dismissed, ignored and bullied those who confronted him before that moment. Maybe Hauerwas didn’t know. Maybe he never needed to ask. As one of the elite few who Yoder saw as a peer, the ocean of power and privilege they both floated on was immense and largely invisible to both of them.

Despite the lack of power analysis and other holes in Hauerwas’ account, he does offer one insight deep into to the heart of Yoder’s self-justification and the church’s tiptoeing around him: “I think what is most destructive for living truthful and good lives is not what we do, but the justifications we give for what we do to hide from ourselves what we have done.” he says. (246)

Here’s how Krall succinctly summarizes the past 16 years of tiptoeing:

“Today, this disagreement remains unsolved. Yoder’s victims (and individuals in solidarity with them) and Yoder’s apologists (in solidarity with him and each other) disagree on which aspects of Yoder’s legacy need to be reported, studied, discussed and utilized by the church in its internal self-regulation. In general, contemporary published works about Yoder’s life and theology include the briefest possible mention of Yoder’s behavior while saying that his behavior is not (and does not need to be) a factor in how his theology and ethics are read, interpreted, and received by the overlapping worlds of nonviolence scholarship and religious ecclesiology.” (221)

Hannah Heinzeker has done an excellent analysis of Yoder’s concept of revolutionary subordination in light of his sexual harassment and abuse. “I was immediately bothered by [Yoder’s description of revolutionary subordination] which seemed to speak about happy subordination to unjust structures.” says Heinzeker, “It’s not that this theology mandates this sort of inappropriate behavior, but perhaps the problem is that, nowhere in it, does it stop these abuses of power from happening.”

This leads us to the key question for the Mennonite church: How do we develop a theology of power that give us ears to hears the voices of those marginalized and eyes to see the way we participate in their marginalization? This isn’t about buzzwords or abstract ideas. It’s about practical, tangible skills that all of us with power and privilege can learn. For more of what I mean by this see “Opression is Bad, now what?”

Conclusion: Discerning, Healing and Becoming Allies

The discernment group that Ervin Stutzman and Sara Wenger Shenk have formed to look at Yoder’s sexual abuse has an opportunity to break the patterns of 41 years of tiptoeing and blindness to systemic sexism. I was glad to see that the group includes Regina Shands Stolzfus, a scholar and activist whose analysis of oppression I thoroughly trust. The group will center their work around the victims of Yoder’s actions, but they also have an opportunity to look deeply at the way that sexism and sexual abuse have warped the fabric of our common life together as Mennonites both in the case of Yoder and beyond.

The period when Yoder was abusing women was also a period when Mennonite women were beginning to move into positions of leadership after 450 years of being told to keep quiet. “For a Mennonite woman who is bright to be taken seriously in the church doesn’t happen very often,” Tina, one of Yoder’s victims told Tom Price in 1992. Yoder systematically sought out dozens of these emerging leaders, grooming them with compliments about their work and asking them to read his articles, leading them to believe they had a special mentor-protégée relationship with them. (Price, “Theologian Accused”) “We are on the cutting edge.” Yoder would tell them. “We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian church will be indebted to us for years to come.” (Price, “Yoder’s actions”) Then he harassed and abused them.

How can we as a church begin to heal from the loss of these women’s voices and leadership? Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project is one important initiative in this direction. We as men need to also find ways to be allies in this work.

The ripples of Yoder’s actions go beyond the Mennonite community. Krall describes being warned by two advisors in an ecumenical context that for safety reasons she should not work on Yoder’s material. (205) Is it any surprise then that most leading Yoder scholars are men? That the leading voices in movements influenced by Yoder are also men?

Since the day when Anabaptists broke with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, we have looked towards charismatic and wise personalities (always men) in each generation to lay out our course as a community. There is no doubt that Yoder was one of those leaders. Learning from our failure as a church to hold him accountable is an opportunity for us to learn lessons for the future. As Joanna Shenk writes in the Mennonite Word Review this week: “Sexism and patriarchy continue to exist in the church, and we’re likely to recreate John Howard Yoder situations if we don’t honor the voices of women and hold men accountable.” I would add that the work of undoing sexism can bring not only healing but also hope for new growth when we allow the spirit to “breathe freely through our church,” as Barbra Graber poetically puts it.

I hope that this difficult work can not only be about examining our failures but also about deepening our collective practice of becoming allies. May we all rise to the challenge of Christ’s witness during this time as Krall names it:

Christ’s will for his earth-based community was not the absence of intra-community conflict or an absence of cultural scandal. Jesus’ own teaching about the corrupted religious community leaders of his time provided, instead, a human model of moral challenge and truth-telling. (21)


Works Cited

Graber, Barbra. “What’s to Be Done about John Howard Yoder?” Our Stories Untold. 17 July 2013. Web. 07 Sept. 2013. http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/2013/07/17/whats-to-be-done-about-john-howard-yoder/.

Halder, Rachel. “John Howard Yoder Discussion: A Lesson in Sensitivity & Victim-Blaming.” Our Stories Untold. N.p., 21 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 Sept. 2013. http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/2013/08/21/john-howard-yoder-discussion-a-lesson-in-sensitivity-victim-blaming/.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010. Print. Available at http://peacetheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hauerwas-on-yoder.pdf

Heinzeker, Hannah. “Can Subordination Ever Be Revolutionary? Reflections on John Howard Yoder.” The Femonite Musings from a Mennonite Feminist. 9 Aug, 2013. Web. 07 Sept. 2013 http://www.femonite.com/2013/08/09/can-subordination-ever-be-revolutionary-reflections-on-john-howard-yoder/>.

Krall, Ruth Elizabeth. Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays. 2013. Available at http://ruthkrall.com/wordpress/downloadable-books/volume-three-the-mennonite-church-and-john-howard-yoder-collected-essays/.

Price, Tom. “Theologian Accused: Women Report Instances of Inappropriate Conduct.” Elkhart Truth 13 July 1992. Print. Available here: http://peacetheology.net/john-h-yoder/john-howard-yoder%E2%80%99s-sexual-misconduct%E2%80%94part-two/

Price, Tom. “Yoder’s actions framed in writings” Elkhart Truth 15 July 1992. Print. Available here: http://peacetheology.net/john-h-yoder/john-howard-yoder%E2%80%99s-sexual-misconduct%E2%80%94part-four//

Shenk, Joanna. “John Howard Yoder Digest: Recent Articles About Sexual Abuse and Discernment.” Mennonite Church USA. Women in Leadership Project, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 Sept. 2013. http://www.mennoniteusa.org/2013/08/30/john-howard-yoder-digest-recent-articles-about-sexual-abuse-and-discernment/.

Shenk, Joanna. “Let’s Talk about Sexism.” Mennonite World Review 2 Sept. 2013. Print. Available here: http://www.mennoworld.org/2013/9/2/lets-talk-about-sexism/

Stutzman, Ervin. “Members of John Howard Yoder Discernment Group Announced.” The Mennonite, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 Sept. 2013. http://www.themennonite.org/public_press_releases/Members_of_John_Howard_Yoder_discernment_grouop_announced.

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5 Responses to “The Politics of John Howard Yoder: 41 years of tiptoeing around power”

  1. Brian R. Gumm Says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. - Per our e-mail conversation and because I had another writing assignment to put up today, I’ve decided to respond here rather than putting up a post on the R.T. blog. Here are a few loosely related thoughts:

    One contextual bit that might be important to hold in mind through this process is the fact that Yoder was a professional theologian/academic. Given the history of a male-dominated academy and field (theology) and the privilege that engenders, such privilege can easily go unseen by men in those positions, since it is “the water” in which they swim. Due to his theological commitments, I believe Yoder to have been more attuned to this than most white male theologians of the day, but perhaps it still blinded him to some degree.

    On the Women in Theology blog there has been a few posts recently about female theologians’ problematic relationship to the theology and the ongoing theological “industry” of scholarship around Karl Barth (who was one of Yoder’s teachers). I think it’s an important corollary:

    * http://womenintheology.org/2013/09/01/on-not-reading-barth-my-measly-resistance/ (the link to the “Manly me” post is also worth reading)
    * And a white male theologian sympathetically responds: http://www.faith-theology.com/2013/09/on-not-reading-karl-barth-anymore-white.html

    These kinds of problems in the academy are one reason (amongst many others) that I’m extremely hesitant to go on to PhD studies myself, as much as I feel capable and perhaps called to do so. As an Anabaptist, I really have a problem with this “boys club” mentality in both the church and the academy.

    As MCUSA (and those of us watching from just outside, i.e. Church of the Brethren folks like me) moves forward on this, I hope to see a few things:

    Yoder’s theology gets the critical assessment it needs, but without resorting to ad hominem (either explicit or implicit), while simultaneously recognizing that claims from men (like me) calling for charity vis-a-vis Yoder’s legacy (his work and his person) are made out of privilege.
    That women who have personally worked with Yoder, who have been positively influenced by him and his work, and who were not sexually harassed/coerced by Yoder have a voice in this process. They do exist…
    That Anabaptist treatment of this tragedy might model a better (and perhaps prophetic) way of being both church and church-tied academy.
    And most importantly: That those harmed by Yoder’s actions may experience compassionate, restorative justice and healing.

    Thanks again, Tim!

  2. Paul Neufeld Weaver Says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. Your article I inspired me to read Chapters 6 and 7 of Ruth Krall’s important book which, fortunately, is available in it’s entirety online.

  3. Lamar Freed Says:

    Brian Gumm suggests that Yoders failure to sexually harass every single one of his female students in some way mitigates his harassment of the many women who he did harass. Having stated it that way, do I need to belittle this suggestion any further?

    I am not averse to letting Yoders work stand on its own. I am averse to letting the Mennonite institutions which basked in the light of Yoders intellectualizations get away with a coverup. Yoder’s is not the only coverup. But it is the most visible and needs to be included in the tangled web of his thought and the ecclesiastical politics that formed the context for his thought.

    But, then, there is the difficulty of separating the intellectual pacifism of a violent man from his behavior. When actions speak louder than words, how can we take words seriously?

    Lamar Freed, Psy.D.

  4. Gene Miller Says:

    At the risk of “me, too”-ism, I concur with Lamar’s comment about mitigation–indeed, my initial reaction was to wonder about the mathematics underlying the suggestion. I asked myself sarcastically “What ratio of unharassed/unassaulted to harassed/assaulted would Brian envision as bringing this putative scale of goodness to wrongdoing back into balance? 5 to 1? 8 to 1? 10 to 1?”

    Not to mention that by now it is a cliche of television news that after someone has been unexpectedly arrested, the TV news crews manage to find an astonished neighbor who exclaims “…But he was always a good neighbor to me. Always said hello and asked about my family. He even shoveled the snow from my driveway last winter!”

    I followed Brian’s links to the Barth discussion, which I find to be qualitatively distinct from the current problem of how Yoder is to be taught. The complainant makes clear that her objection to reading Barth is an objection to the “Barth industry” within the Divine academy and not a substantive objection to his theology per se. Her perception is that reading/studying theologians not named Barth leads to being marginalized within the Divine academy. I do not see that the question of Barth’s personal conduct ever arises.

    While Barth certainly had an “unusual” living arrangement involving a protege/”secretary”, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, and while his views on the role of women seem antiquated by our standards, I do not see any point at which Barth’s students charged him with the kind of non-consensual and serial sexual aggression/violence that Yoder was charged with.

    The contrast to the Yoder situation seems clear: the question before us now is the extent of interplay between Yoder’s teachings and his personal history–although we must be ready to grant that his actions may not ever be understood in light of his theology or what we know of his person.

  5. Joshua Brockway Says:

    Let’s be honest here with a couple of things. 1) JHY’s actions were horrible; 2) There are examples of both appropriate relationships and inappropriate relationships with women and no, there cannot be a calculus to weigh them out; 3) there are a number of factors at play in the whole discussion- Yoder’s awkwardness, power, sex, abuse, church politics, and even theological disagreement; 4) we cannot fully assess how Yoder’s conduct and his theology inter-relate until his whole body of writing is available.

    In the mean time, it is important for us all to have some integrity in our own work around the ideas of Yoder. For those who don’t agree with Yoder saying “And he sexually abused women” is an ad hominem and should be dismissed for the fallacy that it is.

    I greatly admire the Anabaptist conviction that what we say and what we do should be in line. So the ad hominem has a particular cultural force among us. But at the same time, only in Anabaptist circles does a persons moral life really matter. Hauerwas and McClendon realized how important this was- and thus counseled Yoder to submit to the disciplinary process. So, even for our “ad hominem” critics we have to ask if the decision to submit to that process puts his actions and theology back into harmony.

    That is NOT, however, to excuse or white wash what happened before. And if anyone says this is my point, you have misrepresented me. The politics at work in this discussion need to be brought to the front. There are persons who want to discredit Yoder’s work by means of his conduct. That is a THEOLOGICAL disagreement masking as piety. For the women who still wrestle with the trauma of Yoder’s abuse, such ad hominem approaches are not about justice, or about the women, they re-use the women for other ends.

    Seems to me, some honesty needs to be interjected into this conversation, and soon.

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