A Letter From the Exiles

Douglas Jacobsen in his essay “Anabaptist Autonomy, Evangelical Engulfment” describes a Mennonite ‘diaspora’ in two senses. First is the sense that ideas and movements from other denominations and traditions have gone out from their homes and have settled among the Mennonites. Mennonite churches can feel very different, with charismatic, evangelical and even liturgical influences making their rounds. Second is the sense that Mennonite ideas and movements have gone out and settled among other Christian traditions of all sorts - Evangelical, mainline Protestant and even High Church.

I am part of this strange diaspora. On the one hand the faith communities I have been apart have been formerly Anabaptist. These congregations have come from traditions that at one time were Mennonite or still retain the name but who no longer bear any Anabaptist distinctiveness, having been caught up in the wider Evangelical movement. On the other hand in Bible College I was significantly influenced by Anabaptist ideas, read intensively of Anabaptist writers, with my vision for faith and community coming into close proximity to those that descend from Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision”.

Now when I say “I read intensively of Anabaptist writers” I perhaps am being dishonest. It was really one Anabaptist writer who influenced my thinking and has shaped the way I look at things immensely: John Howard Yoder. As a young evangelical at odds with the social witness of the evangelical tradition I found Yoder’s writings refreshing. Dare I even say life giving. Within my first year of bible college I recall reading at least five of his books. At the same time I observed other young evangelicals becoming excited with missional church writings, or the work of new monastics like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Anyone familiar with book indexes could easily figure out that Yoder’s shadow has been cast on these writings.

And here’s the thing: it was not just about thinking. It is about how lives are lived. For me Anabaptism as mediated by Yoder opened up doors for a radical discipleship that had only been hinted to in my congregations. For one thing it helped shaped a long-term commitment to a new monastic community in Kitchener-Waterloo I helped found. It helped me engage issues of poverty and injustice in new ways. In reinvigorated a commitment to pacifism, transforming the nonresistance I had inherited from my grandparents into a robust, articulate sense of nonviolence.

During my second year I stumbled upon the story of Yoder’s abusive actions and the Church’s response. Needless to say I was disgusted and disillusioned. I decided that although his writings had been helpful to me up until that point given his harmful actions I would put aside reading him for the next few years. I felt that I needed to do this. A few years later, while visiting the Catholic Worker in New York, I was given the book “John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings.” I decided to engage his work again. I began recommending him to select others, although always pointing out what he did before giving them the book, feeling it would be unjust not to.

Part of why I felt able to engage him again was how the story of his abuse was told. The storyline was along these lines: there were instances (read not very many) of sexual misconduct (that doesn’t sound too bad..), but the Church called him out on them (good for them, like a good church should!) and Yoder submitted to discipline (humility, thats a good thing!) and reconciliation happened ( victims were heard, he apologises and make amends, the story had a happy ending) and the Church recommends his work still be read and used (sighs of relief?). Given my faith commitment to repentance and forgiveness and mercy, I felt like the story cohered well. I had made a tentative peace with this.

I am currently a Theological Studies student at Conrad Grebel at the University of Waterloo. This year I am taking a theology seminar on the theology of John Howard Yoder. We began our first class talking about both Yoder’s theology and this part of his personal life. It was then that the story began to crack under the weight of new information. For the first time I learned about the scale of what happened. I went home and began reading Ruth Krall’s book on the issue, as well as recent discussions in the Mennonite media, both official and unofficial. I felt Angry. Really Angry. And it was not Yoder’s actions alone. It was all the complicity that seemed to be going on. The story I was told now felt whitewashed, half-truths put together in order to soothe and swindle Yoder’s unsuspecting readers. People like me. Like my friends.

As I have been working through this sense of betrayal I have recognized the complexity of the situation and the fact that I do not have all the facts. I really do not know how my sense of betrayal matches with reality. Yet as I continue to read in the Mennonite Media about this I am struck by how much it seems to be just a Mennonite issue. Just a MCUSA, MC Canada, AMBS issue. But it is not just a Mennonite Issue. So long as evangelical seminaries like Fuller are thinking of naming a chair of theology after him, and Tyndale an online reading room of his work, not to mention the countless other bible college or seminaries that use his work, it will not be a Mennonite Issue.

Since part of the controversy is how the situation was dealt with by Mennonite institutions whatever the outcome of these conversations, and the discernment group put together by MCUSA, the wider Christian world will be affected. This affects the diaspora..And if (I do not want to be too presumptuous) my initial anger does correspond to reality, - that the initial inertia, the reconciliation process and the story told since then were Mennonites saving face in order to secure Yoder’s written legacy - then serious repentance is needed. Internally towards those affected but also towards others in the body of Christ who have been told half-truths to keep us interested in Anabaptism (or whatever the motivation). Do not misunderstand me,  I am not saying we in the diaspora are victims, in a situation like this that would be wrong and very unfair.

What I am saying is simply this: we are involved.

And if (again, do not want to be too presumptuous) my anger was not misplaced, then it means this time Mennonite institutions repent it needs to be a substantial repentance. A real embrace of vulnerability, not just rhetorical posturing to protect legacies. In the words of Marva Dawn (a student of Yoders) the Church must not act as a “fallen power” but must embrace the weakness of the cross, for that is the only way God will tabernacle among us. And this substantial repentance will include us, the Mennonite exiles.

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