by Barbra Graber
This is cross-posted from Our Stories Untold
I remember the Sunday morning two Mennonite Youth Fellowship friends were made to get up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite theologian and symbol of male power in the church sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of Mennonite women and was never made to publicly confess. And AMBS, the Mennonite seminary that hired him, was somehow rendered powerless to take action, allowing years of silence and collusion to go by while a file of complaint letters accumulated in the Dean’s office. To their credit, AMBS eventually fired him, but neither AMBS nor Indiana-Michigan Conference has ever been called by the church or anyone else to publicly explain or acknowledge the years of complicity. Quite the opposite.
John Howard Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual, though again to their credit AMBS has made some helpful changes to the way in which his writings are introduced in the classroom.
I am a survivor of sexual abuse by men of the Mennonite Church, though not JHY. And I have walked through hell and back with many of the church’s soul-scarred women (and men), including victims of JHY. Long time friend Ted Swartz, after reading my recent rant about reviews of JHY’s books in “The Mennonite” asked me, “So what needs to be done? It feels like we are stuck…is it possible to move forward?” I like a challenge from friends and thanks to Ted I sat down again to reflect. I too would like to see us move forward. But we can’t cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” There is no peace (and may never be) for many women who lost years if not lifetimes of normal, healthy, joyous living for having been sexually abused by male leaders of the Mennonite Church. And JHY remains a symbol of those widespread woundings like no other churchman.
In the interest of offering practical suggestions and moving toward justice, peace and healing within our Body of Believers, here are seven suggestions, offered for further discussion and discernment:
- Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, “liaisons”, “dalliances”, “alleged abuses”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, and “misconduct” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading. The actions of JHY reported to me, beginning in the 70â€²s, were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. They were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence. Women don’t write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about liaisons with powerful men. They usually don’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties. An impropriety is a sexist joke. Stop the whitewashing. The man committed crimes and was very lucky to have been spared a jail sentence.
- For Mennonite Church leaders: Admit without reservation that you got it wrong with JHY in the past. Pledge to make the ending of sexual abuses of power by our church leaders a clearly and broadly articulated priority. Create at least one setting for public acknowledgement and confession for the years of silent complicity and ongoing harm. This could take place through an open letter in The Mennonite, signed by any involved or their representatives; and it could happen through a public ceremony of confession at a national (and international) church conference. This festering wound cannot close and the Spirit will not breathe freely through our church until this dirty business is simply and sincerely acknowledged without excuses. If it ends in legal action, which is highly unlikely, so be it. Let the debt be paid.
- For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.” If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me. It would make my day.
- For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy and his severe lack of orthopraxy in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor.
- For Mennonite men: create safe and appropriate invitations for women in your church and in your circle of friends to talk about their experiences of sexual violation by men and the impact it has had on their lives. Practice deep listening. Perhaps this kind of event has occurred in some Mennonite Church congregations. If so, I would love to hear about them. Challenge your male friends who don’t get it and go to the police or social services about the friends you know or suspect are abusing. Don’t expect them to be able to be truthful with you. If you are or have ever been caught up in perpetrating sexualized violence, likely due to an earlier unhealed victimization, make confession. Seek help and healing.
- For Mennonite pastors and those who educate and supervise them: Stop the secrecy. Talk about it from the lectern and the pulpit. Make it safe to name names. Believe the victims and confront those named on their behalf. Turn law breakers over to the police. Stop covering up crimes in a naive belief that the church is equipped to handle these things on its own. Vet and choose lawyers carefully. Create opportunity for, ask for, and if not forthcoming, demand confessions to the congregation. By requiring this you will help the perpetrator begin to heal. Your silence is not an act of love, but of collusion. Don’t shun perpetrators. Embrace them, but hold them accountable and create strict boundaries. And if they refuse to cooperate and attempt to return to church property, don’t hesitate to take out a restraining order.
- Break the silence and tell your story at www.OurStoriesUntold.com. If your perpetrator has never been reported or exposed it is very likely he will assault again and again through out his lifetime. It takes courage, but experience also shows that breaking your silence and telling what happened is the only way to find true healing. There is so much hope for new life if we can muster the courage to do the right thing and confess to our own brokenness.
Call me naive. Say these things will never happen. I’ll hold out hope for the good people of the Mennonite Church and the power of Spirit-led healing and reconciliation till the day I die.
Our Stories Untold Editor’s Note: For more information on John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct, please see Ted Grimsrud’s article documentations here.