“Mennonite Women’s Posse”: How feminists organized for accountability for John Howard Yoder

In the new issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, five essays look at John Howard Yoder’s systematic project of sexual harassment and abuse of women. Unless otherwise noted, the articles named below are part of the issue.

Rachel Waltner Goossen’s essay “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” is the most extensive of these pieces. It is the result of an in-depth year-long study using previously inaccessible files. Her piece makes clearer then ever institutional complicity with Yoder’s abuse, starting in the late 1970s through the four year attempt to rehabilitate him that ended in 1996:

“As Marlin Miller and other Mennonite leaders learned of Yoder’s behavior, the tendency to protect institutional interests–rather than seeking redress for women reporting sexual violation–was amplified because of Yoder’s status as the foremost Mennonite theologian and because he conceptualized his behavior as an experimental form of sexual ethics.”

I’ve argued previously that this complicity continued up through the summer of 2013. At the time I asked “How do we develop a theology of power that give us ears to hear the voices of those marginalized and eyes to see the way we participate in their marginalization?”

After reading Waltner Goossen’s piece along with other’s in the collection, I think I’d complement this question with one asking about the practices that highlight the voices of the marginalized.

Waltner Goossen, and other authors in this MQR issue tell a story that offers one answer to that question. They document that one of the few antidotes to Mennonite institutional silence and complicity was Mennonite feminists organizing at the grass roots.

Yoder understood their power.

In a June 27, 1993 letter to Stanley Hauerwas he called them “the Mennonite women’s posse” (cited by Paul Martens and David Cramer in their essay in the issue, “By What Criteria Does a ‘Grand, Noble Experiment’ Fail? What the Case of John Howard Yoder Reveals about the Mennonite Church”).

First challenge to the silence
The first organizing effort, described by Waltner Goossen, was led by Ruth Krall, who had heard accounts of Yoder’s abuse as part of her work as a clinician. Over the course of several years, starting in the late 1970s and continuing in the mid-1980s she and other faculty women at Goshen (Ind.) College, the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College met “to share concerns about Yoder’s unwelcome sexual advances and to strategize about confronting the problem.”

According to Krall, during her first full year of graduate studies in California she decided to contact Marlin Miller, Goshen Biblical Seminary (GBS) president and Yoder’s supervisor, directly in writing as new sexual harassment policies across the nation advised women to do. Waltner Goossen describes how she named the centrality of patriarchy in the situation:

“Krall framed the problem as institutional, exacerbated by a male-dominated board, administration, teaching staff and student body. At the seminary, male prerogative was simply taken for granted. Krall told Miller bluntly: ‘Until the agenda of sexism is taken seriously, you may not ever hear the story of sexual harassment.’”

Miller had shielded Yoder for years while privately trying to dissuade him via biblical arguments.

For example, Waltner Goossen describes how, in the spring of 1979, Miller threatened one of Yoder’s victims with expulsion for documenting Yoder’s sexual harassment of her at Yoder’s request. Krall’s letter was influential in finally pushing Miller to move beyond his ineffective strategy of intellectual debate. Waltner Goossen describes the impact of Krall’s letter on Miller:

“Although Miller failed to absorb Krall’s feminist perspective that sexual harassment constituted violence against women, he could not miss the signs that Mennonite women academics were concerned about female students’ and other women’s safety. They had interpreted the problem in a new way, and their solutions were far different from Miller’s. Krall and other women were mobilizing against patriarchy by intensifying communications. Miller soon learned the truth of Krall’s parting challenge, that ‘the women’s network in the Mennonite Church knows more about this problem than you do.’ At the next general assembly of the Mennonite Church, a convention held in August 1983 in Bethlehem, Pa., women gathered privately to discuss Yoder’s behavior and the Elkhart seminary’s condoning of it. Some approached church administrators to report what they knew and urged intervention, calling for restrictions on Yoder’s movements around the seminary, at college campuses and at other institutions.”

In an email, Krall described how this grassroots, relational organizing during this period happened in living rooms among women their 20s to their 50s. The gathering at Bethlehem included women in coverings and cape dresses sharing their stories.

According to Waltner Goossen, this movement was what pushed Miller to escalate his confrontation with Yoder, eventually leading to Yoder’s resignation from the GBS. Even after he resigned from the seminary early in 1984, Yoder, through Miller, managed to extract a promise of silence from the board of both seminaries and any faculty knowledgeable about his behavior. The stories about Yoder’s behavior continued to circulate, but there was no public exposure for eight more years.

Taking it public
In 1992, it was again feminist organizing that led to Yoder’s abuse becoming public for the first time as described by Linda Gehman Peachey in her article “Naming the Pain, Seeking the Light: The Mennonite Church’s Response to Sexual Abuse” which documents Mennonite efforts to challenge sexual abuse by clergy:

“Some men also became active allies. In February 1992 about three dozen men from the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church participated in a consultation in Colorado to address male violence against women. As they reported, “The experiences and learnings of that weekend had a profound impact resulting in confession, repentance and renewal….” They concluded their gathering with a covenant to break the silence around abuse. Almost immediately, three of the men wrote a letter to the Bethel College president, John Zehr, about John Howard Yoder’s upcoming appearance there as a keynote speaker. Having learned of Yoder’s abuse of women, these men noted that ‘many of these women first met him at conferences like this one…. We do not want more women abused by him.’ When Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., subsequently withdrew Yoder’s invitation to speak, the denominational press reported Yoder’s abusive behavior publicly for the first time.”

This public exposure brought added pressure to bear on a process that had already begun at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind.–Yoder’s home congregation.

These various forces eventually led to a four-year disciplinary process for Yoder.

Prior to 2013, the dominant view was that this work brought about healing and restoration and that the whole episode could be put behind us. Waltner Goossen’s article makes it bracingly clear how Yoder’s discipline process fell short on a number of fronts, most notably in Yoder’s “adversarial bent” towards the committee who she views as sincere in their efforts. Yoder, she says “appropriated the language of victimhood for himself.”

During this period Yoder fought especially hard with the committee to make sure that a 21-page independent assessment of him by Chicago psychiatrist John F. Gottlieb was destroyed in an effort to protect his legacy. He was successful in this effort as Waltner Goossen was unable to locate any copies of the report. The last remaining copy of it was destroyed in 2001 by Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference officials.

Incidentally, this shredding of documents is a recurring theme in Waltner Goossen’s narrative.

Two years into the process, Glen Stassen, Stanley Hauerwas, and Mark [Thiessen] Nation sent an an appeal to conference leaders asking them to end the process and restore Yoder so he could get back to his work:

“It is our understanding that despite the fact that he considers his views on sexuality to be prophetic,” wrote Hauerwas and Nation in a second letter to the Indiana-Michigan conference, “he has used considerable self-restraint and has shown remarkable respect for his church by not promoting his views publicly anytime during his long teaching career.”

This focus on Yoder’s rehabilitation rather than the victim’s loss was a recurring problem through the whole four years of the process.

While we don’t know how much these theologians knew about Yoder’s activities at the time, one does wonder how much they had integrated the lens of feminism into their views on the process.

In the same year as Stassen, Hauerwas and Nation were writing, theologian Dorothy Yoder Nyce pointed out that they–along with all Anabaptist-connected male theologians–were not challenging patriarchal structures in their work. In his article “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics,” Jamie Pitts summarizes her 1994 article:

“Yoder Nyce argued that ‘as long as patriarchy was dominant and unchallenged, wholeness of vision was impossible–for women or men.’ She illustrated this point by cataloguing the ways that “Bender’s ‘Vision’ was not equipped to counter the established [patriarchal] social order”: It did not offer a hermeneutic that could ‘reconstruct’ biblical texts sanctioning the silencing and subordination of women; it did not redefine nonconformity to distance it from efforts to control women through restricted dress or head coverings; it did not disassociate atonement, suffering or discipleship from the use of those doctrines by men to justify their abuse of women.”

The title of Yoder Nyce’s piece summed up her question: “The Anabaptist Vision: Was it Visionary Enough for Women?” This question rings through the last 20 years during which Yoder’s stature has grown and conventional wisdom among Mennonites and the wider Anabaptist community has accepted his disciplinary process as sufficient.

We have to wonder what feminist voices were missing from the Anabaptist community during this time due to Yoder’s systematic grooming and harassment in previous decades. What questions went unasked?

Pointing out the elephant
It took a third push from some of these same organizers to finally bring Mennonite Church USA’s attention to bear in the summer of 2013 when Barbra Graber and Ruth Krall published complementary articles drawing attention to the depth and extent of Yoder’s abuse and Mennonite institutional complicity.

Graber’s article, “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder?”challenged the idea that Yoder’s “highly secretive disciplinary process” had fixed things. Around the same time, Ruth Krall’s carefully researched “The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Volume 3: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder” documented Yoder’s abuse at a new depth.

Both articles were highlighted by Rachel Halder’s Our Stories Untold project, a grassroots effort to challenge sexualized violence in the Mennonite church. I’ve written previously summarizing the importance of their work in more detail.

In a Jan. 4, 2014 comment on The Mennonite website, Mennonite scholar Lisa Schirch describes the response to Krall’s work in the last year and a half (and before):

“Ruth Krall and other women who attempted to raise important issues of pacifism and theology with church leaders were silenced and vilified. Based on a false assumption that Krall’s book is somehow a vendetta (a claim made by men who deny the severity of Yoder’s violent impact on women), few Mennonite theologians have even taken the time to read Krall’s book or understand the broader field of study of sexual abuse in religious contexts. In all the many books on Yoder, few Mennonite men do the courtesy of citing Krall’s or other Mennonite women’s writings about Yoder.”

Mennonites need to recognize that we are far from unique in our inability to deal well with sexual abuse and harassment by high profile leaders. In October 2014, Father Thomas P. Doyle spoke at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, and to the New Perspectives on Faith group in Goshen. Doyle is a Catholic priest and long time advocate for clergy sex abuse victims and a regular writer for the Catholic Reporter.

In his presentation to the New Perspectives group (audio available here) he highlighted patriarchy as the number one issue behind the sexual abuse of vulnerable people by clergy. This patriarchy, enshrined in institutions, nurtures leaders who “have a profoundly messed-up view of what the church is.” In his view they see structure, rather than people as church and end up serving institutions rather than victims.

“We’re not primarily talking about sex; we’re talking about authority” he said. He emphasized the institutional need to believe and reach out in healing ways to the church’s victims who speak about their abuse at the hands of church employees.

This grassroots, prophetic work by feminists and victims of Yoder’s abuse has come at a profound cost, personally and professionally, to the courageous women (and a few men) who organized over these past four decades.

They wrote letters, encouraged one another in small groups, organized conferences, built networks and published articles. As Mennonite institutions shape their apology, they would do well to consider how they continue to resist those challenging their complicity with oppression and misuse of power. What will be the cost to the current generation of those working to challenge the ongoing patterns of oppression in Mennonite institutions? What will the cost be to all of us if we do not listen?

Ewuare Osayande, anti-oppression coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S., recently wrote about the pushback he experienced in response to challenging institutional oppression. His words resonate well beyond MCC and echo the experiences of Anabaptists feminists organizing in the case of Yoder.

Osayande says: “I am not the first person in this position to experience this backlash. The repressive actions taken against me are actions that others before me have experienced as they sought to hold MCC accountable to its own stated principles of peace and justice.”

In her Jan. 4, 2014 comment, Lisa Schirch describes the pushback she personally has received from male Mennonite theologians for speaking out about Yoder:

“They chastise me for not forgiving Yoder. In doing so, they make the assumption that forgiving Yoder would silence my critique of sexual violence in the church. I hold no grudge against Yoder. Because of my pacifism, not in spite of it, I feel compelled to keep the focus on the main issue here. The problem is not with Yoder at this point in time. Yoder is gone.

The problem is a Mennonite church that continues to highlight the voices of men at the expense of women, to silence those of us who want a pacifism with integrity; and to be blind to the dynamics of power and its abuses in heterosexual relationships by instead focusing on consensual homosexual relationships.”

Above photo by Tim Nafziger.

Comments (4)

  1. Lisa Schirch

    I’m so grateful for this blog… thank you for your words here.

  2. Withheld

    Link to article by Ewuare is broken. Hoping that’s just a technical error and not MCC telling him to take it down.

  3. TimN

    Thanks for noting this, Withheld. Ewuare’s post is definitely gone from his blog. I don’t think it’s a technical error: Link to the front page of his blog

  4. Allyson Yoder

    Thank you for this important article. I’m a feminist with a Mennonite background trying to make sense of the patriarchal church culture and history I’ve inherited. What to do with the hypocrisy of a church that preaches non-violence and resistance to oppression and yet silently endorses violence against women and LGBTQ members? I very much appreciate your focus on feminist action and thought, and the many different voices you highlighted–gives me more to read. Do you know if Yoder Nyce’s article can be accessed online?

    If you know of any other feminist theologians and activists within the Anabaptist tradition, please point me to them!

Comments are closed.