Guest Blog – When the Youth Bible Hurts

I’ve got a guest post today from Judi Gardener who is a Christian feminist and also a survivor of multiple abuse including spiritual abuse that contributed to staying far too long with the perpetrator. She eventually ended up with PTSD and as a result lost her children through the family court. She is passionate about outreach to the unchurched, support around domestic violence and understanding of mental health issues. Somehow she ended up in an Anglo-Catholic (ish) Church and now has a Morning Prayer habit. She sometimes wishes God had not given her such broad shoulders.

 

It’s unacceptable. Whatever way I looked it was still unacceptable. I had opened a Youth Bible at random, it was a New Century Version but what I was reading actually seemed more fitting for the 19th century. It was not the Bible verse itself (Psalm 51), but the devotion that accompanied the text which got me so steamed up. The back cover informs me that the devotions are real life stories.  For the sake of the young woman who was the main character in this story, I sincerely hope there was more to it. If not, yet another young woman has been drastically failed by the ignorance of church leaders and will, years later, likely still be struggling through life.

 

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The box was headed “sexuality”, with a subheading of “whiter than snow”. It contained a not unfamiliar story of a young girl called Barbara who at nine-years-old was physically and sexually abused by her uncle. Apparently by thirteen she was sexually active with numerous guys and often dated guys four or five years older than herself.

What the devotion then focuses on is not that Barbara had obviously been abused by a number of men, but that Barbara was a sinner. In other words, the Youth Bible victim blames Barbara, in a rather big plot twist.  At no point in the text are the sins of the men who had sex with an underaged vulnerable girl mentioned. Apparently, Barbara needed to turn to God and have her sexual sin forgiven.  Excuse me.  Barbara, whilst no doubt a sinner just like all of us, had been more sinned against than she had been a sinner in her short life.

One of my go to Bible stories is that of the Samaritan Woman.  Jesus did not condemn her, but instead stayed in her company despite the cultural taboos.  He would have known why she had multiple husbands and was now living with another man outside of marriage. Had she been sexually abused?  We cannot know.

God certainly does not condemn all promiscuous women, Rahab the harlot is also described as a woman of faith. In John 8 1-11 Jesus deals with the adulterous woman, a familiar but for some quarters of the church a difficult story to stomach.

The truth is, a child who has been sexually abused such as Barbara, will feel filthy. The Youth Bible reflection explains, ‘“I came to church feeling like a tramp” she told Jan after they prayed. “But now I feel God has made me clean again.”’

This was supposedly after Barbara had asked to receive forgiveness for her sins. Now I am not doubting her experience and the peace that comes on giving your life to Christ, but for me, as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, that dirty feeling did not instantly disappear. I was raped, for the first time at no older than seven and in hindsight I am grateful that I was not aware of what was happening to me. The experience left deep scars that lasted well into my adult life, way beyond my conversion.  It was being led into inner child healing and meeting up with my abuser years later that finally freed me. The former because it gave me some control over what I had suffered and the latter because I managed to see what a wounded man he had become and forgave him. The rape, like Barbara’s, was incestuous and was completely mishandled by my family when I choose to reveal it out of fear for another relative. I know now why.  Put simply, it was about shame. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family. It is the same in church. I think we can all recall situations where the reputation of the church was more highly valued than the welfare of the victim.

You may say this is an old version of the Bible and today’s teenagers get a different message, yet many of today’s church leaders would have been brought up on such Youth Bibles at the turn of the century and just as your music taste reflects your youth so do your values. It’s scary, and no wonder misogyny still rears its ugly head in our churches.

It needs to stop. Churches (if they have not already done so) need understandable child protection policies which include being able to deal with spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. Victim blaming is spiritually abusive and psychologically damaging. Victims need high quality pastoral care alongside support for reporting crimes. No further Barbaras, please, in Jesus name.

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When It’s Not A Happy Ending

Many of you will know that Smallest GLW came to live with us almost three years ago when he was three. He and his mum moved in with our family after she wasn’t coping.  It was a tough time.  Smaller GLW who has some behavioural challenges had to share a room with Smallest GLW and we split our living room in two with a false wall to make a bedroom for his mum.

 

(This got me thinking about how the erecting of walls has become attached to Donald Trump’s racist agenda.  Yet for us, that wall in our living room represented a way of loving and making space for people.  Not all walls are bad, it seems.)

 

Six months into Smallest GLW being with us his mum felt ready to move on.  She got a job and moved out and asked us to adopt him. After much reflection and prayer, we said yes.

 

Every month I have a day with God.  I go to our local seaside town and walk along the shore, reviewing the past month, praying for those God brings to mind and seeking God’s will for my family and me. Soon after we had agreed to adopt Smallest GLW, I was on a God Day.  I realised that I wasn’t truly choosing to take Smallest GLW on as my own.  And when I tried to work out why, at the root of it I realised that it gave his mum a lot of power in my life.  What if she wanted him back?  How could I risk loving a child and taking him on as my own, knowing there was a risk I would lose him? I told God I couldn’t, that it was too hard.  And God told me that I must.  So I did. I trusted that God had told me this because He knew that Smallest GLW would be ours and that we could have faith that it would all be okay.

 

And so, our family embarked on being five and not four.  It was difficult.  Smallest GLW came with a whole load of baggage; it turns out there’s a lot of hurt that can be fitted into the short life of a three-year-old.  We loved him as hard as we could, and we put everything we could in place to help him flourish.  Strong boundaries and clear consequences, constantly telling him we loved him and how precious he was to us.  In response to questions about how many children we had, Mr GLW and I got used to saying we had three, with no qualifiers or differentials.  They were all our babies.  We went from having two older children (nine and twelve), to having a three-year-old and adapting to the limitations and joys of having a small, adorable, hurt little person.

 

Smallest GLW did flourish! In the past three years he caught up from six months social and emotional delay, his health stabilised, he is top of his class in every subject.  His teacher told us recently that out of all the children in her class, he is the one child you would never guess had experienced a difficult start in life. He is kind, caring and wonderful. The moments of helping him hold his hurt gradually diminish.  We all adjusted, and despite the difficult days, it was lovely.

 

But things changed. Smallest GLW’s mum moved over 200 miles away, had another baby, and wanted him returned to her.  We held onto the word from God telling us that Smallest GLW had become ours and we fought to keep him.  As much as we would have loved to help him be returned, the circumstances left us convinced this would not be good for anyone.  The family court system remains highly confidential and so I can’t go into the details, but a year on from his mum seeking for him to be returned and much to our shock (and the shock of everyone else we know), Smallest GLW is going to be leaving us and moving over 200 miles away, returning permanently to his mum.

 

Whilst everyone else was getting super excited about Michael Curry’s wedding sermon, I wept hysterically as I listened to him.  He said,

 

“That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world…Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.”

 

And Christian Twitter LOVED it (well mostly).  It’s inspiring to hear about sacrificial love, but it’s brutal to live it.  All these people cheering on sacrificial love, and I was losing a baby in a system that is messed up; when God had specifically told me to take that baby as my own.  How could God do that to me?  How could anyone preach that this was a good idea?  Why were people not struck with fear by the absolute horror of sacrificial love?  Of what it can do to us?  Of how it can break us?

 

It’s been an unbearable few months as we’ve gone through a system where legal aid is non-existent.  Today I sat in a court waiting room and a volunteer brought around a therapy dog.  She was lovely and sat with people whilst they stroked her (the dog, not the volunteer).  Weeks earlier, sat in the same waiting room I had seen a woman broken by an abusive ex-partner dragging her through the court.  She was representing herself.  She was all alone.  Every day women are being dragged through the family court by abusive men and they are alone.  For a moment I stroked the lovely dog and felt relieved that some women would have a dog to stroke while they waited to be re-broken by the man who had destroyed their life, in a system that colludes with him.  I shared my relief with the volunteer that women would have this dog to comfort them.  And she nodded and told me there have been many women who have sat on the floor with her dog and wept as they told the dog the ways they have been wrecked, by men and by the system.

 

Then I became slightly hysterical.  What on earth was I thinking?  Why am I pleased that women have a dog to comfort them in the family court, when what they need is a functioning justice system that gives them a fair hearing and does not collude with abusive men?  WHAT THEY NEED IS A FRICKING LAWYER, NOT A DOG TO WEEP ON.  The state of our society is captured right there, in that court waiting room.  A woman weeping on the floor comforted by a dog whilst the system completely fails her.

 

When things began to get fraught for us, before we knew what the terrible outcome would be, inspired by the Eat Pray Love mantra, I took on my own mantra of Run Pray Sleep.  I found that as long as each day included a run, a dedicated prayer time, and at least eight hours sleep, I would be okay.  But then that fell apart.  The stress resulted in me getting severe tonsillitis, then I twisted my ankle.  I couldn’t run.  Nightmares, constantly going over statements and strategies in my head and the clocks changing meant my sleep was terrible.  And I stopped being able to pray, there was nothing to say.  I couldn’t face the possibility of losing Smallest GLW, but neither could I rest in the confidence he was staying, because then if he did leave it would be all the more devastating.

 

The debilitating effect of this situation confounded me partly because I have been through worse (and I don’t say that lightly).  At 21, I divorced my abusive ex-husband, while living in a hospital with a premature baby and a traumatised toddler and was a witness against my ex-husband for raping me and causing the three-month premature birth of my baby.

 

Yet this situation hurt in a different way.  With my sick baby, there was little I could do fight.  I was totally out of control.  Whereas in this situation we had to choose to keep fighting, to believe that we could “win”.  The energy required to fight a broken system was different.  And I was different.  I wasn’t a young parent with no confidence who had been decimated by an abusive man. I had been a competent professional for a decade, I had become a warrior fighting for women and speaking truth. And yet, this whole situation drained me of strength, disempowered me, left me broken.

 

A couple of realisations helped:

 

  1. Every year in June or July I have a God Weekend (me and God for two nights, usually in a cheap hotel in Folkestone, waiting on God, reflecting on the year, working out what’s next), and there’s usually some words that become clear about the year ahead. Last June, two of the words God gave me were Fortitude and Presence.  (I didn’t know what Fortitude even meant, but on discovering that it meant “courage in pain or adversity” I panicked.  Courage isn’t too bad, but a word that promised pain and adversity suggested the year was going to be awful, and in a lot of ways it has been.)  Over the year I had felt guilty about the whole Presence word.  I hadn’t sought God’s presence, particularly when things had got bad.  I hadn’t even been able to pray anymore.  Then a few weeks ago, as I wallowed in the misery of being a failed Christian and not seeking God’s presence, God pointed out to me that I was wrong.  That word “Presence” was about God always being present.  I wasn’t a failure for not being able to pray.  God was present.  I didn’t need to do anything, God was there all along.  God is always there.

 

  1. I’ve been having counselling for almost a year. On my God Weekend some stuff came up that I tried to pray about and God was all, “YOU COULD SIT HERE FOR THREE DAYS AND PRAY, BUT LET’S BE HONEST, YOU NEED TO GET YOURSELF IN THERAPY.”  So I did.  Which turns out to have been very good advice given that this year has involved being utterly wrecked.

 

In one session recently, just before a court hearing, my therapist did this visualisation exercise with me (it took months for me not to be all ARGHHHHH about such things) and she told me to imagine being a boat on a stormy sea and that I was putting down an anchor.  My imagination conjured up a wooden rowing boat and I knew that an anchor wasn’t going to help. I was going to be SMASHED TO PIECES and an urgent solution was needed.  Suddenly my rowing boat became a massive metal warship.  As I drove home I pondered this and realised that I wasn’t a rowing boat, I was a MASSIVE METAL WARSHIP and I knew that I would not be overcome.  I walked into the court room all empowered and confident that I could fight everyone.  And we lost.  We lost our baby.

 

Church has been tough, illness and circumstances meant I didn’t attend for almost two months.  Every song makes me cry.  And I am certainly not a public cryer (no judgement to those who are, I wish I could be).

 

This week when we announced to our church that Smallest GLW was leaving, people were so sad. One woman came over to tell Smallest GLW, who was snuggled up to me, that no matter what he would never be alone, and I squashed all the tears down as my insides screamed “BUT HE WILL BE ALL ALONE AND I WON’T BE THERE TO KEEP HIM SAFE AND LOVE HIM AND TELL HIM HE IS PRECIOUS AND AMAZING AND CUDDLE HIM AND MAKE SURE HE BRUSHES HIS TEETH AND EATS HIS DINNER AND IS KIND TO HIS FRIENDS”.  Someone else assured me that she thought he would be back, even though he won’t be. But this person just wants there to be a happy ending, because that’s what we all want isn’t it?  Happy endings.  And that’s what we’ve been told the Gospel is, a happy ending.  But for most people in the world, Christian or not, it’s not a happy ending.  The woman weeping into a dog on the floor of a court waiting room.  The Palestinian nurse Razan al-Najjar shot by Israeli soldiers. The American citizens fearful of being arrested and shot or hearing of their sons or daughters being shot, because they are black.  The Syrian people living in a warzone.  The increasing numbers of homeless people in our cities.  Happy ever afters are for fairy tales, not for real life and certainly not for Christians.

 

The sermon at church last week was about brokenness and how Jesus’ light shines through our brokenness.  Inside I was yelling, “BUT NOT THIS BROKEN, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING LEFT.”  Then we sang Becky and Nick Drake’s song “City On A Hill” and there’s a line in it, “If God is for me, who can stand against me.”  And the yelling started up again inside me, “BUT CLEARLY THAT’S NOT TRUE BECAUSE WE’RE LOSING OUR BABY.”

 

I have no answers.  I don’t understand why God has put us through this.  I should have had an inkling it was going to be hard when I won a sermon competition two years ago decrying the complacency and comfortableness of Christians (you can read the sermon HERE).  So maybe, now I get to like on of those long ago prophets who lives out some sort of lesson to the people of God.  Or maybe that’s me trying to make meaning out of the unbearable.  Who knows?

 

I do know that for the last three years Smallest GLW has belonged somewhere.  He has not felt like he was a temporary family member.  He has been ours.  And if God had told us he was only ours for a little while, I’m not sure we could have given him what he needed.  To know he belonged.

 

I got thinking about the Prodigal Child (I wrote a story once reimagining this story as a mother and two daughters).  How our model for God as parent is that we mess up and walk away from God and then God waits for us to come back and welcomes us with open arms.  But what about the children who don’t walk away? What about the ones who are taken away, or who find that religious systems abuse them and for their sanity and safety they have to leave?  And I wondered if I’m getting to feel a tiny bit of what God feels when the systems take God’s children away, and how deeply God grieves for those children and how hard God fought but that didn’t change the outcome.

 

There may be people reading this who aren’t Christian (if you’ve got this far, I applaud you!), and you may be thinking that I’m a masochist.  Why continue to love a God who only causes pain?  If God asks that much of me, why do I keep going? How can I call myself a feminist and worship this patriarchal God who demands everything and leaves men to continue wrecking the world?  (I remain forever grateful to the feminists who continue to welcome me, even though they are confident I am utterly deluded about this God business).  I wish I had a snappy answer to give you, but I don’t.

 

Awhile ago, I read THIS interview with Rachael Denhollander who is an absolute Shero for all of her work seeking justice for the many victims of Larry Nassar, and in her continued work to shine a light on male violence in Christian communities.  Rachael was asked if a Bible verse has particularly helped her and she answered,

 

“One was from John 6, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you want to leave too?” Peter says, “Where else would I go, Lord? You have the words of life.” There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.”

 

In all of this I know that to be true.  It makes no sense.  But it is true.  There is nowhere else I could go to find Life like that which I have found in following Jesus.

 

Michael Curry’s sermon, whilst leaving me hysterical, is true. He is not someone speaking nice ideas. He is a 65-year-old black American man. He knows what sacrificial love costs and yet he still advocates it, and even in the midst of all this awfulness for us, I remain convinced it is the only way.

 

I don’t have any answers.  And the pain is going to get worse before it becomes bearable.  Smallest GLW leaves us on 23rd June.  As a family we have to work out a new normal and find a way through.  Both in spite of and because of all we are dealing with, I remain convinced that though we are hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed; though we are deeply perplexed in trying to make sense of it all, we are not totally despairing or abandoned, though we have been struck down, we will not be destroyed.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

In 2016, I entered the first Sermon of the Year competition run by Preach Magazine.  I only submitted an entry due to knowing how few women put themselves forward and feeling that I had a responsibility to represent womankind by putting a sermon entry in.  And I won it!  Which was amazing!  The prize was free study at London School of Theology and I convinced them to let me enter one of their Masters programmes without a first degree (I left education at 18 having done a two year course to gain a childcare qualification).  Fast forward two years and the competition is in its third year, the final will be on 21st June at LST and I’m now a regular columnist with Preach Magazine!

 

Anyway, I thought it was about time I put my sermon online.  It turns out that the sermon I wrote and preached has involved our family living out the message in some sort of old skool prophet way (which I can tell you is not that fun).  There’s been a lot going on in GLW family life over the last few months and I’m hoping to write something to share with you about it, but I felt to firstly share this sermon as I kind of feel it is part of what needs to be told.  So here goes…

 

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

 

I am much too young to have “listened with mother” but this question has followed us through the generations. I shall ask you again, “Are you sitting comfortably?”

 

This sermon is entitled “Reason For Hope”. Hope involves balancing on the line between despair and complacency. It is the narrow road we are called to as Christians. For if life is too comfortable, what have we to hope for? Hope can only exist until it is realised. We can celebrate the realisation of our hope, but the hope itself is replaced by the delight of hope fulfilled.

 

Paul tells us in Romans 8 that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to daughter and son-ship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

 

What have we to hope for if we are sitting comfortably?

 

Hope requires a deficit; something not yet received. However most of us want a reason to hope without the need for hope in our lives, without the discomfort of any deficit. There’s a reason why the fastest growing churches are in geographical areas of persecution and oppression; when people are in need of hope, Jesus offers Life, whereas there are conversations aplenty in the UK about whether the church is dying and how to revive it.

 

Maya Angelou, in her book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” says, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”

 

We hear Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry mocking the existence of God, as they enjoy the privileges of financial and social security; as white men with enormous power and control over their own lives. Last year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real. Yet often we will find that the children and families who have actually dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is. Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.

 

As Christians we are called to a life of discomfort. The artist Banksy famously said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Although he is talking about art, this is also the truth of the Gospel. In a world that sings along with Pharrell Williams that “Happiness is the truth” Jesus’ call to “pick up our cross daily” leaves the gospel of happiness echoing hollow and empty. For as much as Jesus comforts the disturbed, the lonely, the wounded, the abused, He does not call us to be comfortable.

 

Those familiar with nineties and noughties Christian music will know the band Delirious. One of their songs is called Find Me In The River. Within it are the lines, “We’ve longed to see the roses, but never felt the thorns. And bought our pretty crowns, but never paid the price.”

 

In our comfortable existence we want the goodness of God’s gifts and blessing, but the fullness of life Jesus talked about is accessed by dying to ourselves every single day. This is not to say that we should engage in self-hatred. Selflessness is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less. The paradox of Christian faith is that in giving ourselves to God, we find ourselves.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

God loves us so much. If like Cain, we come to God in our plenty and choose to give Him less than the best of what we have, He will still love us. He will still meet with us. Yet, it was Abel who was “looked upon with favour”. God will not demand our all, but if we give it we will find Him and know Him in that.

 

Having grown up in a Christian family, I knew cognitively about the hope Jesus offers, yet it was only after 4 years of being prevented from loving God by an abusive man that I discovered in my heart what it really means to have a reason to hope. I found myself living in a hospital, with a three-month premature baby and a traumatised toddler. I hoped my baby would recover and that my life would improve. Yet God didn’t pat me on the head and grant my wishes. God asked me to give up even the hope that my baby would get better. He told me to stop praying for my baby to recover and start praying for His will to be done. He told me I needed to be confident of my love for Him, whether my baby lived or died.

 

We are so often taught the Gospel of Sitting Comfortably. The catchall verse of Jeremiah 29:11 is trundled out to tell us that God has good plans for us, to bring us hope and a good future. Yet what about all the people who haven’t known a good future? The ones who struggle with depression? The ones who die of starvation? The ones who are abused and raped? The ones with children who are blind because a fly has burrowed into their eye?

 

The Gospel of Sitting Comfortably owes a lot more to capitalist culture than to Jesus. We are sold the lie of consumer based self-actualisation. That we can access total fulfilment through consuming, spending, owning; that the abundance of our possessions leads to the overflow of happiness in our lives. That sitting comfortably or even better, drowning in a sea of excess, is what life is all about.

 

But that is not the Gospel. That is not our Hope. For we are blessed when we are poor, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are humble and blessed when we are merciful. Blessed when we are pure in heart and blessed when we make peace. We are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we are mocked and when people lie about us. Because ours in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Are you sitting comfortably?

 

How much are you willing to give God? Will you be obedient if He asks you to move house? To give up your job? Do you need a reason to hope or do you just like having one.

 

In one of the Hunger Games film there is a scene where the not-so-benevolent dictator is explaining his theory for maintaining order amongst oppressed people, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit.  We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.

 

Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.

 

We are called to be a people of deficit. Our Saviour was tortured and died. We cannot shy away from pain and wounded-ness, for our hope is in the resurrection of a tortured God.  The title of this sermon is from 1 Peter 3: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

 

Does anyone ask you for your reason to hope? Or does your life look the same as those who don’t know Jesus? Maybe people know you’re a Christian; not because of your “reason to hope” but because of your lack of gentleness and respect. Maybe they know your opinions on different issues. But discussing our opinions has little to do with our reason to hope. In fact, the certainty of our rightness can sometimes stand at odds with a life of faith; it is certainty and not doubt that is the opposite of faith.

 

Maybe you’re sat here, and you’re wondering what I’m going on about. What is this “reason to hope” that I’m talking about?  God came to earth over 2000 years ago, He was birthed out of a woman as a human baby and grew up to live and teach a way of life that almost every religious and ethical group would agree has never been surpassed. He willingly died to once and for all transform humanity’s relationship with God. And then He rose again, conquering death and making a way from death into eternal life for all of us, regardless of the way we mess up or are messed up by others. After Jesus had risen from the dead He supernaturally floated back up to heaven and in His place came the Holy Spirit, another aspect of God, who would guide and gift us to live radical lives, according to The Way that Jesus taught and modelled in His life.

 

My children and I lived in a hospital for five months. In that time I separated from my ex-husband, and went through a court case against him for raping me and I moved to a new area. Since I chose to give my whole life to God I have not been comfortable, my ex-husband was found not guilty; I still have post traumatic stress disorder; my premature baby became well but has been left with behavioural issues; my traumatised toddler has become a gloriously self-assured 12 year old; I have remarried and moved when and where God has told me to. Recently my mum died and the shockwaves of that have been very painful for me. My 22-year-old niece and her 3-year-old son have come to live with us and we have had to trust God for the money to provide for them. We have carved up our living room to make her a bedroom and my 9-year-old son has had to learn to share a room with a 3-year-old. Our house is filled to bursting. We face pain, disappointment and frustration on a regular basis.

 

And yet, I do all this in the full assurance that I am loved and called and precious. Because Jesus became human, I have a God who can walk beside me and knows what it is to suffer. Through the Holy Spirit, I am held in the painful times. I am comforted, though I am not comfortable. And I live a life of freedom and in the hope that this life is not the end. Jesus’s death and resurrection made a way for each of us to have hope for this life and for the next. This is my reason to hope.

 

As you leave this place, may you know the God who disturbs, may you embrace a life with deficit, where the cost is great and the blessings many. And may you be willing to live a life with a need for hope. For those here that don’t know Jesus, may you know that He is the reason to hope.

 

Are you sitting comfortably? I hope not.

Paige Patterson; Abuse of the less serious variety

Paige Patterson is the President of the US Southern Baptist Convention.  His response to a question about domestic abuse at a conference in 2000 re-emerged this week.  You can listen to a transcript of his comments HERE.  The questioner asks about the media discussion around submission “jumping” on the issue of women being abused by their husbands.  He asks Paige Patterson

“What do you recommend for women undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands and the husbands say they should be submitting?”

Patterson responds with,

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counselled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel. There have been, however an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counselled temporary separation and the seeking of help.  I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases…  More often, when you face abuse it is of a less serious variety.”

He explains that he won’t describe the type of abuse that was severe enough to lead him to counsel temporary separation because it was so horrifying that it couldn’t be spoken about in public.

He went on to give an example where a woman was being “subject to some abuse” and he told her to pray about it based on his understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-12.  He said that she came to church with two black eyes, but that it was all okay, because her husband came to church for the first time that Sunday and “his heart was broken”.  Patterson explains,

“…when nobody else can help, God can.  And in the meantime, you have to do whatever you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him.  Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he’s got some very deep spiritual problems in his life and you have to pray that God brings into the intersection of his life those people and those events that need to come into life and arrest him and bring him to his knees.”

Let’s take a little look at some of the language used within this.  Patterson clearly reinforces all concerns that submission leaves abusive men supported in their behaviour.  To some degree I wonder if this is preferable to the weasel words of those who try to justify complementarian theology as absolutely fine. At least he’s honest about it.

From the outset, the questioner uses passive language and a qualifier to abuse, “undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands”.  I use this clip from Jackson Katz A LOT in training to explain how language is used to erase the agent of the abuse (who is generally a man).

By asking about “genuine physical abuse”, the questioner is inferring that non-genuine abuse exists.  What would that be?  Does the husband’s violence have to leave bruises to be genuine? What about if there isn’t physical violence?  Is that what he means?  If a man is berating his wife, belittling her, humiliating her, manipulating her into degrading sexual acts, giving her no money to buy sanitary products, timing how long she takes shopping, screams in her face, torments the children to punish her, deliberately gets her into debt, keeps her up all night, makes her watch him wash after sex because she’s so dirty?  Are all these things not genuine because he hasn’t physically hurt her?

I should say at this point, even responses to Patterson still echo the language of only an abuser’s physical violence warranting separation, for example:

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 08.31.23

Patterson’s response starts again with qualifying the type of abuse a man has to perpetrate in order for a woman to legitimately separate from him.  But apparently it has to be SO bad that you can’t actually publicly tell people about it.  Patterson also doesn’t make any mention of how a church leader would actually be privy to the full scale of abuse being perpetrated.

Disclosure is usually accidental and is always gradual.  Nobody starts by disclosing the worst things that their husband has done to them.  We start small and see if a) we are believed and b) we are looked at with disgust or care. The risk of speaking out leaves most women unwilling to do so, which means that often it will be accidental. Someone sees us at the school gate on the day he has bruised us, or one of our children mentions something to their teacher, or we mention something benign like, “Oh my husband doesn’t let me go shopping for more than half an hour.”  Because we hadn’t realised that isn’t normal.

Nobody is going to start off by telling their church leader, “he urinates on me and chokes me and one day he took me to a derelict building and told me if I tried to leave him, he would bury me there”.  And so, how exactly is Patterson able to assess how serious the abuse is in order to decide whether it meets his criteria, when he will likely never be provided with enough information to do so.  But besides that, what abuse is not serious?  Why does he get to make an arbitrary line between run of the mill abuse which should simply be ignored and that which is “serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough” to warrant temporary separation (nothing warrants divorce, so the only women able to escape are those whose husbands kill them, or who kill their husbands)?  Sin is sin. Abuse is abuse.  There is no sliding scale.  And abusers inevitably escalate their behaviour, so whichever abuser fits within Patterson’s “acceptable abuse” category today may kill their partner or children tomorrow.

It takes years for most of us to recognise that our partner’s behaviour is wrong.  He works very hard to ensure that we blame ourselves for his behaviour, and his constant minimisation and denial leaves us sure it can’t be that bad.  By the time a woman says, “I need to get out”, you need to be listening to her and doing all you can to help.  Particularly women in Christian communities, who have been indoctrinated to believe men have to be in charge, that submission is the solution and that denial-based-forgiveness is the way to move forward.  But from this interview, there seems to be an inference that women are accusing their husbands of abuse willy nilly, just waking up in the morning and thinking, “Today I’ll go to my pastor and say that George is abusive because he won’t let me buy 73 pairs of shoes.”  Just no.

It’s always convenient isn’t it, that people like Patterson have that story of the violent husband whose wife prays and he becomes a model Christian man.  But it is hugely irresponsible to tell that story (whether it’s actually true is always something we must ask too).  Abusive men do not change out of nowhere.  There are too many benefits for them in remaining abusive. They get whatever they want whenever they want it; sex on demand, a servant, the status of being a good husband and father without actually being one, they get to always be right.  And Patterson wants to uphold all those benefits, in fact he wants to increase them.  Why on earth would an abuser change when Patterson is saying that an abuser should be rewarded with increasing levels of submission and adoration from his wife?

Patterson says that “when nobody else can help, God can”.

YOU CAN HELP, PAIGE PATTERSON!  WE CAN ALL HELP.  THIS IS NOT SOME INCURABLE DISEASE THAT WE ALL HAVE TO HOPE GOD WILL INTERVENE IN. THIS IS AN ABUSIVE MAN MAKING CHOICES THAT ARE ILLEGAL.  WE CAN REPORT HIM TO THE POLICE.  WE CAN FIND HER AND HER CHILDREN A SAFE PLACE.  WE CAN STAB HIM IN THE HEAD.  OKAY I KNOW WE SHOULDN’T DO THAT, BUT AT LEAST WE COULD THINK AND ACT WITH A VIEW THAT HE NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.

The only mention to “arrest” that Patterson makes is that God might arrest the abuser’s heart.  PATTERSON SEEMS TO LIVE ON ANOTHER PLANET WHERE THERE AREN’T ACTUAL POLICE OFFICERS WHO CAN ARREST ABUSIVE MEN.  The US and UK have both had laws in place for decades which can be used to arrest, charge and convict those who harm a partner.  The police could actually arrest the abusive husband, but no, Patterson wants to leave that up to God.  We should just pray that God brings situations and people into the man’s life that cause the man to be changed.  Let us not consider that maybe WE are the people that God has brought into the man’s life!  Let us not consider that WE could be the ones God is asking to partner with women and their children in finding a way out.  Instead, Patterson would prefer that like the Pharisees we tithe our herbs and neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

It is easy for us all to be horrified and outraged about Patterson’s comments.  And they are deeply concerning, particularly for all the women and children who have been brutalised first by an abusive man, and then had that compounded by church leaders and communities who have been more interested in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of justice and mercy. However, it is much harder to accept that we are likely to believe some of the things that Patterson says, albeit in much more implicit and hidden ways.

Years ago, I was contacted by a church leader.  She wanted to know what to do about a family in her congregation.  The man had been violent towards his wife on a number of occasions.  I started by asking the church leader if she felt able to advise the woman to leave, “Oh yes of course,” she said, “nobody should be abused.”  After we had been talking for about 20 minutes, she said to me, “The thing is, he was going to leave, and we felt that we could support her, because he was going to instigate leaving.”  My response, “It sounds like you’re saying that if she had instigated leaving, you wouldn’t feel you could support her?”  This church leader thought for a moment and responded, “No, I don’t think we would, because of what the Bible says about divorce and forgiveness and…”

We all like to believe that we think abuse is wrong.  And that we don’t have such horrendous views as Paige Patterson.  But in reality, we are theologically and psychologically predisposed to deny abuse.  If she’s a strong woman, or he’s a lovely man.  If she hasn’t mentioned physical violence or it seems like it’s a one off.  We don’t want to believe that it’s abuse and so we minimise it, make it into something palatable.  It’s his mental health issues.  She’s quite overbearing.  They just need couple counselling or to attend the Marriage Course. (Relationship counselling is NEVER appropriate where there is an abuser).

I spoke to a woman who asked for prayer because her husband was abusive.  The pray-er advised her to put little love notes in his pocket each morning.  Apparently that would solve it.

We don’t want to live in a world where the men that we think are good and nice could be abusers.  We don’t want to believe that the women we know who are competent and strong could also be subjected to abuse by their husbands.  We don’t want to believe that our church, family, neighbourhood could be tainted by abusers.  And so we minimise, avoid, reshape the narrative and all without ever believing that WE, the woke people that we are, could EVER be anything like Paige Patterson.

But maybe we are.

 

 

If you’ve found this blog helpful, my WHOLE book about Christians and domestic abuse is being published by SPCK in March 2019.  If you’d like to get updates about the book, you can sign up HERE.

 

GUEST BLOG: Reproductive Loss

I was recently contacted by someone saying that their experience of Christian culture and Scripture suggested that women were only valuable if they had children.  She asked me if I knew of any resources about this.  And the first person that came to mind was Karen O’Donnell, who is an extremely wonderful woman!  I asked her if she’d be up for writing a guest blog for me and she agreed.  Karen blogs at Verum Corpus and is on Twitter @kmrodonell.

 

“You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”

 

I remember hearing Matt Redman sing this song at a Christian festival, surrounded by the youth group I led. They were loving it and I was too. It was months later that I discovered this song had been written by Redman and his wife in response to reproductive loss. I remember thinking that it was incredible that they could say this after such an experience. Little did I know that their experience was about to become mine.

 

In my twenties, I experienced repeated reproductive loss whilst trying to have a baby. I was a worship leader and youth leader in a lively, evangelical church. After the first miscarriage, so many women comforted me and told me stories of their own loss. These stories were, unanimously, stories that led eventually to them giving birth to living, healthy children. No one blamed God for my loss. But children were clearly a blessing from God and having a family was taken for granted.

 

But that first loss led to more. A four-year period of my life was constant peeing on sticks, appointments with doctors, and regular heart-breaking loss. And this church, that I had been part of for fourteen years, didn’t know what to do with me. People avoided me because they just didn’t know what to say. The leadership team (all male, all fathers, of course) barely spoke to me. Sometimes, well-meaning women prophesied that I would have a baby by this date or that year. Those dates and years came and went. No baby. I couldn’t worship because I couldn’t sing about God’s love and faithfulness without bursting into tears. Over time I started arriving at church late to avoid the worship time (and the dreaded risk of the “you give and take away” song). Then I started avoiding church all together – I couldn’t handle seeing more pregnant women. Eventually, I just never went back to the church.

 

Lots of good has come from this. I don’t have any children. But I do now have a PhD, and academic career, a new life and some objective distance from these events of my twenties. There are two issues to highlight in this experience of mine. First, it’s really hard to know what to do with reproductive loss theologically. Lots of the things that are written are sentimental and don’t take the horrific experience of such loss seriously. Lots of the literature around this issue from a Christian perspective, assumes that eventually you will have a living, healthy baby. And that’s just not true. Culturally, we are not good at handling reproductive loss. It’s caught up in taboos around acknowledging early pregnancy, taboos around bleeding, and sex. So, we don’t talk about it.

 

The second issue is that having children is taken for granted for Christian couples in many churches. We have few narratives of the Christian life that do not include children for married couples. There is an expectation that, once married, children will follow in reasonably quick measure. Again, this just isn’t the case! Infertility is common in both men and women. Tommy’s charity estimates that anything between 20-50% of all pregnancies end in reproductive loss. Not all of those who are infertile will want to go through the intrusive and fraught adoption process. And, let’s be honest, not all people want children. This can be difficult to admit in churches that are orientated around the family, where children are seen as a blessing from God, and the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command is taken literally.

 

No two situations of reproductive loss and childlessness are the same and people feel very differently about their experiences. So, what helped me might not help you. But these are things that I found healing and restorative.

 

  1. If your church can’t (or won’t) support you through the experience of reproductive loss and/or childlessness, then find some support elsewhere. For me, that meant leaving not just the church I had been part of all my Christian life but leaving the whole evangelical tradition. I worship in a liberal Anglican church now which isn’t perfect but has a broader understanding of the varieties of Christian life. Whilst it is welcoming for families, it also has many activities and experiences that are not shaped around the family. And no one has ever asked me when I plan to have children.

 

  1. Seek out places where you can tell your story. This is especially true if you have found your experiences to be traumatic. It is vital that you can tell your story to witnesses who can hear it and love you. This might be an online forum like Saltwater and Honey, a support group, or a group of friends who love you and have experienced similar things themselves. If you can’t find one, start one.

 

  1. Don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

 

  1. Read theology that gives you life. For me, it was Serene Jones’ “Rupture” in Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss that helped me reflect on my experiences and come to terms with them. It helped me be whole again. It helped me pray. And eventually, it led me back to Church. You might also like to read the brilliant Dawn Llewellyn’s work on voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Or Nicole Johnsons reflection on Invisible Grief in reproductive loss.

 

Over the last few months I have been working on a theology of reproductive loss. My research revealed that very little has been written on this topic, and very little research has been done with people who experience such loss. So, I’m seeking to rectify this. This is the outworking of my own recovery – engaging with the world and offering something out of my experience. I’m working towards a theology of reproductive loss that begins with the miscarrying body and offers hope, not in the form of a future baby, but in the form of a future life in all its fullness.

 

Karen has created Reproductive Loss Reading List that you might find helpful. 

 

 

Thank You Rebel-Women

A couple of weeks ago I was delivering a lecture on Gender Awareness at St Mellitus Theological College.  Over lunch, I briefly saw a dear Twitter friend who is training to be a priest. She explained how difficult life is as someone who has feminist consciousness, that she doesn’t have the capacity to challenge all that she sees, as a mother, ordinand and human being.  She hugely encouraged me, telling me how my ongoing work on gender justice helps her; just knowing that I’m fighting the patriarchy encourages her.  After she left, I felt like a bit of a fraud.  I get to be a fulltime warrior against the patriarchy.  I do have kids, but I get to spend the majority of my life focussing solely on fighting the patriarchy.  It occurred to me I should have told her how in awe I am of her, and all the other part-time patriarchy-smashers, who also have to hold down fulltime jobs that are unrelated to gender justice.

 

Last week I was in Cape Town.  It was an amazing experience, and I’m hoping to write more specifically about it at a later date.  I was in Cape Town delivering training about domestic abuse to a group that included a social worker, teachers, foster mothers, youth workers and a vicar.  You can read more about the trip HERE.  The training took place in the church led by my Twitter friend, Dave Meldrum (a British vicar in Cape Town).  Back in 2014, after connecting on Twitter, he wrote a guest blog for me about restitution and gender (you can read it HERE).  Fast forward to 2016, and it turned out we were both on the same MA programme with London School of Theology.  The course is run online, creating a wonderful opportunity to study with people across the world, including Dave in Cape Town.  Through our studies we’d connected further and then when it emerged that I would be delivering training in Cape Town, Dave kindly offered his church as a training venue.  Last Friday I found myself sight-seeing with Dave, a Twitter friend who is now an offline friend too.  Afterwards we sat at his house and chatted about the impact of Twitter on our lives, including that I found myself sat in his house, thousands of miles from my home.

 

I joined Twitter in August 2011.  I knew few feminists offline.  I was full of opinions and ideas but I didn’t have a community to share them with.  I felt alone and vaguely wondered if it was me that was wrong, repeatedly finding myself in disagreement with Christians, church leaders and the world generally.  Twitter enabled helped me to find a community and to realise that I wasn’t mad or wrong (well, sometimes I’m wrong…).  On Twitter I found my people, Christians and feminists (and Christian feminists) who I didn’t agree with on everything, but who became my people.

 

Twitter has changed in the last few years.  It has been inundated with adverts, extra characters and Nazis.  It enables terrible bullying and abuse and possibly contributed to the election of Donald Trump.  However, it wasn’t always like that!  Some of my most dear friends are people I met on Twitter.  There was a time where conversations included so many people’s names that there was only enough space in a tweet for two words at a time.  We would debate and discuss so much.  We even read the Bible together communally over 6 months (it was quite intense, most especially Alastair Roberts’ blogs!).  Out of that community came the Gathering of Women Leaders, Project 3:28, and wonderful, lasting friendships that have changed my life.

 

After I left Dave’s house on Friday, I began thinking about the ways that the Twitter communities I am part of enable me to do what I do, to challenge patriarchy and misogyny.  I was reminded of a story Rus Funk told at a conference we were both speaking at a few years ago.  He spoke of how he was in a locker room getting changed and in walked a lawyer.  The lawyer was surrounded by a group of men and was boasting about how he had represented a man who had abused his wife.  He was proudly sharing he had ensured the man was cleared of all charges.  The other men in the locker room were all cheering the lawyer on.  Rus Funk explained that he knew he needed to challenge the lawyer, but that he was fearful of doing so.  He told us that he wasn’t fearful of being attacked by the lawyer.  What he was scared of, he explained, was losing his man card.  There was a deep fear that standing up for women in that locker room would lose him his Man Status.  What enabled him to challenge the lawyer was the fact that he belonged to a different community, with a standard that required misogyny to be challenged.

 

Twitter is that community for me.  I know that I can share the ways I’ve challenged misogyny on Twitter and people will offer their support.  When I go into situations which are combative or require courage, I can do it because I have people who are cheering me on and who love me.  And a whole load of them are people I’ve never actually met face to face.  I have a community who I am accountable to for speaking out, standing up, and not accepting the status quo.

 

Whilst I was in Cape Town, I read “The Incredible Woman” by Riet Bons Storm.  It is an extremely good book and you should all read it!  She writes,

 

“By acknowledging her own voice and subject quality, a woman becomes conscious of the gap between herself and the dominant discourse with its belief system and sociocultural narrative and the roles “Woman” given to her…She can gradually or suddenly decide that her truth is not the same as the dominant sociocultural narrative.  If that happens, she “falls out of” the blind acceptance of patriarchy.  At that moment she becomes utterly confused, sometimes she is called “mad” by the dominant discourse… till she can find a companion who looks at her with affirming eyes, acknowledges her emerging subject quality, and proves herself or himself to be an ally in the quest for the woman’s own voice.  Touched by that companion, or by a group of companions, she can develop her own voice.  This emerging voice is always a rebellious voice, in that it has to contradict and disobey the dominant sociocultural narrative and its proper roles for women.  By means of a rebel-self, together with other rebel-women, a new sustaining speech-community can be formed.”

 

I can only do the work I do and hold onto my rebel-self because Twitter is the speech-community that enables me.  Not just in terms of accountability, but also practically.  I was able to travel to Cape Town because people on Twitter (and some offline friends) donated money.  Some Twitter friends financially support my work monthly, some are prayer warriors speaking protection over mine and my family’s life, some are dear friends, and one even crocheted me a Cuterus (thank you Jayne Manfredi)!

 

I think we’ve moved to a place where there’s a general acceptance that online relationships can be “real”, but I felt compelled to write this blog to honour those people that I either met or primarily interact with online, they are not only “real” friends, but are precious to me.  Without you I couldn’t do what I do and I am so grateful for all of you!  Thank you for being my people, you rebel-women and consciousness-raised-men.  In these dark days, thank you for lighting my way.

On Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder

The Mennonite Church is a “radical offshoot” of the Protestant reformation.  Originating in Holland, it grew out of Anabaptist theology and continues to hold pacifist values.  The most famous Mennonite theologian is a man called John Howard Yoder.  He was born in 1927, became a theologian in the North American Mennonite church and is world famous for his theology.  He died in 1997.  He wrote prolifically and his book “The Politics of Jesus” and other writings remain on theology reading lists for theology courses across the West.  John Howard Yoder was also a prolific abuser of women.

 

An eighty-page article by Rachel Waltner Goossen entitled “Defanging the Beast”:
Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse
was published in January 2015.  The article gives only sparse details of Yoder’s abuse of over 100 women, but covers in significant detail the North American Mennonite’s response to Yoder’s abuse, which went on for decades and was enabled by the academic establishments he was employed by.  Yoder framed the sexual abuse as “experiments” in “familial” touching.  He would approach female students (and some female colleagues) and ask for their help with these experiments which could be anything from sexually explicit communications, physical touch, partial or full nudity and genital penetration.  He described his sexual abuse of women as “helping them” to deal with their sexual issues, even going so far as to state that his actions were intended to show women “that intimate relations did not have to be coercive, that men don’t have to be rapists”.[1]  For the majority of the time when his behaviour was challenged, it was because he was seen to be committing adultery, and it was only in later years, when wider culture had begun to engage with men’s sexually harassment and abuse that the Mennonite Church began to engage with Yoder’s abuse of women as a power issue.

 

Yoder was an accomplished theologian, writer and speaker.  He was recognised as an expert in non-violence and his position as a world-renowned theologian enabled him to continue to abuse women for decades, with many aware (to some degree) of what he was doing.  Goosen’s article evidences that it was Yoder’s capacity as a wordsmith and his rhetorical skills which kept him from being held accountable for decades.  Years of interactions with Marlin Miller, President of the Goshen Biblical Seminary (where Yoder worked), proved Yoder’s ability to couch his abuse of women in theological terms and to use his theology on church discipline to avoid taking responsibility.  Later in Yoder’s life, as Mennonite discipline procedures were initiated, Yoder “appropriated the language of victimhood for himself.”[2]  There were seven different committees over 1980 – 1997 which sought to hold Yoder to account, and he was able to obfuscate his behaviour in all of them.  His oratory skills which confounded seminary presidents, ministers and theologians were also used to groom his female students so that he could abuse them.

 

On 18th October 2017 social media was in the midst of hearing from thousands of women who were sharing how men had subjected them to sexual abuse or harassment using the hashtag #metoo.  It was a brutal time to be on social media, and I wrote THIS sharing my thoughts on it.  This was also the day that an article was published by esteemed theologian, ethicist and long-term colleague of Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas.  It is entitled “In Defence of ‘Our Respectable Culture’: Trying to Make Sense of John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” and shares Hauerwas’ views on Yoder’s abuse.  As we shall see in dissecting the piece, it is hugely unfortunate that his piece was published whilst thousands of women disclosed the ways men harmed them.  Whether Hauerwas had control of the publication date or not, its timing magnifies the huge problems with the article.

 

I have had to read a small amount of Yoder for the MA I am doing with London School of Theology.  I communicated to my tutor about how inappropriate it is to have a sex offender as the primary voice on a unit about social justice and power.  I have also read a small amount of Hauerwas for my MA.  I say this to preface my critique of Hauerwas’ article.  My theology and Christian life has not been hugely influenced by either theologians (as far as I am aware), and I seem to have made it to this point in my life as a Christian without either of their Big Thoughts.  This perhaps gives me the freedom to be more highly critical than someone with a greater investment in Yoder’s or Hauerwas’ thinking.  It also means that my critique is not currently able to particularly bring in Yoder’s or Hauerwas’ own thoughts to interact with the way they view women’s lives and pain.

 

Now, without further ado, let us look at Hauerwas’ article…

 

Hauerwas starts by drawing our attention to Yoder’s framing of his abuse of women as a rejection of the consensus of “our respectable culture” which Yoder viewed himself to be a “victim” of.  Hauerwas states that Yoder’s “assumption that such a consensus exists was a profound and costly mistake [emphasis is mine].”  It is interesting that within an 80-page document about Yoder’s abuse, Hauerwas particularly chooses to focus on this one comment of Yoder’s, is it the metaphorical needle in the haystack?  Or could it be more focusing on one of the trees rather than the whole wood?  After reading an 80-page article which demonstrates the ways Yoder manipulated everyone (from the women he sexually abused, to the men who ran the accountability procedures) by utilizing theological arguments, it seems rather unwise to focus on one of Yoder’s theological arguments which he used to justify his behaviour.  Yoder is not longer alive, why is his rationale still a priority?

 

Goossen’s report explains that none of the women Yoder admitted to abusing ever received any financial support to aid their recovery, yet the Mennonite accountability process paid for Yoder to be assessed by a psychologist.  The psychologist’s report was so damaging that before he died, Yoder succeeded in having every copy of it destroyed.  The report explains that:

 

“While Prairie Street’s elders [Yoder’s church) focused on maintaining contact with the Yoders, members of the Accountability and Support Group realized that no such concentrated effort—by any board or committee—was similarly focused on the women’s welfare. Denominational and congregational resources were being channeled into the rehabilitation of John Howard Yoder, but no comparable endeavor addressed the spiritual and emotional needs of women who had been harmed.”

 

And yet, Hauerwas’ main interest after reading the report is citing Yoder’s rationale for his abuse.  And how does Hauerwas categorise Yoder’s rationale for abuse?  Not as a rationale for abuse, but rather as an assumption and as a profound and costly mistake.  Yoder has abused over 100 hundred women, and concocted an entirely baseless theological justification for doing it, and Hauerwas chooses to engage with this concoction in good faith?  What is that about?!  It was not a mistake of Yoder’s to condemn “respectable culture” in justifying his abuse of women.  It was a deliberate way of flimflamming seminary president Marlin Miller.  By making it about the respectable culture, Yoder forces Marlin Miller (to whom he put this argument) to be part of that respectable culture, if he continues to challenge Yoder.

 

He has created a theologically baseless “us and them” mentality which leaves Marlin Miller as one of them, particularly when placed within the wider context of Yoder’s non-violence theology.  Yoder is on the side of non-violence, a paragon of Mennonite theology, and he is creating a dichotomy with which to rationalise his abuse of women, because it is only respectable culture which thinks that abuse of women is wrong.  Yoder is the Naked Emperor (both literally and figuratively) and Marlin Miller is co-opted into Yoder’s narrative.

 

I’ll now quote paragraphs Hauerwas’ article and then offer some thoughts…

 

Before developing that argument, I need to make clear that for me to write about these matters fills me with sadness. I do not want to try to “explain” John’s behaviour. I find even thinking about that aspect of John’s life drains me of energy and depresses me. And I am not a person given to depression.

 

Stanley, can we just pause for a moment.  The women Yoder abused sadly don’t have any choice about being given to depression.  Unlike you, they don’t get the luxury of a life in academia unencumbered by their mentor and professor sexually abusing them.  They are left with the lifelong impact of sexual abuse, many of them were unable to pursue academic theology because of Yoder’s impact on them.  So although I know it’s helpful for you to express how it feels, maybe it would be worth considering that sadness is not enough.  Perhaps outrage and disgust might be good feelings to make space for?  Not only for Yoder’s behaviour, but also for your collusion with it.  You attempted to rush the accountability process for Yoder in order to get his Important Thoughts out there.  Or that you publicly commended Yoder for not publicizing his views on sexuality “that he consider[ed] to be prophetic”.[3]  What is there to commend an abuser in, for not publicly telling everyone about his abuse?

 

But Goossen’s article stunned me. I had no idea that John’s engagement in his “experimentation” was so extensive both in terms of time and the number of women he seems to have involved. I am not sure, moreover, if I ever recognized how troubling it is that John refused to acknowledge that his views about what is possible between brothers and sisters in Christ were just wrong.

 

Perhaps Stanley, we should explore how you, as a world-famous ethicist, are stunned by large scale sexual violence by a powerful man.  It is not that you were not aware that there were allegations made about Yoder, it is that you perhaps did not believe those allegations and minimised those allegations.  Perhaps because (along with the rest of the world) you are conditioned by patriarchal systems to trust powerful white men more than you trust anonymous women.  That doesn’t make you overly bad, it makes you normal.  It would be great if as you reflected on Yoder’s abuse, you (as a world-famous ethicist) might consider what standard of ethics were at work when you prioritised rushing through Yoder’s disciplinary process, rather than perhaps asking questions about who these women were that Yoder had abused and what he had done to them.  It might be worth asking why you think that the actions you had in mind for Yoder to have done were so minor as to be irrelevant.  You mention that you knew of Yoder’s “questionable relations with women”.  What ethics were at work as you deemed those questionable relations with women irrelevant to Yoder’s career?  What ethics were at work in you not noticing the power Yoder held and what that meant for how he related to women?  It would be great if these questions formed part of the article, but as we both know, they don’t.

 

I partly hesitate to write about John’s abusive behaviour because I know John’s family and I do not want to add to their pain. John was by all reports a loving father, though one that was often absent. Annie, his wife, is a wonderful person who was a bulwark for John in the last years of his life. I count a number of his children as friends and I know something of the complexity of what it means to be John Yoder’s child. The Mennonite world is just that – a world – and his children must find their way, as they have, through that world without anything I might say adding to that challenge.

 

Of course Yoder’s family require empathy and care Stanley, but it is interesting that the concern you raise here for Yoder’s family is not matched by concern for the over one hundred women who he abused.  Your concern seems to remain theoretical throughout your article, seen by your focus on the “respectable culture” of Yoder’s flimflamming.

 

 I also report in Hannah’s Child what and when I learned of John’s behaviour, as well as my own involvement in the process of John’s disciplinary proceedings. I see no reason to repeat what I said there, but what I must do is acknowledge that I did not appropriately acknowledge how destructive John’s behaviour was for the women involved.

 

Stanley, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even within this article, at no point do you actually acknowledge how destructive Yoder’s behaviour was.  You don’t detail any ways you can see the women were harmed, and your conclusions prioritise Yoder’s Big Thoughts over the wishes of the women he harmed.  Saying you didn’t acknowledge something is not in itself and acknowledgement.  The women harmed have lost parts of themselves that can never be brought back, not only by what Yoder did, but by how you and other (mainly powerful men) colluded with Yoder.

 

In 1992 Al Meyer, his brother-in-law, and Mary Ellen Meyer, his sister, told me about John’s behaviour. I was at Bethel College to give a lecture I seem to remember John was to deliver, but had been disinvited because of his behaviour. I realized I was getting the straight story from Al and Mary Ellen but for some reason I assumed the behaviour they were reporting had ceased and that we were not talking about that many women. I thought maybe three or four women might be involved. Of course, one woman would have been too many, but at the time I could not imagine what seems to have been the large number of women who had been abused by John. Nor did I appropriately appreciate at the time how traumatizing John’s actions were for the women involved. For that I can only say I am sorry and I have learned an essential lesson.

 

Stanley, here you are again, telling us about how you made assumptions about what Yoder’s behaviour was like.  That it wasn’t many women (perhaps three or four) and that you didn’t realise how traumatizing his actions were.  I already know you haven’t done this, but wouldn’t it be great if you (as a world-famous ethicist) might consider what ethics were at work in your assumptions?  Why did you think three or four women would be okay?  In 2010, over 18 years later, you still wrote favourably about Yoder. You colluded with him, and in an article discussing this, you in no way interrogate why you made the devastating assumptions you did.  That your immediate response to information about Yoder was to minimise his behaviour is surely an ethical conundrum that should be interrogated?

 

One of the aspects of this whole sad story that saddens me is that I have had to recognize how much energy John put into this aspect of his life. His attempt to maintain these multiple relationships would have exhausted any normal person. But John was not normal – intellectually or physically. When I think about the time he dedicated to developing justifications for his experimentation, I feel depressed. Of course, John gave us the great gift of the clarity of his mind, but that same analytic ability betrayed him just to the extent that he used it to make unjustified distinctions – such as those about the significance of different ways of touching that could only result in self-deception.

 

Depressed?  It makes you depressed?  Does it not anger and infuriate you?  Does the injustice (which you contributed to) not horrify you?  By describing his analytic ability as betraying him, you remove the agency of his choices.  It did not betray him.  He utilised it, along with his power and prestige (afforded to him by men like you) to abuse women.

 

Another reason I find it difficult to write about these matters is, like most of us, I do not want to acknowledge my mistakes. But I learned from Yoder that such an acknowledgement is necessary if we are to be people for whom speaking truth matters. I hope in some small way writing this article may be a small example of Matthew 18, because at least one of the reasons I am writing is that I have been told by many that I need to do so.

 

It is great, Stanley, that you are willing to acknowledgement your mistakes, but surely as a world-renowned ethicist, you are aware that acknowledgement is only the first in a number of steps towards change.  You admit your faults but at no point consider why you made such assumptions about Yoder’s behaviour, or why it didn’t occur to you that sexual abuse was harmful.  Sexual violence should not be a peripheral topic to ethics, in fact male violence is the root of so many ethical issues that it seems outrageous that you are not well acquainted with the issues related to male violence.

 

The paper gives me the opportunity to confess: I was too anxious to have John resume his place as one of the crucial theologians of our time. I thought I knew what was going on, but in fact I did not have a clue. In my defence – and it is not a very good defence – I think it is true that I simply did not understand what was going on. However, in truth, I probably did not want to know what was going on.

 

You have now acknowledged your minimisation and denial of Yoder’s behaviour.  Yet again, you do not ask any questions about why you would do that.  As I read this paragraph I was hopeful you would conclude this paper by asserting that Yoder’s status as a “one of the crucial theologians of our time” would be questioned.  And that, after years of prioritising Yoder over the women he harmed, that you would conclude that their voices and their needs take precedence.  That this paper would not just be a confession, but would instead be the metanoia of a changed mind, convicted that some things are more important than thoughts about ethics (you know, like living out ethics).

 

I also find it hard to write this because I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say to “explain” John’s behaviour. Like anyone grieved by John’s behaviour, I cannot resist trying to give some account of why John Howard Yoder of all people got into such a bizarre pattern of abuse. Of course he had a theory, but this is John Howard Yoder. Surely anyone as smart as Yoder should have known better. But what he did speaks for itself. Whether he may have had some form of Asperger’s may be true, but it tells us little. My general assumption that his behaviour betrayed a deficit of empathy may be closer to the mark, but I think even if that is true we learn little from such a judgment.

 

You are right to not try to explain his behaviour.  To say that Yoder had Asperger’s is offensive to anyone with Asperger’s.  Those who are on the Autistic Spectrum are perhaps more vulnerable to being subjected to abuse, they are not more likely to be abusive.  It is not an assumption that he had an empathy deficit, it is a fact.  Someone who can treat women (including his wife, Anne) the way Yoder did, has a deficit of empathy.

 

But he wasn’t the only one in the situation who had a deficit of empathy.  You have already acknowledged that you did not realise the impact of Yoder’s abuse on the women he harmed.  That is also a deficit of empathy.  One that is shared amongst the many men and some women who colluded with Yoder’s behaviour.  The deficit of empathy was collective and structural, not individual.  And those many women Yoder abused (and their families) continue to deal with the pain not only Yoder subjected them to, but also those in power who ignored them and the systems which prioritised Yoder’s (failed) rehabilitation over their pain.

 

It is perhaps also worth pointing out that Yoder’s bizarre pattern of abuse happened because everyone gave him space to develop that pattern.  If the systems he was part of had sacked him and removed all credibility from him he may have still abused women, but not on such a scale, and not legitimised by flimflam theology.  That is on all those who supported him, you included Stanley.

 

Finally, I have to revisit Yoder’s life and work because I do not want what he has taught us about how we should and can live as Christians and how we think theologically to be lost. Many of my friends who are former students, students who have written quite insightfully about Yoder, feel that they can no longer have their students read Yoder. They rightly worry that the very shape of Yoder’s arguments for nonviolence may also inform his view about sexual behaviour between men and women in the church. I think the question about the continued use of Yoder’s work for instruction is not quite the same among Mennonites as it is for non-Mennonites, but I have no stake in defending that view. What I do know, however, is that we cannot avoid the question of whether his justification for his sexual behaviour is structurally similar to his defence of Christian nonviolence.

 

That empathy deficit I was just talking about?  Here it is again!  It’s great that you as a world-renowned ethicist, will be listened to by many who look to you to guide them in how to deal with Yoder’s works.  However, none of the women who Yoder abused will be afforded the power you are given.  Their voices remain ignored.  Their feelings remain unimportant.  If every woman Yoder abused came to you and said that they needed for Yoder’s work to be lost, that whilst his work remains celebrated and lauded, their pain increases.  Would you support them?  Would you amplify their voices?  Would you defer to their expertise as those who Jesus told us to prioritise?  Or would you remain steadfast in your refusal to acknowledge that Yoder’s legacy is too tainted?  What if one of the women Yoder harmed came to you and said, “Please don’t do this.  Please don’t continue to endorse him.  It feels like I’m being abused all over again, like I’m being ignored all over again.”  Would you listen and prioritise her?  Or is it only Yoder’s work that matters?

 

It is not only the women that Yoder victimised who are damaged by your continued endorsement of him and his work.  Many women who have been abused by those in power, by church leaders and by those in churches feel ignored by you.  We feel that your endorsement of Yoder and his work reinforces the power of abusers.

 

What do you think the abusers who are reading your article think?  They read your condemnations of Yoder’s abuse, but they see you continuing to endorse his work and legacy.  What does that say to them?  Perhaps it says that world-renowned ethicists don’t think that men’s abuse of women matters that much?  It certainly doesn’t matter as much as their Important Theological Thoughts.  And that will only bolster those abuser’s justifications, just as the collusion with Yoder in his lifetime did.

 

So I do not want to write this article, but I think I have to write about this part of John’s life, because I owe it to him. John Yoder changed my life before I knew it needed changing. I am often credited with making John Howard Yoder better known among those identified as mainstream Protestants. True or not, it is nonetheless the case that I am rightly closely identified with Yoder.

 

You seem to be unaware, Stanley, that your endorsement of Yoder is not only something that ties you together with him, but also potentially gave him access to a wider range of victims.  Your endorsement of him gave him more credibility and therefore opened up the access he had to women.  Who knows how many women were approached by Yoder because of the increasing platform you gave him?  You don’t seem to acknowledge this within your article at all.  You hold so much power and you used that power to endorse Yoder, even after you were aware that he was harming women.  Even after the failed disciplinary process that you lauded as a success.  Because his Big Thoughts were more important than the risks he posed to women.

 

There only needs to be one such report to establish the violent character of Yoder’s behaviour. But there is clear evidence that many of the women Yoder invited to participate in his “experiment” experienced the same reaction that Heggen reports. Of course, Yoder maintained that he never forced any women to participate. That sense of non-coercion appears to have preserved his presumption that what he was about was nonviolent.

 

But it is hard to avoid the assessment that he was repressing the violence inherent in the structure of the event. For god’s sake, he surely should have recognized that he was John Howard Yoder, the most prominent Mennonite theologian in recent times, and that these women he tried first to seduce intellectually in the hope it would lead further – and I think seduction is the right word – wanted his approval.

 

Again, you choose to charitably trust Yoder’s assessment of his own behaviour.  Why do you do that?  Why do you trust him when he says he believed that women were consenting?  Every argument he gave was to justify his behaviour.  It’s what all abusers do.  They all minimise and deny the abuse.  Whatever age their victim is, they will say that the child was asking for it, the woman wanted it.  This is not unusual.  What is unusual is that a world-renowned ethicist is unaware of the tactics of abusive men.  Or that such an ethicist would take at face value an abuser’s justifications, without considering just how much such justifications benefit the abuser.

 

So I told him what I had learned and I made it clear I was not in the least persuaded by his “arguments.” I pointed out that everything depends on how you understand “mutual masturbation” as it can be understood as more intimate than intercourse. I told him, moreover, that I was extremely doubtful about his assumption that what he was about could be described as “nonsexual” behaviour. But clearly, I thought what he was doing could not be right because it could not be shared by the whole community. For it must surely be the case that, whatever it means to be a Mennonite, it must mean that you cannot keep your “experiments” secret. John did not respond other than to express concern about the effects his behaviour was having on others.

 

Isn’t it interesting that you (along with all the other theologians) focussed on his behaviour as a theoretical thing?  The feelings of the women involved hadn’t occurred to you (or Yoder).  His abuse of women becomes merely a theoretical discussion about the church community and sexual activity.  You were “extremely doubtful”, but not more concerned than that.

 

That Yoder’s abusive behaviour was inconsistent with his deepest commitments is not the most challenging aspect anyone concerned with his actions needs to consider. The most challenging question is raised by the authors: “What do we do with the places where Yoder’s actions were consistent with his theology?”

 

I know this may be overly radical Stanley, but could the most challenging question about Yoder’s behaviour actually be How Do We Make The Church A Safe Place For Women?  How do we stop world-renowned ethicists colluding with abusers?  How do we stop men abusing women?  How do we stop the systems prioritising men’s thoughts over women’s actual lives?  They all seem like more important questions than some theoretical stuff around Yoder’s theology, given that Yoder’s theology on abusing women was basically say-stuff-that-will-flimflam-people-into-not-challenging-me.

 

In a similar fashion, Cramer, Howell, Tran and Martens suggest that Yoder understood his exploration of “non-genital affective relationships” to be an expression of the “revolution” inaugurated by the new age. As I have already suggested, and the authors make the same point, given Yoder’s account of singleness, such touching could be seen as a way the church has found to meet the needs of the “whole person.”

 

Stanley, never engage an abuser on their own terms.  An abuser’s terms are always used to obfuscate.  They want to hide their culpability and responsibility.  Yoder may be more sophisticated than the man who says “Her dress said yes, even if her mouth didn’t.”  Or my ex-husband, who told the police, “I don’t remember raping her, but if she said I did, then I must have.”  Yoder’s entire theological justification is a sophisticated legitimisation for abusing women.  And to meet an abuser on his terms allows him to continue his abuse, just as all those committees did over the years.  They were so concerned with meeting Yoder’s Biblical standards, they failed to notice that the Biblical response should prioritise the powerless.

 

The point I am trying to make – a point not easily made – may entail a criticism of Yoder’s work that I am only beginning to understand. I worry that Yoder may have made too extreme the duality between church and world, particularly when it comes to dealing with our everyday relations with one another. I need to be very careful in making such a criticism because Yoder, contrary to many superficial criticisms of him, never restricted God’s redemption to the church. He was always ready to acknowledge that God was doing a new thing among those who were not church – thus my insistence that Yoder always assumed what is a duty for Christians is a possibility for those who are not.

 

Even in death you’re more interested in attending to Yoder’s words and work than the women he abused.  His entire career was characterised by his work being of a higher priority than the women he abused.  And you are going to continue that in his death.  For many women (and men) who have found your work to be so insightful and important to their theology and ethical frameworks it is deeply disturbing that you are so blinded to your own prejudices.

 

That reality makes possible reflections of practical reason that offer wisdom to guide our lives. Though I doubt that there needs to be any hard-and-fast distinction between the natural or moral virtues and the theological virtues, it is nonetheless the case that the distinction not only can be made but must be made. This is not the context to develop these issues, but I raise them to suggest that I have long suspected that I hold views about such matters that may put me in some tension with Yoder’s general perspective.

 

Well Stanley, I’m glad you’ve found some way to make this more about your work and perspective.  Nevermind the actual women whose lives have been devastated by Yoder, you’ve established tensions.

 

Another, rather tendentious, way to make the point Sider and I are trying to make is to observe that Yoder had no interest in novels. He seldom read novels, nor did he think novels to be morally important. It is not that he did not like to read. But he saw little reason to engage in the kind of literature represented by the novel. Yet the novel is all-important for me exactly because it forces one to imagine other lives. In short, novels are an exercise in the enrichment of the imagination through which we develop the empathy that is crucial for the acquisition of the virtues.

 

What one cannot help but wonder is, like his encounter with Carolyn Holderread Heggen, how Yoder failed to appreciate how his suggestion about her joining him in his hotel room could only be received as a form of violence. Something was missing in Yoder, and I think the name for what was missing is called the moral imagination.

 

Stanley, it’s all very nice that you’ve solved this.  Yoder was missing moral imagination.  Perhaps (and I know I’m not a world-renowned ethicist, so could be wrong) he was just missing the moral bit.  Why does it have to some sort of new title (in italics)?  If he’d raped a load of men, if he’d raped you, would you be so concerned to have an italicised title that he was missing?  Yoder used flimflam theology to justify himself and you too are engaging in it.  He was missing empathy for women, he was missing morals (when it came to women), he was missing effective accountability structures, he was missing a whole load of things.  But to give it a profound name only serves to continue to obfuscate Yoder’s abuse.

 

I do not have ready answers to either of these questions. Much depends, of course, on who the “us” or the “we” may be that asks the question. As I’ve mentioned, I have friends who have decided in deference to the offence against women by Yoder they will no longer have their students read Yoder. I respect that decision, but it is not one I can take. I need John’s clarity of thought if I am to try to think through what I think I have learned from him.

 

Oh Stanley, Yoder’s work means more to you than women’s suffering?  That is a heartbreaking thing to know.  You wrote this paper to confess to your failings, which were that Yoder’s work meant more to you than the women he harmed.  And still that is the case!  This paper is a confession, not a commitment to repentance or restitution, but rather an elaborate justification to explain why you will continue to use Yoder’s work.  No wonder thinking about Yoder makes you depressed.  For you are tied to a sexual abuser and unwilling to separate yourself from him.  Unlike your friends, you will not defer to the women Yoder harmed.  The only small mercy is that your continued support of Yoder’s work is no longer going to give him a platform to abuse women.  Yet, what about all the other men who are abusing women?  The other theologians who are harming women, the other church leaders and Christian men.  Make no mistake, Yoder is not the only Christian theologian who harms women.  And your continued endorsement of him says to those men, “Your work will be harmed much less than the women you abuse.”  That is not okay.

 

The women Yoder abused may have been brilliant theologians!  They may have changed the world with their thoughts.  But their potential was cut short by Yoder and the systems which enabled him.  Goossen’ report describes the impact on Elena:

 

“Her sojourn at the Mennonite seminary had been darkened by Yoder’s abuse, by Miller’s blaming, and by her own shattered sense of self. These experiences, she later recalled, set her up for further abuse by several other male predators who sensed her vulnerability. In the longer term— over the next several decades—this legacy, including debilitating anxiety and depression, foreshortened her vocation in Christian ministry.”

 

Elena might have contributed something extraordinary to Christian theology, but she wasn’t given the chance.  That’s not okay.  Why should Yoder’s legacy matter but Elena’s not?

 

I think Gerald Schlabach puts the matter well in his reflections on his relation to Yoder in his wonderfully titled essay, “Only Those We Need Can Betray Us.” He observes that “there is simply no way to tell the story of 20th century historic peace church theology – much less to appropriate it – without drawing on Yoder’s thought.” Schlabach acknowledges that he can understand how younger Mennonite scholars can try to do peace theology without relying on Yoder, but he confesses, “I just don’t see how they/we can do without him.” Nor do I see how we can do without him.

 

I haven’t had a chance to read Gerald’s essay, but I think there is a huge difference between acknowledging someone’s contribution (along with the abuse they perpetrated) and insisting people read their work.

 

In particular, I need his readings of Scripture which seem to me ever fresh and powerful. Yet I cannot deny that this cannot be the decision others can or should make. In particular, I think women would have trouble reading Yoder. But “trouble reading” is not the same thing as “not reading.” For it is surely the case that there are aspects of Yoder’s work that are of constructive use for the concerns of women.

 

Oh Stanley, why exactly would women find it more difficult to read Yoder than you?  Is it our VAGINAS?  Why does someone need to be a woman to have trouble reading Yoder?  What is wrong with men?  What is wrong with you?  That your empathy deficit for women would be so huge that a woman would struggle more than you to read Yoder?  What does that say about you?  Surely Yoder’s offence to humankind should cause all of humankind to feel disturbed.  The majority of those killed in the first World War were men, does that mean you expect men to find reading about it harder than women?

 

Also, how dare you say that Yoder’s work is constructive for the concerns of women?!  Yoder got himself on the board of the first feminist theology course at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  Women worked to develop a feminist theology course and Yoder used his position to gain power on the course, which was likely a tactic to gain access to women he could abuse.

 

I have a very ambiguous relation with feminist theology because I often agree with their criticisms of the male behaviour but disagree with the basis for those criticisms. That I have not been prepared to discuss feminist theology in principle does not mean, however, that I do not think it important to take into account what women have to say. I should like to think that I have done that, at least to the extent that women like Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Marie Fortune, Catherine Pickstock and Ellen Davis, among others, have been crucial for how I have tried to think. But I engaged with them not because they were women, but because what they were doing was so interesting.

 

I have to say Stanley, your ambiguous relationship with feminist theology is quite obvious throughout this paper.  It’s great that you engage with women theologians because they are doing interesting things, not just because they are women.  That’s what Yoder did, pay women attention, because they were women.  However, why do you think so many of those you are interested in are men?  Do you think men just simply say more interesting things?  Or could there possibly be something that disadvantages women from having the opportunity to say interesting things?  Perhaps like a high-profile theologian trying to have sex with them as a so-called theological experiment?  Or maybe that theological establishments don’t think women’s pain matters very much?  Feminist activism is the reason that Yoder’s abuse of women became public and it’s all very well you not agreeing with feminism in principle, but without it, women wouldn’t even be theologians.

 

I certainly have deep sympathies with the feminist challenge to paternalism. Even more, I think feminist critiques of masculinity to be extremely insightful. Stan Goff’s book Borderline is a model of how feminist insights can illumine what any Christian should think. The work Goff does in his book makes clear that the feminist challenge to “maleness” is a gift to men.

 

I have to say Stanley, you’re not massively convincing me that you’ve spent much time reading any feminist stuff given that you’re recommending a book by a man to evidence your interest in paternalism.  I’m not against Stan’s book, but I would suggest that, if this paper is anything to go by, you really have a lot more reading to do on feminist analysis, masculinity and patriarchy.

 

I also think the feminist challenge to the assumption that marriage is necessary for the fulfilment of women to be right and important. Yoder’s account of singleness can be read as a feminist argument. I also think we owe feminists a debt of gratitude for their critique of romantic love. For years in the core course in Christian Ethics, I assigned the work of Marie Fortune because I thought her exposure of the violence present in romantic love to be a crucial insight. Fortune was not only important for exposing the violence occluded in romantic ideals of love, but she also helped make clear that nonviolence is not just about war. Yoder would and did think similar thoughts, but he did so because he thought they were commensurate with the Gospel.

 

Yoder’s account of singleness is not a feminist argument.  Yoder’s account of singleness was a way for him to create a justification for sexually abusing women.  Which is the antithesis of feminism.  Yoder cannot be used by feminists, because unlike world-renowned male ethicists, feminists cannot divorce someone’s Important Thoughts from their sexual abuse of women.  It is a political act to reject men’s violence as incompatible with human flourishing.  Plus, Yoder also thought sexually abusing women was commensurate with the Gospel, so I’m not sure how exactly we can trust Yoder’s analysis.

 

Yet the issue remains how to receive Yoder’s work without that reception seeming to imply that his behaviour does not matter. That surely would be an injustice to the women he harmed. He was the President of the Society of Christian Ethics. Should some notation be put next to his name when past presidents of the society are named? Pete Rose will not get into the Hall of Fame, but Yoder is already there. We cannot act as if he was not the president of the Society. Or what does it mean that Yoder was President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary? I obviously cannot speak as a Mennonite, for which I thank God since I have no idea what to say, but they surely must say something.

 

Well I think we could probably start by encouraging world-renowned ethicists to reconsider their position on this.  We could encourage the church to consider men’s sexual abuse of women to be important enough to merit women’s voices being listened to and their needs being met.  Yoder’s work is still widely used without people (either by professors or students) being aware of what he did to women.  Perhaps we could invest in ensuring that changes.  Maybe Yoder could always be referred to as a “discredited pacifist”?  It doesn’t have to be everything, but it could be something.  Maybe we could also challenge theological establishments to take seriously male violence against women, to no longer justify and deny it, as you describe yourself as having done.

 

Nor do I think it helpful to call attention to the misconduct toward women by Martin Luther King, Jr., Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. Each in their own way seem to have engaged in misconduct toward women or a woman, but I think it does little good to suggest that they help us understand Yoder’s behaviour. To call attention to these men invites the general claim that when all is said and done “we are all sinners.” That is a way to excuse each of us, with the result that Yoder is left off the hook. That is clearly a mistake, not only because Yoder should not be left off the hook, but, just as importantly, sin should never be used as an explanation.

 

Of course these other men should not be brought up to communicate the “we’re all sinners” trope.  But maybe we should be asking questions about why so many high-profile men abuse women.  Someone told me that her church leader husband had researched Christian leaders to find some who had treated their wives well.  He couldn’t find any. Maybe we should ask what it is about manhood that causes a significant number of men to abuse women.  In the UK 30% of women will be abused by a man, with Christian women being subjected to abuse at the same rate as the wider population.   On the day your article was published thousands of women publicly shared the ways they had been abused by men.  And yet nothing in your article acknowledges that Yoder’s behaviour is not an aberration, it is repeated in different forms and with different justifications everyday by men in every country in the world.

 

That is it. That is all I have to say about this troubling matter. It surely feels like I am ending with a whimper. That is the way it should feel, because I have ended with a whimper. I did not want to write this article, but I have done it. I am not happy that I have done it, but then nothing about this situation is happy.

 

Sadly, that is not it Stanley.  Women will continue to be abused by men in power.  Other men (and some women) will continue to collude with the abusers.  And nothing will change.  Not until we change.  All of us.  You included.

 

 

[1] Goossen, 10.

[2] Goossen, 61.

[3] Goossen, 61-62.