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.

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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.

#metoo – Guest Blog

I am really honoured when women choose to share their stories with me.  Today is a guest post from a woman who has told me some of her story.  She writes about the abuse she was subjected to and the ways Christian culture colluded with the man who hurt her.  I’m really grateful that she has chosen to share her story here.

 

It makes shudder like hearing nails scraping a chalkboard as I think about the way he touched me. The passion that was between us was so strong, yet very one-sided. Tears fill my eyes as I remember what I let him do to me. I wasn’t raped but I didn’t enjoy the somewhat forced sexual relationship we had.

 

He said he was a Christian, that he’d asked God for forgiveness and when in prison his church – my church – prayed for him. He knew he did wrong but said it was a massive misunderstanding, he was immature and shouldn’t have engaged in sexual activities with an under-aged girl. I trusted him, because the church trusted him so we began dating.

 

As with many churches, they love a redemption story – especially when it includes a romantic twist. I quickly became a mini celebrity at the local church for not believing his conviction was real and that it was all a misunderstanding. Girls cry rape all the time, right? His parents adored my Christian nature of forgiveness and welcomed me into their family.

 

I was away at university whilst we were dating. He came to my halls of residence, met my flat mates and showed me off proudly to others.  It was going well and, even though it was only a few months, everyone seemed to think it was a great relationship. My low self-esteem had been boosted up and I felt like I was the one who had changed him; I was the one God used and we would be that story of forgiveness – hoorah!

 

The Church isn’t good at talking about sex – yes, I know that is a generalization – and no one spoke to me about the added complications of dating someone that had links to rape. No one thought it might be a good idea to offer to mentor this vulnerable couple. Even though I wasn’t a virgin going into this relationship, I didn’t know how forceful sex could be and that I had a right to say ‘no.’

 

My throat fills with vomit as I think about his convincing, or perhaps more appropriately, conniving nature to touch me. The words he said and the backhanded compliments I received – just so he could undress me. His eyes which once looked full of love, turned into a stare like a predator.

 

Only a few months in and he was talking about living together and a future of marriage. His dreamy words kept making me forgive his persuasive nature in the bedroom. I come from a ‘broken home’ and a ‘blended family’ so the idea of an idyllic marriage being possible was so tempting.

 

After being undressed whilst on my period I decided that it was enough. I didn’t want to participate in any sexual activity whilst on my period – I was bloated, hormonal and tired. I’d say no but he thought it was foreplay. He watched so much porn that I was no longer a person, but rather a doll for him to play with.

 

Something in my mind told me that I needed to get out of this commitment, before a ring was on my finger. I ended it, taking the shame of not being the one who could ‘fix him’ like I thought God wanted me to. His family and the church turned a blind eye to me and I felt ashamed for years afterwards.

 

A year or so after our relationship ended his family contacted me. He had been accused of rape and was facing another prison sentence. They asked if I’d go to court and testify about my positive relationship with him. I politely declined saying I could not advocate in a positive way about his sexual nature.

 

Dear church, please talk about sex. My situation may not be the norm for every Christian woman, but many do use Christianity as a way to manipulate others into sexual acts. If we could get over the embarrassment of saying penis and vagina, then we might just be able to talk about healthy boundaries and communication.

 

Even now as a married woman that experience affects my life; the intimacy I have with my husband both emotionally and physically. To look into my husband’s eyes and see love and care and engage in sex because I want to, not because ‘I have to’ is still a challenge. I am grateful to be with a man who journeys with me in this and echoes God’s love for me.

 

I shake with fear at the thought of other 19 year olds being in these relationships. It drives my work to educate others around sex and relationships and break down the lies that porn teaches us. God does forgive and he does change people but let us be wise in how we engage in these topics with his people. Let us not shy away from these conversations but rather embrace the beauty of learning about relationships from a relational God.

#MeToo: A Hard Freedom To Bear

I’ve been working out if or how to write about #metoo.  The hashtag was started over ten years ago by Tarana Burke to enable women in underprivileged communities who did not have access to rape crisis centers or counseling, to be able to share their stories of having been subjected to sexual assault.  In the wake of the New Yorker publishing details of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and assault of women across Hollywood (over a number of decades), actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet their stories of sexual harassment.  A million people have tweeted using the hashtag in the last few days, with many people also using it on Facebook.

 

The most wonderful Vicky Walker has written over at Premier “Harvey Weinstein isn’t just Hollywood. Men like him exist in our churches too”.  Vicky’s piece, which included her own personal experiences of having been subjected to harassment by Christian men, has been commented on by a number of men.  Peter tells us that, I am concerned that this article is actually approaching the whole issue from the wrong perspective.” (What wisdom Paul has…)  Whilst Paul tells us that, Plenty of conjecture and personal anecdote but nowhere near enough sources to properly level the claim with credibility.”  (I’m hoping Paul is going to commission a nationwide survey on harassment in churches to help us get the data he thinks is acceptable.)

 

Another Paul (not the apostle) tells us Vicky’s article is, “probably the worst article I’ve ever read on Premier Christianity – ever. A Hollywood mogul is unmasked as a serial sexual predator and for some random and completely mysterious reason, this is seen as an excuse to unleash a vitriolic ‘j’accuse’ tirade against an alleged culture of systemic, misogynistic abuse within the church. No facts, no statistics, no case studies not even a suggestion of a cogent or logically coherent argument, just a bunch of subjective generalisations, personal anecdotes, false equivalence, question begging and good old fashioned axe-grinding. Dreadful.” 

 

It would be easier to see these comments as the exception.  To believe that the men expressing their horror at #metoo and those writing about their horror are the majority.  But they’re not.  They are mainly Paul, Peter and of course there’s all the men who actually perpetrate abuse towards women and girls.

 

I’ve seen a couple of well-intentioned high profile Christian women tweeting about #metoo with the hope of change, that out of women’s pain we will see change and hope.  I wish I could agree with them, but I can’t.

 

When we see the pain pouring out of women, how women are opening themselves up, offering their pain, in solidarity, in strength and in vulnerability, we want to believe that change is coming.  That no one will be able to ignore 1 million tweets, or the many Facebook posts that are being shared.  We cannot bear pointless pain, we want it to have Meaning.  And for those who have found their shame diminish in sharing, it is not pointless, and for those who have found community, solidarity or sisterhood, it is not meaningless.

 

However, we must not be under any illusions that #metoo is going to change men’s violence and abuse.  It is not.  And that is why I am finding this week so difficult.  For some, this critical mass seems to be an opportunity to hope for change.  But not for me.

 

I was speaking at a Christian event a few months ago.  After giving the basics of gendered socialisation and statistics about male violence, I went on to share my story of how my ex-husband abused me.  Afterwards, one man approached me to tell me how wrong I was, that men are better than women at working, which is why men are paid more.  A few minutes later another man approached me, he was seething, “You’re harming people.”  He said this to me in a voice that sounded like he was trying not to shout.  “You’re harming people and you’re going to go on harming people whilst you keep doing this.”  He spoke at me for about five minutes before turning away and leaving the building, without giving me a chance to respond.  A woman approached me.  I burst into tears just as she began to thank me for my talk.  I hated that I was reinforcing the emotional weakness of women.  After I pulled myself together, I told the remaining few people about these two men.  They started suggesting ways I could have changed my talk to make it acceptable to such men.  The worship leader asked me, “So what exactly is the point of what you do?”  I told him I was doing it in obedience to God.  “Well you’ve certainly made us all think,” he mused.  “And that’s the point of what I do,” I said to him.

 

I’ve been doing this work for ten years.  I’d like to tell you that being an expert in domestic abuse, telling my story, providing robust data and offering theological analysis would be transforming things.  But I can’t tell you that.  Because it isn’t.  People are invested in keeping the status quo and it doesn’t matter how many women rip open their wounds and share the brutality that was done to them, it will not make the world listen. The world is invested in not listening.  People’s lives feel safer that way.  Feel easier.  As I see brave women bearing their all and telling us their truth, I cry.  Because I want to live in a world where their stories matter and where the critical mass of #metoo shakes the world.  But it won’t.  And that is the brutal truth.  Women’s pain doesn’t matter.

 

I continue to speak and bear my all, not because it will change the world, but because I can’t stop.  As a Christian, I do it with the assurance that there is more than just this.  I have so much admiration for my sisters who do this work without the belief in any greater power, most of the time it is my hope in God that keeps me going.  Occasionally transformation does come, in individual hearts and minds, and I keep going.  Because this is my call.  And it is terrible and awesome and holy.  But this week, it is almost unbearable.

 

I desperately want for there to be healing and wholeness and change.  I want for men to change and children to be raised differently.  I want the police to take sexual and domestic violence seriously.  I want every perpetrator brought to justice.  I want women’s services to be fully funded and I want every person who witnesses male entitlement to challenge it.  I want all girls to be in school and for female genitals to never be mutilated.  I want all girls to have the same chances in life as boys, and for boys to no longer be enculturated into violence and destruction.  I want governments to value the work women do and for men to share emotional labour.  I want women to be safe and for men to view women as their equals.

 

Women have been saying this for generations, and every generation we have to start saying it again.  I’m only 33, but I’m already tired.  How the foremothers have kept going for so long, I do not know.  But even though I know change is not coming in some big wave, I will continue, as hard as this week is to bear.  I can’t stop.  Once we know the truth, it sets us free, and we are free indeed.  But what a hard freedom it is to bear.

Those Who Wait: A book worth reading

Those-Who-Wait-Cover-Preview-333x500

Today is the launch of Tanya Marlow’s new book “Those Who Wait”.  I was grateful to Tanya for offering an early release copy to read in advance of the book being published today.  And so I thought I’d blog about the book and let you know why you might want to read it too.

 

Tanya’s story is one of challenge and waiting.  Having waited ten years to have her ill health diagnosed as ME, she has spent the subsequent years waiting to get better.  For seven years she has been housebound.  Within a Christian culture which often assumes suffering is something to be prayed away and delivered from, it can be extremely hard to cope with the ongoing reality of ill physical health, mental ill health or other difficulties which make life difficult.

 

As I write this I am dealing with having had a plethora of viruses which have reduced my capacity immensely over the last month, I am currently in therapy seeking to deal with the challenging parts of my history, whilst in my wider family there is stuff going on that is both upsetting and frustrating, we have one child with behavioural issues, an angsty teenager and are involved in a family court case regarding our third child.  Alongside this, the ongoing coverage of powerful men who have sexually abused women and girls has left me feeling rather despondent.  Their courage and the subsequent opportunity it has provided for other women to share their stories should be celebrated.  But to be honest, I just feel so despairing, knowing that nothing is going to structurally change, and as we’ve already seen, the women will be blamed, the men will be justified and the colluders will put out shiny PR statements to reframe their collusion as ignorance.  Given this context, the advance copy of “Those Who Wait” was a real gift, in this time of challenge.

 

Although Tanya’s story is one of waiting, “Those Who Wait” is not a personal memoir, but rather a Biblical study on the lives of four characters from the Bible; Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary (Jesus’ mother).  Approaching the text with an evangelical theological perspective, Tanya has reimagined the stories of each character, from a first-person perspective.  Sarah as the woman who waited on God’s promise, Isaiah the prophet who waited, John the prophet whose prophecy was fulfilled but not in the ways he wanted, and Mary who waited for the birth of the Messiah.

 

Each character’s story is split into four “scenes” with questions for reflection included.  The book has been designed to function for either an individual, or within a small group context.  Tanya suggests that given the season of Advent is one of waiting, it could be used over Advent with a church, small group or with a Christian book group.  She has included various prayers and other materials for reflecting on the stories.

 

Within the Biblical narrative, it is easy to forget that the stories that take up a few verses may have happened over decades.  The matter-of-factness of the text can prevent us recognising the human characters within it.  Yet Tanya’s retelling of the stories prompted me to see the Biblical characters in a new way.  Particularly with John the Baptist’s narrative, various things within the Biblical text clicked into place and made sense, whilst Isaiah’s narrative was hugely encouraging to me, as someone called to have a prophetic voice.

 

Overall, the book gave me a fresh experience of Biblical stories that are very familiar to me.  And even though it is not a book filled with answers for those who are waiting, the Biblical characters seem to become those who sit with us in our waiting, sharing their stories and encouraging us that we are not alone.  When life is hard (as it is for me at the minute), those who provide instructions on how to cope, or offer me well-meaning solutions are often less helpful than those who tell me their stories and show me that they made it through.

 

Tanya’s book offers a fresh perspective on the Biblical narratives of Sarah, Isaiah, John and Mary and provides opportunities to see God at work as we wait and when we face challenges in life.  I’m thankful to Tanya for writing this book and am hopeful it will help many of those who are waiting.

 

You can buy it here:

 

Amazon http://amzn.to/2gaik89*

Wordery https://wordery.com/those-who-wait-tanya-marlow-97819107868…

Waterstones https://www.waterstones.com/…/th…/tanya-marlow/9781910786864

 

*The RRP is £9.99. BUT until Oct 26th, it’s available from Amazon for £6.99 as a special introductory offer, with the ebook reduced to £3.99.  

Academia and Betraying Myself

The last year has seen me taking my first steps into academia.  I began a Masters with London School of Theology (LST) in September 2016 and next week I embark on the second year of what has now become a three-year project.  I have really struggled with the year and I thought perhaps writing a blog reflecting on my experiences might help me gain some clarity and who knows, someone else might benefit from my ponderings!

 

My route into academia has hardly been conventional.  In 2016 I won the Sermon of the Year competition and the prize was free study at LST.  In looking at the options, I concluded a Masters would both be the best value I could gain from the prize and also would be an exciting opportunity to gain an academic perspective.

 

I don’t have a first degree.  Whilst others my age were going off to university at 18, I had a small being growing in my uterus.  Even before that, the idea of university hadn’t appealed to me.  I am from a northern working class family with middle class aspirations (my parents liked Gilbert and Sullivan and were professional musicians), but no one in my family had ever been to university.  When I left secondary school I wanted to do performing arts but my parents insisted I needed to be able to get a proper job, and so as a female, who quite liked children, clearly the right option for me was a childcare qualification.  Though I didn’t dislike children, it turned out that working with them fulltime was VERY BORING.  My parents promised me that when I had the ability to get a Proper Job, then I could choose to do a performing arts course.

 

However, nobody foresaw that I would begin a relationship with a young man who would abuse me (let’s call him Alan).  They didn’t see that he would coerce me into sexual activity, damage me immeasurably and refuse to use contraception.  Nobody predicted I would be pregnant at 17 (at school I would have been voted Least Likely To Get Pregnant).  I found out my status would (according to the Daily Mail) become Scrounging Teen Mum the same week I finished the childcare course.

 

As a Scrounging Teen Mum it turned out I wanted to do everything I could to reject the stereotypes that I was sure were actually a true characterisation of every other teenage mother other than myself.  I didn’t go to the teen mum pre-natal courses because I knew that all the rest of them would be Scrounging Teen Mums and they would intimidate me with their blatantly low morals.  I wasn’t like them, I thought.  I was moral and good.  My moral goodness was evidenced by my engagement to Alan, the young man who was abusing me (an engagement heavily motivated by a desire to please God and become pure again).

 

I was due to get married two weeks before my due date.  Except two days before the wedding, I went into labour and the wedding was postponed, with me becoming a married woman two months before I turned 19.

 

At 21 my son was born 3 months prematurely after I was assaulted by Alan.  It was the practical implications of my son’s birth that enabled me to successfully separate from Alan, as he was treated in a hospital over an hour from where we lived.  There was a deep, abiding fear whilst we lived in hospital (my two and a half year old daughter lived in hospital with us).  This fear was that I had actually become a Scrounging Teen Mum, and worse still a Scrounging SINGLE Teenage Mum.  I no longer had a husband and stable relationship to point to which proved I wasn’t immoral and bad.  It didn’t matter that my husband had raped me, lied to me, cheated on me, became a registered sex offender for abusing teenage girls or that he pushed me to attempt suicide. The social capital I thought my marital status gave me made me feel able to counter the judgement I felt at being a teenage mother.  And as it turned out, maintaining that social capital resulted in my living in a hospital with a toddler and a tiny baby that kept nearly dying.

 

At first, when speaking to doctors who asked me where my baby’s father was, I would feel compelled to tell them he was currently my husband and that he was also a registered sex offender.  It felt this information would show them that I wasn’t a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, but rather a person who had tried to make her marriage work, and that my husband was so awful that all my efforts weren’t enough.

 

However, I gradually discovered how much easier it is to live in a hospital with a toddler and a potentially dying baby, than to live with an abusive man.  It took over a year to become practically free from him (becoming emotionally and psychologically free is a much longer process).  In that year I reported him to the police for assaulting me and went through a full trial in which he was found not guilty.

 

I began to embrace being a single parent.  I began to see that other people’s views of me mattered a lot less than I had thought.  Rejecting the stereotypes and refusing to care if people judged me was hugely liberating.  By the time I remarried my son was two years old I became proud of my status as having been a teenage mother.  Proud of being married twice.  Because every time I refused to feel shame or judgement for being a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, I was rejecting the social constructs that had kept me in a relationship with an abuser.  Over the years I’ve connected with loads of teenage mothers and unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail stereotype that took hold in the early noughties is not true.

 

You may be wondering how my experiences link with my Maters challenges.  My time as a single mother, rejecting the shame and judgement of society in relation to my status was hugely formative.  My identity is deeply rooted in being a working class, teenage single mother who defies anyone telling her she is not good enough.  And even though I remarried (unintentionally) and gradually fell into consultancy work (also unintentional) both of which moved me away from that status, I have been able to hold onto my roots and reject ideas that I needed to have an academic status or more than a childcare qualification to enable me to change the world (or the small bit of it that God has called me to).

 

When I deliver training or key note presentations, I will often finish by telling my story.  And the audience will be challenged by the seeming incongruity of a competent women who has a history of having been subjected to abuse.  This choice of vulnerability and a rejection of the professional veneer that we are often taught to have enables me to reveal people’s prejudices to them.  Their surprise that I have been subjected to abuse reveals that they have a category of people they imagine are victims, and competent professional is not within that category.

 

And yet, as I have been working on the Masters I have felt a constant resistance to the system, to the process and to the material.  Some of that is the dominance of white men who concluded ridiculous things (which my course tutor is open to addressing) and some of it is not having a background in theology.  Whilst it is also that I haven’t done a first degree and so feel like I am only hearing the second half of a conversation all the time.  But mostly, it is because I feel I am betraying a mindset that opened up liberation to me.  Every time I have to value an academic’s words over the words of someone uneducated I feel I am betraying the version of me that rejected societal prejudice.  And every male theologian I have to read leaves me feeling angry for all the women who had better ideas that nobody every listened to, and that my having to value him colludes with that system of ignoring women.  And every essay I write feels like stepping away from who I really am.

 

This week I spent 24 hours at a colloquium.  I applied to speak at it without knowing what a colloquium actually was, and then upon being accepted to speak I had to google it.  It’s basically an academic conference that’s not overly specialist.  It was great to be amongst people who had thought deeply about stuff and the discussions and content was really thought provoking.  However, it seemed that the difference between those attending who would define themselves as “academic” and me was that they all loved their subject, they loved learning, they loved thinking.  My experience of the Masters is more of endurance than love.

 

I love making a difference and challenging people and bringing about change.  I utilise any tools that will enable that to happen.  I have concluded that this Masters is likely to be a tool in what I do.  But I have yet work out how to love that tool.  Especially when it feels like a requirement of that tool is to betray myself and the way I assess something or someone as valuable.

 

It would be nice if this blog concluded in me working out how to love the tool, or how to move beyond a feeling of betraying myself, but I’m not there yet.  Perhaps I’ll write a follow up blog when I finally work out a way through!  But as for now, I hope my ponderings are thought provoking for others.