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.

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#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.

When should a church be disqualified from having women in it?

Mez McConnell is the Director of 20 Schemes, a church planting organisation seeking to “see Scotland’s housing schemes transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ through the planting of gospel-preaching churches”.  His passion for and commitment to seeing lives transformed by Jesus is extremely inspiring. 20 Schemes is working with some of the most marginalised people in society.  This is also a mission I am committed to.  I come from a working class background, have been a teenage mother and single parent.  I have lived in deprived areas almost my whole life and have worked with many women who have been deeply wounded by men and by poverty.   My husband and I are now raising a little boy from a severely deprived background having spent a year trying to support his mum to be able to become a parent again.  As such I hope that this blog is read in light of my great respect for 20 Schemes mission and passion.

 

Mez published a blog on the 20 Schemes website earlier today entitled “Why My First Church Hire Was A Woman, And Yours Should Be Too”.  At first glance, this blog seems to be incredibly pro-women, challenging male-led churches to value the contribution women make to the life of the church.  Not only that, he is insisting women should be paid for doing this, shifting away from the idea that women’s labour should be offered free.

 

Mez’s audience seems to be those who wouldn’t consider employing women in any role within the church and so it is a positive step that he is challenging such men (and women) to consider the role women can have in Christian communities.  Some of what he says is very helpful, including that:

 

  • Untrained “pastor’s wives” shouldn’t be offering pastoral support.
  • Women need other women to walk the journey with them.
  • 20 Schemes trust women and train them well
  • Mez explains he finds it “offensive to suggest that by giving women responsibility at [a pastoral] level we are opening the church up to serious error. Far more men have led churches astray than women.”
  • Mez states, “Women are encouraged that they have a serious part to play in the kingdom of God and that they are not just bystanders or there to cook the meals.”

 

I have become absolutely convicted that individual, organisational and church views on gender and sex are a primary Gospel issue.   Too many women (and men) are alienated from the Gospel because of Christians who insist that men’s and women’s roles are fixed with men being responsible for women (within marriage, church life or wider society).   Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” I understand this to include those who alienate believers by their views of men, women and sex.  Many of the radical feminists I know started off life in faith communities and the rejected Jesus because of the horrific oppression the were subjected to or witnessed in the church.  Complementarian Christians are quick to insist that their theology is Biblical and that egalitarian theology is not.  I will meet them on their terms, complementarian theology is not Biblical.  It is oppressive.

 

The question Mez’s blog raises for me is, “When a church exemplifies oppressive views towards women, should this disqualify them from having women attend their churches?” And I would suggest there are at least 10 reasons Mez’s blog evidences taking up such a policy.

 

  1. Women are prevented from being obedient to God

If women are called to worship lead, to be an executive pastor or to youth work, they cannot be obedient to God in following that call because Mez explains that: “[Churches] will talk about hiring a youth worker, or an executive pastor or a worship leader before they would even consider a woman”.  The only role women seem to be able to do is to be women.

 

  1. Vulnerable women are at extremely at risk in patriarchal structures

Mez explains that single mothers and those with other vulnerabilities are a large proportion of scheme communities.  Much evidence can be provided that patriarchal structures disempower and further oppress women and prevent them being released into the fullness of life Jesus offers them.  Sadly, most efforts to address the oppression of working class people maintain the oppression of women[1]. Seeking to support vulnerable women without having a good understanding of male violence is likely to perpetuate rather than liberate women who have been deeply hurt by male power.

 

  1. The male leaders don’t have time for the messiness of women’s lives

Mez tells us it is “not wise or prudent for a man to invest serious amounts of time into” women who have been subjected to abuse, violence or sexual violation by a partner because their “emotional needs are often so great”.  This statement is staggering in how pastorally insensitive and revealing it is of how little women’s pain should be invested in by men.

 

  1. A third of the male leaders are a sexual risk to vulnerable women

Mez explains that a third of the leaders who preceded him were removed due to sexual immorality that happened when they were intensely counselling women (who he acknowledges had likely been sexually abused prior to the intense counselling).

 

  1. Extremely vulnerable women will be blamed if male leaders sexually abuse their authority

Mez blames women (with possible histories of having been sexually abused) for male leaders sexually abusing their authority.  According to Mez “Any form of tenderness or a willingness to listen from a male is almost always misunderstood sexually [by vulnerable women]… A man who listens to them is a very powerful aphrodisiac. Temptation can be for some [vulnerable women] very hard to resist. They aren’t used to men listening to their problems. They are used to men being the problem.”

 

  1. The male leaders are powerless to stop themselves having sex with vulnerable women

In the above quote Mez is saying that the church leaders who sexually abuse their authority are not the problem; these leaders are the victims of women who find men listening to them so much of an aphrodisiac that they essentially place the male leader’s penis inside them and with the male leader helpless to stop it.  The male leader just passively allows for sexual activity to take place, unable to act.

 

  1. Men cannot and should not have deep long lasting friendships with women they aren’t married to

Mez explains this in his fifth point about women’s role as pastors pastoral assistants.  Jesus explained that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and as such should be seeking to build communities that are built on deep and long lasting friendships.  It is by our love for one another (not solely love of those who have the same sex as us) that people will know Jesus.  What state can a church be in if women and men can’t be good friends?  If the only deep interactions men and women have to be sexual?  Maybe that’s one of the reasons male leaders keep having sex with women who aren’t their wives?  Just a thought…

 

  1. It is unbiblical

Mez states that “The church is to be led by men after all.”  I shall put aside the fact his church is led by men who can’t stop themselves penetrating women unless they’re not allowed to be alone with them for too long.

The church is to be led by Jesus Christ, in partnership with the Holy Spirit.  Women and men are to serve God and those He calls us to love, giving up our lives in service to Him.  Jesus tells us that “the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.”

 

  1. The church is playing Pharisaical mental-gymnastics with women’s callings

Mez explains, “When we say that our women’s worker pastors our women we don’t mean that she is a pastor, rather, she assists the pastors by providing day-to-day pastoral care to our women”.  The Pharisees played the same sort of mental gymnastics as this to keep their hierarchies in place, “Okay, so we don’t swear by the temple, we just swear by the gold of the temple.”  “I know we don’t support our ageing parents, but that’s because we’re giving all our money to God.”  “We’re being obedient by even tithing all our herbs, look at how awesome we are.”

 

  1. Women are used out of necessity

Mez explains that without women pastors pastoral assistants, “Even with a small church and multiple elders we would struggle under the weight of pastoral issues in our congregation”.  Primarily women are asked to take a role in the church because a) men can’t help putting their penises in women and b) there’s too much work for only the men to be able to do it.  This isn’t about women’s gifts or call.  This is an argument of efficiency, practicality and utility.  It is not about the unique ministry of women, the value of women or God-breathed life in women.  It is not about the image of God that is found in women.  According to the blog Mez has written, this is about men being sexually deviant in nature and therefore women having to lead, pastor and disciple work with women.

 

Mez finishes by saying something I am in total agreement with,

 

“The local church needs women’s workers. Most of the women living in our poorest communities are suffering without the hope of the gospel. They have not heard the good news that can set them truly free from their burdens. Women on schemes need more than women parachuting in to be another worker in their life, perpetuating dependency. They need women who will do life with them every single day of their lives. The harvest is great, the workers are few and women are being left on the shelf. They shouldn’t be. Employing more women for ministry should be our highest priority.”

 

It is heartbreaking to me that the rest of his blog undermines this hugely important message.

 

To find out more about the 20 Schemes perspective on women, have a read of THIS application process for church planters and their wives (only married men can be church planters).  It has been suggested the process may be in breach of various equality and data protection laws.

 

 

 

[1] Even the great Paulo Freire described a poor man beating his wife as the abusive man’s response to oppression and not as a form of oppression in its own right.  Women are always left behind in liberatory movements.

This Is My Body

I recently met up with some old college friends that I hadn’t seen for over eight years.  We all have children and partners and lives that have stretched out before us since the last time we saw one another.  I bumped into one of them when visiting my home-town a couple of months ago and we chatted about the eight years that had passed while her children made it clear that they didn’t want to stand around waiting for us to reminisce, so we agreed to meet next time I was visiting.

 

They say that time heals.  I’m not sure it does.  But time creates a distance from hurts that allows us to recalibrate ourselves.  We don’t have to be in denial about what was done to us in order to distance ourselves from it.  It’s been over eleven years since I left my ex-husband and I am far enough along the journey of healing that his impact on my life has become a distant memory and an occasional PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episode rather than daily torture.  I’m no longer the person he moulded me into.

 

Bodies are often ignored in the healing process[1].  We focus on emotional turmoil or psychological affliction.  In therapy we talk about how we feel.  In understanding what has been done to us, we make cognitive shifts from one level of awareness to another.  Yet, all that is done to us is done while we exist within the same body we take forward throughout life.  Time and therapy can transform our minds and hearts, but our bodies remain the same.  We can’t download ourselves into another physical body.  We’re stuck with this one.

 

I met my ex-husband when I was 17 and at college.  The friends I met up with recently included the woman who introduced me to him.  She sat with us both when I found out I was pregnant.  After being released from hospital following a suicide attempt, it was her who I spent the evening with.  Another of the friends I met up with had seen razor cuts on my stomach when I stretched while wearing a short t-shirt at college.  The shame I felt when she confronted me.  Not being able to explain that he had done that to me.  Cut me with a razor.

 

While travelling to and from meeting with these friends, I was reading Getting Off by Robert Jensen, an excellent book about pornography and masculinity.  Throughout the book it describes in detail the forms of sexualised violence that exist within pornography.

 

I have been married to Mr GLW for nine years and free from my ex-husband for eleven years.  In that time, I have done a whole lot of healing and have discovered that sex can be awesome and life giving.  However, the same body that I inhabit now is the body I had when my ex-husband sexually violated me, and previous to that it is the same body I grew into whilst being sexually abused  by a neighbour.

 

Reading Robert Jensen’s book, I was reminded of the many ways my body was violated.  Of how my ex-husband used pornography to normalise that violation.  And how well that tactic worked.  I was convinced I should want all the degrading things that he forced upon me.

 

I read an article once where the author explained that the body takes seven years to completely renew all its cells.  She was counting down the years, months, days until that meant the man who raped her had never touched any of the cells in her body.

 

Christian culture loves the redemption narrative.  It loves the bad person who turns good, and the broken person who becomes healed.  Stories of women and girls “rescued” from human traffickers abound.  Stories about how many of those women and girls re-enter the sex industry, there’s not many of those being told.  We are sold the lie of full freedom this side of eternity.  Especially when there is no physical barrier to healing.  If someone has no legs, mostly (though not always) Christians will accept that there are challenges that person will face throughout their life.  With so called “emotional issues” rarely is this partiality of healing acknowledged.

 

Being raped happens to an actual physical body.  No amount of healing is going to undo what men did to me.  All abuse and trauma happens to us in an embodied way and Christian theology (with our Saviour who was born, lived, died and rose again in a physical body) should be much more aware of this than it is.

 

This body that I walk through life in has been raped.  It was degraded for a number of years and has survived my own attempts to kill and cut it.  I may be living in a place of great freedom, no longer constantly dragged down emotionally or psychologically by what was inflicted on me.  Yet, this body is the same body.  I type with the same hands.  I talk with the same mouth.  I walk with the same feet.  This is my body.

 

I don’t have some big revelation to conclude this with.  I felt compelled to write about this because I know that I am not the only one who is on this journey.  And if you’re reading this and are walking a similar path, please know that it is okay to never fully recover.  Living a wonderful life is not dependent on “getting over” the past.  Our bodies stay with us throughout all that we endure and (thankfully) all that we celebrate.  No matter how much physical distance or passing of time there is or renewal of cells our body goes through, we can’t leave it behind, for our body stays with us.  And though the pain and horror is difficult to overcome, it can be okay.  And we can be okay.

 

 

[1] This is changing within PTSD treatment, with practices like Somatic Experiencing.

Free the Nipple Debate Speech

I thought people may like to read my speech for a debate I participated in a few weeks ago.  I was asked to speak for the proposition on “This house would free the nipple.”

Good evening, women and men.  My feminist, socialist tendencies won’t stretch to addressing you as ladies and gentlemen, so I do hope you will indulge me with that.

I am proposing that we should indeed free the nipple.  For those unfamiliar with the Free The Nipple campaign; it started in the US and campaigns to address indecency laws which criminalise women whose nipples are visible in public.  Men’s nipples have no such law attached to them.  Few US states distinguish between the legality of women stripping off and women who are breastfeeding.  Also in the campaign’s sights are social media sites like Facebook and Instagram  who ban photographs of women’s nipples as they breach the sites’ decency rules.  This includes photographs of women breastfeeding their children.

In the UK it is not illegal for women to share their nipples with the world, and actually in many places men’s nipples are also banned from public display, for instance in seaside towns across the country, men’s (and women’s) shirts are required to be on in cafes and other premises.

So, if in the UK, the nipple is already legally free, why am I here suggesting we should free it?  What should it be freed from?

As with most aspects of women’s oppression, the nipple needs to be freed from patriarchy.  The sexualisation and objectification of women across society means that as women our humanity is consistently reduced to us being a three holed ornament with breeding capacity.

Breastfeeding is not indecent.  It is feeding a baby.  And starving a baby is far from decent.  Women’s nipples are indecent only because they have been wholly sexualised.

I’m not a pro-pornography feminist, I don’t believe that the sex industry liberates any one, it increases the power and wealth of men (and gives few women even a decent or sustainable income).  The sex industry dehumanises women as sexual objects to be violated and degraded (regardless of the individual choices of individual women).  It also dehumanises men as they become less human in their choice to objectify and degrade other human beings.

I’m not unrealistic.  Freeing the nipple on Facebook or Instragram is not going to liberate women.  Yes it may give breastfeeding mothers opportunities to share photographs as they feed their babies.  However, the winners will of course be pornographers and abusers.  We’ve all heard about the rise of so-called “revenge porn”.  I can only imagine how abusers would use the new found female nipple freedom to further abuse a current or ex-partner on social media.  Facebook and Instagram would be flooded with Page 3-esque images.  Freeing the nipple by simply changing decency rules and laws is not going to liberate women.

Yet freeing women’s bodies from the male gaze and being sexually objectified is a feminist imperative.

Freeing the Nipple must be a cultural strategy, it will never be a quick win.

We must:

  1. Raise girls to love and own their own bodies, to see their whole being as not solely sexual, yet to know that it’s okay to have a sexuality, to not be ashamed.
  2. Raise boys to recognise girls as empowered and fully human.
  3. Have proactive conversations with children and young people about pornographies and sexualisation.
  4. Challenge the representation of women and girls in the wallpaper of every day life, we could boycott companies like Lynx and American Apparel who sexualise women to sell products.
  5. Educate men and women to be active bystanders, challenging language which objectifies and degrades the opposite or same sex.
  6. As women, acknowledge the ways we are encouraged to compete for the small amount of power we have access to; measuring ourselves against other women.  Let us celebrate other women and build the sisterhood, united we can stand.
  7. As men, own the privilege afforded to you, while acknowledging the wounds created by patriarchy that insist on self-sufficiency and maintaining power based relationships with other men and with women.
  8. Protest, campaign and live lives of integrity that seek to be a light in the darkness of patriarchy.

Freeing the nipple is not the biggest issue facing women.  Being able to strip off here or breastfeed publicly without shame is not going to change the fact that 25% of women will be abused by a partner in the UK.  That 72% of girls in the UK will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend and 32% will be sexually abused by a boyfriend.  It doesn’t address the reality that 85,000 women will be raped in the UK this year or the global rates of female genital mutilation, child rape, breast ironing, unfair marriage laws, trafficking, female infanticide and the many other types of male violence towards women and girls that cause immeasurable suffering.

However, the nipple being free from patriarchy is like one of those starfish on the beach that the boy is famously described as throwing back into the sea.  In the drip drip drip of patriarchy, every act towards women’s liberation is part of the solution.

I was a teenage mum.  When I had my daughter at 18 I chose to breastfeed her.  It took all of my courage to start feeding her in front of people.  But I did it because I wanted the best for her.  After attending a youth event in which I needed to feed her, the youth worker involved took me to one side and asked me to no longer breastfeed publicly at youth events.  He explained that the parent of a teenage boy had complained.  He said I could feed her in the toilet if I needed to.

As a teenage mother I experienced great stigma.  To all intents and purposes I was then excluded from a gathering of my peers because someone chose to sexualise me feeding my baby.

That experience didn’t destroy my life.  It is simply one story of many I could tell you about the ways patriarchy and male violence have hurt me.  I propose that we should free the nipple because patriarchy must be smashed and though freeing nipples may only make a hairline fracture in the seemingly impermeable structure, it is with each blow that it becomes weaker.

Does Avoiding Pre-Marital Sex Devalue Marriage?

Two separate things have led to me writing this post.  A few weeks ago I had a Twitter chat with people after pondering whether an abstinence approach to sex may in fact dishonour marriage.  Then a couple of days ago I listened to THIS discussion between Dianna E Anderson and Sarah Long, facilitated by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable show at Premier.

The debate was “Should Christians save sex for marriage?”

The debate was interesting, though I’m not sure it fully worked.  Dianna has written a book reflecting on US purity culture in Conservative Christianity.  Sarah is UK based and has worked with Romance Academy.  There’s some massive culture differences between the UK and the US, so to some degree it became much more about acknowledging the different contexts and less about a debate based in the same cultural context.  Though I think many would say the culture isn’t as different as was perhaps suggested on the show.

Sarah’s main view was that sex is a covenant and as such should be saved for marriage.  Her work has generally been in a youth context and therefore the focus has been with young people.  Dianna’s view was that the Bible isn’t clear at all about sex before marriage and as such she would place it within the adiaphora of Biblical stuff; basically it’s a conscience issue, not an absolute.

Mr GLW and I didn’t have sex until we got married; I’ve written a few thoughts about sex and Christianity in THIS blog post, in which I bemoan awful post marital sex that is rooted in the many unhealthy messages attached to abstinence values.

Some thoughts I have about the whole saving sex until marriage thing…

1. It may possibly work when people are in their teens and early twenties.  What about people in their forties, fifties or sixties who have never had sex?  Did God just decide they shouldn’t ever experience the awesome gift of sex?  Not everyone is going to have a partner.  The whole abstinence teaching is connected so strongly to the “everyone will get married and have babies” narrative.  What does sexuality look like for people who don’t ever get married?  Do they simply suppress it FOREVER?  What about masturbation?  Is that off limits too?

2. When abstinence teaching is intertwined so strongly with purity culture is there a baby left in the bath when you chuck out the bath water?  Or is the shaming of women, blaming of women, infantilising of men, lack of understanding of consent and terrible sex so fused with “don’t have sex before marriage” that we can’t keep the latter without holding onto the former?

3. Within the Unbelievable debate, there was no mention of how abstinence teaching disables people from recognising abuse.  For me this is paramount.  I am confident that my young adulthood sexual experiences would have been non-abusive if I’d chosen to embrace pre-marital sex.  Could that have been the case if I’d been educate in healthy ways about consent and had awareness of abuse?  Perhaps.  But could the messages from across Christian culture about abstinence have drowned out the voices providing that awareness?  Also quite possible.

I’ve been wondering about whether Christians put a higher value on sex than on marriage.  If people HAVE to get married to have sex, how many (usually young) Christians rush to the altar so they can GET IT ON?  Conversely, how many Christians suppress their sexuality and their natural desire for one another for years while they wait to be able to get married. leading to a whole load of marital problems?

One of the examples on the Premier debate was a couple who’ve been together for four years, are engaged but can’t afford the wedding.  Dianna suggested that having pre-marital sex in that context was a matter between the couple and God, they could pray about it and come to their own conclusions.  Sarah’s view was that the couple could choose to marry in an inexpensive way in order to “save sex” for marriage.

Is that the best approach?  Should people reject the whole Big Wedding thing in order to have sex?  Or does that suggest less value for the whole process?  Do the couple elope and get married in a registry office somewhere so that SEX?  Or is the marriage ceremony and the value placed on it and the community element significant enough that pre-marital sex isn’t the main consideration that should be attached to it?

What does abstinence mean anyway?  Should there be no kissing pre-marriage?  No tongues?  No nakedness?  No oral sex?  No groping?  Is everything non penetration based okay?  Is there a sense of legalism in the whole thing?  Is this whole thing simply tithing herbs (Luke 11:42)?  Are we neglecting the weightier matters of a deep and considered sexual ethic that takes into account the many ways abstinence is painful?

The Bible wasn’t written for our context.  People got married REALLY young.  Mary was probably 14.  Women had no rights.  Contraception didn’t exist.  Periods were seen as impure. Singleness wasn’t an option for women.  Women’s sole value was attached to their husband and sons.  Rape victims were to marry the man who raped them.  Then there’s Song of Solomon which is full on sexiness, seemingly between unmarried people.  Marriage was a financial contract between the girl’s (it usually was a girl) husband and her father.  How do we extrapolate a sexual ethic for our time, our culture from a book written in such an extremely different context?

I don’t know.

I do know that the current system isn’t working.  Abstinence teaching doesn’t produce chastity.  It leaves people ill equipped to recognise sexual abuse, sexually damaged, repressed and/or with a deeply unhealthy sexuality, it blames women and encourages men to avoid responsibility for their sexuality and wrongly assumes that every twenty-something Christian is going to meet a nice Christian (opposite sex) partner, marry them, have babies and live happily ever after.

I’m not sure what a positive sexual ethic looks like.  I guess I veer close to Dianna’s view.  What’s wrong with trusting couples to discern what is right for them?  What is the risk in encouraging people to seek God’s will for their lives over and above an abstinence rule that isn’t fit for purpose (and actually isn’t in the Bible)?  When the current messages are causing serious damage to individuals and couples can we risk insisting abstinence is the way forward?

Matthew 23:24 comes to mind…  “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  Yes abstinence may get women to their wedding night with their hymen intact, however what about the camel of shame, vaginitis, pornography use, woman blaming and/or sexual repression?

The conversation amongst young people should be a different to that with adults.  One of the difficulties of the Premier debate was that Sarah’s context was young people.  We can’t liken the sexual choices of two people in their mid twenties (and upwards) to how we approach 14 year olds.  However, is the right approach with teenagers and young adults to focus on marriage as the means by which people access sex?  Does that put unnecessary focus on marriage as the end goal for people’s lives?  In a Christian culture which is deeply heteronormative and idolises the nuclear family, how do we articulate the liberating message that marriage is not the logical start of adult Christian life?

With our children, Mr GLW and I have focussed on:

  • Ensuring they own they bodies, lives and choices. This is the foundation of consent.
  • Nakedness and sexuality are not shameful, bodies are BRILLIANT.  Puberty is fabulous and exciting, if somewhat messy and traumatic.  Since they were very small we regular talked about how bodies change; hair, periods, wet dreams and the like.  This stuff shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is INEVITABLE.
  • That sex is awesome yet SO extremely special and precious that it’s a serious matter.  Babies can be made and diseases can be caught, so great thought must go into when, how and who we choose to do it with.
  • Singleness is GREAT!  We regularly chat about the amazing single people we know.  At first the kids assumed that all the single adults we knew were married, they just hadn’t met their spouses.  This stuff must be made explicit or kids won’t notice it.
  • Critically examining the messages around us; women are not objects, sexism is all pervasive and it is wrong, gender stereotyping is bad, racism is everywhere and it is bad, male privilege is real, a lot of masculinity is toxic and needs to be challenged etc etc.
  • There’s creepy naked stuff on the internet (pornography) and when they see it (because they will)  they need to tell us so we can help them make sense of it.

Our kids may have sex before marriage.  It’s not something I’m concerned about.  What I am concerned about is that every sexual experience they have is one they have entered into willing (and legally), in an informed way and with deep respect and love for themselves and the other person they engage in any sexual activity with, and also deep respect and honour for the seriousness of the act they engage in.

Yes, marriage may be a way of ensuring this stuff happens.  But that is not guaranteed.

Genuinely, I don’t want my kids to get married.  I want them to live lives of worth.  And if that includes marriage, great!  But if not, that is JUST as wonderful!

No Sex Please. We’re Married

Everyone knows what the Christian view of sex is.  That it should be “saved” for marriage.  That it’s this precious gift God gave humans and that sex outside of marriage can be damaging.  Depending on who you talk to, the damage ranges from a vague possibility to ABSOLUTE DESTRUCTION which requires a whole lot of prayer to get rid of “soul ties” which some would say mess you up in all sorts of emotional and spiritual ways.

 

Yesterday I listened to teaching on sex delivered to 12-14 year olds at a 2015 national Christian youth event.  Separate sessions for boys and girls.

 

The boys were told the only relationships they should have with girls should be friendships, in part because they can’t “go out and get a job to support the girl” when they’re only 12.  The speaker explained to these 12-14-year-old boys: “If the girl is not your wife, then she’s your sister.”  He went on to explain there should be no touching, kissing etc. until the couple are engaged.  The boys were also told that masturbation is wrong; avoid it by going for a walk or by reading the Bible (because they were told, the Bible isn’t sexy at all).

 

The girls were told “God wants His best for you.  He wants you pure and undamaged and unhurt.”  They were also told, “If you want to be attractive, dig into God.”  The girls were told that girls’ wanting to have sex was a form of seeking love and validation (the boys were not told this was the case for them).  The girls were also told that masturbation was wrong, addictive and the devil would use the shame they subsequently feel from masturbating to harm them.

 

This was at an event that happened in 2015.

 

In the church, we’re very good at talking about not having sex.  What we’re not good at talking about is the awful post-marital sex a lot of Christians endure, especially if they’ve done the “right” thing and waited.

 

If a couple have waited to have sex until they get married (whether or not they’ve had sex previously) there can be an expectation that such a sacrificial and counter-cultural choice will be rewarded by mind blowing sex from the wedding night onwards.

 

Sadly, multiple orgasms do not ensue.  From 12 years upwards they’ve both been told not to masturbate and not to think about sex.  At all.  Until “she’s a wife not a sister.”  The boys have been taught they should “resist temptation”.  The girls have been taught their value is intertwined with their purity.  Both have been conditioned to think only males have a sex drive.

 

Post-abstinence marital sex can be utterly abysmal.  Rarely is this talked about.  When it is talked about, it’s euphemistic at best.

 

I’ve been married over 8 years, my husband and I didn’t have sex with each other until after we were married.  We’d both had sex previously, and I brought two small children to the relationship.  From 17 to 21 I was abused by my ex-husband.  Much of the abuse was sexual.  I had been raised in Christian culture which taught me not to have sex but didn’t tell me what consenting to sex actually meant.  All of my first sexual encounters were coerced, forced or manipulated.  And Christian culture had given me no framework for this, so I thought the trauma I was suffering was caused because I had betrayed Jesus, not because I was being raped.

 

At 23 when I married my now husband, I’d been dealing PTSD, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and more.  He’d been single in the church for 13 years and had tried to avoid thinking about sex the whole time.

 

Our honeymoon was amazing in most ways.  Except that sex was generally difficult.

 

Marriage has been awesome for us.  Sex not so much.  And even though I’d been sexually abused for the majority of my life at that point, my husband being raised in the church caused us at least as many issues as my stuff did.  We’re not alone.  So many Christians (even where there hasn’t been abuse) experience extreme damage from abstinence and purity teachings in church.

 

Christian women and men have been conditioned to see sexual acts as shameful.  How do they then engage in those same acts after saying “I do” without shame?  The wedding ceremony isn’t going to negate years and years of unhealthy and sexually negative messages.

 

My husband and I are doing good now.  But stories like ours must be told.  Because otherwise every couple struggling, every woman feeling ashamed for simply considering initiating sexual activity, every man feeling inadequate because his sex drive doesn’t meet some arbitrary level he’s been told is normal, feel this is just them.  And it’s not.  There’s loads of us out there.  Welcome to crap Christian sex!  We’re not getting much.  But hey, it can get better!

 

I would tell 12-14 year olds that…

 

  1. Compulsive masturbation is a problem. What isn’t a problem is learning how your body works, what feels good and what doesn’t.  Girls especially are not taught about their genitals and popular culture can leave girls and women ashamed of their woman bits.  God isn’t ashamed of your vagina or vulva, he made it and He wants you to love it!

 

  1. Boys, it is not your job to pursue, provide for or protect a girl. That is nonsense made up by people.  Only God does those things.  Don’t take on responsibility that was never meant to be yours.  God made women and men equal and gave them the awesome gifts of intimacy, equality and partnership found in marriage.

 

  1. Choosing to have sex is a big deal. God made it as a thing to do within a marriage relationship.  There’s the potential for making babies and catching diseases and all sorts when you start doing it.  Understanding the difference between choosing to have sex and being coerced or forced is really important.  Sex is a big deal and when someone hurts us sexually they can cause us great damage.  But there is help available and healing is possible!

 

  1. You are not defined by your virginity. God loves you whatever your sexual experience or lack of it and so should any person you have a relationship with.

 

And to all you Christians preparing to get marriage please be aware that if you haven’t engaged in sexual activity with your spouse before getting married, don’t expect sex to be mind blowing straight away (if it is, lucky you!).  Like anything valuable in a relationship, it takes time, effort, understanding, respect and self awareness.  Sex can be awesome, get help if you need it and marriage is so much more than how good the sex is anyway.