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”. 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.” 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”. 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.
 Goossen, 10.
 Goossen, 61.
 Goossen, 61-62.