WN: In January 1975, I read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus at an Inter-term course taught by Clark Pinnock 1 at Regent College, University of British Columbia. Though a (“quintessential fundamentalist” (Ernest Sandeen)– Plymouth/Christian Brethren initially) Christian all my life, thanks to Yoder and Pinnock I went through two Gospel conversions while at Regent College: I learned:
1) that the Gospel means nothing if it does not address the social and political realities of life; and
2) that Jesus’ Way of social and political presence in the world is invariably the Nonviolent, Counter-Narrative-to-Empire Way of the Cross.
I cannot overstate the consequent/subsequent life trajectory I have been on ever since! I can however confess that the journey has still in certain ways barely begun.
I eventually met Yoder in the very early days (late 1970s) of Mennonite Restorative Justice work in North America, ironically enough at an event with him and Marie Marshall Fortune (click on her name to understand the irony) the resource persons, to discuss the application of Restorative Justice to Domestic Violence. Little did any of us know then of Yoder’s multiple sexual assaults against myriad women. Tragically, he and Harvey Weinstein could have been partners in crime–Yoder the theological Weinstein. 2
I add this today, February 27, 2020, less than a week after the world experienced awareness of Jean Vanier’s spectacular fall from grace: What grand tragedies!–not for the men who after all repeatedly committed the horrifically harmful abuses–but for all the women violated as mere plaything victims by men whose high acts of abject evil place them on the same level of all sex offenders who cold-bloodedly prey on the vulnerability of their victims. Forgive them, if no repentance, “for they knew not what they were doing”?! Not a chance! They knew full well, and repeatedly assaulted women just the same. Forgiveness in these instances is God’s domain. Though their victims need for their own good to “let go” (but never excuse or offer what can surely only be, if done without repentance, cheap grace!?). These men indeed died, sadly without confrontation by their victims. They also died, so far to our understanding, mired in unrepentance.
How tragic their legacy, given the apparent “wisdom” of their writings. In Yoder’s case, as seen below, “apparent” is the operative word! I suspect similarly in Vanier’s case.
The article highlighted below “excerpts” by Andy Alexis-Baker tells a very personal and helpful story for those of us who try to come to terms with the impact Yoder’s theology had on us, over against his horrific violence against women. Is it wrong to suggest (pace Alexis-Baker)?: Shame on any theologian, etc. who still prizes Yoder’s or Vanier’s writings as instructive for the wider Church. Should not such writings henceforth on principle be disqualified from any kind of wider exposure/dissemination, let alone paraenetical approbation–not unlike the medical establishment’s refusal to benefit from Nazi experimentation on human victims?
Now thanks to our friend Elsie Goerzen almost a year later (January 26, 2021), I further point the reader to this superb reflection by Isaac Samuel Villegas: THE ECCLESIAL ETHICS OF JOHN HOWARD YODER’S ABUSE. The Abstract states:
In the last decade – now that his sexual abuse is no longer deniable – Christian ethicists have had to reconsider John Howard Yoder’s theological contributions in the late twentieth century. This essay considers how the witness of the women who survived his abuse exposes the sexism latent in his development of a framework for moral discernment and community discipline. Yoder designed an ecclesiology that was congruent with his pursuit of unaccountable power over the women he used as subjects for working out his exploitative sexuality. His theological contributions, I argue, cannot be separated from his behavior.
The author introduces briefly the case he will present:
As evident in his correspondence with colleagues and victims, his published work on moral discernment provided justifications for his abusive relationships. I will argue that Yoder developed and refined a process for church discipline as moral discernment that facilitated his sexualized violence, allowing thereby his ecclesiology to become an accomplice to his abuse. Yoder’s latent deployment of patriarchal power will be made explicit throughout my argument.
In short: John Howard Yoder, as far as anyone knows, went to his grave in unrepentance. Should one not therefore conclude that he has nothing to say to the Church? (Except as cautionary tale.)
Further, I repeat that I question any republications of his works; any inclusion in library holdings; placements in anthologies such as An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology, etc. After all, we do not read today contemporary Nazi era German theologians who supported Hitler. Their names are known, but rightly not their works–rightly again relegated to the dustbin of history, flushed down the toilet where they were first excreted?
I at least long since have ceased reading or referencing Yoder. And since last year I’ve lost all interest in Vanier’s writings. Sadly enough . . .
Theological censorship? I guess there may be a case for it after all! When have any of us last benefitted from a theological case for pedophilia?/a theological work by an unrepentant pedophile? The very thought carries its own inherent condemnation.
Yoder’s sexual ethics and activities are to be rejected out of hand! Therefore, his theological works that enabled him in lifelong self-referential sexualized violence tautologies, as demonstrated in Villegas’ essay, must likewise surely be rejected out of hand?
But even that is not enough! Villegas reflects and amplifies the call of many voices to rout out root and branch every vestige of patriarchy in our peace theology. Or, as Villegas writes:
There is no peace without a confrontation with the sexism internal to the theologies of nonviolence that have dominated the discourse of ethics. Peace theology, after Yoder, should involve conscientious objection to patriarchy. 3
The words Villegas uses, “objection,” and in the footnote cites, “challenged,” are still not enough! Patriarchy is by definition unadulterated violence. And therefore, there is no theological place for patriarchy in any way, shape or form. It must be utterly eradicated, like “violence” which of course it fundamentally is!
For many years my wife and I have co-facilitated a Men’s Group called Home Improvement, under Elsie Goerzen’s leadership of End Abuse–part of Mennonite Central Committee BC’s Restorative Justice work. We underscore with the men that male domination and privilege are (still!) deeply enculturated realities pretty much universally embraced: and everywhere in Western culture.
Without pointing fingers at the men, we say that 100% of men playing “The Man Card” (title of the most recent documentary by outstanding anti-male-violence activist/educator/filmmaker Jackson Katz), need to root out every vestige–lock, stock and barrel–of such execrable power-over/domination thinking and acting. I sometimes say to the men: In many cultures it takes a real man to not act like “a real man” according to those cultures. And as we often acknowledge to the men: It’s damn hard to change!
It in fact all runs so insidiously deep, and ubiquitously and constantly messaged to us men. Mere awareness of our violent socialization as men hardly registers as a start . . .
Surprisingly though, from our co-facilitation experience and others’ testimonials, men can embrace propulsion away from lifelong male identity lies that we are “central, superior and deserving,” to lives demonstrating rather elevated traits of being “mutual, equal and connected.” (This is the language used in the End Abuse Program, thanks to Jill Cory and Karen Mcandless-Davis, the latter doing much of the training, based on their outstanding When Love Hurts Program.)
Arguably: Patriarchy is the Foundational Peace Issue! This or the like should be a slogan everywhere used in teaching peace theology . . .
Elsie Goerzen in that light directed us also to this publication: Liberating the Politics of Jesus: Renewing Peace Theology through the Wisdom of Women.
Women were of course the first evangelists/apostles of the Resurrection, and the only apostles courageous enough to have remained at the crucifixion scene–an ultimate act of aggressive fortitude in that culture of obscene violence against human bodies. In that women’s steadfastness, they stared down the entire male culture of brutal domination of the weak, by their own bodies rooted to that place, saying a definitive and Divine No to everything patriarchal and violent! Women’s feareless wisdom therefore about the politics of Jesus, it surely stands to theological reason, should be front and centre.
I also highly recommend Morgan Guyton’s February 24, 2020, The Dark Side of the Mystical Mind. We read, for instance:
But the way that these women described the rationalizations of his deeds makes it clear that Vanier’s mysticism was a centerpiece of his thought process, and that scares the hell out of me as a mystic.
Further, there is this publication: Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method (T&T Clark Studies in Anabaptist Theology and Ethics). We read of it:
This volume performs a critical and vibrant reconstruction of Anabaptist identity and theological method, in the wake of the recent revelations of the depth of the sexual abuse perpetrated by the most influential Anabaptist theologian of the 20th century, John Howard Yoder. In an attempt to liberate Anabaptist theology and identity from the constricting vision appropriated and reformulated by Yoder, these essays refuse the determinative categories of the last half century supplied by and carried beyond Harold Bender’s The Anabaptist Vision.
Finally: Be sure as well to read the responses to the article highlighted below!
A lot of people are talking about John Howard Yoder’s harassment, abuse, and assault of women. Even the New York Times published an article about him. Some of the articles and blog posts have been defensive, trying to explain Yoder as a man, putting his actions in context, or trying to divorce his actions from his writings on pacifism. Other pieces have lamented the attention Yoder has received as a theological ethicist, saying, as one Mennonite article put it, that most of the remaining Yoder devotees are young white men anyhow.
Over a year and a half ago, I wrote an online article wrestling with the issue of Yoder’s conduct toward women. But I have not entered into this discussion in the personal way that this story-telling will. I learned from Yoder, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul to be suspicious of including my personal narrative in theological discourse. My personal story may distract from the gospel. Focus on Jesus instead. But I have learned that I cannot tell God’s story abstractly because I have a stake in the gospel. God has acted in my life and there is no reason to hide God’s action. Telling how God has acted in our lives simply follows the Apostle Paul’s example, who never seemed to tire of sharing his encounter with Christ.
I first read John Howard Yoder’s work as an undergraduate student. He made the case for peace so powerfully that I joined the Mennonite church, thinking erroneously that I needed a pacifist church to support me or I would not be able to sustain my convictions. When I went to seminary, I delved into editing Yoder’s work, and have subsequently co-edited four of his books for publication, more than any other scholar.
Yoder’s work also did not help me overcome the triumphalism of the Damascus Road event. Overcoming violence and becoming nonviolent makes for a great and true story. But it does not necessarily reflect the trauma of the cross. Lacking any space for personal narrative, Yoder could not help me tell the story in any other way than as one of triumph over violence. He could not help me tell the ongoing story, where I needed therapy, where I needed introspection, where I internalized patterns that were destructive to me. I could not heal as a “Yoderian” focused solely on the politics of Jesus. I have to break the chain and find another way beyond his work that emphasizes the terror and trauma of, for example, Holy Saturday, which I first encountered in Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Victims must be able to tell the dark and forbidden tales of unresolved internalized violence so we can find new identities in Christ, who also experienced trauma.
My story connects to Yoder’s story in ways that I never would have thought possible. My life also connects to other people’s stories who encountered Yoder and were abused. I understand completely if some people cannot read him now. We have our own stories to tell.
Please click on: Prison, Sexual Assault, and Editing JHY
- my landlord while studying at Regent, who became a friend[↩]
- Please see “The failure to bind and loose: Responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse.“[↩]
- As Mary Anne Hildebrand writes, “Who will be the new conscientious objectors? Patriarchal theology needs to be challenged.” See Hildebrand, “Domestic Violence: A Challenge to Mennonite Faith and Peace Theology,” Conrad Grebel Review 10/1, 1992,73-80. 124, 79.[↩]