May 6, 2024 Editor

The Anabaptist Tradition, Peacemaking, John Howard Yoder and Mennonite Feminists’/Other Mennonite Leaders’ Call for a Dramatic Revision of a Common Contemporary Mennonite Narrative

In the Spirit of David Bjlorin's Hymn — Ask The Complicated Questions

WN: In light of the sermon preached by our pastor, Ian Funk at Langley Mennonite Fellowship (LMF) May 5, 2024, I commented during our “Sharing Time,” on Ian’s mentions of “The Anabaptist Tradition.” (Interestingly, the current issue of Canadian Mennonite, May 2024, Volume 28, Number 7, has on the Front cover: “What is the Essence of Anabaptism?”)

Here is my Sharing Time response:

I pointed to Mennonite scholar/pastor Isaac Villegas and Mennonite feminists who claim it was precisely The Anabaptist Tradition of deeply embedded patriarchy that created the fertile ground for the horror of John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women (numbers up to 100). This is all laid out in detail with links, in my post: “Prison, Sexual Assault, and Editing John Howard Yoder: One Man’s Story” by Andy Alexis-Baker. (More on this below.)

In a discussion with Ian after church, and later in an email sent out to him and others, titled “Christian (Anabaptist) Exclusivity” (full text below), I make a case for a significant questioning of the most common narrative amongst contemporary Mennonites about the Anabaptist Tradition, and in our commitment to “Jesus The Truth,” that may indeed lead to a needed revision of that dominant narrative.

I raise the above in the spirit of what has been a kind of theme song, “Ask the Complicated Questions,” for our current series of sermons on the 2012 “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion” broadcasts by CBC Ideas broadcaster, David Cayley. This, and The Myth of the Secular, were initially done as one series, but for scheduling reasons, they were divided into two. David also retired that same year.

You may see this song performed by the composer, David Bjorlin, and more about both the outstanding CBC Ideas series, and the LMF sermon series, on my post about the sermon I preached, titled: “The God Who May Be.”

NOTE: A link to the church service today (May 5, 2024) is clickable. Ian preached the sermon. I raised the issues about the Anabaptist Tradition (AT) during Sharing Time at the end.

Below now is the email sent out concerning the issue, but with much additional material in response to serial sex offender John Howard Yoder:

Greetings all.

With reference to the above, a few thoughts follow.

1. Esther and I are church exclusivity “inoculees.” (I think I just made up that word.) In brief, our Plymouth Brethren (PB) tradition insisted that “we” are neither a denomination nor a tradition, because we are the True Church. When I considered in 1976 doing a Masters thesis at Regent College, it was suggested I might look into a history of the North American Bible School movement, given the proliferation of such, tied into the PB. Not too excitedly by then, I did connect to one of the editors of the well-known PB Letters of Interest magazine, to ask for help in identifying such colleges in North America. I happened to refer to the “PB Tradition.” In the response, I received no assistance whatsoever about that request, but did get quite the written lecture about why “we” are not a Tradition, etc. It scuttled my probe into that option. Instead, I spent a total of 12 fulfilling years at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and Mennonite Central Committee Canada in Restorative Justice work; together with prison work, between 1977 and 1998. I left MCCC that year to become Director of a Restorative Justice Program until retirement in 2014. In the early ’80s, while fulltime with MCCC, I returned to Regent to complete an M.T.S.

“Quintessential fundamentalist,” is church historian Ernest Sandeen’s designation of our tradition, in The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. Out of all proportion to the numbers, the PB Tradition through its worldwide missionary movement had an enormous impact on missionary activity in its first 100 years (roughly 1830-1930.)

We both walked away from the PB Tradition: well inoculated as said against ever again buying into that kind of religious exclusivity. . .

2. While some of our family members raised in it also eschewed that exclusivity, some exited to. . .

  • no religious faith;
  • others to dogmatic pronouncements against Christianity of any kind;
  • some (later) embracing the Trump cult (and antecedents such as anti-feminism, -LGBTQ, -Islam, or variations of Creation “Science;” climate change denialism, etc.)

They all were markedly, even evangelistically (absent any “Good News”!) “fundamentalist” in all those various embraces. Our eventual MO in response was to refuse (yes, inflexibly) to enter into any further discussion on all those preferred inflexibilities. . . They rejected earlier PB religious fundamentalism to be sure, but the spirit of such arose like a Phoenix amongst them.

3. We encountered enough exclusivity embrace of the AT at LMF, that in 2011 we actually quietly withdrew our membership prior to our moving out to where we now live. So it has remained. Yet we are deeply committed to LMF and love the people.

4. When I did my MTS at Regent, in my major research paper as partial fulfillment of that degree, I compared pre-Constantinian and 16th-century Anabaptist teachings on ethics–especially peace and peacemaking. In all my AT research in the early 1980s, to my recollection, not once did I come across any connection between the early Anabaptists and Erasmus of Rotterdam, from Mennonite scholarly sources. Connections were made by scholars outside the AT, to be sure, but not from within.

Bottom Line: To me, Palmer Becker’s book and wide dissemination/use in Mennonite circles participate in a similar ethos (albeit with very different content) of AT fundamentalism to that of my own fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren roots. — WN

A recent example of that failure (not necessarily intentional) is Palmer Becker’s Anabaptist Essentials: Ten Signs of a Unique [read “Exclusive”] Christian Faith. His chapter, “A Short History of Christianity” makes no mention of Erasmus, but lets on that the origins of AT were spontaneous Spirit-inspired manifestations, “unique” to the early AT leadership and their growing adherents.1

Throughout the book, the author juxtaposes in charts “Many Christians Emphasize . . .” (on the left) with “Anabaptist Christians Emphasize. . .” If these two statements were scorecards, by the end of the book, it would be 100 for the AT, 0 for the “many [read “all”?]” others. (Surprise?!) This is sadly  misrepresentation and ignorance of Church History.

I once wrote a one-line review of The Evangelical Essential, thus:

Change but one word in the title, then buy the book: The Evangelical Heresy.

Something akin might be in order for Becker’s book:

Change but one word in the title, then buy the book: Christian Essentials. (But delete the left-hand charts and the words, “Anabaptist(s)”. . .)

Please note then, that I am not saying that the “essentials” are not such. They are essential to a life of faith. I do attend a Mennonite Fellowship where they are affirmed. But they are by no means exclusive to the Anabaptist Tradition. . .

It is not, for example, just. . .

  • the AT that cares for “the least of these;”
  • not just the AT that embraces peace and peacemaking;
  • not just the AT that radically challenges governments and imperialism, etc., etc., etc. . . .

Many Mennonite congregations do not. . .

  • care for “the least of these” unlike the Salvation Army, the Christian Reformed, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, etc., etc.;
  • embrace peace and peacemaking unlike the Quaker, Catholic, Orthodox, Palestinian Christian peace traditions and Liberation Theology ecumenical traditions, etc.;
  • radically challenge governments and imperialism again unlike the above etc. . . .

Renowned Mennonite historian Abraham Friesen’s 1998 study, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), to which Becker could have had access/should have accessed, states in the Preface:

Intrigued to learn whether the one or the other of the authors—or both—had recognized the unique Erasmian/Anabaptist interpretation of Christ’s Great Commission I had made the center of my study, I read both with considerable anticipation. But neither the commentary on Matthew [Richard B. Gardner, The Believer’s Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, PA. and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 1991)], nor the one on Acts [Chalmer E. Faw, The Believer’s Church Bible Commentary: Acts (Scottdale, PA. and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 1993)], so much as hinted at the way in which the Anabaptists had interpreted the Great Commission through the baptismal passages in Acts, never mind linking that interpretation to Erasmus’s paraphrases of those two books of the Bible. If these two authors neither saw the interpretation nor traced it to Erasmus, it is probably safe to surmise that no one else has done so either. This should not be as surprising as it might at first appear to be since no one—aside from the sixteenth-century Anabaptists—picked it up from Erasmus. It was unknown before Erasmus and has remained so after him to the present day. Even Mennonites and the adherents of other believer’s churches have forgotten about it [or never knew]. The above two commentaries attest to the latter fact. (ix, emphasis added)

Friesen does point in the Epilogue to a certain hopefulness:

Have times changed? Could this ideal of Erasmus—implemented by the Anabaptists—be realized in the twenty-first century? Were Erasmus—and the Anabaptists—really five, not just four, centuries ahead of their time? The answer we give to this question, too, may depend upon our perspective. (129–130, emphasis added)

I add: And it would help to become better students of 16th-century history (specifically of Esrasmus’ significant role of influence on the early AT), and of worldwide Church History. If so, perhaps no such book as Becker’s should have been written? Put differently: It may help Mennonites to be proud of their “exclusively right” AT, but it is historically distorted, and sets back2 AT participation in worldwide church ecumenism.

Esther and I are church exclusivity “inoculees.” (I think I just made up that word.) . . . We both walked away from the PB Tradition: well inoculated as said against ever again buying into that kind of religious exclusivity . . . — WN
In fairness though, another study specifically focuses on Erasmus and Balthasar Hübmaier: Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Influence upon Anabaptism: The Case of Balthasar Hübmaier, by Darren T. Williamson, PhD thesis, 2005.  Hübmaier was declared a Doctor in Theology on September 29, 1512, and upon his conversion to Anabaptism in 1525, he quickly became one of the main leaders. In the “Abstract,” we read:

Erasmus was not an Anabaptist, nor was he responsible for Anabaptism, but the evidence highlights the potentially radical ramifications of his biblical exegesis and raises again the issue of reception as important to a full appreciation of his legacy. Recourse to Erasmus’ exegesis could illumine other aspects of Hübmaier’s thought and help explain elements of Anabaptism. (iv, emphasis added.)

But he cautions regarding Friesen’s book as well:

Studies on Erasmus on Anabaptism, therefore, should avoid Friesen’s approach to the topic. As Hübmaier’s case suggests, Erasmus’ interpretation of the Great Commission found its way into Anabaptist thought, but Friesen’s thesis went far beyond that simple statement and appeared to claim that Erasmian influence was the primary factor in the emergence of Anabaptism. To his credit, Friesen correctly pointed scholars to the importance of the Great Commission and Erasmus’ interpretation of it, but he attempted to prove too much from the limited evidence and in the process alienated otherwise sympathetic readers.446 (See for example, Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission, 65-68 where he argues the Erasmian interpretation holds together all the ”true” Anabaptists, effectively becoming a common origin for the entire movement.) (229.)

The point still is this: there were multiple influences on the intellectual/spiritual origins of Anabaptism. It was not just a spontaneous eruption of radicality/”true” spirituality. Williamson writes:

Understanding Erasmus as one of the intellectual influences for Balthasar Hübmaier, and by extension Anabaptism, corresponds well with one of the current trends in Erasmus scholarship to examine Erasmus’ legacy in ways that attends to his sixteenth-century reception. (230.)

Silvana Seidel Menchi, has justified Williams’ 3 label of Erasmus as “patron of evangelicals in Spain and radicals everywhere.”447 Her seminal study of the use of Erasmus by the Italian Protestants highlighted the ways in which Erasmus’ writings were received as patently hostile to the Roman Church’s dogmas and candidly supportive of Luther. For example, far from a harmless spiritual tract focused on internal religion, in Italy Erasmus’ Enchiridion was viewed as so dangerous to orthodoxy that three of the five vernacular editions were completely destroyed. (230, emphasis added.)

From a distance and in light of his entire corpus Erasmus may appear to be an advocate of moderate religious reform, but Hübmaier serves as another example of how at least some of his contemporary readers understood him otherwise, and that legacy also warrants serious consideration. (231.)

In other words, the reception of Erasmus’ writings by the Anabaptists–despite his being an “advocate of [only] moderate religious reform”–did at minimum have a deep-seated impact on “The Radical Reformation.” And I’m not convinced Williamson has made an airtight case in challenging Friesen. A lot of imaginative interpretation is at play in both.

Bottom Line: To me, Becker’s book and wide dissemination/use in Mennonite circles participate in a similar ethos (albeit with very different content) of AT fundamentalism to that of my own fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren roots.

5.NOTE: What follows is against the backdrop of Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia’s (MCCBC) End Abuse Programs that my wife Esther and I for years have been involved in.

I conclude with an interesting observation: I have yet to read one woman – assaulted sexually or not — who writes in defense of protecting Yoder’s “positive” theological legacy!. . . — WN

In some ways, the above is all preliminary to explaining why I shared above about the AT and John Howard Yoder’s massive sexual assaults against (the consensus count) as many as 100 women.

During an Inter-Term course at Regent College in 1975 (I studied there initially from 1974-76), taught by Clark Pinnock, and called “The Politics of Jesus,” and that publication the assigned reading (see below), I underwent two conversions:

  1. Christian faith also had to do with the socio-political realities of life;
  2. How we do the social/political is the nonviolent way of the Cross.

So obviously, learning of Yoder’s horrific sexual aggression/assaults (and later Vanier’s), was grand betrayal. Central to Restorative Justice is of course healing for victims. That Yoder was not only oblivious of this, but created dozens of victims, is beyond “horrific” even, and participates in a realm of flagrantly doing evil. While of course not literal, the words of Matthew 18 ring true of Yoder and Vanier:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!

I shall now quote from this post: “Prison, Sexual Assault, and Editing John Howard Yoder: One Man’s Story” by Andy Alexis-Baker 12-14-2017, subtitle: Reflections on his essay, and several further helpful resources:

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.

Please see, by Rachel Waltner Goossen|December 7, 2017: Historical Justice in an Era of #MeToo: Legacies of John Howard Yoder: Defanging the beast.

Her conclusion is stark:

We can practice historical justice. Creating awareness and safety for all in faith-based institutions, and chipping away at patriarchal structures, are everyone’s responsibility. Meanwhile, the musings of [Theologian Stanley] Hauerwas “trying to make sense” of his colleague’s theological scheming, when laid side-by-side with this collection of victims’ and families’ remembrances and resolve, seem largely irrelevant. (Emphasis/colour added)

Now please read on to find out why that conclusion:

Editor’s Note: On October 18, Stanley Hauerwas published a theologically framed column responding to historian Rachel Waltner Goossen’s 2015 Mennonite Quarterly Review article “‘Defanging the Beast'” (see Resources below). Professor Goossen’s scholarship documented and analyzed the failures of academics and church colleagues to confront the sexual abuse of women by Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder (December 29, 1927 – December 30, 1997). Sightings invited Professor Goossen to write a response to Hauerwas, in light of both the upcoming twentieth anniversary of Yoder’s death and ninetieth anniversary of his birth, and the continuing wave of sexual abuse stories in the news.

The surge of reporting about sexual harassment in politics, media, and entertainment is both liberating and harrowing for those who identify as “me too” victims and survivors. Spotlights that had focused on abusive priests, professors, theologians, and religious institutions’ cover-ups—the stuff of the John Howard Yoder saga—are now shining brightly. And they’re reaching into more corners, as new voices challenge male prerogative, power, and humiliating behaviors in corporate life, journalism, and other workaday settings.

All this focus on sexual harassment and assault is jolting. It’s also illuminating.

In the midst of this, Stanley Hauerwas’s recent explanation of his efforts more than two decades ago to urge restoration of Yoder’s reputation is strangely discordant. Hauerwas’s handwringing is confessional: “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 truth, I probably did not want to know what was going on.”

Some of Yoder’s colleagues, including a few Mennonites, were sufficiently disturbed in the early 1990s by reports of his sexual aggressions that they ceased referencing his writings. Yet even now Hauerwas commends these works as canonical in Christian nonviolence and ethics, advising that we not let what Yoder “taught us” and “how we think theologically to be lost.”

Such misplaced focus—on Yoder’s intellect and renown—is precisely the kind of dynamic that contributed to making this abuse so horrific. After grooming, targeting, and sexually exploiting an estimated 100 or more women, Yoder was largely unrepentant. His flagrancy was amplified by his theologizing about it, perpetrating sexual violence while preaching nonviolence.

NOTE: What follows is against the backdrop of Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia’s (MCCBC) End Abuse Programs that my wife Esther and I for years have been involved in. — WN
The most significant tragedy is that Yoder harmed scores of women, as people of all genders and ages have suffered under similar figures. Institutionally enshrined power let these figures get away with it. Even as Yoder’s church sought to bring him to accountability, no denominational representative was appointed consistently to support victims, though substantial time and energy were focused on Yoder.

As a result, fewer women became Mennonite theologians or pursued ministerial positions. Hauerwas’s focus on salvaging Yoder’s theology is blind to the theological possibilities never brought to fruition by aspiring women who were driven away from seminary or other church leadership paths. Victim-blaming, coupled with deference to Yoder’s privilege and power, contributed to the silencing of those already marginalized in a faith tradition dominated by male leaders.

After the publication in 2015 of my article ‘Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse’, which described Mennonite and Catholic institutional failures to stop Yoder’s theological “experiment,” a friend wrote to me about her traumatic experiences as a young adult volunteer in a Catholic diocese: “Many people may feel these are ‘dead’ stories as those involved can no longer be brought to justice; however, I believe in historical justice as well as criminal justice.” She added: “I am literally shaking inside as I type this.”

What might “historical justice” mean for survivors of sexual abuse?

In the past two years, among the outpouring of letters and notes I received in response to my article, less than a half-dozen were congruent with Hauerwas’s concerns. Many people who wrote were survivors of sexual abuse, or their loved ones. For nearly all of these writers, the Yoder chronicle was disconcertingly familiar because of sexual abuse perpetrated by other credentialed clergy and academic mentors: Anglican, Evangelical Covenant, Mennonite, Catholic, in the 1980s, ‘90s, and into the twenty-first century. Details varied: some victims were seminarians who had trusted a gifted professor, others were children targeted by pedophiles in church settings.

Of course, these letters aren’t about Yoder. But they are all the more relevant for their #MeToo sensibility. The writers correctly identified Yoder’s legacy of abuse as symptomatic of a much larger problem in churches, the academy, and beyond. One correspondent, whose childhood friends were groomed and harmed by a pastor, decried church bodies’ lack of transparency: “Information simply isn’t known, has been lost, covered up, and so on. What I wanted to know is: how did this happen? Detailed knowledge of the evil processes, the ‘how,’ will help us see its red flags in the future. Blaming the bad individual, and then moving on as if all other hands are clean and it will surely never happen again, is totally unhelpful.”

Please also see, by the same author, Aug 8, 2016: Mennonite Bodies, Sexual Ethics: Women Challenge John Howard Yoder. We read:

For several decades, through the 1970s and 1980s, Yoder approached women with sexual invitations and intimidating behavior at the seminary, at academic and church conferences, and in homes, cars, and gathering places across the U.S., Canada, and a host of international settings. The women’s experiences varied widely. While each was acquainted with Yoder in some way, most of these women were not known to one another nor aware of Yoder’s sexual aggressiveness toward others. (One woman, married and much younger than Yoder, whom he surprised in the mid1970s with sexualized physical touching and who reacted with instant rebuke, later remembered the incident as deeply troubling: “It messes with the mind. I wondered, am I special to him? Is he lonely?”10 (“Maureen” (pseudonym), interview with author, 11 July 2014.)

Newly accessible archival sources have shed light on the ineffective institutional processes devised in response to reports of misconduct. For two decades, Mennonite administrators, committees, and task forces responded—mostly informally—to women who sent letters of complaint, phoned, or appeared in person. No one called in law enforcement, no legal charges were brought, and although several parties consulted attorneys, no lawsuits were filed.19 (To date, University of Notre Dame officials have refused to comment publicly on their institution’s involvement. Soli Salgado, “Yoder Case Extends to Notre Dame,” National Catholic Reporter (June 19-July 2, 2015): 15.)

As the peace scholar and activist Lisa Schirch argues, during the last several decades of the twentieth century. . .

[P]atriarchal structures did not protect women in the church. Since Yoder assaulted many of his female students and rising female church leaders, his actions directly impacted a generation of women’s leadership. The continuing absence of women in so many centers of pacifist theology in Mennonite institutions today means that new generations of pacifist theologians may also not…take into consideration the privilege and entitlements that males enjoy.36 (ch, “To the Next Generation,” 4 March 2015, http://www. ourstoriesuntold.com/to-the-next-generation-of-pacifist-theologians/.)

Some of Yoder’s colleagues, including a few Mennonites, were sufficiently disturbed in the early 1990s by reports of his sexual aggressions that they ceased referencing his writings. Yet even now [Theologian Stanley] Hauerwas commends these works as canonical in Christian nonviolence and ethics, advising that we not let what Yoder “taught us” and “how we think theologically to be lost.” Rachel Waltner Goossen

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.

Yoder was largely unrepentant. His flagrancy was amplified by his theologizing about it, perpetrating sexual violence while preaching nonviolence. Rachel Waltner Goossen
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–or with little–confrontation by their victims, and therefore accountability. They also died, so far to our understanding, mired in unrepentance.

How tragic their legacy is, 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.

Even as Yoder’s church sought to bring him to accountability, no denominational representative was appointed consistently to support victims, though substantial time and energy were focused on Yoder. Rachel Waltner Goossen

The article 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)?: In light of Yoder’s victims: 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? We of course all have not only clay feet, but many of us have also deeply sin-mired feet in the course of a lifetime. And while I learned the nonviolent way of the cross from Yoder (a life-changing conversion for me), I find that is swamped by the agonizing voices of his multiple victims. In short: I’m done with Yoder.

Please note this is not because I claim to be “without sin” as Jesus challenged the would-be executioners of a woman caught in the act of adultery in John 11.  It does not deny that “there, but for the grace of God go I.” It is also not contrary to the point of the wheat and tares in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13:24 – 30; 36 to 43)–that their distinguishing one from another is not a human task, but left to the angels at the end of the age. . . Yoder’s and Vanier’s creation of multiple victims are millstones-hung-around-necks-worthy doers of profound harm against innocent victims, and register in a very different category of evil.

Stanley Hauerwas wrote this about Yoder’s sexual abuse, In defence of “our respectable culture”: Trying to make sense of John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse, saying:

“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,” and, “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.”

What?!: “because I owe it to him.” I was shocked in fact to read in Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Song: A Theological Memoir–his autobiography–that he still considers Yoder to be the singularly pivotal New Testament scholar of the 20th century! Gasp!. . .

See an interview with Hauerwas about this below, and draw your own conclusions–but please filter your comclusions through at least 100 deeply traumatized victims!:

See what Randall Rauser writes, February 24, 2024 in John Howard Yoder was a serial sexual predator. Stop studying him as a wise Christian ethicist:

Here’s the problem: twenty years after Yoder’s death, Hauerwas still accepts at face value and thus promotes Yoder’s rationalization that he had developed a genuine novel eschatological and ethical “theory” borne of his reading of the New Testament. And thus, Hauerwas implies that Yoder’s sexual and spiritual abuse of dozens of women was simply the outworking of his admittedly errant “theory”.

I have restrained myself from making any Nazi analogies in this article, but I can restrain myself no longer. Imagine if someone said that the Nazi physician Josef Mengele “stupidly had a theory” about twins which was “crazy” and “just wrong.” We would immediately recognize that despite the strong disagreement with Mengele, this framing would already have conceded far too much by tacitly conceding that there was some element of legitimate (though misguided) theorization undergirding his “tests” on twins. On the contrary, we unequivocally denounce Mengele’s pathetic attempt to rationalize crimes against humanity with a theoretical overlay.

Obviously, I’m not saying that Yoder is morally equivalent to Mengele. But I am saying that from a conceptual standpoint his attempt to dress up his systemic sexual and spiritual abuse of women with the guise of an ethical and theological extraplolation of eschatological New Testament exegesis is equally absurd. Thus, granting Yoder’s framing of his morally abhorrent actions with a (misguided) theological and ethical framework, as Hauerwas does here, simply extends the work of the Yoder apologist.

To sum up, Hauerwas begins in 1998 by not even acknowledging Yoder’s predatory history, instead lauding the man as something approximating a saint. Twelve years later he will acknowledge “inappropriate relationships” though he perversely suggests that healing from the “inappropriateness” may have been spurred by Yoder’s own theological legacy of pacifism. And even in 2017, Hauerwas is still presenting Yoder’s serial sexual predation as a misguided “theory” borne of his reading of the New Testament.

In my view, that pattern of covering up and misrepreseting Yoder’s predatory history is a natural outworking of Hauerwas’ commitment to Yoder’s theological and ethical legacy as a continued dialogue partner and source of theological and ethical formation. The two cannot be separated. If you continue to defend Yoder’s theological and ethical work as an important source of study for theological and ethical formation, I believe you will thereby be predisosed to misrepresent the heinousness of his actions in a manner that extends the legacy of his abuse.

John Howard Yoder was a serial sexual predator. So please, stop studying him as a wise Christian ethicist. (Emphasis added)

Arguably, therefore: Patriarchy is a Foundational Peace Issue! Should this or the like not be a slogan used in teaching peace theology?   . . . — WN
What?! to Hauerwas! Yoder “has taught us about how we should [NOT] and can[NOT] live as Christians and how we [CANNOT] think theologically.” That is tragically his singular legacy.

I was hired to do Restorative Justice work for MCCC by the Executive Director at the time. It was later found out, after his retirement from MCCC, that he had sexually abused his daughter over a significant period of time. Post-retirement, he was about to step into a senior pastor role at a Mennonite Church, when his daughter challenged the church to not proceed. Then the secret was finally out, and he never took up that position. There was significant controversial assertion, especially from some in light of Restorative Justice understandings (not I!), that since he had asked forgiveness of the daughter, had paid for her counselling, etc., that surely there was a path of redemption for him  . . . There always is such a path. That’s between him and God. . .

What was clear: the heinousness of the sexual assault of his daughter precluded his ever occupying a place of trust in any church ministry. And sadly too, all we could ever learn from him was a cautionary tale: there but for the grace of God go I. His victim firmly blocked that path to post-abuse ministry. So with Yoder. Victims have resolutely closed the door to any theological rehabilitation of Yoder. At least the former MCCC ED had admitted guilt in the repeated sexual abuse of his daughter. Yoder never did even that. . .

Please also read: Not Making Sense: Why Stanley Hauerwas’s Response to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark, by Hilary Scarsella, . We read:

Hilary Scarsella [was] a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University [at time of writing], now PhD, researching the intersection of theology, gender, violence and psychological trauma. She directs the network Our Stories Untold.

[See this update: SAFE CHURCH: How Hilary Scarsella Calls the Church to End Sexual Violence, June 13, 2019, Updated December 13, 2023, by Miriam Spies].

Scarsella writes:

Moved to speech, on one hand, by the testimony of those harassed and assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, and on the other, by indignation at the pervasively systemic cultural and institutional dynamics that enabled Weinstein’s violent behaviour to continue unchecked for so long, the voices of people who have survived abuses like Weinstein’s and Yoder’s rang in public discourse at a volume that at least momentarily sparked a collective consciousness that these voices regularly surround us in overwhelming numbers and are, most of the time, silenced.

That silencing often happens through explicitly hostile disdain for people who report harassment and abuse. It is also enforced, however, through subtle logics and forms of rhetoric that are less easily recognized.

To sum up, Hauerwas begins in 1998 by not even acknowledging Yoder’s predatory history, instead lauding the man as something approximating a saint.Randall Rauser

While Hauerwas’s article makes certain explicit claims in support of sexual violence survivors and in condemnation of Yoder’s abusive behaviour, and while these doubtless have some value, it simultaneously reproduces logics and rhetoric that silence and dismiss those same survivors in order to preserve modes of thought and relationship dear to the writer, that are threatened by the figure of the sexually abused. In so doing, what might be read as Hauerwas’s attempt to move himself into alliance with sexual violence survivors is, at the very least, compromised.

I must say at the outset that this response to Hauerwas’s article is only in part about Hauerwas. The reason I write has less to do with the individual Stanley Hauerwas and more to do with the fact that the problematic aspects of Hauerwas’s article are representative of logics and rhetoric that muddy reflection on sexual violence broadly. Because Hauerwas’s voice carries weight in the academy and the Christian church, it is necessary to name and address the ways his commentary on Yoder’s abusive behaviour works against the interests of those harmed by Yoder and many harmed by sexual violence generally.

That is the goal of this response: to read Hauerwas’s article in a way that makes visible myriad forms of logic and rhetoric that perpetuate systems of sexual violence and, in so doing, risk enflaming the wounds of sexual violence survivors. My hope is that by using Hauerwas’s article to practice careful reading of logics and rhetoric that exacerbate sexual violence, we will get better at catching ourselves and others when we observe or participate in them.

Let me also state two other factors that inform this response to Hauerwas.

First, I am Mennonite. I am of the community – the local, geographic community, as well as the broader community of faith – that absorbed the multidimensional harm of Yoder’s predatory behaviour most directly.

Second, I am the Director of Theological Integrity for Into Account, an organization that offers support, advocacy, strategy and resources to survivors of sexual violence seeking to hold perpetrators and enablers of sexual harm in religious settings accountable. Our roots are in the Mennonite community, and Mennonite survivors of sexual violence – including some who were abused by Yoder – make up the majority of those with whom we partner and to whom we are accountable.

This is profoundly disturbing stuff. . . But let’s not turn away!. . .

As a result, fewer women became Mennonite theologians or pursued ministerial positions. [Theologian Stanley] Hauerwas’s focus on salvaging Yoder’s theology is blind to the theological possibilities never brought to fruition by aspiring women who were driven away from seminary or other church leadership paths. Victim-blaming, coupled with deference to Yoder’s privilege and power, contributed to the silencing of those already marginalized in a faith tradition dominated by male leaders. Rachel Waltner Goossen

Now thanks to our friend Elsie Goerzen4 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.

Detailed knowledge of the evil processes, the ‘how,’ will help us see its red flags in the future. Blaming the bad individual, and then moving on as if all other hands are clean and it will surely never happen again, is totally unhelpful. Rachel Waltner Goossen

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 unrepentant. Should one not therefore wonder if he has anything to say to the Church? (Except as cautionary tale.) It is now argued at least that Yoder’s peace theology is tainted by his sexualized ethics in the very warp and woof of his writings.

The two cannot be separated. If you continue to defend Yoder’s theological and ethical work as an important source of study for theological and ethical formation, I believe you will thereby be predisosed to misrepresent the heinousness of his actions in a manner that extends the legacy of his abuse. Randall Rauser
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 . . . (Use of such for academic research could be one exception of possible others.)

Theological (self-)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.

And even in 2017, Hauerwas is still presenting Yoder’s serial sexual predation as a misguided “theory” borne of his reading of the New Testament.Randall Rauser

Yoder’s sexual ethics and activities are clearly 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.5

The words Villegas uses, “objection,” and in the footnote cites, “challenged,” are still not enough! Patriarchy of this kind is by definition unadulterated violence. And therefore, there is no theological place for such patriarchy in any way, shape or form. It must be utterly rejected, like “violence,” which of course it fundamentally is!

I’m not saying that Yoder is morally equivalent to Mengele. But I am saying that from a conceptual standpoint his attempt to dress up his systemic sexual and spiritual abuse of women with the guise of an ethical and theological extraplolation of eschatological New Testament exegesis is equally absurd. Thus, granting Yoder’s framing of his morally abhorrent actions with a (misguided) theological and ethical framework, as Hauerwas does here, simply extends the work of the Yoder apologist.Randall Rauser
Please see further on this Canadian Mennonite scholar, poet, author, pastor, and sexual abuse worker, Carol Penner‘s 1999 “MENNONITE SILENCES AND FEMINIST VOICES: PEACE THEOLOGY AND VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.” She writes in the Abstract:

The purpose of this thesis is to show that contemporary North American Mennonite theology conveys a gendered message which perpetuates the conditions leading to violence against women. Mennonite theology has been largely silent on the issue of woman abuse. Some recent studies suggest, however, that abuse is as prevalent in Mennonite homes as in the general Canadian population. While this silence is not unique among denominational theologies, it is ironic considering the historical Mennonite belief in peace and nonvioience.

While the subject of abuse has rarely been specifically addressed by theologians, Mennonite theology has carried an implicit message about how women should react to situations of violence. For generations women have applied the theology they have been taught to their own particular contexts. It is the purpose of this thesis to attempt to articulate the content of Mennonite theological “silences” around the context of violence against women.

This thesis examines a number of different twentieth century North American Mennonite sources through the lens of three theological concepts: suffering, obedience and forgiveness. The sources examined are as follows: the major works of John Howard Yoder and Guy Hershberger, Mennonite statements on peace, hymnbooks, and devotional writings by Katie Funk Wibe and Helen Good Brenemann. Many of these theolgical sources convey a theological message which is oppressive to women who are experiencing violence. The thesis concludes with a survey of feminist writings on the topic of woman abuse. Using the same lens of suffering, obedience and forgiveness, new theological approaches are reviewed. The thesis ends with a discussion about the shape of a Mennonite feminist peace theology. (Emphasis added)

[Hauerwas’ article] simultaneously reproduces logics and rhetoric that silence and dismiss those same survivors in order to preserve modes of thought and relationship dear to the writer, that are threatened by the figure of the sexually abused. In so doing, what might be read as Hauerwas’s attempt to move himself into alliance with sexual violence survivors is, at the very least, compromised. Hilary Scarsella

In Chapter VI, “Feminist Theologians,” we read:

Elisabeth  Schiissler Fiorenza writes, “As long as Christian theology and pastoral practice do not publicly repent their collusion in sexual, domestic, and political violence against women and children, the victims of such violence are forced to choose between remaining a victim and remaining a Christian.”1 (133-34.)

Feminist theologians in the Mennonite tradition echo both the critique of the theological tradition of suffering and the belief that while the concept of suffering has been used oppressively, it can be redeemed. Mary Anne Hildebrand writes this critique:

Through self-giving love and self-abnegation we are taught that our suffering is justified, that this is being kind and Christ-like, and that it will somehow redeem us. Faithfulness is measured in terms of how well we are able to put up with our oppression and victimization. The glorification of suffering, servanthood, and the loving- your-enemy model of turning the other cheek have helped to acculturate women to abuse. Denying our right to self-determination, giving up creative efforts for the sake of others, and general female shame have made women the victims of abuse and oppression. These injustices must be named and dealt with.22 (139-40)

John Howard Yoder was a serial sexual predator. So please, stop studying him as a wise Christian ethicist.Randall Rauser
The question of how Yoder could have wielded such power over victims beyond the physical is addressed in this 2015 essay by Jamie Pitts, assistant professor of Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and is co-editor of Anabaptist Witness.: “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics.” The Abstract says this:

This essay explores how John Howard Yoder’s victims and others could have perceived his abusive sexual politics as a legitimate function of his ministry. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “misrecognition” is used to show how cultural symbols can distract attention from oppressive domination. Yoder’s writings on singleness and his comments to his victims are reviewed in order to suggest that their effectiveness derived from his ability to wield the symbols of positional authority, technical prowess, and socio-political radicalness. Deployment of these symbols would have provided compelling evidence of the legitimacy of his sexual politics. Understanding how Yoder’s persuasion worked helps us to avoid its repetition. In doing so it contributes to a feminist “re-visioning” of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. (156.)

The reason I write has less to do with the individual Stanley Hauerwas and more to do with the fact that the problematic aspects of Hauerwas’s article are representative of logics and rhetoric that muddy reflection on sexual violence broadly. Because Hauerwas’s voice carries weight in the academy and the Christian church, it is necessary to name and address the ways his commentary on Yoder’s abusive behaviour works against the interests of those harmed by Yoder and many harmed by sexual violence generally.Hilary Scarsella

We read further:

Twenty years after [Dorothy] Yoder Nyce‘s initial re-vision casting, few male Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians have allowed our vision to be significantly re-visioned by feminism.11 (Examples of male Mennonite theologians interacting with feminism include Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, History, Constructive (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), 80-84; Ben C. Ollenburger, “Is God the Friend of Slaves and Wives?,” in Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, ed. Gayle Gerber Koontz and Willard Swartley (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1987), 97-112; and Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press Press, 1983), 152-191.) John Howard Yoder, the primary inheritor of [Harold] Bender’s vision,12 (Although it is true that Yoder distanced himself from Bender, it was because he saw the latter’s institution-building as a betrayal of the Anabaptist vision. See Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in Consultation on Anabaptist Mennonite Theology, ed. A. J. Klassen (Fresno, Calif.: The Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970), 1-46; Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 450-471.) has remained the public face of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology during that time. His relationship to feminism is problematic, to say the least. Until recently, when new attention to the non-radicalness of Yoder’s personal life has forced the issue, male scholars of Yoder’s work, such as myself, have mostly avoided explicit, sustained reflection on feminist perspectives and concerns.13 (See the comments on Yoder scholarship by Ruth E. Krall, The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays (N.p.: Enduring Space, 2013), 87, 101.) Our vision did not include Yoder Nyce’s judgment of Mennonite men, and Mennonite women and the whole church have suffered as a result. Our vision must be re-visioned. (156-57.)

My hope is that by using Hauerwas’s article to practice careful reading of logics and rhetoric that exacerbate sexual violence, we will get better at catching ourselves and others when we observe or participate in them.Hilary Scarsella
In formal terms, Yoder Nyce’s re-vision is as pragmatic as Bender’s “Vision”: they both understand vision as a mode of simultaneous seeing and doing. For Bender, the original Anabaptists’ practical attempts to construct Christ’s kingdom on earth were internal to their discerning the shape of that kingdom in Scripture and through Spirit. Seeing and doing were two sides of the same coin, of the same vision. Similarly, for Yoder Nyce, Anabaptist re-vision sees patriarchy, judges it, and works to overcome it in the same motion. What feminist re-vision sees that Bender’s vision does not, according to Yoder Nyce, is how that vision’s acceptance of patriarchy tears asunder the church, and especially women in the church. The patriarchal church is a fractured, fragmenting church. Re-vision is needed to make it whole. (157.)

Arguably therefore: Patriarchy is a Foundational Peace Issue! Should this or the like not be a slogan 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, by Darryl W. Stephens (Author), Elizabeth Soto Albrecht (Editor) Of it:

Bold, faithful, challenging — this volume uncovers the social and political implications of the gospel message by looking at Anabaptist theology and practice from a female perspective. The contributors approach the gospel from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, liberating the radical political ethic of Jesus Christ from patriarchal distortions and demonstrating that gender justice and peace theology are inseparable. Beautifully illustrated with pen drawings, Liberating the Politics of Jesus recognizes the authority of women to interpret and reconstruct the peace church tradition on issues such as subordination, suffering, atonement, the nature of church, leadership, and discipleship. The contributors confront difficult topics head-on, such as the power structures in South Africa, armed conflict in Colombia, and the sexual violence of John Howard Yoder. The result is a renewed Anabaptist peace theology with the potential to transform the work of theology and ministry in all Christian traditions.

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. [Let’s hope it does for all us males!]

Further, there is this publication: Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, by Laura Schmidt Roberts (Author), Paul Martens (Editor), Myron A. Penner (Editor) (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.

While still under the shadow of decades of trauma, a recontexualized conversation about Anabaptist theology and identity emerges in this volume that is ecumenically engaged, philosophically astute, psychologically attuned, and resolutely vulnerable. The volume offers a Trinitarian and Christological framework that holds together the importance of Scripture, tradition, and the lived experience of the Christian community, as the contributors examine a wide variety of issues such as Mennonite feminism, Anabaptist queer theology, and Mennonite theological methods. These essays interrogate the operations of power, violence, exclusion, and privilege in methodology in this changed context, offering self-critical constructive alternatives for articulating Anabaptist theology and identity. (Emphasis added)

Moved to speech, on one hand, by the testimony of those harassed and assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, and on the other, by indignation at the pervasively systemic cultural and institutional dynamics that enabled Weinstein’s violent behaviour to continue unchecked for so long, the voices of people who have survived abuses like Weinstein’s and Yoder’s rang in public discourse at a volume that at least momentarily sparked a collective consciousness that these voices regularly surround us in overwhelming numbers and are, most of the time, silenced.Hilary Scarsella

In MENNONITE BODIES, SEXUAL ETHICS: WOMEN CHALLENGE JOHN HOWARD YODER, by  | Aug 8, 2016, written by Rachel Waltner Goossen, we read the introductiry blurb:

Many readers of Our Stories Untold are likely familiar with aspects of the long, troubling history — dating to the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s — of theologian John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse of women, and of myriad failures among Mennonite institutions to adequately address it.  Here, Rachel Waltner Goossen, professor of history at Washburn University, examines the critical contributions of whistleblowers Ruth Krall, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, and others in bringing the Yoder case into public view.Originally published in Journal of Mennonite Studies (2016).

Then:

What might we learn from the experiences of the women who resisted Yoder’s abuse during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s? What were personal, professional, and other consequences for whistleblowers who objected to his efforts to groom and use them as objects of an ill-conceived theological “experiment”? An easier task, perhaps, is to focus on the enigmatic Yoder, speculating on why he did what he did, but doing so elides the responses his sexual abuse provoked from women and their allies who pushed back.6 How did some Mennonite women challenge Yoder, despite considerable power differentials? And when victim-blaming occurred, how did the body politic of Mennonite theology and church leadership fare? Despite the emotional, psychological, and spiritual turmoil engendered by Yoder’s abuse, evidence drawn from archival and oral history sources suggests that not all resistant voices fell on deaf ears. Some of the women who successfully challenged Yoder in the last decades of the twentieth century remained lifelong participants—and leaders—in Mennonite churches and agencies. During that same period, other women moved on, contributing theological, ministerial, teaching, and administrative abilities in settings beyond Mennonite institutional life.7

May these tragic stories not be lost, and hopefully through the divine alchemy of grace, become rallying cries for revolutionary change, such as this American evangelical book (recommended by a Mennonite pastor of the MCCBC End Abuse Advisory Group), We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, Mary Demuth (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2019).

In “Mennonite Peace Theology and Violence against Women,” by Kimberly L. Penner,8 we read:

In Women’s Bodies as Battlefields: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women, theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite claims that Mennonite peace theology—the sectarian and idealist pacifism of the Mennonite church—perpetuates violence against women by encouraging a “theology of obedience (and especially submission of women), following the example of the sacrificial love of Christ. “9 This is the case, she argues, because the theology of obedience fails to address the nature of power and violence as gendered and sexualized, and thus overlooks the importance of women’ s agency and the role that choice plays in differentiating between unjust suffering (suffering that is not chosen and perpetuates relationships of domination and subordination) and suffering in the way of Christ (suffering in solidarity with others as a conscious choice and a sign of God’s love as shared power).10 She uses John Howard Yoder ‘ s sexual abuses as a primary example of how the theology she criticizes “facilitate[s] violence against women and prevent[s] an appropriate institutional response.”11

In this paper I consider both Thistlethwaite’s claim that Mennonite peace theology perpetuates violence against women and her suggestions for improvement. I begin with a conversation about power and then consider her assertion that Mennonites must reclaim the significance of the physical body for peace theology. Finally, I explore her thoughts on desire and violence, especially her argument that Mennonite peace theology also perpetuates violence against women by upholding a patriarchal status quo that eroticizes women (demonstrated by the Yoder case). I respond to her call for an alternative understanding of desire in the form of “ erotic peacemaking, “ that is, “a reconstruction of the erotic as a measure of our individual societal capacity to actually desire justice and peace” which “attempt[s] to engage critical consciousness about the way gender, sex, and race privilege . . . [are] embedded in even the most creative attempts to reframe peacemaking in Western culture. “12 This is daunting work, and the brevity of this article does not allow for great detail, particularly as I construct my own adaptation of erotic peacemaking. Nonetheless, I hope that existing articulations of Mennonite discipleship ethics can be transformed and can resist, as opposed to enabling, gendered and sexualized violence within and outside the community of faith, given its commitment to peace, and I also hope that this article makes a small contribution in that direction. Thistlethwaite argues that peace theology undergirds patriarchy when it does not systematically address the nature of power. For example, she claims that Yoder’ s articulation of peace theology as a radical response to Christian discipleship (which reflects the discipleship theology of many Mennonites) does not systematically address the nature of power as potentially dominating and subordinating in gendered and sexualized relationships, especially within the church. This renders the theology and its adherents vulnerable to abuse. She cites an emphasis on “person-to-person” conflict resolution in Yoder’ s work—a reference to Matthew 18:15-20 (Jesus’ instructions on church discipline)—as notably risky. The problem, she contends, is there is little to no regard for power inequalities between victim and offender, which makes the resolution process unsafe for victims.13 I agree with Thistlethwaite.

The dangers of privacy and strict adherence to the principle of the Matthew passage are especially real for survivors of sexual abuse and gender- based violence. Evidence shows that survivors are vulnerable to ongoing abuse, manipulation, and trauma when forced into an ongoing relationship with their abuser(s).

I conclude with an interesting observation: I have yet to read one woman — assaulted sexually or not — who writes in defence of protecting Yoder’s “positive” theological legacy!. . .

Concluding Questions:

1. Should LMF, all Mennonite Church congregations, and beyond, consider doing a series, or (a) weekend retreat(s) inviting the “complicated questions” such as above?

2. Would not one or more of the authors/contributors to the above books be ideal presenters?

3. Are contemporary Mennonites at LMF (and everywhere) willing to embark upon a journey to consider undertaking revisions of such centuries-old narratives? Or are we like the Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes: confronted with this “naked” truth, turning a blind eye, we go on with the charade parade in all its nakedness–an ironic variation on Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faithnamely, “The Anabaptist Tradition Exposed?” Might in that case a book need to be written, in light of the above: The Blind Eye Anabaptist. . .?

4. What kind of pushback/condemnation might happen in MCBC/MCC and wider church circles, were such an inquiry undertaken?

5. Are we willing to take that unknown risk?

6. Sojourners Magazine used to run a heading: “Idols Closer to Home”. . . Is it so?

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Footnotes:
  1. I actually edited, wrote a Foreword to, and published Ron Dart‘s Erasmus: Wild Bird. It is a very worthwhile read. The Introduction says why:

    There is a predictable tendency, when teaching the history of Western political philosophy, to cover the classical worthies such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas. Then, such moderns as Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Rousseau, Mill and tribe are walked onto front stage as embodying the liberal tribe. The next step on the theoretical trail is to touch down on trendy postmodern thinkers. And, so the tale unfolds from beginning to end.

    If much time is spent in doing political theology in the 16th century (most apt and pertinent in 2017, October 1517 being the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg), Luther and John Calvin are highlighted as forging the Protestant political way, Anabaptists-Mennonites the pacifist alternate to the magisterial tradition. It is somewhat troubling that political thinkers such as Thomas More, Erasmus and Richard Hooker are often omitted or marginalized in such an overview of Western political thought.

    This has led, to some degree, to the closing of the mind and a reducing of it to the smallest liberal circle turns. More and Erasmus were close friends and their vision of the common good and just peacemaking tracked a different trail from that of Machiavelli, Luther and Calvin. Hooker, of course, brings together the political vision of the Elizabethan consensus.

    But, it is to Erasmus that, although mostly studied as a Biblical scholar, we turn in this book. Erasmus was solidly committed to engaging the public sphere in a just, irenical and dovish manner. Such an idealistic vision came as both an affront to the Protestant Magisterial Reformers and Roman Catholics of a Tridentine persuasion. But, Erasmus was no absolute pacifist. He was very much the nimble, subtle and nuanced owl of his age, ever finding a thoughtful and navigating a thoughtful pathway between the pacifist doves and warlike hawks.[PLEASE NOTE: I question this statement in Volume 1 of a two-volume set, The Scholar-Gipsy: Thrownness, Memoricide & The Great Tradition, that I recently published on Amazon and Kindle, in honour of Ron Dart, whose articles are sprinkled here and there on my website.] Erasmus, at a more popular level, is known for Praise of FollyThe Colloquies and Adages.

    But, The Education of a Christian Prince raises the level of political thought to a higher pitch and place. Such general surveys of Erasmus’ political thinking as Erasmus and Our Struggle for Peace: Peace Protests(1950), The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet and Vives on HumanismWar, and Peace 1496-1535 (1962) andThe Politics of Erasmus (1978) make it abundantly clear how and why Erasmus understands the role of political thinking and action in a way that diverges from Luther-Calvin and Machiavelli-Hobbes and Locke.

    Why is Erasmus regularly ignored in the study of political philosophy? His vision still lingers on even though many who have affinities with his thinking know little about him. The fact that one of the most pre-eminent legal theorists of 17th century, Hugo Grotius, was shaped and informed by Erasmus, does need to be duly noted. Much of the work of the United Nations and international law is indebted to Grotius via Erasmus. Most forms of political realism find their leading opponent in Erasmus.

    So, why is Erasmus regularly ignored in the narrative of Western political philosophy? There is a variety of ways to answer such a question, and it is the hope of this book that by the end, the reasons for studying Erasmus will be amply clear. Erasmus was much too wise and judicious a political thinker to pit the state against society (the former often demonized, the latter often idealized). Erasmus realized, only too keenly and clearly, that state and society need to work together for the common good, each a check and balancing force to correct the aberrations and limitation of each other.

    Further, Kenneth Davis indicates in Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins. Herald Press, 1974:

    Erasmus had copious direct and indirect contact with many of the founding leaders of Anabaptism […] the Anabaptists can best be understood as, apart from their own creativity, a radicalization and Protestantization not of the Magisterial Reformation but of the lay-oriented, ascetic reformation of which Erasmus is the principal mediator. (292; quoted in Wikipedia: Erasmus.) []

  2. if religiously followed—and thankfully not in ongoing dialogues with Catholics, Jews, etc. by contemporary Mennonites, the ecumeniucal work of Mennonite Central Committee worldwide, etc., etc.[]
  3. Williams, George Hunston. The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. Kirksville, Mo:
    Sixteenth Century Publishers, 1992. Reprint, Kirksville, Mo: Truman State University Press, 2000.[]
  4. She founded and directed Mennonite Central Committee’s End Abuse Programs in British Columbia (MCCBC) from inception until her retirement in fall 2023.[]
  5. 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.[]
  6. Recent perspectives on Yoder’s sexualized behavior in light of his theological contributions include “Theologian in Contradiction: An Interview with Hans-Jürgen Goertz on John Howard Yoder’s Radical Pacifism,” trans. J. Alexander Sider and Jonathan R. Seiling, Conrad Grebel Review 33 (Fall 2015): 382-83, and Karen V. Guth, “Doing Justice to the Complex Legacy of John Howard Yoder: Restorative Justice Resources in Witness and Feminist Ethics, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 35 (Fall/Winter 2015): 119- 39.[]
  7. See, for example, Sharon Detweiler, “John Howard Yoder: My Untold Story after 36 Years of Silence, Our Stories Untold, 9 January 2015, http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/john-howard-yoder-my-untold-story-after- 36-years-of-silence-2/.[]
  8. Please see: Kimberly L. Penner: CURRICULUM VITAE, that includes extensive listings of her writings and presentations, etc.[]
  9. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Women’ s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 157.[]
  10. Ibid.[]
  11. Ibid. For a detailed account of the history of Yoder ‘ s sexual abuses, and institutional and ecclesial responses to them, see Rachel Waltner Goossen, “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’ s Sexual Abuse, “ Mennonite Quarterly Review 89, no. 1 (2015): 7-80. A collection and timeline of articles that outline the conversation and developments regarding the abuses is available on Mennonite Church USA’ s website: mennoniteusa.org/ menno-snapshots/john-howard-yoder- digest-recent-articles-about-sexual-abuse-and- discernment-2/.[]
  12. Thistlethwaite, Women’ s Bodies as Battlefield, 179.[]
  13. Ibid, 159.[]

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.