Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the Christian theologian who has influenced my thinking more than any other—John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s published writings, beginning with The Politics of Jesus down through the recently published posthumous collection, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking have provided the intellectual bases for my pacifism as well as many other of my core convictions. However, his legacy is seriously tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct. So I am left with a puzzle—how to reconcile the theology that has helped me so much with practices that seem repugnant and that surely contradict that powerful theology. Here is a kind of tribute I wrote shortly after Yoder’s death that only briefly touches on this problem. I have continued to reflect on these issues and want to share a bit of my more recent thinking here.
Yoder’s books were the main catalyst in my wife Kathleen and me first seeking Mennonites out back in the 1970s. His presence at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary is what took us to northern Indiana as students in 1980. And our experience at AMBS was the main reason we decided to become Mennonites. Now, these past 30 years have seen a lot of stresses in our relationship with the Mennonite world. Still, our joining up with Mennonites has and continues to define so much in our lives—and it’s hard to imagine that happening without our encounter with Yoder’s writing.
My interest in and valuing of the Yoder published corpus remains strong. I recently co-edited A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Cascade Books, 2010), a collection of Yoder’s fairly obscure writing that touch on epistemology. I also published an article on this theme of epistemology a number of years ago that is not in the book. I have introduced myself at theology conferences as a “Yoderian,” and I probably still would, depending on the context.
I did not have much of a personal relationship with Yoder. When we were at AMBS in 1980-1, I took two classes from him and stopped in his office a few times. I found him quite difficult to connect with on a personal level and gave up after those few efforts. We did reconnect a little when he visited Eastern Mennonite University in January 1997, we exchanged a few emails and we visited a bit at the American Academy of Religion meetings a couple months before he died. But I did not think of him as in any sense a friend.
I had been aware of the Yoder’s sexual harassment problems since the issues surfaced publicly with the Bethel conference in Spring 1992. It just happened that we spent that spring semester at AMBS, so we had a bit of a front row seat for a little of the drama. As I remember it now, a friend sent us the extraordinary series of investigative articles in the Elkhart Truth written by Tom Price when they came out that summer. These articles went into excruciating detail (for a “family newspaper”) about the allegations concerning Yoder’s misbehavior and were based on extensive interviews with numerous of the women who brought accusations against him. [Here is a link to these articles.]
I have never questioned the veracity of Price’s articles, and found much of what he wrote to ring true, though neither Kathleen nor I had gotten a whiff of this problem before spring 1992. Only recently did I meet and talk with one of the women Yoder hurt with his actions. The pain remains alive for her now after over thirty years.
So, both sides of the antinomy seem true to me: Yoder as a brilliant theologian whose published works stand as one of the greatest (probably for me, the greatest) collections of careful and insightful Christian theological construction there has ever been. And, Yoder a likely sexual predator who seriously hurt many women and in his practices utterly contradicted the best insights of his theology. How do I think of these two sides together?
The challenge I feel is to consider his published writings and ask if there are pointers there that might illumine his actions. If we didn’t know he was a serial sexual harasser, would we be able to find hints in his published theology that might make us suspect that he could be?
At this point, I just don’t see anything. Everything I have read of his (and I have read most of what he published), if one were to try to draw from it a sense of sexual ethics, would point in the opposite direction of his behavior (I would say this even about his infamous chapter in The Politics of Jesus on “revolutionary subordination”—I have written a bit about this chapter in a recent essay on Yoder’s reading of Paul and I am convinced that he does do what he claims to do [especially when we read that chapter in the context of the entire Politics book], which is present Paul as a thoroughgoing, though careful, liberationist fully compatible with sexual egalitarianism).
I think to present Yoder as a thoroughgoing problematic character, one would need actually to present evidence from his published writings to show how his theology is less than an exemplary expression of Jesus’ way of peace and the best of the Anabaptist tradition. If the entirety of the Yoder life and teaching is problematic, then there should be evidence in what now certainly stands as his most important legacy (his published writings) of how that problem pervades everything about him.
I have puzzled about this antinomy for nearly 20 years—ever since 1992—because Yoder’s writing has been so important to me and because I am so offended and troubled by his behavior. During that time I have actually deepened my appreciation for his theological achievement—and not lessened my offense at what he did.
Now, I have little sympathy with the approach that asserts that the misconduct situation was resolved with the “church discipline” process, that we should all just move on, and that those Yoder hurt (and everyone else) should now simply forgive him. My impression has always been that that process was awkwardly handled and left a lot unresolved, and that the people Yoder hurt have not been treated very respectfully. However, as I said, I still find Yoder’s published writings extraordinarily insightful.
So I have been moving in a bit of a different direction. Yoder did not really seem to fit the profile I would have in mind of a more typical sexual predator. When Kathleen became interested in the life and work of Temple Grandin, the famous autistic animal biologist, and we learned a bit about the autism spectrum and the mild expressions called Aspergers syndrome, some lights began to come on in terms of trying to understand the Yoder phenomena.
No question, Yoder was brilliant, even savant like. He was also extraordinarily awkward socially. A friend told me recently of years ago when he spent quite a bit of time with Yoder talking about theological issues. My friend said, why don’t we meet for coffee sometime. And Yoder said, “I don’t do that kind of thing.”
And Yoder seemed to live a very compartmentalized life. I find it believable to imagine that his head/theology had little impact on his body/harassment. This is definitely hugely problematic and makes his life pretty messy and non-exemplary. But I wonder if this dynamic might let his theology off the hook a bit. That is, we can treat his ideas as in some sense separate from his life and let them stand (or not) on their own merits. Of course, such an attitude as I suggest here is in major tension with the ideals of Anabaptist theology (and Yoder’s own writing) that emphasizes the unity between word and deed.
I’m not sure what to do with this tension. It makes me think we need to be a bit more realistic about the complicatedness, feet-of-clay dynamics of real life. I’ve done a bit of reading on Martin Luther King’s life (most notably Taylor Branch’s trilogy, beginning with Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). This reading makes me more impressed with King’s courage and social/political insights—but also troubled by his serial adulteries. The upshot seems to me to be that we should not put King on a pedestal, but also we should not write him off because of the moral contradictions in his own life.
I wonder if this might not be our best response to Yoder as well.
[Some further thoughts, posted 2/8/11.]