[My friend and former Eastern Mennonite University faculty colleague Barbra Graber would like to invite theologians and others who utilize the work of John Howard Yoder into further discussion. So I have agreed to post a recent essay she wrote reflecting on Yoder's hurtful sexual behavior and its continuing legacy. I invite responses in the "comment" section at the end of this post and hope we can think together a bit in response to Barbra's provocative thoughts. After a couple of days, I plan to post a longer set of my reflections in response to Barbra's post [here's part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5]. This version of Barbra’s essay has been revised from what she recently posted on Rachel Halder’s website Our Stories Untold and at Young Anabaptist Radicals. Each of those postings has a lively set of comments. — Ted Grimsrud]
By Barbra Graber
July 30, 2013
(Note: This is an opinion piece from the perspective of a lay-person in the Mennonite church who has never been privy to inside information regarding the disciplinary processes of JHY and left to make sense of something that has made no sense in light of the church’s stated guidelines, mission and purpose. I don’t pretend that my limited perspective encompasses the whole. My intention is to provide impetus and fodder for more discernment and discussion on the larger topic of known and widespread sexual abuses of power by Mennonite church leaders, most powerfully symbolized by JHY. Hopefully others from inside the JHY story will be encouraged to come forward with new information. My issue is not with a deceased man, but the living and beloved church of my birth.)
I remember the Sunday morning two MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) friends who were dating got up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite peace theologian and symbol of male power in the church, sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women of the church over decades, and never publicly confessed. And the Mennonite seminary, as well as many other Mennonite church agencies that hired him, were somehow unable or unwilling to ultimately fix the problem. Years of institutional silence ensued while files of complaint letters accumulated. In 1984, the Mennonite Seminary announced that Yoder “had resigned in order to teach full time at Notre Dame.” But no mention of JHY’s known sexually deviant behavior was made and students were left to wonder why their brilliant professor suddenly flew the coop. Since that time, no one has asked and the Mennonite Church at large has not explained or acknowledged its decades of apparent complicity.
Quite the opposite.
After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, followed by a highly secretive disciplinary process, he was declared reconciled with the church and encouraged to return to “teaching and writing.” The promise of a public statement of apology to the victims whose lives he upended, and the wider ecumenical community whose trust he betrayed, somehow never materialized. And no one seems to know why. Today John Howard Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual. I wonder if the same would be true if he’d been busted for selling drugs or accused of grand theft.
I am a survivor of sexual abuse by men of the Mennonite Church, though not JHY. And I have walked through hell and back with many of the church’s soul-scarred women, including victims of JHY. Over the decade of 1982 to 1992 I happened to encounter three women across three states that did not know one another; and each one told me a despicable story of life altering, traumatic encounter with John Howard Yoder. Today many more stories have been documented. (See the Elkhart Truth 1992 articles by Tom Price and Ruth Krall’s The Elephants in God’s Living Room [volume 3 of Krall's work is in large part devoted to the Yoder story]).
A long time friend, after reading my recent rant about glowing reviews of JHY’s books in our church’s periodical The Mennonite asked me, “So what needs to be done? It feels like we are stuck…is it possible to move forward?” I like a challenge from friends. I too would like to see us move forward. But we can’t cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” There is no peace for many women who lost, along with their families, years of normal, healthy, joyous living for having been sexually abused by male leaders of the Mennonite Church. And JHY remains a symbol of those widespread wounds like no other churchman.
Just this week, Sara Wenger Shenk, President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, where Yoder taught for many years, with support of Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA issued an online call for “new transparency and truth-telling” in the saga of John Howard Yoder. To applaud and support this bold new vision as well as respond to my friend’s challenge, I offer the following practical suggestions for moving us toward justice, peace, and healing within our Body of Believers.
1) Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, “liaisons”, “alleged abuses”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, “misconduct”, “transgressions” and “sexual advances” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading because they are far too mild, lack specificity, and leave everyone asking “so what did the women do to encourage him?” and “why didn’t they protest!?” The actions of JHY reported to me and now documented by others, were sexually abusive assaults. They were sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. Do your homework on why women, even today, tend not to report the sexual abuses of prestigious men in positions of power. Women would certainly not write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about “liaisons” with powerful men. They wouldn’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties either. Telling a sexist joke might be considered an impropriety, but JHY’s actions were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence, some of them criminal. Can we please all agree to to stop the whitewashing? Until we get the correct language on the table, we will truly remain stuck. It baffles me that scholars and writers who dicker over the accuracy of words, cannot seem to get them right in this case.
2) For Church leaders: Pledge to make the ending of sexual abuses of power a clearly articulated denominational priority. Create at least one setting for public acknowledgement of the years of enabling and continued harm. A public confession could take place through an open letter in “The Mennonite”, signed by those involved or their representatives; and it could happen through a public ceremony of confession at a national (and international) church conference. It is also important to publicly honor the brave women who did the work the church was unable to do despite the criticism of their peers and resistance from their church. If all this ends in legal action, which is highly unlikely, so be it. Let the debt be paid. When this dirty business is simply and sincerely acknowledged by the broader denomination, without excuses, this festering wound will finally begin to close and the Spirit will be freed to breathe new life and health through our communities of faith.
3) For journalists and book reviewers: Acknowledge the controversy when you discuss JHY’s work, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.” If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, or if it does, please forward on to me.
4) For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include the analysis of the serious disconnect between Yoder’s ortho-doxy and his severe lack of ortho-praxy in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor. Visit Ruth Krall’s Enduring Space website for the most thorough analysis and historical documentation of the rest of the JHY story, especially her ebook, “The Elephants in God’s Living Room-Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder.”
5) For Mennonite men: This is a men’s issue because your gender is committing most of these abuses– on your wives, sisters, sons and daughters. So man up! Challenge your male friends who don’t get it and go to the police or social services about the friends you know or suspect are abusing now or have abused in the past. If you are or have ever been caught up in perpetrating sexualized violence, you are likely doing so out of an earlier unhealed victimization. If you keep making excuses and rationalizing your behavior, you will eventually be called out. Make confession and get serious about seeking help and healing now.
6) For Mennonite pastors: 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as religious. No more secrecy and silence. Make it a sermon topic. Assume you have both predators and victims sitting in your pews every Sunday. Create safe and open spaces for people to come forward and name names. Learn to recognize a predator’s grooming behavior. Believe the victims who report their stories to you (and assume the named perpetrators have other victims in your midst who’ve not come forward). Act on your suspicions. Err on the side of protecting women and children. Sexual abusers are not innocent until proven guilty. Suspicions must be immediately confronted and reported. (see Victor Vieth on the Jerry Sandusky story http://vimeo.com/60690302 ) The onus of proving their innocence must be placed on the accused. Stop covering up crimes in the naive belief that the church is equipped to handle these things on its own. Applying restorative justice models and assigning accountability groups to work with a sexual predator will only exhaust everyone involved and change little. Report them to law enforcement. If the law does nothing for you, hold the named predators accountable as best you can. Demand a confession to the congregation and create strict boundaries. If the accused perpetrator refuses to cooperate, cut him off from fellowship and take out appropriate restraining orders. Make certain lawyers you hire are sensitive to your responsibility for the protection of the vulnerable in your congregation as well as your management of liability and risk. Unfortunately there are no guarantees or prescriptive outcomes in this hornet’s nest called “confronting the perpetrator.” And it is by far the most complex challenge before us. But secrecy and silence is not the answer! That only makes the wellbeing of a respected perpetrator and the disruption of his family more important than the lives of the hundred or more victims he may violate in a lifetime. And keep in mind the charges of complicity you could face if you do nothing. Discern together, but include in your meetings knowledgeable consultants who understand the nature and behavior of sexual predators.
7) For Mennonite educators: Sexualized violence is a peace and justice issue! Make the topics of multi-generational incest, childhood sexual abuse, and sexualized violence against women central to your curriculums and conferences. Make Krall’s work available, if not required reading. Encourage discussion of the contradictions and ponder the reasons for the Church’s historical silence and resistance on these issues. Invite leaders involved in the disciplinary process with JHY to share their experience and talk about what, in hindsight, might have been done differently. Make and model the creation of safe and appropriate spaces to talk about experiences of sexual violation and the impact it has had on our lives. Teach and practice the art of deep listening. Partner with organizations like the Catholic Whistleblower Network and The National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State. Also see #4.
8) For survivors of sexual abuse: Whether you are male or female, break the silence and tell your story (anonymously if you wish) at http://www.OurStoriesUntold.com. It takes courage, but in my experience it is the first step back to health. Or dare to tell your secret directly to trust-worthy others. Either way, you will watch the shame and fear begin to fall away.
9) For everyone reading this: Pray. It tends to change things. Every Thursday at 3:00, join our “Call to Prayer for Sexual Healing in the Mennonite Church.” Follow this link.
Through the months and years ahead, may our resolve remain steady—-as we acknowledge and name this cancer in our midst, struggle to understand its historical causes, and fearlessly confront the pervasive presence of sexualized violence in our homes and churches. The task before us is embarrassing, difficult, messy and arduous… but it is time we pull our communal head from the sand and join together to lead the way toward safer, healthier communities.
Call me naive. Say these things will never happen. l will hold out hope for the good people of the Mennonite Church and the power of Spirit led healing and reconciliation till the day I die.
“God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour thy power….Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour…..for the living of these days…lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.” Harry E. Fosdick
[Here are links to some other discussions of Yoder's sexual misconduct: Ruth Krall's Enduring Space website has a long and thorough e-book that Professor Krall has written (mentioned above)—The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder. The Jesus Radicals website has some thoughtful reflections by Andy Alexis-Baker along with a lengthy set of often-perceptive comments—"John Howard Yoder and Sex: Wrestling with the Contradictions." In his memoir, Hannah's Child (Eerdmans, 2010), pages 242-7, Stanley Hauerwas wrote some informative reflections as a close Yoder friend. A couple of years ago, I posted some of my thoughts on this blog in two parts—"Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder" and "Addendum." An indispensable series of investigative articles written in 1992 by reporter Tom Price was published in Yoder's hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth. These may be accessed here.—Ted Grimsrud]