Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder

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.]

35 thoughts on “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder

  1. Ted. I only learned of his sexual harrassment problems recently and not in any great detail. I’m still trying to reconcile it all given his profound influence on me theologically. I appreciated reading your own thoughts.

  2. Ted, thanks for posting this reflection. It reflects our personal discussion about this contradiction in Yoder’s life. I find your line of thinking helpful a helpful way to understand Yoder’s brilliance, extreme social awkwardness, and personal moral lapses.

  3. Thank you, Ted, for naming your discomfort in knowing what you know about JHY’s personal sexual behavior on one hand and having been profoundly influenced by his theology on the other. I am perplexed that more of our Mennonite theologians and Bible teachers don’t feel conflicted.

    Yes, John was socially awkward. But brother Earl, please don’t imply that this was the reason he violated appropriate sexual boundaries. There are many socially inept people but most do not become sexual predators. Having listened to the stories of dozens of women who were violated by John, I believe he knew exactly what he was doing. His intellectual arrogance seems to have led him to believe that the usual rules and moral standards didn’t apply to him. Lord have mercy on us all.

    Carolyn Holderread Heggen

  4. One of the issues at hand is how to understand the importance of Yoder as a spiritual teacher or guide in light of his personal behavior.

    Mikele Rauch comments on this issue in her new book, Healing the Soul After Rleigious Abuse: The Dark Heaven of Recovery.(Praeger, 2009). I quote fform pages 112.

    “Those who have had a life-changing experience with a spiritual teacher or guru have wished to hold their initial encounters intact without risking disllusionment. They may not want to coonsider how someone of this stature could ever have broken sacred boundaries with them or with anyone else. But if individuals are honest and if what they have learned was important to their spiritual life, then they must hold the teeacher to the same standards and accountability that all must meet.

    What has happened cannot remove the transmission, the spiritualgems, the life-changing power of words, or the value of the practice, though it can stain these gifts so that they are no longer recognizable. In the end, if a spiritual leader has truly possessed gereeatness, he will want transparency and resolution. He will want those who have followed him to remember that the real teacher is the one within us. Though other may still insist on silence about a scandal – silence outside or silence within – silence protects no one. The community that fears the truth loses its own soul.

    1. Thank you R. Krall for the Rauch quote! He says it very well. And thanks Ted for posting the link to the Elkart Truth Articles by Tom Price.

      The church has feared the truth about JHY for a very long time. I’ve wondered –if he’d actually, physically murdered someone, would there be such a quandary over man vs message, action vs word? JHY was a “murderer”– of women’s souls. And the Mennonite Church conducted a long and carefully devised cover-up. Many sexual offenders are sitting in prison today for committing acts less numerous and less violating than JHY’s.

  5. As someone new to Yoder, I must say this aspect of his life is very troubling as I go to read him for the first time. Thanks for this post. Very helpful.

  6. “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.”
    Won’t that ending up being a circular argument? How do we know of “Jesus’ way of peace”? Isn’t Yoder’s theology the decisive formulation that Jesus had a “way of peace” (as opposed to the interpretation that Jesus was anti-political and therefore had no bearing on pacifism as usually understood)? Aren’t his writings the most important texts in the modern effort to interpret Anabaptist as a Christian pacifism? So to meet this proposed test, one would have to prove that Yoder’s “published writings” are a “less than exemplary expression” of…his writings.
    How would someone do that?
    I suggest an alternative test: to show that his life does not cohere with his theology.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts, DW. As I hope I made clear in my original essay, these questions about Yoder are ones I’m very much in process with. So I appreciate your challenge.

    I think the challenge, though, is a little different that what you suggest. The issue I was addressing was simply Yoder’s intellectual legacy. That’s not to say that the issue of the legacy of his life is not important or something we should struggle with. But I am uncomfortable with dismissing (or even diminishing) his intellectual legacy on grounds other than the content of what he wrote (focusing especially on his published writings).

    He’d be the first to reject the idea that we can’t have an understanding of “Jesus’ way of peace” apart from Yoder’s own writings by which to judge the content of those writings. Yoder himself did not define the message of Jesus, so it does not seem circular to judge Yoder’s writings on the basis of what Jesus himself did or said. (Maybe I’m not understanding your point here.)

    Now, I think it is well established by now that there were important elements of Yoder’s life that did not cohere with his theology. But there is a sense that this lack of coherence may actually validate the theology. Aren’t we then using his theology (which we seem to be implying is valid) as a basis for saying there was something wrong with his life?

    And it would seem a terrible mistake to reduce Yoder’s life only to his sexual misconduct. As much as I knew him personally, I found his life pretty exemplary (there were obviously things about his life I didn’t know at the time). I personally know a number of people whose lives were shaped by Yoder’s life in extraordinarily positive ways. It’s not as simple, in any case, to simply say his life contradicted his theology—in some ways it did and in some ways it didn’t. And, in any case, even when we say there was a contradiction, we are using the theology as the criterion of what a “good life” would be.

    1. Thanks, Ted, for saying this–“it would seem a terrible mistake to reduce Yoder’s life only to his sexual misconduct: Yes, things are much more complicated than they appear to be. I do not mean to minimize the deep pain of the victims of his sexual behaviour (that I came to hear).

  8. Ted:
    Thanks for that considerate reply:
    “… it does not seem circular to judge Yoder’s writings on the basis of what Jesus himself did or said.”
    If your standard is “what Jesus *himself* did or said,” then I agree we have a *non-*circular criterion. However, I’m a little surprised/confused by the claim that “Yoder himself did not define the message of Jesus,….” Isn’t what he attempted to do in *The Politics of Jesus*? (I’m currently processing the final chapter in *Nevertheless*: “Pacifism of the Messianic Community”.)
    For the sake of transparency, I disagree with Yoder’s general position, based on *content*. Here I’m simply grappling with the issue: does his behavior raise *other* issues?

    1. What I am trying to say, David, is that Yoder would have understood his “definition” to be a human interpretation, fallible and subject to critique. Maybe I’d be clearer if I substituted “determine” for “define” in saying “Yoder himself did not determine what Jesus’ message was, he only interpreted it—and would have insisted that his interpretation was subordinate to what Jesus actual taught.”

      If there was one thing Yoder was not, it was authoritarian. He would never have claimed to have the final word on interpreting Jesus.

      I appreciate your acknowledging that you disagree with Yoder’s general position. I’d be interested in the nature of that disagreement. I do think that his final chapter in Nevertheless is a very good concise statement of his theology.

      I am suggesting, I guess, that I’m not convinced yet that Yoder’s behavior raises theological issues—at least in the sense of throwing into question any of his published constructive theology (I say “published” because he did write some things that were not published specifically on sexual intimacy that may be theologically problematic—though I perceive them at this time to aberrations not related to his broader theology).

      1. Brother Ted,

        As an Anabaptist, as a Yoderian, how can you honestly say that you are “not convinced yet that Yoder’s behavior raises theological issues”???

        It seems you are separating academic, intellectual categories from theological, ethical categories. But again I ask, as a Yoderian, as an Anabaptist, can we honestly separate theory from ethic, mind from body, spirit from action?

      2. Tyler, I don’t know if you read the more recent blog posts and discussions here about Yoder and theology. The issue I am struggling with is how to relate the actual theology that Yoder wrote with his sexual harassment. What I am asking for is actual evidence from this written theology of key ideas that now should be seen as problematic due to his actions. Can you give me some?

        See especially this post [https://thinkingpacifism.net/2013/08/05/reflections-from-a-chagrined-yoderian-part-four-yoders-theology/] and the one that follows for reflections and conversation on this struggle.

  9. In very simple terms, my initial reaction was that you *assumed* that Yoder’s theology is correct, and demanded some extraordinary evidence/argument that his moral failures were bound up with his theology. Your clarifications have assured me that my reaction was in error.

    Your substitution of “determine” for “define” also corrects my misreading there.

    On my disagreements:
    I have not yet assimilated the material in *Nevertheless,* but based on a quick scan, and prior knowledge, can identify the following points, roughly moving from the intra-Mennonite to the general philosophical:
    1. I believe that nonconformity/separation from the world is a better model for living out the implications of a cruciform life than is pacifism.
    2. I do not agree that Jesus established a messianic community. Whatever community he established was shattered in the cross. The community of *Christ* is established in the resurrection, on other side of the cross.
    3. In hermeneutical-canonical terms: the teachings of Jesus must be interpreted *through* the crucified and risen Lord and Christ.
    4. I think that the identification of “messianic” with “Christological” is a confusion. Those words, and the corollary concepts, are saying two very different things.
    5. I do not think one can separate pacifism from *some sort* of politics, or politics from coercion. Positively: pacifism is just as much coercive politics as is war–“war is an expression of politics by other means” (attributed to Clausewitz).

  10. Not sure if you want to continue the discussion, but here’s a brief version of an argument that Yoder’s theology is *explained by* his sexually aggressive desires. (I’ve been working on a longer version over the weekend.)

    Yoder wanted non-coital sexual intimacy with women, but was not a gregarious person (as you testify to). So he needed some other skill to attract women. Ah-ha: he was a theological savant. These women were themselves studying theology, esp. at AMBS, intelligent and ambitious for positions in the church as ministers or teachers. So he could communicate that he was a brilliant intellect on their side, supporting a “liberalizing” attitude towards women in leadership. One of the women he harassed described how he presented himself as being “on the cutting edge”.

    However, such a “cutting-edge” theology was not consistent with the deeply traditional separatist practice of the Mennonite Church. How to go about replacing it with something “cutting edge”? He reinterpreted this traditional practice as “pacifism.” He knew that the traditional practice was not really pacifist, since he entitled Chapter 16 of *Nevertheless* as “The NON-Pacifist Nonresistance of the Mennonite ‘Second Wind’”. (I would argue that the earlier versions of Mennonite practice, which he covers in chs. 13, 14, 15, are not really pacifistic either.) So why did he include it in a book subtitled “The Varieties of Religious PACIFISM”? Because that intellectual move enabled him to include it in a series of types of alleged pacifisms, which he then critiqued and replaced with his preferred “pacifism of the messianic community.”

    Therefore: Yoder’s pacifism was exactly what it needed to be, in order to make himself sexually attractive to the young women of the seminary community.

    Caveat: I am well aware of the problem of reducing a thinker’s ideas to his psychology or personality.

    1. Thanks for the further thoughts, David.

      I think you have an interesting theory. I don’t doubt that Yoder, on some level, may have been motivated professionally by his desire for intimacy with various women.

      However, I disagree with your analysis of “pacifism.” For one thing, that is a term that has had fluid usage in the slightly more than 100 years that it has existed. In the Mennonite context, since the term nonresistance predates pacifism, the latter term was initially seen to be foreign to Mennonite sensibilities (again, when Guy Hershberger wrote against pacifism in 1944 the term was less than half a century old—he changed on this, by the way; by the end of his life he was very comfortable using the term pacifism, in part because he found Yoder’s perspective utterly attractive; that is, Hershberger didn’t agree with your critique of Yoder).

      By Yoder’s time, “pacifism” was no longer such an alien word. He was not being “cutting edge” or innovative at all in using that term. Now, “pacifism” is seen by many Mennonites in my circles as a passe term—they prefer “nonviolence” or “justpeace.” “Pacifism” has gone from being a liberal or radical or political term to being a conservative term. Those who prefer “nonviolence” ironically associate “pacifism” with the more traditional two-kingdom, separatist Mennonite thought.

      Given that the word “pacifism” didn’t exist before the 20th century, it’s not really a meaningful statement to say that pre-20th century Mennonites “weren’t pacifistic.” So much depends on how you define the term. I would agree with Yoder by defining it in terms of Jesus (not 20th century politics). You’d have to argue with Yoder’s interpretation of Jesus (which I guess you are doing—but I don’t know really on what grounds).

      I also think you are kind of begging the question. Even if you are correct that Yoder was seeking to find ways to be sexually alluring, that in itself says nothing about the content of his peace theology. My sense is that you don’t like Yoder’s theology and are seeing his sexual misbehavior as a way to discredit the theology. I think it would be better to focus on a theological debate.

  11. Ted,
    Thanks for being willing to continue the discussion.

    Your brief description of the changes in the perception of “pacifism” is fascinating. It suggests that “pacifism” has no stable content, but is used or dismissed as determined by shifting intellectual moods (fads?). Thus I certainly agree that everything hangs on the definition. I simply go the usages described in the *Oxford English Dictionary* (2nd ed.). I can copy & paste some of those usages if you would like; but for now I assert that pacifism is simply the inverse of war: *a means to acquire material resources.* Therefore pacifism is no more moral than war, since they have the same amoral end. Pacifism emerged in 1900 because, with the industrial revolution and international trade, the world economy had evolved to the point that peace was a better means to prosperity than war.

    Why then define “pacifism” by Jesus? That seems to me to beg the question: *was* Jesus a pacifist? It appears to me that one must first establish on independent grounds (etymological? historical? socio-political?) the meaning of pacifism, and *then* ask: did Jesus’ message fit this meaning? (Given my claim that pacifism is inherently about the acquisition of resources, and given what Jesus says about searching for material well-being, it should be simple to construct the rest of the argument.)

    I would need a more detailed description of contemporary notions of “nonviolence” or “justpeace” to be sure of my response, but intuitively I suspect my argument would be the same: “nonviolence”/”justpeace” are part of the worldly political process, and therefore remain bound to its strictures and possibilities. Or in Paulinian mythic categories, they are part of the “powers of this age,” and must be subjected to the crucified and risen Lord (Colossians 2:14 on the central idea; Galatians 4:6-10 on the “powers”; 2 Cor 2:14 on the “triumphal procession” idea).

    In your final paragraph, you return to the line of argument that I earlier reacted to. I think I now understand more clearly what I found problematic about it. You spend a long post acknowledging the tensions within Yoder, between his life and his theology. You also discuss how your knowledge of these tensions *in Yoder* create tensions in *you.* Moreover, the attempt to separate life and thought is *itself* problematic, since that appears to contradict important themes in Yoder’s theology. A lot of tensions there, and you very sincerely have my empathy. In my own life, the tensions cut everyway imaginable.

    But here’s my continuing problem. Why raise the issue…and then assert: let’s “focus on a theological debate”? You very neatly stop the debate. I’m quite willing to engage in such a debate, but I didn’t think *this* posting was about theological content. Rather I thought it was about: what if life contradicts content?

    Hmmmmmmm….. Maybe we simply have to face the fact that such contradictions cannot be unraveled. They are gordian knots, to be severed through sheer existential choice. But then, is it not our only option to admit that…
    ***We have made that choice***?

    1. Challenging thoughts, David.

      The way I would say it is that like all words, “pacifism” is a symbol for something, not the essence of the thing. And like all words, the meaning of “pacifism” is evolving. That would be true of “nonresistance” or whatever other term you might prefer to signify the conviction that we should never do violence toward other human beings and that no other value is as important as love/respect/compassion toward each other person. So, I don’t think it is a helpful point to say “‘pacifism’ has no stable content.” To the extent it doesn’t,that’s because it’s a word, not because of some inherent problem with what we are trying to signify with that word.

      But I’d disagree that it has “no stable content.” It seems to me that the word has been used fairly consistently over the years to mean, most centrally, a principled rejection of war.

      I can’t recall ever having encountered the definition you give (“a means to acquire material resources”). Even those like Gandhi and King who advocate nonviolent direct action (and they generally did not use the term “pacifism” for this) would never have said what they had in mind was acquiring material resources. They sought, in essence, to gain dignity and self-determination for oppressed people.

      But I would be willing to give up the term “pacifism” if need be. What I am interested in, as was Yoder, I believe, is faithfulness to Jesus’ message. If what Jesus was about was not “pacifism,” I would be willing to find another term. I have described my understanding of Jesus’ message in a series of sermons posted here.

      The reason I say “let’s focus on the theological debate” in relation to Yoder is that my question is about his theology, not his sexual ethics (which I deplore). His own life seems to be evidence that it is possible for someone to live in ways that contradicts their theology without invalidating that theology (just based on the evidence). How can this be since my own theology would point against that kind of contradiction? My suggestion in original post was that it may have to do with Yoder’s illness (some version of autism or aspergers). If it simply isn’t the case that it’s possible to live in contradiction to one’s alleged theology without invalidating the theology, I am suggesting that problems must be found in the theology itself (it’s not enough simply to assert that it is not possible).

      You are suggesting you don’t like Yoder’s theology, which I can respect. But I don’t see in what you’ve said so far reason to think this undermines my argument. So, probably we would (in my view) need to leave behind Yoder’s sexual misbehavior and focus just on this theology if we were to address the concern I was trying to raise.

  12. “Yoder’s sexual ethics”? “Yoder’s sexual misbehavior”? “Yoder’s sexual misconduct”? I’m with DWL in concluding that the contradiction of JHY cannot be unraveled. But to continually water down references to his violent, criminal, perverse, misogynist, and incredibly hurtful sexual assaults as mere misbehaviors is just plain offensive. Women around the world still live with scars he inflicted. Yoder didn’t want “non-coital sexual intimacies with women”, he wanted to experience power over them and was willing to use violence to do so. For whatever reason, its clear without further test: His life did not cohere with his theology. He was not the first theologian with such an affliction and he won’t be the last. The lesson of JHY is that human beings are rarely as they appear to be, are a mixture of good and evil and contradictory by nature, and when put upon a pedestal, will likely fall off. JHY fell off–and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men………

    1. Thank you for this. I found the framing of sexual abuse as ““non-coital sexual intimacies” to be offensive and dangerous. Sexual abuse is not about intimacy, but about selfishness, manipulation, and control. In other words, the misuse of power (which is a pretty good definition of violence).

      The idea that ortho-doxy may stand on its own regardless of ortho-praxy as an expression of a harmful dichotomy, at best.

      And sadly, most sexual predators do “not really seem to fit the profile I would have in mind of a more typical sexual predator.” If they did, so many would not walk among us unhindered.

  13. Ted:

    A different tack:

    JHY proposed an interpretation of Jesus that attributed to him a “politics,” a new ordering of human community that would save humanity. To do this, it would have to do two things: bring about a new wholeness and freedom, AND avoid the old structures of lust and power that attach themselves like leeches to every solution. Politics IS about power, and any politics that claims to escape that lust for power will have to be a very strange politics. I suppose there might be such a thing, but, here’s the problem.

    If I’m going to listen to someone who claims to have answers to spiritual issues, he needs to show that *they work.* I would like answers to my own moral problems and spiritual questions. In my eyes, JHY’s own life says that *his version of the gospel does not work*. The “good news” according to JHY is the same old bad news. The attempt to bring a solution becomes the problem. The pacifist becomes the sexual predator. We become what we fight against. Etc., etc., etc. Even if you don’t buy my earlier suggestion that JHY’s pacifism was “really” about a need to acquire sexual gratification, the fact remains that JHY’s doctrine did not accomplish in his own life what he claimed it could accomplish. It did not break the cycle of lust and power and greed *for John Howard Yoder.*

    1. Hi David,

      On “politics,” please note that Yoder is defining politics as how human beings order their social lives together. His argument is that there are lots of ways that this ordering can happen. Rather than being apolitical, Jesus is teaching and modeling an approach to the ordering that is based on servanthood, compassion, respect, and special care for the vulnerable. Insofar as it is accurate to say “politics is about power” (and I think Yoder would agree that it is largely accurate), the “politics of Jesus” is about power as servanthood, not power as domination.

      Yoder, of course, also argued that those who follow Jesus’ way of doing politics should expect in our current world to suffer something like his fate (pointing out that Jesus made it clear that his cross is our model, not something he took up so we wouldn’t have to). He insisted that following a “politics of Jesus” has to mean rejecting a politics of domination, no matter what the consequences.

      Your second paragraph seems only to restate the question I raised in my original post. Insofar as Yoder was a sexual predator, clearly he was not one we should look to as a spiritual guide. But that’s not the issue I am interested in. As I said, I find his theology (his ideas) utterly compelling. Everything in that theology would itself condemn this behavior. But it is precisely this theology that condemns the behavior—which to me in a sense confirms the truthfulness of the theology.

      Sure, Yoder’s “doctrine did not accomplish in his own life what he claimed it could accomplish.” But has it done so in other people’s lives, those who have learned from his theology? I’d say, yes, indeed. In all humility, I would be willing for you to examine my life with this question in mind.

      One other point, too. John Howard Yoder’s life was not only about his sexual misbehavior. The Yoder I knew, as far as I experienced him, while socially difficult, was also in some ways an exemplary person. He was a peacemaker, a good friend, a helpful mentor, one who sought to embody Anabaptist ethics. He certainly failed in some ways, but isn’t this true of all of us. And with my example of Martin Luther King, Jr., I meant to suggest that some people are capable of great failures coupled with great faithfulness.

      I like your image of the gordian knots. But I don’t see these contradictions as providing any evidence against Yoder’s theology….

  14. Ted:

    I suspect we view our Christian faith very differently. I am looking for morally and spiritually transforming power. My reading of “I find his theology (his ideas) utterly compelling” is that you view Christian faith primarily as an ethical philosophy–in this case the ethics of Jesus. I think Socrates was wrong: knowledge is *not* virtue. Truth is not its own empowerment. I need something more: I need the Spirit of the risen Jesus, enabling me to live as he commands me to live.

    I suspect this difference “goes all the way down.” Thanks for the discussion, and with that I bid you



  15. Thank you for a thoughtful reflection on the issue of thought and life contradiction we see in the respected individuals like Yoder. It’s been also a trouble for me as I read his writings.
    BTW I was studying at GTU 1982-1989 and I recall you were, too.

  16. I see it has been some time since there were comments on this thread. But I wanted to make a suggestion. Perhaps Yoder’s behavior can be illuminated by stepping outside of theology and looking at other examples. I am thinking of the problematic behavior of artists and how the artistic community handles this. An example is Richard Wagner and his intensely anti-semitic views. Those who admire his music have to somehow balance, or integrate, at any rate deal with, the difficult of admiring the creator of beautiful music with the same person who could be so small-minded in other ways.

    Another example is Ezra Pound, one of the most influential of the early poets in the free verse movement. An outright fascist, he supported both Hitler and Mussolini. Again, those who admire his poetic work are stuck with how to integrate into their evaluation his political sins.

    And aren’t there many such examples we have observed among ordinary people? And in ourselves as well? I’m not saying this let’s anyone off the hook; but I do believe that taking a broad perspective helps us to understand, and perhaps forgive, individual instances.

    Best wishes,


  17. Thanks, Jim. I’m definitely with you. To think that human beings are either good or bad, worthy or unworthy of our praise and respect is an outdated and useless world view. My hope has never been that JHY be written off as a creepy pervert and his writings forever banned. My hope is for scholars and theologians to stop their attempts to cover up and minimize the facts of this complex, brilliant and troubled man’s life. My plea is that the lauding of his writings be tempered by the realities of his life. Christians especially it seems want to continue to hold on to this fantasy-based dualistic world view where people are one thing or the other. Like it or not, our human nature is a mix of contradictions.

  18. In response to Ted: “The issue I am struggling with is how to relate the actual theology that Yoder wrote with his sexual harassment. What I am asking for is actual evidence from this written theology of key ideas that now should be seen as problematic due to his actions. Can you give me some?”

    This might be a good place to start: Chapter 5 “You Have it Coming: Good Punishment” from “The End of Sacrifice” ed. John C. Nugent, which Yoder wrote in 1997, soon after completing his church disciplinary process, which to many of his defenders should have exonerated him for all time.

    I’m open for more enlightenment from those who make theology their formal study, but with cynical titles like “Mother Knows Best” and “The Old Man Must Go,” these writings seem to paint the picture of a man who, far from realizing the seriousness of his actions, saw himself as some sort of sacrificial Christ figure crucified by an angry feminist lynch mob for the sake of the community. He seems to define the women who dared to stand up against his assaults and sexual harassments as mere players in a larger drama of vengeance against men for their having been cast as the “weaker sex.” But most importantly, he casts himself in the familiar psychological profile of a repeat sex offender: the only person he is capable of feeling sorry for is himself.

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