In an earlier post, I reflected on my struggle to make sense of the tension between my teacher John Howard Yoder’s profound theology and his sexual misconduct. In 1992, a five-part series of investigative articles about the allegations of Yoder’s sexual misconduct were published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth. The articles are posted here.
The articles were based on extensive interviews with several of the women Yoder harassed who detailed their allegations of his behavior—which included major boundary violations involving both inappropriate touching and speech/personal writings. The journalist, Tom Price, also interviewed numerous prominent theologians and provides fascinating quotes from people such as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and Jim McClendon of Fuller Theological Seminary (like Yoder, one of my grad school profs).
Maybe the most interesting of the articles summarizes one of Yoder’s unpublished papers (“What is adultery of the heart?”) that seems to provide an intellectual rationale for some of his behavior. Based on Price’s summary, it does not seem clear to me that Yoder’s ideas (admittedly a bit idiosyncratic) would necessarily have made one suspect he would be a serial sexual harasser. However, in light of his behavior, the ideas in the article take a new light. Basically, he seems to argue for the appropriateness of close physical intimacy between men and women in the church that would not cross the line into actual sexual intercourse.
These 1992 articles are enormously interesting. They are shocking both in what they describe concerning this brilliant theologian and in the amount of detail provided concerning what was, in terms of practical consequences, an issue of church discipline. Yoder did not face legal charges nor was his standing as a professor at University of Notre Dame in question. His ministerial credential in the Mennonite Church were suspended. But he never did function in a pastoral ministry and his teaching career at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary had ended years prior to 1992.
Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010), 242-47, provides some fascinating background on this episode. Hauerwas was a colleague and close friend of Yoder’s at Notre Dame, though by the early 1990s he had moved on to Duke. These are some of his comments (from pages 242-7):
“I had long had in my possession unpublished papers of John’s in which he argued that the mainstream church was wrong to assume that the only alternative available for men and women in the church are celibacy or marriage. John, who thought that, first and foremost, Christians are called to be single, argued that for brothers and sisters in the faith there should be other ways of relating bodily with one another. In short, he thought there might be ‘nonsexual’ ways that Christians could touch one another short of intercourse. It seems he set out to test his theory” (244).
“John began his seductions of ‘weighty’ Mennonite women—women of intellectual and spiritual stature in the community—by asking them to help him with his work. He would then suggest that they touch him, and that he touch them, without engaging in sexual intercourse. John was intellectually overwhelming. He may have convinced some women that what they were doing was not sexual, but they later came to recognize that John was clearly misusing them. They somehow made contact with one another, compared notes, and John was in a heap of trouble” (244).
Hauerwas tells of an “intervention” initiated by himself, Jim McClendon, and a third prominent theologian friend of Yoder’s, Glen Stassen. The three had a conference call with Yoder shortly before he was to respond to the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church in their initiating disciplinary proceedings. McClendon, especially, according to Hauerwas, pushed Yoder to submit to this process—and Yoder did agree to do so.
After a four year process, Yoder’s credentials were reinstated. Once again he was allowed to teach in church-related institutions (he taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the Fall of 1997). In December 1997 he returned to the fellowship of Prairie Street Mennonite Church, his home church—as it turned out only days before his fatal heart attack.
Hauerwas only implicitly alludes to his sense that Yoder’s decision to submit to the conference disciplinary process played a major role in protecting Yoder’s posthumous reputation. In Hauerwas’s presentation, by submitting to this process Yoder certainly made possible an almost miraculous sense of reconciliation that became an important closure just prior to Yoder’s death.
Hauerwas’s telling of the story, uplifting as it surely is (appropriately so, at least to some degree, I would say), leaves aside the experiences of the women Yoder admittedly violated. Yoder experienced a sense of healing and closure in his relationship with the Mennonite Church, but what about with the people whose boundaries he transgressed?
Lots of questions remain. And they won’t be going away as Yoder’s influence and stature as a major American theologian have only increased in the years since his death.