Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)

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Maybe the most interesting of the articles summarizes one of Yoder’s unpublished papers (“What is adultery of the heart?”)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“I had long had in my possession unpublished papers of John’s in which he argued that the mainstream church was wrong to assume that the only alternative available for men and women in the church are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.

19 thoughts on “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)

  1. Yoder’s intellectual acrobatics around the issue of sexuality puts the whole of his work in question. That he would rationalize his behavior is no surprise. Few serial molesters fail to make the attempt. That he would do so with great intellectual eloquence is no surprise. His was a formidable intellect. But that he employed his intellect to defend what were at the core violent and sexually dishonest acts towards women suggests that what his unpublished works were to the sexual aspect of his inappropriate behavior, his published works on peace were to the violent force that was also involved in these acts. Scholars would do well to look to theology that is not rooted in the rationalizations of someone with this history of behavior. It puts his motivation to write in question. I would be very fascinated to read a psychological autopsy of this fallen giant. I hope that not only his papers are being preserved, but also that interviews are being done of his living relatives and friends to gain some insight into his psycho-social history. Perhaps in this context some of the value of his work could be preserved.

    1. I agree, Lamar, that “a psychological autopsy” of JHY would be fascinating—and important.

      I’d need more of an argument, though, to accept that Yoder’s thought and action in relation to his sexual behavior is proof that the rest of theological work is problematic. I’d need evidence, not just the assumption that this “must be the case.”

      It strikes me that these articles and Hauerwas’s memoir posit two distinct theses. In one case, Yoder is a sexual predator who then constructs a theological rationale to justify his actions. In the other case, Yoder starts with an intellectual theory and (admittedly perversely) conducts a series of experiments to test his theory. Both theses clearly point to a terribly problematic story, but they seem problematic in different ways—and with different implications concerning the rest of JHY’s theology.

  2. I investigated this question of ‘adultery of the heart’ on my blog last month (with reference not to Yoder’s thoughts but to Jimmy Carter’s!).

    My aim was to question and reject the naive association of Mt 5:48 with harmful ideas of ‘psychological sin’

    I think I showed that Jesus could not have been saying ‘be careful little eyes what you see’ but was rather broadening the liability for adultery to include all types of serious flirtation and even failed attempts to seduce.

    I think a lot of damage is done to simple relationships by naive ideas of psychological sin. But the little bit I gleaned from Yoder’s views in your link, Ted, gives me the impression he was setting up situations that I was not prepared to consider and would not condone.

    Still I think Lamar goes to far to question his peace testimony.

  3. Hi Ted,

    Thanks for both your posts on Yoder. The links helped me to better understand what happened.

    His peace theology stands on its merits though it cannot be entirely divorced from his behaviour because praxis, theology and ethics need to be linked and consistent.

    All of us are flawed human beings but I was not aware of the persitent problem over such a long time period. Yoder’s been gone a long time now, and I hope the women concerned have been able to find healing for their pain.

    I, for one, will continue to read Yoder’s work because I think it is inspirational.

    I greatly appreciate what you write.Thanks again, Ted.

    John Arthur

  4. As I reflected on this, I had to acknowledge how much my beliefs and actions are based on trust. I trust Jesus, I trust those who wrote about him and about the action of his Spirit. I trust those who selected the writings that faithfully reflect Jesus. I trust those who copied this documents time and again. I trust those who followed Jesus through hunger, suffering, pain and death to tell of his story. I trust those who taught me the way of Jesus. I trust those who have translated these teachings into English/American in a number of different translations.
    In all of this trust I have to acknowledge that sin and weakness was also present in those I trusted, just as it has also influenced my own choices of who to trust.
    My own trust in John Howard Yoder’s books and teachings are influenced by hearing of this sin. But I am also influenced by the opinions of those I know who personally knew him and my own experiences with him.
    In addition, unfortunately, I have come to believe this is not such a “strange” case, this is part all of our struggle with the “knowledge of good and evil”. It is not unusual to hear of sin sometimes with repentance in the life of a Christian teacher. And I assume there is much I never hear about.
    I need to read carefully and prayerfully to listen to Jesus Spirit speaking to my spirit about these teachings, testing them again and again against the Bible, my own experience and what I hear from those I trust. This account of John Howard Yoder helps me in this process.
    God have mercy on us all.

  5. Unaddressed by Mennonite theologians in the Yoder matter is the nature of the community which supported his behavior. If Hauerwas is correct and John’s behavior began in the 1960s, then there is a thirty year history of sexual abuse of women: students, wives of students, daughters of colleagues, colleagues, wives of colleagues, church women in a variety of denominiations, etc.

    So one of the unsettling questions lodges itself in the very institutional life of Mennonites that is supposed to provide safety and community and support for spiritual growth.

    I have been pondering the question of toxic theology vis a vis Yoder and the church’s responses to him over this thirty year period which was his most prolific theological period as well..

    In the Roman Catholic Church I have found a model for addressing toxic theology. Perhaps it can be helpful to Mennonite scholars and their students.


    http://www.catholica.com.au/gc2/td/pdf/Survival of the Spirit Doyle.pdf

    Questions of a toxic theology and a toxic sociology need to be addressed in light of the 2006 random survey of Mennonites done by the Young Center in E-Town, PA (Kanagy, analyst)in which 1 in 4 adult Mennonites report being abused in some manner within the community of faith. Unpublished studies would also indicate that adolescents inside the Mennonite community meet the statistical rate of 1 in 4 regarding rape and sexual assault.

    So, Did Yoder reflect his community accurately? Is he a product of such a community? Did he experience violation? These are questions we cannot answer.

    But we can begin to study them.

  6. A Fact Correction: When Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church concluded its disciplinary process with Yoder his ordination credentials were permanently withdrawn. The source for this information is the press release quoted in the fall issue of the “Gospel Evangel”. It was also quoted in several other Mennonite Church publications such as the Gospel Herald and The Mennonite Weekly Review.

    Effectively, this removed Yoder from any processes of ongoing supervision because he was employed by the University of Notre Dame. Consequently, this permanent withdrawal of his ordination credentials proactively protected Indiana-Michigan Conference and the greater Mennonite Church from any liability should his behavior continue past the ending of the disciplinary process. Death appears to have resolved many of these kinds of fiduciary worries inside Mennonite institutions. .

    Conference personnel files are sealed and unavailable. All that is available for information is in the public and church press of the time. .

    R. Krall

  7. Thanks for these two posts, Ted. There have been brief conversations about this on and off in my three years at Eastern Mennonite Seminary but nothing in quite this level of detail and personal reconciliation you’re doing publicly. I appreciate it all.

    As a student of both JHY’s theology and the field of restorative justice, I have to wonder if a case could be made for a rigorous restorative justice process that would take the experiences and needs of the women who were victimized seriously, with the aim of truth-telling and transformation from/for all sides. If it’s true that the church discipline process wasn’t nearly as holistic as it should have been, perhaps this is needed. It would be costly on a number of levels, but no one said reconciliation and transformation was cheap.

    There are students of restorative justice that have gone on and developed programs specifically for sexual assault or misconduct, and I’ve been periodically thinking about RJ in church polity in my time at seminary.

  8. Having recently discovered my Swiss Anabaptist roots going back to the 1500’s, I dove into Martyrs Mirror and became sickened by the relationship of my ancestors to the many beheadings, burnings and drownings preceded in many cases by tortures on the rack, tongue screws, impalements and more.

    No one seemed the least bit angry about this. Nope. The celebration of these people’s ability to sing hymns while being burnt alive by slow roasting or huge flames is some sort of testimony to…. To what? What is going on here?

    I imagined my ancestors being forced to leave Switzerland and move to Alsace, Montbeliard, on to Holland and a ship to Philadelphia. At this point they are so affected by torture, persecution and fear that they want nothing to do with the “world”. Some of my people are Amish, some Mennonites, and some got out by my great grandfather’s generation to form The Christian Church in Indiana. And off my grandfather and grandmother went to China to spread the word.

    And my question is: word about what? What’s written? Or their experience? Cuz what’s written about this so called peace theology and what my ancestors lived are two entirely different things. And my question to the 18 year old kid with the rod thrust from his knee through his ankle while singing a hymn is, “how did that work out for you?”

    And that’s why I’ve decided to reply to you men discussing Yoder’s work. I suppose you will continue to discuss what was published. But what about his unpublished work in progress? I’d be interested in how far his assumptions about himself and his experiments could go. Cuz I’ve learned that it is usually their arrogance that gives them away.

    Yoder was at the conference in which his own punishment was being discussed after twenty years of coming onto women physically and mentally. Now that’s amazing. But if I look back on the history of these people, my family, I see that they were and are ripe for the picking. And Yoder had them by the short hairs. He was the most famous Mennonite and a predator. He knew his prey.

    My suggestion is to publish ALL of his stuff.
    And let us women have a crack at his entire theology of peace.

  9. Yoder frequently suggested that Tina meet him at conferences, which she never did. “There were also frequent references to my body,” she said. In one letter, Yoder suggested that Tina meet him for her conference, bring her baby along and meet him in his hotel room when he finished his day.

    “Then he went into this bizarre, long, detailed description of what it would be like for him to sit in a chair and watch me sit on his bed, take off my clothes and nurse my baby. He described in vivid detail my breasts and other body parts,” she said. “When I read the letter, I felt I had been raped. The thought of this dirty old man sitting at his seminary desk fantasizing about my nude body was terrifying to me, and I felt extremely violated and angry. I had never done anything to communicate to him that I was interested in anything but a mentor-protégée relationship.”
    It seems to me that Yoder is making a case for pornography, in this case involving a woman and her baby. His ethics considered the letter of the law concerning intercourse. He apparently made the case that he wasn’t going to touch her, and by not touching her all the rest of his mental gymnastics were ethical. Including the use of her child to excite him.

    This man taught Christian ethics. Nonviolence.

    This IS violence. Violence against a person’s mental health. Violence against a mother’s relationship with her child.

    To move forward as humans it seems the time has come for women to explore and use all the feminine power necessary to unmask the exaggerated male. ENOUGH with compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is what happens to a brain injured by trauma. The brain self-protects by walling off the violence/trauma, be it mental or physical, and allows the person to move forward in a state of detachment from that violence/trauma.

    Post traumatic stress disorder occurs from the pressure this creates in the human brain. And my guess is that there are plenty of women and men experiencing PTSD due to Yoder’s use of mental violence. Who knows the effects this is having on their children? He had no problem entering into the marriage bed, mentally and sometimes physically, of all the women and their partners. I have no doubt that these men experience tremendous stress responses when Yoder is discussed.

    Violence against a person’s mental health, against healthy and happy marriage and family relationships, against healthy protege relationships is different from physical violence. Mental violence injures the brain which affects the body. Physical violence is done to the body which in turn affects our brains. But make no mistake about it: mental violence IS violence. And unfortunately, Yoder practiced it.

    May we all come to grips with our own stress responses to the practice of this mental violence and name it for what it is: violence using mental energy.

  10. Ted, Thanks for giving your thoughts about the tension between JHY’s influence as a teacher and writer, and his sexual misconduct. How do you view Paul Tillich?

  11. There is so much that is concerning in the sexually abusive behavior of JHY. One of the big ones for me is the lack of attention that is paid in the study of Christian ethics to the actual process of becoming a virtuous individual. Discussions are abstract, about society and specific moral issues, and are even abstract in terms of the discussion of the virtues. But how do you actualize the life of a kind, compassionate, humble, patient human being is not a real topic of discussion. Not did I find it a topic in Christian seminaries I studied in or taught at. Curiously, I have found more interest in this topic among social workers with whom I work in my chosen field as a mediator. More recently I have discovered that Buddhists have a very powerful concern for the actual process and practices to make you a better person. Some of their meditative techniques are extremely effective. I would hope that we Christians could take another look at how our theology makes an actual difference in the regular day to day activities. For as JHY would surely agree, that is where the rubber meets the road.

    Andrew Wallace

  12. If I were to pinpoint a possible connection between Yoder’s sexual misconduct and his theology I would focus upon the functionally idealist model inherent in his Christology and correlative reductionist anthropology. Even a cursory read through Yoder’s major writings demonstrates to what degree human needs, wants, and desires are downplayed as selfishness vis-a-vis the call to discipleship. This lacuna in Yoder’s theological anthropology is reinforced by his idealist Christology. When Christ’s exemplary function for believers is stressed at the expense of his nature as free salvific gift, then our own needs as human beings have no valid place in the theological calculus. Then Christ becomes only that toward which we must strive, which emphasizes our will and power. But it undermines the capacity of an theological anthropology to do adequate justice to human failure, human need, and human brokenness. If there is no way to honestly name human brokenness then it will inevitably be ignored or justified, which means eventually sublimated into the unconscious, where it will negatively affect our actions and behaviors towards others and ourselves.

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