[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. Continue reading