Ted Grimsrud—August 2, 2013
Back on July 10, I put the finishing touches on a blogpost on connections between John Howard Yoder’s thought and anarchism. I drew heavily on a fine article by Ted Troxell, “Christian Theory: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder.” I was (and still am) excited by how Troxell displays in a fresh way the on-going relevance of Yoder’s theology (and, more importantly than simply drawing attention to Yoder, displaying how Christian pacifism might speak to the contemporary task of embodying a humane politics).
Almost immediately after I posted my article, my family left home for a short trip to Arizona to spend time with extended family. After a two-day delay mostly spent in a Richmond hotel keeping my 7-year-old grandson and 3-year-old granddaughter occupied, we finally made it to Phoenix. Even then, I found it difficult to find computer time, and hence mostly missed out on vital moments of what was a stimulating conversation in response to what I wrote.
The Yoder dilemma
More challenging, though, by the time I got back home, my Yoder-oriented energies had been diverted. While we were in Phoenix, I had gotten an email from Barbra Graber wondering if I would be interesting in putting up a guestpost from her. This post would be a kind of manifesto speaking to on-going dilemmas related to Yoder’s continuing prominence as an important theologian (an importance certainly affirmed on this blog) standing in tension with Yoder’s own violent life of widespread sexual harassment.
I responded positively to Barbra’s suggestion. I have not had many (actually no) guestposts, but I am certainly deeply interested in this distressing aspect of Yoder’s legacy. I had alluded to Yoder’s violations in a 1998 tribute article I wrote in The Mennonite shortly after his death (an article that I would write differently today but that gives a good sense about why I agonize over how to respond to Yoder’s sexual violence) and then had written a more lengthy reflection December 2010 followed by an addendum in February 2011. Barbra had been in touch with me in the midst of that conversation and had actually helped arrange for me to get electronic access to the remarkable series of investigative articles by reporter Tom Price published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth, in the summer of 1992. I posted those articles on my PeaceTheology site.
Barbra’s manifesto was initially posted on the website Our Stories Untold and then on Young Anabaptist Radicals. The attention it attracted witnesses to the strong interest the Yoder situation still commands. She thought it would be of value still to have the piece posted here given the potential of reaching a somewhat difference audience. Plus, she continued to revise it and welcomed the chance to publish an updated version (which may be read here).
“Thinking out loud”
I have continued to think and talk and even dream about the dilemmas these issues reflect. So I welcome the stimulus to try to “think out loud” a bit as I reflect on Barbra’s words and the ensuring discussions. My particular angle on this discussion, as I wrote in my December 2010 post, is my struggle as one who profoundly appreciates Yoder’s writings while also being deeply troubled by his widespread acts of harm. How can these go together?
I still have not resolved that question. At this point, I don’t think the question is fully resolvable. I’m not about to give up on Yoder’s theological insights—and I’m not about to perceive his actions as anything by atrocious (more information and perspectives continue to trickle in to my awareness, and as they do my distress at Yoder’s behavior only intensifies). It’s good to be reminded that human life is always messy and pretty much every valuable teacher any of us have had has some foibles. But Yoder’s violations go beyond the vast majority of feet-of-clay behaviors.
For me as a peace theologian, one value I see in having this discussion continue is a sense finally that I may see glimpses of problems in Yoder’s theology that become discernible only in light of the extra scrutiny we must pay to interrogating his theology in light of his behavior. At this point these are only fleeting glimpses, but one reason I want the discussion to continue among theologians is the hope that it might be possible to get more than such glimpses.
It could be that Yoder’s emphasis on the presence of the new age today and not only in the future, not itself an intrinsic problem, may lend itself to a kind of coercive ethical libertarianism when combined with the kind of damaged psyche that makes a person insensitive to the pain their “idealism” may cause to others. It does seem clear that Yoder’s theological brilliance did provide ways for him to rationalize and repeat his hurtful acts. My sense now is that I still don’t see a direct link between his theology and his actions. In fact, I think we are best off to think of them separately. But to separate them is not to say that the actions don’t challenge us to look for dangers in the theology.
A hope for on-going conversation and discernment
I view the writing I do here as being part of a thought process, an on-going effort at discernment, a chance to utilize the buzz that Barbra’s manifesto stimulated to continue a fascinating and important conversation. I hope my reflections aren’t taken too seriously as anything more than one fairly ignorant person’s attempt to think together with others for the sake of theological discernment.
I have four themes I want to address in reflecting on this general issue of the struggle to think about Yoder’s peace theology and his violent actions: (1) sexual violence among Mennonites in general as background for thinking about Yoder; (2) Yoder’s own sexual violence; (3) the core insights of Yoder’s theology; (4) a direct response to Barbra’s manifesto.
I hope to post about themes #1 and #2 tomorrow, #3 on Sunday, and #4 on Monday.
In addition to Barbra’s manifesto, my own writings, and the Elkhart Truth articles on Yoder linked to above, here are a couple of other resources. Theologian Andy Alexis-Baker, an expert on Yoder’s writings, shared some useful thoughts on the Jesus Radicals site followed by a lively and often enlightening discussion. And theologian Ruth Krall, professor emeritus from Goshen College, a sister school to Yoder’s Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has a lengthy collection of essays that speak directly to Yoder’s actions in the form of a downloadable e-book. The prominent theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a close friend of Yoder’s, has a short, fascinating discussion of Yoder’s actions and their consequences in his memoir, Hannah’s Child, pages 242-7.