Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part one—introduction)

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.

Here are: Reflections from a chagrined Yoderian, Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five.

20 thoughts on “Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part one—introduction)

  1. i’m an outsider, not being a Mennonite myself, but i struggle with what i take to be a very similar dilemma in my own tradition that includes saints with what i consider to be not-so-insignificant flaws. Nevertheless, i have done fairly extensive reading in Yoder’s works. So i’m interested in this particular question as well.

    i wonder, is this particular case different in any important respect than, say, Gandhi, who had odd nude sleep-overs with his nieces in order to test the progress of his ascetic practice, or MLK’s infidelity? i still consider the writings/speeches of both men to be too good not to include in my general research. Is this mistaken?

  2. I find it interesting that there seems to be a pattern of sexual impropriety by otherwise highly respected religious leaders, Paul Tillich and Frank Tillapaugh to name just two outside Mennonite circles. After reading their stories, and actually hearing an attempt by another to justify his adulterous behavior, I now suspect that once you become “theologically famous” you begin to believe that your human relationships are on a “different plane than mere mortals”, as one of them put it to me. Tillapaugh actually said that because of the stress of being famous he felt that he “deserved” the affair he was engaged in for all those years. The point is that we more easily deceive ourselves than anyone else.

    1. Lynn I’m with you on the way fame can make us feel more deserving and excuse our wrongdoing. But your comparison of Tillich or Tillapaugh to JHY is faulty. Adultery may be a sin but it is not a crime. Men who have consensual affairs with women who are their equals cannot be compared to John Howard Yoder. The vast majority of documented reports about JHY define the actions of a serial sex offender.

  3. I appreciate that we are having this conversation, as I am using Yoder in my thesis work extensively, and am troubled by the lack of discussion about interpersonal and sexual violence in Peace theology, generally. I’ll write more about this in the future but a few comments I’ll make here, and perhaps add them to Graber’s guestpost at a later point. 1) Yoder’s mentor, Karl Barth, had a “bizarre” arrangement of being married with kids, AND having his theological “mistress” live with him/the family for decades. I have to believe this influenced/desensitized Yoder to the anomaly of his actions as one of several reasons for his behavior. 2) During a period of time several years ago when I was reading only Yoder, I observed that at the end of each day I felt extremely angry, and I suspect it has something to do with the way I experienced his theology (which I’ve been sympathetic to and deeply influenced by) as compartmentalized from other aspects of life and what Ted names above as the experience of the absolutist/idealized position/s he articulated. 3) A criminal is more than his/her crime. I agree that more accountability and discipline was needed in the case of Yoder, but I think there are moments in the discussion, as I’ve followed it here, that veers on reducing Yoder (or any other sex offender) to the singularity of their failings.
    I think the “community hermeneutic” in the Mennonite church (perhaps more active in Yoder’s time than now) has made it hard for women or others to name abuse & other things that go on in secret, out loud. It seems to me that a praxis that requires the “spirit to lead” the majority of people to see/define something in the same way, prevents/isolates a woman from speaking out and being taken seriously – because we do not honor a singular voice of dissent. We have in fact, shunned. The problem gets compounded by the patriarchy that continues to abound in our Mennonite communities, which further dis-empowers the voice of dissent, because it is a woman’s.
    Lastly, while we are discussing these things in the context of “sexual violence” – I tend to think of Yoder’s violence within the framework of power, and have long thought it problematic that our peace theology/Mennonite theology has been so focused on the problem/morality of war that it has not adequately talk/discussed/helped us think through power as it relates to peacemaking. The default, as I read it, was the notion that servant leadership/peacemakers gave up power. Women theologians addressing peace theology and violence against women (see Occasional papers at IMS) noticed this problem/lacuna. I would also refer you to Lydia Harder who has addressed this in her book and articles, and I think Jim Reimer (at the time of his death) was on to this when he began thinking about what a Mennonite theology of institution could look like.

    1. “I think the “community hermeneutic” in the Mennonite church (perhaps more active in Yoder’s time than now) has made it hard for women or others to name abuse & other things that go on in secret, out loud.” You are on to something here, Susan.

  4. Susan, thank you for your comments! You articulate some things well that I would have liked to say, and I want to ditto your reponse (esp. re: Mennonite community hermeneutic enmeshed with patriarchy and the need to conceive of power more complexely).

  5. In all of this discussion, I have yet to read of my own experience of John Howard Yoder. I read his, Politics of Jesus, while I was a student at Hope College. That experience prompted me to want to study with him in the Peace Studies program at AMBS. I was housed as a student next door to him and his family. I was able to observe some interaction between him and his family. I found him to be a very poor teacher and less than kind disciple of the Jesus he wrote and taught about. I don’t pretend to know if he had some sort of personality disorder or if he just habitually was aloof and at times verbally abusive toward students. I didn’t know of his abuse of women until after I graduated, but I wasn’t surprised. Coming from a Reformed theological heritage, I expect that we all have a proclivity toward sin even if our public ideas and statements suggest otherwise.

    1. John was a “strange bird” also in my experience at AMBS from 1982 to 1985. When he walked down the halls of the seminary he looked at the walls and hardly ever noticed anyone walking with or towards him, and the thought of him being aggressive with anyone just didn’t match the person I knew. It is true that his teaching style took a lot of getting used to, it seemed that he would have just as happy if there were not students present. At that time I thought that he must naturally be a very strong introvert, and that all the hoopla over his theological musings was very stressful for him. I once stopped in his office to ask if he knew of anyone who was working on the theme of “hospitality” as a core character of God seen in the person of Jesus, and for many years afterward I would get mailings from him with a copy of an article about hospitality, with FYI and his initials on the top.

  6. Thanks for this, Ted. I’m grateful for your willingness to “think out loud” with me and your colleagues and to own and explore your “struggle as one who profoundly appreciates Yoder’s writings while also being deeply troubled by his widespread acts of harm.” I truly empathize with this struggle and it is perhaps the personal reason behind my desire to unpack the legacy of John Howard Yoder along with you. In the mid 80’s I had to face the contradiction in my own father Clarence Graber when after his death, long suppressed memories began to surface for some of my siblings and me and we had to eventually face the truth: that our otherwise loving, gifted, witty and fun, gentle and well-respected, sincerely Christian father was the product of what we assume to be a multi-generational incest family. He was a pedophile. He committed monstrous acts. He was likely the victim of incest himself. He nearly destroyed my life and I’m lucky to have survived. He was also my father and in so many ways a good father. I had him on a pedestal and it came crashing down. I’ll never put anyone on a pedestal again. Not anyone. Perhaps that is the lesson here. It is perhaps our difficulty in accepting the inconsistencies and incongruities in ourselves and others that gets us into trouble. We want so badly to think of people as either good or bad, worthy or unworthy. But few of us are who we seem to be. And the more we believe we have to hide, the harder we work to create the facade of piety, charity, and perfection. Perhaps it is why so many sex offenders end up in church and on the mission field. All that to say I’m deeply appreciative of your sincerity, your transparency, your good mind and open heart, and your struggle to come to terms with our perplexing human condition through the life and work of JHY. Glad to be on the path with you and I look forward to engaging with you further.

  7. I appreciate this discussion about John Howard Yoder. For the first time I am becoming aware of the extent of the abuse committed by JH Yoder and the ensuing cover up in response to his abuse. I believe, Tom, that you are beginning to ask some of the right questions about revisiting John Howard Yoder’s theology in light of the abuse that he committed. I believe that within the constructs of his peace theology he planted the framework for violence. His use of male white privilege and intellectual brilliance to manipulate in order to get his way in real life influenced other pastors who were educated at the seminary. I believe it is these seeds of entitlement that perhaps can be teased out of his writings. It is too bad that he was not held accountable for his actions. It would have been fascinating to see his writings from prison; writings from a not-so-powerful perch and perhaps with the element of humility.

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