Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part two—sexual violence)

Ted Grimsrud—August 3, 2013

For all of my adult life, ever since I was nearly drafted into the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, I have thought constantly about issues of violence, its effects and how to overcome the problems it causes. Most of my focus has been on violence in relation to war, but I have thought about violence more generally as well. John Howard Yoder’s theology has been influential for me, but others have perhaps influenced me even more in thinking about violence’s origins and impact on our world.

Violence as a central Christian issue was the focus of my graduate studies both in my M.A. program as Associated Mennonite Biblical Studies and my Ph.D. program at the Graduate Theological Union. My doctorate was in Christian Ethics. Part of my training as an ethicist has involved the discipline of “ethical description.” One element of an ethicist’s work is simply to describe the situation, the issues, the interested parties, the various points of view. I was never attracted to the neutral bystander, strictly descriptive approach, but I have found the work of seeking to describe to be useful, even if mostly as a prerequisite for the most useful kind of prescriptive work. I suppose, too, my undergraduate training in news reporting has been useful.

So, this conversation about John Howard Yoder as doer of violence (see Barbra Graber’s initial guestpost, “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder“, and the first part of my set of reflections) links in with my interests on several levels. Certainly on the level of how to make sense of the actions of my teacher  who helped me learn so much about peace theology. But also on the level of thinking about a terrible and oh so personal aspect of the phenomenon of violence—men acting violently toward women, especially in Christian communities. And also in thinking about how to apply things I have learned about violence from many sources over the years. So, I struggle ahead, mostly for the purpose of myself trying to understand a little better (more than affecting anyone else).

Important sources for understanding and responding to violence

I have found four writers to be especially helpful for my thinking about understanding and responding to violence and seeking peace: Walter Wink, Alice Miller, James Gilligan, and Howard Zehr.

(1) Walter Wink’s book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination has long been an inspiration and guide for me. The book’s beginning sets the tone for much of my work: “One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating more evils and being made evil ourselves?” (p. 3). Wink provides one of the most profound and practical efforts to answer this question that we have, still enormously useful now over 20 years after the book’s publication.

Wink himself, and I strongly agree, starts with the assumption that as human beings, we all have a basic responsibility to do what we can to “oppose evil.” Passivity and resignation are not acceptable options, nor—of course—is complicity with evil. However, Wink insists, we must oppose evil in ways that actually do diminish (if not fully overcome) the evils we oppose. All too often, we oppose evil in ways that actually heighten the evil—as when our nation goes to war to defeat Nazi and Imperial Japanese oppression and ends up unleashing new and still spiraling oppressions and violence ourselves (I just completed a book on this theme, to be published this winter).

Wink’s book (and my forthcoming book) focus on macro-level war and peace kinds of issues. However, the problem of how to oppose evil in genuinely healing ways applies to all of life. I believe it surely must apply to how we approach sexual violence. Wink’s first point (or at least my point drawing on Wink) is that we must oppose the evil of sexual violence. We should seek a world (and certainly seek churches) where there is zero tolerance for sexual violence, where all vulnerable people are safe, where perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable and prevented from repeating the harm they have done. However, I think we should honestly recognize that here too we likely will find it challenging and difficult to do this work in ways that truly are healing—that actually are effective and that don’t set off another spiral of violence toward violence-doers and turn those who do the necessary work of resisting evil into evil-doers themselves.

(2) Alice Miller has also long been an inspiration and guide. The Swiss psychotherapist who died in 2010, wrote and spoke on behalf of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, children. Her book that speaks most directly about the origins of violence is called, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of ViolenceFor my purposes here, one of Miller’s key insights was that even the most violent of people were not born violent but were made violent. She argues that our tendency simply to condemn violators as “bad apples” keeps us from learning much from their actions and, more importantly, makes it much more difficult to understand how to break the cycle of violence.

Miller sees the roots of violence in violent treatment of young children. In For Your Own Good, she even, notoriously, examines the early life of Adolf Hitler. She, of course, does not mean to excuse Hitler (in fact, Miller herself grew up Jewish in Poland and lost her entire family in the Holocaust). But she insists we must bracket our understandable revulsion at Hitler’s deeds and try to understand. If we do so, we discover (she argues, controversially) that the roots to the sociopath that Hitler became lay in the violence he experienced as a child. So, for Miller, one of the key steps we must take to prevent new Hitlers from arising is to end violence against children.

The point I am particularly interested in here is Miller’s insistence in seeking to understand, to go beyond condemnation and stereotyping and learn about each person and the dynamics that shaped their lives. While often focusing on extreme cases to make her points, Miller suggests that most other less extreme cases of violent patterns of life also stem from early childhood—a major dynamic in violent behavior being a lack of empathy for the recipient of the violence. She resists retributive thinking toward offenders, seeking to create a sense of empathy toward even the cowering little boy that had been Adolf Hitler. In this way, she hopes, the spiral of violence might be broken. That said, Miller’s main concern is with protecting children from violence. She believes that this will best happen by breaking free from any kind of violence, even violence against violent offenders.

(3) After Alice Miller, I read James Gilligan’s important book, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic and found Gilligan (himself a psychiatrist as well, who worked in the Massachusetts state prison for many years) to offer a parallel analysis. Like Miller, Gilligan focuses significant attention on the worst of the violent offenders. And like Miller, Gilligan argues for seeking to understand, empathize with, and not simply stereotype and punish these offenders. And like Miller, Gilligan’s agenda is seeking to find the most effective and transformative way to overcome the problem of violence.

Gilligan advocates taking what he calls a “public health” approach to what he sees to be the “disease” of violence—in contrast to what he calls a “moral” approach (I’d prefer the term “moralistic”) that focuses on assessing and punishing guilt. His book is challenging in how he, like Miller, deals with people who have committed horrendous acts of violence empathetically. He also suggests that the worst way to deal with violence is by adding to the cycle of violence by punishing wrongdoers (my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Salvation, draws on Gilligan and others in challenging traditional Christian atonement theology and presenting a different reading of the biblical story that supports a non-punitive approach to wrongdoing as grounded in the Bible’s portrayal of God).

The most powerful pathogen in creating the disease of violence, Gilligan suggests, is shame. This is why ostracism, punishment, and hostility toward wrongdoers tend to be counterproductive. Punitive approaches often exacerbate the shame and actually intensify the impulse to act violently—rather than effectively serving as deterrents to further violence.

(4) My friend Howard Zehr’s pioneering work on restorative justice is the final source of insight I will mention. Howard’s central book is Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice where he outlines the philosophy of restorative justice and its theological grounding in Christian sources—though Howard certainly does not believe that only Christians may practice restorative justice. A later book, Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims, adds important first-person accounts from those who have been hurt by violent crime and a perceptive essay by Howard reflecting on the needs of those hurt by violent crime. Restorative justice, as presented by Howard, has at its heart the concern for the healing of communities that have been disrupted by hurtful wrongdoing. [Here is some writing I have done thinking theologically about restorative justice.]

One of the key points I have gained from Howard’s work is that, contrary to many misrepresentations of the approach, the people who matter the most in a restorative justice approach are those who have been hurt by the wrongdoing. There is an underlying assumption that true healing of the brokenness ultimately requires healing of all parties involved in the problem, but the healing of wrongdoers is, in a sense, secondary to the healing of those who were wronged. One of the main reasons punitive, retributive approaches to wrongdoing are challenged by restorative justice is that causing pain to wrongdoers generally does not in itself bring healing to the wronged. It often may even add more pain to the already harmed—not to mention the way the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. that feeds on the drive toward punitive responses to crime has damaged our broader society.

At times, it seems that restorative processes are short-circuited by hasty efforts to bring “closure,” to pressure the wronged to “forgive,” and to “restore” wrongdoers to the community prematurely. Such short-circuiting should not be seen as a reason to abandon restorative justice approaches but rather as a challenge to learn evermore about processes that foster genuine healing.

Thinking about sexual violence

I believe these ideas that in my work I have applied mostly to war and the death penalty and criminal justice must also be applicable to sexual violence—though I don’t pretend to speak as a particularly knowledgable person about sexual violence. My desire to make as much sense as I can of the Yoder discussion, though, is challenging me to think about sexual violence more than I have for quite awhile.

It seems like one key theme that arises in just about all accounts of violence is a dynamic (not necessarily obvious) of beginning with lack of empathy and moving on to stereotyping and “othering” and dehumanizing and violence. Certainly this dynamic happens in warfare and it seems to be a central factor in many cases of sexual violence where the woman or child is objectified and then abused. In general, violence usually requires some kind of diminishing of the humanity of the other.

We live amidst many currents in church and society that push us to label and stereotype, to objectify and impersonalize. Empathy for others, especially others who are different in significant ways, seems fairly rare in our broader society (and all too rare in Christian communities). So a major challenge that fits directly within Walter Wink’s insistence that morally responsible human beings must commit ourselves to opposing evil is finding ways to resist “othering” dynamics and to encourage empathy. Most centrally, this task should focus on resistance to othering dynamics that lead to harm to vulnerable people—specifically, in the context of the current discussion, overcoming the dynamics that lead some men to violate some women.

At the same time, the on-going presence of vulnerable people in our communities means we can’t simply wait for growth in empathy and resistance to othering and dehumanizing to make our communities safer. We continue to work at creating safe environments, at empowering people who have been hurt to speak out, to tell their stories, to be respected and listened to. It’s kind a dialectic, where our communities need to evolve to be more empathetic toward all people and at the same time more explicitly and practically opposed to actions that harm.

One important aspect of opposing evil without adding to it is to seek to cultivate empathy and resist “othering” and “dehumanizing” even in relation to those who themselves “other” and dehumanize and with their lack of empathy hurt others by transgressing boundaries they are oblivious to are disdainful of. I wonder if the use of labels to define people such as “predator” and “abuser” rather than behavioral descriptions such as “predatory behavior” and “abusive acts” might at times lead to the dehumanization of violators. Alice Miller and James Gilligan, for example, offer us models of writers who are strong in their opposition to violent behavior yet understand that the cycle of dehumanization itself should be resisted through treating offenders as human beings—responsible for their acts and needing to be stopped in their hurtful acts but still individual human beings who should be understood and helped to heal, not simply condemned.

I think Wink’s challenge to oppose evil without adding to it is a call to find ways to resist violence and people who act violently while at the same time becoming ever more compassionate and creative in breaking all cycles of violence.

Sexual violence among Mennonites

Many people have noted in recent years, maybe beginning with the novels of Canadian Mennonite writer Rudy Wiebe in the 1960s (see especially, Peace Shall Destroy Many [1962]) that “peaceful” Mennonite communities can be places of terrible violence. Pathbreaking books by Carolyn Holderread Heggen (Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches) and Melissa Miller (Family Violence: The Compassionate Church Responds), published in the early 1990s by the Mennonite Publishing House, helped give some sense of the extent of the problems specifically related to sexual violence—and, thankfully, provide helpful guidance for responding to the problems. [It is interesting, though, that as far as I know no further similar major books have been written under Mennonite auspices in the past 20 years and these two books are not longer published by MPH (now Menno Media)—Heggen’s book is available as a reprint with Wipf and Stock; Miller’s book seems to be out of print, though easily available as a used book. Is this indicative that the problems have lessened? Or of a premature diminishing of interest?]

In the long years since I joined my first Mennonite church as a “newbie,” I have perceived that empathy is not a particularly characteristic Mennonite virtue. I’m not sure if Mennonites are more or less prone to sexual violence than other Christian groups, but it clearly has been a problem for Mennonites. And, just as clearly, Mennonite churches have not always dealt redemptively with sexual violence when it has arisen. It does seem like things may have gotten better in recent years, but I say that mainly because I haven’t heard of crises as often as in the past. But many problems surely remain. I am sure that some of the energy in response to this current discussion of John Howard Yoder arises because of present problematic realities.

I do feel a bit troubled, though, with how so much of the focus is on Yoder and events that happened mostly over 20 years ago. I hope that the attention our current discussion is receiving might lead to more awareness of current concerns. The reminder of Yoder’s actions and the jagged and painful wounds that remain open hopefully will be a stimulus to try harder to address this problem in today’s Mennonite communities and beyond.

However, my own contribution to the discussion needs to be focused on what I know at least a little about, so my next post will reflect more directly on Yoder.

[Here are links to the other parts of this series of blogs: “Reflections from a chagrined Yoderian”—Part One; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five.]

9 thoughts on “Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part two—sexual violence)

  1. I am not a theologian or thinker on Christian practice. However, of great concern to me is the practice of unconditional love. I know that I am love at the core of my being. So I have been reading and working at incorporating the principles outlined in Colin C. Tipping’s book entitled, Radical Forgiveness: Making Room for the Miracle. One concept that I have gained so far is that the taking on of “victim hood” keeps us from empathizing with the person with whom we are in conflict. It perpetuates the separation that is fundamentally uncomfortable and unnatural to us.

    I would suggest that Tipping’s ideas, which are expounded in many other places and which he synthesizes so effectively, might be of use when confronting the issue of sexualized violence within the institutional church.

  2. Thanks Ted. Looking forward to your continued thoughts on this.
    two books I commend to you:
    Elizabeth Soto Albrecht: Family Violence: Reclaiming a Theology of Nonviolence (Orbis books, 2008)

    Cynthia Hess: Sites of Violence, Sites of Grace: Christian Nonviolence and the Traumatized Self (Lexington books, 2008)

    1. Thanks Ted (and Susan) for providing more excellent resources for further reflection. I hear your concern that we “don’t set off another spiral of violence toward violence-doers and turn those who do the necessary work of resisting evil into evil-doers themselves.” But we’ve been erring in the other direction so long—offering grace to the predator and shamed devastating silence to the victim—-it seems we might be due some leeway in erring in the other direction perhaps?
      Bonnie, thanks for our comments on victimhood. If you are speaking of ordinary human conflict then for sure I agree. With sexual violation, as in the case of JHY, it is another animal entirely and a strange conundrum. Until one really fully realizes the travesty that has been done to you (i.e. admit you have really been wronged and it wasn’t your fault) you aren’t going to heal, no matter how many times you tell yourself you are fine and refuse to be a “victim”. On the other hand we cannot stay in that self-pitying phase indefinitely and a lot of us stay there way too long until the identity itself becomes a place to hide. I think I’d say my phases were: denial, denial, denial, acceptance, self-pity, victim identity , rage and anger, determination to do whatever it took to heal, submission to the healing process and realization I couldn’t do it myself but needed a Higher Power’s help, complete destruction and reconstruction of my God/Goddess concepts and religious/nonreligious beliefs, renewed freedom, a new measure of fearlessness, empowerment, celebration of myself flaws and all….Tah duh. I’m still a work in progress….

      1. The Radical Forgiveness process does NOT perpetuate denial of the violation. It CAN shortcut to forgiveness and true forgiveness is actually self-forgiveness which is incredibly empowering. I do not want to come across as trivializing your trauma. I want to turn you on to a wonderful process that could be redemptive for both the “perpetrator” and his “victim”. It sounds to me that thoughtful Mennonites want something like this very loving process. You are praying for healing, after all.

  3. Thanks for clarifying Bonnie. I did not experience you as “trivializing our trauma” at all. I’ll take your word for it that Tippings book on “Radical Forgiveness” is just that and not the same version of forgiveness that has kept us from moving forward on this issue. Self-forgiveness, as you say, is the most empowering of all. If I misunderstood, forgive me. I’ll definitely get the book and read it.

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