Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part three—Yoder’s violence)

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2013

I remember back in the mid-1980s when I learned that John Howard Yoder would no longer be teaching at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. My wife Kathleen and I had attended AMBS in 1980-1 almost solely because Yoder was teaching there. Right after our time at AMBS we decided we wanted to become Mennonites.

Yoder had been teaching only one class a semester at AMBS for a number of years once he started teaching also at Notre Dame in nearby South Bend. I first assumed that he had decided himself to focus only on his Notre Dame responsibilities. However, I began to hear from friends at AMBS that this move was not Yoder’s decision, but that AMBS had decided to end the relationship. However, the reasons for this termination were top secret. No one I talked with had any sense what the problem had been, only that AMBS administrators were indicating that there had to be no information given due to legal confidentiality purposes.

I was troubled, but for many years had no idea what the problem might have been. Then, Kathleen and I returned to AMBS for a semester in the spring of 1992. And the other shoe dropped. Yoder had been invited to speak at Bethel College in Kansas, and due to voices of protest raised by women who Yoder had hurt and their allies, Yoder’s invitation was rescinded. We had a forum at AMBS shortly afterwards which was the first time I heard a more detailed explanation (though still pretty cryptic) that the reason why Yoder was no longer teaching at AMBS was because of sexual misconduct.

Then, in June 1992, reporter Tom Price of the Elkhart Truth, wrote a series of articles based on interviews with a number of those directly hurt by Yoder as well as numerous other church leaders, et al. Price also included a summary of one of Yoder’s unpublished essays that seemingly gave at least an indirect rationale for Yoder’s actions. [Price’s article on this may be read here.]

Price’s articles have remained the main source of specific information about Yoder’s actions that I am aware of. A few years ago, Yoder’s friend, the prominent theologian Stanley Hauerwas, included a short but informative discussion of Yoder’s situation in his memoir, Hannah’s Child. [This discussion may be read here.]

What happened?

Price and Hauerwas give us our main public knowledge. I have learned a few other things from reliable sources and, of course, heard many rumors and much hearsay. I have become convinced that Yoder did engage in coercive and sexually inappropriate behavior that caused serious emotional harm for many women.

The extent of this behavior remains a matter of speculation. Hauerwas states that Yoder “began his seductions of ‘weighty’ Mennonite women—women of intellectual and spiritual stature” in the 1960s. As far as I know, it has not been established when he stopped, if ever, but there is reason to believe that he continued at least well into the 1980s. Price reports that eight women together brought charges of sexual harassment against Yoder that resulted in a disciplinary process undertaken by a committee from the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, holder of Yoder’s ministerial credentials. We may safely assume that the number of women whose boundaries Yoder transgressed was much larger than the eight who brought charges.

Price’s articles detail strange and clumsy attempts at physical intimacy along with unwelcome and invasive conversations, letters, and phone calls. Part of what made these advances traumatic for their recipients was the respect many of these women had for Yoder as a teacher and scholar who they saw as an advocate for peace, advocacy they affirmed. So they felt a strong sense of trust that was then violated in intensely hurtful ways.

In the years since 1992, I have been part of many discussions of just what level of harm may have been caused by Yoder’s actions. Price’s articles do not suggest profound physical harm-doing. I think in the end, though, we simply have to accept that Yoder’s actions were deeply violent, he did cause harm, there is no way to minimize the seriousness of his violations.

My own understanding of the hurt that Yoder caused was deepened by one conversation I had with a woman who as a young seminary student had been accosted by Yoder and seriously traumatized. Our conversation happened decades after the event and many years after Yoder’s death. But the pain was still present in obvious ways. There is no way to explain away this transgression, and it seems clear that we could multiply the trauma my friend had experienced perhaps dozens of times with other women Yoder treated similarly.

Why did it happen?

From what I understand, Yoder’s explanation for his behavior (which he seems not to have seen as the violation that it was) was that he was seeking to test his theory that Christians of the opposite sex could have intimate physical relationships that did not involve overt sexual intercourse and hence were not adulterous (Hauerwas refers to this as does Price in his summary of Yoder’s ideas).

This is an interesting “theory” and does not seem on the surface to be utterly outlandish (though it is not a theory I am personally attracted to). What made the theory so deeply problematic, I sense, is that when Yoder tried to implement it he tended to be oblivious to the lack of interest and even active resistance from his would-be partners. This is when he became especially violent—according to Price physically forcing himself on at least one of the women Price interviewed and violating emotional boundaries with numerous others.

Chillingly, even when resisted and challenged, Yoder did not seem to express regret or an awareness of the pain he had caused. On Hauerwas’s account (confirmed by a few other sources), Yoder continually defended his actions in terms of seeking to experiment with his theory about intimacy. He doesn’t seem to have sought to understand the feelings of trauma and betrayal he left in his wake.

One aspect of the story I know next to nothing about is whether there were women who did not resist Yoder’s advances. I have heard one reliable account of a woman who did have a relationship with Yoder that she welcomed. There may have been others over the decades Yoder sought such partners.

As I reflect on my struggle with Yoder’s behavior in relation to Yoder’s theology, I have come to the conclusion that it is best to accept that he was indeed violent, over and over. Regardless of whatever fine line we might want to make concerning degrees of transgression, he was way over the line between innocent if clumsy attempts at friendship and hurtful, coercive acts of sexual violence.

How did Mennonite institutions respond?

The Elkhart Truth articles make brief reference to AMBS administrators (particularly then president Marlin Miller) gathering information on Yoder’s behavior as early as the mid-1970s. I have since become aware that an actual committee of AMBS administrators, faculty, and board members who were investigating the allegations had been established around this time. As well, at least once in the late-1970s, an AMBS faculty member walked into a dark classroom and discovered Yoder and a partner in a compromising position.

However, it was not until the mid-1980s that Yoder’s employment at AMBS ended. And when it was ended, there was total silence concerning the reasons why. It is understandable now why many would perceive that AMBS was engaged in a self-conscious cover-up in order to protect its most prominent faculty member and the Mennonite Church’s best known theologian. A more charitable interpretation might suggest more that the people involved were simply caught up in a situation for which they were not prepared and had little clue about how best to proceed.

Regardless, it now seems pretty shocking to think that more wasn’t done to stop Yoder’s access to seminary students and publicly to censor him. I think about how, just off the top of my head, I can think of four cases of sexual transgression in the past 20 years at Eastern Mennonite University where I teach where men who were accused of sexual harassment (or worse) were quickly and fairly publicly fired.

Also troubling is the sense that once AMBS decided to sever ties with Yoder, the school seems to have acted as if its responsibilities in the situation were ended. There seems to have been little effort to help the people Yoder had hurt while working for AMBS to find healing from their trauma. It seemingly took the outcry of the public resistance to Yoder’s 1992 speech at Bethel College and the Elkhart Truth articles to push Mennonite institutions to action.

Stanley Hauerwas’s brief account of Yoder’s response to the disciplinary procedures that were finally initiated is interesting in that Yoder apparently opposed taking part in this process and was only persuaded to do so by a conference call with Hauerwas and two other prominent theologian-friends, Glenn Stassen and Jim McClendon. An important factor apparently was an appeal that refusal to participate would seriously injure Yoder’s future legacy as a theologian.

As it turned out, the process was pretty successful in “restoring” John Howard Yoder—but not so successful in enlightening the broader community about what had happened or, more seriously, in providing “restoration” (healing) for the women Yoder had hurt and their families.

After the disciplinary committee completed its work and issued a brief statement that “commended” Yoder’s work to the church, the faculty of AMBS moved unanimously to rescind the ban on Yoder’s presence at the seminary that had been imposed only a few years earlier. As it turned out, an AMBS prof had a serious health problem in the Fall of 1997 and at the last second Yoder was asked to fill in. So he taught one final class that ended just a few weeks before Yoder’s sudden death in December 1997. This was a nice moment of reconciliation that nonetheless does not diminish a troubling legacy.

Only in 2012, as far as I know, did the seminary, in the form of a statement from the AMBS faculty, speak formally of the problem. This statement, as a whole, is an affirmation of the continued value of Yoder’s thought while recognizing the “complexity” of that affirmation in light of the awareness people now have of Yoder’s hurtful behavior. The faculty agree to teach this complexity. However, the picture the statement gives of the seminary’s own role in Yoder’s history is pretty benign—the statement refers to how AMBS administrators and colleagues “worked diligently to hold [Yoder] accountable over multiple years” once his behavior was uncovered. The statement does not speak to the extreme secrecy surrounding this “diligent” work nor does it say much about the harm that Yoder’s actions caused and how the seminary might still play a role in addressing that harm.

Very recently, current AMBS president Sara Wenger Shenk addressed the issues a bit more forcefully in her blog published on the AMBS website. Among other comments, Shenk acknowledges that there is still “unfinished business” in relation to this story. She makes an important confession, “as I review the written materials about him and talk to people, I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behavior.”

Shenk concludes with some penetrating questions: “Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time, must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight. What did actually happen? What was done to address it and what was left undone regrettably, or done poorly, in retrospect? Who suffered because of that failure? Who was disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure?”

We can hope that out of Shenk’s wrestling in this way with these issues that new illumination might be gained—though she still seems a bit short on concrete plans on how this might happen. I would love to see AMBS commit financial and other resources to reach out to help the people Yoder hurt—even if such help might be mostly symbolic.

What should be done now?

As I reflect on this story, I can identify three different areas of concern in relation to what Yoder’s sexual violence means for us today, especially those of us in the Mennonite world.

(1) The first is the general issue of sexual violence in our churches and church-related settings. I hope that the ferment around Yoder’s acts can serve as a fruitful catalyst to stimulate more conversation, reflection, and action in addressing the on-going problems of sexual violence. As I mentioned in my previous post, after generating two excellent books 20 years ago, Mennonite publications and institutions have been more quiet in recent years. Maybe we can be energized to devote more of our best energies to what obviously continues to be a living issue.

On the other hand, I worry a bit that all the focus on Yoder and events from the now fairly distant past might be diverting some of that energy. I am not sure that there are a lot of specific lessons to be learned from Yoder’s story that apply directly to our needs today beyond the general lesson that sexual violence must be confronted quickly and decisively. As I implied, it seems unthinkable that a parallel situation could arise at the Mennonite school where I teach given the decisive action that has been taken time after time since the mid-1990s. I hope talking about Yoder can trigger a move to then go on to talk about our present—a conversation that would eventually have little to do with Yoder.

(2) The second is the issue of telling and learning from the story of the past. Yoder remains an extremely important figure in Mennonite history of the second half of the 20th century (and not only in North America). He also remains an important figure in the world of Christian theology and peacemaking. So his story is of intrinsic interest—like the stories of all important people. And, certainly this issue of his sexual violations is part of the story of his life. But it is only part of that bigger story.

Yoder’s life story, I think, is not important because of his sexual violence. It is important most of all because of his intellectual endeavors and his influence on Christian theology and ethics. We shouldn’t, though, try to tell the story without this problematic part. So it is worthy of attention to fill out our account of this challenging person.

The story of Yoder’s sexual violence is also of historical interest in the context of tracing the general story of North American Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century. It certainly is instructive in helping to provide an account of how Mennonites and their institutions have (and have not) responded to sexual violence. It may not happen in my life time, but I hope for perceptive, careful, well-researched historical writing on the Mennonite story in relation to John Howard Yoder’s life and thought.

(3) Third, the issue that has motivated my own reflections more than any other, is the question of what our knowledge of Yoder’s actions means for how we approach his theology. This issue will be the focus of my next post. I will say right now, though, that the more I struggle with the question the more I am pushed to conclude that it is best to separate Yoder’s behavior from his theology. Especially because he is now long dead, his writings stand (or fall) on their own merits.

I struggle to make sense of how the theology I love coexists with the behavior I hate. I am moving more toward being content that I have to give up on that struggle and focus mainly on the ideas. The purpose of focusing on the ideas, though, is not in order to construct a Yoderian theology. Rather, it is to move beyond Yoder. He gave us his legacy of theological writing (which is, I believe, profound indeed) for the purpose of our learning and then moving on to do our own work. Yoder’s ideas help us do that (or, maybe I should say, less presumptuously, they help me do that—I hope they help others, too). But there is a sense that as time passes it becomes less and less important where the ideas came from (and what kinds of terrible things the originator of the ideas might have done) and more and more important how the ideas stimulate further ideas and—more importantly—peaceable living.

[Here are links to the other parts in this series: Part One; Part Two; Part Four; Part Five]

10 thoughts on “Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part three—Yoder’s violence)

  1. Thank you, Mr. Grimsrud, for an exposition about your own chagrin. The past weekend gave me some time to catch up on the controversy by reading Prof Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, and Dr. Krall’s Elephants. Although not a cradle Mennonite, I was thoroughly immersed in Mennonite education (Bienenberg, MBBS) and wrote my dissertation on Anabaptist Theology and Ethics. The focus was how virtues are developed and lived out so one is not forced to divorce theology and ethics, as is the case today.

    I respectfully, but utterly disagree with several of your areas of learning.

    Yoder’s life story is important as a culmination of who he became as a theologian. Equally, if not of greater importance is the life story of the women he has violated (and who continue to be violated by those in power over them). Sexual violence is not about sex or sexuality, it is about power and force towards others. Each person’s life in these sad events have been unchangingly ripped open, traumatized, and set on a different path – in grief counseling language, a new normal had to be established in those lives. That is also true for JHY, whether he knew it or not.

    Yoder would be the first to tell you that our life/actions and faith must be congruent to be an intelligible peaceful witness to the world. For reason beyond all our imagination, in his own life, there was a foundational split of this truth he wrote about.

    Maybe I have not understood the man’s theological expositions, but I doubt he would want you to believe in him or his theology. He pointed us all towards Christ and the peaceable kingdom of God that is already – broken and busted and messed up as it is, and not yet healed completely. That is why Hauerwas writes in the account of his life, that only the regular celebration of the Eucharist, the continual memory of the broken for us Christ makes sense as we also live and share in that brokenness. JHY did not seem to comprehend this truthful need for his own life as he left a trail of broken people behind in the blaze of his bright and expansive theological expositions.

    Where I most forcefully disagree with you is in the area that you nary grazed: the unaccounted stories of the women and men who have been – and still are, violated in a so-called traditional peace church. As a Mennonite pastor, CPE educator and supervisor, I have heard story upon story of those who are called to ministry but deal with profound emotional, spiritual and mental wounds, due to sexual abuse, religious abuse, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse at the hands of those who were in charge of them, in churches, synagogues and mosques.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that there are legions of profoundly injured women and men in our churches whose story of abuse is unknown.It could make us run from the church screaming, would we know of all the evil and pain that shares the pews with us.

    Maybe what should happen, or should have happened in the many years of institutional complicity, is that the stories of those women get the same publicity as did JHY’s famed theology. The argument that they would not want their stories told is a cop-out. Has anyone ever tried to really research their stories so their need for healing can be heard and acknowledged by the church? We surely have talked enough about JHY.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perceptive thoughts, Sylvia. I’m not clear what you “utterly disagree” with though, since there is very little of what you say that I disagree with.

  2. Thanks again for doing this, Ted. This entire discussion has reminded me of this excellent article:

    I haven’t read enough Yoder to comment on the relationship between his theology and his abuse (and I don’t want to make the mistake of equating correlation with causation, as if ideas have only one logical conclusion ) but have you thought about how “revolutionary subordination” might connect the two?

    I’ve been concerned about the frequent mentions of Yoder’s possible “personality disorders” in relation to his long abuses. Perhaps, for him, there was a connection, but this seems to be a very problematic dot to connect with assumptions about people with autism. You haven’t done this, but numerous comments on various articles rely pretty heavily on this connection.

    1. Let’s talk about “revolutionary subordination,” John. I’ll just say here that I think there are ways to understand Yoder’s argument about that theme that are totally consistent with respect for women, even feminism—this is how he meant it to be understood.

      I discuss that motif in this article that places it in the context of Yoder’s broader argument about politics in Romans (an argument, I now think, that leans in an anarchistic direction):

    2. I believe she is “utterly disagreeing” with your stated conclusion that “it is best to separate behavior from theology.” But there is also much upon which I see you both agreeing. And yes, perceptive and appreciated thoughts, Sylvia.

  3. Thanks Ted for this very engaging and thoughtful overview of the whole shebang, including your personal story as a student at AMBS. I especially appreciate your What’s to be done now? segment. I’m in full agreement that we cannot indefinitely allow all the focus on Yoder to divert our energy from the larger issue. If the Church is willing to ritualize the confession of sin and repentance around the grave errors that were made and harm caused by inaction it doesn’t seem possible to remain stuck here. I have seen the power of ritual, i.e. the use of word, action and element combine to transform the pain and ‘stuckness’ of a group dealing with historical trauma. I trust our Mennonite leaders, who are for the first time publicly committing themselves to listening and taking action on this issue, will help us find our way toward closure. Thank you for encouraging “perceptive, careful, well-researched historical writing on the Mennonite story [of sexualized violence] in relation to John Howard Yoder’s life and thought.” This would indeed provide the perfect impetus to move forward, while continuing to learn from the past.

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