Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part four—Yoder’s theology)

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2013

A great deal of my energy for “thinking aloud” here about John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence stems from how important Yoder’s theology has been for my life and work. I can’t really put into words how important that theology has been for me. So, how do I reconcile this influence with such deeply problematic behavior? I have been reflecting on the behavior, and now I want to take some time to reflect on the theology—to sketch why I have found it so important. It’s not just that Yoder is famous and important and widely read and cited. It’s that his work has had a profound effect on my own life and thought in many, many ways.

I can probably pinpoint pretty much the exact moment when John Howard Yoder became my most formative thinker. I was a recent graduate of the University of Oregon and in the winter of 1976-7 worked swing shift at a Eugene, Oregon plywood mill. For about two months I had “lunch” all by myself. During those thirty minutes, six days a week, I got a lot of reading done. I read The Lord of the Rings and The Politics of Jesus—a fascinating juxtaposition.

After that winter, I read everything by Yoder I could get my hands on and a few years later, Kathleen and I moved out to Indiana to study with Yoder at the Mennonite seminary where he taught. One of the highlights of that eventful year was receiving copies of two sets of Yoder’s at the time unpublished lectures, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method.” I also photocopied numerous unpublished articles that were in the library.

I have continued to read Yoder and absorb his theological insights. I would like to believe, though, that I have followed a path he would have approved of, which is using his ideas as stimulants to develop my own. Yoder himself did very little writing where he focused in detail on other people’s theology. He mostly referred to the Bible, history, and to the practical outworking of the ideas. It was not theology about theology but theology about life.

As my friend Earl Zimmerman presents it in his fine book on Yoder’s intellectual development, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics, Yoder’s decision to become a theologian came a young adult working in post-World War II Western Europe. He became convinced that the epic disaster of that war was an indictment on Western Christianity. What the world needs is a different way to think about faith and social life. Yoder believed that the 16th century Anabaptists provided a good model, but that what was needed was something more universal—which he found in the life and teaching of Jesus.

So, what I see as the model Yoder provided was an approach to theology that cares deeply about contributing to peaceable social life in the world for the sake of the world and draws deeply on the Bible and the Anabaptists. Yoder’s theology was anything but “sectarian.” The on-going power and influence of his work witnesses to the perceptiveness of his insights. I have been inspired to follow his method and construct theology that is socially engaged based especially on the Bible and inspired by the Anabaptists. Yoder’s ideas are catalytic for my own constructive work—which I would call “peace theology,” not “Yoderian theology.”

What I have learned from Yoder’s theology

To make this specific, I will briefly mention ten of Yoder’s key contributions to my theology. This is a list drawn quickly, and there are many more contributions I could mention.

1. Surely the most important for me is Yoder’s presentation of the case that Jesus was indeed “political”—and political in a specific way. Yoder helped to take the imagery of God’s “kingdom/empire,” of “messiah/king,” “savior/liberator,” “gospel,” “congregation/ekklesia,” in the political sense they had in the first century. Jesus—and the rest of the Bible—are political through and through. Political, that is, in the sense of “politics” referring to how people operate socially. The politics of Jesus is indeed about how people relate—and its main emphasis is on compassion and caring for others. So it is a “kingdom” and Jesus is a “king,” but in ways that overturn the ways of power politics.

2. Yoder has helped me to view everything through the lenses of my pacifist commitment—what I now call a pacifist way of knowing. Let’s understand pacifism as an orientation toward the world wherein we see that nothing takes precedence over the call to love the neighbor. This should effect everything—including how we read the Bible and how we construct our theology, not to mention, of course, every aspect of our social lives.

3. The book of Yoder’s I read first was The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, and the chapter that had the most impact initially was the discussion of violence in the Old Testament. I have developed my thinking far beyond Yoder’s ideas in that chapter, but his emphasis (leaning heavily on the work of his colleague Millard Lind) on how the Old Testament actually presents an alternative sense of political power to the ways of the nations, putting God and Torah at the center instead of King and State remains central to my own thinking about how to navigate the Old Testament-as-violent conundrum. Yoder and Lind helped me to see that the Old Testament should be approach as a positive asset for peace theology, not a problem to overcome.

4. Toward the end of his life in essays published posthumously in the book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Yoder developed further his way of reading the Old Testament as being in continuity with the politics of Jesus. He points to the words of Jeremiah during Israel’s time of exile—”seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves”—as a kind of programatic call to give up on channeling the Promise through a traditional kind of kingdom but instead to embrace the calling to be prophetic minorities in various settings that they do not try to rule.

5. Yoder introduced me to the exceedingly fruitful way of analyzing power through use of the language from the Pauline letters of “principalities and powers.” Walter Wink’s later work, in part inspired by Yoder, fleshes out the ideas much more. And both Yoder and Wink are indebted to the earlier pioneering work of Hendrikus Berkhof. Use of the “powers” motif helps us understand the institutional and cultural dimensions of life, especially of the dynamics where the “fallenness” of the powers shapes us in profound ways (for example, the dynamics of racism, militarism, sexism, et al, that in a genuine sense transcend individual choice and action).

6. Yoder’s writings address the challenge people who have a vision for biblical shalom face in trying to embody that vision in a broken world. One motif he addressed often is the notion of “patience,” where we cultivate a sense of trust in that the “grain of the universe” runs toward wholeness (I’m more comfortable using this more imprecise language; Yoder would often talk more directly about trusting in the sovereignty of God). Such trust helps guard against the constant tendency to try to take things into our own hands, to seek to “be in charge,” a tendency that often leads to violence and ultimately self-defeating compromise and exaggerated senses of self-importance. He refused to accept an absolute dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness, insisting that in the long run faithfulness is our most effective approach.

7. Yoder helped me understand that the vision for salvation in the writings of Paul stood in harmony with Jesus’ vision and, overall, with the Old Testament vision. Paul’s sense of “justification” was not strictly about an individual getting right with God, but as with the rest of the Bible Paul believed salvation is a social event. The key effect of Jesus’ ministry was to empower enemies to be reconciled, Jew and Greek to become part of one community, even ultimately blessing all the families of the earth.

8. Yoder also helped me understand that the biblical themes of eschatology and apocalyptic have a lot to do with how to understand God’s work in the present and not only in the future. He stated that these themes in the Bible, especially in the teaching of Jesus, are not focused on the idea that history is ending but rather they are emphasizing why history continues—that people of faith might embody biblical shalom in history.

9. Yoder helped me understand the Judaism and Christianity should be seen as more complementary that has traditionally been the case. His discussion of what he calls the “Jewish-Christian schism” with the conclusion that “it didn’t need to happen” challenges many received ideas about Christian origins and the disastrous idea that Christianity “replaced” Judaism. This motif is not only interesting for historical purposes but it actually provides a challenging angle for better understanding how the Old Testament can work as a Christian book and for enhancing the unity of beliefs and practices in Christian understandings.

10. Finally, Yoder is an important resource for sustaining a continuing affirmation of the present relevance of the 16th-century Anabaptists. His dissertation, written in German and only recently published in English, provides an important study of how the Anabaptists remained committed to continue talking with mainstream reformers in pacifist ways. Among other things, Yoder argues that it is a mistake to see in the Radical Reformation an inevitable separatism and inclination toward withdrawal. He suggests that they actually in the early years at least modeled ecumenical initiative and a vision for social transformation.

As I reflect on Yoder’s theology and its impact on my work, summarized in these ten points, I conclude that his theology (as with all other good theology) is best approached as a catalyst for on-going constructive work that builds on earlier theology but doesn’t keep its focus on that earlier theology. Yoder’s ideas, I believe, are best appropriated in ways that move theology beyond Yoder. His method was to draw especially on the biblical story, informed by later theological work, and apply theology to fruitful living. When our theology imitates this method we will not be writing a lot about Yoder but using Yoder’s insights along with other sources to create new theology.

Theology and practice

So, as I struggle with the issue of what we do with Yoder’s theology in light of his sexual violence, I still feel somewhat in flux. I welcome the stimulus provided by Barbra Graber’s manifesto and the resultant conversations to continue on my personal intellectual struggle. These are my tentative conclusions for now:

(1) The reality of Yoder’s sexual violence is, of course, very relevant for accounts of  Yoder’s life story. I welcome careful biographical studies of that story because of Yoder’s importance for the Mennonite world and beyond. And such studies will be useful for any theological reflection that draws on Yoder’s writings.

(2) The relevance of Yoder’s sexual violence seems more complicated when we focus specifically on approaching Yoder’s theology itself as the object of study. If our focus is exposition of Yoder’s theology, then we surely do need to consider the possible implications for how he construed theology of what we know about his problematic behavior. My sense of the discussion so far, though, is that people tend to pick up on themes in Yoder’s theology that they already have questions about and suggest that that is where the link with his problematic behavior might be found. I’m not sure how fruitful this work will be. I still tend to suspect that the roots of Yoder’s actions lie elsewhere than his theology and are not likely to be visible in the theology. But it is totally appropriate to scrutinize the theology with this problem in mind.

(3) The way I want to think of Yoder’s theology in my own work is more in relation to drawing on his ideas in ways that emphasize the insights and applying the helpful aspects more than thorough analysis of Yoder’s thought for its own sake. For this kind of work, his problematic behaviors are less relevant. The ideas, such as those listed above, remain perceptive and helpful regardless of what I learn about his life. This makes the details of his life of less interest to me theologically. Those details are interesting, of course, but to some extent the interest may be prurient and to that extent should probably not be cultivated.

In my final post in this series, I will reflect more on how I think about this discussion in relation to issues beyond my own theological work.

[Here are the other parts of this series: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Five]

25 thoughts on “Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part four—Yoder’s theology)

  1. Ted,

    I have tried in the last few days to catch up on the Yoder-was-flawed story, such as it can be known, especially via your blog and links. I am glad your Part 3 addresses the big problems of secrecy and sorting out the nature and degree of John’s offenses as a “perpetrator” of “violence.” I wonder if I am the only reader who’s more at ease with the interrogation, as some have called this conversation, when you occasionally choose words such as “violation” and “harm” and “transgression” as nuanced alternatives to saying “violent” again and again and again. I like it that in Part 4 you say “sexual violence” and “problematic behavior” four times each. Of course, none of you are here to help me feel at ease by softening your language or pulling your punches. I am trying to accept that all of you are trustworthy guides toward the very sad conclusion, as you said in Part 3, “that it is best to accept that he was indeed violent, over and over.” So: I hear you all; I grieve for the victims and wish for their peace; I accept the justice of the seminary’s promise to teach the “complexity” of the Yoder legacy. All that said, I am decidedly at ease with where you’ve brought me now in Part 4, especially this: “I still tend to suspect that the roots of Yoder’s actions lie elsewhere than his theology and are not likely to be visible in the theology. But it is totally appropriate to scrutinize the theology with this problem in mind.” I predict your readers won’t agree to leave it there…which brings me to a sincere question: Have any women spoken up in sympathy with John, if not in his defense? I ask because it seems to me that you—for all your many repetitions of the words “his sexual violence”—you, Ted, are more in his corner than anyone else who’s testified at the interrogation. From out here on the distant sidelines, it looks lonely place. Thanks hosting the conversation and for “thinking aloud” as a participant.

    Dan Clark

    1. Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Language here is very difficult. To me the word “violent” seems most appropriate because I want to make the point that Yoder caused harm by his intentional acts—even if they may not have been as extremely violent as they could have been.

      As you suggest, especially for those of us who value his witness for peace so much, we need to face the harm he caused over and over again head on. And that is indeed quite uncomfortable.

      I’m happy that Judy Zimmerman Herr’s comment came so soon after yours to show that she indeed does value John’s work—even while recognizing the harm he caused.

    1. By the way, among the various mentions of Yoder’s “disinvitation” from Bethel College in 1992, I have seen no acknowledgment of Prof. Jim Juhnke’s good explanation in his memoir (Small Steps Toward the Missing Peace, starting on p. 169) nor of the fact that Yoder’s paper “The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism” was included in the book resulting from the conference. (You list it at Yoder was to have delivered the keynote address at the conference—of historians mainly—called “Violence and Nonviolence in the American Experience.” Juhnke delivered his own hastily prepared “manifesto” in Yoder’s stead, calling the conference “a quarter century overdue” and crediting Yoder as a main instigator. Evidently the conference book is now a rare item, but Amazon shows six used copies available for those who act fast.

  2. Ted, we’ve been following your hosting of this most difficult discussion. We appreciate your comments, and especially your 10 points in this 4th posting. As we read down through these 10, we were revisiting in outline form, much of our own intellectual/theological development as young adults in the late 60s through the 70s. For example, as a very young and inexperienced man in 1968, doing alternate military service for two years in Europe, I (Bob) encountered the then still relatively fresh pain and anger of those communities experience with this massive death and devastation, way beyond anything I could even begin to struggle with. I remember young German Mennonites, at European Mennonite youth camps, agonizing over being German, wondering how they might go on and live with what their parents’ generation were involved with.

    We both engaged Yoder’s thinking when at Goshen College, and began reading his Original Revolution in the early 70s and eventually The Politics of Jesus after 1972 and began to get some handles on how one might begin to imagine being a Christian in light of this Europe story, not to mention the Viet Nam war in full force then. For both of us, Yoder’s European post WWII experience and his reflection on this was huge. At that time there seemed so few ways to access a theological and Biblical way to sustain a conversation about the kinds of extreme horror humans so frequently inflict on each other. Church of the Brethren leader M.R. Ziegler captured this dearth at the 1952 World Council of Churches Executive Committee when he tried to move “That the Christians of the World Agree to not kill each other.”

    For us, into this world came Yoder and his persistent reflection, and for this we are grateful. Not that this is the last comment, but without his reflection we’re not sure how we would have hung in as young folks in those turbulent times. For me (Judy) it was the notion that Jesus was “political” that made me consider Christianity when I had pretty much turned my back on it. So, probably because of the times and the context, Yoder’s thought was extremely formative for us. Thanks for summarizing so much of our own experience and the way John Yoder, at points along the way, hosted and offered paths through to the next phase of our lives.

    We in no way deny the pain that Yoder’s actions caused – something we learned about much later – but can’t dismiss the importance of his thought because of this. So as you note in your series of reflections, we somehow have to hold together the gift his thought was for us with the pain his actions caused to a number of women in the church. We’re glad that as a church we at least are at the point of beginning to acknowledge these wrong acts, even though more reflection and action are called for. As you note, we hope that renewed surfacing of this 20-years-old struggle will remind us of the ways we need to act now as a community of believers when violence is done by those in positions of power. How ironic that it was Yoder himself who reminded us of the need to be a disciplined community!

    1. Thanks for this Judy and Bob. I especially appreciate your confirmation of how important Yoder’s post World War II experience is in understanding his theology and showing that his work was anything but sectarian.

      I do have the sense that a big part of the problem with his behavior both in the pain it caused at the time and the consternation is causes now is because it was such a contradiction to his own stated theology. But, in a sense, this nonetheless seems like a kind of ironic confirmation of that theology.

  3. Thanks for starting the conversation Barbara and Ted. It seems you are near an edited book on the topic. Or that somehow this conversation should jump over to The Mennonite and find its way to Seminary conversations. It is is important for others to wrestle with this.

    I take away 4 points from the discussion:

    1. Anyone using Yoder’s work should know about his use of violence, coercion, aggression and the contradictions in his life.

    2. The church has a long way to go before it responds quickly and justly to interpersonal violence, especially violence by men against women and children. Yoder was a product of a patriarchal church that accepted male entitlement and power. Just as Ariel Castro, the Ohio man who kidnapped and raped 3 women for 10 years, did not develop his perverse psychology in a vacuum, neither does Yoder’s sense of entitlement develop without a cultural, religious foundation. Yes, personal responsibility is important. But with so much sickness, one has to ask who is spreading the virus of violence.

    3. No one lives a life without contradiction. We are all suffering from the disparity of what we say and what we do. We read Confessions at Church, but we still are far more quick to point fingers at others rather than look at our own violence and aggression. Yes, perpetrators need to be stopped. But there is also an important caution for us to “look at the stick in our own eyes rather than the speck of dust in our neighbors.” I think this passage is relevant, lest we be swept away in thinking each one of those writing here have not hurt others in our lives.

    4. Many women face male aggression. But too few women talk about the widespread hurt women do to hurt, exclude, and diminish other women. I am a feminist. I experience male diminishment of my life and work on a regular basis. But other women have had a much more powerful effect of diminishing my life and work than any man. This too, is an important topic.

    1. Thanks Lisa,

      I agree with your points, and regarding Ted’s comments on how to use Yoder from here on out, I especially appreciate your 2).

      (This conversation is a bit spread out, so I am also thinking along the lines of Ted’s post #5).

      Ted, what I hear you carefully saying is that digesting and processing JHY’s theological legacy needs to take into account the personal life he lived, and I do appreciate your nod towards emotional/instituational/personal efforts needing to be spent on our present relationships, lest we get stuck in analyzing the aggressions of a man dead and neglecting what we might learn from it for today, and even worse, not do anything about it today.

      And yet, while his work now has a life of its own, and some details of his life might not be of theological interest to you, how do we understand his theological work connected to those details? Esp. if, as you write elsewhere, he seemed to “practice” his ideas (theological?!) regarding intimacy (which is, to me, theologically connected to pacifism, hospitality, epistemology, etc)? This is no one way street (as in, we have an idea which we then put into practice).

      As Lisa (and others) have pointed out, there is no vacuum within which ideas emerge. While I am not at all interested in forms of navel gazing or sensationalism, what if we do start thinking about his theology as emerging from his personal life, a life in which one (aka a man of a certain social location) thinks about intimacy/hospitality/relationships in certain ways not as a result of a theological idea developped, but because of his embeddedness in social life and culture in which certain bodies have the right/privilege to initiate physical contact? Or, as other feminist / liberationist theologians have pointed out, to understand his radical submission and radical peace theology as grounded in his (white, male, Mennonite, etc) experience — b/c it sure would be / is theorized differently from other social locations (as in submission or patience versus effectiveness).

      1. Let me try and write this a bit more clearly, if I may.

        I agree with what I discern in your reflections, Ted, that you find it problematic if interest in the details of his aggressions is greater than concern for those affected. And yet I would like to nuance this complicated issue a bit.

        Finding personal details not theologically interesting is not the same as not considering them as theologically relevant. Again, I think that “interest” in details is distracting, especially if it is not out of and for concern for those affected (then and now, by Yoder and others). But yet the details remain theologically relevant, as they are embedded in and born out of a context which shapes and is shaped by the details.

        Just like it might not be theologically interesting that the details of my immigration involved a specific lawyer, a specific employment site, etc., it is theologically relevant that my context puts me into an economically and educationally privileged social position, my nationality in a certain immigration category less scrutinized, etc. So my immigration details might be less “interesting”, but are certainly relevant to my theological imagination and construction (on immigration, for example).

      2. I appreciate your thoughtful and challenging comments, Heike. I don’t think I disagree with anything. I certainly don’t mean to say that Yoder’s life is not relevant or interesting. Part of what I am trying to say, though, is that it seems like one kind of theological encounter with Yoder is approaching Yoder’s theology itself as the object of our study. In that case, I am totally with what I understand you to be saying. But I am suggesting that another kind of theological encounter with Yoder is more on the lines of utilizing his insights not for the purpose of understanding Yoder so much as for the purpose of our own theological construction.

        I can see the point in considering Yoder’s ideas about submission/patience in light of his own white, male, North American experience—but it seems we could run the risk of explaining those ideas away for the sake of a more active (read, violent) response to injustice when if we paid attention to Gandhi, King, Day (just to name some obvious examples) we might see that Yoder’s ideas here were not only due to his social location.

        Probably what I want to say, and you are helping me clarify this, is not at all that ideas stand independently of the context of their articulation, but that we shouldn’t reduce or explain away or miss the significance of those ideas simply because of their context.

    2. Thanks, Lisa. I appreciate your (no surprise) thoughtful and perceptive summary. Points 2-4 are especially good. I would see it as an extraordinarily useful exercise to scrutinize the broader impact of the “patriarchal church that accepted male entitlement and power” that Yoder (and all others of his era!) were products of. Ironically, Yoder did see himself even in his seductions as in some sense trying to counter that patriarchy even as he tragically exploited his place in it.

      But maybe the bigger issue ultimately is that context and how it shaped so many other dynamics of exploitation and violence than the issue of the specific actions of Yoder.

      Personally, I think of patriarchy as a sub-problem, as is racism, to the bigger dynamic of domination and diminishing that many powerful people in general practice in relation to many vulnerable people in general.

      I’m still thinking about the first point. I’m still not convinced that knowledge of Yoder’s violence is always necessary in order to use Yoder’s work. If our goal is understanding Yoder per se, certainly. But his insights may be utilized, I suspect, without such knowledge.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Ted. I think we are very much agree then, regarding the two different responsible approaches of theological study possible: Yoder’s theology vs. using his prompts for theological construction. In the end, any of our theological imaginations and constructions is build with what is imaginable, and this includes the building blocks of theologies that might be intimately known to us or come to us in tidbits, insights we owe to others whose stories we do not know. And I certainly do not advocate that we must become historians of every single person we would like to “use” in our theological work.
        As a side note: Though I cannot help but comment on that NOT being an “expert” on specific persons appropriated often is used to dismiss scholarly works (when it seems fit as in “oh but you have not really studied xyz so you can’t possible know what you are talking about”).
        Side note #2: For a different conversation then (not quite fitting in this one), where I think we might disagree, namely on the faithful-not-effective vs. more active approach to change (where I don’t think a violent/non-violent dichotomy is useful).

  4. Ted, my first encounter was with the Concern pamphlets, and I got from that reading a big church/world contrast. But when I asked Yoder about the gap between the anabaptist ideal and the reality of Mennonite praxis, he did not seem too optimistic. And now when I look at the sin in my life (and in his), I am pretty cynical about all ecclesiological claims to be something other than the “world” . This is why I resonate so much with Nate Kerr’s criticism of Hauerwas in Christ, History and Apocalyptic. Of course I agree with Stan in wondering why Yoder gets exempted from the critique.

    1. I think I’m pretty much with you on this, Mark. Though maybe you wouldn’t share the implication I would draw from this—which is challenging “the world” to be more humane. I think the church/world contrast is problematic on with regard to both sides.

      When I read Kerr, I was glad he was gentle with Yoder. Perhaps I need to rethink that.

  5. So, Ted, have you (and Hauerwas) wept yet for his victims? Have you torn your clothing into shreds? Until there is lamenting and weeping, I remain unconvinced. It appears to me that orthodoxy remains more important to the Mennonite Church on topics of sexual violence. The teachings of the Anabaptist ancestors about the need for orthopraxy and accountability to the community seem after-through\s that reside in the shadows.

    Tom Doyle’s wonderful phrase, “outsourcing the gospel” seems appropriate here. Here is the URL to a speech we Mennonites could learn a lot from:


    1. I’ve been reading everything Ted has posted on this topic as a form of “lamenting and weeping” for Yoder’s victims—and not at all as evidence of orthodoxy trumping concern about sexual violence. If anything, I’m seeing the word “violence” used again and again in this conversation when we’re talking about looking squarely at problems that involve some acts we all recognize as violent but are just part of a much bigger picture.

  6. So, when JHY forced his experiments in “intimacy” on women was he “taking things into his own hands”? So, was he testing out his theology? Or, was his practice, in effect, a denial of his written words?
    What I believe is what I do, the rest is all hot air.

    1. As I read your post, John,
      an metaphor came to mind. I’m a visual thinker, what can i say. An egg is constituted by three elements: shell, egg white, egg yolk – and the little air bubble under the skin. If we break that integrity, we get the egg as we eat it, either entirely or as parts. A person is constituted of body, mind, and spirit (and the little air bubble, soul). If the person learns to compartmentalize, the parts can be useful (in a utilitarian sense) but the integrity of breaks up. Its a dangerous thing to separate the body from the mind from the spirit (and the soul).
      How i act and what i believe cannot be separated, is what i hear you say. That is also what i learned from the early Yoder. Which forces (sociologically, psychologically, personally, maybe medically, etc. began to break up his integrity, is what interest me. For the plain reason that I face that same danger of disintegration.

  7. Following is a reply I sent to a friend who wondered whether given the pain that once again is being experienced by the Yoder family, the issue could not be laid to rest. After responding to this question, I offer some observations about the topic Tim Grimsrud addresses here, i.e., how these revelations about John Howard Yoder’s behavior impact how we interpret his theological writings and use them in our continuing theological explorations.

    My own sense is that this current conversation is needed. Not for John Howard Yoder or his family but for the church.

    We will never know how he himself dealt with his behavior before he died–ultimately, that is a matter between him and his God. Similarly, the rest of us have no right to know what kind of peace he may or may not have made with his family, nor how they have dealt with this extremely painful issue then or now, when it is being discussed again publicly. My hope and prayer is that the doubtless reopening of old wounds will eventually lead to more healing, though that is likely a lifelong task–as is the task of the rest of us who deal with our own past wounds, albeit within far greater privacy.

    And I hope that his family will find some solace in recognizing that this time around, the discussion is not really about him and them but about the church.

    Unfortunately, I think it was probably necessary to make public the violent details and wide scope of his sexually predatory behavior in order to understand the depth of the failure of church leaders in the know to stop it; as well as the general climate within the church that encouraged that failure. Had he been held accountable for his behavior when it was first discovered, many women would not have been victimized—and indeed some human rupture within Yoder himself might have sooner moved toward healing. Hence, the church itself must now recognize its guilt, repent, and initiate the restorative justice needed by his victims that was not completed when he died.

    And I hope that Yoder’s abuse of power with regard to women will stimulate discussion of the church’s long history of this kind of abuse, not only in sexual matters but also in other ways. I confess that I myself have a visceral reaction to this story because it excavates the anger I felt growing up knowing that my dreams of certain kinds of church leadership (I wanted to be a pastor) were not open to me. And I can only believe that women who grew up in churches that emphasized female submission in many other ways are finding that this discussion reopens some of those old wounds.

    And I also think it is valid to consider any relationship between his behavior and his theology, especially as it pertains to his view of the church. I hesitate to venture an opinion here without further reading in his writing, confessing that most of what I know of his thinking is recollections from hearing him in my youth or second-hand from other people’s summaries.

    So what I am sharing here are only intuitions, intuitions of the places in his thinking that, if I wanted to find where the theological bodies are buried, I would start digging.

    As many others have observed, predatory sexual behavior is only in small if any part about sex; it is primarily about power. And it is my recollection that power is a subject Yoder gave quite a bit of attention to. As I understand it, he emphasized that we live, derive our ethic based not on the norms of our earthly “kingdom” but of God’s heavenly “kingdom” or “reign” which we are to live as if it has already come. Primarily within the church. Within which Jesus is “king.”

    This view gives the church an amazing amount of power, a power which is ripe for abuse in many, many ways. Whether exercised by a magnificently robed Roman Catholic pope and set of cardinals in Rome or a straight-coated pope and church leaders in Goshen, Elkhart, or any other Mennonite church center.

    Like many others, I am sure, I see the similarities between recent discoveries of the abuse of power in these two churches. It is the kind of abuse that occurs when the reputation and perceived survival of the church seem more important to many of its leaders than justice toward its victims and the preventing of many more. It is also a kind of power that makes it blind to its own existence and the perhaps inevitable if implicit violence in its use. And an inclination to find rationalizations for its use.

    Regarding the language of power and the church described above, I understand that Yoder’s rationalization for his behavior, apparently to himself as well as to his victims and others, was rooted in part in a concept of the church within which we are all sisters and brothers who can behave toward each other according to an ethic of love which is significantly different from the ethic assumed outside the church. I.e., short of intercourse, we can express our love toward each other in physical, clearly sexual ways. Apparently, members of Jesus’ “kingdom” are somehow empowered to avoid the pitfalls of such sexual experimentation experienced by the more sinful folk outside. (A kind of self-righteousness vis a vis the “world” outside the church I have alas observed in Mennonite circles elsewhere and on other issues, including pacifism and “nonviolence.”)

    Finally, my recent learning about John Howard Yoder’s sexually predatory behavior as well as my recollection (accurate or inaccurate) of some of his theology makes me wonder whether using language of power, and not just specifically male power, to discuss not only the church but also the deity has outlived its usefulness. I am wondering whether conceiving of God as a supreme power doesn’t in itself lead to an arrogance on the part of those who claim a close relationship with that deity as well as an excuse for a lack of ethical responsibility on the part of those who “submit” to that power, not to mention the injustice inevitable when this kind of power/submission ratio is encouraged in actual human relationships.

    Personally, the image of Jesus that speaks to me most deeply is not Jesus as a “king” (did he clearly call himself this?) but Jesus on the cross, the Jesus who acknowledged his companionship with another whom society had named a criminal, the Jesus who felt that God—at least the God seen as ultimate power, if he ever viewed God as such—had forsaken him.

    I do not intend to say that what we know of Yoder’s behavior means we cannot appreciate much of benefit we have learned and will continue to learn from his writing.

    Those of us who appreciate creative gifts from the past often have to confront inexcusable behavior of their creators. As a lover of Wagner’s operas, for example, I have spent considerable time thinking about how to deal with the virulent anti-Semitism in his writings and, often, behavior. And I have decided that while one can certainly find such messages in his operas, they are not the only, and indeed to me, not the most obvious interpretations. And that I have some choice in how I respond to creations that are marvelous in their creative complexity.

    Similarly, I am sure that if I were a theologian, I would be willing and hopefully able to come to a similar critical appreciation of Yoder’s creatively complex legacy.

  8. I like your 10 point summary of what you have learned from Yoder’s theology. But in my view, the nature of his conduct has been misstated and exaggerated by some parties to this discussion. It was not sexual assault, rape, attempted rape, or sexual abuse. Nor was he a sexual offender. Even your term ‘sexual violence’ overstates the nature of his conduct. And the term ‘harassment’ can only be applied anachronistically. At most it was socially inappropriate or perhaps in some cases immoral. Criminal terminology should not be used. Furthermore, the church discipline process to which he was subjected was itself unjust. The whole matter raises issues of deeper concern than what Yoder did or did not do.
    See my detailed (35 page) analysis in my article “The Church Discipline of John Howard Yoder: Legal and Religious Considerations,” posted online on Mark Thiessen Nation’s Blog “Anabaptist Nation.” I respond there to some posts on your blog, including some comments by Barbra Graber and Ruth Krall.

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