Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)

[Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was a close personal friend of John Howard Yoder’s. He wrote the following response after reading the series of blog posts on this site about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct as well as other recent writings that reflect on the Yoder case. Glen, along with his and Yoder’s friends and fellow theologians Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, was involved in several conversations with Yoder during the time of Yoder’s working with a Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference disciplinary committee in the early 1990s (here’s an account by Hauerwas of this process). In his comments here he adds an important perspective on that process. I am grateful to Glen for sharing his reflections. Ted Grimsrud, 9/24/13]

These are enormously insightful blogs and comments on Ted Grimsrud’s blogsite. Thank you all! You help me to wrestle with my own conflictedness. Ruth Krall is so right that we need therapeutic and spiritual resources for victims, public education events, and work to change the surrounding culture. Barbra Graber suggests for writers, and “For Mennonite pastors and bishops: No more secrecy and silence.” (And other churches as well.) Sara Wenger Shenk’s policy decisions for AMBS, and Ervin Stutzman’s appointing a new review committee, are truly important and impressive initiatives. As Mark Nation wrote, “I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline.” Mark’s recent 16-page blog (September 23, 2013) seeks balance.

Let me speak to just a few of the excellent comments on the various posts about the Yoder issues.

Dan Umbel wrote insightfully that Yoder’s work leaves very little room for the honest acknowledgement of human frailty, the recalcitrance of human sin, and the depths of our estrangements from God, self, and one another. . . . (as well as the more affective/emotive needs of human nature as well) in a way that may have made it difficult for him to admit his own frailty, sinful habits, and/or emotional needs. Others write of John’s striking social awkwardness.

Dan continues: “I would offer as a caution, however, and point out that there is probably not a causal connection between Yoder’s theology and his actions. Rather, . . . what is lacking in his work did not give him the tools necessary to adequately acknowledge his own inner issues.”

Ted Grimsrud adds: “Combined with a pathological lack of empathy toward the women he wanted to try this out with.” This seems exactly right to me. How can I deal with Yoder’s actions and still express my gratitude for what he did for me? I am conflicted.

Heike Peckruhn and someone else suggested “the possibility of Asperger’s. . . via Temple Grandin. . . . I am guilty of hurting others, sometimes quite deliberately, and yet I do not want to be dismissed as a theologian because I am a fallible human being.”

I (Glen) totally identify with that. And all the rest Heike says about how we think of ourselves as Anabaptists.

My own son David, whom I deeply love, and who is sweet, kind, and thoughtful, has Asperger’s. [My plea to others; do not stereotype Asperger’s (caused by missing parts of the right brain from before birth) with autism (caused by missing parts of the left brain; the behavioral results are almost opposite. Do not stereotype and confuse by writing of “the autism spectrum.”]

Because of the pre-birth damage to David’s right brain, the neurons went to the left brain and developed left-brain skills way beyond mine and most any of us on learning other languages in two months as Yoder could, amazing memory for millions of facts about many varieties of subjects, logical analysis of how to fix computer problems, and music memory and knowledge. But this accompanies his striking lack of emotional intuition. I’m his coach, and have developed extensive knowledge of his emotional quirks. One quirk shared by other Asperger’s has been his strong wish for hugs, in his case especially with attractive women. Only that—a hug and no more. But it scared a couple of students. It took me two or three years to get that practice trained out of him.

Temple Grandin, the most famous Asperger’s person, built herself a hug machine, and she reports that evenings she often gets in it, pushes a button, and gets the hug she deeply wants. (I am not reducing what John did to David’s and Temple’s wish for hugs; only pointing out the parallel emotional wish.)

My struggle through all this is to stay grateful for my strong friendship with John, and his being my intellectual mentor, while strongly rejecting the harassment and hurt he did, as others have made very clear. It helps me to think of John as a super-genius Asperger’s, way beyond my son David (who adds so much to our family). But David does not do what he did, and I do not mean this as an excuse.

I had no knowledge of John’s violation of women until the restoration committee was established. I wish I had known earlier; I fantasize that with my knowledge of David, I might have been able to halt that practice. But that is surely a fantasy; others tried and failed.

It is true that I got Jim McClendon and Stanley Hauerwas to work with me to urge John to continue cooperating with the restoration committee. But some have overwritten on that: My memory is that John was already meeting with the committee; we did not need to persuade him to do that. Yet the meetings were very hard psychologically for John, and also for the committee. What we did—and I kept doing—was to encourage him to stay with the process, because we all needed him to work this through, to repent and change, and to be restored to standing as a writer and teacher, which of course did happen.

Had I done the kinds of things John did in my Baptist context, I would have been summarily dismissed, not counseled, not required to get psychological counseling, not given a regime of discipline, and not restored. I consider this a victory of the Mennonite discipline process, even though imperfect. I noticed John becoming more relationally present after the counseling. I believe it ended his violations. It did not restore the women who had been hurt.

I still want to affirm John’s mentoring and enormous theological-ethical contributions, while being deeply disappointed by his sexual harassment and abuse, which constituted violence against woman from a position of power. This contradiction causes me deep distress, along with deep compassion for the women who were hurt.

Agreeing with Dan Umbel, I want to be a Yoderian with holistic character ethics that strongly emphasizes the dimension of passions and loyalties over against rationalistic ethics (Kingdom Ethics chapter 3) along with the themes of a deeper understanding of sin and of continuous repentance guided by the Holy Spirit (A Thicker Jesus).

5 thoughts on “Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)

  1. I continue to be amazed that Yoder scholars have yet to wrestle with the book Yoder left for us to let us know precisely what he thought of the discipline process and his accusers. Outlined in 1992 at the start of the process, with an additional chapter added in the months before his death, Yoder offers “You Had It Coming: Good Punishment” (published in The End of Sacrifice –

    The chapter titles alone tell the story and by the time you get to Chapter 6 – “Mother Knows Best” the thin veil suggesting that this is anything other than his response to accountability is torn away. This revictimization of all who sought to hold him accountable is deeply troubling – particularly when recognized that it is being marketed and sold today.

    Yoder, in sharp contrast to David, knew almost all believers understood his actions to be abusive – particularly as they occurred in contexts in which Yoder could greatly hurt or harm their careers. He hid his actions from his wife (encouraging would be “sisters” to use an alternative mailing address). I think this distinction makes the comparison to David unhelpful.

    What would be helpful is to look at the culture that permitted decades of abuse without accountability. Surely this greatly contributed to what Yoder became (I think it is fair to say that You Had It Coming illustrates that he was never repentant). Glen’s assessment of what would have occurred under the Baptists is unfair to his denomination. The Baptists have restored many fallen ministers (to varying degrees all of us are fallen). The difference one might hope for is is that the Baptist’s would have fired Yoder decades earlier and given him the chance to face the reality of his justifications while there was still some hope for repentance. Instead Yoder was unleashed by his culture to abuse, abuse, and abuse until he could no longer recall it was abuse. Would be whistle-blowers still face a culture that empowers powerful abusers and silences whistle-blowers.

    One can hope and pray that the MCUSA Discernment Group will not limit it’s concerns to Yoder, or even to sexual abuse. What is needed is a thorough examination of how to invert the abuser empowering culture in an manner that holds abusers accountable and celebrates whistle-blowers. Celebrating the eight women who finally determined to destroy Yoder’s career unless somewhat adequate attempts were made to hold him accountable is a good start.

    1. Some of us graduate students during the 90s wondered about the possibility of autism (someone might have also brought up Asperger’s, but I cannot remember).

      I wrote a review of the book The End of Sacrifice last month, which should appear in the near future in Studies in Christian Ethics, and I note that this chapter on “You Have It Coming” must have hit close to home for Yoder at the time, although I am not sure that I would say that I am convinced it represents his thoughts about the discipline process and his accusers. It’s possible, but I do note this, like Menno here, as something for Yoder scholars to consider.

  2. Thanks Glen, I find your comments about Yoder possibly having a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome a helpful contribution to the conversation. I have long surmised something like this myself. When I was doing my doctoral dissertation on Yoder’s thought, people I was interviewing would often divert from the topic to tell me about a strange or awkward interaction they had with him. Those interactions were usually harmless and even funny but some were quite hurtful. I began to see a pattern to these stories which fits with what you say about Asperger’s syndrome.

  3. For myself, I have found the Asperger’s suggestion helpful. As Glen and others wrote, in no way does this possibility excuse or absolve Yoder. His actions toward multiple women were abusive and hurtful and violent. What the possibility of Asperger’s would explain is why the various interventions over the years were ineffective, why Yoder did not fully realize how hurtful and violent his actions were, and why the processes of discipline were difficult and prolonged. One possible, larger learning from this very sad and troubling story might be awareness of the need for a variety of approaches to discipline for people who are different.

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