“Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles

Ted Grimsrud

I came across a quote in the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that helped me think a bit more about our current discussions about sexuality in the Mennonite world. I’ll share the quote in a bit, but first I want to set the context.

Othering and the Cold War

Several years ago, as I was working on my book on World War II’s moral legacy, I struggled to understand how the phenomenon of “global communism” could justify the American commitment to its national security state and military interventions around the world. I realized that a key moment was President Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech in 1947 that stated, in effect, that there is only one communism, that this communism is behind a vast system of anti-American actions around the world, and the presence of such anti-American actions requires swift and decisive American military intervention. To label people communists was effectively to signify them as the “other” who are different and are inherently a threat to our security. So, military actions (public and secret) in such disparate locations as Greece, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Iran followed over the next few decades.

I was struck by how this dynamic insured that little effort would be exercised actually to understand the specific, on-the-ground context for the “anti-American” dynamics. It was a simple process: if there was a lack of support for American interests it was because of global communism. If the lack of support could be labeled as communist-inspired, then everything needed to be known was obvious. There is only one “communist practice”—all communists are essentially the same (and, even more pernicious, all “anti-Americans” are communists). It is quite remarkable to take even a cursory look at the series of conflicts that U.S. engaged in and see an almost identical pattern over and over again where the “enemies” of the U.S. were labeled as “communist” (i.e., definitely labeled as immoral and worthy of violent opposition) and responded to with often devastating force.

The end of the Soviet Union deprived the U.S. of the “global communism” label as a justification of militarism. However, surely not coincidentally, at about the same time as the end of the Soviet empire, the spectre of global terrorism arose and in many ways, down to our present day, successfully played the same role. Again, there seems to be only one terrorism. When we apply that label to resistance to American interests, we know all we need to know and proceed accordingly. Continue reading ““Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles”

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.”] Continue reading “Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)”

Reflections of a chagrined “Yoderian” (part five—where to now?)

I am grateful to Barbra Graber for her initiative in writing and circulating her statement. It clearly has served the purpose of stimulating thought, conversation, and hopefully even action. It has led to an unprecedented amount of attention to this website, for which I am grateful. It also challenged me to keep thinking and to write as I think (see the earlier posts—Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4).

I have taken the discussion in a more theological direction due to my own interests. I’ll conclude my set of reflections with the post, confessing that my brain feels a bit fried in relation to this topic. In fact, it is difficult to think of much more to say right now. I invite comments and questions in the comment section below for a chance to think more about aspects of this issue that remain unsettled or unclear.

I will close with just a few comments: Continue reading “Reflections of a chagrined “Yoderian” (part five—where to now?)”

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

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

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

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

Ted Grimsrud—August 2, 2013

Back on July 10, I put the finishing touches on a blogpost on connections between John Howard Yoder’s thought and anarchism. I drew heavily on a fine article by Ted Troxell, “Christian Theory: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder.” I was (and still am) excited by how Troxell displays in a fresh way the on-going relevance of Yoder’s theology (and, more importantly than simply drawing attention to Yoder, displaying how Christian pacifism might speak to the contemporary task of embodying a humane politics).

Almost immediately after I posted my article, my family left home for a short trip to Arizona to spend time with extended family. After a two-day delay mostly spent in a Richmond hotel keeping my 7-year-old grandson and 3-year-old granddaughter occupied, we finally made it to Phoenix. Even then, I found it difficult to find computer time, and hence mostly missed out on vital moments of what was a stimulating conversation in response to what I wrote.

The Yoder dilemma

More challenging, though, by the time I got back home, my Yoder-oriented energies had been diverted. While we were in Phoenix, I had gotten an email from Barbra Graber wondering if I would be interesting in putting up a guestpost from her. This post would be a kind of manifesto speaking to on-going dilemmas related to Yoder’s continuing prominence as an important theologian (an importance certainly affirmed on this blog) standing in tension with Yoder’s own violent life of widespread sexual harassment.

I responded positively to Barbra’s suggestion. I have not had many (actually no) guestposts, but I am certainly deeply interested in this distressing aspect of Yoder’s legacy. I had alluded to Yoder’s violations in a 1998 tribute article I wrote in The Mennonite shortly after his death (an article that I would write differently today but that gives a good sense about why I agonize over how to respond to Yoder’s sexual violence) and then had written a more lengthy reflection December 2010 followed by an addendum in February 2011. Barbra had been in touch with me in the midst of that conversation and had actually helped arrange for me to get electronic access to the remarkable series of investigative articles by reporter Tom Price published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth, in the summer of 1992. I posted those articles on my PeaceTheology site.

Barbra’s manifesto was initially posted on the website Our Stories Untold and then on Young Anabaptist Radicals. The attention it attracted witnesses to the strong interest the Yoder situation still commands. She thought it would be of value still to have the piece posted here given the potential of reaching a somewhat difference audience. Plus, she continued to revise it and welcomed the chance to publish an updated version (which may be read here).

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

What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder? (guestpost)

[My friend and former Eastern Mennonite University faculty colleague Barbra Graber would like to invite theologians and others who utilize the work of John Howard Yoder into further discussion. So I have agreed to post a recent essay she wrote reflecting on Yoder’s hurtful sexual behavior and its continuing legacy. I invite responses in the “comment” section at the end of this post and hope we can think together a bit in response to Barbra’s provocative thoughts. After a couple of days, I plan to post a longer set of my reflections in response to Barbra’s post [here’s part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5]. This version of Barbra’s essay has been revised from what she recently posted on Rachel Halder’s website Our Stories Untold and at Young Anabaptist Radicals. Each of those postings has a lively set of comments. — Ted Grimsrud]

By Barbra Graber

July 30, 2013

(Note: This is an opinion piece from the perspective of a lay-person in the Mennonite church who has never been privy to inside information regarding the disciplinary processes of JHY and left to make sense of something that has made no sense in light of the church’s stated guidelines, mission and purpose. I don’t pretend that my limited perspective encompasses the whole. My intention is to provide impetus and fodder for more discernment and discussion on the larger topic of known and widespread sexual abuses of power by Mennonite church leaders, most powerfully symbolized by JHY. Hopefully others from inside the JHY story will be encouraged to come forward with new information. My issue is not with a deceased man, but the living and beloved church of my birth.)

I remember the Sunday morning two MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) friends who were dating got up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock.  Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite peace theologian and symbol of male power in the church, sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women of the church over decades, and never publicly confessed.  And the Mennonite seminary, as well as many other Mennonite church agencies that hired him, were somehow unable or unwilling to ultimately fix the problem. Years of institutional silence ensued while files of complaint letters accumulated. In 1984, the Mennonite Seminary announced that Yoder “had resigned in order to teach full time at Notre Dame.” But no mention of JHY’s known sexually deviant behavior was made and students were left to wonder why their brilliant professor suddenly flew the coop. Since that time, no one has asked and the Mennonite Church at large has not explained or acknowledged its decades of apparent complicity.

Quite the opposite.

After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, followed by a highly secretive disciplinary process, he was declared reconciled with the church and encouraged to return to “teaching and writing.” The promise of a public statement of apology to the victims whose lives he upended, and the wider ecumenical community whose trust he betrayed, somehow never materialized. And no one seems to know why. Today John Howard Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual. I wonder if the same would be true if he’d been busted for selling drugs or accused of grand theft. Continue reading “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder? (guestpost)”

John Howard Yoder and anarchism

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2013

A number of years ago when I read George Woodcock’s classic history of AnarchismI found the thinking he described quite attractive. I spent some time considering how compatible anarchism would be with my Christian pacifism. I have believed it would be, but never quite found time to pursue the issue in more depth. At some point, though, I was struck with the thought that John Howard Yoder’s “politics of Jesus” could perhaps be understood as a version of anarchism.

I have resolved to spend some time pursuing this line of thought in the months to come. I just started reading a massive, well-written, wide-ranging and fascinating history of anarchism, Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of AnarchismI plan to write more about that book as I read through it. This fall, when I teach my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class (which includes reading Yoder’s Politics and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination), I expect to devote quite a bit of attention to thinking about anarchism in relation to Yoder’s and Wink’s ways of reading the Bible.

Happily, I encountered a recent article that encourages me to pursue this project. This article (Ted Troxell, “Christian Theology: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7.1 [2013], 37-59) came to my attention at just the right time. It’s already one of my favorite essays on Yoder’s thought.

Troxell helps me understand quite a bit about the current terrain in discussions about anarchism, and better yet confirms my sense that bringing Yoder and anarchism together is a good idea. Continue reading “John Howard Yoder and anarchism”

Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? (Part II)

Ted Grimsrud—April 3, 2012

This is the second part of a response to Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder(Cascade Books, 2012). The first part may be read here.

Does Martens make the case that indeed John Howard Yoder was heterodox? In a word, “No.” However the reason this is largely an unhelpful book is not because he fails finally to persuade. As I said above, a careful and clear argument that Yoder was heterodox (i.e., did not affirm “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God,” page 2) could still be quite instructive.

The problem with The Heterodox Yoder is that Martens does not provide bases for a constructive conversation. In the end, there are three important elements of such a conversation that he fails to engage.

Martens does not clearly define “orthodoxy”

Even though he starts with a kind of definition of “orthodoxy” that will presumably govern his analysis and critique of Yoder’s thought, Martens actually is thin and vague about what he means by orthodoxy. And, he does not return even to this thin and vague definition of orthodoxy in relation to christology as an on-going and stable criterion for evaluation as he goes through Yoder’s thought. In his discussion of Yoder’s 1950s-era writings, in the analysis of the Politics of Jesus, in the discussion of Yoder on Jewish-Christian relations, and in the treatment of Yoder on ecumenism, Martens does not do what one would expect if he trying to make a case that would overcome the assumption many readers would have that Yoder had a vigorously “orthodox” christology (defined in terms of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a revelation of God).

He does not compare Yoder’s main ideas that are surfaced in this survey with the criterion for orthodoxy. Not even once does Martens try to explain how Yoder departs from Martens’ understanding of an orthodox christology. Continue reading “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? (Part II)”