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)”

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)”

Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? [Part I]

Ted Grimsrud—April 2, 2012

Paul Martens concludes The Heterodox Yoder (Cascade Books, 2012), his provocatively titled study of John Howard Yoder’s theology, by acknowledging that the object of his study was not a “heretic” but rather was “heterodox” (page 144). It’s not quite clear what the difference between those two terms are—maybe by “heretical” Martens means “directly contradicting the creeds” and by “heterodox” he has in mind being “openly critical of ‘orthodoxy’” (page 144). Martens writes that he prefers the term “heterodox” “because it acknowledges Yoder’s Christian context while also indicating the unorthodox manner in what he construes as authoritative in defining true Christianity” (page 144).

Martens doesn’t say this, but perhaps he likes “heterodox” better because it doesn’t sound as harsh….But, actually, how is asserting that Yoder was “heterodox” different than asserting that he was “heretical”? Either way, this seems like a pretty serious charge.

These two terms are hard to differentiate. Both heresy and heterodoxy are defined in relation to some “orthodoxy.” Perhaps the main difference is that heresy is more commonly used in relation to formal declarations—you don’t have “heterodoxy trials.” But the practical meaning of both terms when used in a theological context seems almost identical: wrong belief in relation to “orthodoxy.” In everyday contemporary usage (when formal heresy trials are quite rare), when we call someone a “heretic” we are not thinking of the formal sense of a person being formally declared such by some official body. I am willing to grant Martens his choice of terms and from now on out I will follow his use of “heterodox.” However, in my head I am going to hold on to the term “heresy” as well to help remember the seriousness of Martens’ charge.

What is “orthodoxy”?

Regardless of whether Martens something different by “heterodox” than he would by “heretical,” the next question follows, what is “orthodoxy.” In relation to Martens’ own ecclesial location (a former Mennonite, currently a Baptist teaching theology at Baylor University) and Yoder’s ecclesial location (a lifelong Mennonite), what is the “orthodoxy” against which Yoder’s theology is to be measured? This would seem like a pretty important question. Continue reading “Was John Howard Yoder a Heretic? [Part I]”

Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)

In an earlier post, I reflected on my struggle to make sense of the tension between my teacher John Howard Yoder’s profound theology and his sexual misconduct. In 1992, a five-part series of investigative articles about the allegations of Yoder’s sexual misconduct were published in Yoder’s hometown newspaper, The Elkhart Truth. The articles are posted here.

The articles were based on extensive interviews with several of the women Yoder harassed who detailed their allegations of his behavior—which included major boundary violations involving both inappropriate touching and speech/personal writings. The journalist, Tom Price, also interviewed numerous prominent theologians and provides fascinating quotes from people such as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University and Jim McClendon of Fuller Theological Seminary (like Yoder, one of my grad school profs).

Maybe the most interesting of the articles summarizes one of Yoder’s unpublished papers (“What is adultery of the heart?”) that seems to provide an intellectual rationale for some of his behavior. Based on Price’s summary, it does not seem clear to me that Yoder’s ideas (admittedly a bit idiosyncratic) would necessarily have made one suspect he would be a serial sexual harasser. However, in light of his behavior, the ideas in the article take a new light. Basically, he seems to argue for the appropriateness of close physical intimacy between men and women in the church that would not cross the line into actual sexual intercourse.

Continue reading “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder (addendum)”