Updated with some grammar/spelling fixes as well as some additional material (particularly in the conclusion) on 1-13-2015:
Today I bought the latest issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Yes, this is THE issue, the one that gives in-depth discussion of the case of serial sexual abuser John Howard Yoder, and the issue of sexual misconduct in the church generally.
Before moving on, I should mention that a review of this issue can be found in The Mennonite magazine and the actual full issue (200+ pages) can be bought here.
This evening I ended up reading three of the articles in the issue. There is so much that I want and need to say, but for now I want to make a few comments while the pain of reading this is fresh.
First, Rachel Waltner Goossen’s article “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” is a disturbing but very thoroughly researched account of the nature of Yoder’s history of abuse. While most of the Mennonite world has been aware in some way of this abuse, this article tells a great deal which had not previously come to light. Some of these key revelations include:
1. Yoder used his position of power and influence to coerce female students into sexual acts. (this was not just a matter of harassment, as it has been framed sometimes in the past)
2. Yoder created an environment at both AMBS and at Notre Dame that was hostile and dangerous to women.
3. Yoder actually exploited the female student-led campus feminist movement to pursue his agenda of abuse, often co-opting feminist language as part of his persuasive rhetoric.
4. Yoder abused women not only at his schools, but also at conferences and other settings, including overseas in multiple countries.
5. Contrary to the way that the story has been spun by the Mennonite Church over the years, Yoder never repented. At best he apologized for “misunderstanding” the desires/intentions of the women he was pursuing. Also his “restitution” that was supposed to help victims with the costs of counseling was a very small amount ($1000). And little if any of this money ever went to help those victimized by Yoder.
6. In 1995, Yoder actually sought to sever ties with the Mennonite Church (asking that his membership be transferred from his Mennonite congregation in Elkhart to a local Lutheran church. He made this request DURING the process of the discipline while his ministerial credentials were suspended. Yet the church chose to effectively ignore his request, presumably so that he could still be claimed as a celebrity Mennonite theologian. (Page 64-65)
7. Stanley Hauerwas (who previously urged Yoder to cooperate with the process of accountability before his conference – page 59) pressured the Indiana-Michigan conference to hurry up the process, so that Yoder could be fully restored to ministry (page 62). The conference agreed to do this by way of a public statement in 1996. The conference hoped Yoder would make a public statement of apology. He did not do this.
8. AMBS administrators knew about Yoder’s abuses for years (since at least the late 1970’s). While there were repeated attempts to reign in Yoder’s conduct, Yoder was not actually pressured to resign from AMBS until 1984.
9. Yoder continued to teach at Notre Dame after his resignation from AMBS. Yet he continued for some time to have a key to AMBS campus buildings and often was on campus.
10. Yoder was actually asked to come back and teach a guest class on campus in 1997, which he did in the fall.
11. Yoder died a few weeks after that class ended, but a week before his death, he wrote a letter to a woman seeking to engage in a “confidential conversation” about his issues. The language in the letter used the same rhetorical pattern as was seen in his previous sexual harassing communications to women in the 1970’s and 1980’s). – page 79
14. Mennonite Church USA Archives has a box of materials on Yoder’s case that is restricted from access until 2047. As far as we know, no one knows what is really in this box.
Beyond these revelations, I want to mention that I appreciate the author’s strong refutation of the idea that Yoder’s misconduct was fueled by the awkwardness of an un-diagnosed case of Aspergers’s Syndrome (page 77). As an aspergistic person myself, I appreciate this clarification.
The second article I read was Jamie Pitts’ “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics.” I appreciated this article partially because I know Jamie (he was my professor in my Theology I class that I just completed) but also because he gave powerful expression to where I hope that the Mennonite academic world is, or at least, should be moving towards:
(In the last twenty years) few male Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians have allowed our vision to be significantly re-envisioned by feminism. John Howard Yoder . . . has remained the public face of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology during that time. His relationship to feminism is problematic, to say the least. Until recently, when new attention to the non-radicalness of Yoder’s personal life has forced the issue, male scholars of Yoder’s work, such as myself, have mostly avoided explicit, sustained reflection on feminist perspectives and concerns. . . Our vision must be revisited.
Lastly, I read Paul Martens and David Cramer’s article “By what criteria does a ‘Grand Noble Experiment’ fail? What the case of John Howard Yoder reveals about the Mennonite Church.” I began this article with a hopeful attitude, hoping that the authors might shed light on how Yoder’s ideas on experimenting with alternative ideals on sexual ethics were flawed from the start by his failure to engage frankly and honestly with those he was in a covenant relationship with (including his wife, the schools he taught at, and his church), as well as to explore the ways that Yoder failed to recognize his own power imbalance, as it relates to the women he pursued.
Instead, Martens and Cramer gave their readers something different, a terribly constructed attempt at comparing Yoder’s “experiment” with the efforts of conscience-led Mennonites of today to seek LGBTQ equality in our church. Certainly the authors gave lip service to some of the ways the two controversies are different, yet did not really get to the heart of the matter, leaving the comparison hanging in the air as if it were valid.
I strongly disagree. Yoder framed his sexual misconduct as a kind of “noble experiment,” but in reality it was something else. I think that Yoder could have ethically explored and even tried out some of his alternative ideas about sexuality and singleness, but only after doing the right thing, by either divorcing his wife or making a consensual agreement with her that they were going to have an open marriage. Instead Yoder wanted to “have his cake and eat it too.” And so he stayed married.
Yoder also abused his position of authority on campus and in the academic world, using his rhetoric of his “noble experiment” as his justification, but in practice keeping the “experiment” secret. His language of “experiment” was really just a justification for his pattern of abusive behavior towards women.
For LGBTQ individuals who are seeking to serve in ministry openly in the church, there is not the same kind secrecy involved. Rather these individuals are being called by congregations for service and then having their credentials considered by regional Mennonite conferences. One such case is Theda Good from First Mennonite Church in Denver. (discussion of her case is found beginning at page 186 of this article). Theda has not hidden her sexual orientation. Neither has our congregation or her conference. Rather Theda, her congregation and her conference are acting in obedience to their respective and collective consciences. Yes, I suppose one could frame this move as an “experiment” but this is not an insane double-talk secret style Yoderian experiment, rather it one that is open and done in the context of Christian community.
This applies as well to issues of marriage, and church membership. Advocates of LGBTQ equality (including myself) are very open about what we are about. Yes, this is in some ways a theological innovation but it is rooted in our views of scripture, our conscience, and our understanding of the call of Jesus to love our neighbor.
I am beyond livid that the authors that this comparison was a fair one to make and I don’t understand why the MQR thought this article was worth of inclusion.
That said, I am appreciative of one part of this article:
At this point, we hope it is clear that the claims that Yoder’s actions are little more than expressions of social awkwardness, Asperger’s Syndrome, or a mild case of autism, are only relevant – if they are relevant at all – in rationalizing Yoder’s awkward performance of experimental sexual relations… An appeal to these conditions simply cannot explain Yoder’s careful narrations of marital and non-marital relations or the larger framework within which they function. – (footnote 57, page 185)
I will be doing a lot of praying and thinking in the coming days, but my initial feelings about both the aftermath of Yoder’s abuse and the complete failure of the Mennonite Church’s denominational institutions to protect women for so many years leaves me feeling very, very disloyal to Mennonite Church USA. I’m glad that the light of truth is being shined in the dark places of the institutional church (and can personally testify to the ways that AMBS has changed — which I think now has a majority female student body). Yet, it is hard to feel very invested in an organization that has been, until very recently, painfully negligent.
And I will have to also admit my own culpability here. I argued just a few months ago that “it is possible to respect Yoder’s ideas and not respect his actions.” Now though that I’m questioning this. I don’t know if I can ever read Yoder again, or at least not without constantly hearing the internal inconsistency of this beliefs, as the great modern theologian of nonviolence was in fact a serial sexual abuser.
And I must admit that the article by Martens and Cramer doesn’t help matters much. Using the case of Yoder as an excuse to attack Theda Good and other advocates of LGBTQ equality is not appropriate and further solidifies my belief that church hierarchy all too often is willing to throw oppressed people under the bus for the sake of appearances. In Yoder’s day it was young female students. Today it is LGBTQ folks. I would rather the denominational structure die than see it continue to perpetuate oppression.
So those are my thoughts for tonight.
Actually I have a few more thoughts…
1. Given the serious nature of the contents of this issue of MQR, I think Mennonite Quarterly Review should consider publishing the entire issue for free online. It is too important to be buried in church and academic libraries.
2. Probably the statute of limitations is long past, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the survivors of Yoder’s abuse could sue Mennonite Church USA and then subpoena the sealed box, described as “The John Howard Yoder Papers at the Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen, ‘Sexual Harassment Charges and Conference Discipline’ documents in box 240, restricted until 2047 (50 years after Yoder’s death)”?
3. As difficult and costly as it might be, Mennonite institutions need to be ready to make financial reparations to women victimized by Yoder. While I realize that budgets are strapped, the costs of the ongoing damage done by Yoder should not be the responsibility of those victimized by Yoder.
Thinking creatively — what if every congregation of MCUSA took up a special offering on a given Sunday to be given to a perpetual fund to provide funding for counseling and other needs of those who were abused by Yoder? Such a special offering could be taken at special services of lament for the collective sins of the Mennonite Church in covering up the sins of Yoder, as well as discussing the work still to be done to undoing gender-based oppression.