Why I assigned 'Body Politics' this spring
This semester, my co-teacher colleague and I decided to put Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World on the assigned reading list for an upper-level course in ecclesiology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. This was the first time that I assigned a book-length work by John Howard Yoder in any of the courses that I have taught in my eight years of putting together syllabi in undergraduate and seminary settings. I have avoided assigning Yoder’s work because I did not know how to talk about Yoder’s discipline process with students in a place as public as a classroom. In private conversation, I knew how to talk about this stuff. And when it comes to my own scholarship, I have chosen to ground myself in Mennonite sources and voices that reflect the fullness of our community rather than relying solely, or even primarily, on Yoder’s corpus.
So what changed? At a communal level, a lot has changed. With Mennonite Church USA embarking upon this most recent discernment and listening process, we have brought years and layers of hidden conversation out into the open. In the clear air and bright light of this new day, some of us are holding our breath as some of us exhale deeply; all of us are blinking as our eyes adjust in this new atmosphere. At a personal level, not that much has changed. I still find it difficult to know what to say about Yoder to my students. Rather than avoiding this complexity, yet again, I determined to speak forthrightly about the conflict I have with assigning Yoder’s works, indeed with Yoder himself.
We have all heard that the Chinese character for conflict comprises the characters for crisis and opportunity. Whether this is popular folk wisdom or true, it describes how I approached my conflict with Yoder this semester. I agreed to assign Body Politics because I would have felt academically irresponsible to exclude Yoder’s voice and perspective from our course where Anabaptist perspectives on the church are central. And it is this same work that afforded me the opportunity to speak about the crisis our denomination has experienced because of Yoder’s actions.
Body Politics, like many of Yoder’s works, is a collection of essays. This particular collection arrived on bookshelves in the late spring of 1992, about the time two other things were happening. First was a Believers Church conference held at Goshen College in May, which Yoder helped plan. The conference theme? Church discipline, one of the practices Yoder discusses in Body Politics. Second, in June came the culmination of an 11-month investigation by two Mennonite Church panels into allegations presented in testimony by eight women that ended with the announcement that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference was suspending Yoder’s ministerial credentials (Tom Price, “Theologian Cited in Sex Inquiry,” Elkhart Truth, June 29, 1992). All at once, Yoder was Mennonites’ Doktorvater, teaching us how to think about the church’s theological significance in the world and he was systematically avoiding one of the church’s defining practices. How is it that Yoder was able to occupy two paradoxical spaces at the same time?
My colleague and I did not hide this paradox from our students. We chose to name this dilemma and integrate it into how we taught the material, citing — and putting at students’ fingertips — the numerous reputable online resources for peeling back the layers of complexity that surround Body Politics. When all was said and done, pedagogically, it was much easier to name the conflict surrounding Yoder than I expected it to be. Where the conflict remains alive for me is in the spaces where the interpersonal and the intellectual intermingle.
First is the interpersonal. I come from a family with deep ties to Yoder. My mother and aunts grew up with John Howard and his sister Mary Ellen at the Oak Grove congregation in Smithville, Ohio. Whenever I meet the Yoders’ daughter Martha at church conferences, we find it all too easy to talk about our lives and concerns, losing track of the time. I was honored to enjoy fondue with Leonard and Irene Gross one December evening, where we were joined, among others, by Anne Guth Yoder. It had been 10 years since John Howard had died. We remembered him, listening to an old tape that included a recording of him accompanying himself on the piano as he sang “Deep River.” I grew up being told that he had a beautiful singing voice, and it is true.
And then there is the intellectual. Methodologically speaking, I am a systematic and constructive theologian. I chose these specialities because I believe that our ecclesial community has been too reliant on John Howard Yoder for our theological perspective. Yoder is rarely one of my conversational partners because another major dimension of my method comes from woman-centered theologies (i.e., feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies) that deconstruct race, class and patriarchy. My interest is in understanding how we describe nonviolence — a creative force of goodness, love and justice — theologically based on the interplay of Anabaptist tradition, scriptural interpretation, individual and corporate experience and ethical reasoning. Yoder’s work and identity were invested in making pacifism intellectually respectable, and I respect him for all he gave to that project. However, unlike many of my teachers and mentors, I do not feel myself intellectually indebted or bound to Yoder. My view is that, alone, Yoder’s work does not offer us a sufficient analysis of power that helps us understand what is happening theologically in faith communities where we perpetuate cycles of violence and injustice. Rather, Yoder becomes an example of how we have perpetuated these things. Defending and/or excusing Yoder, like avoiding him altogether, are some of the things that contribute to this cycle, a cycle that we are now able to say needs to end.
So what happens when I let these things get all mixed up within me? I believe there is a way to be honest about Yoder’s failings, the pain and violation others felt because of his actions, and the struggle of the communities that he participated in. Collectively, we failed over and over to enact justice and we can learn from our mistakes. Here are three things I have learned.
Authentic reconciliation involves reparation, not just redemption. We often fasten our gaze on reconciliation and redemption, but I have learned that the humbling, and even humiliating, work of repairing the breach has to be part of the equation lest we gloss over the depth of others’ anger and rage.
Valuing conscientious objection to war does not mean we have not experienced other kinds of violence and warfare. John Howard Yoder is our collective, metaphorical unremoved shrapnel. How we remove it is just as important as understanding how the injury occurred and why we have lived with the embedded fragments for so long.
Using or not using Yoder’s work should not be the litmus test for how authentically Mennonite or Anabaptist we are. Instead of convincing one another to (not) use Yoder’s work in our own work, we are better off trusting that each of us is doing our best to speak and share the understanding of Christian faith that God is growing in us. To do this is to honor and call forth integrity.
So I will include Yoder’s work in my teaching from time to time, but my choice is one that I commit to sharing with openness and honesty because every body has politics.
Malinda Berry is joining the faculty of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. in July. This article was originally commissioned for the summer 2014 issue of Mennonite Life in the series, “On Teaching John Howard Yoder.”
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