Opinion: Mistakes, regrets, lessons

John Howard Yoder’s life is not the ultimate test of his theology

Mar 2, 2015 by

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When the controversy about John Howard Yoder’s sexual conduct resurfaced in 2013, I was mystified. Why was this coming up again? He’s been dead since 1997. He hasn’t been in the employment of a Mennonite institution since 1984. Many of the people asking questions about this shadowy past didn’t even know Yoder personally. The people raising questions weren’t those Yoder had violated. So why now, why again?

It occurred to me that the Yoder sexual legacy was like a family secret that, when suppressed, keeps popping up in uncanny ways in future generations. It was time to throw off the veil of secrecy about this chapter in the Mennonite church, not least because the women Yoder violated had never gotten their due. By opening up this case in a way never done before, hopefully these women could gain some vindication, support and healing for the burden they have carried.

Last summer I agreed to be interviewed by Rachel Waltner Goossen, a historian commissioned by Mennonite Church USA to dig into the Yoder files and interview as many people as possible to write an article telling as much of this story as could be retrieved.

I told Goossen that when I started employment at Goshen Biblical Seminary/Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in 1984, Marlin E. Miller, then president of GBS, unlocked a drawer and showed me several thick file folders. “There are the John Yoder files, in case my plane ever goes down,” he said. He proceeded to tell me the sordid Yoder story, which Goossen has capably, yet painfully, captured in her January 2015 Mennonite Quarterly Review article: the way Yoder sexually preyed on women and the elaborate theological rationale he constructed to justify his behavior.

I found Yoder’s behavior deplorable, his justification abominable. The human mind has a tremendous capacity for rationalization — the greater the mind, the more ingenious the rationalization. Here was one of the greatest Mennonite minds ever, an ingenious interpreter of Anabaptist theology, who used his brilliance in deceitful and despicable ways.

Mistakes and regrets

Now that the MQR article is available for all to read, I have been asked numerous times for my response — not just to the article but to the reality it conveys, especially the attempts to discipline Yoder. Mistakes were most certainly made back then in the numerous attempts to stop Yoder’s behavior. I haven’t talked to anyone who now thinks the case should have been handled the way it was. I know people who have deep regrets about that. I suspect that, were he still alive, Miller would be the first to say other measures should have been used.

The people involved in the disciplinary process thought they were doing what was necessary at the time. They treated Yoder’s behavior within a churchly framework outlined by Matthew 18. Yoder, despite having written authoritatively on a Matthew 18 form of church discipline, used his brilliance again to control the process and to provide what appears to be a cover for his ongoing activity. Yes, the process failed to stop Yoder, but hindsight is 20/20.

Brilliance and bullying

Young people today can hardly fathom how this was kept so quiet, so it seems like a grand coverup. They can’t imagine why the Mennonite powers that be didn’t report Yoder to law enforcement. Keep in mind that the Violence Against Women Act wasn’t passed until 1994. We know so much more now about how to handle these cases, or how not to handle them, than we did then.

Not only didn’t the Mennonites working the Yoder case take it to the legal authorities, so far as I know neither did any of the women he abused. This is not a blame-the-victim statement. It’s just a fact about how different the times were.

Every tragedy has villains and heroes. The human tendency, once a tragic story like this one is broadly known, is to try to identify who was who. I think we should rather now focus on the victims, and I would name Miller among them.

Yoder was extremely difficult to work with; in addition to being an abuser, he was a bully. He used his intellectual power to turn every argument and process to his advantage. Miller, who died suddenly in 1994, took the brunt of Yoder’s bullying tactics. High stress contributes to heart disease. Miller died from heart disease, and I believe dealing with Yoder contributed to his early and sudden demise.

What is to be done?

So what then is to be done about Yoder — not just Yoder the man and sexual abuser, but his theological legacy and writings, which continue to be published and read? Are they irredeemably tainted? I can’t take seriously anything Yoder said or wrote about sexuality. To me, that is a part of his legacy that is too suspect and tainted. His whole body of work needs to be read critically in view of his behavior.

The question isn’t finally, “What’s to be done about Yoder?” Rather, “What’s to be done about Jesus?” That always should be the question before us.

Can Yoder’s work help us answer the Jesus question? It can, so long as we remember that Yoder himself was a flawed person and teacher and that the Spirit may be calling us to new ways of living the life of discipleship in a different time.

Using a crooked stick

We Mennonites tend not to have a different moral standard for our leaders than for lay people. We do, however, expect leaders to live up to our standards. When they don’t, their leadership is suspect. Surprise: Leaders are fallible too. Mennonites need something like the statement attributed to Martin Luther: “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line.” Yoder was a very crooked stick, but God did use his theology, as marked by the scores of non-Mennonites who have been drawn to an Anabaptist way of thinking about discipleship by Yoder’s writings.

In another context, Jason A. Springs has said, “The theological task is not ultimately guided by the theologian’s faithfulness, but by God’s.” This draws attention to a flaw in Mennonite theology much larger than Yoder: We tend to put too much emphasis on our faithfulness, rather than God’s. Yoder’s life isn’t the ultimate test of whether his theology is valid or not. Jesus, the Gospels and Scripture are the ultimate test.

Cause for humility

The Yoder case should cause introspection and confession for all of us. Are we now doing all we can in our homes, churches, schools and places of employment to prevent this kind of conduct and to deal with it appropriately when it does?

Whatever else we learn, the Yoder case should give us some humility. We too are a broken people, capable of untold sins.

I’d like to see us give more attention to two theological themes: our sinfulness, in both its individual and corporate forms, and our need for regeneration. Regeneration was an Anabaptist theme. It speaks to both our need and its remedy: the power of the Holy Spirit to help us overcome our sin and live a life of discipleship.

Richard A. Kauffman, senior editor of the Christian Century, resides in Goshen, Ind., where he and his spouse, Suzanne, attend College Mennonite Church. He was administrative vice president and instructor in theology at Go­shen Biblical Seminary/Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) from 1984 to 1995.

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