The Sexual Violence of Male Pacifists

"Gandhi Leaning on Two Women" by Nagarjun Kandukuru lwr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“Gandhi Leaning on Two Women” by Nagarjun Kandukuru lwr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I was a younger man I was discerning a call to ministry while working as a military contractor. As part of my discernment process I decided to read the entirety of the Bible. I read the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, with gusto and completed the task in less than three months. That experience was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life and sent me in a direction I could not have predicted. I finally read some biblical passages, like the entirety of Lamentations, I had never read before. And I read some passages that I had read many, many times in fresh, new ways. One such passage was Jesus’ so-called “Sermon on the Mount.”

I had a hard time squaring Jesus’ call to radical nonviolence and peacemaking in that sermon with my work preparing weapons for war. And then 9/11 happened. And then the US declared a “War on Terrorism.” As I found myself discerning a call to Christian ministry I also found myself feeling called to a life of Christian nonviolence. However, like any red-blooded American male, I was raised in a culture that glorified violence, defended it through appeals to the Bible, and taught the existence of a vengeful, violent God that demanded the torture and murder of God’s son as necessary for the world’s salvation. Thus, I wasn’t yet converted.

And then I went to college and read the work of Mohandas Gandhi and John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King Jr. and my faith, life, and vocational trajectory radically changed. Gandhi taught me the practical value of nonviolence in social and political life, Yoder gave me a Christian theological lens to understand the centrality of nonviolence to Christian discipleship, and King gave me a practical way to blend them in the American context. Reading the work of these brilliant twentieth century scholars of nonviolence was, in many ways, a second conversion experience in my life.

And then I learned of Gandhi’s sexual duplicity and patriarchal power plays over young women, and over the last several years details of Yoder’s own sexual violence have emerged. (And King, though we have no evidence of sexual violence, was also unfaithful to his own vows of sexual purity to his wife Coretta.) Gandhi “experimented” and “tested” his commitment to celibacy by sleeping beside young, often nude, women. He did this after forbidding his followers from sleeping with people of another sex to deepen their “experiments with truth.” And there is plenty of evidence that Gandhi “failed” these “tests” he gave himself. Yoder, apparently, was conducting “experiments” with female students to explore a “non-lustful” Christian sexuality that could include sexual contact outside of marriage. Both Gandhi and Yoder, then, used their creativity, which was so powerful in imagining alternatives to political violence, to justify abusing their religious and/or political power to coerce women into participating in their sexual “experiments.”

What both of these men did not realize, or ignored, was the ways that their actions were forms of violence that violated their own teachings. In much literature on nonviolence there is a gendered component that is especially “masculine.” From rhetoric of nonviolence being “true bravery” or “real strength” to ignoring the ways that women are at risk of violence in a variety of ways that most men do not experience to an assumption that violence refers mostly to political violence and does not include violence in the bedroom, proponents of nonviolence, even (if not especially) Christian nonviolence, have not taken the experiences of women into serious account. And, at least in the cases of Yoder and Gandhi, they have committed such violence (regularly) themselves.

What the violence of these influential male pacifists demonstrates to me is the necessity of feminist perspectives and the experiences of women in all ethical work. Taking the experiences of women seriously has the potential to transform much thinking about the ethics of war and peacebuilding (fields traditionally dominated by men). And it would challenge the assumption that it is possible to avoid violence in a patriarchal society. Male pacifists too often speak with ease about the possibilities of stopping a rapist through nonviolent means or assume that their faithfulness to a principle of nonviolence or following the way of Christ on the cross absolves them of any responsibilities to protect vulnerable persons in their lives. In addition, they too often assume Christian nonviolence applies to people who “give up power,” often physical, and willingly accept suffering. This assumption does not apply to all people, however, and is less likely to apply to those with little to no power (such as many women, children, the differently abled, etc.) to give up in the first place.

The sexual violence of Gandhi and Yoder also raises questions about the relevance of the lives of influential thinkers to how their work is received and utilized. Part of the power of Gandhi’s writing, for example, emerges from his courage in facing physical violence in the streets without responding in kind. It’s not just theory, for Gandhi, but was action – and effective action at that. Likewise, Yoder draws from a tradition with a long history of nonviolent suffering. (Unfortunately, it is also a tradition with its own long history of gendered, sexual violence.) It is the deep spiritual and intellectual wellsprings of that tradition that give Yoder’s work its “meat” as more than abstract theorizing. In light of this, revelations of sexual violence by Gandhi and Yoder should similarly make us look at their writings about nonviolence with skepticism. Or, at least, to read them more critically than those of us who are sympathetic to the ethics of nonviolence may have read them in the past.

Ethics is not divorced from praxis. As someone influenced by liberationist thinking, I would even argue that good theology cannot come from bad praxis. The praxis of these thinkers, then, should cause us to reevaluate their theologies and amend them where appropriate. A proper starting place, in my view, would be to refuse to read them (or write about them) without putting them alongside the voices of women who were victims of sexual violence. Doing so might lead to a very different kind of Christian nonviolence than we have known in the past.

James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

James McCarty III

James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

9 thoughts on “The Sexual Violence of Male Pacifists

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  • September 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I’m glad to see commentary here putting this pattern of sexual violence and male pacifists together. But I would add some additional insights:

    1. When women come forward to identify themselves as victims of male pacifist violence, most other male pacifists do not believe them.

    2. These other male pacifists use power and privilege to blame the women themselves for the abuse they suffered and to protect the reputation of the male in question.

    3. Most male pacifists do theological gymnastics and become armchair psychologists attempting to justify the sexual violence, once they begin to come to terms with it.

    4. As with the article by Myles Werntz, male pacifists will also continue to hold up sexually abusive pacifists as “exemplars” even when the extent of their crimes are known. At what point is someone not an “exemplar?” What is the red line where pacifist theologians will no longer continue idolatry?

    5. Most male pacifists do not listen to, read, or cite the work of female pacifists who have been trying to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence, or the problem of the violent construction of masculinity.

    6. Most male pacifists are firmly reproducing patriarchal, racist and colonial structures as they network primarily with other white men and offer them privilege and citations and invitations to speak.

    7. What would happen if a female pacifist was found to have taken her young male students in her office, seduced them, groped their genitals, forced them to perform sexual acts on her and then openly admitted this was all part of a Christian ethics experiment. Would she keep her job? Would male pacifists come to her rescue to redeem her theology? Would anyone stand by her?

    8. The problem of sexual violence and male pacifists is not one that can be attributed to worst case offenders such as Yoder. Collectively, white male pacifists need to examine the patterns of their abuses of power and privilege.

    • James McCarty III
      September 19, 2015 at 10:44 pm

      Hi Lisa,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with virtually all the points you’ve added here. My one lingering question is with your fourth question/point. I think it is important that we allow arguments to stand without reference to the character of the one making the argument. This helps us avoid, in my opinion and in the best of cases, both ad hominem and idolatry. (And allows us to continue to read many of our colleagues in the academy!) However, as I’ve noted, what often adds weight to arguments about ethics is the lived example of the one making the argument. I would not be as compelled by the arguments of King, Tutu, Day, etc. if it weren’t for the argument of their lives as well as their writings. So, on one hand I want to be able to say that Yoder’s written arguments are compelling enough to be worth considering on the merit of the argument alone (even if I would not hold him up as an “exemplar” any longer), but on the other I want to say that the argument of his life discredits any written argument he might make. Honestly, I tend to lean toward the latter and have basically stopped using him as a constructive resource, but I know many have not and feel it would be wrong to do so.

      Importantly, there are some male pacifists who lift up Yoder’s “submission to church authority” as a reason that we should continue to consider him an “examplar.” This, in my opinion, is an example of the theological gymnastics you refer to and is an argument that should be discarded for good. Yoder’s lived example can no longer be looked to for any kind of moral authority or to lend support to his theological arguments.

      Yoder can no longer be counted an examplar or saint. Does this mean that he can no longer be counted a scholar worth reading? This is where I’m still discerning. I do believe, however, that your overall point is right on and needs to be taken seriously by all male pacifists. Victims of sexual violence, especially women, should not be treated with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Pacifists who abuse their power should. Maybe this says what we need to know about how Yoder’s work should be used in the future: quite suspiciously if at all.

  • September 19, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Thanks for your clarification. The point in number 4 is that some male pacifists ask when they will be allowed to celebrate Yoder again and redeem his other writings. When they write about Yoder, they cite each other. And they still refer to Yoder as a saint! My goodness. How absolutely bizarre. They do not engage or cite any female pacifists. Their silencing of their female colleagues is an act of violence and oppression. So I wouldn’t draw a line between Yoder’s actions and those of others. Its a continuum, and the commonality is a fundamental dislike of women, women’s perspectives, women’s experiences, women’s critique. So I think it is important that we don’t scapegoat Yoder. The spirit of Yoder’s misogyny is still operating. So it is not a question of whether to use Yoder’s writings or not. I am fine citing Yoder and referencing his work. The point is the way Yoder is cited. Does it challenge patriarchal control of the narrative? Does it allow in women’s voices and critique? Does it recognize the limitations our identities place on us? Or do male pacifists assume they are “neutral” and can make an objective evaluation of the worthiness of Yoder’s ideas balanced with his life.

    • James McCarty III
      September 20, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      Thanks for this elaboration, Lisa. The “Yoder industrial complex” is real! And I agree that there is a continuum of patriarchal violence, of which some pacifist writing contributes, and that the glaring absence of engagement with women writing about violence and nonviolence is extremely problematic. This is part of what I tried get at in my last paragraph of the post, but you’ve helped make clear the variety of women’s voices that need to be a much bigger part of the conversation.

      • September 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm

        Thanks for engaging, Lisa–a point of clarification. In naming Yoder as an “exemplar”, I’m explicitly not commending his example, practice, or life, nor am I calling for ignoring his sins. What I *am* asking for is precisely what you’ve called for: to cite him, to use his ideas, but not in a naive way. Thanks.

  • September 20, 2015 at 2:29 am

    For me as a professor of Mennonite undergraduates, I stopped teaching Yoder in the 1980’s because of what I had learned about his behavior. The same mind that created The Politics of Jesus was the same mind that was constructing elaborate rationalizations for his interpersonal sexual behavior – and we now know – thanks to Rachel Waltner Gossen’s work – that he was actively teaching those rationalizations to others.

    I was unclear about how to teach his work without passing on its internalized hermeneutical and patriarchal virus – the virus which allowed him to abuse successive generations of female students and colleagues – to new generations of Mennonite students. I had no clue about how to teach the content of his ideas about nonviolence inside the context of a life of embodied interpersonal violence – the bullying of colleagues with whom he had an academic disagreement such as Mennonite intellectual J. Lawrence Burkholder and the sexual harassment and sexual violations of female colleagues and students. How does one acknowledge such violations and present their originator as someone to emulate?

    In his very important analysis of Yoder’s political science work, Budziszewski, J. [(Ed). (2006). Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices in Political Through and Action: Carl F. H. Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaefer, and John Howard Yoder notes the conundrum that sometimes Yoder writes with a clarity of vision and voice that is almost angelic while at other times he sets up straw men to destroy. He warns, his readers, therefore, that in reading and teaching Yoder, one must be very careful.

    To date, in my personal opinion, the Anabaptist and Believer’s Church guilds (in both their Protestant and Roman Catholic forms) have not been sufficiently careful in their adulation of Yoder and his work as the only true faith. He – and the books about his work – has been a major cash cow in the evangelical market. But the question remains: is the violent world a better place because Yoder lived and worked insides its evangelical margins?

    Erik Erikson’s challenge to Gandhi in his biographical study of the words and works of the Indian Hindu activist reminds the dead Gandhi – and thus his readers – that the future of Satygraha lies in the private and interpersonal sphere – not in the grand public spheres of international politics. No-where does Erikson make the argument that Gandhi was not a great pacifist thinker and activist. Instead, in his critique of Gandhi’s personal life, he focuses on the private and personal – Gandhi’s life with his spouse and the young women of his household experiments.

    It is very interesting that Yoder also used the language of experiments to promulgate and defend his own sexual experiments – whether derivative or not of Gandhi’s experiments we do not know – indeed, it is probably impossible to know.

    My concern about this area grew when I began to realize the depth of the Yoder movement as exclusive within the Mennonite academy. To be hired in a Mennonite seminary in ethics or peace studies, one needed to be a Yoderian and one needed to teach Yoder empathetically and sympathetically or be labeled as a trouble-maker and a theological pariah. As Dr. Schirich has noted elsewhere, this has caused the Mennonite Church to become more Yoder-centric than Christ-centric.

    At neither of the Believer’s Church symposiums on the legacy of Yoder’s life (1997, Notre Dame, and 2002, Conrad Grebel) was the extent of Yoder’s misconduct ever precisely identified or discussed. Many Anabaptist feminist women boycotted the first of these two events on the Notre Dame campus. By 2002, the symposium at Conrad Grebel College in Canada, some younger scholars thought that one act of consenting adultery was the sexual misconduct which Yoder had engaged in. There is something deliberately disingenuous in how the Believer’s Church and Roman Catholic Academy managed its information about Yoder in ways which allowed the misperception that a few harmless affairs was the extent of his misconduct.

    I sometimes wonder if his misconduct had been the major embezzlement of seminary funds while he was its seminary president – would we still be honoring his ethical legacy. Somehow I think not. Stealing money would have been a much more heinous crime than sexually assaulting women.

    I would echo Dr. Schirch’s question above. Had an equally brilliant female professor of theology or ethics or peace and nonviolence studies routinely fondled the genitalia of her male students as an experiment in religious freedom and told these males – and her colleagues – that she was bringing in a new sexually enlightened form of the kingdom of God in which such sexual freedom was the norm, would we be having this discussion about how to teach her corpus of intellectual work? Somehow or other, I think not.

    Thus, there is something about sexual gender privileged male entitlement inside the religious and ethical academy that excuses sexual misconduct behavior in male theologians and ethicists – whether by Yoder, Barth, Tillich, Gandhi, etc. – as excusable behavior because their ideas are so very interesting to us. The thought, therefore, takes precedence over their deeds. What exactly, then, are these sexually abusive men reinforcing in us and in our culture?

    This emphasis on the word in opposition to the deed strikes me as very shaky grounds for Christian ethics and for Christian peace studies.

    • James McCarty III
      September 20, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      Thank you for your engagement, Ruth. You’ve written much that’s important here, but I’d like to highlight your last two paragraphs as great challenges to the doing of Christian ethics in the future. It seems clear that there is a patriarchal aspect to the ways certain “major” thinkers have their misdeeds dismissed. And I agree that the “emphasis on the word in opposition to the deed” is problematic. It’s one reason I try and organize my ethics courses as much around biography/ethnography/sociology as I do around traditional theological and philosophical texts. I will keep these two challenges in mind in my future work.

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