As one who spent a number of years working with and promoting the work of John Howard Yoder, I found the questions raised by James’ post from this summer to be spot on. Particularly over the last two years, many have raised questions about the validity of Yoder’s work in light of his until-recently-little-discussed sexual abuse.1 As one who has been to Yoder’s archives, published his work posthumously, and written on his work in a variety of ways, I had heard, as many had, of the proceedings which took place toward the end of his life. However, the extent of Yoder’s actions were shocking to me, to say the least. For myself, and for many others who found themselves influenced by his work, the question has become not only how to care for those affected by Yoder and his theology, but what do you do with his work now? In what follows, I do not intend to make an apologia for Yoder, but to offer a meditation on what we do with the work our fallen saints.
First, I am uncertain that we can say that anything is “owed” to his work. If justice is a matter of proportion—of distributing goods according to need—then what is “owed” to Yoder’s work should be nothing. As others have argued, there are ways in which the abuse committed by Yoder is an extension of his theology: Yoder’s vision of the powers and principalities was structural in ways that prevented him from seeing the deeply personal aspects of his theology. Put differently, by emphasizing the structural nature of Christian ethics, he neglected the manner in which our discipleship is gendered, personal, and conditioned by power dynamics intrinsic to a fallen creation.
And yet, the abuses that Yoder committed, and that his work arguably produced, are not the summation of his contributions. Yoder provided a compelling public voice for Christian pacifism to a greater degree than any of his contemporaries, and his vision of a Christian community which exists as an alternative to the divisiveness of war and conflict remains a perennial challenge to Christians. In this way, doing “justice” to Yoder’s work means acknowledging this as well: his contributions, lingering inspiration, and wisdom, alongside his abuses and sexual violence.
It is here that the challenge of what to with our saints becomes more complicated, for justice as giving one what is due becomes a matter of giving with one hand while taking away with the other. To borrow the metaphor employed by the apostle James, Yoder is evaluated presently by the scholarly community as one escaping as though through the fire—gratefully remembered for his contributions, but just barely. And yet, Yoder is not the only one whose life and work falls into this category. We may add to this list Karl Barth, whose relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum is in the background of the Church Dogmatics. There are the well-known infidelities of Paul Tillich, or the decades-long relationship between Augustine and his unnamed concubine, or the collaboration between Paul Althaus and the Nazis, all of which beg the same question as Yoder: what do we do with our fallen saints?
Justice for them, it would seem, demands a more difficult path than simply discarding them, for justice involves a proper vision of both their gifts and their limitations. To unjustly evaluate our saints poorly would mean, then, both to overlook their gifts and to overlook their sins, to refuse either their wisdom or their horrors. It is, I think, to resurrect the error of the Manichees: to construct the world as created either of pure light or pure darkness, with no way to exist between these extremes. True justice for our fallen saints involves penitence and gratitude, prudence to withdraw and the courage to embrace. Not all of these things, to be sure, need to be done at all times, but a full valuation of an exemplar’s gifts hopes for the time to do both of these tasks well.
- Those seeking comprehensive introductions to the narrative surrounding Yoder’s career vis-à-vis his sexual misconduct, see https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-07/theology-and-misconduct, and particularly Ruth Krall’s work: http://ruthkrall.com/downloadable-books/volume-three-the-mennonite-church-and-john-howard-yoder-collected-essays/ (2005): 335-369. ↩