The Mennonite Quarterly Review’s January 2015 edition addressed on-going questions of the legacy of John Howard Yoder. The feature article traces, in great detail, Yoder’s misconduct with female colleagues, friends, and students. Rachel Waltner Goosen’s article is exhaustive because it both compiles an excruciatingly detailed history of Yoder’s life and because anyone who reads it will be left emotionally exhausted, if not frustrated and shaken, by some of the personal accounts of victimization.
What to do with Yoder in light of these stories continues to be a live question, particularly for Christian ethicists who find resonance with Yoder’s works on non-violence and politics. In his response to James McCarty’s article on Yoder, Myles Werntz suggests that we can continue to appropriate Yoder’s theology for its value while simultaneously condemning his violent practices. Werntz brings the indiscretions of Barth, Tillich, and Augustine into the conversation as demonstrative of the fallen-ness of all our theological “saints.”
Werntz’s response offers good guidance for how we approach theologians in general. No one is without sin, and some sins are structurally and societally more problematic than others. We should never approach a text with the belief that the author’s own history is not implicitly behind the text. This means that when I read Barth’s Dogmatics III.4 on marriage, I hold in tension Barth’s section on the sanctity of marriage with his extramarital affair. Perhaps this means that I hold this section of Dogmatics aside, but his indiscretion does not color the whole of the work.
I cannot make a similar claim for Yoder. While Barth has baggage, Dogmatics is not written as an ethic of non-violence. Yoder proclaimed Christian pacifism while systematically grooming women, who often reported feeling powerless against his advances, to be part of his sexual experiments. Yoder became the power and principality that the church resists against. His praxis strongly contradicted his theology.
Yet, the reason I suggest that we disengage from Yoder does not rest on his praxis. Rather, I want to argue that we disengage because his theology explicitly tries to exculpate this behavior. Yoder contorted parts of the Gospel to suit his experimentation with women.1 Yoder developed The Politics of Jesus at the same time he was formulating his theology of “defanging the beast.” Where do his theologies of non-violence and his theologies of violent, sexual experimentation diverge? The underlying question of what to do with Yoder and our other theological saints is a question of implicit versus explicit theology. Barth never tries to explain that scripture allows him to break his marriage vows and engage in his affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum.
I research Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political theology. In contemporary Christian ethics Bonhoeffer and Yoder are often used together for constructive purposes. As a result, the question of Yoder remains a live one in my area of expertise, and the decision not to use Yoder makes my research more difficult. Yet, there are other means available to me. Yoder is not the sole author of pacifism in Christian theology. That tradition goes back as far as the first Church fathers. While Yoder’s work certainly revived an interest in that dialogue, it is not the only means of finding pacifism for those that are interested.
When I first read The Politics of Jesus I did not yet know about these stories. I found his writings with joy, as many do. He vocalized questions and concerns I had about the church and its relationship to the state. Seven years later, after reading the narrative of his life, the sense of joy I initially found has disappeared. I do not think that we can use Yoder with a good conscience anymore.
It is not a question of mere praxis. Yet, if it were, I would still choose not to use his works. This choice would be for the personal reason that as a female in the academy I find it disturbing to continue lauding someone that victimized an estimated one hundred women.2 But this rejection goes beyond these actions. The use of the Gospel to justify these experiments and the attempt to justify this behavior theologically turns this question into one of academic honesty.
Yoder simultaneously read the Gospel as macro-level pacifist and micro-level aggressive. Theologies, especially large ones, often contain their own contradictions and that alone does not justify disuse. In Yoder’s case, however, the digression between the two interpretations of such foundational texts, coupled with the behavior it then allowed, is too great. I cannot make sense of it and I cannot use it.
When a theologian’s praxis contradicts his or her theology, and when the same theologian creates a secondary, contradictory theology in support of this negative praxis, the theologian has created a large enough discontinuity that justifies setting the works of that theologian aside. Obviously, if a theologian can explain the discontinuity as a change in thought, we may not need to take this action. This rubric permits us to still hold in tension the lives of our saints and the continued use of their theology, while providing a satisfactory means to justify discontinuing the academic use of theologians who have committed particularly egregious acts that contradict their theologies. Yoder meets both conditions and the records collected by the Mennonite Church neither offer an answer to the discontinuity, nor an apology for it.
Both academically and personally I have chosen to put Yoder to rest. As the proliferation of personal lives continues to be both more publicly available and scrutinized (thanks to the Internet), we will face more questions like this one about John Howard Yoder. If nothing else, the case of Yoder should cause us to pause and reevaluate if it is good to hold certain theologies in such esteem that the men and women behind them become shielded from criticism and dismissal.
- Rachel Waltner Goosen, “Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 89 (January 2015). This usage is scattered throughout the article. Of particular significance were verses related to Jesus and “the women who touched him.” ↩
- Ibid., Waltner Goosen refers to psychological evaluations of Yoder that estimate the number of victimized women to be close to one hundred. ↩