Pacifists Should Disengage from Yoder

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.

 

  1. 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.”
  2. Ibid., Waltner Goosen refers to psychological evaluations of Yoder that estimate the number of victimized women to be close to one hundred.
Claire Hein Blanton

About Claire Hein Blanton

Claire Hein Blanton is a doctoral student in Systematic and Ethical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Her research focuses on the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and its modern implications for ecclesiology in response to the state.

Claire Hein Blanton

Claire Hein Blanton

Claire Hein Blanton is a doctoral student in Systematic and Ethical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Her research focuses on the political theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and its modern implications for ecclesiology in response to the state.

7 thoughts on “Pacifists Should Disengage from Yoder

  • September 29, 2015 at 10:31 am
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    Claire, I’ll respond here rather than Facebook. First off, I completely understand and respect the decision to move past Yoder. I have one more published essay on him coming out, and then, I’ll have to make the same decision, albeit in a different way than you have indicated above. And secondly, thank you for engaging the totality of the argument rather than limiting what I’ve said to issues of pacifism: this is more properly a theological question with ethical import, I think, than an ethical question directly–what must be said about these justifications?

    One point of clarification, and then one question and a comment: I’m not sure who is meant by this last line, to be honest. In the scholarly realm, among those who do serious work with Yoder, I’m not thinking of anyone who want to shield Yoder himself from criticism: whether in my post, or in any of the articles which have discussed this (with perhaps one notable exception), no one has sought to shield Yoder the man. Hagiographers will always exist, but put those aside. The incongruency between his behavior and his work is what prompted all of us to rethink not just him, but his work. Not everyone will come to the same place as you, and I respect your move away from him.

    My first question: in the spirit of *not* defending Yoder the man, is theology ever done in a way which is not self-justificatory? In this particular case, if we are to dismiss his work because of the man’s writing it as self-justifying, why is the natural outcome of reading The Politics of Yoder not to become abusive sexually? What I’m suggesting is that writing takes on a life beyond authorial intent, as it should, inspiring others to take up its call and complete its work. Cynthia Hess’ work here is exceptionally important, in highlighting the ways that communal discourse can become silencing discourses. Many others, inspired by the pacifist vision there, have taken up its call in other ways, but I find it intriguing–if this is written to justify his sexual deviance–it seems to have communicated that element quite badly. The larger point here is not the quality of the writing, but whether writing is the property of the author once written. Hopefully, ethics is done in conversation with persons and not ideas, but the form in which an idea comes about cannot be logically separated from the person. For you, this means moving beyond Yoder’s nexus of ideas, but another option is perhaps to point to the ways in which these ideas have been taken up in others. This, however, means acknowledging the genesis of these ideas. This problem persists in New Testament studies in spades with generations of German Nazi theologians, which is why Althaus, among others, is acknowledged in footnotes, but not revivevd. Perhaps the same course will follow here.

    Finally, the comment: In your post, the connection between pacifism and Yoder’s sexual violence is a specific disqualifier in ways which other folks with sexual indiscretions don’t disqualify them, in part because of the self-justification, but also in view of the topic one which he writes. Practically speaking, does this mean moving beyond his writings on New Testament studies, missions, ecclesiology, and political theology as well? I’d like your take on that. If the answer is no, this would seem to follow from what you’ve argued above, and I’d agree: the justification seems most clearly linked to violence. But if your answer is yes, could you offer some clarification?

    Thanks for your response, and look forward to seeing you down the line.

    Reply
    • September 29, 2015 at 1:51 pm
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      I’m loving that the fight club has moved online…

      Reply
    • September 29, 2015 at 6:42 pm
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      Myles,

      Thanks for the response and your initial posting. It’s nice to see that civil discussion still exists on the internet. I have been thinking about your question and comment for much of the day, and I appreciate the direction that you’re pushing me in as I think through Yoder. I’ll try to answer them in order, so please forgive my lack of straightforward transitions.

      To the clarification point: this is not meant to be directed at Yoder, but a general concern. I think, as you pointed out in your post, that it’s important to hold the sins of our theological saints alongside their theology. As information about private lives becomes ever more public this will be a more evident task and my concluding paragraph is meant to reflect that as a move forward in the academy. I don’t expect everyone to come to a similar conclusion as me, but I hope it does illustrate the on-going challenge.

      To your question: Yes, all theology is self-justifying in some degree. I think Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Paper from Prison are written in part to alleviate his conscience about being part of the assassination plot, without getting himself off the hook. And finding the theology I’m nervous about with Yoder is not as evident in The Politics of Jesus, which would explain why no one reads it and then directly becomes sexually violent. The writings Rachel Waltner-Goosen points to, however, could lead to that kind of behavior in explicitly theological means. To me, the degree of self-justification is the concern. I find this a difficulty with the German Nazi Theologians as well. There seems, to me, to be an explicit misreading of the Gospel to justify some behavior as non-sinful. Even in Bonhoeffer’s attempt at justification he doesn’t absolve himself of sin. With Yoder the Mennonite Councils that followed the discovery of his indiscretions do not indicate that he thought he was causing harm or genuine remorse. Obviously it’s almost impossible to address the degree and specific intention behind a writing. Yoder, unfortunately, is the product of a period that documented things- the lack of investigation has probably covered up a multitude of sins from other theologians. And I admit that I could be wrong and he could have been privately remorseful, but publicly I question that. Regarding the life of the works: I think ideas do transcend the author to a degree. The problem, as I see it, arises when we start locating a strain of theology with only one person. At that point there is a danger that the theology becomes the person and vice versa. I have reservations that in light of Yoder’s pacifism, many modern scholars stopped trying to locate pacifism outside of Yoder and solely refer to him or to others directly using him as the guidepost for that theology. I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t engage with someone that has been influenced by Yoder, but I would be nervous about using someone that *only* located pacifism in Yoder and did not seek other theologians as well. This is a deeper concern that we need to read broadly, but that’s another discussion.

      To your comment: I personally abstain from using Yoder in any regard, but that’s for personal reasons. The departure point I want to press is that his pacifistic writings contradict his behavior and that is more worrisome than his writings on ecclesiology, for instance. I’d be wary of his New Testament work because of it’s usage in his writings regarding sexual relations, but I can’t make as strong an argument on that because I am less read in his New Testament work. Regardless, I think it is important to acknowledge his indiscretions before using or teaching his work.

      Thanks for this engagement. I know not everyone will make the decision I have on Yoder. How we engage with any theologian ends up being a personal decision, and I’m nervous enough about the ways his destructive theology potentially impacts his other works, that I err on the side of caution and disengage with him. I respect that others, like you, have made a different choice and can justify using his theology while acknowledging his personal abuses.

      Reply
    • August 10, 2016 at 2:47 pm
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      I haven’t read much of his scriptural work but the mansplaining, misogynist exegesis in the “Revolutionary Subordination” chapter in Politics of Jesus directly parallels justifyies of his hierarchical, violent abuse of real women taking advantage of their actual commitment to nonviolence. I grieve that this highly relevant point is never brought up in the usual incomplete narrative of “great theology but poor life choices” found on this challenging issue.

      Reply
  • September 29, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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    Bravo! Claire, I can add nothing to your discourse. Sadly, the basic reality us that we must throw out this baby with the bath water. The man as a theologian is so filthy and so suspect that his work MUST be regarded as tainted, as well. Well-articulateed.

    Reply
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  • August 10, 2016 at 1:08 pm
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    Hi Claire, thank you for this powerful piece and for your prophetic stance in refusing to publicize and reward work fueled by an lifelong underbelly of evil–similar to scientists who eschew Nazi medical data in their own research. It is very meaningful to me as as survivor of clergy professorial abuse who ministers to many others–in my case by my undergrad theological mentor, a married Protestant pastor enabled by my Jesuit university as well as the RC hierarchy which drove me to him by denying my call. (The devastating shame and false guilt was actually even worse than if one of the priests had done it personally, since I knew and liked his wife).

    Ironically, he was a just war theorist himself who put Politics of Jesus into my hands during the sophomore year he spent emotionally abusing and grooming me for the physical violation of junior year. As a first year student Barth was the first of the all white, all male, mostly dead writers he put into my hands in a total of four courses, and I did my research paper on him. Thus I share a concern for his own lengthy abusive treatment of Charlotte Von Kirschbaum, rarely recognized as such, by both sexual harassment of a young employee and extensive plagiarism of her work. (Like Bill Clinton’s shorter-term violation of Monica Lewinsky, “affair” implies a consent and equality that were not remotely represent in their interactions).

    There is actually an eerie parallel with Yoder’s double betrayal of his own wife and his primary female dissertationist at ND. He used her for emotional support and academic hostessing as well as making several attempts at sexual abuse–abusive in themselves despite the fact that he eventually accepted her refusals. I always wondered, and came across her account last night as part of Mark Thiessen Nation’s lengthy, viscerally triggering piece lavishing adulation on Yoder’s good qualities and utterly minimizing his evil behavior. (http://emu.edu/now/anabaptist-nation/2013/09/23/on-contextualizing-two-failures-of-john-howard-yoder/)

    I have a recent blogpost on the question of using Yoder which began as a lengthy comment to Tobias Winwright’s helpful piece in Sojourners and would love to see what you think. http://newignatianspirituality.blogspot.com/2016/08/response-to-tobias-winright-on-john.html

    Reply

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