What to do with Yoder? – The Internal Struggle of a Former Student

Claire Hein Blanton’s commentary, “Pacifists Should Disengage from Yoder,” addresses a question with which I have wrestled over the last year or so: “What to do with Yoder in light of these stories…particularly for Christian ethicists who find resonance with Yoder’s works on non-violence and politics”? In response to Myles Werntz’s commentary, “Making Peace with Our Saints?” which itself was a response to James McCarty’s “The Sexual Violence of Male Pacifists,” Blanton argues that Yoder’s case is different from that of either Barth or Tillich, for instance. She highlights how Yoder’s Christological pacifism, which is the central theme of his theology and the main thing for which he was known (until now), is fatally contradicted by his “theologies of violent, sexual experimentation,” leading her “academically and personally” to choose to “put Yoder to rest.” The pivotal point for her is: “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.”

For me, the question of what to do with Yoder is not only an academic issue but a personal one because I was Yoder’s next-to-last graduate assistant for two years. Academically, how I teach my “War and Peace in the Christian Tradition” course is indebted in great extent to what I learned from him. As evident in numerous footnotes, my scholarship and publications over the last two decades on just war and just policing also owe a lot to both his research and his mentoring. Recently, however, when I finished drafting a long introduction for my forthcoming coedited volume, Can War Be Just in the Twenty-First Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition (Orbis, 2015), I realized that for the first time, when writing about pacifism and just war, I neither quoted from nor cited Yoder’s work. It’s not that I have totally set it aside, for the astute reader may discern there faint echoes of what I learned from Yoder. Still, I intentionally avoided using any of the standard Yoder lines that I had used to great effect to make certain points in the past. So, do I agree with Blanton’s recommendation?

I’m not sure since elsewhere, recently, I found myself quoting from his work on just war. I did so because a certain “pacifist” interlocutor recently seemed to treat me and my work rather “violently.” In my response, I highlighted how, in contrast to him, Yoder tried to give just war “a better hearing than it has asked for” out of respect for the integrity and dignity of his just war interlocutors (Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution, [Brazos, 2009], p. 78). Then I made immediately sure to add the following qualifier after making that point: “it breaks my heart, though, that he [Yoder] did not similarly nonviolently respect the dignity of many women, including students.” Do I agree with Werntz’s position, then?

I must confess, I am torn. When I was invited by Paul Martens and others to respond to some questions they had for Yoder’s graduate students at Notre Dame during the 1990s, I did not do so. I simply could not articulate what I thought then, and I am not sure I can even do so now. The only former student I know who provided them with responses to their questions was Gerald Schlabach. Gerald has offered further reflections at his personal website. He puts into words—better than I have been able to—how excruciating it is to carry on now that we are more informed about Yoder’s misconduct and the ongoing pain he has caused for so many women. The publication of Rachel Waltner Goosen’s article in the January 2015 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, detailing what Yoder did, brought to light even more from this shadow-side of him than I had ever imagined.

What a nightmare, especially for these women, but also for me and others who as graduate students trusted him. Indeed, several of us during the several years before his death in 1997 not only learned much from him, but also came to care about him.

I went to Notre Dame in 1993 to learn from Yoder as well as from Jean Porter, Richard McCormick, SJ, Todd Whitmore, and Maura Ryan. I had read some of Yoder’s work earlier via courses with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School and, as a former law enforcement officer, I wanted to think further and harder about Christian ethics and the use of force from the theologian who influenced Stan’s pacifism.

The other grad students and I saw the Yoder others had seen. He was quiet. He was awkward. But we also witnessed another oft-unseen side. He constantly deposited little handwritten notes in our mailboxes about things we should research or read, and he asked for feedback on outlines and manuscripts that he was writing. Every now and then we would catch a glimpse of a smile. At his final birthday party with graduate students just before his death, he joked with us.

There is more. When my spouse at the time left me and I got an annulment, I felt like I had hit rock bottom. To make things worse, if that was even possible, I also could not afford my car payments. Yoder sent me an email offering to trade cars with me, and he would take over the payments. I did not accept, though, but I appreciated it and how he signed it “fraternally yours…”

In addition, during the months just preceding his unexpected death, Yoder was delegating different areas of his published and unpublished works to some of us graduate students. He invited Joseph Capizzi and me to work on his just war materials. In an e-mail dated 9/10/97, Yoder wrote to us: “The maximal task would be the full job of literary executor(s) on everything having to do with the pacifism/just war debate…. The minimal task would be to do something with the material already in print, whether formally published or self-printed….” He indicated a number of options, including setting “aside my extant texts, take only the ideas, cut them up in small pieces and stir, and write a new encyclopedic book of your own” (e-mail dated 8/21/97). He even suggested that we “could do it in your own names or in some case with mine.” Yoder wrote, in his e-mail from 8/21/97, that he would “share a copy of this with Mark Nation who may be able to advise usefully sometime down the line.” In the wake of his death, I brought this to the attention of Mark Nation and Michael Cartwright, and we discussed how to proceed. However, some years later, a member of Yoder’s family, who is one of the executors of his estate, told me that they were not aware of this. Indeed, very few people know about this, but an editor-friend of mine told me that someday this should be shared so it is on the record.

Why am I doing so here and now? Because I think that those of us who were graduate students during those final several years of his life perhaps knew a man who was genuinely (I hope) like Rodrigo Mendoza, the mercenary-slaver, played by Robert De Niro in The Mission, undergoing penance for the violence he had committed. As far as I know (I could be wrong, but I hope not), and as Schlabach put it, “at the time…he was behaving at ND.” The very last message he communicated with anyone may have been an e-mail I received from him (he was in his office; I was at my library carrel), advising me about my upcoming on-campus job interview at Simpson College (which became my first academic position) and offering feedback on my first paper that I was getting ready to give at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics a few days later (which became my first article in the scholarly journal I now, nearly twenty years later, co-edit). Twenty minutes after receiving that extremely helpful e-mail, I was notified of his sudden death, and I felt devastated as I telephoned Stanley Hauerwas to tell him the news.

Moreover, in retrospect, I am relieved that I did not (nor did any of the other grad students from that mid-nineties cohort) follow through with Yoder’s generous plan for us and his work. After all, many of us were in the initial stages of our careers, with heavy teaching loads and committee commitments. Plus we have pretty much done our own scholarship in the meantime. Admittedly, I used to feel upset whenever the latest posthumous book or collection of essays was published by someone other than one of his actual graduate students. These works received a lot of attention, and they have been cited in research by a new generation of scholars. However, at the end of a review I wrote for Theological Studies (September 2010) of the volume Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, edited by Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist (Herald, 2009), I wrote: “…authors relying on Yoder’s posthumously published works…should beware of ascribing it too much weight. In memos to his graduate students in the year before his death, Yoder expressed interest in publishing some of that work, but after revisions or more extensive reworking.” It bothered me that a number of his things were published that I believe he would not have wanted published in that form. In addition, in a review I wrote for Studies in Christian Ethics (February 2014) of The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, edited by John C. Nugent (Herald, 2011), which contains material more generally dealing with punishment and restoration, I noted, “Presumably, some of this…must have hit pretty close to home for [Yoder], given the church disciplinary process from the summer of 1992 to the summer of 1997 that he underwent for his sexual misconduct with a number of female students, although there is no reference to this in the volume.” Whether intended or not, that neglect by some of those who published Yoder’s works also bothered me. And now, I wonder whether the rush to publish his material must have felt like pouring salt on a wound to those he harmed.

Yet, what to do with Yoder? I don’t know. I struggled about whether to use one of his books or an essay in my “War and Peace in the Christian Tradition” course this semester. I didn’t want to. However, because I am writing a short new book on the history of just war, I am using his posthumously published Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution. This text is more historical and descriptive of the various approaches and the different methods and ways of reasoning associated with them, although I wish the editors would have used his materials from his later Notre Dame years, when he had a more ecumenical audience, than from his earlier years teaching Mennonite seminarians in Elkhart. In other words, I decided to use the book because it isn’t one of his theological defenses of Christian pacifism. Still, I hesitated to say anything about Yoder’s misconduct to my students, and it took me a while before I did so. After this semester, though, I am leaning towards going with Blanton’s recommendation of setting Yoder’s work aside, at least for the foreseeable future. While I agree with Schlabach that the story of twentieth century Christian pacifism cannot be told without including Yoder, I nevertheless think it is now possible to rely on the work of others for persuasive defenses of nonviolence and for strong critiques of Niebuhrian realism.

Believe me, I am still very torn. Because of this heartache, I could not bring myself to attend Karen V. Guth’s paper, “Doing Justice to the Complex Legacy of John Howard Yoder: Restorative Justice Resources in Witness and Feminist Ethics,” at this past year’s annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, but as co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, I forced myself to read it, and it will be published in the next issue, vol. 35, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2015). A year ago while at a symposium on war and peace in Washington, DC, I had one of those dreams that feel so real that its effect lingers all the following day. In it, the late Glen Stassen and John Howard Yoder welcomed me to their table where we smiled and discussed what’s happening in the world. It was probably only my wishful thinking, but one of Yoder’s other graduate students told me she wasn’t so sure. Either way, in eschatological terms, what to do with Yoder is still a “not yet” for me, as it is, even more, for the women he harmed.

Tobias Winright

About Tobias Winright

Tobias Winright is the Hubert Mäder Endowed Chair of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University. His scholarly interests include Christian bioethics, fundamental moral theology, social ethics, political theology, just war theory, just policing, capital punishment, and ecology.

Tobias Winright

Tobias Winright

Tobias Winright is the Hubert Mäder Endowed Chair of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University. His scholarly interests include Christian bioethics, fundamental moral theology, social ethics, political theology, just war theory, just policing, capital punishment, and ecology.