Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I recently noted this article about JHY in the New York Times.  When I was in school, Yoder was on campus at Goshen College because the seminary was still in Goshen.  I remember him as usually looking disheveled and seemingly in another world.  As the article notes, his scholarship is both embraced and criticized, and continues to be analyzed long after his death, but his behavioral misdeeds make understanding his work and the church's response even more complex.  The article link is here.


A Theologian’s Influence, and Stained Past, Live On

Can a bad person be a good theologian? 

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Mr. Yoder’s scholarly pre-eminence keeps growing, and with it the ambivalence that Mennonites and other Christians feel toward him. In August, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, which has about 100,000 members, announced the formation of a “discernment group” to guide a process to “contribute to healing for victims” of Mr. Yoder’s abuse. 

In 1992, after eight women pressured the church to take action, Mr. Yoder’s ministerial credentials were suspended and he was ordered into church-supervised rehabilitation. It soon emerged that Mr. Yoder’s 1984 departure from what is now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, in Elkhart, Ind., had also been precipitated by allegations against him. He left for Notre Dame, where administrators were not told what had happened at his last job. 

But Mr. Yoder emerged as a hero of repentance. His accusers never spoke publicly, and their anonymity made it easier for some to wish away their allegations. And in December 1997, after about 30 meetings for supervision and counseling, Mr. Yoder and his wife were welcomed back to worship at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart. To cap a perfect narrative of redemption, he died at 70 at the end of that month
Without denying the wrongness of his acts, his supporters continued to celebrate Mr. Yoder and the Mennonite leaders who had rehabilitated him.

“How John’s community responded to his inappropriate relations with women” was “a testimony to a community that has learned over time that the work of peace is slow, painful, and hard,” wrote Stanley Hauerwas, a retired Duke University professor and Yoder’s heir as the leading pacifist theologian, in his 2010 memoir

Mr. Yoder’s obituary in The New York Times did not mention his sexual misdeeds. None of his victims received monetary settlements. Mr. Yoder apologized, sort of, with a statement that “he was sorry that we had misunderstood his intentions, as he never meant to hurt us,” according to Carolyn Holderread Heggen, one of the eight complainants. 

Ted Koontz, a professor at Mr. Yoder’s old seminary and a member of the church’s discernment group, said the church needed to take stock of what was — or was not — done for Mr. Yoder’s victims.

“There are a lot of different opinions about what was done and wasn’t done to hold him accountable,” Professor Koontz said. 

The committee will probably conclude its work, he added, in time for the Mennonite Church USA’s 2015 convention in Kansas City, Mo., where there may be a ceremony “of confession, repentance, reconciliation.” 

Of course, reconciliation was what the four-year process in the 1990s was supposed to achieve. It obviously failed. And Mr. Yoder remains inescapable for Mennonites, his work read and referenced often and everywhere. 

“Physically he died, but his work and his theological writings live on,” said Linda Gehman Peachey, a freelance writer in Lancaster, Pa., who is also part of the six-member group. “For those who have known this other side — his behavior, particularly toward women — that is really painful.” 

Mr. Yoder’s memory also presents a theological quandary. Mennonites tend to consider behavior more important than belief. For them, to study a man’s writings while ignoring his life is especially un-Mennonite. 

Professor Koontz regularly tells his students reading Mr. Yoder that “his behavior is one thing we ought to take into account when we read his work.” Ms. Peachey noted that Mr. Yoder wrote a good deal about suffering as a Christian virtue, but “if you know this part of the story” — how he made women suffer — “you tend to read it with a different eye.” 

Mr. Yoder seemed very attentive to the notion that theology should align with behavior. It turns out that in unpublished papers, he formulated a bizarre justification of extramarital sexual contact. 

In his memoir, Professor Hauerwas alludes to what Tom Price, a reporter for the newspaper The Elkhart Truth, described in a five-part 1992 series as Mr. Yoder’s defense of “nongenital affective relationships.” Mr. Yoder said that touching a woman could be an act of “familial” love, in which a man helped to heal a traumatized “sister.” 

Mr. Price quoted from “What Is Adultery of the Heart?” a 1975 essay in which Mr. Yoder wrote that a “bodily” embrace “can celebrate and reinforce familial security,” rather than “provoking guilt-producing erotic reactions.”

Ms. Heggen, called Tina in the newspaper articles, told Mr. Price that Mr. Yoder had a grandiose explanation for his advances, which he tried out on multiple women. 

“We are on the cutting edge,” Mr. Yoder would say, according to Ms. Heggen. “We are developing new models for the church. We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian church will be indebted to us for years to come.” 

On Wednesday, Ms. Heggen, agreeing to be identified as a victim for the first time, recalled driving Mr. Yoder to the Albuquerque airport in 1982. He asked her to get out for “a proper goodbye,” Ms. Heggen said. “Then he pulled me into his belly and held me tight for a painfully long time. I realized I couldn’t escape his clutch.”

In 1992, Ms. Heggen, who now lives in Oregon, published a book about sexual abuse. Traveling the world, lecturing about her book, she said she met “significantly” more than 50 women who said that Mr. Yoder had touched them or made advances. 

“Women inevitably come up after these events and tell you their story,” Ms. Heggen said. “The scenario was so familiar to me, and I would interrupt them and say, ‘Are you talking about John Howard Yoder?’ They would say, ‘How did you know?’ ” 

After his advance toward her, Mr. Yoder mailed Ms. Heggen an essay in which he advocated physical contact, including nudity, between unmarried people, so long as “there wasn’t lust.” 

Ms. Heggen had a theory of what Mr. Yoder might have been thinking. “ ‘I have created this great peace theology,’ ” she began, trying to put his thoughts into words. “ ‘And you and I are developing a new Christian theology of sexuality.’ ”



Bizzy Brain said...

Why is it that the first scripture that comes to mind on the mention of John Howard Yoder's name is Matthew 7:21-23?
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Phil L. said...

I understand Mr. Howard was a fan of country music and his favorite song was "Heaven's Just a Sin Away." Another one was "How Can It Be So Bad When It Feels So Good?" or some such thing.
Favorite album was "Dolly Parton's Biggest Hits." Get it? (Heh,heh.)

Sick Sigma Sez said...

The problem with someone who is a hypocritical bullshit artist is, how can you have any confidence in anything he has to say, even if some of his scholarship may be right on the money?

Hugh G. said...

I was not nearly so eloquent as professor Yoder, who talked about being on the “cutting edge” and developing “new models for the church” and “celebrate and reinforce familial security” and “this grand, noble experiment.” As a kid, I simply said, “Gee, Honey, if we love each other, we’re married in the eyes of God.”

Douglas E said...

Some good thoughts here folks. I think that what SSS said is what some in the church are trying to figure out. However, I must say that there have been numerous scientists who have made brilliant contributions to their fields, and later in life have gone off the deep end with crazy ideas and beliefs. This does not negate their previous work; but, it is also easier to assess scientific work than that of theologians and philosophers - but definition, whatever the latter say must be right in their opinion!! :-)

Steve Heller said...

I have no idea how John Yoder's brain works and I haven't read his stuff, but he may be on to something. Practically everyone is familiar with Matthew 5, which states, among other things, to turn the other cheek, who takes your coat, give him your cloak also, love your enemies, do good to them who hate you, give to those who ask, loan to those who want to borrow, etc.
BUT practically everyone ignores those commands, which are pacifism and non-violence in a nutshell, and Yoder is saying Matthew 5 should not be ignored.

Douglas E said...

Right Cousin. Recently an evangelical friend and colleague who has been at the forefront in the science and religion 'discussions' lamented that there are too many "Christians" that don't take seriously many of the teachings of Jesus; said it made him want to be called something other than "Christian" because of the negativity often associated with the word.

Steve Heller said...

I don't think your friend should abandon the Christian label. He could call himself a "true Christian" or "God of the Bible Christian," which could stir up some interesting conversation. That would distinguish him from the pick and choose or anything goes type of Christian. Believing the facts of the gospel, that Jesus is God, born of a virgin, died for our sins, and was resurrected does not automatically make a person a heaven-bound Christian. There is that little technical obligation to make Jesus Lord in our life, which is a tall order, and most Christians back off at that point. It does mean, among other things, that one actually becomes familiar with and strives to obey His teachings as expressed in the Bible.
Perhaps rather than a person describing himself as a Christian, which could mean practically anything nowadays, he could call himself a Mennonite, or Nazarene, or Southern Baptist. That would offer a good deal of clarity.
Even then, there are many in those denominations, who are not true believers. One way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to determine if an alleged Christian has a testimony, not just made up bull, but a valid testimony as to how the Lord came into and changed that person’s life. Also, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

Douglas E said...

Steve - I see a very big problem with your suggested label of "true Christian" because I would contend that every person/congregation/denomination would claim the title of being true Christians while every one else is compromised, unfaithful, apostate, etc. Catholics vs protestants, Baptists vs Mennonites, everyone vs Mormons, and so one. Also, many folks would question the God of the Bible label because they could say "which one?" The typical answer is that there is only one, but questions remain about the widely disparate behavior ranging from ordering genocide to sacrificing one's life.

Steve Heller said...

Very good point Douglas E. Given the wide variety of “true” Christians, it’s not a good idea to go about proclaiming oneself as such. Keep it to yourself and avoid irritating others. In my discussions about religion, telling people, “I am a Christian,” or “I am a believer” is too general and leaves too much to the imagination, thus I identify myself as a Bible-believing Christian who belongs to a Southern Baptist church. That gives people about all the information they may want to know as to where I stand on doctrine.

Sick Sigma Sez said...

Douglas E., you mention God ordering genocide. I think that was only a one time deal which applied only to the Canaanites, a pretty awful people who "needed killin'." Had the Canaanites been put out of business way back when, there would have been no 9-11 and no maniacal fanatics today seeking the extermination of every last Jew.

Phil L. said...

Agree with S3. If Iran nukes Israel and sends a few our way, you can thank Islam, founded by the Arabs, who are the modern day Canaanites, who God ordered put out of existence, whose command was ignored. John Howard Yoder could have loved the shit out of them, but that wouldn't change anything.

Douglas E said...

SSS - I think that you are mistaken about 'only the Canaanite' - I believe that there are other examples, the Amalekites, the Midianites, and other foes in battle. Not worth trying to justify from my perspective, particularly trying to blame the current problems on events over two millenia ago.

S3 said...

Agree about the blame. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'” John Greenleaf Whittier.

Just Askin' said...

Was always curious, with all the women out there who would welcome Yoder's sexual advances, why did he choose women for whom his sexaul advances were unwelcome?

hoosierdaddy said...

JA - good point because I too have thought the same about johns who pay prostitutes :-)