Mark Oppenheimer on John Howard Yoder

There’s an article in the New York Times about the controversy in Mennonite circles about John Howard Yoder. In a way, it seems like airing dirty laundry but if that’s the case the laundry has been dirty for a very long time. I mention it here for several reasons. First, because it’s another example of the difficulty Christian churches have in dealing with sexual abuse and sexual violence. Second, Yoder is a significant influence in my own theology. He has shaped my understanding of Jesus’ message, nonviolence, and the nature of the church. Yoder is an important witness and his thought has much to offer us as we enter a future where Christianity no longer has power and privilege in the west. Third, the relationship between the life and thought of a theologian raises significant issues. If Yoder acted abominably to women of his acquaintance, what does that say about his theology?

Like most Mennonites of my generation, John Howard Yoder was larger than life. He brought Anabaptist and Mennonite theology and ethics into the mainstream of Protestantism. I read The Politics of Jesus when I was a teenager in the mid-70s. It shaped my understanding of Jesus, my ethical stance, and my theology.

I spent one semester at what was then Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries and made sure that I took the only course Yoder offered that term. His theological brilliance did not extend to the classroom, nor to interpersonal relations and looking back, the course was less than successful. It was on ecumenical reform movements within Christianity and tried to bring together a number of very different movements that emerged in Western Christianity after the Protestant Reformation.

But at AMBS, Yoder was a presence in the classroom even when he wasn’t the instructor. In our Theology class, his “Preface to Theology” was a basic text though it existed only in photocopy. It, too, was an insightful and important work on my journey.

I left Elkhart for Boston after that semester and eventually entered Harvard Divinity School. It was there where I began to discern some of the structural problems in Yoder’s work. Reading Politics of Jesus again in the context of a strong Feminist community opened my eyes to the persistent power dynamics in the work. It’s easy for people (men) of power and privilege to speak of revolutionary subordination, but when people are oppressed and disenfranchised such a call may not be transformative. When people are victims of violence, following “revolutionary subordination” might be fatal.

With strong ties to the Mennonite community and to AMBS, I learned a little a bit at the time about why Yoder suddenly left the seminary in the mid 80s. I continued to engage his contemporary theological work over the years and his historical work on early Anabaptism played a significant role in my own dissertation. I write about the last time I saw him here.

All of these memories came back to me this summer when I learned of the latest, posthumous controversy concerning Yoder’s behavior. There’s been considerable coverage in the Mennonite press and among Mennonite theologians. For those of us who have paid attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and have observed similar problems in other denominations including the Episcopal Church, Mennonites’ response to Yoder’s behavior is troubling. That they are finally coming to terms with it and re-evaluating how they responded in the 1980s and 1990s is important both to that church and to Yoder’s continuing theological legacy.


This essay by Barbara Graber re-started the conversation.

If you’re interested I would recommend Ted Grimsrud’s reflections.

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary has responded. Its President Sara Wenger Shenk has this to say.

Mark Thiessen Nation has written extensively about Yoder’s theology and offers a thoughtful and in-depth essay here.

The Mennonite World Review devoted an entire issue to sexual violence among Mennonites.