A powerful essay reflecting on John Howard Yoder’s abuse

The Christian Century published a challenging essay that reflects on Yoder’s history of abuse in light of his own theology as articulated in The Politics of Jesus:

If we are not going to abandon Yoder’s theology after all that has happened, and if we want to make use of it in light of those happenings, we suggest that the source material for doing so lies in his most famous work, The Politics of Jesus, where Yoder talks about “the powers” as 1) created for good; 2) fallen and corrupted; and 3) redemptively still used by God in God’s providential restoration of creation. By “powers,” Yoder meant those structures that God has set in place to order creaturely life. When in working condition, creation is ordered by these powers toward its own flourishing.

In Yoder’s life, such powers might be seen as the structures through which he practiced his teaching vocation, the relational structures of a large family in which he and his wife brought up five children, and the professional theological world through which Yoder could disseminate his work. “These structures were created by God,” Yoder writes. “It is the divine purpose that within human existence there should be a network of norms and regularities to stretch out the canvas upon which the tableau of life can be painted.” But, he adds, “the powers have rebelled and are fallen. They did not accept the modesty that would have permitted them to remain conformed to the creative purpose, but rather they claimed for themselves an absolute value.”

We might read Yoder’s failings as a tragic manifestation of this rebellion. He twisted his teaching vocation into a structure for predatory behaviors; he distorted mentorship and influence for untoward purposes; he used analytic stubbornness to isolate himself from community; he perverted academic achievement in order to manipulate and bully others.

Written by David Cramer, Jenny Howell, Paul Martens, and Jonathan Tran, it reveals more details and wrestles with the important question of the relationship between a theologian’s life and his/her work. I read a longer version of the essay in early July when it was mistakenly posted by The Other Journal (it will no doubt be reposted).

I’ve previously posted on Yoder here

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.


Books I won’t be reading any time soon

Apparently, Bart Ehrman is getting cranky. His most recent book is Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors are not who we think they are.

His argument seems to be that certain of the authors of biblical texts intended to “defraud or bamboozle” their readers. In other words, he is attacking both conservatives, who think the texts were written by the authors named in them, or attributed to them by later tradition, as well as mainstream scholarship which has argued for centuries that many of the texts, such as several of the letters attributed to Paul, were written pseudonymously. Ben Witherington offers his take-down here. So Ehrman is going from writing about errors in the text to malicious biblical authors. It’s clear he has a few issues with scripture.

Another book I’m not going to read is Defending Constantine, by Peter J. Leithart. This is one part biography and one part attack on those who view Constantine’s conversion as an epochal shift, and not for the better, in the History of Christianity. His chief target is John Howard Yoder.

Constantine was a complex and enormously important figure and Leithart is correct in problematizing recent and not-so-recent historiography. But in his effort to do so, he seems to go a bit overboard and perhaps even distort the story. The sources are problematic and historians have debated for decades whether or when Constantine in fact converted. That he declared Christianity a licit religion is not in question. What is in question is the depth of Constantine’s own faith. The fact that he was baptized only on his deathbed gives many pause.

That his conversion changed the relationship of Christianity to the state is also clear. To go from being persecuted by an emperor to having an emperor sponsor the construction of churches and calling church councils in a little over a decade was amazing, and disorienting for Christians. There were gains as well as losses in the historical development that took place in the wake of Constantine.

We are living, once again, in a post-Constantinian age. Many Christians, especially on the right, seem not to recognize that the role of Christianity in contemporary culture has changed dramatically in the last fifty years (see my previous post). While there is much in Yoder with which I disagree, I think his call for the church to recognize this situation, to claim it as an opportunity to rethink the relationship of the church to the gospel, and to think creatively about what the church’s role in culture might be, is vital if we are to continue to be a faithful witness to the gospel in the twenty-first century.

There’s a somewhat favorable review of Defending Constantine here–and a takedown from the Yoder school here.