Learning from the tragedy of John Howard Yoder

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Harvey Weinstein’s sins aren’t all that unusual; that’s the problem.  So common are Harvey’s transgressions that we have traditionally adopted a boys-will-be-boys approach to sexual misbehavior in the marketplace.  That needed to change and it is changing.

The best reflection on the Weinstein imbroglio comes from Britt Marling, one of the Hollywood mogul’s victims.  Writing in the Atlantic, Marling focused on what she calls “the economics of consent.” 

Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families. He could also give them fame, which is one of few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world. They knew it. He knew it. Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.

Weinstein’s travails have a lot of progressive Christians revisiting the cringe-inducing story of Anabaptist scholar John Howard Yoder.

If you’ve never heard of Yoder, don’t be concerned, he worked a niche market.  But for those of us who identify with the Anabaptist tradition, Yoder was a hero.  His 1972 book, The Politics of Jesus got progressive and evangelical Christians thinking about the mind of Jesus in fresh, invigorating ways.  Prior to Yoder, Anabaptists had typically been dismissed as uneducated fanatics.  Soon everyone was talking about the Radical Reformation (which sounds really cool).

My Christian ethics professor, Glen Stassen, was heavily influenced by Yoder as was Fuller seminary’s James McClendon.

But there was a problem.  John Howard Yoder sexually abused women.  Not just one or two; it is estimated that, over a long career teaching at the Mennonite Goshen Biblical Seminary and Notre Dame, Yoder had deeply damaging relationships with over a hundred women.  These encounters ranged from weird forms of ritualized (and increasingly intimate) touching to sexual relations.

If you want the details, Rachel Goosen has written a depressingly thorough account of Yoder’s transgressions.

Of course the women were “consenting” in the sense that they participated in these dalliances without complaint or push back.  But, as Britt Marling points out,

The things that happen in hotel rooms and board rooms all over the world (and in every industry) between women seeking employment or trying to keep employment and men holding the power to grant it or take it away exist in a gray zone where words like “consent” cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter. Because consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.

And Yoder had a modicum of power.  Complaints about Yoder’s abusive behavior first surfaced in 1979, just seven years after The Politics of Jesus established the professor as a theological rock star.  Had Yoder been a low-level scholar no one had ever heard of he would likely have been sacked, even back in 1979.  But no one wanted to admit that this giant of the Christian ethics community was morphing into a monster.

It isn’t just the captains of industry and Hollywood legends who use their power to damage vulnerable women; pastors and professors are prone to the same temptations and for much the same reasons.  The more power religious professionals possess the more damage they can do.  The women Yoder methodically groomed for conquest were influenced by his star power.  How flattering to learn that a leading authority in the field of Christian ethics wanted your assistance with a problem so important that no one must learn of their conversations.

These trysts typically began with a request for help on a challenging academic conundrum.

Yoder’s monstrous behavior raises questions about his core ideas.  “By their fruits ye shall know them,” Jesus said.  If Yoder was tragically lacking in kindness, empathy and respect for the women he victimized, why should we think he was right about Jesus?

Wasn’t it Jesus who commanded us to love one another above all else?  Yes, it was.

Stanley Hauerwas, the leading light in the field of Christian ethics in recent years, has written an anguished piece addressing his own complicity in the guild’s protection of Yoder.  Hauerwas admits that he didn’t appreciate the full extent of Yoder’s bad actions, but admits that he probably didn’t want to know.

Hauerwas still believes Yoder’s insights into the ethics of Jesus were on target.

What I have tried to suggest, however, is that it is not what John has written that is the problem. Instead, the problem is what is not there . . .  I am suggesting that if we continue to read and learn from Yoder, we must do so by attending to what is not “there.”

And what was not there, Hauerwas concludes, was a concern for character formation and the construction of Christian community.

A theology that places brilliant ideas above character is deeply flawed.  We normally don’t care about how a thinker lives as long as the work product moves the academic needle.  That might work in physics and entomology, but when we’re talking about Christian theology (or any other kind of theology), a higher standard is called for.

When the writing of Christian theology and ethics is divorced from character formation and the intentional construction of Christian community, theologians and ethicists become estranged from the kingdom Jesus sponsors in the world.

This can happen to pastors as well, especially those who are alienated from their tribe’s faith traditions.  The very complexity, subtlety and sophistication of the systems we build can segregate us from the Christian rank and file.  Theology devolves into a learned critique of conventional morality and classical doctrine.

There is nothing wrong with this sort of critique as long as the goal is faith formation and community building.  Bad theology hurts people and hinders genuine human connection; but what if the demolition project becomes an end in itself? What if we stop asking how we can read the scriptures more Christianly?  What if we start thinking of faith formation as too common a task for elite thinkers like ourselves?

Hauerwas thinks that’s what happened to Yoder.  He defended his sexual misadventures by suggesting that he had transcended the canons of conventional sexual morality.  He hadn’t.  No one does.

Yoder soon found himself surrounded by members of the theological guild who admired his scholarship even when they disagreed with his conclusions.  His theological friends were so enamored of Yoder the mind that they stop asking about Yoder the person.

The study of theology, ethics and religious history must be rigorous.  There is no substitute for the give and take of scholarly debate.  But these subjects must never be treated as a parlor game.  Learned people are not always wise.

Pastors are particularly vulnerable in this regard because they aren’t supposed to have friends, at least not in the congregations they serve.  The danger is doubled when we convince ourselves that the convictions we hold most passionately can’t be mentioned in sermons or even in friendly conversation.

Pastors who are no longer energized by the work of ministry are vulnerable to obsessive sexual fantasy and, more often than not, their families and their parishioners reap the consequences.

Pastors, and the churches they lead, must start discussing human sexuality in the context of marriage, faith formation and community building.  What we leave out of the conversation can end up killing us.



3 thoughts on “Learning from the tragedy of John Howard Yoder

  1. Examples of sexual misconduct by religious leaders were revealed in a movie, SPOTLIGHT. It tells the true story of work by a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe whose function was to investigate corruption. Following leads on sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, of 1,500 priests in the Boston Diocese, over 200 were revealed by their accusers. It was further learned that only about 50% of priests were celibate, most of whom were having sex with adults. Once a series of reports were published, accusers and reports of abuse emerged from parishes all over the world. The movie is available on Netflix.

    On a flight from Phoenix to Dallas, my son’s seatmate was a former Catholic priest, married with children. When asked his estimate of percent of Catholic priests who were homosexual, without hesitation, he replied 30 to 40%. Why priesthood of the Catholic Church would attract homosexual males in numbers out of proportion to the general population is an interesting area for research and speculation.

  2. I don’t want to do research. Too much effort. But I will indulge in speculation. it is not surprising to me that the incidence of homosexuality and pedophilia should be higher in an institution that requires celibacy.

  3. Alan – thanks for the link to the Goosen paper. I was an undergrad at Goshen College when the seminary was still on the Goshen campus. Most of us knew little about JHY other than he was an odd-duck, to be generous. He was the picture of the absent minded professor, often unkempt and unable to make eye contact during conversation, seemingly being in another intellectual plane. I also tangentially knew Marlin Miller. Both Yoder and Miller came off as high-level intellectuals, which we average folks found somewhat off-putting 🙂 Although it took decades for all of this to come out, many of us are thankful that it did, even though there is a significant amount of sadness all around. And unfortunately, sexual improprieties continue in the Mennonite pastorate.

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