Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.


Filed under Ethics

9 responses to “Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

  1. “only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.”

    Seriously? That’s the kind of statement that keeps me wanting to steer clear of Anabaptist. Harmony between ideas and practice are of the highest importance in *all* Christian circles (not to mention non-Christian circles). And I’d be surprised if Anabaptists don’t fail to live up to that standard about as much as anyone else.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Indeed a rhetorical overstatement. Mea Culpa.

      Culturally, though, I have found that Anabaptists have forged such a link that there are few ways to confess and repent in the ways others traditions have established ritually. In the case of Yoder, I have heard time and again that his “theology is pointless” after his moral failure came to light. Even after submitting to church discipline these persons have found him too wounded to touch. Which is the aim of my post- implicitly stated. Here, I would say we need to find a way in our theology and culture to acknowledge all our failings without diminishing each other.

      Thanks for pushing back.

  2. As noted elsewhere, I object to your use of the word “inquisition”. What is happening to Yoder’s work and the examination of his life does not in any way resemble the torture and murders that marked the violent suppression of Jews and women over hundreds of years during the Middle ages and later. Having said that, the rest of your comments are not out of line with the current discussion, a discussion which I believe is asking the wrong question of Yoder and his work. See: http://lamarfreed.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/getting-the-question-right-on-john-howard-yoder/

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Lamar,

      To be clear, I am not saying that this is parallel to the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. But inquisition does have meanings beyond just that systematic persecution and murder of women, heretics, and Jews. I am not even trying to say that Yoder is being persecuted. However, there are places and stories of those who have been silenced or berated. I am not one to say that swinging the pendulum is actually corrective. Instead, I resonated with a comment on the MCUSA post where the person stated that the men in this new committee should step down so that women can have a crack at this. That to me was a brilliant corrective and not an attempt to meet the previous violence with a different, subversive silencing and challenging of writers trying to cull through Yoder’s writings- even trying to get to the questions you asked in your blog post.

      Nonetheless, I hope that my rhetorical choice of words does not further confound the larger point and observations of the post. In the end, I ultimately have to say I don’t know- I don’t know how we can actually assess the legacy of Yoder, nor do I know if we can get to the secrets of the questions you raised. I don’t even know how to do this conversation- even in the trajectory you outlined- without more trauma to Yoder’s victims, and even more trauma for his widow. The effects of his violence continue to ripple out, and with any such violence getting to the roots is a violent process in itself.

      I just don’t know…

  3. Thanks for the post Josh. This is not a pool in which I want to swim. Boorish and brutal behavior is boorish and brutal, no matter the individual. However, bad behavior does not negate good ideas. Ideas and theory should stand and fail on their own merit, not that of their presenters. I am comfortable with the notion that once ideas are thrown into the marketplace they take on their own identity – people who struggle with that concept tend to have been taken in by a cult of personality and inextricably link theories and ‘theorizers’. Too many people stunt the progress or development of ideas because instead of taking the starting points offered by others (even others who turn out to be less than we thought they were) and developing them, they simply regurgitate. For some, the importance of an idea is not that the idea itself is important, it is the fact that it is [insert your wisdom giver here] putting the idea out there.

    Without being a Yoder scholar or anything beyond a simple guy who read a book, it seems to me that Yoder is simply another in a seemingly endless line of guys (or girls) that had some good ideas but lived a life contradicting a lot of those ideas.

    Also, the Inquisition didn’t just affect women and Jews – if you had been using it in that context. Deciding what is ‘in line’ versus ‘out of line’ for others to think or say seems to be a little too sanctimonious for me.

  4. you say he abused his power, position and prestige, mentioning “conduct” and “leadership failing” without actually acknowledging WHO he abused–80 plus women–and then suggest that those questioning his legacy are engaging in “abuse by proxy” and Inquisition? yeah, nooope. your lack of skin in this “game” is glaring and gross.

    when yoder’s witness, praxis, and legacy is one of coercion, violence, and abuse of power and people, it absolutely calls into question his work on non-violence. they cannot be separated. they shouldn’t be separated. his life should be measured against his own theology, and it’s irresponsible to laud him as a great authority on non-violence without also holding up his life and abuse as a case study in violence and how not to love your neighbor.

    • Joshua Brockway

      You are right- talking about this is gross.

      By “no skin in the game” I meant I have no investment in defending Yoder. You have lifted that out of the context of that paragraph. I don’t need Yoder’s work to be unsullied.

      You also missed my paragraph about the women he abused- “Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.”

  5. no, i read that–but it comes across as disingenuous when you specifically avoid categorizing his sins as sexually abusive and go out of your way to accuse yoder critics of “abuse by proxy.” you’re revealing your decidedly non-objective hand.

    • Joshua Brockway

      First of all I think you are reading way too much into the gaps of a blog post. I do not say that his victims are abusing by proxy- as I listen and read it seems that there is a small group who are disingenuous about their own intentions and claiming it a defense of the victims.

      Second, you are flat wrong about my intents or perspective. I do not condone Yoder, nor do I consider the disciplinary process the final say on the events. I do think we need to sort his theology- to see where his ecclesiology supports such violence. As I said above I don’t have any need for his work to be uncompromised. In fact I think we Anabaptists need to pull back the cover over the ways out theology of the church has I fact perpetuated sin, violence, and the type of sexual abuse Yoder was clearly guilty of.

      If you can’t take that as my genuine position then there is nothing I can say to change that.


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