Can Subordination Ever Be Revolutionary? Reflections on John Howard Yoder

This post originally appeared on The Femonite, August 9, 2013.

Hannah Heinzekehr is communication director and convention planning coordinator for Mennonite Church USA. She also facilitates The Femonite blog.

By Hannah Heinzekehr

If you are Mennonite – or maybe even not Mennonite, but just a scholar interested in the work of John Howard Yoder – you may have noticed that his name is cropping up a lot these days, and not just in relationship to his scholarly works. Prompted by a brave letter to the editor by Barbra Graber, Mennonite Church USA executives, as well as leaders at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, are beginning to reexamine the legacy of sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder against women during his tenure as a professor at the seminary. In a recent public blog, AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk wrote,

“As the current president of AMBS, I’m committed to a new transparency in the truth telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done…The renewed outcry for truth-telling about what really happened and what didn’t happen in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s has deepened my resolve and the resolve of Mennonite Church USA leaders, including Ervin Stutzman, to continue the healing journey…Now, as I review the written materials about him [Yoder] and talk to people, I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behavior.”

It’s a big deal that Mennonite executives are “re-opening” this conversation. From what I’ve read, heard and discerned, two things are clear: 1) The church took an inexcusably long time to address the allegations leveled against John Howard Yoder in the first place and 2) Most of the processes of discipline and reconciliation were pointed towards Yoder himself, and failed to take into account the healing and acknowledgment that all of his many female victims needed and deserved.

As a young woman studying theology, and writing a Master’s thesis that I hoped would draw on Anabaptist sources, I faced a conundrum. Mennonite theology has, by and large, been written by men. There are some notable exceptions and well-written pieces by women, but, if you want to enter into the Anabaptist-Mennonite canon, it’s pretty well impossible to ignore Yoder. He is considered by many to be the quintessential Mennonite scholar, and has found a large following well beyond the church.  But, knowing some of what I did about Yoder and the abusive patterns in his relationships with women, I struggled with whether or not I should be using his work at all.

John Howard Yoder
John Howard Yoder

And it wasn’t just the fact that he had perpetrated such abuses against women. It was the fact that his theology seemed to veer dangerously close to setting up frameworks that would not just allow this kind of abuse to happen, but made it seem somehow honorable or noble.

I first encountered Yoder’s discourse on “revolutionary subordination,” which makes up most of chapter 9 in Yoder’s keystone book, The Politics of Jesus, when I was a junior in college. I was reading Yoder’s book as research for my honors thesis. I read through this chapter shortly after I had finished reading Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s book, Proverbs of Ashes, which detailed the ways that substitutionary atonement and narratives about sacrifice had been used throughout history to justify suffering as redemptive, often in ways that were quite harmful to women.

Yoder suggests that, rather than simply reinforcing cultural norms which subjugated women, children, slaves, etc. during the era of the early church, each of these “subjugated beings” were seen as a moral agent in their own right. But, Yoder suggests that the call as Christians and as the church is to take our agency and to willfully subordinate ourselves – the church subordinates itself to the world – because this present order is not reflective of the coming kingdom of God. And, not only that, this subordination takes on a revolutionary and missional character. Our willing subordination and service becomes a witness to the world about a different way to behave.

Yoder writes, “The subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent in the act of voluntarily acceding to subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalistically or resentfully. The claim is not that there is immediately a new world regime which violently replaces the old; rather, the old and the new order exist concurrently on different levels. It is because she knows that in Christ there is no male or female that the Christian wife can freely accept that subordination to her unbelieving husband which is her present lot. It is because Christ has freed us all, and slave and free are equal before God, that their relationship may continue as a humane and honest one within the framework of the present economy, the structure of which is passing away…”

I was immediately bothered by this passage which seemed to speak about happy subordination to unjust structures. On the one hand, I understood Yoder’s point, but the sacrifice he, as a white man, seemed to be advocating seemed to be a rather harmful one and one that he himself would not have to bear. I tested my thoughts with professors and other students, most of whom were quick to defend Yoder, suggesting that he certainly wasn’t trying to advocate that people stay in abusive situations, but was rather emphasizing how subversive Christians can be through sacrifice, obedience and discipleship.

But taken in light of what we now know about Yoder and his many assaults and inappropriate overtures to women, I can’t help but feel that these excuses are inadequate. Certainly Yoder was not the only Mennonite theologian in the 70’s and 80’s advocating discipleship and obedience. And others who espoused similar theologies did not behave in the same inappropriate ways. It’s not that this theology mandates this sort of inappropriate behavior, but perhaps the problem is that, nowhere in it, does it stop these abuses of power from happening.

While he in no one way directly condones abuse, he certainly doesn’t offer a way out of violent patterns either. And, given this logic, one could even argue that it’s part of our Christian duty to remain in these harmful spaces. Yoder and I may share the same project, which is to suggest that Jesus Christ implies a re-ordering of structures and a doing away with unjust systems of oppression. However, I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that acquiescing to these systems now, willingly or not, is an acceptable way to live and function.

As the Mennonite Church, it does seem like we are proud of Yoder’s theology. We keep backpedaling and making excuses to find ways to still use it. We defend his brilliance, even while we decry his actions. But I think we have even more work to do to unpack the implications and assumptions that still may be inherent in his work.  Yoder DID write many good and brilliant things, but it’s not enough to simply separate the man himself from his work. Can we engage in some critical thinking about the possible pitfalls that might still be present within these works? Is it perhaps time for us to agree that subordination is by no means revolutionary?

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One thought on “Can Subordination Ever Be Revolutionary? Reflections on John Howard Yoder

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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