John Howard Yoder: A symbolic tip of the iceberg of sexism

Charletta Erb is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at Healthy Relationships California and Community Counseling and Education Center in California. She has a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Family Institute of Northwestern University. She has experience in restorative justice, mediation and organizational conflict consulting, with skills in facilitation and training in constructive communication. Together with her husband Tim Nafziger she serves Christian Peacemaker Teams as a reservist. For a good time, Charletta plays fiddle and weeds gardens, not necessarily simultaneously.

This article was first published by The Mennonite on August 1, 2013.

By Charletta Erb

At 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoons, I am committed to pray for sexual healing in the church as part of an invitation issued by Barbra Graber and Our Stories Untold. Each time, I ask what it would mean to answer the prayer for healing. What would it look like? What is my role to enact? Anger welled up in me, a burden for the undoing of male dominance and control.

For weeks, I have been aware of anger, of not wanting to let controlling or silencing behavior go by unnoticed in any context, especially the church.

Our men should know better by now; we should be much further along the journey toward equality and respect between genders.

Through conversations at convention, and following the blog Our Stories Untold, I learned recently of the scope of John Howard Yoder’s mistreatment of women. This resurfacing story is surely retraumatizing for those directly involved.

My heart goes out to surviving family members, so emotionally impacted by layers of truth-telling, years unfolding with new generation’s discoveries. Concern extends to victims of John Howard Yoder, as well as the many victims of sexism throughout the church.

Shocked, I wanted to get the facts straight and get beyond terms wordsmithed to obscure details. Vagaries around the story were enough to provoke suspicious sensationalized versions even in my own mind (in the process of learning more), while also hiding the depth of harm done.

Terms like “misconduct” or “inappropriate” didn’t convey the extent of the abuse of power of this alpha male Mennonite theological star. Such words were presumably used to lay this to rest, there we’ve dealt with that—finally. Words to avoid further collective and familial suffering.

So, I browsed through Ruth Krall’s The Elephant in God’s Living Room, pouring over the accounts of both Yoder’s behaviors and the attempts of accountability in the broader church. My attention was immersed in reading, overwhelmed by stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Krall’s book outlines the story in great detail, along with its present relevance to the church. The reading on John Howard Yoder is part of a series of volumes on clergy abuse.

While not comparing suffering, some harms are easier to understand than others. Giving the benefit of the doubt and vague phrases describing “misconduct” I had imagined an affair perhaps, something mutual. However, pursuit and force were part of Yoder’s behavior. Krall dispels rumor and outlines specific behaviors from pages 196 onward. It does include force, but no direct accounts of rape.

There are reports from 36 women counted by Marlin Miller, 40 counted by Tom Price of The Elkhart Truth with likely far more actual victims. This is because many women do not report such things in the general population and especially in context of a powerful man in a denominational context that often functions like a family.

Krall also outlines Yoder’s controversial essays on singleness and sexuality, and his pattern of showing interest in female theologians’ work (uncommon for men to show interest in those days), then sexually harassing them. For a clear accounting and more information, read The Elephants in God’s Living Room.

It’s disconcerting to realize I’ve been told of this shadow story in obscure terms that didn’t reveal the character of these actions, the scope and numbers of women affected. Thanks to Ruth Krall for these volumes, a work of love.

Yet more disconcerting is the church process that did damage control as long as possible, then held Yoder accountable to a point. And this is an important point: the process did not sufficiently consider victims to be part of the equation of restoration.

The question of church and seminary responses reveals systemic complicity by failure to hold him accountable enough to prevent further harm. Krall provides a thorough recounting of institutional actions taken, such as dismissing Yoder from seminary. But the lack of restitution, or of apology to victims is also documented. Yoder was given therapy while his victims were not given therapy.

Indeed, many victims feared for their own professional credibility, or their grades from him in seminary. Women feared him until his death, especially with the rumor that he still possessed a key to the seminary.

Krall herself was given instructions to lock her office door if she was working with no one else around. Why wouldn’t the institution take precautions of changing locks rather than make female professors live with hypervigilance and anxiety for their safety?

I appreciate the newest Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary faculty statement in its clear commitments to recognize the harm he did, and to read him in that light. However when the statement says he completed the process in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, I am bothered to read that apology to victims was not part of the picture.

The restorative work came up short of attending to healing for victims. Like much of our disciplinary processes as a society, attention to victims goes by the wayside.

As I understand it, institutional accountability was more about damage control and confronting Yoder than it was about restorative justice, or healing for victims. Yoder even claimed he was a victim of his victims and complained that Matthew 18 had not been properly applied.

So there must be some misunderstanding of Matthew 18 in practice as the church body. In the first volume of Ambassadors of Reconciliation: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, a whole chapter reflects on Matthew 18.

Unlike many descriptions of the process, they explain how Matthew 18 is couched in a scriptural context where the Kingdom of God is a place for the marginalized poor, the little ones, those without power. The Reign of God, as a counternarrative to empire and domination, is a way of living together without domination but rather with dignity and social equity. Indeed, we are indebted to John Howard Yoder’s theological work for awakening many of us to power and politics as central to Jesus’ life and purpose.

With insights from restorative justice, the book outlines a very powerful restorative community process, led by the authority of the victim. While in the case of Yoder, a semblance of the Matthew 18 process appears to have been used within powerful decision-making structures, it doesn’t appear to have consulted much with victims, to have established whether victims felt listened to in each stage of the process. As an alternative model and interpretation, Myers and Enns offer this description:

“The victim should not be encouraged to take the initiative if they are not ready, or if it is not safe to approach the offender, or if the process will likely entail revictimization… If and when victims feel able to press their case for justice and accountability, Jesus says, the support and accompaniment of the whole community should be marshaled. For when the moral authority of the violated party is mobilized, it carries a transforming and redemptive energy. Rightly handled, the process of victim initiative is inherently empowering because she is prosecuting her own case on her own terms, not for the purposes of retribution, but of restoration. As these verses make clear, she decides when her story has been ‘heard,’ and what is needed to make things right” (p. 66).

Ask why this story has resurfaced? I would say my generation is still impacted by residual practices of church decision-makers. I am wary of our conflict avoidance, cautious for safety in the church, cautious of why women are not more at the forefront of church life, publishing our ideas in equal frequency to men? I have to ask what the church has learned through the experience, what could go better in restoration of victims and perpetrators in cases of sexual harassment and abuse? Where can growth continue?

Part of the resurfacing of Yoder’s story is Our Stories Untold which posted, “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder?”by Barbra Graber. She offers seven valid points, the first three pertaining to how to address the past case of Yoder, and the others as precautions and safe spaces for abuse survivors in the church more broadly. They all seem fair and constructive to me.

Graber also takes care to explain why the focus is on John Howard Yoder when this is about a broader issue in the church: “John Howard Yoder remains a symbol of those widespread woundings like no other churchman.”

Sadly, this one man is a symbolic tip of the iceberg of sexism in our church narrative. Let us then be careful not to scapegoat here, but rather bring our lives and communities into the light for healing.

This representative story among many untold stories can be a key to discernment going forward, making safer spaces in the church for women to move and minister. Making safer spaces for examining male and female experiences in ways we might not even acknowledge to ourselves.

Perhaps in this story as a tip of the iceberg, we have a tipping point for the healing of the broader church. With the clarification of the nature of Yoder’s behaviors, the institutional church response, we are opening the way for tending to victims’ needs for acknowledgement, transparency, their stories being witnessed and believed. May we wisely tend to the pain.

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