John Howard Yoder Digest: Recent Articles About Sexual Abuse and Discernment


WLPLogoSwirlsFor those who are following the latest discussions related to John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse of women and its theological and ecclesiological implications, here is a collection of articles that outline the conversation and developments. This is not necessarily comprehensive, so feel free to suggest other articles to add to this digest.

[updated periodically]

In early June of 2013, responding to a book review written in The Mennonite, Barbra Graber created a Facebook note about John Howard Yoder’s abuses and what the church must do to work towards accountability and healing.  A lively discussion ensued and she continues to add to and revise the piece based on questions, discussion, and new information from responders.

On July 17, 2013 her article titled, What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder, was published on the Our Stories Untold website.

Following publication, Ruth Krall offered her recent writings as a resource that look specifically at the abuses perpetuated by Yoder. Beginning with Volume One: The Elephants in God’s Living Room: Clergy Sexual Abuse and Institutional Clericalism. All three volumes can be found at her website, as well as a John Howard Yoder Annotated Timeline.

July 25, 2013: President of AMBS, Sara Wenger Shenk published an article on her blog, Revisiting the Legacy of John Howard Yoder. In the article she writes:

“The accelerating interest in and widespread appreciation for John Howard Yoder’s theological work has also provoked renewed calls for the Mennonite church, including AMBS, to revisit unfinished business with his legacy. Last year, in February and March of 2012, AMBS faculty did significant work to review AMBS’s history with John Howard Yoder and to come to a shared agreement that guides how we teach, critique, interpret, and use Yoder’s work with integrity, recognizing the significance of his theological work and the harmfulness of his actions. This Faculty Statement is posted on the AMBS website.

In addition to the hard work our AMBS faculty has done to interpret the complicated ironies of John Howard Yoder’s legacy over many years, I wanted to add a personal word.

As the current president of AMBS, I’m committed to a new transparency in the truth telling that must happen.”

August 1, 2013: The Mennonite published a web exclusive opinion piece by Charletta Erb titled John Howard Yoder: A symbolic tip of the iceberg of sexism.

“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?”

August 2, 2013: Ted Grimsrud began a five-part series about Yoder’s work on his blog.

Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part one–introduction)

Reflections from a chargrined “Yoderian” (part two–sexual violence)

Reflections from a chargrined “Yoderian” (part three–Yoder’s violence)

Reflections from a chargrined “Yoderian” (part four–Yoder’s theology)

Reflections from a chargrined “Yoderian” (part five–where to now?)

August 9, 2013: Hannah Heinzekehr, creator of the Femonite blog, wrote Can Subordination Ever Be Revolutionary: Reflections on John Howard Yoder. Her article wrestles with the theological implications of Yoder’s behavior.

“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.”

August 12, 2013: Ervin Stutzman, executive director for Mennonite Church USA, wrote an article for his Equipping column, Acknowledging difficult stories of sexual abuse from the past.

“In the early 1990’s, our denomination put policies in place which hold leaders accountable for inappropriate sexual conduct. And in 1993, delegates adopted “A Resolution On Male Violence Against Women.” At our recent convention in Phoenix, delegates adopted a resolution on “Protecting and Nurturing our Children and Youth.” I hope that congregations throughout Mennonite Church USA will act to implement this new resolution. It could go a long way toward prevention of abuse of vulnerable children in the future.”

He goes on to acknowledge the recent blog post by Sara Wenger Shenk and speaks of a discernment group that they are convening “that will enable the church to move toward deeper reconciliation and healing for victims of sexual abuse by John Howard Yoder.” Furthermore, he shares, “We hope to build on the healing work that has been done in the past, informed by current understandings regarding the dynamics of sexual abuse.”

August 13, 2013: Mark Thiessen Nation published a blog post titled “What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct.”

“…I am concerned that we can get the impression that the words abusive and harassing capture the sum total of Yoder’s relationships with women. Or, even worse, that these words are expressive of behaviors that reflect his attitude toward women in general. But is that true? Or are we rather dealing with various behaviors, without really knowing the roots of them?”

August 19, 2013: Ervin Stutzman announces the Denominational Response to John Howard Yoder Legacy, including the names of those on the discernment group.

“We are convening a discernment group to guide a process that we hope will contribute to healing for victims of JHY’s abuse as well as others deeply hurt by his harmful behavior. We hope this work will lead to church-wide resolve to enter into lament, repentance, and restoration for victims of sexual abuse by other perpetrators as well.”

August 21, 2013: Rachel Halder writes an article in response to a poll conducted by The Mennonite related to the current Yoder dicussions. In John Howard Yoder Discussion: A Lesson in Sensitivity and Victim-Blaming, she challenges that the mere existence of this “harmless” poll can perpetuate harm.

“And that is why the poll on The Mennonite’s site is so disgusting. It’s actually questioning whether or not we should even be discussing sexual abuse in our church as a whole. It’s creating a space for doubt of survivor’s stories. It’s giving permission for the church to once again be complicit when abuses are reported.”

September 2, 2013: Mennonite World Review publishes issue with multiple articles about John Howard Yoder, sexual abuse and sexism in the church. Our Stories Untold created the following list describing each piece:

  • Abuse victims’ stories told as steps to heal are promised – Kelli Yoder interviews Rachel Halder of Our Stories Untold, Carolyn Holderread Heggen who is author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, and Ruth Krall who has studied and written about gender, sexual and domestic violence, particularly in the church and concerning the John Howard Yoder case.
  • Healing truth: Theologian’s abuse is church’s unfinished business – In this piece, Paul Schrag addresses the resurgence of conversation about John Howard Yoder and his abuses. He writes: “Sixteen years after Yoder’s death and 21 years after the walls of secrecy surrounding his predatory behavior came crashing down, new calls are emerging for the church to confess its role as an enabler of sexual violence by its brightest theological star. These calls represent more than pleas for justice. They stand as declarations of empowerment for all who have suffered the double indignity of violation and then of being disbelieved or shunted aside to protect a false image of virtue.”
  • Let’s talk about sexism – Joanna Shenk writes an amazing piece on sexism in the church, and how the John Howard Yoder controversy is deeply rooted in a sexism problem that exists in our Mennonite churches.  She writes, “I’m recognizing that Mennonites have an opportunity to model the work of undoing sexism. Not only do we have a responsibility to talk openly about Yoder’s sexual harassment and abuse, we have an opportunity to make connections between discipleship and being an ally to those who are oppressed. Sexism and patriarchy continue to exist in the church, and we’re likely to recreate John Howard Yoder situations if we don’t honor the voices of women and hold men accountable.”

September 7, 2013: Tim Nafziger, blogger for The Mennonite, publishes The Politics of John Howard Yoder: 41 years of tiptoeing around power.

“In joining this conversation, I’d like to look particularly at how systemic issues of power and privilege played out in the tiptoeing response of Mennonite church institutions and their leaders to Yoder’s persistent sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women. In her introduction, Krall succinctly names the many power layers of systemic privilege from which Yoder benefitted. He was a ‘clan-protected, powerful, tenured, white married male.’ (Krall, 16) We have much to learn from looking at those layers”

September 12, 2013: Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS, posted on her blog, A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment. She reflects on responses to the Yoder discernment and shares a list of conversations that the church needs to be having.

“I think it’s absolutely essential to do the truth-telling work required to assess responsibility where it appropriately lies. Healing and reconciliation will not happen until that work is undertaken (and there will soon be reports from the discernment group convened by Ervin Stutzman about that).

But if we focus too narrowly on who or what is at fault, we may miss out on the generative conversations we must have in order to grow in maturity as a people of faith. As an educator, I recognize this as a profoundly teachable moment in our church—and for that I am hopeful!”

September 23, 2013:

The Mennonite, via TMail releases an article titled, JHY discernment group begins work. The article includes five outcomes decided upon by the group, and affirmed by the executive board of Mennonite Church USA.

Ervin Stutzman releases a blog post about the discernment group.

“We spent significant time in worship and prayer, and in sharing our personal stories with particular attention to our experiences with sexual abuse—whether involving us personally or our family members, friends, or colleagues. We also spent considerable time identifying hoped-for outcomes of the discernment process we expect to engage over the next two years. In addition, we discussed patterns of communication within the group and to others about our work.”

Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn, publishes On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder, on his blog, Anabaptist Nation.

“…what has not usually been emphasized is that there is a second failure on Yoder’s part that should also be highlighted. Yoder failed by the light of his own theological commitments. In saying this I don’t mostly mean what is perhaps obvious: namely that his violating women flies in the face of his commitment to nonviolence. That is certainly true. And it’s important to discuss that.

But, even if he was unable to see that, he taught many of us to recognize the need for accountability in the Christian community. And Yoder failed miserably in this regard. Yoder was told clearly and repeatedly—by colleagues and administrators at his seminary, Mennonite church members and church leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues in the academy—that he was profoundly wrong. And yet he did not listen. He ignored the counsel from trusted friends, including those who thought they had learned much of their theology from him. This was a major failure on Yoder’s part in relation to his own theological commitments.”

October 11, 2013:

On her blog, Practicing Reconciliation, Sara Wenger Shenk shares a letter from Anabaptists in the United Kingdom who have been influenced by Yoder’s work.

“Following the request for prayer from Stuart Murray Williams to all Anabaptist groups concerning the situation that has arisen around John Howard Yoder we gave over much of our monthly meeting on Monday 16 September to this matter. Our knowledge of the situation is very limited although some members had discovered websites which told some of the story. All of the group admitted to being taken aback at the scale of the abuse.

JHY’s family and especially his widow were often mentioned. We realize they have carried and are still carrying a heavy load. They are not often mentioned in the written material available to us. We felt for them…

We knew we were in no position to judge JHY’s sincerity. Did he earnestly seek to share the discipline process? That, we thought, was a crucial question. There are issues here that are very important but that we were in no position to judge.”

The New York Times publishes an article by Mark Oppenheimer, A Theologian’s Influence, and Stained Past, Live On in which he interviews people involved in the Yoder discernment process.

“In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.”

October 17, 2013: Young Anabaptist Radicals posts an article by Isaiah B., A Letter from the Exiles.

“As a young evangelical at odds with the social witness of the evangelical tradition I found Yoder’s writings refreshing. Dare I even say life giving. Within my first year of bible college I recall reading at least five of his books. At the same time I observed other young evangelicals becoming excited with missional church writings, or the work of new monastics like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Anyone familiar with book indexes could easily figure out that Yoder’s shadow has been cast on these writings.”

November 2013: Sojourners magazine runs an article by Sara Wenger Shenk, Unfinished Business.

“Yoder’s behavior deeply wounded many and casts a dark shadow on his legacy. It is also true that Yoder’s exposition of the gospel has proven transformative for many. Providentially, it is because of the gospel that we can fearlessly name sin and more fully acknowledge the far-reaching evil that was perpetrated; we can lament for all who have been betrayed and violated by church leaders they trusted. May the power of the gospel move us to repent of our participation in evil, forgive each other, and live into the joy of reconciliation.”

November 11, 2013: The Mennonite publishes an article by Andy Alexis-Baker titled Prison, Sexual Assault and Editing John Howard Yoder: one man’s story. Andy is an editor of multiple books of Yoder’s writing.

“…as a male, and as a person who has put enormous energy into publishing Yoder’s work, it behooves me to talk about my involvement in his work and how my own views have shifted after learning about the severity of Yoder’s actions. I did not become peaceable by reading Yoder. That happened to me long before when I became Christian in prison.”

January 21, 2014: Sara Wenger Shenk shares an article by AMBS professor Jamie Pitts on her blog titled Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology.

“Yoder claimed repeatedly that living testimony was inseparably tied to the integrity of one’s verbal proclamation of the gospel. If Yoder is right, then failed performance of the gospel should lead, at the very least, to suspicion about the words used in that performance. Some of Yoder’s actions were very bad news; it would be surprising if all his words were good news, were gospel.”

January 27, 2014:

Mennonite Church USA releases an article titled Historian to examine church’s response to John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women.

“The discernment group, with the authorization of the Executive Board, has invited an historian to engage historical research and documentation on this subject. Dr. Rachel Waltner Goossen is Professor of History at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. She has 25 years of experience writing about Mennonite history, peace history and women’s history. She is a graduate of Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., with advanced degrees in history from the University of California–Santa Barbara and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She is a member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan.”

Webpage titled A Way Forward is created by Mennonite Church USA to chronicle the work of the discernment group. The webpage includes members of the discernment group, FAQs, news and resources.

February 6, 2014: Ervin Stutzman writes a brief article on the Mennonite Voices Blog titled A Way Forward, which highlights the ongoing work of the discernment group and the new webpage.

February 10, 2014: The Pink Menno website posts a two-part series from Stephanie Krehbiel, which reflects on the response to John Howard Yoder as one example of how the Mennonite Church has addressed sexual realities.

The Violence of Mennonite Process: Finding the Address of the Present (Part 1)

The Violence of Mennonite Process: Finding the Address of the Present (Part 2)

“If you’re interested in the connections between Mennonite sexual ethics conversations and  sexualized violence, you might be noticing these dates. Roughly around the same time that the Human Sexuality Committee was meeting to discuss Christian sexual ethics in the 1980s, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries dismissed John Howard Yoder because he would not stop sexually harassing women students and faculty. The agreement was that no one would say anything about why he was dismissed. They let him loose on the women of the University of Notre Dame, his other employer, and told no one at that school why AMBS had let him go.”

February 11, 2014: The Religion Dispatches online magazine publishes an article by Stephanie Krehbiel titled The Woody Allen Problem: How Do We Read Pacifist Theologian (and Sexual Abuser) John Howard Yoder?

“Whenever these cases surface, they’re accompanied by a discussion about whether or not we can or should appreciate the work of artists and writers who are accused of doing terrible things. It’s a question without any satisfying categorical answer, which I suppose is why it generates so much copy. The nuances are endless: does it matter if the artist in question is alive or not? If he or she is dead, does it matter how long? Is there a difference between music that has words and music that doesn’t? Between loving a movie made by an alleged sex offender and loving a work of theology written by one? How on earth do we weigh all of this?”

 May 29, 2014: Sara Wenger Shenk shares an article by AMBS professor Malinda Berry on her blog titled, Avoiding Avoidance.

“This was the first time that I assigned a book-length work by John Howard Yoder in any of the courses that I have taught in my eight years of putting together syllabi in undergraduate and seminary settings. I have avoided assigning Yoder’s work because I did not know how to talk about Yoder’s discipline process with students in a place as public as a classroom. In private conversation, I knew how to talk about this stuff. And when it comes to my own scholarship, I have chosen to ground myself in Mennonite sources and voices that reflect the fullness of our community rather than relying solely, or even primarily, on Yoder’s corpus.”

June 2014: The Mennonite publishes an article by Carolyn Holderread Heggen titled, Misconceptions and victim-blaming in Yoder coverage.

“Too often the frustration and anger have been directed at the women who complained of violence from our most influential peace spokesman. xz
Unless our concern is focused on what went so wrong in this story, on how Yoder was allowed to separate his personal ethics and behavior from his formal theology and still maintain a position of authority and respect within the church and on how victims’ needs and concerns were trivialized and minimized for so many years, we risk re-enactment of this tragedy.” 

June 19, 2014: The Discernment Group, convened by Mennonite Church USA, publishes an update on their ongoing initiatives.

“The group met on June 3 in Elkhart, Ind. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who serves as an advisor to the group, was able to join us for the entire meeting. We also conferred with Rachel Waltner Goossen, the historian who is researching Mennonite institutional responses to reports of John Howard Yoder’s sexual violations in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.”

August 4, 2014: The Christian Century publishes an article titled Theology and Misconduct: The case of John Howard Yoder, authored by David Cramer, Jenny Howell, Paul Martens, and Jonathan Tran.

“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.” 

December 5, 2014: Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary issues a statement acknowledging the pain suffered by women who were victimized by Yoder.  And also announces plans a weekend of gatherings including a Service of Lament, Confession and Hope.

“As an AMBS Board, we lament the terrible abuse many women suffered from John Howard Yoder. We also lament that there has not been transparency about how the seminary’s leadership responded at that time or any institutional public acknowledgement of regret for what went so horribly wrong. We commit to an ongoing, transparent process of institutional accountability which the president along with the board chair initiated, including work with the historian who will provide a scholarly analysis of what transpired. We will respond more fully once the historical account is published. We also support the planning of an AMBS-based service of lament, acknowledgement and hope in March 2015.”

January 2015: The Mennonite Quarterly Review publishes Rachel Waltner Goossen’s article “Defanging the Beast:” Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse

“Mennonite denomination responses to Yoder’s legacy of sexual abuse show the entanglement of  a theologian who had long professed a biblical frame for church discipline–If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault–with institutional figures reluctant, even unwilling, to adjust the frame to mitigate effects of violence and power.  During the 1970s and 1980s, leaders at AMBS used secrecy to guard the reputation of the seminary, and even more tellingly, guarded Yoder’s embodied Mennonitism, a faith tradition that they saw him as representing ably and admirably to the broader world.”

January 2, 2015:  The Mennonite publishes the article, The failure to bind and loose: Responses to Yoder’s sexual abuse  by Rachel Waltner Goossen excerpted from her longer article in the MQR.

“Tragically, in seeking to apply the Matthew 18 mandate for resolving conflict, Miller and others in positions of authority responded with painstaking slowness to Yoder’s abuse of power. Years of wasted time, energy and denominational resources enabled the victimization of women living and studying on the seminary campus and beyond.”

January 5, 2015:  In a blog post titled Feminist organizing challenge institutions’ silence on Yoder  The Mennonite blogger Tim Nafziger explores how the persistence of women within the church to boldly speak truth to power has slowly compelled the church to act.  He also urges Mennonite Institutions to listen more closely and to do the difficult but necessary internal work of dismantling oppression from within.

As Mennonite institutions shape their apology, they would do well to consider how they continue to resist those challenging their complicity with oppression and misuse of power. What will be the cost to the current generation of those working to challenge the ongoing patterns of oppression in Mennonite institutions? What will the cost be to all of us if we do not listen?”

January 9, 2015: In  a post titled, John Howard Yoder: My Untold Story after 36 years of Silence on the blog Our Stories Untold,  Sharon “Detweiler” shares her story of sexual violence enacted upon her by John Howard Yoder.

“After this long, long period of silence and relative obscurity I cannot close without some comments about the Mennonite Church. It is just an opinion, but in my view the Mennonite Church is way off track. The Church will either have to morph into a new church that is far more accountable, open and accepting of all persons, or continue to die. I observe a dying Mennonite Church here in North America, because extremely talented people have lost patience with the Church and left. If you have to ask why then you need to ask some more hard questions and do a little bit more critical thinking about pacifism and whether the Mennonite Church is truly a pacifist church. Is it possible that it is just a passive church?”

January 12, 2015:  Rachel Halder explores the intersection between sexual violence within the church and LGBT exclusion from the church in a post entitled, Unpacking the lies: What being queer has to do with sexual abuse on her blog Our Stories Untold.

“I wonder, would Mennonites suffer less from the epidemic of sexualized violence, including the repercussions of abuses that Yoder committed, if we weren’t so obsessed with rules about LGBTQ inclusion? If the church were willing to have more honest conversation about the fact that pacifists, including Yoder, can and do cause violence on other humans, would so many women and children continue suffering abuse at the hands of those professed pacifist leaders? If our church spent as much time surveying survivors in our midst as they do creating surveys on “attitudes about church membership for LGBTQ individuals,” would congregations know how to better prevent sexualized violence in their midst? What if Mennonites pledged to spend time looking at the violence caused by today’s churches’ patriarchal, rule-based system of sexuality and sexual ethics?”


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One thought on “John Howard Yoder Digest: Recent Articles About Sexual Abuse and Discernment

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

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