Why a John Howard Yoder digital library?

Colleen McFarland is archivist for Mennonite Church USA

By Colleen McFarland

The recent announcement of the completion of the John Howard Yoder Digital Library, a collaborative project undertaken by the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Library, the Mennonite Church USA Archives, and the Mennonite Historical Library, provoked strong reactions.

Public comment on news releases and private messages to members of the John Howard Yoder discernment group and Mennonite Church USA staff expressed anger and disappointment with the creation of the library. Some respondents suggested that this project seeks to place John Howard Yoder “on a pedestal” and undermines the work of the discernment group that has been created to work at continuing to address Yoder’s history of his abuse and preventing sexual abuse in our church.

Those of us who created and continue to administer the Yoder Digital Library have been aware of these concerns and have sought to take them very seriously in our work. In the spirit of continuing to build understanding, I would like to provide some important background information on the digital library to contextualize the project in the work of the institutional and academic repositories of the Mennonite Church USA.

  • Librarians and archivists of the three collaborating institutions responsible for the creation of the John Howard Yoder began work on the project in March 2012. We received a grant for $12,023 from the Indiana State Library to carry the project forward in June 2013, six weeks prior to the formation of the John Howard Yoder discernment group in August 2013. Mennonite Church USA and Goshen College contributed only existing IT equipment and minimal staff time as a required cost-share contribution for the grant.
  • John Howard Yoder’s unpublished and informally published writings were a logical content choice for the Indiana State Library grant for several reasons:
    • Each repository involved in the grant held some, but not all, of John Howard Yoder’s unpublished and informally published writings.  A digital library of these works renders them more accessible to researchers and easier for library and archives staff to manage.
    • These works are in high demand by Mennonite and non-Mennonite researchers alike. While libraries and archives strive to provide convenient access to all materials in their collections, it is especially important that frequently consulted materials are made as accessible as possible – in this case, via the internet. By digitizing these collections, we are ultimately able to save on staff time and resources that go into maintaining and providing access to these materials. Also, because of their popularity, these works made a compelling “case for support” for the grantmaking organization.
    • The John Howard Yoder family is very generous with copyright permissions and consented to our request to post hundreds of essays online.  Copyright interests in unpublished materials extend 70 years past the author’s life; John Howard Yoder’s unpublished works will not enter the public domain until at least 2067.
  • According to the application form, recipients of Indiana State Library’s LSTA Indiana Memory Digitization Grants are “encouraged and expected to publicize the project through available and appropriate media outlets.”  The grant period for this project ended June 30, 2014.  Coincidentally, the discernment group issued a press release about its work on June 19, 2014.  To ensure our eligibility for future grants, we complied with the grant requirements and publicized the completion of the database.

The digital library has also received criticism because its content does not include materials pertaining to John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women.  The content of digitization projects is always limited by the extent of library and archival collections and copyright law.  None of the partner institutions hold Yoder’s essay, “Adultery of the Heart”, in its collections, so it could not be included in the digital library.

We also sought to include the series of articles published by the Elkhart Truth in 1992 about John Howard Yoder’s abusive behavior.  Unfortunately, our August 2013 request for permission to publish these articles in the digital library was never answered and the articles could not legally be added.

The librarians and archivists administering the John Howard Yoder digital library are open to including scholarly works responding to the incongruity between Yoder’s theology and behavior as part of the collection in the future. However, availability of the material, copyright permissions, researcher interest in such materials, and the availability of funding for the preparation and uploading of digital files must all be considered.

Although it seems as though digital files should be easier and less expensive to prepare and manage for archival preservation and access, the opposite is true.  Scanning documents into archival formats, creating compound digital objects for multi-page documents, and uploading image and text files together (for full-text searchability) require significant staff time and resources.

It is important for the wider church to know that Mennonite libraries and archives are committed to collecting materials representing the diversity of Mennonite Church USA.  The denominational archives, for example, has begun to collect and preserve Mennonite blogs, including Our Stories Untold and Young Anabaptist Radicals.  Similarly, the Mennonite Historical Library has in its holdings a hard copy of Ruth Krall’s e-book, The Elephant in God’s Living Room:  Clergy Abuse and Clericalism, which gives one of the most detailed accounts of the scope of Yoder’s abuse.

Ultimately, Mennonite libraries and archives exist to preserve and provide access to information resources that document the diverse, and sometimes difficult, history of our faith.  It is our hope that the John Howard Yoder digital library will continue to grow and will provide access to a wide range of materials to aid the study of Yoder’s theology and life, in all its complexity.

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2 thoughts on “Why a John Howard Yoder digital library?

  1. Dear Ms. McFarland and Team,

    Thank you for your post on this important subject.
    I want to take a stand here in support of your invaluable work.

    I am a life-long feminist and co-founder of a college women’s studies minor,
    a former college history teacher, a social worker for abused children, and a liberal Mennonite. Like so many others, I have been appalled and deeply shaken by the unfolding story of John Howard Yoder’s decades-long sexual harassment of and sexual violence against women–as well as by the official cover-up.

    But I oppose any attempts to censor, ban, or even provide so-called
    “advance warnings” or special introductions to editions of his books.
    As the editors of The Christian Century point out this month, the well-loved
    theologian Paul Tillich, as well as one of America’s greatest moral leaders,
    Martin Luther King, Jr., also engaged in ongoing sexual misconduct over
    many years; yet we are not censoring their work, nor censuring them in
    introductions to their books. And Yoder’s work, too, is deep, innovative,
    and has true moral and ethical power. Generations of Mennonites,and others, have
    been inspired to new action and thought by his work. He is an essential thinker
    of our era. We must not lose this.

    The horrific disconnect between the life–that is, his sexual violence– and his work must be faced. We can do that only by knowing as much as possible
    about his work and his life. The work of librarians and archivists is central to this difficult
    but unavoidable task. We must not impede or discourage this project.

    What we must do is to reject all attempts at suppression of truth–
    whether by denial and official cover-up on one side, or by censorship, bans, or
    boycotts on another side. Transparency, a full accounting, freedom
    to explore the truth, and free expression are required.
    To paraphrase a great feminist reflecting on another writer of another time,
    “Must We Ban John Howard Yoder?” Her answer then, and our
    answer now, must be a resounding “No.”

  2. I expressed concern on the MCUSA website in July about the continued idolatry of John Howard Yoder, and how this idolatry undermines the broader cause of Anabaptist pacifism and the work of the MCUSA Discernment Group.

    I received a number of public and some private emails in response. I’d like to share my response to this feedback, as I’ve noted there have been considerable false accusations and misinformed portrayals of what I have actually said.

    1. My primary concern is that the Mennonite Church broaden its recognition of Anabaptist pacifist writers. The new website devoted to Yoder is a potent symbol of the continued Yoder-centric approach that singles out and holds up JHY separate from other theologians or pacifists. In my opinion, this idolatry of Yoder undermines the integrity of Mennonite pacifism and detracts from the scholarship of many other Mennonite theologians and pacifists, especially the often-neglected writing of Mennonite women. A website is like a modern statue. It is a symbol, even a ritualistic space, for devotion. This is not hyperbole. The majority of the supportive emails I received – some from significant Mennonite leaders – were in gratitude for naming this Yoder idolatry publicly. Many have spoken of the idolatry of Yoder in private for many years. The Mennonite Church has a vested interest in this idolatry. The continued religious culture of shunning and the cost of this social punishment is concerning.

    My recommendation to the Yoder Discerment Group (DG) is that there be some conversation about the future of the church’s websites, conferences, books or other symbols of devotion to Yoder. Does this continued singling out of Yoder do justice to the cause of pacifism and Anabaptist theology when the world now knows the contradiction between pacifist words and pacifist deeds? Is such singling out of Yoder in the interest of the Mennonite Church, given the significant number of other Anabaptist theologians and pacifists and their widely recognized contributions? Is it in the Mennonite Church’s interest to hold up, to highlight, and to advocate the symbolic leadership of Yoder as the best pacifist theologian that we have to offer the world? What message does this website send to the world about what Mennonites value, and how we are wrestling with the legacy of Yoder’s sexual violence? How will graduate students interested in Yoder’s theology learn about the writing of other Mennonites, especially women?

    2. My request to rethink the title and scope of the website in NO WAY is a request for any type of censorship. This is a patently false accusation. I continue to cite John Howard Yoder in my work. In no way did I suggest everything he wrote was irrelevant or should be discarded, as some of asserted. These are blatant mischaracterizations and reactive responses to what I wrote. I am an academic myself. Of course I advocate for academic freedom. I’m not clear how anyone read my comment as limiting academic freedom or limiting access to Yoder’s work. My concern about idolatry is in no way representative of a desire to not share access to Yoder’s writings.

    My point, articulated on the MCUSA web page on the announcement of the Yoder website, was that Yoder’s writings should and could be shared in a website devoted to the writings of Anabaptist theologians and pacifists. This broader framing would allow researchers the full access to Yoder’s writings, but it would also point them to the writings of other Anabaptists – many of whom have written much more clearly on the themes Yoder explored and whose lives and practical experiences in peacemaking have far more integrity than Yoder’s. How will those readers outside of the Mennonite context who visit Yoder’s new website know about the wider pacifist writings? Again, the focus on Yoder and not the topics that he wrote about attracts attention to the person of John Howard Yoder and does not seem to further the interests of the Mennonite Church.

    As you will have seen in the Mennonite press, those of us concerned about the Yoder legacy continue to receive strongly worded letters and emails denouncing our efforts. Personally, I have been chastised by a number of Mennonites –mostly theologians –suggesting that I need to forgive Yoder and that I’m not being pacifist by questioning the perpetual idolatry of Yoder. These are poisonous emails and blogs.

    3. I am disappointed in the church, not Yoder. I feel compelled to speak to the church that shaped my ancestors and me. I hold no hatred for Yoder in my heart. I was not his victim, nor have I ever been victim of sexual crimes.

    The MCUSA blog contains a note to me that I am “clouded” by my passion for victims – and elsewhere Mennonite men and women have suggested that perhaps I myself am a victim and therefore cannot “see” the brilliance of Yoder. This is both false and offensive. For centuries, women have been silenced because they were deemed “hysterical” and “emotional” and not “rational.” I have worked to support the voices of women and efforts to stop the pervasive violence against women around the world for 2 decades. I spent a Fulbright Fellowship in east and west Africa working on these very issues in 2002-2003. I am an academic who teaches courses on violence against women. I have an entire library on these issues.

    I have observed male colleagues in Mennonite institutions criticize Mennonite women pacifists, ignore their scholarship, and dismiss their voices and concerns about domestic and sexual violence for 3 decades. This is an issue that goes way beyond Yoder. It is an issue of patriarchy, white male privilege, and of active discrimination and silencing of female points of view and experiences related to theology. The two places where I am the only woman in the room is when I am teaching about peacebuilding to the US military and when I am debating Anabaptist pacifists. In the realms of security and theology, women’s voices are still in the minority. Yoder’s actions and his theology have had a significant impact on Mennonite women theologians leaving the church. I have a chapter on this topic coming out in January and will send to you when it is published.

    I hope that the DG will look more broadly, to help Mennonite institutions examine and analyze whose voices are held up in the academy, and whose voices are silenced. For it is my experience that today’s Mennonite pacifists are often not at all up-to-date on the global movement against violence against women as a peacebuilding issue. They have not read books on sexual violence. They intentionally exclude the voices of Mennonite women, particularly when it comes to Yoder. And in class, they criticize and undermine Mennonite female pacifists.

    I hope that part of the work of the DG will be to educate people on these issues, and to create a safe space for us to speak out on behalf of the silenced women in Mennonite institutions, and the silenced victims of sexual violence still so prevalent in Mennonite homes here in the Harrisonburg VA area. If even the advocates like me must receive the poisonous emails and rejection from our colleagues, how then should those with less power ever speak?

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