Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” in face of his alleged sexual violence

Ted Grimsrud

[A slightly different version of this essay was published in J. Denny Weaver, ed., John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian (Cascade Books, 2014), 334-50. It is a condensed and revised version from several blog posts I wrote in August, 2013, beginning on August 2.]

The Yoder dilemma

In June 1992, in a series of investigative articles by reporter Tom Price, the Elkhart Truth, John Howard Yoder’s hometown newspaper, reported on widespread allegations about coercive sexual activities by Yoder. These allegations led to a disciplinary process from the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference in relation to Yoder’s ministerial credentials. [1]  In the years since, debate has continued concerning the nature of Yoder’s offenses and their implications for the use of his theology.

In a helpful discussion Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White define violence as “destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.” This definition is meant to include domination and psychic damage as well as bodily harm.[2]  What is known of the specifics of Yoder’s actions is discussed in a following section. It suffices here to say that by this definition, these actions were most certainly emotionally, if not physically, violent.

I was a student of Yoder’s at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s and have long been deeply influenced by his peace theology. And, as a consequence, I have been troubled by what I have learned of the sexual misconduct of my peace teacher.

For all of my adult life, ever since I was nearly drafted into the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, I have thought constantly about issues of violence, its effects and how to overcome the problems it causes. Most of my focus has been on violence in relation to war, but I have thought about violence more generally as well. John Howard Yoder’s theology has been influential for me, but others have perhaps influenced me even more in thinking about violence’s origins and impact on our world.

This conversation about John Howard Yoder as doer of violence links in with my interests on several levels. One is on the level of how to make sense of the alleged actions of my teacher who helped me learn so much about peace theology. This problem calls attention to the fact that theology—at least our Anabaptist theology—is not merely abstract theory, but is also about our life and actions as Christians. Another interest is the broader level of thinking about a terrible and oh so personal aspect of the phenomenon of violence—men acting violently toward women, especially in Christian communities. And finally, there is the discussion of how to apply things I have learned about violence from many sources over the years.

Important sources for understanding and responding to violence

I have found four writers to be especially helpful for my thinking about understanding and responding to violence and seeking peace: Walter Wink, Alice Miller, James Gilligan, and Howard Zehr. They complement many of Yoder’s ideas, but they also help us to think about Yoder’s actions—and about our responses to Yoder’s actions. How do we hold together, if we can, our hatred of violent acts, our commitment to the healing of those hurt by such acts, our on-going respect for the humanity of the violator, and our hope for creating whole communities?

(1) Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers has long been an inspiration and guide for me. Its beginning sets the tone for much of my work: “One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating more evils and being made evil ourselves?” [3]  Wink provides a profound and practical effort to answer this question, still enormously useful now over twenty years after the book’s publication.

Wink himself, and I strongly agree, starts with the assumption that as human beings, we all have a basic responsibility to do what we can to “oppose evil.” Passivity and resignation are not acceptable options, nor—of course—is complicity with evil. However, Wink insists, we must oppose evil in ways that actually do diminish (if not fully overcome) the evils we oppose. All too often, we oppose evil in ways that actually heighten the evil—as when our nation goes to war to defeat Nazi and Imperial Japanese oppression and ends up unleashing new and still spiraling oppressions and violence ourselves.[4]

Wink’s book focuses more on macro-level issues. However, the problem of how to oppose evil in genuinely healing ways applies to all of life. I believe it surely must apply to how we approach sexual violence. Wink’s first point (or at least my first point drawing on Wink) is that we must oppose the evil of sexual violence. We should seek a world (and certainly seek churches) with zero tolerance for sexual violence, where all vulnerable people are safe, where perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable and prevented from repeating the harm they have done. However, I think we should honestly recognize that here too we likely will find it challenging and difficult to do this work in ways that truly are healing—that actually are effective and that do not set off another spiral of violence toward violence-doers that turns those who do the necessary work of resisting evil into evil-doers themselves.

(2) Alice Miller has also long been an inspiration and guide. The Swiss psychotherapist, who died in 2010, wrote and spoke on behalf of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, children. Her book that speaks most directly about the origins of violence is called For Your Own Good.[5]  For my purposes here, one of Miller’s key insights was that even the most violent of people were not born violent but were made violent. She argues that our tendency simply to condemn violators as “bad apples” keeps us from learning from their actions and, more importantly, makes it more difficult to understand how to break the cycle of violence.

Miller sees the roots of violence in violent treatment of young children. In For Your Own Good, she even examines the early life of Adolf Hitler. She, of course, does not excuse Hitler (in fact, Miller herself grew up Jewish in Poland and lost her entire family in the Holocaust). But she insists we must bracket our understandable revulsion at Hitler’s deeds and try to understand. If we do so, we discover (she argues, controversially) that the roots to the sociopath that Hitler became lay in the violence he experienced as a child. So, for Miller, one of the key steps we must take to prevent new Hitlers from arising is to end violence against children.

The point I am particularly interested in here is Miller’s insistence in seeking to understand, to go beyond condemnation and stereotyping and learn about each person and the dynamics that shaped their lives. While often focusing on extreme cases to make her points, Miller suggests that most other less extreme cases of violent patterns in life also stem from early childhood—a major dynamic in violent behavior being a lack of empathy for the recipient of the violence. She resists retributive thinking toward offenders, and seeks to create a sense of empathy toward even the cowering little boy that had been Adolf Hitler. In this way, she hopes, the spiral of violence might be broken. That said, Miller’s main concern is with protecting children from violence. She believes that this will best happen by breaking free from any kind of violence, even violence against violent offenders.

(3) After Alice Miller, I read James Gilligan’s important book, Violence, [6]  and found Gilligan (a psychiatrist who worked in the Massachusetts state prison system for many years) to offer a parallel analysis. Like Miller, Gilligan focuses significant attention on the worst of the violent offenders. Gilligan also argues for seeking to understand, empathize with, and not simply stereotype and punish these offenders. And like Miller, Gilligan hopes to find the most effective and transformative way to overcome the problem of violence.

Gilligan advocates taking what he calls a “public health” approach to what he sees to be the “disease” of violence—in contrast to what he calls a “moral” approach (I would prefer the term “moralistic”) that focuses on assessing and punishing guilt. His book is challenging in how he, like Miller, empathetically deals with people who have committed horrendous acts of violence. He also suggests that the worst way to deal with violence is by adding to the cycle of violence by punishing wrongdoers. [7]

The most powerful pathogen in creating the disease of violence, Gilligan suggests, is shame. This is why ostracism, punishment, and hostility toward wrongdoers tend to be counterproductive. Punitive approaches often exacerbate the shame and actually intensify the impulse to act violently—rather than effectively serving as deterrents to more violence.

(4) Howard Zehr’s pioneering work on restorative justice is the final source of insight I will mention. Zehr’s central book is Changing Lenses, [8]  in which he outlines the philosophy of restorative justice and its theological grounding in Christian sources—though he does not believe that only Christians may practice restorative justice. A later book, Transcending, [9]  adds important first-person accounts from those who have been hurt by violent crime and a perceptive essay by Zehr that reflects on the needs of those hurt by violent crime. Restorative justice, as presented by Zehr, has at its heart the concern for the healing of communities that have been disrupted by hurtful wrongdoing.

One of the key points I have gained from Zehr’s work is that, contrary to many misrepresentations of the approach, the people who matter the most in restorative justice are those who have been hurt by the wrongdoing. There is an underlying assumption that true healing of the brokenness ultimately requires the healing of all parties involved in the problem, but the healing of wrongdoers is secondary to the healing of those who were wronged. One of the main reasons punitive, retributive approaches to wrongdoing are challenged by restorative justice is that causing pain to wrongdoers generally does not in itself bring healing to the wronged. It often may even add more pain to the already harmed—not to mention the way the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. that feeds on the drive toward punitive responses to crime has damaged our broader society.

At times, restorative processes are short-circuited by hasty efforts to bring “closure,” to pressure the wronged to “forgive,” and to “restore” wrongdoers to the community prematurely. Such short-circuiting should not be seen as a reason to abandon restorative justice approaches but rather as a challenge to learn evermore about processes that foster genuine healing.

As I think about Yoder’s actions in light of these four writers, I conclude that still all these years later it may be possible to help bring more healing for those Yoder hurt. And, certainly, we must learn from these events how better now to overcome sexual violence. However, we should also work hard to understand as best as we can Yoder’s actions in ways that respect his own humanity and that resist adding to the spiral of violence with our own reactions to his wrongdoing.

Thinking about sexual violence

I believe these ideas that in my work I have applied mostly to war, the death penalty, and criminal justice must also be applicable to sexual violence—though I do not pretend to speak as a particularly knowledgeable person about sexual violence. My desire to make as much sense as I can of Yoder’s theology in relation to Yoder’s behavior, though, challenges me to think about sexual violence.

It seems like one key theme that arises in just about all accounts of violence is a dynamic (not necessarily obvious) of beginning with lack of empathy and moving on to stereotyping and “othering” and dehumanizing and violence. Certainly this dynamic happens in warfare and it seems to be a central factor in many cases of sexual violence. In general, violence usually requires some kind of diminishing of the humanity of the other.

We live amidst many currents in church and society that push us to label and stereotype, to objectify and impersonalize. Empathy for others, especially others who are different in significant ways, seems fairly rare in our broader society (and all too rare in Christian communities). So a major challenge that fits directly within Walter Wink’s insistence that morally responsible human beings must commit ourselves to opposing evil is to find ways to resist “othering” dynamics and to encourage empathy. Most centrally, this task should focus on resistance to othering dynamics that lead to harm to vulnerable people—specifically, in the context of the current discussion, the dynamics that lead some men to violate some women.

At the same time, the on-going presence of vulnerable people in our communities means we can not simply wait for growth in empathy and resistance to othering and dehumanizing to make our communities safer. We continue to work to create safe environments and to empower people who have been hurt to speak out, to tell their stories, to be respected and listened to. It is a kind of dialectic, where our communities need to evolve to be more empathetic toward all people and at the same time more explicitly and practically opposed to actions that harm.

One important aspect of opposing evil without adding to it is to seek to cultivate empathy and resist “othering” and dehumanizing even those who themselves “other” and dehumanize vulnerable people and with their own lack of empathy hurt others by transgressing boundaries they are oblivious to or disdainful of. Alice Miller and James Gilligan, for example, offer us models of writers who are strong in their opposition to violent behavior yet understand that the cycle of dehumanization itself should be resisted through treating offenders as human beings—responsible for their acts and needing to be stopped in their hurtful acts but still individual human beings who should be understood and helped to heal, not simply condemned.

I think Wink’s challenge to oppose evil without adding to it is a call to find ways to resist violence and people who act violently while at the same time becoming ever more compassionate and creative in breaking all cycles of violence.

The allegations about Yoder

I remember back in the mid-1980s when I learned that John Howard Yoder would no longer be teaching at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. My wife Kathleen and I had attended AMBS in the 1980-81 school year because Yoder taught there. Right after our time at AMBS we decided we wanted to become Mennonites.

Once he started teaching at Notre Dame in nearby South Bend in the 1970s, for a number of years Yoder had taught only one class a semester at AMBS. I first assumed when he left AMBS that he had decided himself to focus only on his Notre Dame responsibilities. However, I began to hear from friends at AMBS that this move was not Yoder’s decision, but that AMBS had decided to end the relationship. However, the reasons for this termination were top secret. No one I talked with had any sense what the problem had been, only that AMBS administrators were indicating that there had to be no information given due to legal confidentiality purposes.

I was troubled, but for many years had no idea what the problem might have been. Then, Kathleen and I returned to AMBS for a semester in the spring of 1992. And the other shoe dropped. Yoder had been invited to speak at Bethel College in Kansas, and due to voices of protest raised by women who Yoder had hurt and their allies, Yoder’s invitation was rescinded. We had a forum at AMBS shortly afterwards that was the first time I heard a more detailed explanation (though still pretty cryptic) that the reason why Yoder was no longer teaching at AMBS was because of sexual misconduct.

Then, in June 1992, Tom Price wrote his series of articles based on interviews with three of those directly hurt by Yoder as well as numerous church leaders. One article included a summary of one of Yoder’s unpublished essays that seemed to give an indirect rationale for Yoder’s actions. Price’s articles have remained the main source that I am aware of with specific information about Yoder’s actions. A few years ago, Yoder’s friend, the prominent theologian Stanley Hauerwas, included a short but informative discussion of Yoder’s situation in his memoir, Hannah’s Child. [10]

Price and Hauerwas give us our main public knowledge. I have learned a few other things from reliable sources and, of course, heard many rumors and much hearsay. I have become convinced that Yoder did engage in coercive and sexually inappropriate behavior that caused serious emotional harm for several women.

The extent of this behavior remains a matter of speculation. Hauerwas states that Yoder “began his seductions of ‘weighty’ Mennonite women—women of intellectual and spiritual stature” in the 1960s. [11]  As far as I know, it has not been established when he stopped, but there is reason to believe that he continued at least well into the 1980s. Price reports that eight women together brought charges of sexual harassment against Yoder that resulted in a disciplinary process undertaken by a committee from the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. We may safely assume that the number of women whose boundaries Yoder transgressed was larger than the eight who brought formal complaints.

Price’s articles detail strange and clumsy attempts at physical intimacy along with unwelcome and invasive conversations, letters, and phone calls. Part of what made these advances traumatic for their recipients was the respect many of these women had for Yoder as a teacher and scholar. They saw him as an advocate for peace, advocacy they affirmed. So they felt a strong sense of trust that was then violated in hurtful ways.

In the years since 1992, I have been part of many discussions about what level of harm had been caused by Yoder’s actions. Price’s articles do not suggest physical harm-doing. I think in the end, though, we simply have to accept that Yoder’s actions were profound violations, he did cause harm, and we should not try to minimize the seriousness of his violations.

My own understanding of the hurt that Yoder caused was deepened by one conversation I had with a woman who as a young seminary student had been accosted by Yoder and seriously traumatized. Our conversation happened decades after the event and many years after Yoder’s death. But the pain was still present in obvious ways. There is no way to explain away this transgression, and it seems clear that we could multiply the trauma my friend had experienced perhaps numerous times with other women Yoder treated similarly.

Why did it happen?

From what I understand, Yoder’s explanation for his behavior (which he seems not to have seen as the violation that it was) was that he was testing his theory that Christians of the opposite sex could have intimate physical relationships that did not involve overt sexual intercourse. Hauerwas refers to this as does Price in his summary of Yoder’s ideas.

Yoder’s “theory” is interesting and does not seem on the surface to be utterly outlandish (though it is not a theory I am personally attracted to). I know from my own experience in intentional Christian communities in the 1970s that the issue of close friendships between non-married people was a theme for long conversations.

What made Yoder’s theory so problematic, I sense, is that when he tried to implement it he tended to be oblivious to the lack of interest and even active resistance from his would-be partners. This is when he became coercive—according to Price physically forcing himself on at least one of the women Price interviewed and violating emotional boundaries with numerous others.

Chillingly, even when resisted and challenged, Yoder did not seem to express regret or an awareness of the pain he had caused. On Hauerwas’s account (confirmed by a few other sources), Yoder continually defended his actions in terms of experimenting with his theory about intimacy. He does not seem to have sought to understand the feelings of trauma and betrayal he left in his wake.

One aspect of the story I know next to nothing about is whether there were women who did not resist Yoder’s advances. I have heard one reliable account of a woman who did have a relationship with Yoder that she welcomed. There may have been others over the decades Yoder sought such partners. [12]

As I reflect on Yoder’s behavior in relation to Yoder’s theology, I have concluded that it is best to accept that he was indeed psychologically violent, over and over. Regardless of whatever fine line we might want to make concerning degrees of transgression, he was way over the line between innocent if clumsy attempts at friendship and hurtful, coercive acts of sexual violation.

I would identify three different areas of concern in relation to what Yoder’s sexual harm-doing means for us today.

(1) The first is the general issue of sexual violence in our churches and church-related settings. I hope that the ferment around Yoder’s acts can serve as a fruitful catalyst to stimulate more conversation, reflection, and action in addressing the on-going problems of sexual violence. Maybe we can be energized to devote more of our best energies to what obviously continues to be a living issue.

Yet, I do worry a bit that all the focus on Yoder and events from the now fairly distant past might divert some of that energy. I am not sure that there are a lot of specific lessons to be learned from Yoder’s story that apply directly to our needs today beyond the general lesson that sexual violence must be confronted quickly and decisively. It seems unthinkable that a parallel situation could arise at the Mennonite school where I teach given the decisive action that has been taken time after time since the mid-1990s in cases of sexual misconduct. I hope talking about Yoder can trigger a move to then go on to talk about our present—a conversation that would eventually have little to do with Yoder.

(2) The second is the issue of telling and learning from the story of the past. Yoder remains an extremely important figure in Mennonite history of the second half of the 20th century. He also remains an important figure in the world of Christian theology and peacemaking. So his story is of intrinsic interest—like the stories of all influential people. And, certainly this issue of his sexual violations is part of the story of his life. But it is only part of that bigger story.

Yoder’s life story, I think, is not important because of his sexual violence. It is important most of all because of his intellectual endeavors and his influence on Christian theology and ethics. We should not, however, try to tell the story without this problematic part. So it is worthy of attention to fill out our account of this challenging person.

The story of Yoder’s sexual misconduct is also of historical interest in the context of tracing the general story of North American Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century. We learn from this story about how Mennonites and their institutions have (and have not) responded to sexual violence. I hope for perceptive, careful, well-researched historical writing on the Mennonite story in relation to John Howard Yoder’s life and thought.

(3) Third, the issue that has motivated my own reflections more than any other is the question of what our knowledge of Yoder’s actions means for how we approach his theology. I struggle to make sense of the paradox of how the theology I love coexists with the behavior I hate. I am moving more toward being content that I have to accept the paradox, recognize the difficulty of resolving that struggle, and thus focus mainly on Yoder’s ideas. Others may respond differently. The following chapter, for example, suggests possible avenues of research into connections between Yoder’s failures and both limits and possibilities of radical Anabaptist theology in the vein of Yoder.

The purpose of focusing on his ideas, though, is not in order to construct a Yoderian theology. Rather, it is to move beyond Yoder. He gave us his legacy of theological writing (which is, I believe, profound indeed) for the purpose of our learning and then moving on to do our own work. Yoder’s ideas help us do that. But there is a sense that as time passes it becomes less and less important where the ideas came from (and what kinds of terrible things the originator of the ideas might have done) and more and more important how the ideas stimulate further ideas and—more importantly—peaceable living.

What about Yoder’s theology?

Yoder’s theology has been important for my life and work. So, how do I reconcile this influence with such deeply problematic behavior? I have been reflecting on the behavior, and now I want to take some time to reflect on the theology—to sketch why I have found it so valuable. It’s not just that Yoder is famous and important and widely read and cited. It’s that his work has had a profound effect on my own life and thought in many, many ways.

I began to read Yoder in the fall of 1976. A few years later, I moved to Indiana to study with Yoder at AMBS. I have continued to read Yoder and absorb his theological insights. I would like to believe, though, that I have followed a path he would have approved of, which is using his ideas as stimulants to develop my own. Yoder himself did very little writing where he focused in detail on other people’s theology. He mostly referred to the Bible, history, and to the practical outworking of the ideas. It was not theology about theology but theology about life.

As Earl Zimmerman presents it in his fine book on Yoder’s intellectual development, Practicing the Politics of Jesus, [13]  Yoder’s decision to become a theologian came as a young adult working in post-World War II Western Europe. He became convinced that the epic disaster of that war was an indictment on Western Christianity. What the world needed was a different way to think about faith and social life. Yoder believed that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists provided a good model, but that what was needed was something more universal that he found in the life and teaching of Jesus. This root in the life and teaching of Jesus is what characterizes the radical theology of the book in hand.

So, Yoder modeled an approach to theology that cares deeply about contributing to peaceable social life in the world for the sake of the world and draws deeply on the Bible and the Anabaptists. Yoder’s theology was anything but “sectarian.” The on-going power and influence of his work witnesses to his perceptive insights. I have been influenced by his method to construct theology that is socially engaged based especially on the Bible and inspired by the Anabaptists. Yoder’s ideas are catalytic for my own constructive work—which I would call “peace theology,” not “Yoderian theology.”

What I have learned from Yoder’s theology

To make this specific, I will briefly mention ten of Yoder’s key contributions to my theology. This present list is drawn quickly, and I could mention many more contributions.

1. Surely the most important for me is Yoder’s presentation of the case that Jesus was indeed “political”—and political in a specific way. Yoder took the imagery of God’s “kingdom/empire,” “messiah/king,” “savior/liberator,” “gospel,” and “congregation/ekklesia” in the political sense they had in the first century. Jesus—and the rest of the Bible—are political through and through. Political, that is, in the sense of “politics” referring to how people operate socially. The politics of Jesus is indeed about how people relate—with its main emphasis on compassion and caring for others. So it is a “kingdom” and Jesus is a “king,” but in ways that overturn the ways of power politics.

2. Yoder has helped me to view everything through the lenses of my pacifist commitment—what I now call a pacifist way of knowing. [14]  We may understand pacifism as an orientation toward the world wherein we see that nothing takes precedence over the call to love the neighbor. This should effect everything—including how we read the Bible and how we construct our theology, not to mention, of course, every aspect of our social lives. Chapter 8 touches on aspects of this knowing.

3. The book of Yoder’s I read first was The Original Revolution. [15]  The chapter that had the most impact initially for me was the discussion of violence in the Old Testament. I have developed my thinking beyond Yoder’s ideas in that chapter, but his emphasis (leaning heavily on the work of his colleague Millard Lind [16]) on how the Old Testament presents an alternative sense of political power to the ways of the nations, and puts God and Torah at the center instead of king and state, remains central to my own thinking about how to navigate the Old Testament-as-violent conundrum. Yoder and Lind helped me to see that the Old Testament should be approach as a positive asset for peace theology, not a problem to overcome.

4. Toward the end of his life in essays published posthumously in the book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, [17]  Yoder developed further his way of reading the Old Testament as being in continuity with the politics of Jesus. He points to the words of Jeremiah during Israel’s time of exile—”seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves.” These words offered a programmatic call for God’s people to give up on channeling the Promise through a traditional kind of kingdom. Instead, they were to embrace the calling to be prophetic minorities in various settings that they do not try to rule.

5. Yoder introduced me to the exceedingly fruitful way of analyzing power through use of the language from the Pauline letters of “principalities and powers.” Walter Wink’s later work, [18]   in part inspired by Yoder, fleshes out the ideas much more. And both Yoder and Wink are indebted to the earlier pioneering work of Hendrikus Berkhof. [19]  Use of the “powers” motif helps us understand the institutional and cultural dimensions of life, especially of the dynamics where the “fallenness” of the powers shapes us in profound ways (for example, the dynamics of racism, militarism, sexism, et al, that in a genuine sense transcend individual choice and action). Several chapters above reference Yoder’s use of the powers.

6. Yoder’s writings address the challenge people who have a vision for biblical shalom face as they try to embody that vision in a broken world. One motif he addressed often is the notion of “patience,” where we cultivate a sense of trust in that the “grain of the universe” runs toward wholeness (I’m more comfortable using this more imprecise language; Yoder would often talk more directly about trusting in the sovereignty of God). Such trust helps guard against the constant tendency to try to take things into our own hands, to seek to “be in charge,” a tendency that often leads to violence and ultimately self-defeating compromise and exaggerated senses of self-importance. He refused to accept an absolute dichotomy between faithfulness and effectiveness, insisting that in the long run faithfulness is our most effective approach.

7. Yoder helped me understand that the vision for salvation in the writings of Paul stands in harmony with Jesus’ vision and, overall, with the Old Testament vision. Paul’s sense of “justification” was not strictly about an individual getting right with God, but as with the rest of the Bible Paul believed salvation is a social event. For Paul, the key effect of Jesus’ ministry was to empower enemies to be reconciled, Jew and Greek to become part of one community, even ultimately blessing all the families of the earth.

8. Yoder also helped me understand that the biblical themes of eschatology and apocalyptic have a lot to do with how to understand God’s work in the present and not only in the future. He stated that these themes in the Bible, especially in the teaching of Jesus, are not focused on the idea that history is ending but rather they are emphasizing why history continues—that people of faith might embody biblical shalom in history.

9. Yoder helped me understand the Judaism and Christianity should be seen as more complementary that has traditionally been the case. His discussion of what he calls the “Jewish-Christian schism” concludes that “it didn’t need to happen.” This view challenges many received ideas about Christian origins and the disastrous idea that Christianity “replaced” Judaism. These issues are discussed at some depth in Chapter 10 and the insight extended to Islam and Hinduism. This motif is not only interesting for historical purposes but it actually provides a challenging angle for better understanding how the Old Testament can work as a Christian book and for enhancing the unity of beliefs with practices in Christian understandings.

10. Finally, as is detailed in Chapter 2 above, Yoder is an important resource for sustaining a continuing affirmation of the present relevance of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. His dissertation, written in German and only recently published in English, provides an important study of how the Anabaptists remained committed to continue talking with mainstream reformers in pacifist ways. [20]  Among other things, Yoder argues that it is a mistake to see in the Radical Reformation an inevitable separatism and inclination toward withdrawal. He suggests that Anabaptists actually in the early years at least modeled ecumenical initiative and a vision for social transformation.

As I reflect on Yoder’s theology and its impact on my work, summarized in these ten points, I conclude that his theology (as with all other good theology) is best approached as a catalyst for on-going constructive work that builds on earlier theology but does not keep its focus on that earlier theology. That catalytic quality is underscored by the way other chapters of this book also reflect aspects of these learnings. Yoder’s ideas, I believe, are best appropriated in ways that move theology beyond Yoder. Chapter 11 illustrates on such example of “going beyond.” Yoder’s method was to draw especially on the biblical story, informed by later theological work, and apply theology to fruitful living. When our theology imitates this method we will not be writing a lot about Yoder but using Yoder’s insights along with other sources to create new theology, radical theology that depends on the root, Jesus Christ.

Theology and practice

So, we continue to struggle with the issue of what we do with Yoder’s theology in light of his hurtful sexual behavior. These are my tentative conclusions:

(1) The reality of Yoder’s sexual violations is, of course, very relevant for accounts of Yoder’s life story. We need careful biographical studies of that story because of Yoder’s importance for the Mennonite world and beyond. And such studies will be useful for any theological reflection that draws on Yoder’s writings.

(2) The relevance of Yoder’s hurtful sexual behavior seems more complicated when we focus specifically on approaching Yoder’s theology itself as the object of study. If Yoder’s theology becomes the object of our study, then we surely do need to consider the possible implications of his problematic behavior for how he construed theology. My sense of the discussion so far, though, is that people tend to pick up on themes in Yoder’s theology that they already have questions about and suggest that that is where the link with his hurtful behavior might be found. I am not sure how fruitful that approach will be. I still tend to suspect that the roots of Yoder’s actions lie elsewhere than his theology and are not likely to be visible in the theology. But it is totally appropriate to scrutinize the theology with this problem in mind. For those interested in such a project, the following chapter suggestions questions to explore that are raised by the problem of sin and failure in Anabaptist theology.

(3) How I want to approach Yoder’s theology in my own work is to draw on his ideas more in ways that emphasize the insights and apply the helpful aspects than thorough analysis of Yoder’s thought for its own sake. For this kind of work, his sexual violence is less relevant. The ideas, such as those listed above, remain perceptive and helpful regardless of what I learn about his life. This makes the details of his life of less interest to me theologically. Those details are interesting, of course, but the interest runs the risk of being prurient and to that extent should probably not be cultivated.

Postscript [not included in the chapter in the forthcoming Weaver-edited book on Yoder]

In my February 2011 blog post on Yoder’s sexual misconduct, I concluded with these words:

I still find Yoder’s published writings extraordinarily insightful.

So I have been moving in a bit of a different direction. Yoder did not really seem to fit the profile I would have in mind of a more typical sexual predator. When Kathleen became interested in the life and work of Temple Grandin, the famous autistic animal biologist, and we learned a bit about the autism spectrum and the mild expressions called Asperger’s syndrome, some lights began to come on in terms of trying to understand the Yoder phenomena.

No question, Yoder was brilliant, even savant like. He was also extraordinarily awkward socially. A friend told me recently of years ago when he spent quite a bit of time with Yoder talking about theological issues. My friend said, why don’t we meet for coffee sometime. And Yoder said, “I don’t do that kind of thing.”

And Yoder seemed to live a very compartmentalized life. I find it believable to imagine that his head/theology had little impact on his body/harassment. This is definitely hugely problematic and makes his life pretty messy and non-exemplary. But I wonder if this dynamic might let his theology off the hook a bit. That is, we can treat his ideas as in some sense separate from his life and let them stand (or not) on their own merits. Of course, such an attitude as I suggest here is in major tension with the ideals of Anabaptist theology (and Yoder’s ownwriting) that emphasizes the unity between word and deed.

I’m not sure what to do with this tension. It makes me think we need to be a bit more realistic about the complicatedness, feet-of-clay dynamics of real life. I’ve done a bit of reading on Martin Luther King’s life (most notably Taylor Branch’s trilogy, beginning with Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). This reading makes me more impressed with King’s courage and social/political insights—but also troubled by his serial adulteries. The upshot seems to me to be that we should not put King on a pedestal, but also we should not write him off because of the moral contradictions in his own life.

I wonder if this might not be our best response to Yoder as well.

I later posted a reflection from Yoder’s friend, Glen Stassen, that adds further thoughts on the Asperger’s syndrome possibility. Stassen is helpful because he knew Yoder better than I did and he is familiar with Asperger’s syndrome due to his own son’s experience.

In a December 3, 2013 comment posted on Mark Thiessen Nation’s “Anabaptist Nation” blog, Steve Langton wrote this:
As a sufferer from Asperger’s Syndrome myself I am increasingly of the view that this disorder would explain Yoder’s conduct. Essentially he would not be a bad person but if he suffered A.S. he could blunder in the kind of way described and on the one hand he wouldn’t be correctly “reading” the responses his conduct received and also, through no fault on their part, others would be “misreading” him and seeing more in his conduct than he actually intended. Even now, with A.S. known and understood as it wasn’t in Yoder’s lifetime, aspergics and their carers need to be warned of the risk not only of inappropriate social conduct but also of inappropriate sexual conduct. It is fortunately rare because for most people A.S. is accompanied by shyness and a positive aversion to physical intimacy; but such inappropriate conduct does occur and is almost invariably the result of naivety and misunderstanding rather than evil.
In essence, as you say Yoder was exploring some issues about intimacy; a person not suffering A.S. would recognize this as an area requiring a great deal of care before attempting to practice some of the ideas those explorations might suggest; and indeed, suffering A.S. but aware of it, I know to be very careful in such areas. Unfortunately a person suffering A.S. would simultaneously be among the last people who should have tried out such ideas, but also among the few people naive enough to try, and would make a right pig’s ear of it (do you have that expression your side of the pond?) and cause distress he would never have intended. Nowadays with A.S. fairly well known such problems would either not arise or be speedily dealt with before much harm occurred. There is to my mind a serious need to explore what would be called a “retro-diagnosis” of Yoder and if A.S. were shown to be very likely, his conduct should be re-assessed in that light.
[One recent writer] has referred to Yoder rejecting therapy. It should be said that even now there is little therapy for high-functioning A.S. beyond being aware of it and consciously adapting to it. “Therapies” available before A.S. was properly recognized would have been inappropriate almost to the point of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
It remains to do more reflection on the significance of this element of the story.


[1] These articles may be accessed online:

[2] Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence,” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed. J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 18–21, quote 18

[3] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, The Powers, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 3.

[4] Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—and Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, forthcoming, 2014).

[5] Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Chid-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990).

[6] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage, 1997).

[7] My recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Salvation (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2013), draws on Gilligan and others in challenging traditional Christian atonement theology and presenting a different reading of the biblical story that supports a non-punitive approach to wrongdoing as grounded in the Bible’s portrayal of God.

[8] Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, 3rd ed., A Christian Peace Shelf Selection (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005).

[9] Howard Zehr, Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims (Intercourse, Pa.: Good  Books, 2001).

[10] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 242–47.

[11] Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, 244.

[12] Mark Thiessen Nation has written two lengthy and informative blog posts where he discusses this issue. “What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct?” [August 13, 2013] and “On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder” [September 23, 2013].

[13] Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics, The C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House; co-published with Herald Press, 2007).

[14] See Ted Grimsrud, “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 77, no. 3 (July 2003 2003): 403–15, and John Howard Yoder, A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology, ed. Christian E Early and Ted G. Grimsrud (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010).

[15] John H. Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971).

[16] See Millard C. Lind, Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays, Text-Reader Series (Elkhart, Indiana: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990).

[17] John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

[18] See especially Wink, Engaging the Powers.

[19] Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, trans. John H. Yoder (Scottdale PA: Herald Press, 1977).

[20] John Howard Yoder, Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogues Between Anabaptists and Reformers, ed. C. Arnold Snyder, trans. David Carl Stassen and C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2004).

2 thoughts on “Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” in face of his alleged sexual violence

  1. Robert J Redfearn

    Dr. Grimsrud: I came across all of this controversy about Yoder because of a piece you wrote on the passing of Gordon Kaufman (my “theological grandfather”). In that RIP piece you allude to the fact that Kaufman and Yoder never really connected over their careers. After reading about Yoder I’ve come to admire not only Kaufman’s theology, but especially his “radar”. Thanks for sharing your struggle with all of this in print. Thomas Merton’s writings have been a big influence on my life and theology, yet there are hints in Merton’s journals of things that could keep me awake at night; so I can appreciate your dilemma. Rev.R.Jeff Redfearn — retired psychiatric Clinical Chaplain.


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