[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.  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. 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. Continue reading