The challenge of understanding the Yoder sex scandal

Ted Grimsrud—September 22, 2014

[This essay was written in the midst of the furor in Mennonite circles concerning new awareness of and reaction against the sexual violence perpetrated by John Howard Yoder in the 1970s and 1980s—and then mostly ignored during the 1990s and first part of the 21st century. I post it here exactly as it was when I first wrote it. My intent is simply to have it here for the record. Obviously, a lot has happened since September 2014 and a lot remains to be said. As I write this note (1/13/21), I still struggle with the entire situation. I hope to write more—and more publicly—at some point. However, right now such writing still seems premature.]

The delayed response to revelations about the Yoder scandal

In the past twelve months or so, the reputation of John Howard Yoder, Christianity’s foremost theologian of pacifism, has taken a powerful hit due to a delayed reaction in response to his sexual misconduct. Yoder died in 1997, and for the last five years of his life, he faced quite a bit of opprobrium following the publication in 1992 of a series of articles in the Elkhart, Indiana, daily newspaper, the Truth, that outlined his hurtful sexual behavior toward a number of women (for the articles, go here; then, here is my summary of the accusations contained in the articles).

After Yoder’s death, as his influence as a pacifist theologian actually continued to grow—aided by the posthumous publication of at least 14 books of his writings—concerns about his misconduct generally were muted, at least in public conversations. No doubt, few of Yoder’s many readers beyond Mennonite and academic settings knew much about the accusations. The Elkhart Truth articles, in the days before the internet, remained unknown to most and unavailable even to most of those who knew about them.

At the same time, in my own circles (both among my Mennonite colleagues and in the broader arena of academic theology), this part of Yoder’s legacy was known and the subject of occasional conversation. For example, a large academic conference on Yoder’s legacy held at Notre Dame University in 2002 held a special session devoted to this issue.

However, nothing from that session made it into the book published from conference papers. As well, two of the major collections of writings about Yoder’s theology, The Wisdom of the Cross and The New Yoder, do not contain mention this problem though surely most of the contributors to each book surely knew about it. Two well-received books that deal with Yoder’s life and thought, both originating as dissertations, Mark Thiessen Nation’s John Howard Yoder and Earl Zimmerman’s Practicing the Politics of Jesus, only give the problem the briefest of mentions, even though both contain major biographical sections.

In my own work, I have been strongly influenced by Yoder’s thought. Though I have not written a great deal directly about Yoder (here is a list of most of what I have written), I have been part of the general emergence of a generation of theologians and ethicists shaped by Yoder. Sometimes the term “Yoderian” is used, though always loosely because Yoder certainly did not establish a “school” of followers during his life and those shaped by Yoder disagree with each other on many things, including how best to interpret Yoder’s theology. Sometimes the issue of his sexual misconduct came up in conversations, in settings both informal and more formal, but not often and hardly ever as the focus of the conversation. I am aware of virtually no published writing about these issues in the twelve years following Yoder’s death.

Still, ever since I first read the Elkhart Truth articles in 1992, I have been personally deeply troubled by what Yoder had done—even as I continued more and more to admire his intellectual achievement and to rejoice in his expanding influence. And I was troubled by the lack of explicit conversation about the dark side of Yoder’s legacy and how that related to the theological world he created.

The emergence of the social media probably made it inevitable that at some point Yoder’s dark side would become an issue to be scrutinized. This would be the case in part because, clearly, many of the people who first raised the concerns in the early 1990s and their supporters remained unhappy with the lack of resolution to the problems Yoder had created with his hurtful behavior. Those concerns had led to the Elkhart Truth articles and a formal disciplinary process in relation to Yoder undertaken by the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church that concluded with an agreement to terminate his ministerial credentials.

However, Yoder experienced a rapprochement both with Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the location of some of his alleged misconduct, and with his home Mennonite congregation in Elkhart shortly before his death—leading some to conclude that a difficult story had a happy ending. Often when the problems were mentioned, the account ended with this “happy ending” and the implication that the problems had been dealt with. Meanwhile, distress, due to a sense that a kind of whitewashing was ensuing, simmered—now, it seems obvious, waiting for a spark.

Trying to come to terms with Yoder

Fairly early in my blogging career, I decided to voice some of my concerns, and in December 2010 I posted an article, “Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder” (with further thoughts two months later). As far as I know, this was one of the first lengthy essays addressing these themes (albeit only “published” on my blog). The article generated some discussion and got some attention (it’s the post with the second most hits in the five-year history of my blog). It also led to contact with someone willing to keyboard the Elkhart Truth articles for me to post on my Peace Theology site, providing the first public access to those pieces (as of August 9, 2014, these six articles have generated almost 40,000 hits).

My concern with that post was with struggling to reconcile what seem to be two certainties—Yoder’s profound peace theology that I find extraordinarily compelling and Yoder’s hurtful behavior toward numerous women that I find deeply problematic. This strong tension remains for me.

That I wasn’t the only one feeling this tension is seen in a process undertaken by the faculty at the institution most closely identified with Yoder, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, to address it. They formulated a statement affirming the continued use of Yoder’s materials in their classes with a commitment to discuss the problems as well. For reasons that are unclear to me, AMBS chose not to make the statement public for some time after its approval (April 2012)—waiting until after the terrain rather dramatically shifted (late July, 2013; the statement no longer is on the website as of 8/25/21).

For the next two and half years after my December 2010 post (and a sequel, that I posted in February 2011), I was aware of a few other attempts to grapple with these issues (including a piece by one of the main editors of Yoder’s posthumous publications, Andy Alexis-Baker—apparently no longer available online), but the conversation still remained muted—while at the same time the publication of those numerous posthumous Yoder authored books continued unabated. As well, an ever-growing number of dissertations, books and articles about Yoder were written and published. It’s hard to say how many of the editors and authors of these materials were aware of Yoder’s dark side, but surely many, if not most, were.

The storm bursts

Then, all of a sudden, last summer the dam burst. I played a small role in the early discussion, agreeing when asked to publish a post by Barbra Graber, “What is to be done about John Howard Yoder?” Graber’s small essay, posted on several other sites at around the same time, played a major role in the breaching of the dam of relative silence about Yoder’s misconduct. I followed up that post on my site with a series of pieces where I reflected on the situation. The last of those posts went up on August 6, 2013. At that point, I sensed that the entire discussion was going a very different direction than I had hoped for—not a reasoned wrestling with numerous complex issues centered on the tension I identified in my December 2010 post and reflected on in my August 2013 posts, but more a rush to condemn Yoder and, more implicitly, to resolve the tension I have spoken of by diminishing the one side (the profundity of Yoder’s peace theology). So, I decided to wait for a while to write any more.

The awareness of the problem expanded quickly—thanks, surely, to social media—to the point that it warranted a major New York Times article, with the subtitle, “Can a Bad Person Be a Good Theologian,” October 11, 2013. Also, around this time, the Mennonite Publishing House decided to include a kind of warning statement in all of Yoder’s books that they publish (at last count, there were 15) that warranted an article in Christianity Today. At this time, as well, InterVarsity Press, publisher of a posthumous book by Yoder, Theology of Witness, due out early in 2014, also agreed to publish a warning statement. I am not aware if others who published Yoder’s books, including Eerdmans, Baker, Notre Dame, and Cascade, will be including similar statements in their volumes.

More recently, academic writers have taken up the topic in slightly more formal settings. Mennonite Life, an online journal published by Bethel College in Kansas, collected several reflections from professors who have used Yoder’s work on how they think about his writings now. An article was just published by the Christian Century (a short version, called “Theology and misconduct: The case of John Howard Yoder”) and the Other Journal (a longer version, called “Scandalizing John Howard Yoder”) by two professors and two doctoral students from Baylor University—professors Paul Martens and Jonathan Tran and students David Cramer and Jenny Howell (henceforth, “Cramer, et al”).

This last piece has stimulated me to write some more about the Yoder stuff. I had decided last August to wait a year—though at that time I did not foresee that the discussion would evolve the way it has. I’m more uncertain about sharing my thoughts than I expected to be. However, in the past I have found blog writing to be a useful aspect of my thinking process, plus I don’t want to let fear of criticism silence me. [August 2021 note—of course, as is obvious, I did let fear of criticism silence me as I never did post this essay on my ThinkingPacifism blog and only after many years slipped it in on my PeaceTheology site with the expectation that it would remain unnoticed….]

Two distinct approaches: “Moral critique” and “careful description”

I have come to believe that there are, in general, two at least somewhat distinct approaches to thinking about the Yoder situation. The first, and clearly predominant, one is hard for me to characterize with a word or two. The best term I can think of is “moral critique.” This involves, in essence, centering on a moral evaluation of Yoder’s actions—with a sense that we know enough to recognize the failures in his actions and that we should focus on a clear condemnation of those actions. We then move on in our discussion with the sense that obviously this is an issue of moral failure—and our task is to figure out how best to respond to this moral failure. Hence, the New York Times subtitle: “Can a bad person be a good theologian” and the use without careful definition or qualification of terms such as “abuser,” “predator,” and “violent actor.”

The second approach is also difficult to characterize. Let me try this term: “careful description.” Its focus is to try to gather as much information as possible and to try to understand the context and motivations for Yoder’s actions. The sense is that we still have a lot to learn about what happened. More than moving quickly to make a moral judgment about Yoder’s actions, this approach seeks initially to understand his motivations and to answer questions about why he did what he did (whatever that was). It is certainly also important to try to gather information about and understand the impact that Yoder’s actions had on the women he hurt.

I believe that ideally, the second approach would precede the first approach—that moral critique would move slowly while careful description is pursued. However, I recognize that not everyone involved in working on these issues agrees (in fact, it seems that virtually no one who is writing about this agrees). I do fear that moving too quickly with the moral critique has led to a prejudicial framing of the situation—the starting point for many people seems already to be “Yoder the abuser” before the evidence is carefully described.

In the Cramer, et al, article, the authors admirably confess that they actually know very little for certain with regard to Yoder’s actions and their context. However, the tone of what follows belies that profession of ignorance. While practicing a certain level of restraint as compared to other writings on the topic in the past year, they still ultimately accept the Yoder-as-abuser narrative without developing a case for it.

Though I am unhappy with the too quick focusing on the moral critique over careful description even in this more cautious article, my focus in what follows in this post will not so much be on arguing about why that approach is problematic as it is on working at the careful description approach myself. I do offer some judgmental conclusions regarding Yoder’s actions myself, but I am more interested in some major questions that remain—questions that ideally would have been addressed before moving too far down the moral critique path.

So, the amazing storm of writing about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct, beginning in the blogosphere but now moving steadily into more “permanent” media, has left me with several questions that I want to reflect on here.

Question #1: What did Yoder actually do?

The main source for information about Yoder’s actual hurtful actions is the 1992 series of articles in the Elkhart Truth, written by reporter Tom Price, based on extensive interviews and including accounts from three anonymous women who had encounters with Yoder. Despite mention in several sources of many more cases of hurtful activity, hardly any more concrete stories have emerged.

Price’s reports are highly suggestive, but they are limited in their scope and document behavior on Yoder’s part that can be variously interpreted, partly simply due to the fragmented and cryptic nature of the stories. Based mostly on these stories, some have argued, at one pole, that Yoder was guilty of criminal behavior and others, at the other pole, that in fact he did nothing that could, with precise legal definitions, be called sexual harassment, abuse, or violent behavior. Most writing in the past year tends strongly toward the first pole. However, that there is so little public data of a concrete form and that what there is can be interpreted in such varied ways seems like a challenge to wait until more information is forthcoming to draw too many conclusions.

It is the case that this lack of specific data will surely be addressed by reports from the research undertaken by Mennonite historian Rachel Waltner Goosen that are due out by the end of this year (published in Mennonite Quarterly Review as “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” in January 2015). However, that will not change the fact that a lot of moral critique (even if it proves to be warranted when we learn more) preceded those reports.

One of the sources that has been cited as an authoritative account is a 516-page e-book written and self-published by a retired Goshen College theology professor, Ruth Krall, The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder: Collected Essays. Krall alludes throughout her book to the wide compass of Yoder’s hurtful behavior; she seems comfortable with the labels “abuser” and “sexual predator.” However, she offers surprisingly little in the way of concrete examples of that behavior beyond what has already been publicized in Price’s articles. She seemingly is motivated by confidentiality concerns; however, she doesn’t even provide concrete stories with the identities of those hurt by Yoder disguised.

The Mennonite Church USA executive board has hired Goosen to investigate the events. She has reportedly been granted access to archival materials that have been heretofore closed, including access to the files of former AMBS Marlin Miller who allegedly received numerous complaints concerning Yoder’s sexual advances toward unwilling women. Goosen and collaborators have also reportedly been interviewing numerous of the women who Yoder hurt. So, it does appear that more data will be forthcoming, which will help us a great deal to understand what actually happened.

However, in the meantime, Cramer, et al, confirm that we have very little information in the present. The four authors speak of having devoted a year’s worth of research and interviewing to trying to take account of Yoder’s situation. After that effort, they add little to our knowledge of what happened.

Ironically, one piece of information they add, that even those who have been attentive over the years may not have known, is an excerpt from a letter to Yoder from a woman he had established a close relationship with who welcomed the “spiritual friendship.” That is information that presents Yoder in a different light than as a violent predator and abuser. Though they have acknowledged their lack of knowledge and don’t indicate that they have concrete information much beyond the three women quoted by Tom Price in his 1992 articles, they still add commentary (without supporting references) that diminish the weight of her report: “One wonders what this woman, who was a professional therapist, would make of Yoder’s other relations, the preponderance of which have been understood as manipulative and violent.”

I am nonetheless convinced that we do have enough fairly clear evidence to be very critical of Yoder’s behaviors and to see them as in profound tension with his theology. I have expressed my criticisms in several blog posts and in an essay to be published this Fall. My colleague Mark Thiessen Nation had also written blog posts that are quite critical of Yoder’s behavior. Nonetheless, Nation has been criticized (unfairly, I believe) for trying to diminish the seriousness of Yoder’s behavior. His perspective is apparent in the title of his lengthy and highly informative blog post, “On Contextualizing Two Failures of John Howard Yoder.”

At the same time, I belief that much of what I see to be overly strong rhetoric in condemning Yoder’s actions in face of our lack of public information has distracted many from what are to me a couple of the most challenging questions—why was there such an apparent gap between Yoder’s actions as perceived by those he hurt and his peace theology? And what do we do with this problem theologically?

Questions #2: Why did Yoder act in ways so contrary to his theology?

Cramer, et al, write about how Yoder acted contrary to his theology. They cite one of his stated definitions of violence from an unpublished lecture. This definition is excellent and surely accurately reflects his beliefs. In includes this sentence: “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent.” They state as obvious that Yoder clearly acted in violent ways according to this definition. But what they don’t discuss is why a person who could make such a statement would act in ways that so clearly contradict it.

Cramer, et al, don’t discuss the reputation Yoder had during his life of being a person of rigorous integrity. Though the current narrative, in the words of the New York Times article, assumes that Yoder was a “bad person,” and there are impressions recounted in Ruth Krall’s book and elsewhere that present him in a pretty negative light beyond his sexual activity (and, I should say, in my personal relationship with Yoder, I had a pretty negative impression), I am not aware of any serious questioning of his integrity. This point only heightens the tension.

From all accounts, Yoder did not think that what he had done in these relationships with women he sought to make his “spiritual friends” was wrong. Reportedly, he was obstinate when confronted by AMBS president Marlin Miller. But it seems that he was this way not because he felt guilty and defensive, but because he sincerely thought he was not doing wrong.

I think this disconnect between Yoder’s apparent self-perception and the perceptions of others, especially those hurt by his actions, should be an important subject of inquiry if we want to try to understand what happened and, also importantly, as we reflect on how Yoder’s actions and theology relate to each other—and then, as we reflect on how we should appropriate Yoder’s theology (or not).

The “moral critique” focus with its emphasis on blame for the hurtful actions does not seem interested in the “why” here. And certainly, as reflected in Cramer, et al, those with this focus are willing to move ahead with suggestions for present-day relevance of this situation and how we think of Yoder’s theology today without saying much if anything about this disconnect.

Ruth Krall, in her book, asserts that clearly Yoder was motivated by rage toward women since he was clearly a sexual predator and that is what motivates sexual predators. However, she gives no evidence from the testimony of those who knew Yoder, or from Yoder’s writings, that they saw signs of such rage.

She dismisses the possibility that Yoder’s insensitivity may have been related to having a condition such as Aspergers syndrome. Her reasoning for this is spurious, even though Cramer, et al, describe that response as providing “much counterevidence.” Those concerned first of all with moral critique seem to be quick to dismiss the relevance of thinking about Aspergers because they see that as offering an excuse for Yoder’s behavior.

With the “careful description” approach, though, the concern is not with making excuses or deflecting blame. The concern is with trying to understand, especially in this context, to understand how a man known for his integrity could insist that he was doing no wrong and was living consistently with his stated ethical convictions—while directly hurting other people.

Cramer, et al, do not discuss the thoughts of Glen Stassen, though they do cite him in their notes in the context of their dismissal of the “Aspergers hypothesis.” This is too bad because Stassen was uniquely situated as a person who knew Yoder well as a personal friend, who knew about the allegations of sexual misconduct, and who also was intimately familiar with Aspergers due to his son’s condition. As well, Stassen writes movingly about his sense of the pain Yoder caused and his respect for those such as Barbra Graber currently raising concerns. The context for Stassen discussing Aspergers is the desire to understand, not excuse, Yoder’s behavior.

Certainly “diagnosing” someone who is long dead is not possible. However, Krall and many others may be accused of doing the same kind of thing when they fit Yoder into the “sexual predator profile.” We must make tentative hypotheses and test them with the evidence we have—and, it seems to me, hold them lightly and see if they help us understand better.

The reason why we should try to understand is because of what is at stake in relation to Yoder: What we are going to do with his theology? The growing tendency seems to be to distance ourselves from his theology, even to dismiss it altogether, because of his misconduct. A friend of mine with close connections in the ecumenical world reported recently that two of his acquaintances who have been active in just peace work have concluded that because of Yoder’s “stubborn splitting of his personal life from his public peace advocacy” it has become “nearly impossible to keep Yoder as part of our international peace theology canon.”

Do we understand Yoder’s life well enough yet to categorize what he did as a “stubborn splitting of his personal life from his public peace theology canon”—especially in a willful sense? How do these things fit together? I tend to think that, ideally, we would work much harder at trying to understand before we excise Yoder from our “peace theology canon.”

In a recent conversation, another friend of mine suggested that the framework of male sexual addiction might have some promise in helping to understand Yoder’s behavior better. That was a new idea for me, and I know too little about that framework to have a sense of how helpful it would be. At this point, though, it seems to me that we should avoid too quickly dismissing such a suggestion. All sorts of hypotheses may well be worth considering.

Question #3: What do we do with Yoder’s theology—and peace theology in general?

Cramer, et al, helpfully dismiss two common options concerning Yoder’s theology—to avoid reading it altogether and to assert that it is unworkable, given his own failure to follow it.

However, I don’t believe they sit with this question deeply enough. So much of this part of the discussion seems to happen on the level of theory or principle. This is how the logic seems to work: Obviously a person’s life is crucial to how we think of their theology, especially someone with such an ethically idealistic theology as Yoder’s. Because his life was invalid, it is inferred, we have to assume that his theology is also invalid. The Anabaptist tradition is even evoked with its insistence that belief and practice are integrally linked.

These principles have validity and do challenge us to think carefully about the Yoder situation. However, as is generally the case, insisting on ideology over evidence tends to lead to superficial conclusions. I think we need to wrestle more directly with this issue in light of Yoder’s actual ideas.

On the one hand, his insights are crucial for peace theology. Their truthfulness and their importance are matters of actual evidence. And though it is the case, as Cramer, et al, point out, that his insights are true independent of Yoder, nonetheless many of them would not likely have surfaced without his work. This is what I briefly tried to show in my blog post last year. On the other hand, consideration of Yoder’s actual ideas underscores the tension I identified above between his theology and integrity on the one hand and his actions on the other. To my mind, this tension is powerful and has been too quickly ignored or dismissed, even in Cramer, et al’s article.

Another way to raise the concern: Without Yoder, what is left of peace theology? It looks like we will be finding out. Very little resistance has been offered so far to the pushing Yoder away—this possibility has moved more quickly and decisively than those who raised the alarm about his actions likely anticipated (and in some cases, possibly more decisively than they desired).

What I would love to see is an effort to go beyond Yoder to “peace theology after Yoder.” But this can only happen with clear awareness and affirmation of what precisely we have to learn from Yoder. Simply to assume that Yoder’s theology is no good because of his misconduct seems like being guided by ideology and not evidence.

And such a direction might be disastrous for peace theology. Obviously, we must not read Yoder uncritically, and our criterion for truth is not that something is true because Yoder said it. It will be healthy if we are less inclined simply to cite Yoder as evidence for a statement’s truthfulness. We are talking about peace theology with Jesus at the center, not John Howard Yoder. But we learn that from Yoder himself.

Still, God has used Yoder in powerful and distinctive ways—and presumably God was aware of Yoder’s clay feet. It would be tragic if we allow Yoder’s own sins to gain the victory over God’s voice in his life—to the detriment of the church and its peaceable vocation.

[August 2021 note: We now have an important analysis of Yoder’s sexual “experimentation” that gives us some new information and helpful interpretation. William Joseph Hutto’s 2018 dissertation at the University Aberdeen is entitled: “Neither Grand nor Noble: An Overview and Appraisal of John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Politics.” Hutto in general is positive about Yoder’s peace theology and concludes that the sexual project went seriously off the rails. He goes into detail analyzing the evolution of Yoder’s “experiment” and adds a great deal to our understanding. This dissertation is a model of what I hoped for in my discussion of “careful description”—though appropriately, after his description Hutto offers carefully thought through “moral critique.” This dissertation is available online here.]