A Time of Reckoning: The SCE and John Howard Yoder By Grace Yia-Hei Kao


How does a professional society—a Christian one, no less—come to terms with the sexual abuse perpetrated over decades by one of its most vaunted members?

At the recently concluded annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, this question was at the forefront of many conference participants’ minds.

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is often described as the most prominent Mennonite theologian of the 20th century. Author of the acclaimed The Politics of Jesus (1972) and a staunch proponent of Christian nonviolence, Yoder taught for many years at what is now the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary before joining the faculty at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. His decades of professional misconduct (i.e., his so-called “experiments”) with numerous women have been subject to two disciplinary proceedings in two contexts, but “the story of his abusive behavior remains painfully unresolved,” particularly as a 2015 report based on newly available documents and interviews makes clear.

Rachel Goosen

Rachel Goosen, the historian charged by the Mennonite Church USA to engage in historical research and documentation on the scope of Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response to it.

As fitting for a conference theme on “Structural Evil, Individual Harm, and Personal Responsibility,” the Society held several sessions for its members to come to terms with Yoder.

A midafternoon panel comprised of two leading Christian ethicists (Stanley Hauerwas and Traci C. West) and the current president of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Sara Wenger Shenk) used the John Howard Yoder case as an “opportunity for self-critical reflection.” The panel collectively pondered the responsibilities of ethicists, scholarly societies, and academic institutions as they reflected upon the following questions: “How should we handle morally compromised legacies in teaching and scholarship? What can we learn from Mennonite institutional responses to Yoder’s harmful legacy? How can we foster cultures of ethics within the SCE and beyond?”

The SCE also hosted an evening ecumenical service of “lament for sexualized violence.” As the planning team for this service acknowledged, there had never previously been a space for the SCE as a whole (i.e., beyond individual papers or panels) to express their concerns. Given Yoder’s egregious, decades-long abuse of power and his leadership in the Society (n.b., he was President from 1987-1988), the organizers wisely acknowledged that “we as an academic society must also face the difficult questions of our own complicity and of how to foster a community of scholars in which sexualized violence no longer has a part.”

Other responsibilities prevented me from attending the panel, but I was able to attend the approximately 1-hour service. The liturgical setting in my judgment was powerful–appropriately somber and intense. I was heartened by the explicit naming at the beginning of the “complex and perhaps even conflicting emotions” of those assembled there, the pained confessions and intercessions of various congregants during the “prayers of the faithful,” and the manner in which service concluded, wherein participants were invited to write their (signed or anonymous) thoughts in such a way as to either be archived for future generations or ephemeral (i.e., dissolved in water). While I have long associated the SCE with good papers and good conversations with friends and colleagues, this was the first time that SCE had functioned for me as church.

Service of Lament candles

John Howard Yoder was also the subject of other sessions at the SCE, two of which I’ll note here. The first was a joint effort sponsored by the LGBT and Queer Studies in Ethics Interest Group and the Ethics and Sexualities Interest Group. In a co-hosted evening session entitled “Breaking Silence: Calling Out the Sexual Violence Against LGBT/Queer/Transgender Persons and Perpetrated by John Howard Yoder,” the organizers first acknowledged that the “racialized and sexualized violence perpetrated against marginalized bodies of color (LGBT, queer and transgender)” is “distinct but related” to the sexualized violence perpetrated by Yoder. They then raised questions about (1) how various institutions failed to either stop Yoder or hold him accountable, and how (2) “various Christian institutional contexts, and the theologies they espouse, similarly fail to name and confront sexual violence and anti-LGBTQ theologies.”

Secondly, in a concurrent session I attended, Karen Guth put the troubling case of John Howard Yoder in conversation with Heidegger’s Nazism, Georgetown University’s participation in slavery, and—during the Q&A—Dr. MLK Jr.’s plagiarism and womanizing. She then drew upon feminist & womanist theologies and the burgeoning literature on moral injury to help us think through how to deal with “tainted legacies,” particularly in classroom contexts where we teachers are charged with making decisions about what, how, and when to teach what we do.

Where do I stand on these questions? Teaching the work without referencing Yoder’s problematic behavior is—and always has been—unconscionable. But I have not taken the path of some of my colleagues who have stopped assigning Yoder altogether in deference to the women traumatized by his transgressions against them. I have, however, actively tried to reduce my reliance upon his work (especially when I can “get” the same or similar things from others) for these reasons. Is that compromise enough?

I ended the conference with no definitive answers to these and other questions, but did emerge with an enhanced sense of community and a deeper commitment to continue to discern with my colleagues how best to proceed.

*                *                *

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and co-editor, with Ilsup Ahn, of Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015). 

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Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Academics, Academy, Ethics, Feminist Theology

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12 replies

  1. Interesting that this case is being opened again. I did not know Yoder and knew his work only slightly.

    I am wondering if the panels treated Yoder as an isolated case or as one among (many?) others?

    Reading the links reminds me that there were a lot of male theologians (and professors in general) of his generation who had been brought up with a restrictive sexual morality who “broke free” in the 60s and 70s. I am reminded that I and others were told that prostitutes were a regular part of the AAR (for some? for many?) until the women’s caucus was formed.

    I suspect the women students who had/have affairs of one kind and another with faculty or older professors are legion. The extent to which abuse of power was involved and to what extent it was/is “free love” is a subject that has not yet been sufficiently explored. Yoder may have had a stranger modus operandi than some, but that does not make him the only one.

    One of my friends not in the field of religion had sex with her Ph.D. advisor one time on the way home from a conference. After that, she could not discuss her thesis with him, because he kept bringing up sex. She said at the time that she was not coerced into the one-time encounter, but after it, she was sexually harassed and had trouble completing her dissertation and getting it passed.

    And of course there is the recent case of Philosophy professor Thomas Pogge who was “cleared” of all charges.

    “Many professors interviewed at Yale and elsewhere said that this instance was no anomaly.

    “Yale is pretty notorious for not taking seriously — at the administrative level — cases of sexual harassment,” Charles Larmore, a philosophy professor at Brown University, said.

    “No institution likes a scandal, but at Yale there is a particular cultural silence,” said Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, who signed the open letter. “There is a culture of male discretion and ‘boys will be boys.’ ” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/09/nyregion/a-yale-professor-is-cleared-of-sexual-harassment-but-concerns-linger.html

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    • Carol – thanks for the question and for setting the broader context (60s/70s & up to contemporary times with Pogge–something that I followed as well. When discussing Yoder, most folks did a combination of both: attend to the particulars of his case while grievously noting how he certainly isn’t the first theologian giant to have erred so badly (n.b., consider the case of Paul Tillich). In Yoder’s case, the question for many is the following: how can someone dedicated so passionately to nonviolence (as he was considered a lead thinker in peace church theology on this score) been so violent (when defined as a violation of human dignity) with countless women? For some the hypocrisy or total disconnect (between theology and biography) is hard enough. Others are more troubled by what is increasingly being discussed now–the way Yoder specifically used his theology (e.g., his concept of Christians having “deviant” morals when judged by mainstream lights) to seduce women and/or justify his behavior. An additional layer, of course, is the matter of institutional complicity – did the Mennonite Church, what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the U. of Notre Dame, etc. ignore/minimize/conceal, etc. the charges against him because he was so famous? Did they do so perhaps partially in a sincere effort to protect his family and his marriage, but at the expense of justice for the women involved?

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    • Yoder wasn’t just a scholar in a secular institution, he was a highly read, highly influential theologian in a *Mennonite* institution and church. In a setting that proclaims loudly that Jesus was all about justice for the oppressed, Yoder’s behavior wasn’t taken seriously. I’ve had The Politics of Jesus recommended to me often as a must-read, never even once heard of Yoder’s abuse of the women around him. Sadly, as you say, the searing hypocrisy was probably very common and mostly swept aside. (Oh, how I’d love to hear Jesus take these men on now–“Woe to you, [sexist peace and justice theologians], hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matt. 23:27, 28).

      It calls for a look at how we practice religion in even peace and justice churches and environments. How do we communicate that women, too, are made in God’s image? Do we dare to call God Mother and refer to Her in feminine terms? If not, there is probably a concomitant inferior view of women that makes it easy to overlook the “issues” of the “big (man) name” in church or seminary or other religious setting. I believe that language for God must change in churches, before we will take seriously well-known theologians’ abusive behavior toward women, while they are still alive.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Sjmharrison for writing and you are right – all sorts of patriarchal abuses should lead us to question patriarchal metaphors and language in our theology. That (as you know) is feminist theology 101!

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      • You’d think it was…but I’m finding it’s not at all. There is still a huge resistance to and discomfort with Mother language, for example, and try calling God “She” consistently in your classes (though perhaps you do). Major pushback, I suspect!

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    • I have edited more of John Howard Yoder’s posthumously published books than anybody. He had a significant impact on my thinking in my early years as a Mennonite and through seminary. I spent countless hours listening to his audio lectures, transcribing, editing, making them readable. I spent even more hours in archives searching unpublished material for work that would be useful to scholars and average readers, to publish them.

      It was a waste of time. I regret that I spent all those hours, days, months, even years making his work accessible to more and more people. I no longer assign or even mention his work in my classes.

      Yoder’s problems go well beyond having affairs that were consensual as somebody above notes. He sexually assaulted at least one woman. You can read about that assault in a 1990s newspaper article from his hometown: https://peacetheology.net/john-h-yoder/john-howard-yoder’s-sexual-misconduct—part-two/

      I believe that problems related to this sexualized violence run through his work and are not merely hypocritical. The issue of whether love of another person constitutes a kind of ownership to be avoided pervades his thought so that issues of individual attachment to one another become problematic (hence his terrible experiment). We see this problem clearly in What Would You Do where he doesn’t take the temptation to violence because of love for hte other person very seriously, dismissing it as a kind of reduction to a relationship of property (mine).

      I could say more. My own wrestling with this issue of being an editor of Yoder with my own story is published here if you are interested Grace: http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/stories/prison-sexual-assault-and-editing-john-howard-yoder-one-mans-story-by-andy-alexis-baker/

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      • Wow, Andy, I’m speechless. You narrate the truth so powerfully in your post. Thank you for sharing your story — and ongoing struggle – so openly. I also see that since your Nov. 2013 blog, where you wrote “The Spirit made me nonviolent, but Yoder helped keep me there. I am glad I have learned from him, and I do not regret my role in spreading his work” that your thinking on the matter has continued to evolve to the stance you take today. Perhaps in a separate forum you’d be willing to share with me what made you change your mind? (For the record, several years ago, when several male colleagues asked me if I was going to purge Yoder from my syllabi, I didn’t really take their proposal seriously, thinking that whatever logic that would compel one to toss him out would likely lead one to have to scrap others (viz. King, Gandhi) as well. But for a host of reasons, I now see how Yoder’s case has unique features that must be attended to).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How sad this is. In Yoder’s case (and perhaps in other cases), the idea of Christian ethics sounds almost oxymoronic. I hope the “boys will be boys” in religion, politics, business, and everywhere else will come to an end. I hope the honorable men who are not predators will step forward.

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    • Barbara – indeed. I’m so tired of the “boys will be boys” excuses; setting the bar so low for male behavior just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you are right – the sting is so great in Yoder’s case (and in several others) because we are talking about a man whose life’s work was dedicated to a critique of Constantinianism and pacifism as the way of discipleship for those identified with Christ.

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  3. Sigh. The challenges of working within an inherently patriarchal institution. It’s a continuing uphill battle.

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