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.
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.
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.
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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).