John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Misconduct: Why Do I Care? Why Do I Write?

& Yoder.

Sometime in the early to mid-1970s Mark Hatfield, longtime U. S. Senator from Oregon, took a two-week retreat in the mountains of Oregon. During this important time away he read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. According to Richard Mouw, he returned from this retreat a convert to an Anabaptist perspective on how to be a Baptist Christian and a Senator.  From this point forward this affected how he conducted himself as a member of the U.S. Senate. (See Hatfield’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.) “The one way in which he manifested that every year was that whenever the Senate voted on the military budget, he would stand up and he would make the same speech every year for about five years in a row. The speech was this, ‘The Bible says, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’ I vote against this whole budget.’”[1]

Last summer when I taught my course on “Biblical Foundations for Justice and Peacemaking,” one of my students was a man from northern Nigeria. This man has a ministry working for reconciliation among Muslims and Christians. He also offers training in discipleship to Muslims who have become Christians. He works in a situation where Christians not infrequently experience violence at the hands of Muslims. He himself carries the marks of torture. Early in our time together, I gave this student a copy of Mirror to the Church, a book by Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. This is an extraordinary book that examines the slaughter that happened in Rwanda in 1994, but also uses that situation to provoke probing questions for how we in Christian communities across the globe understand our lives in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Do we live our lives in such a way that reflects the embodiment of love of neighbors and love of enemies to which our Lord calls us? Even in ways that are difficult and costly?

Emmanuel Katongole, who now teaches theology and peace studies at The University of Notre Dame, wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosophical dimensions of the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley Hauerwas was converted to pacifism through the theology of John Howard Yoder. The Nigerian student in my class this summer stayed up until 4:30 in the morning during the week of my course reading Mirror to the Church. Captivated, my student’s commitment to nonviolence was solidified by this challenging book—knowing this called for costly discipleship in the world to which he would shortly return.

These two anecdotes could be multiplied many times over. Over the last thirty years I have heard thousands of stories of how Christians have had their minds—and even their lives—changed by the writings of John Howard Yoder. Typically this transformation has included a conversion to the nonviolent implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ or a deepening of such convictions.

I came to care about the man, John Yoder. I care about his widow, Annie. But the central passion that animates my writings about Yoder is not really about Yoder, it is about the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in relation to Yoder’s writings it is mostly about his way of articulating Anabaptist convictions—including a call for Christians to be nonviolent—in such a powerful way.

I am writing about John Howard Yoder and his moral failings in relation to sexual behaviors  because I hear questions being posed about whether or not we should continue reading him. I am sure we should. (I am also firmly committed to honesty. Therefore, we also have to try to deal honestly with his behaviors and the effects they have had on others.) I have written about this very briefly in my immediately previous blog post. I will soon be posting a much longer essay.

[1] See: “Learning from Kuyper, Following Jesus: A Conversation with Richard Mouw,” Comment Magazine, September 13, 2013, accessed online, September 19, 2013.

One Response to “John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Misconduct: Why Do I Care? Why Do I Write?”

  1. DJ

    I read “The Politics of Jesus” while in college and it opened for me an understanding of the Gospel that had never been possible before. That the man who wrote it had failings does not detract from the poignancy of his work. Do we not all have failings? I know I do. The path begun all those years ago takes another turn tomorrow, when I will be baptized in the Mennonite Church. (until now, I have not lived close enough to one to attend.) I am grateful for Yoder’s work, and have no expectation that he should somehow be more perfect because he has a gift for scholarship.