Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn
[Note: I write the following after having written two previous blog posts, in the first of which, among other things, I affirmed the statement formulated by the faculty of AMBS. Thus the following reflections should be understood in light of my earlier posts. I should perhaps add that I have written two earlier biographical sketches of Yoder. Those sketches were mostly intended as an outline of his Mennonite background and academic life. What appears below is more about Yoder’s personal life, attempting to capture who he was as a person rather than focusing on his academic life—knowing that these cannot finally be separated. Marva Dawn has graciously agreed to be co-author of this essay. Marva, who is a prolific author, was both John Yoder’s doctoral student and his teaching assistant. Mostly this essay has been written by Mark; the personal pronouns are his. However, Marva has read the essay, corrected some grammar, added a couple of paragraphs and has affirmed that the essay is “descriptive of the John I knew.”]
My initial reading of the articles in The Elkhart Truth—especially the descriptions of Yoder’s behaviors that were harassing, abusive and terrorizing of these women—left me with a pain in the pit of my stomach. In fact I was reminded of the feeling I sometimes had when I was a child protective services social worker, when I would, for the first time, grasp the pain and suffering experienced by a child who had been abused by a parent. Or when, on other occasions, I would note that not only was a child the victim of an abusive father but so also was the wife a victim of abuse by the same man. I was a young man when I was a social worker, with only the first steps in experience of children of my own. But along with training, I had life experience. I could empathize with those who were abused because I had lived with an abusive stepfather for more than two years myself. I knew what domestic violence and terrorizing felt like.
I am sure it was partly because of my own experiences—and my close identification with my mother—that made it easier in my job to enter into these domestic situations and provide help for those who were abused and neglected. In the midst of this painful and complex work I learned much. Among many other things, I learned that abusive and neglectful parents (and spouses) vary tremendously. Some seem rather thoroughly horrible (apparently immune to change), some are repentant almost immediately when confronted by their behaviors and successfully make vital changes—and then there is a spectrum between these two extremes.
But however behaviors express who someone really is, if they are experienced as harassing, abusive, violent and terrorizing, then they must be stopped. Having accomplished that goal, the task lies ahead as to how to prevent the behaviors in the future, care for those injured to bring healing and wholeness, as well as work to understand the perpetrators to discern who they are and what caused them to engage in such behaviors.
As I reflect on the series of articles in The Elkhart Truth, I have several immediate responses. First, I am very saddened that Yoder was not stopped much more quickly from engaging in sexually immoral, abusive and harassing behaviors. Second, I am disheartened that the pain and suffering of the women involved was not given adequate attention at various stages in the process when authorities in the Mennonite Church and institutions became aware of what had been done to these women. Third, I am grateful that Yoder was finally convinced to submit to a discipline process in 1992 and that, so far as I know, he discontinued all of his extra-marital intimate relationships (including the abusive and harassing behaviors) from that point forward. Fourth, I understand why many believe we are not yet finished with what we have to learn from these years in which Yoder engaged in these behaviors without having been stopped by the Mennonite community or by its institutions. And fifth, I wondered how these behaviors fit with who Yoder was across his life in various contexts and varied relationships?
So, what I have just named is my own way of stating what is already apparent in many recent discussions regarding Yoder: namely, his failure in relation to destructive sexual behaviors. (And I have alluded to the failure of institutions in relation to his failures as well—though it should be said that there were valiant efforts on the part of some. As one who teaches historical courses, I need to add that we should not, anachronistically, expect the world of, say, 1973 to be the world of 2013.)
However, what has not usually been emphasized is that there is a second failure on Yoder’s part that should also be highlighted. Yoder failed by the light of his own theological commitments. In saying this I don’t mostly mean what is perhaps obvious: namely that his violating women flies in the face of his commitment to nonviolence. That is certainly true. And it’s important to discuss that. But, even if he was unable to see that, he taught many of us to recognize the need for accountability in the Christian community. And Yoder failed miserably in this regard. Yoder was told clearly and repeatedly—by colleagues and administrators at his seminary, Mennonite church members and church leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues in the academy—that he was profoundly wrong. And yet he did not listen. He ignored the counsel from trusted friends, including those who thought they had learned much of their theology from him. This was a major failure on Yoder’s part in relation to his own theological commitments.
In many previous writings I have offered my interpretations of and reflections on Yoder’s theology. In what follows I will attempt to contextualize Yoder’s sexual misconduct in a brief narrative of his life, attempting to live with the question: how do the harassing and abusive behaviors he engaged in between 1970 and 1992 fit with who he seemed to be across the span of his life, with special emphasis on his relationships with women?
Someone might wonder why I have not written more about Yoder’s sexual misconduct than I have. Initially there was one central reason: I know and care about John’s widow, Annie. Since his death, I have had no desire to bring more shame on Annie by focusing on John’s sexual life in public. However, beyond that I have had two other reasons. First, I wanted to learn more about Yoder’s various sorts of intimate extra-marital relationships than I knew, say in 2000, when I wrote my doctoral thesis on Yoder. And, second, I was convinced then and remain convinced that the only way adequately to understand Yoder’s sexual misconduct was to contextualize it within his life as a whole. For I agree with those who say John Howard Yoder cannot simply be understood as a theological writer and teacher. However, the alternative to understanding him only as a theologian is not to understand him only as a theologian + an abuser and harasser of women. He was a man who, like all of us, was multi-dimensional and, like all of us, must be understood within a complex narrative, in his case, seven decades of life.
So, inasmuch as I am able to be honest about my motives, those are the reasons why I have not said more before now. I am still quite reluctant to say more. However, I have decided I must say more to counter a narrative that is being created about John Yoder, a narrative that certainly contains truth but also may be distorting. Consequently, below, is a hint at a larger narrative of John Yoder the man.
I have interviewed or had e-mails from John’s mother, his wife, his sister and two of his daughters. It has seemed obvious from these conversations that, as one of them put it, John as a boy and young man was “caring and respectful” of his mother, sister, grandmother, aunts and female cousins. There was nothing in his behaviors that would have indicated otherwise. When I interviewed her, his mother not only spoke proudly of her son (as much as a Mennonite mother could), but I also noticed that she had his books on display in her living room bookcase in her apartment. John expressed his respect for both his parents by submitting to their wishes and attending Goshen College, the Mennonite college both of his parents had attended. He deeply wanted to attend a non-Mennonite university (and had been accepted into two prestigious universities). One of the ways John showed his strong connections to his family was that, in the midst of a very busy life, he never missed the annual Yoder and later Yoder/Meyer family gatherings in late summer.
We know several things about John during his years at Goshen College. Not surprisingly—in light of our later knowledge of him—he showed himself to be an exceptional student. Among other things he finished a college degree in two years. There were also some signs of rebellion—he would sometimes wear a necktie as a belt on his pants, for instance. Some more personal dimensions of John, however, are often missing. Geraldine Harder, writing in July of 1992, offers one window onto who John was at Goshen College: “For a whole school year at Goshen College,” she says, “John and I walked the streets of the Locust Grove community in Elkhart, Ind., every Sunday morning to share the Good News about Jesus. With Bibles in hand, this very intelligent young man and I knocked on doors and sat with low-income, poorly educated, wonderful people and shared our lives. He was able to do this in a beautiful way. I wish you could have heard his comments and prayers.” Having known him in that context, forty-five years later she still writes: “I know John Howard Yoder. I know that honesty, decency and integrity were always part of his life.”
In April of 1949, two years after graduating from Goshen College John moved to France under assignment from Mennonite Central Committee. His assignment was “to do youth work and to give a peace testimony” among the French Mennonites. He did this very effectively. He also soon became involved in ecumenical discussions regarding peace throughout Western Europe. However, his day to day job was directing a children’s home for orphans. According to the people I have spoken with he did the hard work of providing for these orphans with care and diligence. Moreover, it seems to be the case that the women who worked with him in first one and then a second children’s home felt respect and appreciation from John. I have gotten this impression from several sources. Two of these female co-workers came to his defense after they had heard the ways in which they felt he was being unfairly characterized in public in 2002. One of his female co-workers, a French Mennonite, who worked in the home in Mont-des-Oiseaux, came to know John well and married him.
In December 2001 I interviewed more than a dozen French Mennonites who knew John from 1949 to the end of his life. During the five years John was working with the children’s homes, one of his jobs was to connect the French Mennonites to the homes and to garner their support for these orphans. Practically this entailed gathering produce from these French Mennonite farmers to help feed the children. To a person—men and women—they expressed not only deep appreciation for John but true affection. They spoke of how he played with their children and got to know them as families. He patiently helped these Mennonites—who lived through the horrors of World War II—to reaffirm their commitment to peace. They said that by the time John left Europe “he knew us better than we knew ourselves.” A number of them said they would likely not be committed to peace today and might not even have retained their faith if it were not for John Yoder.
I specifically remember, during that time in France in 2001, interviewing a couple who had many years earlier left the Mennonite Church. They were still committed to peace and social justice, but had started a network of non-denominational renewal churches. They knew John well. I specifically asked the woman, who was, like her husband, a minster, if she felt supported in her ministry by John. She enthusiastically said: “Oui, bien sûr”: yes, indeed! (I knew that John had, in principle, been in support of women in pastoral ministry since at least the early 1970s.)
In June 1953 the first of seven children would be born to John and Annie Yoder. John was a very busy man throughout the childhood of these children. However, from interviews with two of the children it appears that, in the midst of this busyness, John was an attentive father. There are fond memories of his playing with them when they were young and interacting with them in the caring ways that are normal for a father. This is true for the daughters as well as the sons. Daughters have grown up to be professionals as much as the sons (with one daughter being the only child to be a pastor)—with John’s blessings. And it seems clear that the children have, by and large, embraced some of John’s central commitments in terms of peace, simple living and caring about the poor.
In the fall of 1954 Yoder stopped working for Mennonite Central Committee and pursued his doctoral studies full time. However, in 1954 Algeria experienced a devastating earthquake. Yoder, in the midst of a very busy schedule, willingly agreed to be the European coordinator for relief work to be done through the Mennonite Board of Missions in Algeria. Thus he spent many hours helping to bring relief to those suffering in Algeria, as well as writing several articles related to the work there for Mennonite publications.
The Yoder family moved back to the U.S. in 1957. From 1959 to 1965 John’s primary job would be as an administrator of The Mennonite Board of Missions. Among other things, Yoder made many contacts internationally and ecumenically through his work with MBM. He made contacts, e.g., in Latin America. He was asked to present lectures in several places in Latin America in 1966. He taught himself Spanish and lectured in several places. He had made contact with the Protestant Theologian, Josè Miguez Bonino, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, later a well-known liberation theologian. Miguez Bonino invited Yoder to teach at his seminary in the school year, 1970-71. Yoder and his family moved to Buenos Aires for that year. It appears that during this year—through interactions with students, faculty and others in Latin America—considerable empathy grew within Yoder for the unjust and therefore revolutionary situations in many countries in Latin America. He was one of the first English speaking theologians from North America to articulate appreciation for the struggles of the Christians of this part of the world. Before the end of the 1970s Yoder was made an honorary member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. About six years ago I interviewed René Padilla, an Argentinian theologian and Samuel Escobar, a Peruvian theologian. They expressed gratitude for his theological writings and for helping them to see the call of Jesus to be nonviolent revolutionaries. But they both also expressed deep appreciation for Yoder’s empathy for those who suffered from poverty and unjust situations. They felt he understood. He realized the challenges of their situation and was sensitive in the ways he addressed them. He became a trusted friend.
This empathetic side of Yoder—perhaps partly because of his incredible intellect and reasoning powers as well as his discomfort with personal relationships—has often gone unnoticed. But it was there, as both the French Mennonites and these Latin American theologians saw. I noticed it as a student at AMBS in the fall of 1979. One day Yoder shared at our peace studies colloquium. He spoke about his recent visit to South Africa. The main thing I remember is that he could hardly speak. He was clearly holding back tears as he spoke of the moving way in which black and white Christians expressed their unity in Christ, despite the fact that some expressions of their unity was a breaking of the laws of Apartheid. They were willing to pay that cost! I have come to know that this is hardly the only time John expressed such empathy. I’ve received e-mails from those who saw him quite moved when listening to a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. or when he would hear about people being murdered and those who gave their own lives trying to protect others from murder.
But expressing emotion in public was not John’s primary way to express his concern for others. Of course it was largely through his hard and devoted work, in speaking and writing, in which he called on Christians to love their neighbors and even their enemies to be faithful to Jesus—in ways that for many have been quite convincing. But beyond his writings, John’s empathy and concern for others, quite appropriately, and like many Mennonites I’ve known, was shown much more through practical actions than through any public display of emotion. To give one example, Paul Pollack contacted me when I was director of the London Mennonite Centre. We met. He shared correspondence with me. He wanted me to know about the ways in which John had for several years offered his wise council to help this Jewish entrepreneur to use low-tech means of helping poor people in remote villages in various places through modest forms of technology and community development. Mr. Pollack was moved and very grateful that John—an academic theologian—had been willing to give generously of his time to assist with his projects to help the poor.
I am well aware as I enter into the last two decades of his life that there is very much I do not know about John Yoder’s life.
I was his student in the falls of 1979 and 1980. At the end of the first semester with him—in his War, Peace & Revolution class—I almost sent him a letter. I wanted to let him know how intimidating and uninviting his teaching style was. His impersonal, awkward manner kept most of us silent in this class of perhaps thirty students. My second experience, at Notre Dame, was in a class of three students. It was better. The size almost dictated an interactive format. But when I attempted—on many occasions—to have conversations with him in his office I again was confronted with his interpersonal oddness. As often as not, he would be doing something else as we spoke. And unless I happened to ask something that grabbed his attention—which happened rarely—his responses to my questions were very brief. Conversations were, shall we say, usually quite awkward. But I did learn from both classes that he was indeed brilliant—and not only brilliant but particularly insightful about theological matters that seemed vital. Thus I persisted. More than a decade later, after I was getting to know John more, I found he was somewhat better in phone conversations. And e-mail seemed the perfect medium for him. For he wanted to be helpful where he could. And he loved to connect people with others, which he could easily do via e-mail.
However, I do have reflections from several women who knew John relatively well from the early 1980s through the end of his life.
The following is the set of reflections I received in September 2004 from a female colleague of John’s in the department of theology:
“I first met John Howard Yoder when I began teaching at the University of Notre Dame in 1990. I have to admit that I found him a somewhat forbidding individual – gruff and acerbic, and someone who kept to himself.
“But as I came to know John over the years, I came to appreciate, and then to admire him as a scholar, a teacher, and a colleague. Anyone who worked closely with John could not fail to appreciate his keen intelligence and his wide-ranging knowledge and interests – and as I came to realize, his deep commitments were held together with an open, intellectually adventurous spirit.
“He was evidently a revered teacher and a widely influential voice in the field of theological ethics. At the same time, he was also a fine colleague and a good academic citizen, one of those who could always be trusted to do his share, and a little more, in carrying the work of the department and the area. I came to see that what I had perceived as gruffness and a tendency to keep to himself were expressions of an inner dignity, which went together with unfailing courtesy and genuine, if somewhat taciturn friendliness. What is more, I came to see that he was a man of deep integrity. I came to have a real affection for John, and I miss him – his death was a great loss, not only to the field but also to my colleagues, our students, and myself.”
As I said in my earlier blog post, I have spoken at some length with three of John’s former female doctoral students. The following are the reflections of Marva Dawn, who was John’s teaching assistant for two years and worked with him on two translation projects. She offered her reflections under the title, “A very flawed man and a great scholar.”
“This is an account—because of the present controversies—of my relationship with John Howard Yoder. Because of his awkwardness with interpersonal relationships, I first need to give a bit of background.
“Because it turns out that most professors in the divinity program at the University of Notre Dame were quite awkward, I became somewhat of a department social hostess while I was a Ph.D. student there in 1983-1987. I invited every woman who was giving the monthly female public lecture to my apartment for dinner beforehand. I hadn’t intended to do that, but after the first woman came — and brought two friends — the woman who was assigned to do the next month’s lecture asked if I was going to invite her, too. Consequently, every month the lecturer and her two guests came to my home to have dinner with me. At the end of the year, I realized that most of them had said that they had never been in another member of the department’s home.
“I was John Yoder’s student assistant for two years, and he also made use of my hospitality. As awkward as he was, he would say something like, ‘there is a new visitor to the department,’ and I would respond, ‘Do you want me to invite him/her to dinner?’ When he answered, ‘Yes,’ I would ask him whom else he wanted me to invite. Sometimes Stanley Hauerwas and his first wife would join John and Annie Yoder in coming to my apartment.
“At one point in the second year of my doing that, Stan said to me, ‘You know, Marva, I think you and I are John’s only friends.’ When I agreed, he continued, ‘We’ve got to help him as much as we can.’ Again I agreed, but, though I tried to be a good friend to John, I did not know the extent of his ‘experiments’ in intimacy. Because I became a good friend also to his wife, Annie, I fear that the present controversies are causing her grievous pain.
“Besides serving as hostess and friend, I also was John’s assistant. While I was doing that work, John Yoder made a few of the intimate moves others have accused him of making, but when I firmly said, ‘No,’ he thereafter respected my wishes and didn’t repeat that behavior.
“John did come to one of my speaking engagements at Bethel College in Mishiwauka and thus gave me support in my calling. In addition, he did sometimes try to compliment me on my work. Thus, it seems that he valued women in their contributions to academics and teaching the Christian faith.
“One memory stands out for me as an example of John Yoder’s lumbering attempts at being friends. When I finished the defense of my dissertation several years later (in 1992), he did not invite me to lunch as most professors did for their graduate students. Therefore, I had arranged to meet two of my friends on that day. At the last minute John asked me to share lunch, but I was already engaged, so we set the time for a future day — and it was a very ungainly meal. Consequently, I have always thought that John was simply too brilliant to be able to associate with people on the normal human level, but I’m very sorry that his faults and his ineptness will keep some people from learning about his magnificent contributions to the Church.”
Another one of Yoder’s female doctoral students, who served as his graduate assistant for several years and knew him well from 1987 until his death, said the following:
“John definitely was respectful and supportive of me in my ministry; I was thrilled to have access to such a brilliant mind. He was willing to listen to criticism and look for reason and wisdom even from a younger (and female) student, colleague and friend. I frequently gave him a hard time (particularly about some of his idiosyncratic behaviors) and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. I experienced support as a perfectly equal partner in reasoned thoughtful dialogue on significant and worthy topics. John encouraged me to think for myself, to question conventional wisdom, to challenge him where I thought he was wrong. There is no question that I had power and agency and was freed to be honest as I negotiated the challenge that was trying to have a human relationship with John. My experience was empowerment and invitation to growth and, as I said, brutal honesty.
“It would be very sad to think that his wisdom is lost because of his human failings and that his brilliance is forgotten because of his stupidity, stubbornness, or perceived arrogance. (I did not experience him as arrogant.)”
So, then the question is: how does Yoder’s sexual misconduct fit into his life story as I have presented it? In what follows I am certainly attempting to be honest with all the facts I know about Yoder’s various extra-marital physically intimate relationships in all their variety—so far as I have been able to ascertain them. And then of course these behaviors and relationships have to be fit into various contexts—including his life broadly understood and his thought as depicted in writings. I am well aware that there is no way to discuss all of this without providing interpretive frameworks. And in some cases this entails tentatively holding to particular hypotheses. I will attempt in this section simply to name what we know about the various sorts of extra-marital relationships Yoder had. And at this point I will attempt to keep my comments to a minimum. So far as I know, the behaviors being described occurred between the early 1970s and either the mid-1980s or, perhaps in some cases, the beginning of the 1990s.
Let me remind the reader, that there were women who had long-term, consensual and mutually fulfilling relationships with Yoder. As I mentioned in my previous blog, at her request, I interviewed one such woman—for much of an afternoon in her living room. A leader in her own denomination, this woman expressed nothing but appreciation and warmth regarding her relationship with John. She felt respect and support from him in their relationship (and she, a single woman, was aware that he was married).
But most of what I will recount now are other sorts of relationships.
The following is the way one woman reflected on her relationship with John, his beliefs about intimate extra-marital relationships and the various “sisters” he related to. This was a woman who knew John over a period of decades and, as becomes apparent, knew John’s wife and a number of the women John had intimate relationships with. She has academic training in theology, has written academic writings for publication and has worked with victims of various forms of abuse. I quote her at great length because I believe her reflections offer great insight. Here are her reflections:
“I thought—[as did my husband]—that John’s message of non-violence and non-violent action was biblical and an integral part of the Gospel as we understood it. We believed that it was vital for the Church as a whole, all through the world, to hear this message and to practice it in all her dealings with the wrongs of this world and with the perpetrators of violence in any situation.
“So when I started to understand that John also had these deep convictions about the way Christians should practice their sexuality and should ‘help’ those who were single, I experienced it to be somehow ‘diabolical.’ It was as if ‘the Devil’ could not stop John from preaching against violence in all its forms, so he set this trap for this extra-ordinary witness with his strong message concerning non-violence—a trap that would discredit the Messenger of God and undermine and subvert the power of his message.
“Yes, according to my views, John suggested ‘inappropriate ways’ of being together – like holding hands – and he wanted me to sit on his lap. However, he remained respectful and friendly when I refused and never ever harassed me. (Of course I wasn’t a single woman). Even though I felt uncomfortable about these things, I still enjoyed his attention and friendship and his affirmation of me as a person. . . . Of course at the time I did not yet know or understand what he meant when he spoke about his ‘sisters’; [I discovered this later in a letter he had written.] This letter was very explicit about the things he saw as ‘appropriate’ ways of encouraging and ‘helping’ single women. . . . It was at this time that I also corresponded extensively with some of John’s ‘sisters’. He had convinced some of them so thoroughly about the holiness and the beauty and the purity of their ‘love’ that they were not easily persuaded of the fallacy of it all.”
This same woman recounts how she challenged John in regards to his behaviors. John, however, simply dismissed her by saying she was treating him like a child or a “dirty old man.” He would then justify his actions, claiming he was not, for instance, violating the teachings of Matthew 5, for he was not lusting for these women. He was not violating anyone in deed or thought. He was simply offering “affective support,” helping women to accept their own sexuality, their own bodies. Mutual, consensual intimacy “is pure and beautiful,” he would say.
She continues in her e-mail: “Although John agreed to the discipline of the Church and the borders they set him, … he was never convinced that he was wrong about sexuality. He thought the rest of the world (of the Christians) just did not understand. He had this ‘special insight and wisdom’, which others were not able to see. And because they could not understand, he had to revert to secrecy – to privacy and closed doors when he tried to ‘help’ his ‘sisters’ all over the world. Later I had close contact with a number of these “sisters” and also transparent interaction with John’s colleagues and friends.”
And what of the specific descriptions in The Elkhart Truth articles? The following are drawn from these articles, with my attempt mostly to let the descriptions speak for themelves:
“There were a few of us (female students) at the seminary who were at that point experiencing what we called strange behavior,” said “Clara” who first met Yoder in the early 1970s. “We talked about it with each other. That was the extent of it. We chalked it up (as) “This man is strange. He doesn’t know how to relate. The best thing is to stay away from him.” 
“Clara” said she did not have a particularly close relationship with Yoder when she was a student at AMBS. And in her initial encounters with Yoder, she only experienced “inappropriate hugs” from him. She informed him she was uncomfortable with this behavior. While Yoder and his family were living in Jerusalem Yoder corresponded with her, asking her explicit questions regarding how she, as a single woman dealt with her sexuality. He asked her to send her responses to a “private” address in Jerusalem. This seemed quite strange to Clara, who was friends with Yoder’s wife. When Yoder returned to the seminary, in the fall of 1976, he began to come uninvited to her apartment. “While his behavior was not inappropriate,” says Clara, “coming to my apartment was.” She told him in no uncertain terms that she did not want to have any further contact with him.
Tom Price, the writer of these articles, says in summary: “The [three] women [who spoke to him] said the misconduct, which took place primarily from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, included improper hugging, use of sexual innuendo or overt sexual language, sexual harassment, kissing or attempts to kiss women, and forcible sexual behavior. Sexual intercourse was not among the allegations.”
“Of all the allegations, the accusations made by Colleen, a congregational leader, are the most serious,” says Price. Here is Price’s account of these allegations: “According to Colleen, Yoder was invited in October, 1977 to her home by her husband, “Joe,” who asked the theologian to speak at their church’s weekend meetings. They had known each other for several years. Joe was away for most of the weekend leading the retreat and wasn’t expected back until Sunday afternoon. “I had no reason to distrust John,” said Colleen, who, then, had two small children. “After I put the kids to bed, I came down to the living room. John was sitting on the couch. He moved closer to me as we were sitting on the couch. He kept coming closer and closer to me and eventually pushed me over and lay on me. I was very afraid. I began to push him away. …He began to shake violently….When I pushed him away, he denied there was anything sexual about it.”
After a sleepless night, Colleen invited a single female friend to spend the next night for her protection. “John was visibly upset when he saw her come in,” said Colleen, who tried to avoid him for the rest of the weekend, at one point, hiding in a closet when she saw him coming. “He found me in there and made fun of my fear.” [end of Elkhart Truth accounts]
So what are we speaking about in terms of specific behaviors in relation to Yoder from the beginning of the 1970s until perhaps the middle of the 1980s or, more likely, the beginning of the 1990s? He had varied sorts of relationships with women outside his marriage. (1) He had respectful relationships, such as mentioned in relation to colleagues and doctoral students that apparently involved no attempts at intimate relationships. This was apparently true in all of his relationships with women, so far as I know, up until the end of the 1960s. (2) He on occasion attempted intimate relationships with women who resisted him, he respected their stated desire, and in some cases continued to have good relationships with the same women. (3) He had ongoing consensual relationships with a number of women, sometimes over a significant period of time. (4) He sometimes pursued physical intimacy with women who resisted and he did not accept the rejection; with some women he persisted in attempts at physical intimacy in a way that was harassing—and in a way that sometimes became threatening. In other cases his attempts at physical intimacy were not only unwanted but were forceful and abusive. Various of these relationships (with the exception of the first) were accompanied by written correspondence between Yoder and the women (some of which was wanted, some of which was unwanted, some of which was perceived as harassing).
In the spring of 1991 when I interviewed John’s mother, among a number of questions, I asked her if she was aware that John seemed awkward, uncomfortable in many social situations and in general in interpersonal relationships? Her response suggested she was aware of this. I asked her if she had any guesses as to why? She hesitated, but then said that John was very young when his little brother died. He was very close to him. His death seemed very painful—very difficult—for John. Maybe, she suggested, this traumatic experience affected him deeply.
I have no idea whether his mother’s explanation has any warrant. However, what most everyone I have ever spoken to who knew John very well can attest (and many who only met him casually) is that he was awkward—not really very good at normal, interpersonal relationships. This is described in many different ways. But it certainly could be off putting and could be described in many negative ways. What seems clear is that it was a part of who John was. Because of this it would not be difficult to imagine that John was quite lonely and had intimacy needs that went unmet.
Apparently between the late 1960s and early 1970s John began to develop a theory about physically intimate relationships among people who were not married to each other. He had come to believe, so he said, that we had inherited unhealthy ways of viewing our bodies from the Puritans. We—perhaps particularly brothers and sisters in Christ—should be freer to express our affection for one another with our bodies. As he named it, Yoder saw a particular opportunity to offer a ministry to single people, who in a family-dominated church and culture often experience loneliness and a deficiency of touch. But it is also appropriate in relationships among people who are married, but not to each other. One clear line should be maintained, however, said Yoder. Sexual intercourse is off limits. That is only to be experienced by those who are in a marriage relationship.
So, this is the theory, in short. John then began to experiment with “sisters” in the faith. In addition to physical experimentation he would sometimes solicit input from those who were experimenting with him, to test the theory. He saw himself on the cutting edge—this was revolutionary, prophetic. And precisely because of this he was not surprised that many—intellectually or physically—resisted his experiment. After all, he was accustomed to Christians disagreeing with him. He had known many Christians who couldn’t accept pacifism, so it did not surprise him that many did not quickly accept this new way of expressing our love and affection for one another within the body of Christ. What else would one expect but resistance in relation to something that was prophetic?
We should keep in mind that this was in the midst of the early stages of a major sexual revolution in the U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was not difficult to find intellectual—and even ethical—justification for such views, sometimes within the peace and justice community. Furthermore, there were role models. Karl Barth, one of Yoder’s teachers at The University of Basel, had a long term relationship with his female secretary. Theologian Paul Tillich—starting on his wedding day and with the consent of his wife—had extra-marital affairs throughout his marriage. Carl Rogers, very influential therapist and theorist of human relationships, had an open marriage. Just to name three prominent men from this time. Whatever one might think of these three men, Yoder was not as smooth with relationships as they apparently were. Thus his experimentations were almost inevitably set to cause more damage—and so they did. (Which is not to say the other men caused no damage.)
So, what does all this equal? Of course the readers can draw their own conclusions. I do not think it equals that John Yoder was a man of unresolved rage who either hated or had disdain for women and was often on the prowl for future victims or was attempting to prevent women from having power. I tend to think, rather, of a man who had needs for intimacy and closeness that were unmet. This was a man with great intelligence, who in the midst of newly emerging sexual revolution, came up with a theory about sex that made it possible for him to satisfy his own needs while, as he convinced himself, serving others. Is it instructive to realize that it was after his interactions with “Colleen” that he wrote a letter to someone that, one of the reasons his experiment was not wrong was because he “was not violating anyone in deed or thought”? He was simply offering “affective support,” helping women to accept their own sexuality, their own bodies. That what he and his “sisters” were doing was in fact “pure and beautiful.” So, that is how he perceived what he was doing. Some of the “sisters” who enjoyed relationships with him felt the same way.
And then it went horribly wrong—even by his own lights. It is a recipe for disaster to have a man who is typically awkward in his interpersonal relationships—and bad at picking up signals from the body language of others—to initiate intimate physical relationships that, in many cases will be unwanted. That he was brilliant simply allowed him to rationalize his “prophetic” but quite destructive behaviors. Therefore, that he was inadequate or even harmful in the way he conducted his “experiments” in intimate relationships is not surprising to me. But it is very sad.
As the statement by the AMBS faculty affirms John could be “deeply caring, generous and creative.” He could also be “dismissive of persons who confronted him about his misuse of power, and manipulative while crossing boundaries with women.” These latter characteristics became quite apparent when, beginning in the 1970s and the 1980s, others challenged what he believed to be his cutting edge approach to intimate extra-marital relationships. He apparently was especially hard on his colleagues and administrators at AMBS who tried to get him to stop his “experimental behaviors.” His dismissiveness also reflected his failure in relation to his own theological commitments.
And what about his discipline process?
I was not a Mennonite during Yoder’s discipline process from 1992-1996; I became a Mennonite about the time the process concluded. Moreover, I was living in Los Angeles during this time. So, I knew little about the inside workings of the Mennonite Church or institutions. I was becoming a friend of John’s. I also was friends with three of John’s closest friends—Stanley Hauerwas, Glen Stassen and Jim McClendon, the latter being my doctoral supervisor. Hauerwas and I were editing a book of essays to honor John. We had begun in the fall of 1989. We were finished with the volume in the spring of 1992, ready to send the essays to the publisher with whom we had a contract. However, at that time a Mennonite friend contacted me and told me that Yoder had been disinvited to speak at Bethel College, a Mennonite college in Kansas, because of accusations of sexual misconduct. After consultation, Hauerwas and I decided to cancel the Festschrift we had planned. Once we realized there seemed substance to the accusations and that there was going to be a formal discipline process, we thought it made no sense to honor him when the Church said he should be disciplined. That was not what we had learned from Yoder.
It is true that Hauerwas, Stassen and McClendon urged John to submit to the discipline process imposed by the Mennonite Church. They did this both because they saw it as consistent with John’s own views about the Church and because they thought the future credibility of his writings was in jeopardy if he did not submit. They wanted him to show integrity and they wanted his quite influential witness to the nonviolent Gospel to continue. But they knew that this process would be painful for John to endure. Thus they wanted to make sure that Yoder did not abandon the process when it became quite difficult. However, just because someone needs encouragement to do what is right does not invalidate the right behaviors. It also needs to be said that by 1992 Yoder had nothing personally to lose by not submitting to the process. After all, it appeared that his job at The University of Notre Dame was secure. No one was suggesting otherwise. Furthermore, publishers and journals were still happy to publish his writings. Most of his international speaking engagements were outside the Mennonite Church. Thus, his life could have gone on as before without submitting to the discipline process.
Also, some have made much of Yoder’s ordination credentials. They were suspended at the beginning of the process and were never reinstated. To understand this we need to realize that Yoder never wanted to be ordained. In line with his ecclesiology he had very mixed feelings about the way in which ordination was normally done. He was only ordained because a colleague at AMBS pressed him to be. Thus, when he was told his ordination credentials would be suspended he had two responses. First, he thought this was not the way to discipline a Christian. Rather, he should be disciplined simply as a member of the church. Besides, second, in his case he saw his ordination credentials as a fiction. He never had wanted to be ordained. He didn’t need to be ordained, so keep the credentials. He wanted to be dealt with as a Christian who teaches theology for the sake of the Church. Thus, that his ordination credentials were not reinstated meant nothing.
Some have doubted Yoder’s sincerity in his participation in the discipline process. This is complicated. First, unusually I think in these sorts of cases, Yoder immediately admitted to the basic truth of the accusations regarding his behaviors as named by the eight women who had come forward (and the three women whose accusations were named in The Elkhart Truth). Second, it has been said he did not apologize. He said he “deeply regretted any harm he had caused.” One can doubt the sincerity of his words, but those are words of apology. He volunteered to meet with any accusers. I think it is quite understandable that they did not want to meet with him face to face. (But it is hard to apologize in person if this is the reality.) He said that he was told by Church officials, after his initial expression of regret, that he was not to speak of these matters publicly, including expressing words of apology.
So far as I know, Yoder did everything he was asked to do during four years of discipline, which included many counseling sessions and dozens of meetings with the committee. He also, so far as I know, cut off all contact with women he had had intimate relationships with and initiated no new ones.
I am sure that one of the things that complicated matters is that, so far as I know, Yoder was never convinced he was wrong, theoretically, in his views about physical intimacy outside marriage. And because he was a man of integrity, he refused to say that he was. But let’s be clear. Nowhere in any writings I am aware of did he justify anything like abusive and harassing behaviors. In some unpublished papers and memos he justified extra-marital expressions of physical intimacy that were intended to express affection and brotherly/sisterly relationships. One could—as I certainly would—say that such relationships, even as he named them, were inherently wrong. But I would suggest that it was his own interpersonal inadequacies and perhaps his own yearnings for intimacy, joined to a belief that he was being prophetic, that led him to engage in behaviors that were harassing and abusive.
I hope we have learned from this situation with John Howard Yoder. We, I hope, have learned why the Church has across the centuries drawn clear lines about sexual immorality. I believe we can learn from history that men, in particular, are tempted by sexual immorality (which can lead to harassing, abusive and even violent behaviors when desires are unmet). We have learned, I hope, that no one should be a law unto themselves. No matter how powerful or even, in certain ways, important someone is, their moral behavior is subject to the scrutiny and possible discipline of the Christian community. And in fact especially powerful people ought to be working within structures that protect those who may be abused by their power and influence. If abuse has been reported it should be taken quite seriously. And where harm has been inflicted, care and nurture should be offered (after having stopped the abuse that caused such harm in the first place).
However, it is the case in terms of John Howard Yoder, that at the end of the four years in the summer of 1996 the Church’s accountability group decided that Yoder had made sufficient changes in attitudes, belief and behaviors that the process could conclude. And in concluding the process, stating that there would be an accountability plan put in place, they encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.”
Even though the Mennonite Church said officially in 1996 that we should continue to use Yoder’s writings, some individuals seem to imply that we should not. Others suggest that really his writings underwrite his sexual misconduct. I would certainly agree that we should read Yoder’s unpublished essays and memos on marriage, singleness and sexuality with a critical eye. A number of these mostly unknown and brief writings—some only between the lines—offer a rationale for sexually intimate extra-marital relationships in a way that is wrong and unhealthy. None of them, however, offer any support for abusive or harassing behaviors. However, as Yoder’s own life illustrates, such well-intentioned “experiments” can be very destructive.
I have read most of his voluminous body of writings. And, to my knowledge, none of Yoder’s published writings offer any foundation for his destructive behaviors or even for his beliefs about extra-marital intimate relationships. In fact, as I suggested above, quite the opposite. He should have learned from his own writings both that he was violating some women and that he was ignoring the counsel of many friends, family and colleagues that he was wrong. Yoder’s story is certainly a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that any of us can fail—even in relation to our own stated commitments. And given that possibility, we should open ourselves to counsel from others—as well as drawing responsibly from Scripture and the Christian tradition.
 See: Mark Thiessen Nation, “John H. Yoder, Ecumenical Neo-Anabaptist: A Biographical Sketch,” in The Wisdom of the Cross, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 1-23; this is reprinted, with minor changes, in John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Catholic Convictions, Evangelical Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 1-29. See also: Mark Thiessen Nation, “John Howard Yoder: Mennonite, Evangelical, Catholic,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 77/3 (July 2003): 357-370. I have also written even briefer essays for three or four dictionaries or encyclopedias.
 I am still aware that my knowledge is inadequate. It may be that I will learn new facts about Yoder’s sexual behaviors that would cause me to revise substantially what I have said in this essay.
 The one exception, so I was told, was when he had his car accident, in the fall of 1989. But, of course, this was beyond his control—he was in the hospital for quite a while.
 Geraldine Harder, [Letter to the editor], Mennonite Weekly Review (July 23, 1992).
 I have spoken with or had e-mails from two other colleagues of Yoder’s at Notre Dame who had similar experiences of him as a colleague. I should say that I am aware that reports by colleagues at AMBS would be different and, at least in some cases, much more negative. From reports I have heard, I am sure that especially during the years when his colleagues at AMBS were attempting to stop his extra-marital sexual activities, he was especially difficult.
 I only know of one other female doctoral student that Yoder had. She, Jane Elyse Russell, OSF, happily paid tribute to Yoder by contributing an essay to the volume honoring Yoder in 1999, The Wisdom of the Cross.
 By idiosyncratic behaviors, she means things like speaking into a tape recorder while walking on campus (long before the day of cell phones) and not making eye contact with people when speaking to them or passing them in the hallway.
 Stanley Hauerwas says in his memoir that the behaviors began in the 1960s. However, I have spoken to him and the source for his dates. The source says that they do not have any evidence of the behaviors beginning in the 1960s and, so far as they know, they didn’t. I am aware of no stories prior to the 1970s. The descriptions I am about to present represent the spectrum of behaviors as I have knowledge of them. I know of no behaviors that are dramatically different from the ones that will be described here.
 The names used are not the real names.
 The next five paragraph are from: Tom Price, “Theologian Accused: Women Report Instances of Inappropriate Conduct,” The Elkhart Truth (July 13, 1992): B-1, B-5. This is the second in a series of five articles.
 I was at this time unaware of Yoder’s sexual misconduct.
 Whether, in fact, there was an accountability plan put in place, is a question to pose to those who were on the committee.
 I make this last point because I, as well as many others, believe that Yoder successfully argued that he and Mennonites were right about nonviolence. But to make that argument—over his lifetime—he dealt responsibly with Scripture, church history and other alternatives. I would argue he could not have made the same responsible argument in relation to his unorthodox view of sexual intimacy. In fact, the same sources would have been lined up against him.