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? (more…)