What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct?

& Yoder.

The following is the paragraph I wrote almost two years ago for GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) in my brief biographical sketch of John Yoder: In 1991 formal complaints of sexual misconduct were brought against Yoder by eight women.  A task force was appointed by Yoder’s home congregation.  Following a year of investigating the allegations the task force concluded that “the charges brought by the women are accurate, and John has violated sexual boundaries.”  Moreover, said the official press release, Yoder “has acknowledged the truth of the charges and has expressed deep regret for the hurt his actions have caused for the women.”  Therefore on June 27, 1992 the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church began a process of formally disciplining Yoder.  Yoder submitted to this process, which would last a little over four years.  As a part of the process, Yoder acted to cut off any ongoing relationships that were deemed inappropriate and agreed not to pursue any new ones.  He also agreed to undergo therapy “to work thoroughly with the issues involved.”  In the summer of 1996 the discipline process concluded successfully, with the Church Life Commission and the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference saying that they encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.”  The semester before he died he once again taught a course at Associated [now Anabaptist] Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

I have decided, in the midst of the recent flurry of discussion of Yoder’s sexual misconduct, to say a little more than that. Though only a little more.  Mostly I want to say I affirm the statement made by the faculty at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, my alma mater, where I went more than thirty years ago, largely to study with Yoder. I think it is a carefully worded statement that is quite appropriate.

I recently re-read the articles from The Elkhart Truth on Yoder’s sexual misconduct and the beginnings of the discipline process. I was quite appropriately repulsed by some of Yoder’s behaviors that were described. Re-reading these articles simply strengthened my ongoing resolve: never in any way to paper over the abusive and harassing behaviors Yoder engaged in. That is a commitment I always want to live by. Moreover, anyone who knows me well knows I am fairly clear about sexual immorality in general. Given that, I do not in any way excuse Yoder’s various acts of sexual immorality (whether abusive or not).  I don’t want anyone who reads on to imagine otherwise.

However, I am also aware that I (and others I know) do not know enough to provide a full picture of Yoder and his relationships with women. Since I know more than the average person, I can’t help but begin to add nuance fairly quickly. And yet nuancing can feel like offering excuses. For instance, I mostly resonate with the reflections offered by my friend, Sara Wenger Shenk, president of AMBS in her blog post, “Revisiting the Legacy of John Howard Yoder.” I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline. All of this needs not only to be said, but to be brought to life with stories, real-life stories of women who were (and continue to be) hurt.

However, I am concerned that we can get the impression that the words abusive and harassing capture the sum total of Yoder’s relationships with women. Or, even worse, that these words are expressive of behaviors that reflect his attitude toward women in general. But is that true? Or are we rather dealing with various behaviors, without really knowing the roots of them? I spent an afternoon interviewing a woman who wanted to speak with me about her relationship with Yoder. She cherished her relationship with him, clearly seeing it as consensual and seeing him as respectful toward her. Her only complaint was that, in the midst of what she saw as a significant relationship, he would not have sexual intercourse with her. (She knew he was married; she was single.) I have also had lengthy discussions with several of Yoder’s former female doctoral students at The University of Notre Dame. All of them experienced him as supportive of them and their work and ministries; none of them experienced him as attempting to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors with them. Which is not to say that they were unaware of Yoder’s interpersonal awkwardness, even weirdness, as one of the women put it. But mostly they experienced the sort of affirmation and support of women in ministry—of women in varied positions of professional expertise—that he had been articulating since the early 1970s. What other stories are out there that would contribute to a more complete understanding of Yoder’s views of women and his relationships with them?

Furthermore, is it relevant that his own revisions of sexual ethics—mostly lying between the lines in his unpublished writings on marriage and singleness—were being considered in the midst of the early stages of the sexual revolution in the U.S.? That is to say, it was not difficult for him to find intellectual/ethical support for the broad outlines of his views about physically intimate relationships outside of marriage.  And then, who among those who knew John would have been surprised that his approach to extra-marital, intimate “relationships” would have been awkward or even weird and that he would have been quite unaware of how he was being perceived?  (He was hardly alone. I was quite surprised to learn, e.g., that Carl Rogers—Mr. “Unconditional Positive Regard”—in the process of pursuing various sexual relationships, in the midst of an “open” relationship with his wife, in the end seemed to traumatize a number of women.)

These brief comments signal, I hope, the sort of added nuance and texture that would be necessary to provide a full description of John Yoder (including his relationships to women). To my mind such nuances are essential truly to understand John Yoder the man. Also, to my mind, they do not alter the fact that some of his behaviors were harassing and some abusive; he should have been disciplined sooner; he did finally submit to a four-year discipline process; he did what he was asked to do within the discipline process; there was closure of the process in 1996 in which the Church officials encouraged “Yoder and the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.”

I am also aware that Yoder’s substantial intellectual gifts displayed in his writings continue to change lives—even though these gifts came in “an earthen vessel,” a “clay jar.” (2 Cor. 4.7ff.) And, as Tom Yoder Neufeld said at Yoder’s memorial service: “At the best of times [clay jars] have rough and chipped edges. And at the worst of times they fall and break; and the sharp edges of the shards can cut and wound, and wound deeply.”

I, for one, continue to mourn for those whom John Yoder wounded deeply. I pray for healing for them. I regret that more was not done when Yoder was alive—and done more quickly—both to stop Yoder’s wrong behaviors and to offer healing to those wounded by him.  And I am grateful that many seem to have learned from mistakes of the past. We know that harassing and abusive behaviors cannot be allowed.

The opinions expressed by the the author of this blog and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Eastern Mennonite University or any employee thereof. Eastern Mennonite University is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied within this blog.

40 Responses to “What to say about John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct?”

  1. Keith B. Johnston

    That Yoder was abusive with his power and his relations with some women is a fact. It is also a fact that AMBS was irresponsible in its handling of Yoder. Personal history or characteristics do not excuse this immoral (and possibly illegal) behavior.

  2. Nathan Myers

    Well-spoken Mark, and full of needed historical and social context. I think you did the work of adding nuance in a way that did not detract from proclaiming that his actions did cause great pain.

    I am particularly intrigued by the range of responses to Yoder by females in closer relationship with him; many Mennonite folks in their rush to highlight his abuse would relativize the voice of these women in order to demonize him; their stories detract from a “clean” story of dark abuse. In addition, how this relates to the wider sexual revolution is so key…and a fact I hadn’t considered thus far.

    We do need to appropriate the gifts of discipleship to Jesus as we consider the legacy of Yoder. Justice, truth-telling, repentance, forgiveness, and grace should all be at play here. Without this spectrum of responses, we are being idolatrous in our approach. We do not treat others the way the world does.

    I hope and pray for more responses and reflections like yours, Mark, to help shape the conversation. I respect your voice in this matter as I do in many others.

  3. Michael Snow

    Excellent and needed article. As you said, it was sinful behavior, but much, of what I have read before, leaves people’s imaginations to run wild as if he were a rapist. There has been no clarity about the actual charges.

  4. Barbra Graber

    M. Snow, I can clarify for you that what a woman described to me in the early 90’s and the story which Tom Price describes in the Elkhart Truth are both descriptions of attempted rape, the behavior of a criminal sex offender. Your imagination no longer needs to “run wild.” There is total clarity about the actual charges. They have been confirmed and reconfirmed from multiple and growing sources. Three victims from three states over a decade of time who did not know one another told me her story directly. His behavior was not only sinful, it was criminal in nature.

  5. Barbra Graber

    I read your post here several weeks ago, Mark, and have been pondering how best to respond to you. As a former colleague of yours at EMU I know you as a kind, thoughtful, intelligent man. Knowing you as one of Yoder’s biographers, and given my strange vicarious experiences with JHY, I’ve often wondered if I should ask you to coffee sometime. I would have asked you how many of Yoder’s victims you sought out to interview for your book about his life. But regrettably I never followed through. Now since the discussion has gone public I will engage you in this domain: I appreciate that you speak here of your “ongoing resolve: never in any way to paper over the abusive and harassing behaviors Yoder engaged in.” And yet as soon as you make your resolve you begin to speak of your need to add “nuance and texture” and do exactly what you’ve just resolved not to do: paper over, smooth over, and lessen the impact of the contradiction. Imagine with me if you would that, God forbid, it was your wife Yoder chose to assault while you were away one evening (as he was your friend he was able to find out when she would be home alone) When you arrive home that evening to find her traumatized, blurting out an unbelievable story of violation and assault at the hands of your good friend, would you comfort her briefly (while she was shaking uncontrollably) and then say “But my dear, let’s be balanced here. There are so many women who admire and respect John. There are so many women who would disagree with your assumption that he is a violent man. In fact they appreciated his affection. Yes, he did a terrible thing to you tonight, but he also does extremely important work for the good of the world. Do you really think your wounds are more important than his work? Why don’t you just forgive him? He’s an earthen vessel after all. And so are we all.” I don’t believe you could or would ever do that to your wife, Mark. But your essay is doing just that to every one of the women John assaulted. As many of them were aspiring theologians, they may well be reading your blog.

  6. Sharon Wyse Miller

    I did not know John Howard Yoder, nor am I personally acquainted with women who claim to have been victimized by him. I do believe these women, and I agree with those who ask that their struggle and pain toward survival be acknowledged with apologies and restorative options.

    I do appreciate your perspective and careful analysis, but I think it’s important to remember that sexual abuse is not just physical. The woman who speaks of a consensual, professional relationship with Yoder also complains that he “would not have sexual intercourse” with her. As a pastor of persons who have abused and been abused, I must point out that sexual abuse is not just physical. For this woman to have been groomed to the point of sexual intimacy was sexual abuse and decidedly wrong.

    As a woman pastor in the Mennonite church, I am thankful for the male professors and mentors who have guided and encouraged me appropriately. It is possible and I am thankful.

  7. Scott Holland

    Barbara Graber has identified in her response above what some of us have found too telling in her current manifesto against JHY, that is, her “strange vicarious experiences with JHY.” She has confessed in previous writings that she suffered abuse at the hands of Mennonite men. However, those hands were not John Howard Yoder’s. Yet JHY becomes the perfect scapegoat for repressed Mennonite rage, aggression and thus vicarious punishment in the Graber narrative. Graber’s narrative even places an abusive Yoder, with almost fictive glee, in the homes of both Nation and Grimsrud ravishing their loved ones. Yoder’s hands were not clean, but a deep psychological reading of the writers in this New Inquisition against him reveal that this rhetorical whirlwind is about something and someone beyond him; it is indeed “vicarious.”

  8. John Otto

    I’m no John Howard Yoder fan, I think he’s overrated. For my money, Gordon Kauffman is a far more original thinker, but then I’m no theologian either, so what do I know? What I do know as a lawyer with more than 30 years experience dealing with discrimination issues, including sexual harassment, is something smells about this latest brouhaha about Yoder. I want to hear some facts, but all I read in the neo-JHY controversy is innuendo. What exactly did JHY do that is being labeled “attempted rape?” When I try to find out, I’m told it’s all in the Elkhart Truth articles. I read the articles and the only incident that could remotely be called “attempted rape” is one incident where he supposedly sat beside a woman on a sofa, leaned over on her and quivered and then sat up and denied anything sexual had occurred. That’s not attempted rape, nor even sexual harassment. The rest of the “incidents” describe awkward attempts to seduce women using JHY’s considerable intellect, all of which attempts were apparently unsuccessful. They describe the acts of a creepy man, who should have been held to account and was. They do not describe acts so heinious as to be compared to the child molestation cases of the Catholic church, nor acts for which the body of this man dead for twenty years needs to be dug up and pilloried. Let’s devote our effots to the real rapists and sexual harassers in the church who are still alive.

  9. Scott Holland

    Yes, considering the theologians of JHY’s generation, Gordon Kaufman’s work offers us a much more robust bio-historical theology, reminding us that we need not merely a theology of the disciple but also an anthropology of the human person in face of mystery. And J. Lawrence Burkholder, following Niebuhr, reminds us that even our most earnest proclamation of the politics of Jesus must be imperfectly embodied within the contingencies of this blessed broken world.

    Your assessment of the Yoder case as a lawyer, John, is important. As I have discussed the New Inquisition around JHY with other lawyers they too have noted that the re-telling of the Yoder narrative by his righteous new critics would not stand up in court and could put them them at risk for legal action if they were accountable to the rule of law rather than their own will-to-punish. Because Mennonites refuse to go to war they must nevertheless shed blood in church because they too are marked by the anatomy of human aggression.

  10. Barbra Graber

    But of course my experience is vicarious, Scott, and of course this is about something and someone beyond JHY. And of course my passion for the John Howard Yoder saga is fed by my personal experience. That’s exactly the point. If you look behind the choices we make in our life’s work and the passions we serve that give our lives meaning you will often find a connection to personal histories or the histories of our families, even our ancestors. Sexualized violence happens to be the personal history that left its indelible mark on me and my family. The specific brand of it matters not, nor does the level of perceived severity. To quibble over the details and demand proof of what exactly did or did not happen in the case of JHY reveals your limited education about the complexities of sexualized violence and its impact on the lives of those it touches.

    Once sexualized violence entered my life and I survived it, I discovered the only way to sleep at night and keep getting up in the morning was to work on behalf of others who have experienced the same or similar tragedies, but are not able to speak of them—as I was not for many years. I also recently and unexpectedly discovered a persistent calling to do all in my power to change the systems that cause what I and so many others experienced and work toward prevention for future generations. This is not grinding axes. This is not scapegoating. This is not misplaced aggression. Of course I’m enraged and it took me years to give myself permission to be enraged– so you won’t be shaming me out of it any time soon. I’m not here to convince you of the truths I know nor defend my activism on behalf of others. You may choose to believe me or not, take me seriously or cast me off. I’ll still be standing and I’ll still be speaking out. And please don’t refer to my speaking truth and breaking silence about my own abuse at the hands of Mennonite men to be a “confession.” I did nothing wrong.

  11. Barbra Graber

    John Otto, I don’t mean to condescend, but your comments reveal a pretty serious lack of education on this topic. Read Peter Rutter’s “Sex in the Forbidden Zone” and Marie Fortune’s “Is Nothing Sacred.” Perhaps you have some books you’d like me to read. Be happy to. Then we can talk.

  12. Ruth Krall

    Nuance and sophistication; With this kind of dialogue, it is no wonder victims of clerical sexual abuse stay hidden. Those who are their witnesses are threatened too.

    I recommend watching the following video clip before reading the rest of what I have to say:


    Father Doyle is the world’s leading expert on clericalism – the church’s virus when it comes to dealing with sexual abusers in positions of power.

    Ruth Krall

  13. Ruth Krall

    Re: Nuance and Sophistication

    The first time I witnessed a church come unglued because of a sexually abusive minister – the church was decimated in less than six months because of the responses inside the church – which the sacramental bishop adjudicated as factual.

    I did not have language then for what I observed. Now I do.

    When these complaints emerge

    1. There is an attempt by the church and the church’s executives to conceal what they knew and to avoid scandal. There is also no effort to prevent future episodes of recidivist repetition with other victims. From Ross Bender’s correspondence we now know that Yoder threatened Marlin Miller and AMBS (Walter Sawatsky correspondence to Bender). We know also that MBM had disciplined Yoder in 1983 and we know AMBS disciplined him in December, 1983. Absolutely none of this was a matter of public information until 1992. And, the MBM news is current in Ross’s conversations as of 2004 (http://rossbender.org/AMBS-JHY.pdf)

    2. There is an attempt to minimize the behaviors. Here we find language such as sexual misconduct or crossing sexual boundaries or inappropriate behaviors. When victims or their advocates begin to use more correct language, this is disdained as unnecessary and inflammatory.

    3. Next, the behaviors are acknowledged but located in the historical past. Therefore, they have been dealt with and should be placed on the historical shelf.

    4. When others begin to speak up, in solidarity with the victims, they are attacked in the same way that victims are attacked. They become pariahs to be intimidated by the same kinds of legal threats that victims were subjected to.

    So the structural pattern is to deny, conceal, minimize, threaten and attack.

    I am not a lawyer, John Otto, I am a clinician-theologian. In Elephants # 3 I tried to stay with the factual narrative as it is known and acknowledged that much is unknown. It is, in my judgment, a mistaken legal strategy to say that victims MUST declare themselves. When the Mennonite Church opens all of its Yoder archives and official minutes of action so that what these institutions knew becomes public knowledge, then we can begin to discuss what JHY did and whether or not he knew what he was doing was wrong. It is not the victims who have an obligation to us to tell the whole truth. It is the institutional Church – from AMBS, Ohio Conference, Indiana-Michigan Conference, MBM, the Mennonite Church Archives, Mennonite Church USA, etc.

    I personally resent being called the new inquisition. If anything makes me doubt the sincere efforts to understand truthful and factual biography and history, it is such name calling. If anyone actually read Elephants # 3 they must surely know I am trying to find/create a third path through this toxic morass – one that takes seriously Yoder’s victimized adult women at AMBS, at Bethany Seminary in Chicago, at UND and st. Mary’s, on his lecture tours around the world, etc. There are thousands of women out there, probably billions that Yoder did not victimize. That is a given. It is also a given that Yoder is dead. He cannot victimize any additional women. It is a given that many of the institutional players from 1965 (Hauerwas dates) to 1997 are dead. They cannot be consulted. But they left behind oral histories (Bender, 2004) institutional minutes and actions; archival files; etc. There can be no honest biography of Yoder until the church disgorges what it knows (and knew) and stops blaming victims and their advocates for announcing to the world that there was AND is a continuing problem with Yoder legacy scholarship.

    Grimsrud identifies this quite clearly: Do we identify with John’s words or do we identify with John’s life? How we answer that question in this present moment will determine the future health of the church and its witness against all forms of violence.

    And, yes, Scott, I do believe some of John’s behaviors were socially awkward and socially inappropriate. I also believe some were violent. These are opinions. They are not gospel. One of his good friends told me to never forget that John knew at all times what he was doing. I did nott know him that well. But I did know him as a colleague in several work committee settings. I first met him in 1961 or 1962. And I knew him by face and by name as he did me until the last time I saw him – which was in Berkeley during the 1995-1996 academic year.

    Systems theory teaches us, however, that behavior which is denied the light of day and suppressed tends to recur in future generations.

    This morning on Ted’s blog, there is a conversation we probably all should read.


    Ruth Krall

  14. Gene Miller

    Are John Otto and I reading the same newspaper accounts? According to the Elkhart Truth article of 13 July 92, a woman identified as “Colleen” reported “… He kept coming closer and closer to me and eventually pushed me over and lay down on top of me…”

    John, how do you get from the victim’s report that he “pushed me over and lay down on top of me” to saying that he “supposedly…leaned over on her and then sat up.”

    I know that in my world, for a man to push a woman down and lie on top of her without her consent is not a terribly ambiguous act–not nearly so ambiguous as “leaning over”.

    From my vantage point, part of the unfinished Yoder business is the continued attempt to wave off what he did as being of little or no consequence. Indeed, the use of the word “misconduct” rather than “violence” or even “assault” may have been part of the attempt to minimize and contain the perceived damage. It seems that he’s being “exhumed” because our institutions shied away from straight talk about what he did.

    I’m with you on Kaufman over Yoder.

  15. Stephanie Krehbiel

    I need to point out that no piece of terminology in the blog conversations I’ve seen is more inflammatory, more needlessly aggressive, and less conducive to reasoned discussion than Scott Holland’s insistence on the phrase “New Inquisition” as a descriptor for the newest wave of interest in John Howard Yoder’s abuses. This is not a fair or just assessment of what is happening, and is transparently designed to paint the women in the conversation–which on a denominational level includes women who were abused by Yoder–as unhinged, unreasonable, and gloating. This is the kind of acutely gendered language that has kept victims of sexualized violence from talking about what has happened to them. The language that Scott uses to address Barbra is textbook victim vilification. This language contributes to a culture in which sexualized violence is overwhelmingly underreported and normalized.

    The impact of that culture is very apparent in this conversation. Rather than asking questions like, “Why are so many women so angry about this?” or “What can I do to be a better ally to victims of sexualized violence?” or “Should I post an inflammatory comment about what is happening before I’ve thoroughly read the available evidence and analysis and tried to contextualize it historically?”, or “Should I think about the impact that my comment might have on victims of sexual violence who are reading it?”, or “How might my comments unintentionally enable sexual violence perpetrators?”, or “Do I actually know anything of substance about sexualized violence, or about the way people survive it?”, Scott’s reaction is to lash out in defensive rage and thus reproduce the harm that has already been done. I realize that this analysis will make some people angrier than they already are, but that’s nothing compared to the anger of knowing people you care about have been assaulted and then watching the violence that has been done to them being systematically trivialized.

    In this society, and certainly in this conversation, the burden of proof is always and forever on the people who have been abused. And people who are abused are often targeted precisely because they are in a social position to be easily discredited or shamed. It should not be surprising that Yoder was never charged with a crime. The majority of perpetrators of sexualized violence never are, and certainly in the era in which he conducted the majority of his bad behavior, women could reasonably expect that reporting an instance of sexualized violence would lead to further trauma for themselves.

    And it is also demonstrably untrue that those who are participating in this conversation are interested only in gratuitously smearing John Howard Yoder or are motivated solely by a “will-to-punish.” This is not about taking any of the Yoder cases back to court, for heaven’s sake. The U.S. legal system is hardly a beacon of justice for sexualized violence survivors. Just because the available evidence would not make a viable court case does not mean that academic and religious institutions can ignore the survivors who have said, repeatedly, that the disciplinary process in the 90s was inadequate restitution for what they endured. And if you read Barbra’s articles, and the writings of Rachel Halder, Ruth Krall, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, and the recent statements by AMBS president Sarah Wenger Shenk, just to name the most prominent examples in the current conversation, you will see the evidence that these people are motivated primarily by the desire to create cultural change within their own communities so that sexualized violence STOPS HAPPENING. This is the project. This is the primary motivation that I see. For instance, Rachel Halder wrote recently on the Our Stories Untold blog that, “what this current conversation is actually doing is opening up a space for Mennonite Church USA to be held accountable for their neglect and compliance when it comes to all abuse cases. It is a chance to find ways to healthily deal with abuse situations in the future. It is the opportunity for the church to place value on stories of abuse, and to look our survivors directly in the face and say, ‘We believe you.’” I hope very much that, regardless of what theologians have to say about it, there will be enough Mennonites willing to do this hard work that some meaningful change actually happens.

  16. Andy AB

    Scott, your suggestion that Barbra is “scapegoating” Yoder for her own struggles to overcome the trauma of abuse in her own life is unworthy of a professor, a Christian, or a pacifist. You may not think Yoder’s behavior was a problem, but when some of us read that he pushed a woman over and laid on top of her despite her struggles against him, then made fun of her for being afraid of him, we see something very different. There is a difference between a free-love ethic from the 60s and that kind of behavior.

  17. Andy AB

    And second, I have edited more books by JohnHoward Yoder than any other scholar. I’ve published more of his unpublished and previously unavailable, even unknown material to Mark, than anybody. I’m not saying people should not read him, but this behavior is in stark contrast to his own work sometimes. So your dismissal of Barbra for having her own personal struggles, while problematic in itself, misses how those like me, who have done more to promote Yoder than you or most people, find this behavior reprehensible and shocking. And I think it calls for a look at his work in another light as well, not to dismiss him, but to see the problems better.

    for example, What Would You Do? Yoder makes a very good case against the trump card question of somebody coming into a home to do harm, and needing to do violence to protect people. Yet that cold calculated argument misses the way in which we are attached to those closest to us in ways that make them more important than other people. Yoder is concerned we don’t see our loved ones as possessions, rightly. But he misses the way we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually attached to our ones and it is precisely for those reasons we struggle with defending them with violence, not simply because we see them as “possessions.” He had real trouble connecting with people I think and it shows in these kind of arguments. More sympathy for the struggle would have bee nice.

    His behavior toward women was perhaps an attempt to connect to people, but it was also a dogmatic view of sin…as long as he didn’t penetrate the woman he thought anything goes…too black and white.

    Anyhow…if yo uwant to say I’m scapegoating him too, go ahead. But very few people can boast to have worked as hard as me to get his work out to people. Yet I still think this behavior is a problem and warrants examination.

  18. Scott Holland

    Thanks Ruth, Andy, Stephanie and others for your thoughtful comments and sincere correctives to my admittedly provocative use of the signifier “Inquisition.” On this one, I do yield to your counsel and correction. My concern, however, remains that in the current rhetorical re-telling of the Yoder story long after his death, he is becoming the scapegoat (not an innocent scapegoat!) for an enormous amount of Mennonite rage far beyond the anger for the sins of any one man. This too can be a kind of violence. Andy, I too think this behavior is a problem and I do think it warrants an explanation. I entered the conversation, like others, to nuance the developing master narrative.

    Unlike some even on this blog, I am not a Yoderian. I have clearly stated in Ted’s blog that JHY offers us a theology for the disciple but not an anthropology for the human person and this does lead to the possibility of a dishonest, disembodied theology and ethics. I suppose in suggesting this I am really inviting a broader deconstruction of Anabaptist theology and thus an interrogation of the dualisms which give rise to the many destructive behaviors underwritten by earnest God-talk. This problem is greater than the transgressions of John Howard Yoder.

  19. Jeff Altaras

    Dear Mr. Holland,

    I have read your remarks very carefully and it seems your remarks shape this as a male vs. female matter. I can assure you, it is not. There are many of us men who want the entire truth out on the table. There are plenty of us men, who don’t like the facts that are already on the table. From what exists today, I can assure you that had this behavior gone on in any American corporation, JHY would have been fired immediately.

    It appears to me, from your own words, you are writing on a subject (abuse of power/sexual abuse) that you really know little about. Your ignorance on the subject of abuse shines through. There are a plethora of books and documents, written by very bright people, who all agree that those in positions of power, who engage in sex with clients, parishioners, patients or students, are abusing their power, and taking advantage for their own benefit. ALWAYS! No Exceptions. In other words, there is no such thing as a consensual relationship when there is a power differential.

    The situation is no different for Mr. Yoder. It doesn’t matter if he had good ideas or people liked him, or he generated a lot of revenue for the Mennonite Church. In the shadows behind the scenes and out of plain view, he worked to abuse his position and power. Clearly, there was a power differential with every woman he had sex with or attempted to have sex with.

    Mr. Holland, it amazes me you work so hard to defend this man, rather than focusing your energy on ferreting out all of the facts. Surely, the way to end the “inquisition” is to prove everyone wrong. Right? If you believe so strongly that JHY is innocent of any wrong doing, that he was in the right, why aren’t you aggressively seeking to get Mr. Yoder’s whole story released and on the table? Doesn’t that seem logical?

    All I (and others) have seen from you is aggressive name-calling and inappropriate comments.

    As I mentioned in another blog (in which I wrote to you), I believe in the importance of justice. Justice is not about revenge; justice is simply about bringing out the truth. Those that participate in hiding the truth and/or justifying abhorrent behavior when facts are still being hidden, are clearly not in a position to teach, guide, preach, or lead. Your job is to seek the truth, teach the truth, and make the world a better place. In my mind, the biggest failure here is not only what John Howard Yoder did…but also how the matter was handled. In other words, it’s not the first ethics failure that will bring you down; it’s the second one, the cover up, the lies, the hiding, and the untruths. That can bring down a nation’s president. Today’s institutional church is at great risk.

    I agree with Andy AB above, your conduct is “unworthy of a professor, a Christian, or a pacifist”.

    Thanks for the opportunity to write.

  20. Stephanie Krehbiel

    Thank you, Scott, for acknowledging the sincerity of our criticism and taking the critique of your terminology on board. I appreciate this. I have a few responses to your other remarks:

    I appreciate your concern about one man, however flawed he was, becoming the disproportionate target of anger about a massive social problem. Anger that is poorly managed and unexamined does tend to turn towards violence. With all due respect, as I and others have pointed out, I think that the survivors and the sexualized violence experts who have been writing and speaking out in the recent JHY conversations are quite aware of this potential pitfall and have been fairly rigorous about putting his violence into a larger social context. You really are not a lone voice in the wilderness crying that this is bigger than John Howard Yoder. The historically proven way to help survivors and the affected Mennonite community as a whole to move past Yoder as an individual offender and on to the larger questions about sexualized violence prevention is to deal with the things that remain unresolved. To repeat what Ruth Krall wrote earlier: “that behavior which is denied the light of day and suppressed tends to recur in future generations.” Obviously a good deal of evidence related to JHY’s behavior was suppressed and remains out there to be dealt with. Give the people who care about the truth some time to get it right before you attack them indiscriminately for disproportionate attention to JHY. If he’s important enough for pacifist theologians to base their careers on his thought, then his crimes are important enough to warrant some sustained attention and analysis.

    I can only speak for myself, but personally I don’t give a flying frack whether or not you identify yourself as a Yoderian. The material point is that with just a few blog comments you’ve contributed to an environment in these forums that is frankly hostile to sexualized violence survivors and arguably to women in general. How you treat other people is what matters. And, as one educator to another, consider every time you walk into a classroom that among your students there are probably both survivors and perpetrators of sexualized violence. I know far too many survivors who have been re-traumatized in classrooms by thoughtless professors. I hope you never talk to any student in the manner that you addressed Barbra here. It was appalling.

    I’m glad you’re interested in combatting the “inviting a broader deconstruction of Anabaptist theology and thus an interrogation of the dualisms which give rise to the many destructive behaviors underwritten by earnest God-talk.” It’s an admirable project that requires genuine curiosity about a diversity of human experiences, including those of victimization and abuse survival. I’m skeptical that such an interrogation and deconstruction will happen in any field as thoroughly and unthinkingly masculinist as professional Anabaptist theology.

  21. Andy AB

    Scott: I have to say I am sympathetic to your concern that yoder not become the symbol for all that people see wrong with the Mennonite Church. The Mennonite and the Mennonite World Review have ran a few pieces that I have trouble seeing as much more than jsut what you say. One piece, by Joanna Shenk says that only young white guys are interested in Yoder anyhow…pretty dismissive…pretty bad use of identity politics, and it was certainly a will to publish spirit behind it. So I too have your concerns. If people cannot speak about Yoder any longer without people jumping down our throats about him, and if we cannot be honest about the fuller extent of his life and work, then these calls for transparency and more examination are for the worse. They do not have to be. There can be honest engagement with his work in light of these problems that does not make him the symbol for all that a person finds wrong in the world. Unfortunately, I do think you are perhaps right to be concerned that that is the direction some of this has headed and can head if the spirit of moralism that Mennonites can be oh so good at does not come in check. So I’d like to at least affirm your concern, though your use of it with Barbra seemed to me to be quite inappropriate.

  22. Andy AB

    I am not a Yoderian either. I just want to put that on the record. I’ve gotten his work out, but he’s not my master. The person who has published the second most book by Yoder, Paul Martens, has written a good critique of Yoder in Heterodox Yoder. So the two people who have edited the most of Yoder’s work would notclaim to be Yoderians. We’ve both learned a lot from him and hope others do too, but learning a lot does not make one a systematic follower of somebody.

  23. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Stephanie and Andy, for your further remarks. As you know, Andy, I have been critical of Yoder’s theology in a paper trail before it was acceptable to offer such critiques in the Anabaptist guild. And Stephanie, I think you are right that the kind of deconstruction and interrogation of dualisms I’m suggesting will not happen any time soon in the masculinist professional Anabaptist guild. Because Anabaptist theology is tempted to split nature and grace, kingdom and creation, eros and agape as well as Christ and culture, the same theology which has marginalized and disempowered women’s visions and voices in the church will also continue to exile our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. In urging critics of Yoder not to make him the sign, symbol and scapegoat of all that is wrong in the church I am not intending to give him a pass. Instead, I’m inviting a deeper deconstruction of the root metaphors which form and inform the church itself. However, it is now clear to me that the current JHY conversation is not the best forum out of which to construct such a theology of radical hospitality for all. Clearly, more work on the Yoder case itself is needed in the cultural-linguistic community of the Mennonite Church USA. Stephanie, your insight on this point is convincing. Ruth, Mark, Barbara, Ted and others are doing this critical and constructive work. Hopefully this difficult work can be foundational for emerging and evolving embodied theologies of just peace.

  24. Stephanie Krehbiel

    Thanks for this, Scott. And I very much agree that the endless dualisms are a huge problem for Mennonites and still function as a rhetorical weapon to maintain heteromasculine dominance. I’m writing my dissertation right now on LGBTQ Mennonites confronting these issues, and the connections to the JHY case and Mennonite sexualized violence in general are legion. May we all do good work in our own respective corners of the Mennonite world to make these situations better.

  25. Scott Holland

    One further important note. The work of just peace is complicated and as Ruth correctly noted, our language must be nuanced and sophisticated. Signifiers like inquisition and scapegoating, although appropriate in one context can become inflammatory, offensive and inaccurate when inelegantly moved into another narrative context. My best intention was to shift the focus away from Yoder alone to sources of human destructiveness in other interrelated narratives. In doing so I carelessly blogged a response to you, Barbara, which merited a face-to-face conversation in the quest for deeper understanding since we don’t know one another’s life experiences. For this quick and careless response on this too convenient social media, I sincerely apologize.

    Although we are not Yoderians, JHY’s useful phrase, “the hermeneutics of peoplehood,” is being manifested importantly, if imperfectly, in this Anabaptist Nation blog. The appropriate and instructive push back from Ruth, Barbara, Andy, Stephanie and others is appreciated and well received. In the conflict of competing narratives and vocabularies I have been hearing some things in particular stories I have missed and not understood in my own philosophical resistance to master narratives and final vocabularies. For this I am grateful.

  26. Scott Holland

    Best wishes on your dissertation, Stephanie. This is very important work. In your deconstruction of heteromasculine dominance, do you know the work of the ‘exiled Mennonite’ theologian Grace M. Jantzen? All of her work relates in complex ways to this project and her posthumous book, A Place of Springs, is especially brilliant and beautiful.

  27. Stephanie Krehbiel

    Thank you, Scott, for these statements and for the encouragement of my work. I hadn’t heard of Grace Jantzen. I will definitely check her out.

  28. Andy AB

    Scott, that takes a lot to admit mistakes. If only Yoder had done that sooner.

  29. Ruth Krall

    Actually, the more important issue, Andy, is that the church should have done it’s work sooner AND better. I am aware that Yoder is dead. The only residual wounding he can do is in our psyches and in our communal structures. For that to occur we must individually and collectively consent and collude with silence and with denial.

    Fifteen years of institutional and ideological denial – can build a lot of rage. I have known for years that this rage was there. It is male theologians who seem to have been ignorant or deliberately trivializing of its presence. Rage denied, however, does not go away. Somehow or other it must be acknowledged, honored, moderated and managed.

    This whole discussion infuriates me. Anyone who has read elephants # 1 and elephants # 3 knows I am not scapegoating Yoder. I am not even scapegoating the Mennonite Church. I am not saying Yoder studies should be deep-sixed but I am arguing for them to be honest rather than ideological. Both of his legacies must be held together. They cannot be separated. I am saying it is time to have serious discussions without name-calling about Yoder’s theology – where does it carry the virus of clericalism? Where does it carry the virus of sexual harassment? Where does it carry the virus of sexual abuse? Where does it carry the virus of ideological mean-spiritedness?

    I personally believe the gospel is about realistic and meaningful ministries to the most vulnerable ones in our various socio-cultural lodging places. I see the gospel manifested in deeds rather than in ideas. I cast my lot, therefore, with orthopraxis and not with orthodoxy. But I am aware that what I think is an aspect of what I do.

    In Elephants – 3, I look at Guernica – one of the most important anti-war art works in existence. I do not argue we should stop looking at it. Rather, I make a long excursion into Picasso’s life of violence against women and conclude that I need to know about Picasso’s entire life to understand Guernica – and other major works Picasso produced. I commend Richardson’s three volume biography to anyone who wants to think alongside of me here.

    Yoder’s brilliance and PIcasso’s brilliance are more or less equivalent. Their sexual behavior was not equivalent but it was nuanced by the same cultural forces and by probably similar psychological motivations.

    Stephanie is absolutely correct. Victims are in our classes. They are both men and women. If there are 100 people in church on Sunday morning, almost 20 to 25 of them will have some kind of abuse history. The research we have to date indicates that 10-12% of all professionals are abusers – and some researchers suggest that sociopaths are drawn into positions of ministry because of the ease of access it provides to vulnerable people. They believe, therefore, that the percentages of professional abusers are higher in ministry. (Anson Shupe, Peter Rutter, Karen Labacqz and Robert Burton). Billy Graham’s grandson yesterday addressed the issue of clerical sexual abuse among evangelicals. He was almost as helpfully uncompromising as Mr. Alturas has been.

    Sexual abuse and domestic abuse and child abuse are present in every congregation every Sunday morning. It walks in with the perpetrators and it walks in with the victims.

    Thanks Scott for removing inquisition language from your discussions of my work. I am not seeking to crucify anyone or burn anyone at the ideological stake. I am seeking the healing transparency of truth. Years ago Howard Clinebell and I talked about the relationship of justice to healing. For justice to occur, there must be accountability. For healing to occur, there must be justice.

    I re-listened to Father Doyle’s SNAP sermon last night. I needed to comfort myself. I am just blown into tears with his gloss on a text we all know well – whoever does evil to one of my little ones – little ones of any age – it is better that he be drowned. The little ones – of any age – includes all of us who feel wounded by our denominational policies and politics. The little ones – of any age – who are vulnerable in any way – these are the ones we are called to shelter and to take care of.

    I don’t know about the COBS but I do know Mennonites. We have a lot of trouble with truth-telling – we don’t much care for it. We have a lot of trouble with shunning and demonizing those we disagree with. We have a lot of trouble thinking about injustice INSIDE the community of faith. I want no part of this kind of social behavior. It is totally disreputable. Until we fix the clericalism of our denomination, our peace witness is simply the speaking of words. It is not caring for the little ones, of any age, as Jesus recommended we do.

    Whether we want to believe it nor not, sexual harassment is a form of violence. It is devastating to its victims. It is actually devastating to organizations. One of the psychological components of sexual violence is rage – This rage passes the empathic barrier – from harasser to victim to others. So, we need a good theology of rage.

    Ruth Krall

  30. Stephanie Krehbiel

    Ruth Krall, thank you so much for the way you talk about rage, both here and in your books. I have struggled with Mennonite dismissals of anger for much longer than I have had access to the language to express that struggle, and it’s a huge part of why I’m not part of the church anymore. I wouldn’t be able to endure being part of conversations like this one were it not for the example of women like you and Barbra. Thanks again for everything that you do.

  31. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Ruth, for this clarity. I agree and I’m also quite supportive of this important work of constructing a good theology of rage. This is part of what I’m suggesting in the quest for an anthropology of the human rather than remaining with dualistic theologies of the disciple. Unfortunately I have not yet read your book. I will. I had not been in touch with the current work on the Yoder case when I stepped into these blog conversations and tripped over my own language. As a pastor and theologian I had confidential conversations with JHY in the early 1990s explicitly about his case, the church, and his unconventional theology of sexuality. Then, as now, I was concerned that no one’s life could be reduced to a single narrative, an all or nothing story of their identity. No one in this current conversation, as far as I know, wants to defend Yoder’s terrible and tragic behavior. Most, I hope, are seeking to be truthful to all the human narratives intersecting here. You state this complex quest well, Ruth, when you note the example of Picasso. This is about deep psychological understanding but as you suggest it is also about understanding social structures and systems that produce violence and prevent truth seeking and truth telling. I’m supportive of your work and agree that the test of any theology is its orthopraxis, its practice on behalf of “the little ones of any age.”

  32. Ruth Krall


    I was certain you had not read the books. I felt very judged – which is not uncommon for women in the academy. I appreciate the confession and its honesty. I suspect most Mennonite academics haven’t read it either. My reasoning is that there is a chapter in both volumes that has not been critiqued. So people think the Yoder case study is the core of the book. But, it isn’t. I am a pastoral theologian. I am always concerned with the public health model of healing, containment or quarantine, and prevention.

    Elephants 1 and Elephants 3 originally began as one book. But it got more and more unwieldy.. So, in 2011, I split the content into two books.

    I suggest reading them in order – because # 1 was the literature review for the case study in # 3 – a book conceptually which originally had chapters about Freud, Jung, Barth, and Tillich as well as Yoder. I ditched all but the Yoder case study.

    One of my peer readers – in 2009, I think, suggested I look outside the Mennonite community – and since I was aware of Kramer and Alstad’s important work on Eastern religions and Marie Fortune’s work inside the Protestant side of the house, I decided to look at the Roman Catholic situation – a most fortuitous decision. In the process I’ve read everything of Tom Doyle’s I can find (except the technicalities of canon law) and everything of Richard Sipe’s I can find and lots of others as well. The similarities are uncanny. I particularly paid attention to the clinicians such as Frawley-O’Dea, Shugold, and Kennedy because of their discussion of soul murder and soul death – a concept I disagree with.

    I may be the only Mennonite expert on the Roman Catholic situation for I have the equivalent of an MA in Doyle/Sipe/Anderson/Robinson/etc studies. Giggling here. Doyle now says about me – to others- that I understand his church’s issues. That is a rare and wonderful compliment since he is, without exception, the most aware individual on this topic I have ever met. He is one of the few men I have ever met who get it.

    I know you worked with David Tracy and I have appreciated his -Theological Imagination – I am much more eclectic. These days I most appreciate Huston Smith – who if he is still alive is in his 90’s. Just finished reading his biography – written in his late 80’s and it is wonderful – an encompassing spirituality that fosters growth rather than denying it and isolating it to the thought word. I personally distrust head trips – of any kind. Yoder was in his head; he was not in his heart. There was some sort of problem with a lack of empathy. As a skilled clinician – and actually diagnostician in my younger days, I distrust armchair psychiatry.

    The discussion about Asperger’s, therefore, to me is more of the same kind of attempt to excuse him for his actions. Only the guys – or gals – who actually treated him have any sense of his psychological problems. What the rest of us know is his behavior. That is where we must begin in this dialogue with his writings. His behavior and his writings are the only windows we have into his soul.

    Elephants # 4 is being peer reviewed by a couple of good critical friends – a Roman Catholic, non-pacifist: a Quaker pacifist, and a Mennonite. All have impeccable academic credentials. It may or may not see the light of the internet day. I am in no hurry.

    Empathic transmission of rage, Judith Herman and her associates hypothesize is a process of transmission from the victimizer to the victim to the helpers. She talks about the third party in the consulting office – who is always the perpetrator no matter how dead.

    Tracy West’s good article in the Annals of the Society for Christian Ethics talks about the fear that sexual harassment causes. Conversations such as the one above re-activate that fear. I have no doubt at all that this kind of conversation re-victimizes sexually harassed women – and sexually abused women.


  33. Ruth Krall


    You are part of a very large diaspora of Mennonite women – who did one of three things: (1) they defected in place – and remain silent; (2) They left and silently walked out the back door and no one noticed their absence or missed them; (3) they moved to the margins – which is where I currently live. I became a Mennonite and stayed a Mennonite because of its peace stance. These days I should be a Quaker or a Buddhist. But I’ve decided to stay on the margins to see if I can help Mennonite women in any way.

    I see myself as one of Jesus’ little ones – of any age – who seek to be helpful in spite of my own wounds – for all of us are wounded by this story/master narrative/cultural patriarchy of sexual violation. The men just haven’t figured this out yet – it is, as Sylvia from Germany keeps reminding us – a manifestation of male privilege.

    So thank you.

    Stay on your path – it will lead you.


  34. Scott Holland

    I will indeed read your books, soon, Ruth, after an upcoming academic trip to Europe. They are electronic texts, yes?

    I too like the spirituality of Huston Smith. You might remember what David Tracy writes about the importance of marginality. Looking at various expressions and traditions of salvation history he asks, “Does God most often come to us on the margins or in the center of history?” His answer is the margins, thus reminding us of the imprtance of thought and action with, by and for those on the margins.

    Teaching at two seminaries in partnership, Bethany & Earlham, some of my most interesting students have been “Quaker Buddhists.” That works! As a theologian of culture working with students from the three Historic Peace Churches, I of course keep current with Anabaptist discourse as one of many cultural linguistic expressions in the style of ecumenical and interfaith comparative theology I do. I still preach often and hold a proper ordination yet my own spirituality is closer to the poetics of Walt Whitman than it is to the theologies of Menno, Mack or Fox.

    I recommended the theology of Grace Jantzen to Stephanie. I think you also would apprecite it. Her work is better known in Europe than in the States but she comes out of — very much out of! — a conservative Canadian Mennonite community. Before her death she identified as a liberal British Quaker doing a very engaging style of feminist theology.

    It’s good to connect with you again, Ruth, after all these years. I look forward to reading your books. — Scott

  35. Scott Holland

    Thank you, Ruth. Because of October work on the road from Pittsburgh to Waterloo to Louvain it will be later in October before I can respond to your books. — Scott

  36. Adeline Metzler

    I appreciate and learned from this dialogue. Thanks for sharing Father Doyle’s talk. I listened to it before reading the comments. Seems like church hierarchy followed the same arc in the Mennonite Church which allowed wrongdoing to be covered up which harmed victims. I appreciated very much Ruth and Stephanie’s insights; your work and your voices are crucial to this conversation in the church and all institutions of society.

  37. Doug Everingham

    I have no theological background. Some of the above comments were a bit too wordy; especially when trying to retract minimizing comments about abhorrent behavior. Persons who wield power often loose the ability to see themselves as equal members of humanity. Because of their power/status they loose the ability to be humble and fail to appreciate the very persons they are called to serve. This seemed to be the downfall of John Howard Yoder….. too bad.

  38. Fran Macadam

    “I can assure you that had this behavior gone on in any American corporation, JHY would have been fired immediately. ”

    Depends on the person’s position in the hierarchy. Near the top, absolutely not. And it is an easy false charge to make against the
    innocent, one that is virtually impossible to defend against.

    Worked as an exec in a Fortune 500 company and watched it done. High level execs get away with a lot more than Yoder did. Sometimes women can and do abuse their authority too, I saw.

    Obviously Mennonites have a higher sensitivity level than the violent mindset of mainstream American society. And that is good – but don’t take that society’s worldly and destructive remedies as appropriate.

    I say this as someone who has been the victim of sexual abuse and rapes far more violent than anything that I see attributed to Yoder.
    He should’ve been warned at the beginning, which would have saved both women in their own lives and also prevented the disrepute of non-violence as a theology of integrity. Who can’t help but think of the Lutheran accusations against the Muenster Anabaptists?

  39. Fran Macadam

    After thinking about this several days, I have come to the conclusion that Yoder’s personal failings do not intersect in any meaningful way with his important discoveries. A course taught on Yoder the man should well include personal details, as would any biographical focus on anyone.

    However studies to do with his contributions to the study of non-violence as a means for resolving political conflict are not about personal foibles or even personal crimes. One might as well make the ridiculous assertion that the truth of quantum theory, relativity and mathematical discoveries should be evaluated by the personal failings of an Einstein or Godel.

    I am sure part of the confusion is the idea that somehow discoveries of people like Yoder, in areas of ethics and human behavior, who come out of a religious academic background, ought to not be evaluated by their practical truth but rather by how closely their lives were modeled after Christ’s. However reprehensible a personality some talented odd duck professor might have, is no grounds for ad hominem attacks on the validity of her discoveries. Any other approach is sure to lead to an unmaintainable pretense and hypocrisy of purity.

    The root of the problem is that talented individuals are placed upon pedestals, and all too often, reveal the clay feet even geniuses stand on. Particularly, when all are sinners, there is no ground to place any religious leader in a position of esteem that means what they discovered is true only for as long as they hold that esteemed position. Truth is self-validating, not determined by what job position someone holds – one of the reasons that Einstein’s theories were despised by an older generation of scientists who rejected discoveries by the home-schooled physicist without a PhD. “Religious” truth ought to be practically evaluated as well, otherwise it has nothing corporeal to offer, no solutions to our alienated practrical condition.

    We as human beings are in a terrible position in regards to how we have resolved our conflicts violently in the past, a paradigm that is eminently non-scalable to a technologically empowered world of seven billion people. In his work, Yoder has made a major contribution to debunking Just War Theory, his arguments important discoveries that need to receive more serious attention, not because of who discovered them, but because they happen to be true and offer a practical contribution to solving the very real dangers of violent self-destruction we face. They should be studied not because they were made by John Howard Yoder, but because they increase understanding and allow us a practical way forward for a better world, not because we should raise statues deifying anyone for doing what little good any of us does that is right, and ought to be done in any case.