Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Being a Scholar of John Howard Yoder Without Ignoring or Omitting His Mistreatment of Women

A few weeks ago I followed a link from my friend Jimmy McCarty's blog to a post on Our Stories Untold written by Barbra Graber. Titled "What's to be done about John Howard Yoder?", Graber's piece brought home to me, with a depth and force I had not encountered before, the profound problems bound up with the ongoing scholarly reception and interpretation of Yoder's work in light of his mistreatment of women. Specifically, many of these women (along with their families and friends) continue to belong to and worship in Mennonite communities which often speak in glowing terms of Yoder and his writings. Graber isn't concerned with stamping out interest in Yoder's thought, much less with suggesting that his wrongdoing nullifies any positive contribution his work could have either in the academy or in the church. Rather, she is identifying a disturbing but rarely noted reality: namely, the profound and disorienting disjunction between the memory and modes of speech regarding Yoder on the part of theologians and those on the part of the women hurt by him.

She therefore writes, with people like me in mind:
For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.”  If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me.
For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy  (right belief) and his severe lack of orthopraxy (right action) in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor.
This is both convicting and persuasive. John Howard Yoder will feature in a good deal of my work as an academic theologian, and I have no interest in contributing to this ongoing blind spot or rhetorical disjunction. I have already published one article in which Yoder features, and I have another article forthcoming whose final editorial version may already be set; but I do have an essay in a book coming out next year which I was revising when I read Graber's post, and I attached this footnote to Yoder's name when he appeared in the text:
Yoder’s legacy is seriously complicated by what was apparently a long history of mistreatment of women, whose complaints only came to be acknowledged—by his denomination and by himself—late in his life. I do not know the details well enough to offer educated remarks, but a short piece written by Barbra Graber (available online: http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/2013/07/17/whats-to-be-done-about-john-howard-yoder/) alerted me to the disjunction between, on the one hand, the ongoing process of recovery and healing on the part of women and Mennonite communities who were hurt by Yoder’s actions and, on the other hand, the glowing rhetoric which tends to pervade academic theological engagement of Yoder’s work. Graber remarks that she doesn’t want Yoder scholars to stop studying Yoder; she merely thinks they ought to note the problems involved in interpreting the work of a man whose victims are still alive, and must go on living in his shadow. This request seems to me exactly right, and I mean to signal this challenge in all my subsequent published work on Yoder. How to negotiate the related issue of interpreting the thought of a Christian theologian who fell so short of his own vision—a vision which, by all accounts, does not contain the seeds of his abusive behavior—is an important question for another time.
I am interested to hear from others, whether Yoder scholars or not. Is this sort of comment appropriate? If inappropriate, how so? If appropriate, is it good as stands? Do I say too little? Do I say too much? Should I include a version of it in all my writings which mention Yoder? What sort of personal illicit behavior demands this kind of explicit signal? Is it only required so long as the victims are alive? What other thinkers and authors belong to this (regrettable) category?

I welcome feedback on this whole constellation of issues, which I do not pretend is simple or easy to sort through but which I do believe requires thoughtful, intentional care for the sake of truthfulness regarding Yoder's deeds and justice regarding his victims.


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  2. Hi, Brad. Our mutual friend, Nate Lee, directed me to this post. As someone who has published a number of essays on Yoder (many of which can be found here [with apologies for the self-reference]), I regret that I've never included any kind of acknowledgement of this kind, especially since all of my writing on him to date has been extremely positive. That said, what you've written looks just right to me. I worry about ignoring the issue, on the one hand, or making the issue into theological gossip, on the other. I don't know that you'll always need to say as much or exactly the same as what you've said here, but some acknowledgement probably doesn't hurt, especially if you write on anything that might have more direct relevance to the abuse (such as his writings on power or revolutionary subordination). Definitely a difficult issue to navigate though. Hopefully the result of all the current discussions will be more clarity on how best to proceed going forward. Peace.

  3. Brad,

    Well said.

    re: Is it only required so long as the victims are alive?
    No. Why stop noting the victims and the disjunction while continuing to study the leader.

    re: the profound and disorienting disjunction between the memory and modes of speech regarding ... and those on the part of ___ hurt by .
    That is a very large point and one well worth long discussion. There is a long list of great leaders who've harmed their followers, both intentionally and without malice. In fact it would be a much shorter task to enumerate the great leaders not on the first list.

    The greater challenge is to find people (scholars or otherwise) who have the capacity to discuss this disjunction gracefully.


  4. Here's what I said in another place:

    This is a question that some of us have been batting around for a while since this all came back to the forefront. Short answer: yes--address it in a more substantive way than it's been done. Yes--deal with the deep connections between sex and power. No, don't write off his work. No, don't obsess about this to the exclusion of the rest of his corpus. Theology is penitent, so let this be another opportunity for penitence but not destruction to happen.

    My sense--and this is just a hunch--is that there are other issues in play as to why this is getting so much attention, issues of identity and the role Yoder plays in certain theological movements, the relationship between theological purity and Yoder's peccability, etc.

    My concern is the following: if you go this road, and every article starts mentioning this as a matter of course, it 1) becomes inappropriately apologetic--"woe as me for using the work of this guy who everyone knows is fragile", and 2) it becomes *selectively* apologetic--that once having exercised penitence here, we can overlook the sins of other theologians.

    Also, why does sex seem to garner attention as a theological fault in the way that other things don't? There must be a reason when I think of "theologians with moral failings", names like Barth, Tillich, Yoder, Augustine and a few other contemporaries come to mind, all of them have sex in common. No one talks about the moral failings of theologians in other respects except sex, it seems. Surely, this is telling.

    1. Myles, to your question.. "Also, why does sex seem to garner attention as a theological fault in the way that other things don't?"... While I can't speak for others, for me, it is not sex as such that is the issue, at all.. My research is in feminist and queer theology, and sex isn't something these disciplines shirk away from discussing... The problem is sexual **violence**--which is very, very different from sex as such...

  5. Brad, thanks for this!

    I'm not sure if I *totally* agree with your claim that "a vision which, by all accounts, does not contain the seeds of his abusive behavior..." but I agree with your broader points, and of course deeply appreciate you raising these questions!

  6. The only way to ascertain how authentic a person is by what they actually do, and not by what they say. How they dramatize their life in face-to-face personal relationships, and on to the world stage altogether.
    What has been featured here it seems that, using a good old fashioned radical feminist epithet, Yoder was a male-chauvinist pig.

  7. Brandy, agreed on your response to Myles. And in response to your own comment, do you think there are "seeds of his abusive behavior" in Yoder's writings? My first thought is the chapter in *Politics of Jesus* on revolutionary subordination, but I'd be interested to know what you have in mind, whether it's thematic or a particular text.

  8. Thanks to Brandy and Brad. Yes--the issue here is one of the combination of sex and violence, and yes, I think that there are aspects of his work that point in this direction. I'm not entirely sure that his chapter on revolutionary subordination is primarily what I'd gesture toward; Andy Alexis-Baker has argued--and I think he's right--that prioritizing "church" as a way to not be able to create priority for any relations, such as those of family, ironically creates a series of individuals within church who are the subject to one another's power. In sum, I think this particular nexus of sex-power runs deeper than the revolutionary subordination.

    What I meant more broadly by the comment about sex being the prime issue noted with regards to theologians, after further reflection, is a comment on what contemporary theology sees as problematic. Insofar as theology today is more committed to theology as a kind of performance (whether as 'church' or identity), sex-power becomes an issue for theology in a way that other traditional vices, such as avarice or envy are not immediately. That sex-power has come to our attention more recently as problematic within theologian's works is in some ways telling of the modes of theology which are prominent. Just an observation.

    That being said, this discussion of both 1) the relation between Yoder's theology and sex-power and 2) the occlusion of sex-power in theology is a discussion far overdue and one worth having.

  9. Thanks for this, Brad, and everyone else who's engaged in the conversation.

    With Brandy and Myles, I'm not so sure that Yoder's behavior and his thought are neatly separable—or that anyone's could be—although I'm also not sure that I agree with the specific criticisms they levy.

    I'm far from a Yoder scholar. At the end of the day, I have to defer to others, like you, who've read him more extensively and carefully. But as I read it, Yoder's work seems not so much theological as ideological—this judgment has more to do with the spirit of his claims, the tone in which they're delivered.

  10. Unfriendly critics say that Yoder's project depends on an uncharitable reading of the tradition, on the one hand, and an unrealistic demand on the contemporary church and Christian, on the other hand (a form of overealized eschatology). Insofar as there is any truth at all to these criticisms, Yoder's personal behavior begins to appear as an expression of a basic refusal of traditional norms.