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.