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Unfinished business with John Howard Yoder

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Sexuality is a beautiful gift from our Creator. It is central to who we are as human beings. It can also be powerful and fierce at times, and can be terribly misused or even abused. 

Over the past decades, the church has become more willing to talk about abuse happening within the confines of our own walls. We acknowledge and lament tragedies, such as the multiple cases of rape reported in 2009 in a Bolivian Mennonite community. We publish pamphlets on spouse abuse and pornography. We help pastors draw appropriate lines of conduct with their parishioners through programs such as Sacred Trust. 

As Christians, we are called to protect the vulnerable among us. We are also called to be vessels of accountability, reconciliation, and restoration. 

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is wrestling with this tension as they come to grips with a dark period in their history, weighing professor John Howard Yoder’s human sin and failure alongside his theological brilliance. President Sara Wenger Shenk, in her faculty blog, reflected on how the school hopes to move forward and teach Yoder’s work with integrity. —LK

In 1992, the North American Mennonite community was shaken with revelations of allegations of sexual misconduct levied at one of the Mennonite world’s most prominent theologians, John Howard Yoder (author of The Politics of Jesus). At this time, Yoder was a professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. In June 1992, the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite conference suspended his ministerial credentials. After a four-year process, Yoder’s credentials were reinstated. In 1997, months before his death at 70, Yoder taught a course at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.—peacetheology.net

Time has its way. As does the Spirit.

The accelerating interest in and widespread appreciation for John Howard Yoder’s theological work has also provoked renewed calls for the Mennonite church, including Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., to revisit unfinished business with his legacy.

Last year, in February and March of 2012, AMBS faculty did significant work to review AMBS’s history with John Howard Yoder and to come to a shared agreement that guides how we teach, critique, interpret, and use Yoder’s work with integrity, recognizing the significance of his theological work, and the harmfulness of his actions.

I wanted to add a personal word.

As the current president of AMBS, I’m committed to a new transparency in the truth telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done.

Some who are only tuning in now will say, I had no idea about John Howard Yoder’s widespread sexual harassment and abuse. Others will say, why keep bringing this up; it was settled long ago; he submitted to a church disciplinary process and was cleared for ongoing ministry. Others will say, FINALLY. This has taken far too long.

The renewed outcry for truth telling about what really happened and what didn’t happen in the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s has deepened my resolve and the resolve of Mennonite Church USA leaders to continue the healing journey.

I was not close to the John Howard Yoder saga when it was unfolding and only heard him speak once during his visit in 1997 to Harrisonburg, Va. Now, as I review the written materials about him and talk to people, I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behaviour.

I am also keenly aware that I was not there. I do not presume that I would have done things differently at that time. I thank God for all the faithful and arduous labour that was exerted under extreme stress to stop John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and to listen to the victims – as ineffective as it proved to be for many years.

As AMBS professor Ted Koontz said elsewhere: “The women who experienced sexual and power abuse by John personally have far too long been sidelined (along with others who were directly abused by other church leaders) and are rightfully at the centre of our concern. I nevertheless am aware the hurt caused by John’s behaviour was and is far-reaching. That circle of hurt includes some who carried major responsibility to work at stopping his abusive behaviour, who were unsuccessful, and who were burdened by weight of that failure.”

True, there was confusion about who John Howard should be accountable to with various influential church leaders and institutions continuing to send him all over the world even as AMBS leaders of the time discouraged his use as a resource. It took far too long to realize how he was out-manipulating persons who sought to confront him, along with providing his own theological rationalization for his sexual activities.

But it’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight.

What did actually happen? What was done to address it and what was left undone, regrettably, or done poorly, in retrospect? Who suffered because of that failure? Who was disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure? In what ways would we respond differently today given the benefit of hindsight and so much learning in the meantime?

Yes, John Howard’s ministry was and is an exposition of the gospel that is reaping an enormous blessing. Thanks be to God! This flawed man was gifted in ways that allowed him to grasp radically good news in the gospel that needed retelling, reimagining.

Ironically, it is because of that gospel that we can fearlessly call sin what it is. The far-reaching hurt of the evil that was perpetrated and allowed to fester too long must be more fully and publicly acknowledged. It is then we can move into deeper healing and reconciliation. May it be so!

—Sara Wenger Shenk 

Reproduced from The Mennonite, this post ran originally on AMBS president Sara Wenger Shenk’s blog, Practicing Reconciliation.

Updated Sept. 19, 2013: links added.


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