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Last updated September 04.

Sept. 2, 2013 issue

Opinion: What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder and sexual abuse in our midst?

Healing, truth-telling

By Barbra Graber

I remember the Sunday morning two Mennonite Youth Fellowship friends who were dating were made to get up in front of the congregation to confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile, John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite peace theologian, sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women over decades and never publicly confessed.

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and other Mennonite agencies that hired Yoder, were unable or unwilling to publicly censure him. Years of institutional silence ensued while files of complaint letters accumulated. In 1984, AMBS announced that Yoder had resigned to teach at Notre Dame. No warning of his sexually deviant behavior was issued, and students were left to wonder why their brilliant professor suddenly flew the coop. Since that time, the church at large has not explained or acknowledged the decades of apparent complicity by its agents and institutions. Quite the opposite.

After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, followed by a secretive disciplinary process, Yoder was declared reconciled with the church and encouraged to return to teaching and writing. The promise of a public statement of apology to the victims whose lives he upended, and the wider ecumenical community whose trust he betrayed, never materialized. Today Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual.

I was a victim of sexual abuse by men of the Mennonite church, though not Yoder. I have miraculously survived, gone on to thrive and walked through hell with many of the church’s soul-scarred women and men, including victims of Yoder. Some of them took their own lives. Between 1982 and 1992 I encountered three women across three states who did not know one another; each told me a despicable story of a life-altering, traumatic encounter with Yoder. Today many more stories have been documented. See Ruth Krall’s The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder: Collected Essays at and 1992 articles in The Elkhart Truth by Tom Price.

We can’t cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace. There is no peace for many victims who along with their families lost years of normal, joyous living due to sexual abuse by male Mennonite leaders. Yoder remains a symbol of those widespread wounds like no other churchman and is thus the place to begin, but the problem goes far beyond his singular legacy.

Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has issued a call at for “new transparency and truth-telling.” Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, recently wrote at that he and Shenk have convened a discernment group to shape a process for deeper reconciliation and healing.

To support this bold new vision, I offer the following suggestions for moving toward justice, peace and healing.

Pray. Join’s Call to Prayer for Sexual Healing in the Mennonite Church every Thursday at 3 p.m.

Let’s be clear about what Yoder did and stop the whitewashing. Yoder’s actions reported to me and documented by others were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression and obscene, persistent sexual harassments. They were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence, some of them criminal. Words like “inappropriate,” “crossed boundaries” and “improprieties” are highly misleading because they are far too mild, lack specificity and leave everyone asking, “Why didn’t the women protest?” Victims tend not to report the sexual abuses of prestigious men in positions of power because they have so often been disbelieved, blamed for causing it or told to forgive and keep quiet.

For journalists and book reviewers: Acknowledge the controversy. It could be a simple statement: “In troubling contrast to his work, John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, his writings continue to inspire.”

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  • The bible makes it clear that leaders are to be rebuked publicly, and if they don't repent, be put out of the congregation. I think this was a case of these institutions thinking they were too progressive to practice public rebuking and shunning, which would have been appropriate. To prevent these situations, the best protection is for men and women always to have a third person present, and for men to give all their passwords to their supervisors (in a school situation) and to their wives (with private email). It's not politically correct to insist on chaperones, but it's the best protection women have from evil men outside their own family.

    - Barbara Brooks (sep 4 at 4:31 p.m.)

  • Thank you Barbara for taking the time to write out your own practical suggestions.

    - Barbra Graber (sep 4 at 7:06 p.m.)

  • When I hear these tragic life experiences I find great empathy with them. Myself and my friend Sarah receive great pain from those who carry a violent attitude towards Trans Women. Most of this violence comes in the form of psychological abuse which results in devastating isolation and discrimination. However I remember one of the strangest experience of my life this year. Someone I had apparently upset, and who had accused me of using the silent treatment, ( I had made all of the telephone calls and sent all of the emails from Thailand and received only one in return), refused to talk to me and consequently made it impossible for me to apologize, (someone has to say they are sorry for the misunderstanding/ wrong doing). There seems to me that there is a lot of that going around these days. People wonder why the Middle East is in such a mess, but then they do the same in their daily lives by holding grudges and refusing to remove the barriers to effective communication. As one popular song writer wrote, " give peace a chance''. By not forgiving Yoder and others like him, are we not violating the Lord's commandment on forgiveness?

    - Erika Fels (sep 4 at 9:12 p.m.)

  • All those involved in the John Howard Yoder debacle need to renounce feelings of revenge, but forgiveness doesn't mean the offender should be free to hurt others. If the person is immoral, put him out of the church until he repents. If he does criminal things, then he needs to be prosecuted. The disgrace of an arrest will harm a school or church for a short time, but pain of multiple victims will go on for generations.

    - Barbara Brooks (sep 5 at 5:53 p.m.)

  • Amen

    - brenda (sep 8 at 4:14 p.m.)

  • yes, justice needs to be seen to be done - as they say in legal circles.But it needs to be done as a justice issue and the protection of others, not out of revenge.

    - Erika Fels (sep 8 at 10:23 p.m.)

  • Is this THE "John Howard" we all loved and grew up with in the church and seminary? The man was considered to be as close to a Mennonite SAINT as a Mennonite could get. He's dead and gone and buried now, and can't speak for himself. This all seems a little off kilter. He's dead. There are always two or more sides of every story. Who will speak for John Howard? We must be careful not to accept something that is just alleged, especially when the guy is dead, without real proof or evidence. Obviously, like all of us, John Howard had his character flaws, but we need to hear from those who disciplined him and what was their real findings, and how did John Howard respond. That's as good as we can do, unless John Howard comes back from the dead. You just never know.

    - Conrad (sep 14 at 10:30 a.m.)

  • Conrad, I understand your confusion and concern for Mr. Yoder. I too have a man in my life who I continue to respect and admire (in memory), even though I have learned that he also was a perpetrator. The truth about his "dark side" does not diminish his value in God's sight, and shows the power of grace to abound even in the presence of sin. The truth has great power to set free from shame both victims and perpetrators, and to restore a right relationship between people and God. The man I know would be thankful for healing that has happened,I believe, even though the truth of his pattern of sin has been revealed in the process. In Yoder's case, there is quite a lot of evidence. Let's hope that he would welcome truth and healing if he could speak to us today.

    Barbra, thank you for your powerful witness and suggested action! Keep shining light in those dark corners!

    - Kristen (sep 16 at 1:25 a.m.)

  • Blessings to you, Barb, as you continue your vital work on healing and truth telling. Thank you for helping to keep these issues before us.

    - Bonnie Graber (sep 16 at 6:30 p.m.)

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