Opinion: What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder and sexual abuse in our midst?
Healing, truth-tellingBy 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 ruthkrall.com 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 ambs.edu for “new transparency and truth-telling.” Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, recently wrote at mennoniteusa.org 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 ourstoriesuntold.com’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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