Let’s talk about sexismBy Joanna Shenk
The theological work of John Howard Yoder has convinced many people to become Mennonite. I’ve found this to be the case in discipleship communities all over the country.
In my experience, those in discipleship communities that are most taken with Yoder’s work are often white, middle-class, heterosexual and male. Recently I was asked by someone who fits these demographics what I thought about Yoder’s abuse of women. In formulating my response, I realized that my perspectives on Yoder cannot be disconnected from my ongoing experience of sexism in Mennonite institutions, including congregations and communities.
So I told him that it is very important for people, especially men — particularly those who are drawn to John Howard Yoder’s theology — to acknowledge his abuse of women and also spread the word about it. It’s deeply painful for those who were abused to see Yoder’s theological work greatly honored, while it’s not named that he was a sexual predator. We cannot disconnect his theology from his practice. And we must interrogate his theology to see where he was actually condoning the oppression of women.
In conversation with Tim Nafziger and others who relate to neo-Anabaptists and radical discipleship communities that are building on Yoder’s work, I’m recognizing that Mennonites have an opportunity to model the work of undoing sexism. Not only do we have a responsibility to talk openly about Yoder’s sexual harassment and abuse, we have an opportunity to make connections between discipleship and being an ally to those who are oppressed.
Sexism and patriarchy continue to exist in the church, and we’re likely to recreate John Howard Yoder situations if we don’t honor the voices of women and hold men accountable.
Stemming from requests of women who were abused by Yoder, there is renewed conversation in Mennonite Church USA about his sexual harassment and abuse of at least 40 women over a few decades. A discernment group has been convened by Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, and Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where Yoder taught.
Regarding the discernment, Stutzman states, “we hope [it] will contribute to healing for victims of Yoder’s abuse as well as others deeply hurt by his harmful behavior. We hope this work will lead to churchwide resolve to enter into lament, repentance and restoration for victims of sexual abuse by other perpetrators as well.”
This is an example to new Mennonites that we will no longer protect even our biggest theological stars. But this also doesn’t mean our work is done.
At the MC USA convention in July, I co-facilitated a workshop on undoing sexism along with my colleague Hilary Scarsella. The room was at capacity. Ranging from high school age to mid-60s, and men making up 10 percent of the group, we took time to share in groups about biblical perspectives on undoing sexism. We heard stories from six people, of different ethnicities, ages and genders, about their commitments to undoing sexism and discussed how their stories intersected with our own.
I hope we can have vigorous conversation about the reality of sexism today. The workshop at Phoenix and the discernment about Yoder’s legacy are two steps in the right direction.
I want to be able to say that Mennonite institutions and congregations are a safe place for women. And that Mennonite men are committed to working alongside women, trusting women and creating a new reality together.
Joanna Shenk is an associate with MC USA’s national staff.
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