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Last updated September 25.

Sept. 2, 2013 issue

Let’s talk about sexism

By 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.


  • Sexual harassment and attempted adultery as John Howard Yoder and others have practiced is not a matter of "sexism." The fact is that such individuals are not regenerated in Christ and lack the most basic sense of consideration of their spouse, their victims and their own souls. Teaching men to regard women as equals is fine in the secular sphere, but the standard for Christians is higher. All must learn to love their neighbor as themselves, and love God more than their own base desires. The church needs to fast and pray for purity and love and adopt policies that make it easier for abusers to get caught--preferably with the first attempt.

    - Barbara Brooks (sep 4 at 4:43 p.m.)

  • The thing that bothers me the most about this whole discussion is that no one is even thinking about considering implementing a proactive plan to make sure this never ever happens again.

    I'm not talking about the Phoenix plan to protect children, nor am I talking about the vaunted seminary "resolution" or the discernment group. I'm talking about solid, enforceable, workable policies (especially in the case of the seminary given the JHY mess), prepared by reputable, knowledgeable attorneys specializing in labor-employment law; policies that will spell out what is and is not acceptable behavior; the remedies/punishment therefor; policies of which all employees/students/whatever are aware; policies all personnel acknowledge they understand; policies that can be enforced before more women are irreparably damaged. And, yes, I've made this suggestion to the powers that be, with absolutely no response.

    Given the horror stories that have come out of Penn State and the Catholic church, to name just two, I believe it behooves the church to be proactive, not reactive. Years after the fact, we're discussing JHY again. Even more frightening, it's now out in the blogosphere, available for the world to see. Forewarned is forearmed.

    - Debra Bender (sep 4 at 6:49 p.m.)

  • Thank you Joanna for this excellent article about the attitudes that make sexualized violence possible. And thank you Debra for suggesting we dare not leave the problem to discernment groups, as important as they might be as a first step. Tough policies prepared by knowledgeable attorneys that enforce razor sharp accountability, severe consequences, and constant vigilance would stop much of the institutional stuff in its tracks. Organizations have the freedom to make their policies as strict as they choose. The Boy Scouts of America has set an excellent example and have much to teach us. I've heard their lead counsel announce publicly, "the church's motto is to forgive, our motto is to protect children and youth [from sexual predators] at all costs."

    - Barbra Graber (sep 4 at 7:27 p.m.)

  • This guy has been dead for what – nearly 20 years?

    Wikipeia has an entry about this man. It says he participated in a 4-year disciplinary process conducted by the Indiana-Michigan Conference. The process may have been botched because he died with a measure of his honor intact and people still read his books.

    Joanna, if this man’s victims have not been cared for, then by all means use some of the church’s resources to do that. But why we would let this man’s sins consume the time of today’s church? Perhaps it’s that sex is so elemental; we still want a church “without spot nor wrinkle” and sex remains elusively beyond our control. So we find lots of reasons why we must argue about it.

    I’ve read MWR’s editorial; it roundly endorses the need for the church to “confess its role as an enabler”. I expect the record shows that a general confession by the church occurred back in the '90s when this was being dealt with.

    But as we do it yet again, could we please make it short? We badly need the church’s resources (time, passion, money) to address the gathering crisis all around us.

    - Berry Friesen (sep 5 at 7:57 a.m.)

  • Berry, the church's eagerness to get over this episode quickly is exactly part of the problem and the reason why a more thorough process is underway now. Let's not truncate the process now, and let's not think that Yoder's behaviour is a sideshow to the more pressing "gathering crisis all around us" (presumably you mean militarism, Syria, etc.). It all hangs together.

    - Byron Rempel-Burkholder (sep 5 at 9:46 a.m.)

  • Berry, I am shocked by how easily you want to dismiss this issue. Yes, there is a gathering crisis around us, and it's alarming what's going on in the world. But when is there not a crisis? There will always be a reason to de-prioritize the issues of sexism and sexual abuse, for those who are not inclined to make them a priority. These problems, however, are not the kind that can be addressed with any finality, so that we will get past it and move along. It's an ongoing problem that requires permanent vigilance. For many, sexism and sexual abuse is (and has been) a gathering crisis of its own. The issue isn't just about the John Howard Yoder who's been dead for 20 years. It's about the John Howard Yoders among us now. And those who may turn into John Howard Yoders in the future, unless there are mechanisms in place (education, awareness, counseling, etc.) to prevent it.

    - Charlie Kraybill, Bronx, NYC (sep 5 at 9:53 a.m.)

  • Byron and Charlie, I don't know much about what this is all about, OK? But I've read the four articles in the current issues of MWR. And it's clear that a significant commitment of time and energy is being made by our leaders to study and correct events that happened 15-20 years ago.

    I see little in these articles that explains why this is coming up now, other than Krall's book which I will make a point of reading.

    I'm sure that the disciplinary process back in the '90s was defective in some ways. But I also am pretty sure that AMBS and the Indiana/Michigan Conference took it very seriously and invested much time and effort. I seriously doubt that it was treated summarily or as an aberration. And I'm pretty sure policies and procedures were put in place to reduce the likelihood of recurrence. The results in part were made public then and since then, I have seen multiple references to those results in published writing about Yoder's work.

    Have you tried to get the attention of denominational leaders? I have and it isn't easy. Their agendas are very full and their resources few.

    Within every organization, a critical question is always whether limited resources are being applied in a manner that aligns with mission. I'm simply expressing surprise that an event from 20 years ago just made the cut.

    - Berry Friesen (sep 5 at 3:14 p.m.)

  • I could remark about those with their "heads in the sand," but I'll refrain. Instead, let me quote Edmund Burke's assessment, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Here's a shining example.

    - Debra Bender (sep 5 at 5:02 p.m.)

  • I think many counselors encourage abuse victims to nurse their wounds, while many church leaders want a "quick fix" and deny the severity of the issue. If abusers are quickly and severely dealt with, then the victim can feel empowered and get well. It's a lot easier to forgive an abuser if he is behind bars then if he is at a university getting awards and honors. The best prevention is not to allow people the privacy to commit sexual abuse and harassment. In mainstream culture people idolize privacy, then are surprised when predators take advantage.

    - Barbara Brooks (sep 5 at 6:03 p.m.)

  • There are several sins here that need to be separately acknowledged by current church and institutional leaders.

    1. The sins of JHY against women which began in the 70’s.

    2. The refusal to deal with JHY by church and institutional leaders in a Biblical manner by allowing him to resign and then move to another position outside their realm of authority. This process enabled them to sweep it under the carpet and then wash their hands. Overtime the things under the carpet began to seep out.

    3. Thinking that all was securely under the carpet at the time of his death, the church authorities then elevated JHY to sainthood by promoting his books and publications. The church saw an opportunity to hitch their church wagon to this rising star. Thus church and institutional authorities involved in suppressing this problem are also guilty therefore they owe apologies and confessions to all women involved including requests for forgiveness

    - Dale Welty (sep 6 at 1:37 p.m.)

  • While I believe that it is important to learn from past mistakes, it is also equally important to look to the future. We can't do anything about the past and we should not let it fester our futures. I think what has been said is enough, the truth has been told and there are other concerns in the church where money, time, and effort is needed. If we want to question Yoder's theology and dwell on it then it makes as much sense as dwelling on the American constitution which says one thing while most of the country practices something else,(from experience I have seen that we are not all born equal for example as much as we wish it were true). Yoder had much to say about violence but practiced another thing in his own life. In the same sense, the American constitution says a lot about equality but the country practices something else. But does it follow that we should not let it guide us? In much the same way, should we let Yoder's personal life cause us to abandoned what he wrote? Since when did we become perfect? "let he who is without sin cast the first stone".

    - Erika Ros Fels (sep 22 at 4:56 p.m.)

  • I should have added that the apostle Paul admitted that he himself was not perfect, but we still take note of what he has written.

    - Erika Ros Fels (sep 22 at 5:05 p.m.)

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