Note from the editor: In early June, responding to a book review written in The Mennonite, Barbra Graber created a Facebook note about John Howard Yoder’s abuses and what the church must do to work towards accountability and healing. A lively discussion ensued and she continues to add to and revise the piece based on questions, discussion, and new information from responders. Here is a recent revision of her suggestions for moving toward justice, peace and healing.
I remember the Sunday morning two MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) friends who were dating got up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite peace theologian and symbol of male power in the church, sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women of the church over decades, and never publicly confessed. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and other Mennonite church 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 in order to teach full time at Notre Dame.” But no mention of JHY’s known sexually deviant behavior was made and students were left to wonder why their brilliant professor suddenly flew the coop. Since that time, the church at large—now Mennonite Church USA, successor to two denominations that existed before Yoder’s death in 1997–has not explained or acknowledged its decades of apparent complicity. Quite the opposite.
After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, followed by a highly secretive disciplinary process, he 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, somehow never materialized. And no one seems to know why. Today John Howard 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 wonder if the same would be true if he’d been accused of assault with a deadly weapon, busted for selling drugs or accused of grand theft.
I am a survivor of sexual abuse by men of the Mennonite Church, though not JHY. And I have walked through hell and back with many of the church’s soul-scarred women and men, including victims of JHY. Over the decade of 1982 to1992 I happened to encounter three women across three states that did not know one another; and each one told me a despicable story of life altering, traumatic encounter with John Howard Yoder. Today many more stories have been documented. See Ruth Krall’s “The Elephant in God’s Living Room, Volume 3 at ruthkrall.com and 1992 articles in The Elkhart Truth by Tom Price.
A long time friend, after reading my recent rant about glowing reviews of JHY’s books in our church’s periodical “The Mennonite” asked me, “So what needs to be done? It feels like we are stuck…is it possible to move forward?” I too would like to see us move forward. But we can’t cry “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” There is no peace for many women who lost, along with their families, years of normal, healthy, joyous living for having been sexually abused by male leaders of the Mennonite Church. And JHY remains a symbol of those widespread wounds like no other churchman.
I don’t pretend that my limited perspective could possibly encompasses the whole, but in the interest of encouraging further discernment and discussion, I offer the following practical suggestions for moving toward justice, peace and healing:
- Let’s all be clear and truthful about what actually happened in the case of JHY. People still ask me what he actually did that was so bad. Words like “inappropriate”, ”dalliances”, “crossed boundaries”, “improprieties”, and “sexual advances” to describe Yoder’s actions are highly misleading because they are far too mild, lack specificity, and leave everyone asking ,”So what did the women do to encourage him?” and “Why didn’t they protest.” The actions of JHY reported to me and now documented by others were sexually abusive assaults, sudden acts of aggression. They were obscene and persistent sexual harassments. Yoder’s actions were clear perpetrations of sexualized violence, some of them criminal. Women don’t write letters of complaint to powerful institutions about liaisons with powerful men. They usually don’t bother to write complaint letters about improprieties. An impropriety is a sexist joke. Let’s all agree to stop the whitewashing.
- For Mennonite church leaders: Pledge to make the ending of sexual abuses of power by our church leaders a clearly and broadly articulated priority. Create at least one setting for public acknowledgement and confession for the years of silent complicity and ongoing harm. This could take place through an open letter in The Mennonite, signed by any involved or their representatives; and it could happen through a public ceremony of confession at a national (and international) church conference. This festering wound cannot close and the Spirit will not breathe freely through our church until this dirty business is simply and sincerely acknowledged without excuses. If it ends in legal action, which is highly unlikely, so be it. Let the debt be paid. See the story of how a church in Virginia dealt with this dilemma here. (The outcome might surprise you.)
- For journalists and book reviewers: When you discuss JHY’s work, have the courage to acknowledge the controversy, at least every once in awhile. It could be the simplest of statements: “In troubling contrast to his work, we now know that John Howard Yoder’s life was seriously flawed by acts of sexual violence against women. Though he left a legacy of harm, ironically his writings continue to inspire and attract new readers.” If this has ever happened in a JHY book review, please forward on to me.
- For scholars of JHY’s works: Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy (right belief) and his severe lack of orthopraxy (right action) in the discourses you initiate. Stop barring, marginalizing and shunning anyone who suggests this might be a worthy and beneficial scholarly endeavor. Visit ruthkrall.com
- For Mennonite men: Sexualized violence is a men’s issue. Create safe and appropriate invitations for women in your church and in your circle of friends to talk about their experiences of sexual violation by men and the impact it has had on their lives. Practice deep listening. Perhaps this kind of event has occurred in some Mennonite Church congregations. If so, I would love to hear about them. Challenge your male friends who don’t get it and go to the police or social services about the friends you know or suspect are abusing. Don’t expect them to be able to be truthful with you. If you are or have ever been caught up in perpetrating sexualized violence, get serious about seeking help and set up strict systems of accountability for yourself.
- For Mennonite educators: Sexualized violence is a peace and justice issue. Make the topics of childhood sexual abuse, multi-generational incest, sexual abuse of power, and sexualized violence against women central to your curriculums and conferences. Encourage discussion of the contradictions and ponder the reasons for the church’s historical silence. Invite leaders invovled in the disciplinary process with Yoder to discuss what they might have done differently today. Model the creation of safe spaces to talk about sexual violation and the impact it has had.
- For Mennonite pastors and bishops: No more secrecy and silence. If you don’t believe it could happen in your church take a look at this video of Dr. Anna C. Salter interviewing a youth pastor. Make sexual abuse a sermon topic. Assume you have both predators and victims in your pews each Sunday. Create safe spaces for people to come forward and name names. Act on your suspicions. Err on the side of protecting young people, women and children. Believe the victims and confront those named on their behalf. Turn law breakers over to the police. Stop covering up crimes in a naive belief that the church is equipped to handle these things on its own. Vet and choose lawyers carefully. Create opportunity for, ask for, and if not forthcoming, demand confessions to the congregation. By requiring this you will help the perpetrator begin to heal. Your silence is not an act of love, but of collusion. Don’t shun perpetrators. Include them but hold them accountable and create strict boundaries. And if they refuse to cooperate and attempt to return to church property, don’t hesitate to take out a restraining order. Make your church safe by setting up policies (beyond the cookie cutter insurance company ones) with trainings and resources from organizations like National Child Protection Training Center, Samaritan Counseling Center’s Safe Church training program, Faith Trust Institute, and Dove’s Nest. Have local child protection and law enforcement professionals review your policies regularly.
- For survivors of sexual abuse: Whether you are male or female, break the silence and tell your story at www.OurStoriesUntold.com.(anonymously if you wish). Or dare to tell your secret directly to trust-worthy others. Either way, though it takes courage, you will watch the shame and fear begin to fall away.
- For everyone reading this: Pray. It tends to change things. Every Thursday at 3:00, join our Call to Prayer for Sexual Healing in the Mennonite Church.
Call me naive. Say these things will never happen. I’ll hold out hope for the good people of the Mennonite Church and the power of Spirit-led healing and reconciliation till the day I die.