I’ve purposefully remained silent about the John Howard Yoder issue. But I was shocked yesterday to see a poll on the topic presented by The Mennonite.
The Mennonite posted a statement of their conviction and are now letting people respond through a poll question:
“It is appropriate for Mennonite Church USA to look again at the sexual abuse charges against John Howard Yoder.”
The response options included:
Upon first glance this poll may look harmless; just a mere inquiry. Perhaps The Mennonite‘s intention was to get their readers more involved in the conversation surrounding John Howard Yoder? Maybe, in a very typical Mennonite way, they wanted to gain everyone’s opinion regarding the issue, making sure every voice out there had the chance to be expressed? I’m not sure who created the poll, and I also don’t know the intention behind creating the poll—it’s all just speculation. But what I do know is that this poll really pissed me off. And that anger has resulted in me opening up my vow of silence surrounding this issue.
So why did this poll cause such anger? Well, there’s a few reasons. Let me attempt to explain:
There’s this extremely common and harmful thing out there in our culture, and across the globe, called “victim-blaming.” I’ve explained victim-blaming numerous times, though it never seems to be enough.
Victim-blaming occurs when the victim of a crime–such as murder, rape or abuse–is held accountable or responsible for the misdeeds committed against them. When there is a relationship between victim and perpetrator, the chances for victim-blaming to ensue are increased significantly. Sadly, in our country, approximately two-thirds of all rapes are in fact acquaintance rapes. Acquaintance rape or assault is when a known person to the victim uses force, violence, fear, power positions, gender or any other method to induce bodily or spiritual damage. Victim-blaming happens in our dominant culture, but it especially happens within religious institutions.
Yet, in the case of robbery, the chances for victim-blaming rarely occur. Why, when a person is robbed by a friend, do we not yell at the victim: “Well why on earth did you have that $2,300 TV sitting so we could all see it? Not to mention that brand new Mac Book you just bought! Flaunting your costly possessions like that is just asking for them to be taken.” Because that actually (and sadly) is what we do with victims of sexualized violence, especially in our churches. We question them: “What were you doing to invite those abuses in?” Or we talk behind their back: “They were always dressing a little less modestly than the rest of it… they were just asking for it.”
This victim-blaming and false accusations happened, and is currently happening, with the John Howard Yoder (JHY) abuses. I had a woman question me at Mennonite Church USA convention this past July when she read the call to prayer for sexual healing. She said something along the lines of, “But the church has already dealt with this! John was remorseful and said his apologies. Besides, the women who were abused never came forward with their names, so how are we even supposed to believe them? Bringing this all up again is just harmful for the family. Let it rest.”
So, even though eight women came forward with the truth (and countless other women’s stories about JHY abuses remain both told and untold), these women are still doubted because they never put their names in public. But would their names have even made a difference? Or would it have been the same old victim-blaming scenario that was already happening, only this time people would actually have real targets. They would have women to yell at, to demean, to call harlots and whores, to ridicule, and to essentially kick out of the church because their leader, JHY, was being attacked.
This is obviously a hypothetical scenario—since the women didn’t come forward with their names we really don’t know what would have happened. Yet, seeing the response that is happening now, 20 years later, and seeing the carelessness of The Mennonite to even question whether or not the church should be discussing this issue, basically proves that the scenario I hypothesized above would in fact have come to fruition.
The fact of the matter is that the John Howard Yoder conversation is getting talked about, both outside the church and within Mennonite Church USA. There’s no way to stifle it now, as it has been stifled for so many years. The truth is out in the open and on the Internet for all, including non-Mennonites, to see. Ervin Stutzman, the executive director of Mennonite Church USA has given his word that this issue will not go unaddressed within the broader church. A discernment group selected to propose a denominational response to the painful and complex issue has already been determined. And AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk has written:
But it’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time, must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight. What did actually happen? What was done to address it and what was left undone regrettably, or done poorly, in retrospect? Who suffered because of that failure? Who was disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure? In what ways would we respond differently today given the benefit of hindsight and so much learning in the meantime?
I thank both Ervin and Sara, and all other Mennonite leaders tackling this topic, for making a commitment to do so. The fact that leaders are addressing this issue is of course wonderful for the survivors of JHY, who have never received a proper apology or even therapy from the broader church. Re-opening this case also brings healing to the layers of scabs that have developed over the wounds that cut deep down into our church family in a detrimental way; those cuts have been continually passed down to more recent generations (such as myself), and will continue to harm the church’s followers until the issue is openly addressed. But in my eyes, the most significant thing in leaders addressing this topic is that survivors of all kinds–both women and men, incest victims, those abused by pastors, and so on–are finally receiving the message that their stories will be heard and believed.
And that is why the poll on The Mennonite’s site is so disgusting. It’s actually questioning whether or not we should even be discussing sexual abuse in our church as a whole. It’s creating a space for doubt of survivor’s stories. It’s giving permission for the church to once again be complicit when abuses are reported.
Even having church leaders say they’ll discuss this topic doesn’t mean concrete change will actually occur (though I do have strong faith, perhaps through our power of prayer, that it will!). Abuse within church structures, such as John Howard Yoder’s violence against young female seminarians and scholars, can only happen when the whole community is intentionally or unintentionally complicit. By the church originally not dealing with this issue–not reporting it to authorities outside of the church, not reaching out to victims and offering therapy or support, not publicly explaining to the broader church community what happened, church leaders not taking blame for the issue and instead placing blame on Yoder or the women themselves–the behavior of JHY and others is allowed.
Our current conversation about JHY isn’t just about him. It’s not an opportunity for us to demonize him, or to turn him into a scapegoat for the whole church. It’s not an opportunity for the church to say, “This is all John Howard Yoder’s fault.” Instead, what this current conversation is actually doing is opening up a space for Mennonite Church USA to be held accountable for their neglect and compliance when it comes to all abuse cases. It is a chance to find ways to healthily deal with abuse situations in the future. It is the opportunity for the church to place value on stories of abuse, and to look our survivors directly in the face and say, “We believe you.”
So, to answer The Mennonite’s poll, YES. It’s not only appropriate for Mennonite Church USA to look again at the sexual abuses against John Howard Yoder, it’s absolutely vital. And without doing so the church would be directly turning their moral obligation away from the Divine light in each and every one of God’s peoples.
**There’s been an edit to the original post of this piece. The Mennonite clarified that their conviction (position) is that it IS appropriate for Mennonite Church USA to examine the case. They are not asking whether it appropriate, but are letting people react/respond to their position. They said in an email, “Perhaps it would have been better to have different options such as, “I agree” and “I disagree” rather than Yes and No.” I still believe that in asking “What do you believe about it?” and providing all the possible answers, including the option of it not being important at all, is offensive and unnecessary. A poll is by its definition a question, not a statement, and by opening the door to people’s doubts on whether or not the church should deal with this issue, it’s still opening up doubt for the victims.