OSUpicCMUbuildingAs the North American Mennonite church has these past two years (and decades) discussed, discerned and shed tears upon tears regarding John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse of women, it has been repeated again and again: Yoder’s treatment of women was abusive. It is not to be called “inappropriate.” It is to be named as abusive.

This is not a matter of semantics. The distinction is gravely important. “Sexually inappropriate behavior” is a manner of speaking that is used commonly to refer to all sorts of things that aren’t abuse, like promiscuity, adultery and a whole host of other sex acts that take place between two consenting adults. To say that Yoder’s treatment of women was sexually inappropriate trivializes the harm he caused by failing to make clear that he used his power as a white, male distinguished church leader to manipulate, coerce and abuse women sexually. Speaking of Yoder’s behavior as merely sexually inappropriate leaves the door open for hearers to mistakenly infer that the women involved bear some responsibility for what happened to them.

Any time a story of abuse is discussed in which its violence is not explicitly named, in which the responsibility of victims for their perpetrator’s behavior is up for debate, the violence of abuse continues. Victims are inflicted with new wounds. There is little more retraumatizing for we who have survived sexual abuse than listening to sisters and brothers in faith speak of our terror as if it may be 1) not that bad after all or 2) our own fault.

It is an unfortunate truth that survivors of sexualized violence are everywhere. We make up significant numbers in every church, school and neighborhood, and when stories of fellow survivors are handled harmfully we are all retraumatized at the realization that our beloved communities we want so deeply to trust are not in solidarity with us.

So, I’ll say it again: Yoder’s treatment of women was abusive. It is not to be called “inappropriate.” Care and respect for any and all who have been abused requires this.

It is for this reason that I am deeply disappointed to learn this week that Canadian Mennonite University is offering a course that is described this way:

“Sex and the Church: The Case of John Howard Yoder

This course explores a variety of issues and questions arising out of John Howard Yoder’s “inappropriate sexual behavior.” How are we to understand the nature of that inappropriateness? What might be learned from reflecting on the way the Mennonite church has sought to deal with this problem over the past 30+ years? What does the ongoing discussion about this case reveal about the Mennonite church and its theology? Does Yoder’s theology have any lasting relevance in light of this matter? Specific topics will include sexuality, marriage and singleness, power and sexual violence, gender, church discipline, trauma and healing” (emphasis mine). 

I will admit right away that I know absolutely nothing about this course apart from its description. It very truly could be an excellent opportunity for students to consider dynamics of power and sexual abuse in relation to the Mennonite church. In fact, I wholeheartedly commend CMU for prioritizing a course that aims to look seriously at what can be learned from the way the church has dealt with Yoder’s case and at Yoder’s theology in light of his treatment of women. These are things we desperately need to be talking about.

imagesWhat concerns me is that the course description assumes that the nature of Yoder’s treatment of women is still unclear, contested, and up for debate. As a survivor of abuse, if I were able to muster up the courage and desire to enter that classroom at all, I would enter with my energy wasted before the first word was spoken. I am concerned, then, that this course seeking to encourage conversation in the church about sexualized violence will in fact both discourage many who have suffered that violence from joining the conversation in the first place and be retraumatizing for survivors who do enroll. If the course truly does entertain ideas of John Howard Yoder’s treatment of women as something other than abuse, it also risks forming students to be unable to recognize abuse for what it is. In this world, where at least 25% of those who attend any given congregation will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime, we cannot afford for any one of us to be misinformed about the nature of sexual abuse and the seriousness of its consequences.

I thought seriously about whether or not this was a matter that ought to be addressed publicly. It is possible that expressing my concern to the world will result in sincerely well-meaning folks at CMU feeling attacked and misunderstood. This is an ever-present risk of using social media as a platform for conversation. It is also possible that some who read this article may develop a distaste for our CMU friends without entering into relationship with them to find out the extent to which there is ground for such a reaction. I want to emphasize again that I know nothing about this course or those responsible for it apart from its description. There is a chance that the message communicated by the description is an unintended mistake. There is a chance that our CMU friends will respond to learning of its harm by apologizing and seeking genuinely to develop a better approach to conversations about Yoder’s abuse of women. This is what we can hope for.

I decided to express this concern publicly, because it is important for CMU and all parts of the church to sense viscerally that the ways you do and do not engage questions around sexualized violence affect those in your immediate community and countless others far beyond.

I want you to know that over 10 different people from different parts of both the United States and Canada brought their offense at the course description to my attention before I decided to write about it.

I want you to understand that people all over North America are listening to you, watching, hoping desperately that after two years of revived conversation that confronts the traumatic history of John Howard Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response, you will show yourselves to be communities that care deeply for those of us who have suffered abuse.

CMU, please change your course description and confirm publicly that you have done so here. Give us reason to believe that this class will welcome survivors, name sexual abuse for what it is and unequivocally condemn sexualized violence in all its forms.


Hilary J. Scarsella

Hilary J. Scarsella is a public educator for OurStoriesUntold as well as a founding member of SNAP-Menno. She is pursuing a PhD in theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and studies the intersection of traumatic experience with Christian faith and practice.