Concerning John Howard Yoder: His Sins and His Books

john-howard-yoderI am no expert on the late Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, but, like many others, I have benefited from his work, particularly his seminal work, The Politics of Jesus. And, like many others, I came to know Yoder’s work through the work of Stanley Hauerwas.  It was through reading Hauerwas’ autobiography, Hannah’s Child, that I came to learn of Yoder’s earlier sexual misconduct.  It was a disheartening revelation, for, around that same time, I learned of the sexual misconduct of Karl Barth as well as the troubled private life of New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd (through John D’Elia’s fascinating book, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship).  It was a weird time.  It seemed to me that numerous stalwart voices within the theological academy had, in fact, fairly sordid private lives.

Now, I knew this, of course, but I knew it theoretically.  Had you asked me then if the greatest of theologians were deeply flawed and sinful, I would have responded, “But of course they are!”  But it is one thing to know it and another thing to know it.

The Yoder accusations were/are deeply troubling.  I will not chronicle them here.  A simple Google search will tell you way more than you want to know (the essential articles are here).  To summarize, though, Yoder sexually harassed a number of women under the guise of developing a theology (as he saw it) of extra-marital sexual conduct that stopped short of sexual intercourse, and, in his mind, short of sin.  It seems that Yoder actually believed the kind of stuff he was saying to the women who were his victims. As I understand it, Yoder never actually had sexual intercourse with any woman other than his wife, but he, in essence, was propositioning women in theological language that would, inevitably, have led to such. (Again, my opinion.) Furthermore, he apparently did force himself upon the wife of a man who invited him to lecture while the husband was away, but, when she resisted, he stopped.  Nobody has accused Yoder of rape, though what he did was clearly a violation.  What he did and proposed was abusive, harassing, and adulterous.  It was sinful.  It was wrong.  I haven’t the slightest desire or inclination to minimize Yoder’s actions.  It matters not to me how he justified his actions with theological window dressing.  They were pernicious actions.

Before his death in 1997, Yoder underwent a discipline process among the Mennonites.  However – again, as I understand it – the victims of his harassment never saw the kind of public acknowledgment of his misdeeds that they warranted.  His books continue/d to be published and his name remains a bright star in the theological world.  I am evidence of this fact, by the way.  I first read Yoder somewhere around the year 2000.  I was completely unaware of these accusations until two or three years ago.

Apparently, Herald Press, the Anabaptist publisher of many of Yoder’s works, now feels that it needs to acknowledge Yoder’s sins.  According to this story in Christianity Today, Herald Press will now include the following notice on all of Yoder’s books that they publish:

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.

The purpose of this post is to express my own struggle with this move.  It is a genuine struggle:  just when I think I’ve reached a conclusion I see the other side.

On the one hand, it seems reasonable to me that the victims of Yoder’s abuse should not have had to suffer the indignity of what likely appeared to them to be a kind of corporate cover-up.  That is, the publishers continued to make money off of Yoder, he continued to teach at Notre Dame, and, as others have pointed out, he continued to lecture widely to much acclaim.  In this sense, it seems to me a good thing that those who financially benefited off of the mythological mystique of Yoder should have to acknowledge that the man off of whom they benefited was living in radical violation of his own programme of pacifism and peace.

On the other hand, this is happening twenty-two years too late, after Yoder’s death.  Furthermore, it seems an odd thing to publish the sins of an author on all of his books (from that press).  It seems to me that if Yoder’s sins invalidate his works, they should be pulled.  If they do not invalidate his works, they should stand.  The victims need/ed justice and the reading public (like myself) needs not to be naive.

Furthermore, I do wonder about the precedence this sets.  Should the works of Barth proclaim his adultery?  Should the works of Paul Tillich proclaim his adultery?  Should the works of Francis Schaeffer proclaim his problems with anger and temper?  Should the works of George Eldon Ladd mention his deep insecurities, his ego, and his misdeeds?

All of that being said, what makes this case unique is that Yoder was arguing for pacifism, peace, and justice, for the protection of the weak against the powerful and for a radical living out of the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps it is the incongruity between Yoder’s sexual misdeeds and the core of his entire message that makes the disconnect worthy of publication, worthy of a literary scarlet letter.  Who knows?

As I think about the whole sordid affair it occurs to me that there was one author who once published his own disclaimer about his own hypocrisy and failures.  In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul announced that Christ Jesus had come into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am the foremost.”  Yoder should have acknowledged this himself.  We all should.

It’s a tough question, this publishing of sins, and one with which I’ll likely continue to wrestle.  Regardless, there is a cautionary tale here about our words and our lives, and one we had best heed well.


6 thoughts on “Concerning John Howard Yoder: His Sins and His Books

  1. I’m not familiar with either Yoder or his books. But it seems to me that putting a disclaimer on his books is awkward–especially since the disclaimer has nothing to do with the actual content of the books themselves. If one is looking for post-mortem justice of some sort, a public comment from the publisher, a substantive financial contribution towards a relevant charity, and perhaps the revoking of some of Yoder’s awards (or something) would seem better.

  2. I appreciate the comment, Eugene. Yeah, I THINK I lean more towards your position. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a publisher doing anything like this and it simply raises all kinds of questions about consistency and what is supposedly being accomplished here. It is very odd. What you have proposed would see the publisher acknowledging Yoder’s issues in concrete ways without opening a very odd Pandora’s Box that they may regret down the line. That is a helpful idea.

    It is a great tragedy, really. Yoder had an astounding mind. The Politics of Jesus, for instance, is just a tremendous book.

  3. Very interesting essay. I haven’t read Yoder or studied his background, so take the following with a grain of salt: The disclaimer seemed to me unnecessary, in the sense that we are all deeply flawed sinners, until I considered the issue in the light of his credibility. As an absurd example: Would I want to know if my marriage and family counselor was thrice divorced and had 18 children by 10 different women? Yep, and I’d probably find another counselor. I think the publishers are disclaiming, to boil it down to one word, his credibility, and leaving it to the reader to decide if they wish to study Christian ethics from a man who apparently had significant trouble practicing what he preached. I don’t mean to imply that credibility cannot be restored; however, without strong evidence that Yoder repented from his sins and so overcame them (in precisely the sense that Christ calls us to overcome), he doesn’t seem to have earned the benefit of the doubt here.

  4. I think those are helpful insights, Phil. Thanks. You raise a valid point: a person seeking to learn ethics from a person with such radical discontinuity between his teaching and his life should be aware of an issue of this magnitude. I do hope Yoder repented. Some have suggested that his apology was for any harm and hurt caused, but that he still held to the theoretical validity of the proposals he was making to these women. I certainly hope that isn’t the case. The whole thing is a sad business.

  5. Let me begin near where you left off by acknowledging I am a sinner saved by grace and struggle every day to color my life between the lines set out in God’s word.
    These thoughts are hardly complete. The problem is the more I think about this subject the more facets I see but let me share a few observations.
    First, I think the writings of Yoder may be judge independent of the credibility of the fallen man from which they came. As you have pointed out in past sermons we have been given the power of sub-creation and some of our sub-creations may have an existence and value of their own that exceed our reach and even our life span. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the equality of mankind with an extraordinary eloquence while building his fortune on the backs of slaves and using teenage slave girls to satisfy his darker impulses. Are we to discard the Declaration of Independence now that we know of the author’s many shortcomings, I think not. The words of the Declaration of Independence convey ideas that exceed the moral character of the author but the ideas themselves call a body of people to aspire to live up to a new and higher standard. They are no less powerful because they were written by a man who was utterly flawed. Likewise the works of Yoder may be consider and stand or fall when measure against the Bible.
    Second, credibility has to do with one’s believability or trustworthiness in a particular community. More importantly credibility relates to whether one can be cited or quoted with authority in that community. As a trial lawyer, I can say without hesitation that from a worldly perspective it is fairly easy for a man to destroy his credibility and to do so to an extent where it is unlikely he will ever regain it. I think a believer can just as easily and just as irreparably destroy their witness for Christ. I know little of John Yoder or his sins but from your essay it sure appears he has irreparably damaged his personal credibility, believability and ultimately his witness. If I were a pastor I might study Yoder’s works but I would not cite or quote Yoder’s work given his failures where none believers could be present. Further I don’t believe I would cite them in any environment where I couldn’t fully discuss all of this information good and bad. The danger here is to your personal credibility. If you quote Yoder to someone and then they learn later of Yoder’s sin, what will they think of you? For this reason I support the publisher statement and think the only other choice they have is to pull his work entirely.
    Third, the question of one’s credibility or moral authority within a community has nothing to do with forgiveness. Forgiveness is purely a matter of grace. It is far easier for a sinner to gain heavenly forgiveness than to regain earthly credibility.
    Fourth, from your essay it is clear that you were not surprised that Yoder sinned or that it is easier to write about living a sinless life than to actually live a sinless life. Your surprise seemed to be limited to just how big a sinner Yoder was. As you acknowledged we all know our Christian leaders and theologians sin but I think we harbor an expectation that their sins will be small. We want to believe that there is a correlation between the level of knowledge one has of God and the level of sin we will see in that person’s life. In reality the amount of scripture one commits to memory may have more to do with their learning style and personality than holiness. Only God knows but it is entirely possible that in spite of Yoder’s brilliant mind he was a morally and spiritually weak man who never even tried to live up to what he wrote.
    Finally, Yoder’s life begs the question, is it possible to be genuinely close to God in the greater body of one’s life and actions and still harbor beliefs in some particular area that are downright contemptible. It is interesting that the men having this discussion are Southern Baptist. Our denomination was after all closely tied to the defense of slavery in the south. I have often been trouble by the fact that most of the men of faith who served as generals in the Civil War fought for the south and many went to their graves fully convinced their cause was just and supported by the scriptures. Many an otherwise God fearing Southern Baptist died an unrepentant supporter of slavery and far too many continue to harbor racist attitudes and beliefs even today. Were these people lost because they fail to repent of these sinful attitudes or to even acknowledge they are indeed sin? I could probably go on a few more pages on this but I think the short answer is the blood of Christ covers not only the willful sins of believers but also our arrogance and our stupidity.
    I will have to say it has been a long time since anything I read or heard got my wheels turning like this essay has. I have not been able to get it out of my mind.

  6. Lloyd,

    I want to thank you for your thoughts. You make very good points and they have certainly challenged me to try to think clearly and well about this. Like you, the whole thing has my wheels spinning as well. As always, I’m grateful for your wisdom and balanced approach, brother. The points about credibility and quoting the works of Yoder are very helpful. God bless.

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