Theologian’s past affects victims and GC classes

Theologian’s past affects victims and GC classes

By Logan Miller

The works of late renowned theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder have been deemed transformative for Mennonite theology.  Yet as more women who have been victimized by his sexual impropriety have come forward, the Mennonite church questions how to make amends while educators reconsider the approach to Yoder’s work.

“There are women that have been carrying this for years that haven’t felt heard,” says Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Goshen College professor of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies.  Stoltzfus also serves on the Discernment Committee established by Mennonite Church USA.

Allegations against Yoder caused him to abandon his position at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1984, and eventually his credentials were suspended in 1992 after eight women that he sexually victimized urged the Mennonite Church to bring him to justice. Yoder died in December 1997.

According to the reporting done by Tom Price of the Elkhart Truth in July of 1992, Yoder’s misconduct consisted of improper hugging, innuendos, sexual harassment and forcible sexual behavior.

Sexual intercourse, however, was not one of the allegations.  As Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, religion and philosophy explains, this particular act was not in accordance to Yoder’s “bizarre” sexual ethics.

The Discernment Committee was established last summer, and according to a blog post by Ervin Stutzman, executive director for MCUSA, their purpose is to create a denominational response to Yoder’s sexual abuse–specifically to those affected by him.

Ted Koontz, who was a colleague of Yoder’s at AMBS, also serves on the Discernment Committee, and said that there is “significant unfinished business regarding [Yoder's] legacy that [needs] to be addressed.”

And according to Stoltzfus, the current issue being addressed is not solely regarding Yoder.  “It’s not just about this man–it’s about many other things,” she said.  “We do know that he did receive counseling, but the women who sought counseling did not have theirs paid for. That felt like a further violation.”

When the issue of Yoder’s actions first came to light in 1992, among AMBS and the Mennonite Church, “It was trying to call John to the carpet, but some of the victims weren’t ready to come forth–they were still in church leadership,” said Graber Miller.  “So there was never a full apology from the Church.”

While the Committee appointed by MCUSA wrestles with the question of atonement for the victims of Yoder’s actions, educators are recognizing the need to approach his theological contributions carefully.

“We believe we should continue to make use of his work and evaluate it critically,” said Koontz.

The last two months, however, saw a resurge in discussion surrounding the issue. A post in July by Barbra Graber about Yoder on Goshen alum Rachel Halder’s blog Our Stories Untold, sparking renewed dialogue.

Graber Miller said, “I have introduced [Yoder's] work when I reference it or use it by talking about his past in relation to sexual abuse.”  He also mentioned that there are a number of former students and faculty from GC that are related to Yoder.  “That’s one of the interesting things about teaching this context because [he] was so close [to the community],” he said.

“I do talk about clergy abuse already, and it seems to me that this needs to be talked about since it’s so current,” says Stoltzfus about the slight adjustment in the curriculum of her classes to name the issue; her courses primarily deal directly with women’s studies, violence, and systemic institutionalized sexual violence.

Photograph by Carolyn Prieb, provided by Mennonite Church USA Archives. A portrait of John Howard Yoder.

“I’m not going to use this as a case study,” said Stoltzfus, explaining it would be a conflict of interest, “but I can’t not name it.”

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