As someone who has found John Howard Yoder’s writings very helpful, I was nevertheless excited to hear, in April of 2012, that Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary had published a statement recognizing the ambiguity of Yoder’s legacy1. Of course, Yoder’s sexual misconduct was no secret. In fact, as a college student in the early 2000s, I found professors very open to discussing the relationship between his writings and his behavior. At the same time, there seemed to be little inclination in the academy or the church to make any substantive criticisms against Yoder’s academic work.4 While I had little at stake personally one way or the other, it seemed to me that it would be healthy for theologians and ethicists to think critically about the most influential Mennonite scholar of the 20th century in light of feminist analysis of power and abuse. In fact, it seems to me that this is how we should treat any scholar; all academic work is provisional and needs to be updated, criticized and transcended. However, in Yoder’s case there are even more reasons than usual to engage in this kind of response.

As this discussion has been reopened, there have been a wide variety of ideas about how best to treat Yoder’s writings. On one extreme, one could try to separate Yoder’s academic work from his personal life, and treat the two as basically unrelated.2 On the other extreme, one could say that Yoder’s behavior invalidates the entire corpus of his work, and that it can no longer be used normatively.3 Most responses have been somewhere in between, but lean towards one or the other of these options. I myself have chosen to continue to use Yoder’s work in the classroom, alongside a discussion of the complex history of Yoder’s actions and the church’s response. As with any material that I bring, I ask students to engage it critically, although in Yoder’s case I make a special effort to encourage them to notice his underlying theories of power and ethical process.

I feel little need to justify my response against the first extreme, which considers behavior and academic work to be completely separable. After all, Yoder himself would have rejected this claim, and it seems to be a basic Anabaptist notion that abstract beliefs are only valuable insofar as they result in faithful action. The other possibility (rejecting Yoder’s work completely) does need some serious consideration. Aren’t there other scholars we could read who contribute just as much to Christian ethics and carry less baggage? When I ask myself this question, my first reaction is to give three reasons why I don’t think this is the case. (These reasons are not unique to me, but come up consistently when I talk to others who are trying to resolve this issue.) First, Yoder has been extremely influential, especially but not only in Anabaptist circles. To completely excise Yoder and his influence would mean ignoring perhaps the majority of contemporary Anabaptist scholarship and undermining the religious identity of many who have found Yoder to be crucial in their faith development. Second, the relationship between thought and behavior is a complicated one and can’t be treated in black and white terms. I’m not sure we could find a theologian, ethicist, pastor or any leader whose behavior completely matches the ideal that they present in their work. I know I certainly would not be a candidate. Third, if we want to understand the relationship between Christian theology and the church’s history of tolerating sexual misconduct (including but not limited to the Mennonite church or to Yoder), it will be important to have a deep understanding of Yoder’s academic work. New ways of thinking always build on what they criticize in some way; ignoring the past usually condemns us to repeat it, as the saying goes.5

The Antinomy of Academic Ethics

In laying out these three reasons for continuing to use Yoder’s work, I have sometimes deluded myself into thinking that I have found a logical, balanced alternative to the two extremes that we talked about earlier. It helps that it seems to work in practice – I can teach Yoder both constructively and critically, helping students appreciate some of his best insights and also opening up space for dissent and growth. Unfortunately, if I think too hard about what I am doing, I realize that I still operate with two mutually exclusive assumptions, held precariously together but never integrated. These assumptions essentially map onto the two extremes mentioned earlier: one says that behavior and thought can be separated, at least to some extent; the other says that behavior and thought are inextricably linked. Under the first assumption, for instance, I can say that no leader’s behavior completely matches their teaching, and that it would be unfair to think that Yoder must embody the ideal that appears in his academic work. So there might be large pieces of Yoder’s work that are untouched by his personal misconduct and violence. Under the second assumption, I feel strongly that all of Yoder’s work is connected together, and that criticizing or rejecting some pieces of his work (e.g., his unpublished sexual ethics) means that we need to reconsider all of his work.

Both of these arguments appear to me to be incontrovertible. I find myself vacillating between the two, and I can follow each of them through their own system of logic and find them to be perfectly self-consistent. Yet I’m left with the question, which is it? Does thought determine behavior, in which case our job is to find that problematic kernel in Yoder’s writing that blinded him to the violence of his behavior?6 Or is there a saving gap between the two that allows us to take the best of Yoder and use it to criticize his own failure to live up to his ideal?7 Note that I am not questioning the fact that we as a church need to come to terms with sexual violence. The problem is that we have two mutually exclusive platforms that could serve as the basis for such a project. And it matters which one we choose, since either one would affect the way the project unfolds.

Immanuel Kant found himself in a similar quandary when he considered the problem of determinism vs. free will. Empirically, it appears to us that everything that happens has a cause. In fact, it would be unthinkable that anything would come about without being caused by something else. This is one of the things we take for granted about the world – what David Griffin would call hardcore common sense.8 At the same time, we know that when we act, we are not completely determined by the events of our past. Of course, we are constrained by them, but we make real choices between possible futures. That’s why we blame someone who makes a bad choice, even if their past explains something about why they acted in that way.9 Human freedom is no less a part of our common sense than determinism.

Kant realized that these were both internally consistent positions, but could not be reconciled with each other in the usual way. He called this kind of contradiction an antinomy, the mutual incompatibility of two laws.10 In order to resolve the contradiction, Kant says, one must realize that both apply to different levels of experience. His solution was to say that human reason uses the category of cause and effect to make sense of experience. Everything that appears to us must come through the filter of cause and effect, and therefore we do not experience anything that is uncaused. But human reason itself is beyond causality, and therefore we experience ourselves as free. So determinism applies to things as we experience them; freedom applies to the structure of our own reason. Both are equally true (or equally false), but both are necessary assumptions for us to make in order to function as human beings.11

I don’t necessarily agree with Kant’s metaphysics, but I think his argument could be a useful metaphor for a potential way to deal with the legacy of John Howard Yoder. In short, I don’t think it’s possible, even in theory, to define once and for all what the relationship is between Yoder’s theology and his sexual misconduct. It seems true both that Yoder’s ideas do not necessarily lead to sexist or violent actions, and that these ideas allowed Yoder and church leaders to ignore types of violence within their institutions and communities. Resolving these issues in a constructive way requires, I think, a form of transcendental thinking like Kant suggests.

Let me flesh this idea out by taking two examples from Yoder’s work: revolutionary subordination and the process of communal decision making based on consensus and Matthew 18.

Revolutionary Subordination

If there is one concept in Yoder’s published work that is obviously a candidate for criticism, it is his idea of revolutionary subordination as outlined in Politics of Jesus. Here Yoder argues that Paul’s statements about women and slaves remaining subordinate actually show the liberative dimensions of Jesus’ message. Paul assumes that the good news of Jesus has shown every Christian that they have moral value regardless of their social status, but he warns them not to use their energies to rebel against the impermanent structures of society. Yoder’s concern is to argue against those who believed that Jesus provided no workable ethic for the early church, who therefore had to revert to Greek cultural assumptions:

We have here again, in classic form, the statement that the ethic derived from Jesus was inadequate or irrelevant to meet the practical needs of the church as it went on living in society while the kingdom did not arrive, so that the stuff of moral discrimination and discernment had to be borrowed elsewhere, wherever it could be found, namely from both Jewish and Gentile thinking.12

Understandably, feminist scholars have been unenthusiastic about this idea. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza takes issue with Yoder’s justification of the Haustafeln passages as simply supporting the status quo and reacting against modern egalitarianism. [T]he social-ethical approach of Barthian theology [this refers especially to Yoder] legitimizes the pattern of patriarchal submission as religious motivation for accepting the status quo of patriarchal social structures…[It supports] the postbiblical feminist claim that Christian theology and the Church are inherently sexist.13 If Schüssler Fiorenza is right, we may be able to use revolutionary subordination as a foothold to understand the reasons behind Yoder’s mistreatment of women. Notice that the roots of the problem would run very deep; they would include Yoder’s mistrust of modernism/liberalism, as well as the idea that the ethic of Jesus and the early church provides a better lens than liberation for Christians today. It would also challenge Yoder’s idea that the church should be primarily about faithfulness (including nonviolence) rather than effecting social change. If it is true that revolutionary subordination is directly linked to sexism in the church, then it would be necessary to rethink the very foundations of Yoder’s thought. Most of my sympathy lies with this view.

At the same time, when I re-read Yoder and try to understand it on its own terms, I cannot help but feel a sense of ambiguity. Yoder is very clear that he does not support the status quo, and that the Christian message does not encourage passivity in the face of oppression. He is careful to define subordination not as subjection or submission, both of which would be passive, but as a purposeful way of living within a particular social order.14 This should be a reciprocal relationship, in which both parties treat each other as having equal value, though having different social functions.15 Yoder realizes that this does not match the modern idea of feminism, and that it could not be adopted without modification for current use, although he does think that Paul’s message might offer a corrective to the individualism of Western liberalism.16

In fact, in his response to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Yoder believes that he is essentially in agreement with her interpretation of church history:

The basic stance of the study of Schüssler Fiorenza…is that the reading of the New Testament should generally be guided by the awareness that Jesus’ original emancipatory message can only be discerned by watching its trajectory through the oppressive culture with which it interacted…That approach is parallel to mine. The difference is that my objective in 1972 was to gather inductively what scholars were already saying, claiming no authority of my own to debate with them. Schüssler Fiorenza goes back independently and critically to the sources.17

And there are several aspects of Yoder’s argument that could be attractive to feminist theory: thinking in relational instead of individual terms, giving agency to the oppressed, transformation rather than acceptance of oppression, etc. From this perspective, you could see Schüssler Fiorenza’s case against Yoder as resting on a fairly uncharitable reading, especially since Yoder was writing in 1972 before feminist theologians had made their most impressive contributions. Probably one would still question whether revolutionary subordination is really an adequate framework for feminism today, but then Yoder is not necessarily making that claim anyway.18

Either of these readings has a certain logic within itself, and depends on reading Yoder with a particular set of questions in mind. From the first perspective, it seems clear that revolutionary subordination validates patriarchal oppression in the name of nonviolence. If this is true, it has implications for the entirety of Yoder’s work. From another perspective, revolutionary subordination is consistent with, although not adequate for, a feminist interpretation of church history, and Yoder’s project merely needs clarification and updated language in order to avoid misinterpretation. It would be difficult to come to a position in the middle of these two, such as dispensing with the idea of revolutionary subordination while affirming the rest of Yoder’s work. In order to do so, one would have to deny that it is the outcome of several of Yoder’s most basic assumptions.

Thus we arrive at the antinomy I spoke of earlier, two internally consistent logics that run counter to one another.

Communal Decision Making

Unlike revolutionary subordination, Yoder’s work on communal decision making has enjoyed a much more favorable reception. In a nutshell, Yoder encourages Christian communities to make ethical decisions together, using scripture as a basis for discernment but not as a prescriptive rulebook, and using a process of consensus to allow the group’s decision to emerge communally. The term consensus now has very positive connotations in many Mennonite congregations, especially among the more liberal.19

Yoder’s ideas about consensus appear in many different places, but one of the most recent examples is in the short book Body Politics, published in 1991, only a year before Indiana-Michigan Conference set up a disciplinary/reconciliatory process for Yoder and his victims. In this book, Yoder uses Matthew 18 as the model for conflict resolution within the church: If your brother or sister sins, go and reprove that person when the two of you are alone. If he or she listens, you have won your brother or sister.20 If the disagreement persists, then a few other individuals are called to help resolve the dispute. After that, the entire congregation is involved, and if a resolution is still not reached, the offender is considered to be outside the community. According to Yoder, this passage means that the community is empowered to make ethical decisions in its own context and, if these decisions are truly based on the consensus of the whole community, they have the weight of divine authority (i.e., the concept of binding and loosing).21

Yoder is careful to avoid the potential criticism that this view allows for a punitive, Puritanical abuse of power. He says therefore that this kind of decision making is only valid if the members of the church participate in the process voluntarily, and that the goal of the process must be restorative rather than punitive.22 He also emphasizes the fact that processes of reconciliation must be focused on the needs of the victims.23 He encourages decentralization of these processes against the patriarchs and paternalists who would attempt to control the community’s discourse.24 Consensus arises uncoerced out of open conversation. There is no voting in which a majority overruns a minority and no decision of a leader by virtue of his office. The only structure this process needs is the moderating that keeps it orderly and the recording of the conclusions reached.25

I have encountered few people who are inclined to challenge Yoder’s idea of ethical decision making as a process of reconciliation and consensus. While revolutionary subordination is easy to dismiss, consensus and conflict transformation fits more easily into our common-sense notion of justice. In fact, this is one instance where Yoder connects with more interpersonal strategies for conflict resolution rather than the masculinist discourse regarding participation in warfare26. Surely this is an area where we can still learn from Yoder despite the inconsistencies between his teaching and his personal behavior?

Here again, though, if one reads this section of Yoder while looking for possible hints of violence, one could make several damaging criticisms. First, it would be important to notice that Yoder’s apparently innocent text is actually intimately connected with his attitude toward the women that he harassed. He apparently believed that the process outlined in Matthew 18 meant that the women who complained against him should have first brought their concerns directly to him before instituting a wider disciplinary process.27 This could perhaps be considered a minor misunderstanding of how we should apply a restorative justice model to situations of sexual violence, but there are other deeper concerns.

The more basic problem with Yoder’s emphasis on consensus is that it depends on the assumption that a process could exist that allows everyone’s voice to be heard equally within the community when a given decision is to be made. Therefore, God’s will can be identified (humbly and provisionally) with the common voice that emerges from our community. Justice is identified with what is voiced.

Here I find the work of postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to be helpful. Lyotard suggests that language is always made up of mutually contradictory patterns of discourse or genres. A response that makes sense in the genre of comedy, for instance, would be unintelligible in a tragic setting. Practically, this leads to the situation of the differend, which describes a conflict or injustice that is irresolvable because each party couches its claim in different rules or genres. For instance, the claims of some First Nation peoples to their land is unvoiceable in Western courts of law, because Western law depends on particular assumptions of property and ownership that are different than the assumptions of First Nation societies. This means that we must always watch for instances in which a current discourse makes it impossible to express some injustice. This will be manifested as a silence or a gap rather than a positive claim. By fostering sensitivity to these silences, we are able to challenge dominant discourses and increase our ability to respond to various kinds of injustice.29

One can see how the practical application of consensus in the Mennonite church might allow many injustices to go unnoticed. If we focus on the decisions we reach in our church processes and meetings, we don’t need to ask ourselves why certain people aren’t present, or why certain issues never rise to the forefront of the discussion. It greatly limits the way the church can address issues of race, gender and sexuality. This legacy of the Mennonite church cannot be blamed on Yoder alone,30 but as one of the prominent scholars arguing for this style of decision making, his work plays a large role.

Like the concept of revolutionary subordination, Yoder’s idea of consensus is part of his basic framework of ecclesiology: the church as a community gathered to interpret scripture together for its own context. And again, this concept is ambiguous. It could be (and has been) applied as a way to liberate marginalized groups, or as a method of ignoring their silence. Again, we face an antinomy; the same text when viewed with different criteria in mind, could snap into focus in one of two mutually contradictory forms. In both cases, it is equally as true, or untrue, that Yoder’s thought determines his sexual misconduct, and that Yoder’s thought is utterly contradictory to this behavior.

Resolving the Antinomy: Strategic Fiction and Uncharitable Readings

When faced with an antinomy, we naturally tend towards one side of the two possible interpretations, and choose to use this one as our lens. This may allow us to function for a long time, but eventually we inevitably come up against certain limits defined by the alternative that we have rejected. For example, if we choose to say that Yoder’s sexual violence is not completely connected to his academic work, we could be content for a while with the task of separating the useful parts of Yoder’s work from the potentially problematic, and rejecting those aspects of Yoder’s behavior that fail to live up to his own best insights. I think, however, in the process of sorting through Yoder’s work, we would discover more and more threads, explicit or implicit, that connect all the pieces of his work together. In seeking to isolate the positive aspects from the negative, we would find ourselves with a smaller and smaller remnant of his writings until finally we would be forced to give up this position in favor of the opposite view: that everything in Yoder’s corpus must be discarded.

Let’s say we start with the opposite supposition. All of Yoder’s work is tainted by his subsequent behavior and we should no longer use it. Again, this would work well for a time. One could focus on other scholars, perhaps those who use feminism or liberation as a foundational framework. Sooner or later, if we consistently watch for ways that scholars have fallen short of their proposals, we would be forced to recognize certain ambiguities in the materials that we use to construct our theologies or ethics. We would realize, perhaps, that in highlighting the marginalization of one group, scholars are blinded to the ways that they themselves have privilege and participate in other forms of marginalization and violence. To follow a consistent logic, we would need to question the entire corpus of that author. So the attempt to completely cut out Yoder’s work would eventually lead back to an acknowledgement that no scholar lives up to his or her ideal, or in other words, that thought does not completely determine behavior.

Even if we didn’t come up against specific instances of ambiguity in other authors, we would still ourselves be engaged in an attempt to separate the purely good from the purely evil in our theology. As Catherine Keller points out, such dualism is at the root of all apocalyptic, violent, patriarchal thinking, even when its goal is to criticize power structures. Behind this impulse is a need for clarity and self-justification: it is the tone of certainty that rings apocalyptic: the certainty of what is evil – and so of ‘our’ goodness.31 The attempt to purify our theology of any ambiguous elements would be itself an ambiguous kind of project.

Practically, either attempt by itself would have negative consequences for the church’s ability to deal with sexual violence. In the first scenario, the attempt to isolate a few negative portions of Yoder’s work, whether his sexual ethics, revolutionary subordination, decision making by consensus, etc., would give us the false impression that we had solved the problem of the connection between Yoder’s theology and the church’s violence. In fact, the inherent ambiguity of Yoder’s theology (and any theology) means that it can always serve to justify or condemn sexual violence,28 no matter how carefully one tries to eliminate any vestiges of injustice from that theology. On the other hand, rejecting Yoder’s work completely would function in a similar way to give us the false impression that we can escape ambiguity by using only those scholars who seem to have no obvious personal failings. In both cases, the assumption that it is possible to arrive at a purely just theology would in the long run keep us from continuing to critique sources of violence in our theologies.

In my opinion, a resolution to this antinomy would need to get beyond either of these two options, but because it is an antinomy and not a simple alternative, it is not possible to occupy a middle ground between the two. A resolution would have to acknowledge both sides at the same time. Kant, for instance, resolved the antinomy of determinism and freedom by saying that both work on different levels: determinism at the empirical level and freedom at the transcendental level. In our case, we need a way to encourage radical revision of Yoder’s theology in light of feminist concerns while at the same time recognizing that such a critique can only be done in and through the ambiguous legacy of his theology.

One way of moving toward a solution would be to examine the way that previous scholars have made radical critiques of authors with problematic personal lives. One of the best examples would be Emmanuel Levinas’ criticism of Martin Heidegger.32 Heidegger, a 20th-century German philosopher, joined the Nazi party and benefited from this identification by receiving a rectorship at the University of Freiburg. He later renounced Nazism, but continued to make ambiguous remarks that led others to wonder whether he ever really repented of his association. Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian Jew who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, had been deeply influenced by Heidegger’s philosophy before the war. Heidegger’s sympathy with the Nazi party was a great blow to Levinas, and he therefore attempted to locate in Heidegger’s thought the reasoning that might have misled him so terribly. Levinas’ magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, in his own opinion, was a rejection of Heidegger’s emphasis on the self and a turn toward the Other.

Reading Heidegger and Levinas with some critical distance, it is easy to see how Levinas’ work is actually a continuation of Heidegger’s in many ways. In fact, Levinas’ search for the roots of Heidegger’s Nazism leads him to criticize something that is not obviously related to Heidegger’s behavior. Levinas himself believes that the focus on the self has characterized all of Western philosophy from Plato onward, so it would be difficult to maintain that the violence of Nazism is a direct result of that philosophical position. There were many philosophers who held similar assumptions and did not support violent regimes.

What Levinas did was to use Heidegger’s violence as an excuse to formulate a new philosophy based specifically on Levinas’ position of marginalization in 20th-century Europe. His new way of thinking was based on an uncharitable reading of his predecessor, and his criticisms were likely based less on objective problems with Heidegger’s philosophy than on his experience of betrayal. Yet what emerged was a creative reformulation of philosophy that was able to draw on Jewish experience in a way that no previous philosophy had done. Levinas’ criticism of Heidegger was a fiction, but it was a strategic one.

In the case of John Howard Yoder, we face a similar dilemma: the need to condemn the behavior of a scholar whose writing contains many positive elements. I believe the most constructive response in our case is to follow the example of Levinas. This means first of all that we place the most weight on our need to respond to the injustice that has been done. We should trust the impulse toward a radical revision of academic work that is somehow linked to oppression, and we should privilege the voices of those who have been most directly impacted. That impulse, if we follow it, allows us to find several problematic elements in Yoder’s work and might open up space for a new kind of Anabaptist theology that takes feminist concerns to be central to its project in a way that would have been impossible before. At the same time, we must realize that we are not discovering an objective relationship between thought and behavior, but constructing a relationship that suits our need to condemn sexual violence in a more robust way. We treat Yoder’s work as if his thought determines his behavior, although the “real” relationship between the two is never actually discoverable. It would be essential to keep in mind the fictive basis of this project, so that it continues to open itself to new criticisms.33

Those who see value in Yoder’s work are not wrong – in fact, I still believe it would be technically possible to construct a just theology based on a fairly straightforward reading of Yoder’s writings. I don’t believe that a critique of Yoder’s behavior necessarily invalidates the work of other scholars who use Yoder in this way. Furthermore, I suspect that any radical revision of Yoder will be Yoderian in the same way that Levinas remained basically Heideggerian. But the greater opportunity at this point in time is to use the anger against Yoder’s sexual violence as a lever to move Anabaptist theology forward into new and different understandings. Not that any future form of theology will escape ambiguity, but it may be possible to gain a better understanding of particular kinds of violence and create a more just community.

To me, this is the ultimate goal of teaching John Howard Yoder today. The practices behind it may look fairly similar to a “middle” position – finding some things of value in Yoder’s work and criticizing others. But it is not simply a compromise between two positions; it recognizes both in their full truth and in their full falsity. It encourages uncharitable readings that produce strategic fictions. It asks students to think from a position of marginalization in order to refocus, but not dismiss, the influence of the past. It abandons the quest for purity and certainty. If it is done well, this kind of teaching could produce out of the devastation of betrayal a beautiful multiplicity of Anabaptist theologies.