Reading texts—whether Scripture, poetry or theological writing—is an interpretive task. Critical thinking and empathy, historical knowledge and awareness of intention and context are essential parts of listening well to the voice of a text. And behind that voice is always a person or group.
In teaching theological work, helping students hear the voice of the writer as clearly as possible is only the first step. Considering its power and weight in relation to alternative views is another. But the most important is how the intellectual and emotional force of the work intersects with the life of the reader and what value they glean from this interaction. This latter element is something that a teacher can never fully anticipate and certainly does not manage. It is both a wondrous and disconcerting aspect of the vocation of teaching and learning.
Teaching Yoder’s Politics of Jesus as one among other texts in Christian ethics for about a decade (1994-2006) and developing a course focusing broadly on Yoder’s theological writings (occasionally since then) has required the discipline and patience of listening to a man whose life and work have clearly liberated some people from narrow understandings of Christian faith and clearly abused others through his thinking and actions related to sexuality. As more information became available about Yoder’s relations with women, I began to include this as part of the introduction to his work. Following the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference church discipline process and restoration to speaking in the church (1996), I reported that while Yoder had abused women, when his actions became public he had also cooperated with this church process, an action that was consistent with his own writing about the importance of church discipline.
Throughout my years of teaching Yoder there were always some people, especially women who had suffered from abuse from men in their lives, who did not want to read a theologian with any history of sexual harassment or abuse. I did not require someone to read Yoder who felt they could not, but did invite them to consider the fact that God does use earthen vessels for purposes that transcend the sins of individual agents. We use and even celebrate the inventions and writings, the ideas and artistic creations of many men and some women (given patriarchal history) who were morally corrupt in Christian perspective. We not only read but pray Psalms from David who had Uriah killed so he could have Bathsheba.
That does not excuse our need to read sources critically or to make judgments about what to study. In most of my years of teaching Yoder I did not include his writings on sexuality (except for the “Revolutionary Subordination” chapter in Politics of Jesus and pointing out the limitations of a “Matthew 18” approach to reconciliation in cases of sexual abuse) because I felt his actions undercut his authority to speak on this subject and because in my opinion there were other more important materials by him to engage. Given the shifting generations and recent conversations about Yoder, I would take a different approach now—inviting students to read his writing on singleness, marriage and sexuality critically as well. In my more recent teaching, I have also invited students to identify other aspects of his theological work that might be related to his views or practice related to women, especially his understanding of power and his single-minded ability to argue for a position in spite of other’s disagreement (eg. pacifism in the face of a majority ethical tradition that criticized or even despised this view).
In my experience students who are most excited about Yoder’s work are often from congregational or denominational backgrounds or countries where “God and country” theology and an individualistic understanding of salvation are prominent. They find in Yoder’s articulation of Christian peace theology and ecclesiology a richness and freedom they value highly. They are confused and troubled when they learn about his history of sexual abuse and must figure out how to appropriate ambiguity in their relation to Yoder’s work. This, too, is part of the interpretive process for both teachers and students—dealing with the anger, the joy, the offense, the challenge that the voices we encounter both in texts and in life evoke in us—and choosing how we will listen to, argue with, refuse or agree to follow, forgive and value them. My hope and intent has been to help students listen deeply to and thoughtfully evaluate Yoder’s theological writing to enable wise choices in response—and through such interpretive practice to enhance the way we listen to and understand one another in our families, churches and communities.