This essay may appear to some as a meandering stream of consciousness that fails to be contained by the categorical distinctions apparent in the organizational subheadings and previewed in the title: Yoder the author, Yoder the disciple, and Yoder the sinner. Such an impression is not a false one. Although I begin by offering an academic justification for separating Yoder the author from Yoder the person, I purposely allow this binary opposition to collapse as the essay unfolds, even acknowledging this event as it occurs. The primary reason that I call attention here at the beginning to this coming textual catastrophe is that I wish the reader to be prepared for the collapse rather than to be confused by it. At the same time, I’m aware that my intentions will be exceeded by the movement of this text, which of course has a life of its own apart from anything we might call a purpose, as do all texts.1
Yoder the Author
Throughout my academic life, as both a scholar and a teacher, I have encountered John Howard Yoder primarily as an author of books and essays that contain historical, theological and ethical knowledge about the way of Jesus Christ as given in scripture and witnessed by the church, especially Anabaptist expressions of the church. In other words, I have known Yoder first of all as the organizing
author function for a corpus of texts that are gathered together under the name of
John Howard Yoder. By
author function I am referencing Michel Foucault’s famous essay
What is an Author? in which he explains that the term
author in the modern era does not refer
purely and simply to a real individual but rather to the
juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses, including such matters as attributions of copyright and systems of citation.2 Put another way,
John Howard Yoder is the name I associate with specific texts when I cite them in academic articles or when I receive permission to copy chapters or essays for my students or when I identify specific statements or arguments to my students with the
John Howard Yoder.
I have throughout my teaching career introduced students in some of my undergraduate classes to texts authored by John Howard Yoder because these texts contain theoretical and practical knowledge that I wish to pass on to my students. As a rhetorician working within the discipline of communication at a university affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, I have found Yoder’s writings about the political and ethical content of Jesus’ teachings to intersect especially with the course objectives of two classes I routinely teach. For many years, I assigned Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus as one of several books students read for my Communication Ethics course.3 More recently, for that same course I instead have had students read a series of essays by Yoder collected together in a book under the title A Pacifist Way of Knowing and edited by Christian E. Early and Ted Grimsrud.4 Both of these books functioned in the class as an introduction to a Jesus-centered pacifist-oriented ethical alternative to the standard Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ethical systems we were studying as possible frameworks for making communication choices. The other undergraduate class in which I have routinely assigned Yoder is a course on Religious Communication that combines training in homiletics with a study of church rituals and performance practices. Here Yoder’s book Body Politics served to introduce students to the public rhetorical dimensions of routine church practices such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and committee meetings.5
In recent years, I have also taught a graduate course on the Anabaptist tradition for the Mennonite Education Agency’s Anabaptist Learning Institute—a program that certifies Mennonite elementary and secondary school teachers. In this course I included two of Yoder’s essays in a large collection of Anabaptist-Mennonite primary sources ranging from ancient writings by Menno Simons and Anna Janz of Rotterdam to more recent texts such as those by Ron Sider and Doris Janzen Longacre. The two essays by Yoder are
Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality and
The Original Revolution.6 The former served in the class to illustrate the critique of Mennonite institutions from the standpoint of the Anabaptist Vision that was advanced by the Concern group in the post-war era. The latter provided an example of Yoder’s influential challenge to the church to embrace the political and public meaning of the gospel.
In neither of the two undergraduate classes have I ever focused on the personal lives of any of the theorists or writers we studied, whether that be Immanuel Kant and John Rawls in Communication Ethics or Walter Brueggemann and Lucy Lind Hogan in Religious Communication. In the settings of these two classes we compared and contrasted such ideas as deontological ethics and utilitarian ethics with Yoder’s ethical reading of the gospel stories or we examined prophetic and dialogical models of preaching in relation to Yoder’s account of how rituals and practices communicate gospel meaning.
At the same time, in a class discussion that is sorting through ethical and rhetorical options at a Mennonite university, perhaps not all choices carry the same weight. We might acknowledge that the
author function of the name
Yoder connects texts gathered under this name to the typically unstated ethno-genealogical symbolic contents of
Mennonite institutions. For example, at Bluffton,
Yoder is also the name of a recital hall built with money donated by a Bluffton alumnus with the last name of
Yoder. Numerous current students, typically Mennonite, also share the last name of
Yoder. Chapel speakers drawn from Mennonite pulpits are frequently named
Yoder. The name
Yoder signifies as among the most commonly recognized Mennonite family names associated with the Swiss-German ethnic Mennonite heritage. Thus, even though no one states this explicitly, when we discuss
Yoder in class, there is the palpable sense that we are discussing not just a great theologian, but also a heritage that is granted pride of place in Mennonite education. In the case of the name
author function also amplifies the authority of tradition, for better or for worse.
Yoder the Disciple
Although I never knew John Howard Yoder personally, I live and work in a community that includes members of his immediate family, former colleagues of his, and many of his students. So I am keenly aware of the many ways that Yoder was not only an author of a body of texts, but also the possessor of a human body: a colleague, teacher, father, husband, friend, and disciple of Jesus Christ. My knowledge of Yoder’s bodily life arises not only from the two book-length biographical treatments of his work thus far published but also from the anecdotes and reminiscences of his students and family members who refer to him as
What I have learned about
John through conversations and published materials is that he was a complex and difficult person who devoted his life and intellectual gifts to the renewal of the church. I know that he often began his classes at seminary by having the class sing a hymn with him and that he became impatient with students who struggled to sing:
It’s not that hard, he is reported to have complained. I know that as a
more-with-less oriented Mennonite, he bought instant coffee in bulk, which he kept in a closet in his university office, mixing it with hot water and powdered cream in his cup for routine low-budget coffee consumption. I know that John was capable of reading a book or a magazine while keeping track of a conversation or a lecture or a sermon, a multi-tasking skill that often bewildered or even offended people around him who thought he was ignoring them. I once heard a story that during softball games while he was a student at Goshen College, he preferred playing deep outfield, so he could read a book while waiting for a fly ball. Most people who knew John can relate similar stories that illustrate his sometimes awkward and seemingly anti-social behavior—behavior that is typically represented as related to the unique and extraordinary intellectual gifts John offered the church.
The story of John Howard Yoder’s bodily life also has taken form in published accounts that record his more public activities. From these numerous historical and biographical books, I know that John Howard Yoder was a church leader who carried out relief work in Europe on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee, including youth work with the French Mennonites and administrative work for a children’s home for war orphans. He was also an ecumenically engaged representative of the peace church perspective within such forums as the World Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals. But perhaps most significantly, Yoder served the church as a teacher and a scholar, explaining and applying the gospel of peace as given in the scriptures and interpreted through the Anabaptist tradition. He did this through his leadership role in the Concern movement, whose activism and publication agenda was focused on reforming and renewing the Mennonite church in line with historic Anabaptist teachings. He did this through translation work that made old Anabaptist sources available in fresh new English translations for modern readers. He did this through the development of a theological ethics that reflected Anabaptist perspectives appealingly into ecumenical and interreligious conversations. He did this by teaching the disciplines of peace to several generations of students in a variety of institutional locations.
John Howard Yoder’s bodily discipleship thus included his work of thinking and writing for the church, work that bore fruit in the lives of disciples who were shaped by his life and teaching and by institutions and communities whose practices were changed by his influence. In the context of a Mennonite culture that has not historically valued intellectual work, except perhaps as a hobby to be tolerated, John Howard Yoder’s contribution of well-reasoned and rhetorically adaptive arguments on behalf of historic Anabaptist convictions established a new precedent by which it was possible for a practical Mennonite to conceive of thinking and writing as acts of discipleship and witness.
I was unaware of Yoder’s celebrity status as a renowned theological ethicist when I was assigned to read him during a college course. At that time and in the years since, I found in Yoder’s writings a compelling model for being a Christian disciple by thinking carefully and critically. As my friend Earl Zimmerman has said, Yoder
drew on the contributions of others in a broad and deep theological and ethical stream, often taking those contributions
in new and unique ways that were laying right in front of us but we had not seen, while relying on
his incredible memory and ability to synthesize massive volumes of material.8
Moreover, Yoder’s indispensable contribution to the broader Christian church is confirmed not just by the ongoing usefulness of his work to radical Christian theological reflection, emerging models of restorative justice, creative practices of peacemaking, reconciling methods of conflict transformation, alternative visions of political advocacy and inclusive forms of ecclesial polity, but by the testimonies of many Christians whose faithful discipleship was renewed through encounters with Yoder’s writings. Christianity Today plausibly named The Politics of Jesus as one of the ten most important books of the twentieth century.9
Yoder the Sinner
Yoder’s bodily life was also marked by the violence of his behavior toward others, manifested both in the socially awkward behavior already noted which was sometimes experienced as rude or dismissive by those who did not know him well, but also, and much more troublingly, in the abusive and devastating sexual advances he made toward numerous women throughout his professional life.10
When I first read Yoder as a college student I was as unaware of his sexual misconduct as I was of his widespread influence. In graduate school, as I began attending Anabaptist-related academic conferences and making acquaintances with those who knew John as a teacher and a colleague, I became increasingly aware of both his profound influence on the church and of his harmful behavior toward women. Of course, at that time, the knowledge of his sexual misconduct circulated mostly in the forms of rumor and innuendo, with any official reporting about his behaviors remaining controversial and contested.
I had also heard and read about the church disciplinary process to which John was subjected, a process that was concluded not long after I began my teaching job at Bluffton in 1996. When he was invited to speak at Bluffton for the Anabaptists and Postmodernity conference in 1998, John responded by reminding us about this disciplinary process and suggesting that we might want to reconsider the invitation in light of the charges that had been brought against him. As it turns out, although John agreed eventually to be the keynote speaker for our conference, he died before the conference took place. I attended his funeral, along with a group of faculty from Bluffton, which provided me with the opportunity to finally see John for the first time, albeit as a lifeless corpse in the foyer of Prairie Street Mennonite Church.
For me, these two events—the conclusion of the disciplinary process and the end of John’s bodily life—provided what I imagined as a closure to the controversy about his sinful and hurtful actions. As John’s earthly body was buried, my reasoning went, what we were left with was his textual body—books and articles (as well as yet unpublished texts that could be edited and published) which would continue to provide students and teachers with the wealth of John Howard Yoder’s brilliant insights for as long as we had eyes to see and ears to hear, unhindered by the failures of the man John. Like many of my colleagues who think of ourselves as in some sense
Yoderian in our outlook, I continued to teach Yoder and to use his ideas in my academic research and writing. When on occasion, questions arose in a variety of settings about his sexual misconduct, my typical response was to acknowledge these behaviors while at the same time pointing out that the church had investigated these abuses, disciplined John for his actions, and eventually released him for his teaching ministry in the church.
What I hadn’t accounted for in my thinking here—no doubt partly because of my gender and social location—is the ongoing hurt and harm that some of John’s victims experienced as a result of the ongoing life of his textual body. Words on the page that amplified the marks left by John’s body, appropriations of his theological genius that reinforced the powerlessness felt by those he abused, silence about Yoder the sinner that corrupted celebrations of Yoder the disciple, all of these reported and neglected experiences of pain and sorrow demanded attention to the ubiquitous persistence of sin and of sin’s effects, even after the binding and loosing of offenses and the death of an offending body.11 The ongoing effects of Yoder’s sins implicated me as someone involved both in the extension of John Howard Yoder’s textual legacy and as someone who typically chose to be silent in public discussion about his harmful conduct.
Yoder the Subject
As should be clear by now, the distinctions that I have adopted in this essay between Yoder the text and Yoder the person are unsustainable in any final sense, even if necessary in a practical sense. Yoder the disciple and Yoder the sinner cannot ultimately be excluded altogether from Yoder the author. As a subject of academic inquiry and teaching, Yoder is both a text and a context, both a literary body and a human one. Three examples follow of how the study of Yoder the author might be illuminated by awareness of Yoder the sinning disciple.
First, in works such as Body Politics Yoder described how the practice of
binding and loosing makes the restorative political reality of the church visible in the world. The authority of the church to require confrontation between a victim and an offender, as well as to offer forgiveness of sin, is a basic function of ecclesial politics and restorative justice. But Yoder’s misconduct case raises difficult questions for the practice of binding and loosing. In church discipline, who has the authority to bind and loose, to speak and act on behalf of the forgiving community? Is this authority limited to pastors or bishops/overseers/conference ministers? Who can determine that reconciliation has been achieved and forgiveness granted? What if not everyone who has been offended is ready to loose what had been bound, as was indeed the case when the Indiana-Michigan Conference committee that disciplined John concluded that its work had been finished?
Secondly, in some of his more obscure writings about sexuality and marriage, Yoder hinted that his attempts at what he called
friendly relations with women that included bodily intimacy but not sexual intercourse were based in his theological vision of a radically nonconformist church. Such a church, in Yoder’s proposal, provided contexts for satisfying human needs for physical relationships that exceeded the boundaries of traditional marriage relationships. Moreover, there are some indications that Yoder may have been inspired in his experiments with
friendly relations by old Anabaptist conventicles such as the Dreamers and the inner circle of David Joris that practiced various forms of sexual nonconformity. If this is so, should Yoder’s misconduct be seen not only as his personal failure to live up to his own theological ethics, as I’ve described his behavior elsewhere, but also perhaps as one undesirable and unanticipated outcome of Yoder’s theological vision?12 In other words, to what extent was Yoder’s sinful betrayal not merely a contradiction of his theological conviction but also a harmful expression of his deepest commitments? Might such an outcome, if acknowledged, suggest the worrisome possibility that nonconformist discipleship practices, however inspiring, carry as much potential for violence and abuse as the dehumanizing imperial powers such practices seek to resist?
Finally, Yoder’s abusive behavior and the church’s flawed response to it raise questions about the status of sin in Yoder’s theological ethics. Drawing on Anabaptist sensibilities, Yoder in his writing and teaching rightly stressed the extent to which the way of Jesus Christ is possible to follow in human history, despite the corruption of human societies by sin and death. In its emphasis on the dawning of a new cross-bearing, enemy-loving, and wealth-sharing ecclesial reality, did Yoder’s theological ethics inadequately account for the extent to which sin clings to the best intentions and most radical practices of Christian discipleship?13 Might such inadequately acknowledged sin include the unaccountable power and status hierarchies that persist despite and perhaps even because of calls for
revolutionary subordination and sacrificial service?14
These three directions of inquiry raised by knowledge of Yoder the sinning disciple are only three examples of how Yoder’s theological ethics might in some settings be helpfully qualified or even challenged by honest grappling with his abusive behavior. That many of us who teach Yoder, including myself, have been reluctant to do so is no doubt partly a result of our firm internalization of the western academy’s distinction between mind and body, and concomitantly also between public and private, a premise that organizes the categories of this essay, even though I have allowed these categories to be visibly unstable in my account here. I have permitted this instability to be apparent, and even called attention to it, because of my conviction that the ancient Platonic dualism between mind and body is not only unbiblical and antithetical to Anabaptist ethics, but also because it appears to me that this distinction, however useful and productive it has proved to be, lies at the root of so much of the violence that continues to be part of academic life, from its dehumanizing status hierarchies to its sexual assault epidemics. A system of meaning and discovery organized around the privileging of the mind over the body can only reinforce all those abusive practices that dishonor the holiness of the body by regarding the body as disposable and consumable.
Such an idealist philosophy also tends to disregard the physicality of texts, their capacities to hurt and to harm, as well as to help and to heal. The texts that Yoder authored and that continue to circulate are not merely representations of ideas but events of persuasion. To assign and discuss a text authored by Yoder, or for that matter by any author, has as much potential for both help and hurt as the actions of a live human being. That is because we are textual creatures, knit together both by genetic code and symbolic action. As such, we who teach and write about Yoder are obligated to exhibit as much curiosity about the reception of Yoder’s theological ethics by different types of audiences as we do about the production of such theological texts by an author named Yoder. Among these audiences are not only the lives that are transformed into the biblical way of peace by Yoder’s persuasive writings but also the bodies that bear the traumatic marks of Yoder’s sinful actions.
Of course, at any given moment, there is an appropriate focal point for learning and study. In teaching or writing about Yoder or about any topic, it is not possible to discuss everything all the time, even if everything demands an attention that must be suspended in order to think or communicate at all. Nevertheless, a rule that is beginning to emerge for me is that when I feel the need in class to talk about Yoder the disciple—the brilliant and faithful intellectual who made radical Anabaptist theology visible and plausible beyond the Mennonite church and who helped renew the practices and polities of the church through the practical and academic assignments he was given—then I need also to talk about Yoder the sinner—the abusive and defensive betrayer who invaded the personal space and exploited the vulnerabilities of many women who were his students and friends and who used his institutional location and growing prestige to protect himself from accountability for his destructive behavior. I have drawn attention to Yoder’s misconduct most recently in the graduate class on the Anabaptist tradition mentioned earlier during an online video introduction to writings by Yoder that I had assigned to my students.15 But I am not yet satisfied by this approach. And I confess to being uncertain about how I will proceed during the next class in which Yoder is part of the syllabus. Yet, I am quite certain that this professor and sinner is unlikely to ever stop teaching about and learning from the profound wisdom, radical discipleship, and distressing sin of John Howard Yoder.