Receiving Gifts from Sinful People–The Case of John Howard Yoder

There is a small avalanche of magazines that comes into our home every month:  The New Yorker, InStyle, Smithsonian, Christian Century, The Week, Vanity Fair–and that’s not even the whole list!  So, sometimes, as you might imagine, I get behind–way behind, which explains why it is only this week that I got around to reading The Christian Century from August 20th.  The cover story of that issue was about John Howard Yoder–and more specifically, the egregious sexual misconduct in which he engaged over decades.  [You can find a longer version of the authors’ article here:  Scandalizing John Howard Yoder]

Most theologians have heard of this story by now–it isn’t new–but the Mennonite Church is still dealing both with the accusations, and, even more importantly with the response–or should I say lack of response–the various individuals and institutions made to them.  Suffice it to say that, overall, it was tepid at best.  The article begins with this paragraph:  “Thirty years after John Howard Yoder was first accused of sexual misconduct and almost two decades after his death in 1997, the story of his abusive behavior remains painfully unresolved in the Mennonite communities in which he was for a decade regarded as the foremost theologian and chief representative of Anabaptist thought.”

The issue raised in the article is not merely Yoder’s reprehensible conduct–though that clearly comes through, but rather to wrestle with how we theologians who come after him, particularly those who seek to walk in his footsteps, can continue to use his theology, when he himself so clearly and systematically violated the stance for which he is best known–that is, Christian pacifism.  Listen to his own statement about violence [the authors quote him repeatedly in the course of the article, and quite damningly, too]:  “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of person, we are being violent…”  They go on to note Yoder’s own emphasis that in Latin “the verb ‘to violate’ is the same as the verb ‘to rape’:  it refers to the purity or integrity or self-determination of a woman [emphasis added by the authors].”  By Yoder’s own theological standards, he violated in a spectacular way his own cherished tenets.

While Yoder is a very public example of the fallibility of human nature in general–and perhaps theologians in particular–he is not alone.  I have written here before about the challenges all Lutherans must face as they wrestle with Martin Luther’s own terrible Anti-Jewish writings; and the theologies of both Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King Jr. have been compromised by their own sexual misconduct.  None of us are saints, and sadly, a call to professional ministry–whether in the church or in the academy–certainly doesn’t change that.

Now, let me be clear that there is no question, of course, that individuals engaged in sexual misconduct–or misconduct of any kind–must be prepared to answer for, and accept appropriate discipline for, those violations.  Part of what makes the problem of the abusive Catholic priests so troubling is the apparent unwillingness of everyone involved to step up and take responsibility–and even more, the active attempts to cover and shield their crimes.  There is no excuse for that, ever.  However, the question still remains, what to do with the theology.  In Yoder’s case, the man may be deeply flawed, but his theology is, in places, brilliant, and still offers a much-needed prophetic word today.  What are we to do?  

Here is where the authors are so helpful, as they remind us that, “It is undoubtedly difficult to know how to receive gifts from sinful people.  But ever since the church settled the Donatist controversy in the early fifth century, the church has agreed that such gifts can and should be received.”  And this is not because of anything inherent in the person him or herself, but rather because of God’s majesty, mercy, and astounding ability to bring life out of death, and light out of darkness.  They remind us that “God providentially uses the fallen for good”–and, like with Joseph, even when the intention is evil, God can bring good out of our very worst actions.  The authors say strongly that “Yoder’s theology became a foothold for the devil;” and yet, “Against his best efforts, John Howard Yoder cannot escape God.”  Yoder’s work will endure not because of his own personal greatness, but because of the greatness of God. 

So, I pray, for us, too.  I would not want the validity or strength of anything I write, do or say to rest solely on my own character:  I’m Lutheran after all, and we know as well as anyone that no individual can bear that weight on her own.  Instead, I trust always in God’s everlasting kindness to work through me in ways I could never envision or imagine, and bring good out of my worst moments.  I am a sinner, true, and can never be otherwise, but I hope that the gifts I offer still can be received in grace and used for good.  We’re all counting on that, I think.

2 thoughts on “Receiving Gifts from Sinful People–The Case of John Howard Yoder

  1. This raises some questions that seem to me to be interesting, though they are tangential to the central topic.
    1. If we assume, reasonably I believe, that Yoder was a sociopath, then why did his theology become so important. Was he, as sociopaths are quite capable of doing, feeding back to the community what they wanted to hear? Perhaps in a very well formed manner? Or did his theology challenge anything that the community held dear already? Perhaps, in other words, the popularity of his theology is as much a reflection of his ability to manipulate others as was his sexual behavior, self-serving justifications, obstructionism, and manipulation of institutions.
    2. Is theology supposed to make people better? Is that the standard by which theology is judged? Is there a principle in theology corresponding to the logical distinction that follows from rejecting ad hominem fallacies? Is his theology not true/not valuable because he was a bad person, a hypocrite in relation to his own theology?
    3. If theology is supposed to make one a better person, how is that supposed to work?
    This all relates to my own concerns about the “indefinite malleability of doctrine,” which allows for the creation of any doctrinal claim one wants based on creative interpretations of doctrine. In Buddhisms in the US, there is a relatively large concern with doctrine–though a disdain for doctrinal studies–but much of that seems to me to be only in the service of pre-existing commitments and values, rather than being transformative.
    Thank you for provocative reflections and link to (yet another) scandal in US religion.


  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Richard–I've been thinking alot about them. Somehow, I'm resisting the idea that Yoder's theology is simply another example of his manipulation, but I'm not sure why….For me, the more interesting question is in 2: What are the standards by which theology is judged to be “good.” [I'm going to ask my students that question in class this afternoon!] For me, certainly it relates to David Tracy's understanding of a “classic” whereby something stands the test of time and continues to be relevant and transformative [to use your word] even as it is reinterpreted in fresh contexts. And, I said in the post, Christians have worked to separate “good” theology from “bad” people–but there must be limits to that, right? We have the same problem in Christianity as you see in Buddhism with the desire for “malleable” doctrine: if you work hard enough, you can get the Bible to say almost anything, and support almost any position you want to hold. Thanks for your reflections, too!


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