We come to the last of our 7 Broken Men and I’m going to take a somewhat more serious tone with this one.
Recent blog posts in this series have been presented with a lighter touch as we’ve noted the way our broken men have been used by God for the greater good. And while some of them did inflict suffering on others, their offences were long ago, making it easier to wave off the excesses of those trapped in the long distant past.
But now we come to the most troubling entry in our series, John Howard Yoder.
He has hurt people.
All of them women, in fact.
And he did so relatively recently. Many of Yoder’s victims are still with us, although he isn’t.
God certainly used him. Powerfully. He is one of the primary thought leaders behind the modern Anabaptist movement. His teaching on the church, social justice and pacifism, peacemaking and capital punishment have filtered into both the mainstream evangelical and progressive evangelical movements.
True to his Mennonite roots, Yoder called on the church to resist the temptation to try to take over politics and society (remember, this was the era of the Christian Coalition). Instead, he argued, the primary responsibility of Christians is faithful presence, ie. “to be the church.” That meant that the church’s role was to model an alternative, redeemed society, right under the noses of those who sustained the broken system in which we currently find ourselves.
Many people, including those who haven’t read Yoder’s work, have been affected by his vision for the church.
Primarily John Yoder was an academic. He joined the faculty of what would become the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1958, where he taught until the mid-80s. In 1972 he published The Politics of Jesus which rocketed him to fame and served to popularize the Anabaptist principles that had previously been seen as the domain of Mennonites. That book was ranked by Christianity Today as the 5th most important Christian book of the 20th century.
Later he became professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and a fellow of the Institute for International Peace Studies. He held that post until 1997.
His work provided a helpful theological framework for evangelicals and other Protestants to embrace pacifism, nuclear disarmament, and opposition to the death penalty.
I read The Politics of Jesus in the early 80s and it totally changed my worldview. I hadn’t encountered anything like it before. Yoder brought traditional Mennonite convictions to the attention of a wider audience and in doing so changed the church. He made being an Anabaptist cool.
But there was something dark at work below the surface for John Howard Yoder.
Later we discovered he had left Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1984 because of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. AMBS chose not to tell University of Notre Dame about the allegations (that’s how it rolled back in those days) so Yoder carried on as normal.
Except by normal I mean pretty abnormal.
His abuse of women was of a very peculiar nature. He would pull them into his belly and hold them very tightly for a painfully long time. They couldn’t escape his grip. Over the course of his career it has been alleged that he had touched or made sexual advances toward more than 50 women.
But the really creepy part of Yoder’s behavior was that he developed a theological defense for it.
Yoder called it “nongenital affective relationships,” and said that touching a woman could be an act of “familial love”, in which a man helped to heal a traumatized woman. These long, deep, full-frontal embraces were meant to be celebrations of familial security, rather than “provoking guilt-producing erotic reactions.”
Women felt if they complained about his behavior they were somehow betraying his higher ideals about human relationships. They felt abused by his behavior, but were also left wondering if the problem was theirs. Did they not have an enlightened enough view of human sexuality?
One woman, who blew the whistle on him, claimed that Yoder told her they were on the cutting edge of developing new models of sexuality for the church. He told her, “We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian church will be indebted to us for years to come.”
All sexual assault is horrific, but I think it’s even worse when the abuser puts this sinister religious gloss on it.
Wanting to believe the best about Yoder, Marva Dawn and Mark Nation describe him as:
“…a man who had needs for intimacy and closeness that were unmet. This was a man with great intelligence, who in the midst of newly emerging sexual revolution, came up with a theory about sex that made it possible for him to satisfy his own needs while, as he convinced himself, serving others.”
To many of those others he was just a vile sexual predator.
I’m personally troubled by the presence of John Yoder. He helped shape my thinking in very decisive ways. The first time I’d ever heard the term Constantinianism to describe the unholy alliance of church and state, was in The Politics of Jesus. Yoder opened my eyes to the inherent dangers of Christendom and in many ways started me on the quest to rethink how church should navigate its role in a secular society. His book Body Politics changed the very way I see church.
Yoder once wrote, “That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history, from which both personal conversion (whereby individuals are called into this meaning) and missionary instrumentalities are derived . . . In every direction we might follow in exposition, the distinctiveness of the church of believers is prerequisite to the meaningfulness of the gospel message.”
I loved that! It sang in my heart.
But now I know that he was using that whole “theology of distinctiveness” line to force women to hold him. Creep.
Do we reject what Yoder wrote because the guy was screwed up and because he screwed up other people? No, I personally can’t reject his work out of hand. It’s too good. But neither can I bring myself to quote him as an influence or recommend his books as sources.
God uses broken men, but that’s no excuse for us to revel in our brokenness or to refuse to be better. We need to grow up, to emulate the beauty and wholeness of our Lord Jesus, to show grace to those on the same journey, but to never lift our hand from the plow to which he called us.
Stephen Neil once said that the history of the Christian church showed that it had been advanced by “a feeble folk, not very wise, not very holy, not very patient. They have broken most of the commandments and fallen into every conceivable mistake.”
We’ve seen this in the examples of seven broken men.
And we’ve seen God still has his way, something for which all of us – including the victims of broken men – can be thankful.