"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Response to Tobias Winright on John Howard Yoder

This piece began as an increasingly long comment at the Sojourners blog on a powerful piece by a Christian ethicist on his dilemma of whether to continue to use his doctoral mentor's work as increasing attention is paid to the man's extensive history of abusing female students, colleagues, and community members as a Mennonite pastor and professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary followed by our shared graduate alma mater, Notre Dame. I have reproduced it here and hope that he responds to my invitation to further conversation and mutual learning on the subject. The Sojourners piece is an abridged version of an earlier reflection by Dr. Winright.


Hi Tobias! Many thanks from a sister ND Theology PhD alum for sharing your struggles on this very painful issue and for your attempts to honor and support the many women John Howard Yoder unrepentantly victimized, with the equally abusive collusion of the Mennonite seminary and denomination and our own department which unconscionably hired him in knowledge of his egregious record. It is especially poignant for me because I narrowly dodged the bullet of his predation as the only woman in his seminar my first semester, originally planning to focus on social ethics. Since he was my most likely adviser I shudder as I read of his repeated attempts to sexually abuse his primary female dissertationist, still resident in the program when I arrived, and his opportunistic use of her for emotional support and academic hostessing. This is eerily reminiscent of Karl Barth's double betrayal of his wife Nelly, whose vows he trampled on, and his young employee Charlotte von Kirschbaum whom he sexually abused for decades while plagiarizing substantive portions of her work.

I would have been even more vulnerable as the youngest person ever admitted to the doctoral program, fresh from a profoundly devastating experience of clergy and professorial abuse by my undergraduate theological mentor--especially as it would be five more years before I learned that I was a victim, rather than a slut and adulteress, and began to fight my way out of the intense shame and false guilt that would have left me putty in Yoder's hands. The perpetrator was a married Protestant pastor at a Catholic university where my beloved Jesuits repeatedly fostered and mishandled the abuse as ABSM and Notre Dame did with Yoder: allowing me to confess it as my sin, granting him tenure rather than punishment, and years later claiming to have improved their awareness but refusing to make restitution for the tiniest portion of the huge lifetime costs to me and my family for therapy and lost wages from PTSD and intermittent writing block. Ironically, this man, a just war theorist himself put The Politics of Jesus in my hands in my sophomore grooming year, along with Barth and a host of other kyriarchal writers over four semesters beginning with the sexually abusive plagiarist Karl Barth and continuing in four courses with one non-white--Gustavo Gutierrez--and zero women theologians.

My own work eventually shifted to the historical area specializing in medieval women's theology. So I am accustomed to reading and teaching oppressively privileged male authors from Scripture through the present day with a mix of brilliant theological insights and horrific theological flaws that caused and cause grave harm to women and other oppressed people to this day. Their work is certainly overemphasized in contrast to women's and other marginalized people's work--if I had a dollar for every time my erudite nuns who brilliantly interpreted and advanced the texts of scripture, early church writers, and their own contemporaries are dismissed as "mystics with visions" I would be a rich woman. And I once lost a job to a junior male colleague from the program despite in depth, totally unreciprocated knowledge of the male authors he studied because "He does, ya know, regular medieval theology." But if we tried to exclude their work from use the field would virtually vanish and the chance to directly address the deep problems in both their particular work and the ecclesial and academic systems which fostered and extended the evil intertwined in it.

So I would advocate reducing dominance especially of singular worshipped figures like Yoder, adding balance by rearticulating the canon more effectively, and teaching them with deep and specific attention to both their gifts and insights; the sinful problems in their work and their lives; and the direct but generally ignored interaction between them. I well remember how offensive the mansplaining, domination supporting "revolutionary subordination" chapter in Politics of Jesus was and find it no surprise that he treated actual women with hierarchical abusive violence for which that profoundly flawed theology provided rationalization. I feel nauseated when I contemplate his closing words in PJ proudly calling Christians to follow the Lamb of God--desecrating in the sacred Latin I have often so often sung in worship by the contrast to his own actual life spent raping and soul-slaughtering the true presence of Christ in his sisters, daughters, mothers, and brides.

Yoder's exposition of pacifism is also profoundly theologically flawed by failing to take into account all the axes of oppression that contain systemic ignored violence and make equal admonitions to nonviolence to oppressed and oppressors highly dangerous. This follows the general problematic history of strict pacifism in failing to address the right of the intersectionally abused and oppressed--women being especially vulnerable--to defend themselves from violence, with last resort violence if necessary, from abusers and oppressors. Just war theory is equally flawed in its imperialistic inconsistencies: neglect of widespread household and individual violence by cis males, the corrupt systems that foster it and forbid self defense by victims, and the failure to place revolutions of the oppressed on the same level as state violence against them and other states. Instead it I hear the dilemma posed as "great theology but flawed life" and find it distressing that these serious flaws in his work have not been addressed in any of the discussions I have read of the parallel sexist abuse of so many female students. Academic celebrity culture too often ignores the faithful praxis and brilliant writings of a diverse range of voices which ground, correct, and extend the work of those confined to the narrow perspectives of their own unjust privilege. Broadening the theological conversation takes time, work, and humility but is richly rewarded by improving its overall caliber as well as addressing specific ethical dilemmas like this one.

My biggest concern about your piece is the problematic comparison of him to slave-trader-turned-Jesuit Rodrigo Mendoza in The Mission who thoroughly and publicly confessed in word and deed his sinful abuse and oppression of the vulnerable--and followed this up with both a total renunciation of the ill-gotten goods it provided and a lifetime, and sacrificial death, in service to his victims. As others have mentioned, Yoder balked real repentance to his last day of power and privilege and fame. It was profoundly sinful of ND's theology dept. to hire him in full knowledge of his abusive past--though not surprising given their long term toleration of other multiply abusive male priest-professors like Jesuit Charles Kannengiesser and Holy Cross Jim Burtchaell. (Not to mention androcentric bias in hiring, course and exam content, and treatment of male and female doctoral students--especially in student parenting which was frequent and supported in men, and vanishingly rare and ambivalently treated in the women like me who managed it).

Hiring and retaining Yoder subjected female students to both physical danger and the daily emotional trauma of knowing our safety and dignity were totally disregarded by a dept. and university that falsely claimed to engage in theology as an expression of Gospel values. This was certainly retriggering to me and helped delay my recognition that I was a victim, not a slut, until it was too late to seek legal or significant institutional redress for my own abuse from my own perpetrator or undergrad alma mater. Like Yoder, that prof made the scantiest of apologies for what he minimized as "the inappropriate aspects of our relationship" and continued to enjoy a successful career there before moving on to endanger female undergrads at a national service academy.

Every penny Yoder earned at ND and every honor received was tainted with his abusive history and present which, as others point out, he has no history of thoroughly repenting nor of making the slightest of real, direct amends to his victims. Renouncing both by giving the money to his victims for therapy and to preventive organizations; resigning his professorship with an explanation why; and focusing further research on this issue with humble listening, learning the deep wrongness of his actions, and writing about it to would have all been components the Mendoza-like behavior. Supportive mentoring of primarily male grad students in no way makes up for his destructive abuse of the hundred womenhe physically abused before arriving at Notre Dame--and after, as reported by the woman mentioned in my opening paragraph. He continued to abuse women at Notre Dame--and after, via the secrecy which created a dangerous and hostile environment and the continued attempts to perpetrate with allowed him to continue abuse attempts with at least one student (and likely others) as described in my opening paragraph. The fact that he eventually accepted her rejection of his repeated rape attempts does not change that these attempts were violating and abusive in themselves, just as they would be from a pastor to parishioner, a parent to a child, a therapist to a client, or anyone else with massive power which was supposed to be used for the good of the one in their care. So hearing Yoder's generosity to men already enjoying unjust preferential treatment in the department and the profession--above all the unimaginable luxury of daily safety from predation utterly denied to your female colleagues--as penance for his egregious abuse of us and our sisters is immensely painful. I implore you as a father of daughters, professor of ethics, and follower of Jesus to rethink and renounce that profoundly flawed assertion which dishonors all survivors of clergy and professorial sexual abuse with retraumatization rather than healing advocacy.

Thank you again for this courageous piece and especially for considering my very extended reflections here! You can find some of my work addressing intersectional abuse issues in theology and spirituality and pastoral care at my blog. In fact, I think I will reproduce this there and welcome your comments and insights. And you can reach me at lauraATgrimesDOTws if you are open to further conversation and learning on these issues from the perspective of someone who shares the experience of the sisters John Howard violated and, I trust, is now interceding for as he is purified by the fiery divine mercy on which all of us sinners depend.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Laura: It is very good to hear from you after these many years. I am grateful to you for taking time to share--eloquently--your thoughts about my piece. I am actually in agreement with you overall. I will simply note a few items for now.

    First, I appreciate your suggestion about "rearticulating the canon more effectively, and teaching them with deep and specific attention to both their gifts and insights; the sinful problems in their work and their lives; and the direct but generally ignored interaction between them...."

    Second, over the years I have really wrestled with pacifism--and when I studied with Hauerwas and Yoder, almost they persuaded me, but not quite--and actually I have theological and not only "practical" or "realistic" reasons for my stance, and I think there may be flaws like you point out with pacifism. In connection with this, I agree it is oversimplification to say that the problem with Yoder is an incongruence between his life and his theology.

    Now, as for my reference to Mendoza from The Mission, I parenthetically qualified that with an (I hope). I also noted that "I could be wrong." These appear in the Symposium Ethics version, which as you note was the original, lengthier version (Sojourners had it trimmed down, and I accepted that, but perhaps too much so, but at least the Sojourners version allowed me to add at the end, "and speaking only for myself"....

    You write: "I implore you as a father of daughters, professor of ethics, and follower of Jesus to rethink and renounce that profoundly flawed assertion which dishonors all survivors of clergy and professorial sexual abuse with retraumatization rather than healing advocacy."

    I think that between the two versions of my piece, I was already in the process of rethinking--and I appreciate your post here encouraging me to continue doing so. Believe me, I do not want to dishonor survivors of such abuse. I agree that, given what you've written here demonstrating the vast differences between Mendoza's repentance and what Yoder did or did not do as penance, the assertion falls far short. But it was my hope, the best I could come up with as I struggle to come to terms with all this. I am sorry that this part of what I wrote dishonors or retraumatizes any survivors.

    Finally, I want to note that, as my final paragraph alluded to, I consulted with some of my female peers in Christian ethics at ND whose struggles and reflections in this informed and corroborated some of what I wrote here. I admit that sadly they were a minority compared to the 100 who were survivors of Yoder's abuse.

    Thank you again for your own powerful response/reflection/admonition, which I truly will continue to contemplate in the journey ahead, also relying on the "fiery divine mercy" you rightly bring up in this Holy Year of Mercy.