The Christian Century is getting serious about clergy sexual misconduct, or so it would seem from their current cover article, “Theology and misconduct.” It covers the story of John Howard Yoder, the legendary Mennonite theologian and sexual abuser. He was investigated for abuses he committed in the 1980s and 1990s; he died in 1997. Fifteen years later, two academic authors (Ruth Krall of Goshen College and Barbra Graber of Eastern Mennonite University) published articles about Yoder’s abuse. Finally last year, the Mennonite Church USA formed a committee to study Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response.
John Howard Yoder is best known for his writings on Christian pacifism. He opposed not only physical violence but anything that violates “the dignity or integrity of some being.” He wrote, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent.” Yet he spent years violating the dignity of his victims at a Mennonite seminary, then twisting his own writings to keep leaders from holding him accountable.
The authors ask, “Do Yoder’s violations of his own theological claims undermine the content of his theology? Do his sins disqualify him from the major role he has played in modern Christian thought?” A few paragraphs later they answer their own question. No, they say: “Because God providentially uses the fallen for good.”
So what? I don’t care whether Christians still read Yoder’s work; I want to know the church did for his victims.
In the 1980s, many of Yoder’s victims told their stories to Marlin Miller, the president of the seminary where the abuse took place. Eventually Miller had a “substantial collection of files,” but Yoder managed to drag the proceedings on for years. One victim, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, tried to organize a victims’ movement, but Miller refused to put her in contact with the others, citing “confidentiality.” (See Marie Fortune’s insightful distinction between confidentiality and secrecy). Heggen eventually prevailed with the support of another Mennonite leader, and her “Dear Sisters” letter brought the group together. They gathered for two days, created a composite story, and outlined eight steps they wanted the church to take. Together they read their story aloud to a group of Mennonite leaders, asked them “Do you believe us?” and requested their eight reforms.
What eight steps did Yoder’s victims request? How did the leaders respond? Unfortunately, we will never know. The CC article ends with the leaders offering a eucharist-like dinner of soup and bread to the gathered survivors. The final sentence, from Heggen’s testimony: “They served us, and it felt like a holy time of communion together.”
That’s very touching and sweet. It’s a lovely liturgy. But again, so what? Theology, schmeology; liturgy, schmiturgy. What about the practice of Christianity? If we aren’t working to create justice and wholeness for the real people the church has harmed, what good are our ideas and symbols?