Over the past several years, a moral and ethical dilemma has come up: how do we respond to the writings and works of great public heroes who have made significant contributions to their field of study while also realizing that at times these individuals did not exactly live moral lives?
I’m thinking specifically of one example: John Howard Yoder. Although a Mennonite, Yoder’s story has been so widely told that even Anglican, Lutherans, and Pentecostals are using his story as a case study in crooked leadership.
Yoder, a long time professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (formerly Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary) rose to fame through his profound writings on peace, pacifism, social justice, and ethics. A few of his books such as Nevertheless: The Varieties of Religious Pacifism and What Would You Do? have personally been very instrumental in my own academic and theological development as a pacifist and I would recommend anyone interested in peace studies to read them. Yoder was also a committed Christian, showed leadership in a number of religious settings, and was fairly well-liked by those in his small town. And yet, Yoder had a secret. Although married, Yoder engaged in sexual scandals that at the time his wife was largely unaware of (I know this because I actually attended the same church as his widow during my schooling in Indiana). To compound the issue, Yoder’s sexual scandals were not simply affairs (as damaging and distressing as that would have been) they were unwanted physical touch between himself and his female students. Yoder continued to give into his temptations for a number of years resulting in many female members of this small private institution feeling afraid, violated, and manipulated.
Unfortunately, perhaps due to his rising fame, his tenure, or his otherwise perceived good character, the school chose not to do anything about it. Despite the young women’s pleas for help, the school ignored the allegations until Yoder was eventually forced to retire in 1984, at which point he continued to write profound ethical works and was hired at Notre Dame University in Indiana (which, at the time, was a far more prestigious and well-known school than the small Mennonite academy where he used to teach).
Understanding this background, Yoder’s story indeed portrays a number of moral dilemmas. To begin, there is the issue of why Yoder engaged in these despicable acts in the first place despite holding a religious tradition that would have explicitly been against it. Yoder, a self-proclaimed pacifist should have been aware that sexual abuse is a grave form of injustice and violence. In Rid of My Disgrace, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb describe such a terrible act as being a “vandalism of shalom” – something Yoder, on paper, would have agreed with.
Secondly, I believe that the school’s inability to act upon these allegations also presents some moral quandaries. Mennonites have long been known for their active witness through their protests, dialogues, and service towards marginalized people groups. It would seem that if anyone were to take these women seriously, it would be a denomination (like the Mennonites) who push for gender equality and giving the oppressed a voice. Additionally, the Mennonites have often been known as a humble group. It would seem quite strange that this school would care more about a professor’s rise to fame than about the hurting members in their own midst. Therefore, as much as I feel Yoder did terrible things, I also feel the school was equally guilty by not being better listeners and trying to be proactive in resolving the problem. That being said, I happen to know that the school has since tried to remedy the situation by providing a public apology and even financial remuneration to those affected by this tragedy – but still, no amount of pocket cash will ever resolve the anguish these women must have felt.
Lastly, this issue brings up the question of whether or not we should continue to read Yoder’s works knowing that his moral character was quite flawed. I struggle with this one. Short of the historical reformers from whom we take our tradition, Yoder is potentially one of the most instrumental theological figures within Anabaptism today. Having only recently passed away, Yoder’s voice remains fresh and has been studied by numerous theologians and scholars. Should we simply ignore all that he has written because of his inability to control his temptations?
I’d have to say no. I believe that upright character is necessary for religious leaders to have. I believe it is hypocritical to write on topics you clearly do not practice yourself, and I also believe that when confronted by God, Yoder will have a lot of explaining to do. On the other hand, I do not think we can completely reject all of his writings. We may have to distance ourselves from the actual character and simply focus on his work, but I still believe his writings are vital to the direction pacifism within North America has taken. Therefore, I continue to recommend his writings.
Although Yoder cannot go back and change what he has done, perhaps the lesson truly lies in what we can take from this experience. We all make mistakes and sometimes our mistakes have profound effects on our credibility and how we are viewed. Our Western society still leaves much to be desired in terms of the way we treat women. Women are still being abused and manipulated every day while we sit by watching helplessly. Our silence is the greatest enemy of our time. Our apathy is just as bad as committing the acts themselves Until we learn how to stand up for those who are wounded, people like Yoder will continue to rise in power within our religious institutions. We must take a stand by believing women, respecting each other, and lobbying for tighter laws. It is only in doing this that we will begin to restore healing and hope.