In the Strangle of Abuse: The Ethical Dilemma of Hero and Crook

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 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 touching between himself and his female students. Yoder continued to give in to 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 groups. It would seem that if anyone were to take these women seriously, it would be a denomination (like the Mennonites) who pushes 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.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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4 thoughts on “In the Strangle of Abuse: The Ethical Dilemma of Hero and Crook

  1. This appears to be a universal system problem. A greatly gifted individual often has equally great weaknesses. As the person’s gifts lead to a rise in outward greatness, he/she is surrounded by sycophants and buffered from critics. The community or institution that benefits financially as well as in prestige due to the great one is constrained to not impede the golden egg laying goose. The devotees (idolaters?) are primed to see only goodness in their great one(s.)

    This community should be commended for honestly examining the situation, even if long overdue, and seeking to rectify wrongs to the extent possible. However, the system is broken. I believe the only correction is to acknowledge the potential for abuse and corruption and institute policies that call for continual independent evaluation with a plan in place to encourage reporting of wrongdoing, investigation and correction. Let’s not deny that women who stand to benefit have participated in these cover-ups. Forget about, “big pharma,” or, “big food;” religion is the world’s largest unregulated business. While not perfect, other industries have mechanisms in place to protect public trust in the brand by self-policing.

  2. Hi Chaya,

    Thank you for your intriguing response to my post. I definitely appreciate what you shared here, and also know that the Church is broken and imperfect. Nevertheless, I also see that as religious people we are working towards the greater good. Making mistakes along the way, perhaps, but ultimately (for the most part) with the intention of blessing others.

    Thanks again for your thoughts 🙂

  3. Sadly, what Chaya says is true. Barth had a live-in mistress. Tillich was a known philanderer. Heidegger never renounced his Nazi ties. Nonetheless, each produced monumental and transformative work. Biographies are important, yes, but the content of one’s writing is not compromised by the character of the one writing it. Even the worst scoundrel gets a few things right, and despite Yoder’s flaws, of which he seemed to have many, the impression of his work endures. It’s crucial as educated readers that we’re able to separate the work from the author, otherwise we embroil ourselves in endless biographical details that have no discernible connection to the work in question.

    1. Hi Ad Hominem,

      Thank you for your thoughts concerning my post. I agree with you that it is important to separate the person from the writing in some ways…also, we should not completely discount Yoder’s work just because of his scrupulous behaviour. Actually, I think my post points to the fact that I believe we should still read Yoder. What I am simply getting at is that all of us make mistakes, all of us are “messed up” in some way…but it is incredible how our lives can still be used for the good. Nevertheless, I still believe we should try to live a moral life of good character – then our works will truly be meaningful 😉

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