October 11, 2013
In this post I share a “pastoral letter” from Anabaptists in the United Kingdom who are praying for us. Alan Kreider notes this in introductory comments to the letter:
The influence of John Howard Yoder’s writing is global. So the discernment that is current in North America about his writing and abusive behaviour will have an impact in many places globally. As someone who for many years was involved with the Anabaptist Network in the UK, I wanted the leaders there to be informed about the matter, so that they could discern with us and pray for us. In late August I wrote to Stuart Murray, a leading English Anabaptist thinker, providing him with a brief resume of what has happened here. Stuart then sent my letter to key participants in the Anabaptist Network, including conveners of the thirteen Anabaptist Study Groups scattered around the UK. Several weeks thereafter, the group that meets in the northern city of Manchester at its monthly meeting discussed the Yoder situation. After their meeting, their convener, theologian Brian Haymes, summarized their discussion and sent us the letter that is attached here with his and the Group’s consent. I am grateful for this Group, for their fidelity to Christ as English Christians learning from the Anabaptist tradition, and for their solidarity with us in prayer at this time of difficulty and hope. Alan Kreider
Following the request for prayer from Stuart Murray Williams to all Anabaptist groups concerning the situation that has arisen around John Howard Yoder we gave over much of our monthly meeting on Monday 16 September to this matter. Our knowledge of the situation is very limited although some members had discovered websites which told some of the story. All of the group admitted to being taken aback at the scale of the abuse.
JHY’s family and especially his widow were often mentioned. We realize they have carried and are still carrying a heavy load. They are not often mentioned in the written material available to us. We felt for them.
Much debate went on around the role of the seminary. Several of the group members had taught or presently teach in Colleges [which in North America are called seminaries] and were aware of the difficulty such a high profile case posed for the integrity of the institution. We thought the initial prompt action by the seminary was right and there was much support for the seminary’s present actions in refusing to bury the past in unhealed forgetfulness. We acknowledged that the leadership is responding in more creative public ways than some British institutions have done in such matters.
We knew we were in no position to judge JHY’s sincerity. Did he earnestly seek to share the discipline process? That, we thought, was a crucial question. There are issues here that are very important but that we were in no position to judge.
One of our members spoke quietly and tentatively about the possibility of JHY being troubled by Asperger’s Syndrome. He raised this question because he himself suffers with this syndrome and thought he sensed things in the story which he recognized. He told us that such is the nature of the problem that any sufferer has to have the reality of what they are doing pushed right square before their eyes before they will recognize the morality of their actions. Intelligent people with this syndrome have amazing abilities for self-deception. We had no way, of course, of judging all this but it added a possible level of sensitivity without in any way excusing what was done. We were moved by our member’s self-disclosure.
Another person in the group said that JHY was said to be working on some papers on sexual ethics, as yet unpublished. We thought these might reveal something important but would need reading with a very high level of critical insight as to their arguments.
A virtually unanimous response from the members was that it sounded as though the victims of abuse had not had the attention and care they should have had, especially in contrast to the help and counsel given to JHY. From our experience we knew that institutions could be more concerned for the offender and the good name of the institution than those who received the deepest pain. We knew of situations where this meant that wounds were left untreated and people suffered a serious loss of care by the community. We recognized we had a lot to learn ourselves in this respect. A high profile offender can claim too much attention by an institution wanting to keep its good name.
There was a clear distinction in the group as to JHY’s standing as a teacher. Most recognized that like all teachers he was a flawed man and that his work, especially in human relationships, should be read with much critical care. But we also acknowledged that the writings of JHY had meant a great deal to many of us and had been a blessing from God. A minority among us felt that he was too seriously damaged and that all his work was now in question. There was, however, strong support for the seminary’s actions in (a) maintaining courses in JHY’s work while (b) engaging in a public examination of the case and the consequences for all involved. This openness, while vulnerable to criticism and misunderstanding, was thought by the group to be a courageous and proper way forward.
Part of what makes this such a difficult issue is precisely the great Anabaptist insight into the fundamental relationship in Christian discipleship between belief and practice, that the Gospel truth we know shows in the way we live. JHY taught this so helpfully but apparently lived it so disappointingly. But let those of us without sin ….
We tried to imagine what all this must mean to the local congregation and seminary who had to bear and judge so much. Part of the Body of Christ is wounded from within and we felt for the pastors and members.
All this turned us to prayer and that prayer will continue in the personal devotions of group members. Please be assured that Anabaptists in the UK are standing with you as best we can, asking for healing, renewal and peace for all, longing for God to bring from this situation new beginnings we can hardly imagine. We greet you in Christ who is our peace.
This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.
The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.