Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Revisiting the Legacy of John Howard Yoder

July 25, 2013

Photo by and ©2004 Dustin M. Ramsey

Photo by and ©2004 Dustin M. Ramsey

Time has its way. As does the Spirit.

The accelerating interest in and widespread appreciation for John Howard Yoder’s theological work has also provoked renewed calls for the Mennonite church, including AMBS, to revisit unfinished business with his legacy. Last year, in February and March of 2012, AMBS faculty did significant work to review AMBS’s history with John Howard Yoder and to come to a shared agreement that guides how we teach, critique, interpret, and use Yoder’s work with integrity, recognizing the significance of his theological work and the harmfulness of his actions. This Faculty Statement is posted on the AMBS website.

In addition to the hard work our AMBS faculty has done to interpret the complicated ironies of John Howard Yoder’s legacy over many years, I wanted to add a personal word.

As the current president of AMBS, I'm committed to a new transparency in the truth telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done. Some who are only tuning in now will say, I had no idea about John Howard Yoder’s widespread sexual harassment and abuse. Others will say, why keep bringing this up; it was settled long ago; he submitted to a church disciplinary process and was cleared for ongoing ministry. Others will say, FINALLY. This has taken far too long.

The renewed outcry for truth-telling about what really happened and what didn’t happen in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s has deepened my resolve and the resolve of Mennonite Church USA leaders, including Ervin Stutzman, to continue the healing journey. I was not close to the John Howard Yoder saga when it was unfolding and only heard him speak once during his visit in 1997 to Harrisonburg, VA. Now, as I review the written materials about him and talk to people, I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behavior.

I am also keenly aware that I was not there. I do not presume that I would have done things differently at that time. I thank God for all the faithful and arduous labor that was exerted under extreme stress to stop John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and to listen to the victims—as ineffective as it proved to be for many years. As AMBS professor Ted Koontz said elsewhere: “The women who experienced sexual and power abuse by John personally have far too long been sidelined (along with others who were directly abused by other church leaders) and are rightfully at the center of our concern. I nevertheless am aware the hurt caused by John's behavior was and is far-reaching. That circle of hurt includes some who carried major responsibility to work at stopping his abusive behavior, who were unsuccessful, and who were burdened by weight of that failure.”

True, there was confusion about who John Howard should be accountable to with various influential church leaders and institutions continuing to send him all over the world even as AMBS leaders of the time discouraged his use as a resource. It took far too long to realize how he was out-manipulating persons who sought to confront him, along with providing his own theological rationalization for his sexual activities.

But it’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time, must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight. What did actually happen? What was done to address it and what was left undone regrettably, or done poorly, in retrospect? Who suffered because of that failure? Who was disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure? In what ways would we respond differently today given the benefit of hindsight and so much learning in the meantime?

Yes, John Howard’s ministry was and is an exposition of the Gospel that is reaping an enormous blessing. Thanks be to God! This flawed man was gifted in ways that allowed him to grasp radically good news in the Gospel that needed retelling, reimagining.

Ironically, it is because of that Gospel that we can fearlessly call sin what it is. The far reaching hurt of the evil that was perpetrated and allowed to fester too long must be more fully and publicly acknowledged. It is then that we can move into deeper healing and reconciliation. May it be so!

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Standing our ground

July 22, 2013

Many people raised our voices in loud lamentation last week when a court ruled that a man who killed his unarmed 17-year-old black neighbor was legally justified within Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

Much has been written about how the systemic racism plaguing our society was unmasked yet again in the stark injustice of the verdict. I, along with thousands of others, joined “cry for justice” rallies across the nation. Yet the question that nags (more like obsesses) me is: on what grounds does the “Stand Your Ground” law stand?

The law assumes that inflicting deadly harm on a neighbor if you feel threatened makes perfect sense. Why? Because it’s patently evident that self-preservation is the number one human right. Call it what you want—primal wiring, reptilian instinct, visceral vigilance. It doesn’t get much more basic than that. Or does it?

It’s heady stuff all right—to know you have the power to blow away anyone whom you “reasonably” believe could do you harm. To walk around with a gun in a hip holster, ready to kill anyone who threatens you has to be the ultimate adrenaline rush. No wonder massive numbers of Americans have been busy arming themselves to the teeth.

Yet, what is the ground on which we choose to stand? The right to eliminate all that threatens me? That seriously gets in my way?

Two stories from my grandfather illustrate the point. A D Wenger traveled around the world in 1899-1900. He wrote a travelogue which was published in 1902 called Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. Reportedly, the book was a bestseller among Mennonites soon after the turn of the last century.

While on a ship from Turkey to Syria, Grandpa was approached by a fellow passenger, Mr. Adiassewick, a Russian and a member of the Greek [Orthodox] Church. Grandpa writes: Shortly before our voyage ended he took me to his cabin where he strapped to his body a long sword that hung nearly to the floor, and got two well loaded revolvers out of his trunk; then he said, “This is the way I’ll travel when I get out there. They tell me those people are savage and if they come at me I will shoot. What will you carry?” I replied that I would also carry a sword, a Bible which is “the sword of the spirit.” With that a man is better armed than if he had a deadly weapon in every pocket.

While in Damascus he writes: Three men, ministers of the English Church, after wander- ing over the wild country on both sides of the Jordan for four weeks, came to our hotel on the evening of May 6th, tanned and toughened with their journey. When asked if they were not afraid of the Bedouins they replied, “No, we are all armed.” That doesn’t seem right does it, for ministers of the Gospel of the Prince of peace to carry carnal weapons? And it is not right, for Scripture saith, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.

As our seminary last week began prayers of confession, lament and hope, our call to worship read: “As a community that values the voice of biblical witnesses, what do we do when confounded and in despair? We look to Scripture.”

Why do we look to Scripture? Because Scripture testifies across many centuries, through countless people in untold numbers of places, about a God who works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. 

O Lord God of hosts, …
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne…
(Psalm 89:14)

This is the ground on which we stand.

Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
     You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your mind, and with all your strength.
     You shall love your neighbor as yourself
(Matthew 22:37-40).

There is no law greater than these on which to stand, Jesus said.
All other ground is sinking sand.

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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.