Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Avoiding Avoidance

May 29, 2014

Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics

Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics

Dr. Malinda Berry is joining the AMBS faculty this July. I am pleased to post her recent piece from Mennonite Life in the series, "On Teaching John Howard Yoder," as a guest on Practicing Reconciliation." The piece was commissioned for the summer 2014 issue. Welcome, Malinda, to the conversation!

Avoiding Avoidance: Why I Assigned Body Politics this Spring

This semester, my co-teacher colleague and I decided to put Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World on the assigned reading list for an upper-level course in ecclesiology. This was the first time that I assigned a book-length work by John Howard Yoder in any of the courses that I have taught in my eight years of putting together syllabi in undergraduate and seminary settings. I have avoided assigning Yoder’s work because I did not know how to talk about Yoder’s discipline process with students in a place as public as a classroom. In private conversation, I knew how to talk about this stuff. And when it comes to my own scholarship, I have chosen to ground myself in Mennonite sources and voices that reflect the fullness of our community rather than relying solely, or even primarily, on Yoder’s corpus.

So what changed? At a communal level, a lot has changed. With Mennonite Church USA embarking upon this most recent discernment and listening process, we have brought years and layers of hidden conversation out into the open. In the clear air and bright light of this new day, some of us are holding our breath as some of us exhale deeply; all of us are blinking as our eyes adjust in this new atmosphere. At a personal level, not that much has changed. I still find it difficult to know what to say about Yoder to my students. Rather than avoiding this complexity, yet again, I determined to speak forthrightly about the conflict I have with assigning Yoder’s works, indeed with Yoder himself.

We have all heard that the Chinese character for conflict comprises the characters for crisis and opportunity. Whether this is popular folk wisdom or true, it describes how I approached my conflict with Yoder this semester. I agreed to assign Body Politics because I would have felt academically irresponsible to exclude Yoder’s voice and perspective from our course where Anabaptist perspectives on the church are central. And it is this same work that afforded me the opportunity to speak about the crisis our denomination has experienced because of Yoder’s actions.

Body Politics, like many of Yoder’s works, is a collection of essays. This particular collection arrived on bookshelves in the late Spring of 1992, about the time two others things were happening. First was a Believers Church conference held at Goshen College in May, which Yoder helped plan. The conference theme? Church discipline, one of the practices Yoder discusses in Body Politics. Second, in June came the culmination of an 11-month investigation by two Mennonite Church panels into allegations presented in testimony by eight women that ended with the announcement that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference was suspending Yoder’s ministerial credentials. [Tom Price, “Theologian Cited in Sex Inquiry,” Elkhart Truth, June 29, 1992.] All at once, Yoder was Mennonites’ Doktorvater, teaching us how to think about the church’s theological significance in the world and he was systematically avoiding one of the church’s defining practices. How is it that Yoder was able to occupy two paradoxical spaces at the same time?

My colleague and I did not hide this paradox from our students. We chose to name this dilemma and integrate it into how we taught the material, citing—and putting at students’ fingertips—the numerous reputable online resources for peeling back the layers of complexity that surround Body Politics. When all was said and done, pedagogically, it was much easier to name the conflict surrounding Yoder than I expected it to be. Where the conflict remains alive for me is in the spaces where the interpersonal and the intellectual intermingle.

First is the interpersonal. I come from a family with deep ties to Yoder. My mother and aunts grew up with John Howard and his sister Mary Ellen at the Oak Grove congregation in Smithville, Ohio. Whenever I meet the Yoders’ daughter Martha at church conferences, we find it all too easy to talk about our lives and concerns, losing track of the time. I was honored to enjoy fondue with Leonard and Irene Gross one December evening, where we were joined, among others, by Anne Guth Yoder. It had been ten years since John Howard had died. We remembered him, listening to an old tape that included a recording of Yoder accompanying himself on the piano as he sang Deep River. I grew up being told that he had a beautiful singing voice, and it is true.

And then there is the intellectual. Methodologically speaking, I am a systematic and constructive theologian. I chose these specialities because I believe that our ecclesial community has been too reliant on John Howard Yoder for our theological perspective. Yoder is rarely one of my conversational partners because another major dimension of my method comes from woman-centered theologies (i.e., feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies) that deconstruct race, class, and patriarchy. My interest is in understanding how we describe nonviolence — a creative force of goodness, love, and justice — theologically based on the interplay of Anabaptist tradition, scriptural interpretation, individual and corporate experience, and ethical reasoning. Yoder’s work and identity were invested in making pacifism intellectually respectable, and I respect him for all he gave to that project. However, unlike many of my teachers and mentors, I do not feel myself intellectually indebted or bound to Yoder. My view is that, alone, Yoder’s work does not offer us a sufficient analysis of power that helps us understand what is happening theologically in faith communities where we perpetuate cycles of violence and injustice. Rather, Yoder becomes an example of how we have perpetuated these things. Defending and/or excusing Yoder, like avoiding him altogether, are some of the things that contribute to this cycle, a cycle that we are now able to say needs to end.

So what happens when I let these things get all mixed up within me? I believe there is a way to be honest about Yoder’s failings, the pain and violation others felt because of his actions, and the struggle of the communities that he participated in. Collectively, we failed over and over to enact justice and we can learn from our mistakes. Here are three things I have learned.

  1. Authentic reconciliation involves reparation, not just redemption. We often fasten our gaze on reconciliation and redemption, but I have learned that the humbling, and even humiliating, work of repairing the breach has to be part of the equation lest we gloss over the depth of others’ anger and rage.
  2. Valuing conscientious objection to war does not mean we have not experienced other kinds of violence and warfare. John Howard Yoder is our collective, metaphorical unremoved shrapnel. How we remove it is just as important as understanding how the injury occurred and why we have lived with the embedded fragments for so long.
  3. Using or not using Yoder’s work should not be the litmus test for how authentically Mennonite or Anabaptist we are. Instead of convincing one another to (not) use Yoder’s work in our own work, we are better off trusting that each of us is doing our best to speak and share the understanding of Christian faith that God is growing in us. To do this is to honor and call forth integrity.

So I will include Yoder’s work in my teaching from time to time, but my choice is one that I commit to sharing with openness and honesty because every body has politics.

Tags: john howard yoder

Our Moral Tribe’s search for a robust vision

May 21, 2014

Thoughtful friends occasionally send me reading suggestions. Carl Keener, professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, wrote to me last week with extended comments about a book called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013). His comments were so germane that I passed them on to David Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development. He responded to Carl, comparing the current divisive time to the polarizing debates of a previous generation when H.S. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision galvanized new unity and momentum. Can we, in our day, articulate a robust enough vision to provide a center for our “moral tribe” in company with a growing group of persons who are publicly identifying themselves as Anabaptist with greater joy and clarity than many Mennonite congregations?

Carl Keener:

There can be no doubt that the current Mennonite Church has at least two “opposing religious camps,” influenced by liberal and conservative ways of seeing the way the world works. In Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013), Harvard social scientist Joshua Greene offers the opinion that moral tribes (his designation for “opposing religious camps”) will not find common ground for discussion based on one’s views of God and the Bible, pure reason, or science. To be sure, many, if not most, Mennonites think that somehow the Bible will solve the problem of the deep divide over gay and lesbian issues. Here’s Greene, again: “If we want to find moral truth in scripture, we have to decide which interpretation of which passages in which texts from which religious traditions are truly authoritative. Because people on opposite sides of a religiously fraught moral disagreement are unlikely to agree on which texts, passages, and interpretations are authoritative, appeals to scripture are unlikely to settle all but the most narrow and scholarly moral disagreements” (182ff.).

Greene suggests that what is needed to bridge the gap between moral tribes is to seek some sort of common currency (for him, as a secular humanist, it’s happiness + the Golden Rule). For Mennos, I think, minimally, it’s the confession that Jesus is Lord, that we function within communities, and seek the way of peace and nonviolence ….

I think Greene has an important basic point we Mennos have been missing. One just cannot convert a moral tribe by reason, scientific jargon, or favorite Bible verses. I am convinced that the only way forward is to find our common currency as Mennos. What is it that can tie us together, not separate us .... ? Blessings and peace, Carl

David Miller responds to Carl:

In light of a conversation we had in faculty meeting today, Sara took the liberty of sharing with me your email to her.

Your comments regarding Joshua Greene's concept of Moral Tribes resonated with an idea that several of us were testing with each other today. When the Mennonite Church was at risk of coming apart at the seams in the modernist-fundamentalist debates in the early-mid 20th century, H.S. Bender provided common ground in his "Anabaptist Vision" address.

His address provided a usable history, a hermeneutic for reading the Bible together, and a cohesive center for an otherwise fragmenting community. It was rich enough to engage the church's scholars, setting in motion a good half century's worth of historical and theological work. It contributed to the mission and service agencies engaging in a different mode of mission that provided models of non-Constantinian witness and service. And congregations gained a narrative which they could pass on to another generation. These combined to allow enough Mennonites to see that the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates were not our debates. Mennonite scholars and popularizers found enough of a core in Bender's work to provide a powerful and energizing vision that took the church into the 21st century.

However, that cohesion has fragmented for numerous reasons. Some was an inherent weakness in Bender's own work, which the historians finally declared to be too neat of a story. Other influences--particularly religious broadcasting and the erosion of Mennonite publishing and Sunday School materials chipped away at a shared narrative. Bureaucratic rather than communal forms of leadership too often finessed and avoided direct discussion of differences (here I am thinking of the formation of MC USA) in such a way that we got an uneasy truce, rather than a compelling vision for becoming one. Suspicion was institutionalized and now is readily summoned in the service of fearful partisanship.

While all of this has been going on, however, there has been a simultaneous discovery of Anabaptism among those who have no genetic or ecclesiastical connection to the movement. We recently had Greg Boyd (author of The Myth of a Christian Nation) on campus. He represents a growing group of persons who are publicly identifying themselves as Anabaptist with greater joy and clarity than many Mennonite congregations.

This is oversimplifying in many counts, and yet I think we are in a similar moment. The participants for meeting the challenge now will necessarily be more diverse in terms of age, gender, race, and ethnicity than the leadership of the mid-20th century, but the challenge and need for leadership is similar.

It may be that the Bible will indeed help us resolve the divisions, but not by focusing on finding the answer to a single moral or ethical issue. It will help, if we can find a reading that provides a robust enough vision to provide a center.

Perhaps the work to which we should be giving ourselves is to re-articulate that common currency--one that persons outside of Anabaptism are finding compelling. Only then will we have the capacity to find a way on the lesser matters that we have permitted to become the defining issues ….

Thanks, Carl! Grace and peace to you, David


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.