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

Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology

January 21, 2014

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

In an earlier blog post, I called this A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment in the life of our church. A number of AMBS faculty offered ideas about conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This is the first of two guest posts by Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies Jamie Pitts. In this first post, Pitts names some of the problems for Yoder’s theology raised by his actions and suggests that revisionary criticism is necessary. A follow-up post will explore positive possibilities for a post-Yoderian theology constructed in dialogue with feminism, theological studies of sexual abuse, and a deeper contextualization of Yoder’s thought.

As Mennonites and others continue to grapple with the complexity of John Howard Yoder’s legacy, the question of what to do with his theology remains. For many around the world, Yoder’s statement of the interconnections among Jesus, nonviolence, and the church is regarded as an essential insight into Christian faith.

Popular Christian movements such as “neo-Anabaptism” in the USA and “radical evangelicalism” in Latin America and the UK have been inspired by Yoder’s theology, and his work is widely discussed in a range of academic settings. Stanley Hauerwas is not the only one who converted into a “Mennonite camp follower” by reading Yoder. Many of us have taken additional steps from the camp into Mennonite churches.

Yoder’s influence is indisputable. The problematic nature of his sexually abusive behavior is likewise indisputable. Although some interpreters continue to insist that Yoder’s writing can be isolated from his deplorable actions, there is growing agreement that such a separation is untenable. Even Yoder’s staunchest defenders finally have to respond to this reality.

Yoder claimed repeatedly that living testimony was inseparably tied to the integrity of one’s verbal proclamation of the gospel. If Yoder is right, then failed performance of the gospel should lead, at the very least, to suspicion about the words used in that performance. Some of Yoder’s actions were very bad news; it would be surprising if all his words were good news, were gospel.

The subtitle of my recent book is Revising John Howard Yoder’s Sociological Theology. Throughout the book I investigate criticisms of Yoder’s work and suggest revisions that could lead us into a post-Yoderian theological space. I talk about revision rather than repudiation, and being post-Yoderian rather than anti-Yoderian, because I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss or discredit Yoder altogether.

What is valuable about his theology is precisely that it directs our attention to the intimate interconnections between doctrine and politics, faith and power. Yoder is of course not the first or only theologian to make these connections. But he did so powerfully and influentially. Phrases like “the politics of Jesus,” “church as polis,” and “anti-Constantinianism” will long be associated with his name, for better or worse.

In my book I respond to criticisms of Yoder’s work by proposing a post-Yoderian Anabaptist theology that avoids reducing theology to ethics, and ethics to a narrowly conceived ecclesiasticism. Yet it remains a fully sociological theology, a theology attuned to the power-laden structures of embodied faith. Although I take inspiration from Yoder, I also find him to be ambiguous, reductive, and idealistic.

After writing the book I learned of Yoder’s sexually harassing and abusive behavior. It quickly became apparent that my critical analysis of Yoder’s theology was woefully incomplete. Although I had grappled with the empirical and moral complexity of Yoder’s writings on social practice, I had failed to grapple with the complexity of his own social practice. Although I had attempted to articulate a more subtle understanding of theological power, I had failed to integrate into my theology an understanding of Yoder’s egregious abuse of his own power. More work is needed for a genuinely post-Yoderian theology.

Theology cannot be the product of one man, or even a collection of men. The almost total failure of the Yoder guild to publicly engage feminist scholars and scholarship must end. Left, right, and center, the field of Yoder studies has largely been dominated by white men talking amongst ourselves, in spite of significant contributions from Gayle Gerber Koontz, Nancey Murphy, Cynthia Hess, and other women. We have produced a reduced and impoverished theology as a result. We must do better.

Tags: john howard yoder

"Pastoral letter" from friends in the UK

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

Dear Friends,

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.



Tags: john howard yoder , practicing reconciliation

A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment

September 12, 2013

Credit: Peter Ringenberg

Credit: Peter Ringenberg

The pulse of our church-wide network of connection is racing in recent weeks. Anxiety has spiked for some persons with the reemergence of deliberations around John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse along with the church’s prolonged failure to act decisively to prevent further victimizations and to seek healing. On the other hand, many persons are relieved that we’re talking about it; animated by and even hopeful about this opportunity to learn and grow as a people.

In what I read in the press and blogosphere or receive personally in emails and conversations, what intrigues me is who or what we choose to fault—whether JHY; or the “angry women”; or former church leaders; or current church leaders; or systemic forces like patriarchy, sexism, white male power; or a younger generation that doesn’t understand the historical context; or malevolent demonic powers…. You get the picture. Most of us tend to name the problem quite narrowly.

I think it’s absolutely essential to do the truth-telling work required to assess responsibility where it appropriately lies. Healing and reconciliation will not happen until that work is undertaken (and there will soon be reports from the discernment group convened by Ervin Stutzman about that).

But if we focus too narrowly on who or what is at fault, we may miss out on the generative conversations we must have in order to grow in maturity as a people of faith. As an educator, I recognize this as a profoundly teachable moment in our church—and for that I am hopeful!

I’ve listed below some of the additional conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This Practicing Reconciliation blog will become a platform for speaking to some of them by our AMBS faculty. 

  • “How do we have a richer conversation about power—abuse of power, yes, but also nurturing power, power for justice, power for good? How can men and women each acknowledge the power they wield and commit to work collaboratively for the well-being of our communities?”
  • "How can the church better create space for worship and transformative change both for those whose immediate, salient experience is having been sinned against and those whose immediate, salient experience is that of having sinned against others?"
  • "What are the proactive steps that some congregations and church organizations have already taken to help guard against physical and sexual abuse in our homes and churches and where have we fallen short?  How can we be helpful to each other in making our churches and communities safer places?"
  • "How many of our families and congregations are able to talk thoughtfully about our sexual selves in relation to our lives of faith?  What needs to happen so we can speak honestly and relevantly about Christian sexual ethics in ways that permit personal growth, healing, forgiveness, and joy?"
  • “What would a positive theology of friendship between women and men entail? How do we make space for friendships between persons who deeply respect each other and communities where we so genuinely love each other as beloved children of God that we wouldn't think of crossing boundaries?”
  •  “We must have an in-depth discussion about the face of Grace and the shape of forgiveness, especially in the absence of a perpetrator's public confession. How can we explore the deeper issues of evil and grace theologically and jointly along with the psychological dynamics that tend to dominate the conversation thus far? Can we prayerfully visualize the kind of healing and wholeness longed for in light of God’s desire to reconcile all things?”
  •  “What can we learn by revisiting Yoder’s theology in light of his abusive behavior to ask how patriarchal tendencies in the 1940s and 50s helped shape Yoder in damaging ways, asking questions such as are his "politics of Jesus" overly masculine? Does his vision of ecclesial process insufficiently account for power imbalances? etc.”
  • “How do we do theology with real, broken people as our guides? Many of the people whose work shapes our ethics, worship and life together were broken in their personal and academic lives. How do we hold the tension of exclusion and embrace: excluding the things that are oppressive, embracing the things that are helpful? How do we consciously read and assess their work in ways that critically examine what they call us to and boldly name the places where their thinking falls short?”
  •  “How do we create an ethos in which persons of great intellectual power are in close relationships of spiritual (including behavioral) accountability? Biblical understandings of the interdependence of gifts and psychological insights into multiple intelligences offer us tools for overcoming the ‘intimidation factor’ that hides abusive behaviors and deforms community. Great intellectual power which does not submit itself to Christ's Lordship is another rebellious and fallen power—and should be so named.”
  • “What are the resources of the Scriptures that tell it like it is—the raw and redemptive truth—whether the rape of Tamar, or Jesus’ clear word that ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?’”

These are a few of the conversational topics that grow out of this teachable moment in the life of our church. What are topics that you’re engaged in or wish would happen as we practice reconciliation in our diverse communities?

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Tags: john howard yoder , practicing reconciliation

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.