Mark Nation and Marva Dawn on John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct

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September 23, 2013 by jmar198013


I do not usually reblog things on here, but in light of the ongoing discussions surrounding John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct in the 1970s-early 1990s, what Mark Thiessen Nation and Marva Dawn have to say is important. Both are scholars of integrity and vigor whom I deeply admire. And both were students and friends of Yoder.

Yoder’s writings continue to be a source of inspiration and insight for my commitment to Christian nonviolence. But we cannot ignore his deep flaws and sins, and the damage they wrought not only on the women whom he harassed, but also his wife Annie. Nevertheless, I have for years believed that a much more contextualized account of what happened should be presented than has been. I believe this to be the case for two reasons. The first is simply that we have much to learn from his story–both as individual believers and as the church. Second, as a matter of legacy, so that we do not lose the treasures of his thought in the dross of his failures. This article is crucial to both purposes, and deserves to be thoroughly digested. It is the contextualized account for which I have been longing to see for at least a decade.

Below is an excerpt:

I do not think . . . that John Yoder was a man of unresolved rage who either hated or had disdain for women and was often on the prowl for future victims or was attempting to prevent women from having power.  I tend to think, rather, of a man who had needs for intimacy and closeness that were unmet. This was a man with great intelligence, who in the midst of newly emerging sexual revolution, came up with a theory about sex that made it possible for him to satisfy his own needs while, as he convinced himself, serving others. Is it instructive to realize that it was after his interactions with “Colleen” that he wrote a letter to someone that, one of the reasons his experiment was not wrong was because he “was not violating anyone in deed or thought”? He was simply offering “affective support,” helping women to accept their own sexuality, their own bodies. That what he and his “sisters” were doing was in fact “pure and beautiful.” So, that is how he perceived what he was doing. Some of the “sisters” who enjoyed relationships with him felt the same way.

And then it went horribly wrong—even by his own lights. It is a recipe for disaster to have a man who is typically awkward in his interpersonal relationships—and bad at picking up signals from the body language of others—to initiate intimate physical relationships that, in many cases will be unwanted. That he was brilliant simply allowed him to rationalize his “prophetic” but quite destructive behaviors. Therefore, that he was inadequate or even harmful in the way he conducted his “experiments” in intimate relationships is not surprising to me. But it is very sad.

As the statement by the AMBS faculty affirms John could be “deeply caring, generous and creative.” He could also be “dismissive of persons who confronted him about his misuse of power, and manipulative while crossing boundaries with women.” These latter characteristics became quite apparent when, beginning in the 1970s and the 1980s, others challenged what he believed to be his cutting edge approach to intimate extra-marital relationships. He apparently was especially hard on his colleagues and administrators at AMBS who tried to get him to stop his “experimental behaviors.” His dismissiveness also reflected his failure in relation to his own theological commitments.

. . .

I hope we have learned from this situation with John Howard Yoder. We, I hope, have learned why the Church has across the centuries drawn clear lines about sexual immorality. I believe we can learn from history that men, in particular, are tempted by sexual immorality (which can lead to harassing, abusive and even violent behaviors when desires are unmet). We have learned, I hope, that no one should be a law unto themselves. No matter how powerful or even, in certain ways, important someone is, their moral behavior is subject to the scrutiny and possible discipline of the Christian community. And in fact especially powerful people ought to be working within structures that protect those who may be abused by their power and influence. If abuse has been reported it should be taken quite seriously. And where harm has been inflicted, care and nurture should be offered (after having stopped the abuse that caused such harm in the first place).

The rest of this important essay can be accessed here at Mark Thiessen Nation’s Anabaptist Nation blog. For Nation’s previous two posts on Yoder’s sexual misconducted, see here and here.


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