A Christmas I’ll never forget

If my brother had not lost his harmonica, we might have missed the whole thing.

It was Christmas Eve, 1968, and I was 11. My oldest brother, a Bob Dylan aficionado, had picked up a harmonica at college that fall and was learning to play.  My family, Episcopalians, headed out to midnight Mass that evening and my brother had brought along this harmonica, though none of us knew it. This was always my favorite church service:  its lateness combined with majesty and sense of mystery, was the culmination of the entire year. Afterwards, we left the church and headed for home to enjoy a family celebration: opening gifts from under the tree, while we enjoyed cookies and hot coffee.

Except that when we got home, my brother declared that his harmonica was missing; the car was searched as was the house. He was sure he had taken it—and he and my other brother quickly drove back to the church to see if they could find it. We would have to wait another half hour or more to start our celebration.

I sat down with my parents and sister to wait for them. We switched on the TV—and became transfixed. The astronauts of Apollo 8 were at that moment orbiting the moon, the first humans to ever do so and were broadcasting live. They sent back a message to the entire planet, readings from the first 10 verses of the Bible, the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”

earthrise_strip

They had been the first humans to observe what became known as “earthrise” as they orbited the moon and that vision gave the book of Genesis a whole new meaning.

That Christmas Even broadcast was, until its time the most-watched in history.  1968 had been a difficult year: the war raged in Vietnam; we had political assassinations and political unrest at home, student demonstrations and race riots; the Soviets had crushed the uprising in Czechoslovakia known as the “Prague Spring.” At that moment, on Christmas Eve, much of our planet was watching—and we were seeing ourselves anew. It was one of those moments in which we could sense we were part of a greater unity, a greater purpose that might overcome all our difficulties. The astronauts concluded their scripture reading with a greeting, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.” That moment for me, an 11 year old, was more than magical: it was transcendent.

Christmas is a time when we celebrate incarnation, of God becoming flesh. We celebrate the Transcendent One becoming Immanent—close to us, within our sphere, literally our earthly sphere. And at the end of that difficult year of 1968, I think we were all able to see, if we were watching, our planet, the sphere on which we cling to life, as perhaps God can see it, small, beautiful, rich, a place worth coming to. For me, it gave a whole new meaning to Christmas.

And I might not have experienced that moment it if my brother had not lost his harmonica.

May you know, celebrate and worship the transcendent God, who became flesh for us all. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And, oh yes, the harmonica was found—in a snowbank.

~Russ EanesEanesRuss

 

The Complicated Legacy of John Howard Yoder: Part 2

About three months ago I wrote a blog post about how we at Herald Press and MennoMedia were responding to the complex issues surrounding the legacy of John Howard Yoder, considered by many to be the most influential Mennonite and Anabaptist theologian of the 20th century. That post can be found here, but a great deal has been written about this elsewhere, including the denominational process being led by Ervin Stutzman. (You can read the denomination’s John Howard Yoder digest here.)

Since then our management team, in consultation with our Board of Directors, drew up a statement about how we would respond, as the publisher of many of his works. In addition, I polled about 15 denominational publishing peers and received some interesting responses. Several responded that if any of their authors, especially if they were ordained ministers, were guilty of any sexual harassment or improprieties, they would cease publication of them immediately. Wow, that response caught me by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. (In 1997, after he had completed a disciplinary process, we had decided to continue publishing his works, with the affirmation of the women involved in that process.) We also heard that another publisher of John Howard Yoder material was looking to put a statement of some kind into its published works. This created greater urgency for us, since, as the denominational publisher of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, we felt we were expected to give some leadership.

The most persistent question I have heard about this is, “Why does the church feel the need to deal with this now? Wasn’t it dealt with 15-20 years ago?” I asked Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, to respond, and he said, “There has been a new wave of interest in the church on how to deal with sexual abuse. The 2013 decision by MennoMedia to print new material by John Howard Yoder without mentioning anything about his sexual abuse created a strong reaction. The church realized that there is unfinished work to do with the legacy of John Howard Yoder, especially as it relates to the victims who were involved.”

Keeping all of this in mind, and out of a sense of integrity as a denominational publisher, we decided that the best thing to do right now is to insert the following statement into the front of all John Howard Yoder books that we publish, as a “word from the publisher”:

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.

It is hard to judge a man who is now dead and cannot speak for himself. It is equally hard, perhaps harder, to hear the difficult stories of the women he abused and to realize the shame that too many have carried for so long.

Join me in hope and prayer that in the coming months the restorative justice process being led in the church will lead to good, constructive and redemptive outcomes.

~Russ Eanes

Executive Director, MennoMedia

EanesRuss

 

The Complicated Legacy of John Howard Yoder

I never knew John Howard Yoder. I met him once, at a picnic at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., 1982, but that was the closest I got to the man considered by many to be the foremost Mennonite theologian of the 20th century. I had read and struggled through The Politics of Jesus during my first year in seminary and, while not understanding everything, at least understood it to be ground-breaking and profound. In person he seemed shy and even socially awkward. My wife, who worked at AMBS, occasionally transcribed his papers. She said he used words that she didn’t even know existed.

Over a decade later I became aware, like many, of the charges of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against him. I was shocked, but heartened to hear that there was a process in place in the church for discipline, and that he was cooperating with it. Like many, I thought the case closed when I heard of his death in late 1997.

Another decade and a half later, I now find myself in the position as one of the primary publishers (via Herald Press) of his books. In recent months it has come to light that the process of healing and reconciliation is incomplete for many of his victims. Mennonite Church USA and AMBS (now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) have both issued statements about this, including a new discernment process (led by Ervin Stutzman and Sara Wenger Shenk) which hopes to “…enable the church to move toward deeper reconciliation and healing for victims of sexual abuse by John Howard Yoder.” Sara wrote an important and thoughtful blog posting about it and the AMBS faculty also has issued a statement about how they will deal with Yoder’s complicated legacy—a helpful, insightful and well-written piece.

What is MennoMedia to do in light of all this? Some have asked that we cease publication of his books entirely; others have suggested that we simply go on as before and say nothing. I recently met with the Board of Directors of MennoMedia and we discussed how we should respond. We have decided that we will follow closely the process that Ervin and Sara are leading and hope that it leads to deeper healing and redemption and enables us to share and understand, as a Mennonite Church, his complex legacy. While I doubt we will cease to publish his works, I think that we will more forthrightly acknowledge his personal difficulty, in our role as publisher and not ignore it. I hope that we will be able to walk a fine line as needed and that something about this process will be incorporated into our own statements about Yoder.

We pray also that this process will be redemptive for the victims and will also bear witness to our ability as a church to deal with our own difficult past. I thank those who lead this process and wish them God’s Spirit as they go forward. As always, we invite your comments and prayers for all involved.

EanesRuss

~Russ Eanes, director of MennoMedia