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