What do you do with a highly influential (and deceased) Christian theologian who has been exposed as a systematic abuser of women? That, apparently, is a question worth pondering at a social gathering of theology students. (We also do Bar Mitzvahs and children's birthdays.) Anything useful I say here has almost certainly been borrowed from a colleague. Anything stupid is entirely my own.
For those who do not know the story, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in the last years of his life (he died in 1997), was forced to admit to various counts of sexual abuse toward women and to undergo a process of repentance and restoration. The dominant narrative up until recently has been that Yoder repented, submitted to a disciplinary process, and came out the other end a restored Christian. By and large his work continued to be used by Christians well after his death. I am among these Christians. You will be hard pressed to find an essay of mine written for my undergraduate degree that does not include a citation of one of Yoder's many works. I approached his work entirely uncritically, and focussed solely on the fact that his exegesis of Scripture was convincing and convicting.
What I did was wrong, with or without the latest information regarding Yoder's crimes (crimes for which he served no time in prison). To be uncritical is to cease to do the work of Christian theology. In truth, it is to cease to do the work of a Christian. A Christian is not a positive thinker. There should be no one more critical than a Christian, for there was no one more critical than Christ. We learn that from his first instruction as a wandering prophet: Repent! Why and how we do the work of criticism is another question, but there can be no question that it is work which must be done. The uncritical church will not be a "positive" influence in society. It will be a miserable place of secrecy and betrayal, with no hope of truthful communion.
To bring this back to Yoder, there can be no escaping the sin of the institutions who allowed him to abuse women under his supervision. Institutions - and the church is here no exception, but perhaps the great exemplar - cannot bear criticism, because criticism quite literally comes with a cost. How many times has the church acted as if it is above criticism, as if it can sweep criminal actions under the rug in the name of a warped view of the church's standing in the world? What is this other than a grossly sinful attempt to maintain the church's being as a "light to the world"? What is this other than Genesis 3 repeated: wilful disobedience and blatant cover-up, followed by excuses along the lines of, "Well, there's two sides to every story..." The Wire - that great, modern critique of institutions - puts the matter straighter than most Christians would: a lie is not another side of the story; it's just a lie.
I said that, until recently, Yoder was used by and large uncritically by theologians. An article written in January 2015 has made this uncritical stance impossible. The story of Yoder the theological genius who had a grave sin in his life, who repented of this grave sin and underwent church discipline, and who has now been restored to us as a brother, is not another side of the story. It is a lie. Yoder wrote numerous theological essays which justified his actions. He could never see that what he was doing was sin, and so he could never properly repent. He used not only his position and power, but also his theology to make possible his life of violence against over 100 women.
What do we do with John Howard Yoder? Much depends on who this "we" is. I have had this conversation exclusively with Christians, which should tell us that this is not an "academic" question but an ecclesial question. It is tempting for Christians theologians to turn this into an academic issue, and to treat Yoder as first of all a source, someone who's work can be cited in university papers. In this register our duty is to the integrity of ourselves and our academic work. But that is to miss our primary duty, which is to the church. We when the question of Yoder is asked with the church in mind, I think there is little doubt as to what our action should be: hand Yoder (his person and work, which Christian theology has taught us not to separate) over to the flames in the hope that he will be saved. The Church has. a certain times in its history, quite literally burned the work of theological geniuses who were deemed destructive for the Church's life. The case of Yoder should make us more sympathetic to this drastic action. If nothing else this teaches us that the Church does not live by the work of its theologians. The Church lives by the Word of God. All other texts, from the greatest (Church Dogmatics) to the least (take your pick) are dispensable. Thomas Aquinas was really on to something when he called his life's work "so much straw."
Furthermore, Christian pacifism does not require the witness of Yoder for its intelligibility, who in truth is a counter-witness. Christian pacifism's intelligibility and witness is secured by the lordship of Christ in His Word and the presence of the Spirit in the Church. What should really worry Christian theologians is not the question of whether to cite Yoder in one's work. It is the question of how (if at all!) one handles the Scriptures. That there will be thousands of theological works which contain not one jot or tittle of Scripture should make all Christian theologians pause and think: what am I doing? To what tradition do I belong?
Another factor which must be included in this discussion is sex (as in male and female). It is an incredibly small sample size, but from my interactions with people it seems that men are more inclined to struggle with the question of Yoder, whereas for women it is quite straightforward. Thinking (uncritically) as a man, I find myself producing the following logic: well, I'm no less sinful than Yoder, and given the same conditions I could easily do what he has done, and who am I to judge? In short, the tendency is to sympathise, man to man. This sympathy is misguided and wrong. It is wrong because it is a sympathy with the powerful, not with powerless. It is sympathy with the oppressor, not with the oppressed. It is a sympathy which thinks of itself as understanding, compassionate, forgiving, but it is a deeply patriarchal sympathy, and as such it is a sympathy which Christ opposes.
When I described the duty of the theologian as being a duty to the Church, in the case of Yoder the duty of the theologian is first of all to the women of the Church. It is a duty to the victims of Yoder's abuse, victims who may read your work. The Church must listen to these women, and to all the women - theologians, ministers, laypeople - who see things far clearer than the men. Sympathy with Yoder is not a virtue. Just the opposite. The question for me as a man is: can I have solidarity with Christian women? The answer is that I can and I must, but this is no easy task.
I am writing my PhD on Christian love. Since I began my theological education 1 Corinthians 13 has performed a critical role. It has reminded me first of all that human knowledge is partial knowledge. It is relative, not absolute. We see in part and know in part, and all our strongest theological dogmas are provisional, in need of constant criticism in the light of the revelation of Christ. Second, it has reminded me that faith and knowledge without love are empty. I can be a "theological genius" (whatever that might mean), but if I have not love I am nothing. Genuinely nothing. Yoder was known as one such "theological genius", yet he lived a life without love. By the judgement of Scripture, therefore, his words are meaningless noises, his life and work reduced to nothingness. To use Yoder as a pacifist thinker has become entirely unintelligible, because we can say without a shadow of a doubt that he was not a pacifist. If we learn anything from the life and work of Yoder, then, if there is any "good" to come out of this by the providence of God, we learn that pacifism - indeed, theology itself - is not a "position" or an "idea," but a practice.