CASE STUDY Mennonites/John Howard Yoder

The Holistic, Systems Example of the Mennonites:

Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Systemic Abuse

From Their Celebrity Theologian, John Howard Yoder

(c) 2020 Brad Sargent

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Overview to Long-Form Case Study

On February 24, 2020, I posted the long-form case study that follows, on The Mennonites and the Legacy of John Howard Yoder.

The past 3 years, I have been worked periodically on this extended case study about how the Mennonite denomination dealt with the aftermath of celebrity theologian John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and the systemic problems his misconduct brought about. It has three sections:

1. Overview of the denomination’s process for investigation, lamentation, and remediation.

2. Self-study resources — links to key sources for news reports, articles, and analysis from the denominational point of view.

3. Sources of critique on the denomination’s process, showing where there may be gaps, overfocus, and significant differences on perspectives and conclusions about Yoder and his legacy.

As I note at the end of the case study page, “I hope this study has helped clarify the main questions emerging in our Christian culture from the case of John Howard Yoder; emphasized important points toward developing nuanced answers; and encouraged you to dig deeper in dynamics of investigating, lamenting, and remediating situations of systemic abuse.”

I felt an urgency to complete the compilation and get this posted, as I believe it will provide a base of what is overall a constructive process for addressing systemic abuse in a sizeable institution. This becomes especially relevant in light of the news from this past weekend of the L’Arche International independent investigation into sexual abuse by its founder, Jean Vanier.

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The original version of this case study that I posted was part of a set of three situations, two dealing mostly with problems involving Christians with platforms—author plagiarism, and a professor with moral turpitude—and the other with reconciliation in society. The context was an extended case study on reported clergy sexual misconduct by hypergrace preacher and author Tullian Tchividjian.

That first version was relatively short, less than 1,500 words. It gave what is now the Overview section in this extended version of the case study, which is almost four times that length. I had a significant amount of other material from my initial research work in 2017 and 2018. That provided the base for the chronological resource list and critique sections in this extended version.

I believe a careful compositing of the principles and practices we extract from what was done (and what else could/should have been done) will give us a more comprehensive approach to repair work when we are faced with systemic abuse. To that end, I trust you’ll find this long-form case study of help.

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What do you do when it turns out that a well-known person is exposed as having not just “a dark side,” but an insidious, abusive side? And not just as a private issue as an individual, but with a plurality of victims and active and/or passive enablement by related institutions he/she was an integral part of?

This certainly sets up a conundrum among colleagues, friends, and followers, as well expressed by these lines from articles about how insiders and outsiders processed their experience of Mennonite public theologian John Howard Yoder.

  • Can a bad person be a good theologian? (Source: New York Times; October 12, 2013.)
  • But I’ve seen him do so much good. (Source: Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary; September 16, 2016.)

Unfortunately, this is not a one-off situation. We seem to have a steady stream of credible accusations against well-known individuals who have committed forms of abuse and violence – sexual, spiritual, financial, verbal. The most recent (late February 2020) was Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International, which  instigated an independent investigation into Vanier’s abuses. So, the process we see used by the Mennonites in identifying and dealing with systemic abuse has ongoing application.

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1. Overview: A Celebrity Abuser

and Systemic Abuse Problems

Resolving the case of John Howard Yoder and systemic abuse in the Mennonite denomination was complex. It involved multiple people and institutions (seminaries, colleges, professional societies, etc.), and there is far more detail and nuance than I can present in this condensed case study. My goal in this section is to give an overview and show how authorities at his centralized denomination eventually implemented an extensive systems solution to repair the damages done to individuals and institutions in the past, and to implement strategies, structures, and statements to help prevent abuse from happening in the future.

On the issue of authors and “moral turpitude,” one of the most impressive situations of repentance and repair work  in recent years – from a systems point of view – happened in the Mennonite denomination in the 2010 decade. The denomination and their publishing arm decided to deal rather thoroughly with the destructive personal and institutional legacy of sexual harassment and sexual assault of women by one of their premiere theologians, John Howard Yoder.

Mr. Yoder’s book, The Politics of Jesus (first edition circa 1972), became profoundly influential. It is still used as a foundational source for Anabaptist theology on pacifist social involvement. I read it as part of a campus Christian group in the late 1970s/early ’80s. However, even then, I occasionally heard there was another, darker side to Mr. Yoder, with whisperings of his sexual harassment of women.

The fact he was a professor and taught at multiple educational institutions made the situation more complex, in terms of potential problems with cover-up. As it turns out, he reportedly victimized over 100 women from the 1970s through early 1990s. Some of his victims spoke up, but no one believed them – at least, not at the time. However, they persisted and eventually were heard.

Most of the time, it seems like individuals who enable behaviors like Mr. Yoder’s sexual harassment don’t respond or take responsibility. So, perpetrators can hide behind an organization, positions, or prestige. In other words, they misuse the power of authority in the institutions they work for, and keep things hidden in the darkness that should and could be brought into the light. I would say they are not merely complicit – incidental accomplices used by others – but more directly culpable functionaries. They took intentional and specific actions that enabled and concealed the abuse; ignored, shamed, and/or otherwise silenced the victims.

In the 1990s, some institutions Mr. Yoder was associated with attempted to address “systemic abuse” issues. (See the slides that follow for definitions of systems and systemic abuse that I use.) But, these efforts reportedly were not comprehensive or rigorous enough and didn’t seem to turn out particularly righteous or reparative. And so, the damage continued, a poison tainting the Mennonite’s spiritual aquifer. How can you be known as “the peacemaking denomination,” yet leave these battles involving abuse unresolved?

It took more decades to act, but at least the Mennonite denomination eventually lived up to their theology of peace-making and reconciliation. They finally did things right, after years of having allowed wrong. They took many public steps over a three-year period toward making things right, from 2013 through 2015. These included the following actions. (I will leave it to you to consider which of the seven system elements each bullet point item addresses. For more resources to help in that process, see Section 2. Self-Study Resources on the Mennonites’ Process Chronology and Comprehensivity.

Brought together a discernment group to listen and truly hear what was going on about sexual abuse and the church in general.

Investigated the scope of Mr. Yoder’s abuse inside and outside the denomination, and investigated their denomination’s specific responses.

Planned and implemented training seminars on sexual abuse.

Planned and held a unique worship “service of lament” surrounding the topic of sexual abuse.

Explored ways to support recovery and restoration among victims of abuse by church leaders — and not just by Mr. Yoder.

Drafted and issued denominational statements on sexual abuse.

Created new resources (print and online) dealing with sexual abuse and recovery.

Drafted and posted a statement about their decisions regarding books by Mr. Yoder their publishing division had published, about their findings on his sins of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, and about how they intended to deal with putting their statements into any future publications of his works.

Check out at least the main page on “A Way Forward” from the situation with Mr. Yoder and the very instructive FAQ page. Here is the main statement from Herald Press about Yoder publications.

The Resources on Sexual Abuse Response and Prevention list links to an extensive set of materials the denomination developed. I recommend you do a self-study review this range of sources, to consider how carefully and comprehensively you think Mennonite officials went about repairing systemic abuse. Notice any gaps, areas of overfocus, elements that do/don’t make sense in light of how pervasive the protection for Mr. Yoder seems to have been.

  • Resources on Sexual Abuse Response and Prevention
    • Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse
    • Policies and Recommendations
    • Poster
    • Sermons and Worship
    • Books and pamphlets
    • Articles
    • Websites
    • John Howard Yoder Digest [This page list articles that span the three-year period of investigation, lamentation, and remediation: June 2013 – October 2015.]

I believe this extensive process of institutional repentance and repair work shows that the Mennonites addressed both individual and institutional levels of responsibility and accountability, with remarkable candor and transparency. This was done after decades of far more than merely not listening — but, as survivors report, actively minimizing/silencing victims, covering up for John Howard Yoder, and failing to rehabilitate their organizational systems.

The denomination overall had been taken in by Mr. Yoder’s power and prestige. It would have been easy for them to do nothing, just stay embarrassed at being taken in and called out. But hiding truth doesn’t make an individual or institution trustworthy; transparency is needed to restore trust when it’s been shattered. Their eventual process that embodied peacemaking occurred when it was less about eating crow, and more about releasing the dove …

The official Mennonite restoration actions provide an important example in considering systems for reconciliation. However, theirs was far from a perfect process. In studying their official records, I became aware of other angles on what they had done. They were critiqued along the way, and substantive questions remain about the processes used, whether some relevant people and perspectives were purposely ignored or even excluded, whether some outcomes should have been different or stronger.

While digging into this subject, I also became aware of multiple other institutions dealing with higher education, Christian ethics, theology, etc., that were wrestling with issues ranging from active cover-up to more passive complicity, with the ethics of using or not using resources Mr. Yoder wrote, and how to address the damages done to individuals and to institutions. There are such complexities here that it does call for a much larger “spiritual MRI” and case study evaluation. I am considering whether I might be called to do that at some future time. For the time being, I have compiled some of the most significant material below, in Section 3. Critique: Conducting a “Spiritual MRI” ~ Other Sides to the Mennonite Story.

But for now, all of these potential insights and oversights are important to note. They demonstrate how the legacy of destruction caused by an abuser and the systems he/she co-opted continue to send forth ripples – and the turbulent waters will simply not become still all by themselves.

As with other “celebrity Christians,” the legacy of destruction applies not only to his/her particular victims, but to scores of supposed friends and colleagues who got used. Then, there are typically thousands of fans and followers who draw help and hope from the celebrity’s speeches, social media, sermons, and publications. How much were these people unknowingly tainted by toxic character and theology? They may find themselves wrestling with their own personal formation and beliefs as they realize the legacy of brokenness they have inherited.

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2. Self-Study Resources on the Mennonites’

Process Chronology and Comprehensivity

The following Yoder-specific pages post chronological lists plus links for news articles about the systemic abuse process (articles dated August 2013-December 2015), and resources on dealing with sexual abuse.

  • Resources on Sexual Abuse Response and Prevention
    • Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse
    • Policies and Recommendations
    • Poster
    • Sermons and Worship
    • Books and pamphlets
    • Articles
    • Websites
    • John Howard Yoder Digest [This page list articles that span the three-year period of investigation, lamentation, and remediation: June 2013 – October 2015.]

You can search for news articles about “John Howard Yoder” to find items on the investigation, lamentation, and remediation processes at the Mennonite Church USA site, in the Menno Snapshots Archives., and at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Both of these sources have extensive archives of relevant materials.

You may also want to check out the Mennonite Quarterly Review issue of January 2015. This was dedicated to dealing with sexual abuse. This link is to the table of contents, and it can be purchased here.

If you want to give yourself a homework assignment on systemic abuse and repair, analyze these sets of news articles and denominational resources for specifics of how they addressed problems in all seven parts of the denominational systems: people, principles, practices, products, processes, partnerships, and impacts.

  • How well do you think they did overall?
  • Where are there potentially any gaps that should have been (or still need to be) filled?
  • Any areas of excesses where they overfocused?
  • What would you suggest needs to be done – or redone?

Here are some resource articles I posted that you might find helpful in that task.

Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Transforming Corrupted Systems ~ Part 1. Systems and Systemic Abuse. Basics About Systems. Systemic Abuse. Transforming a Corrupted System – Lens #1: Repentance and Remediation. “Spotlight”: An Example of Research for Repentance and Reparations.

Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Transforming Corrupted Systems ~ Part 2. Transforming a Corrupted System – Lens #2: Humility and Conciliation. Examples Involving Personal and/or Systemic Repentance and Remediation. Addendum: Complex Situations, Possibilities for Transformation, and the Realities of Ambivalences.

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3. Critique: Conducting a “Spiritual MRI”

~ Other Sides to the Mennonite Story

The narrative in Section 1 above puts the Mennonite actions in the best possible light – and they did do much that was good and important. But there is more to this story to think through, in order to evaluate the overall impact in terms of systems, and whether the responses were adequate or not for the individuals and institutions involved. We need to composite multiple angles of evidence in order to have a better “spiritual MRI” to interpret the contours and interiors of the issues at hand.

Here are insights from other relevant disciplines for evaluating what happened – history, recovery, theology, ethics. They help us consider what may still need to happen, both inside and outside of this denomination.


The links in Section 1 are to the denominational side of the story. They tell of the Mennonites’ eventual remediation actions to identify and repair the damages done by abuser and enablers, and put in places resources and processes to prevent sexual abuse in the future.

But there are other sides to consider, primarily that of the survivors. It literally did take decades for them to finally be heard. Many narratives behind those efforts can be found at the Our Stories Untold site. I would especially suggest reading these two articles.

Mennonite Bodies, Sexual Ethics: Women Challenge John Howard Yoder. This is the overall history of bringing truth and justice to the situation, and also noting what failure to act in a timely way cost the denomination: John Howard Yoder’s actions and their systemic cover up diminished an entire generation of women in leadership, which has ripple effects among Mennonite peacemaking efforts and institutions to this day.

Breaking Open the Structure of Sexual Violence: An Interview with Ruth Krall, by Stephanie Krehbiehl. This is the history of changes starting in the 1970s with the language, concept frameworks, and institutional issues surrounding sexual violence. And that history should not be forgotten, as if what we have now is what has always been there. EXCERPT:

RK: But women in my generation, Stephanie, we have made a major difference. I am part of an entire generation of feminist women who got the issue of sexual violence, and we changed the way the (sic) our culture understands rape. We changed it from a sexual/slut model to a violent/victimization model. We did the clinical work with wounded people and we did the political advocacy and educational work within our larger culture. Both are essential for anyone seeking to know why I have done what I have done vis-à-vis the Yoder-Mennonite Church issues.

SK: One thing that’s frustrating for me in the Mennonite church – and of course the Mennonite church reflects a lot of things that are endemic in American society – is this tendency, when you get to some sort of place of progress, whether it’s the incorporation of anti-racism as a denominational principle, or at least some modest gains when it comes to sexism, there’s a tendency to want to erase the history that got you there. And behave as though, well, this is what we’ve been doing all along, we just sort of needed to get here because time was moving in this direction anyway. So let’s pat ourselves on the back and not think too hard about the people who helped do this. It’s easier to pretend that well, we were moving in this direction anyway, then to tell the stories of the people who had to push. We have a fundamentally dishonest approach to our own history.


Several critique/commentary articles at the Survivors Awaken the Church site address whether what the Mennonites were doing was enough, in terms of people and processes that had been directly affected. They are from 2014, which was in the middle of the denomination’s discernment group time. So the questions being asked were then current. For instance:

  • What specifically was being done as reparations to the women who were victimized by Mr. Yoder and the denomination?
  • Would there be substantive justice, or just symbols of justice?

See these articles from Survivors Awaken the Church, available on the Wayback Machine internet archive: Theology, Schmeology: What About Christianity? (August 22, 2014) and Mennonite Seminary Offers Justice and Healing (December 9, 2014).


It is intriguing to see a secular perspective on religious endeavors aimed toward constructive change. This October 11, 2013, New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer puts at the center the question that cannot be danced around forever: Can a bad person be a good theologian? Here is the opening from A Theologian’s Influence, and Stained Past, Live On.

Can a bad person be a good theologian?

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Compare and contrast this with the devastation that occurred in a Christian context when leaders used this all-too-common disclaimer to dismiss the report of abuse by a victim: But I’ve seen him do so much good, posted on the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) site, September 16, 2016. EXCERPT:

The protestation that because someone has done so much good, he or she can’t be held accountable is one I’m all too familiar with. As AMBS president, I heard all manner of variations on it when we decided to revisit the disturbing saga of John Howard Yoder’s many years of sexual exploits and violence. Yoder’s abuse continued while good people struggled ineffectively to stop it, hoping that their intervention would allow “the good” that he’d done to be preserved. Meanwhile, victims of his abuse suffered unfathomable pain. Their suffering was compounded as they watched church leaders focus more on preserving “the good” that Yoder had done than honestly acknowledging how badly and wrongfully he had hurt them.

Several months ago, a colleague referred an essay to me called “Virtue and the Organizational Shadow: Exploring False Innocence and the Paradoxes of Power” by Maureen O’Hara and Aftab Omer. The authors describe so-called “virtue-driven organizations” in ways that sound eerily like some Mennonite institutions and advocacy groups I know, including, on occasion, AMBS.

While abuse of power is common in organizations, they say, what is especially painful about abuse in virtue-driven organizations is the dissonance between a group’s view of itself as virtuous and its harmful, often traumatizing behavior toward persons it finds problematic for one reason or another.

Organizations dedicated to “bring good to the world” tend to live within an assumption of our own innocence. Those of us who work within such organizations tend to see our work as “more than a job” because we aspire to be good people and do good work on behalf of a mission to engender hope and reconciliation in the communities we serve.

From what I’ve seen over my years of research writing on systemic abuse, these questions typically resurface when a celebrity Christian is exposed for having inflicted severe spiritual, emotional, and/or sexual damage on others in their charge.

When they have hidden the worst of themselves, how can we trust what we thought was the best of them – their preaching and teaching, books and ministries, social media interactions?

~ Brad Sargent, aka “brad/futuristguy”


Theologians and ministry leaders have sought to understand how Mr. Yoder could engage in such important work about violence and non-violence, while at the same time inflicting emotional and spiritual violence on women.

A February 29, 2016, National Catholic Reporter article, Engage survivors more, Yoder less, by Kyle Lambelet and Brian Hamilton, offers crucial direction. It addresses ways that theologians have attempted to resolve the Yoder conundrum, how reconsideration falls short by using only traditional theological critique methods, and how other disciplines help theologians with what the authors consider to be the real task for scholars now: “Resisting sexualized violence, not re-interpreting Yoder.” Here are some samples from their insightful article:

In 2014, responding to feminist questioning and organizing, the Mennonite Church USA commissioned historian Rachel Waltner Goossen to write a history of Yoder’s offenses and Mennonite responses to them. Goossen’s meticulously researched article, drawing from disciplinary records as well as interviews with Yoder’s victims, colleagues and administrators, not only confirmed the veracity of the claims, but also expanded our sense of its scope.

The scholarly conversation about Yoder has been decisively transformed as a result of this renewed attention. Two years ago, Yoder’s history of violence went largely unmentioned in academic treatments of his theology. It was considered bad form to say more. Today, however, it is impossible not to say more. […]

It has been tempting to scour Yoder’s work for something that explains his actions, as if the cause of his violence was bad theology. The unspoken hope, it seems to us, is that if scholars can identify and eliminate the problematic elements of Yoder’s thought, we can hold onto the rest with a clear conscience. But the ideas that get singled out as problematic usually say more about us than they do about Yoder. […]

Yoder made his most important intellectual contributions in the theology of violence and nonviolence. He eloquently defended a social ethic rooted in patience and servanthood rather than responsibility and control. But, in retrospect, many of his writings appear strikingly insensitive to the more complex operations of power, and so too the more complex operations of violence.

Yoderians should be asking: How might we revise Yoder’s theology to account adequately for the kinds of violence he himself perpetrated? […]


Theologians are not the only ones who face the task of dealing with fallout from John Howard Yoder’s non-violence theology versus his violent actions. There are issues of ethics to address.

In October 2017, some snippets of news were tweeted about a panel discussion on John Howard Yoder and sexual violence (original link no longer works). This was part of three program presentations, and a Service of Lament for Sexualized Violence, held at the 2017 annual meeting of the academic Society of Christian Ethics.

This emphasis is notable because Mr. Yoder had held leadership roles in that organization, including President of SCE from 1987-1988. So, this year’s meeting gave SCE members a significant opportunity to discuss the case, ethical issues involved, and residual issues of a “tainted legacy.”

In her Call to Meeting Letter, SCE President Cristina Traina wrote this:


In addition, our Society is a community. It is important to reflect together on the ways we jeopardize the bonds that give us the security to debate honestly and to mentor each other. This year in particular, full revelations of the extent of our former President John Howard Yoder’s sexual exploitation of women call us to reflect honestly on our personal and institutional failures to respond effectively to sexualized violence and coercion of and by our members. And they call us to respond spiritually with acknowledgment of our own tendencies to abuse our power and justify other unethical behavior on behalf of our visions of a just and loving society. A panel organized by Karen Guth—including members Traci West and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as Sara Wenger Shenk (President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary)—will use the case as an occasion for self-critical reflection on issues related to sexual violence, abuses of power, professional/institutional ethics, and moral complicity. The panel will initiate discussion of questions raised by but not limited to Yoder’s case: How should we handle morally compromised legacies in teaching and scholarship? What can we learn from Mennonite institutional responses? How can we foster cultures of ethics within the SCE and beyond?

We’ve also taken the unusual step of inviting a liturgical response to these issues. We welcome all to a Saturday service of worship that will engage the songs of lament in the Hebrew Bible to help us express dispositions ranging from anger to contrition to grief, yet remind us of our commitment to God and to each other in community. This service will provide both structured and unstructured moments, offering space for individual members, particularly though not only those who have been victims of sexualized violence, who wish to speak or to pray silently. We invite members to join with us in a spirit of respect, humility, and courage. Thanks are due to planners Kate Ott and Todd Whitmore, as well as to the Roman Catholic community of worship, who agreed to change its Mass time for this one year to make room for the service.

Search online for ongoing news and discussion generated at/from this meeting, and review the 2017 program for full details of presentations, panels, and session descriptions. Here are some key items:

Paper: “Moral Injury, Feminist Ethics, and Tainted Legacies” (page 32). “Prompted by the John Howard Yoder case and other legacies implicated in structural evils (e.g. Heidegger’s Nazism, Georgetown’s participation in slavery), this paper explores the ethics of tainted legacies. …”

Panel: “Breaking Silence: Calling Out the Sexual Violence Against LGBT/Queer/Transgender Persons and Perpetrated by John Howard Yoder” (page 45). “This session will provide an opportunity for conversation around the very racialized and sexualized violence perpetrated against marginalized bodies of color (LGBT, queer and transgender), and the distinct but related sexualized violence perpetrated by John Howard Yoder. In relation to the latter, how did the Mennonite Church and the SCE fail as institutions to either stop him or hold him accountable? …”

Panel: “Structural Evil, Individual Harm, and Personal Responsibility: The John Howard Yoder Case as Opportunity for Self-Critical Reflection” (page 52). “This panel explores the responsibilities of ethicists, scholarly societies, and academic institutions to address structural evils. It treats former SCE president John Howard Yoder’s case as an occasion for self-critical reflection on issues related to sexual violence, abuses of power, professional/institutional ethics, and moral complicity. The panel will initiate discussion of questions raised by but not limited to Yoder’s case: How should we handle morally compromised legacies in teaching and scholarship? What can we learn from Mennonite institutional responses to Yoder’s harmful legacy? How can we foster cultures of ethics within the SCE and beyond?”

Service of Lament for Sexualized Violence (page 53). “Details of many of John Howard Yoder’s acts of sexualized violence were publicly reported as early as 1992; an extended study published in January 2015 showed that the extent of his behavior was broader than previously known, involving over 100 women. Though individual papers have been given addressing his behavior, we have yet to create space for Society members as a group, as well as individually, to express their concern. That concern does not end with Yoder’s acts. Given the span of time over which these behaviors occurred – at least two decades – and Yoder’s leadership role in the Society – he was President in 1987-88 – we as an academic society must also face the difficult questions of our own complicity and of how to foster a community of scholars in which sexualized violence no longer has a part. …

“We offer a liturgical setting – in this case, of lament – to provide an initial context for expression and discernment. The songs of lament in the Hebrew Bible carry the full range of human disposition and emotion from anger to contrition to grief, yet also remind us of our commitment to God and to each other. This service will provide both structured (readings, hymns) and unstructured moments, the latter offering space for individual members, particularly though not only those who have been victims of sexualized violence, who wish to speak and be heard. We invite members to join with us in a spirit of respect, humility, and courage when we gather.”

This is all important to note, because it demonstrates how the legacy of destruction caused by an abuser and the systems he/she co-opted does not stop simply because some systemic repair work gets done.


It is also important to keep the October 2017 SCE meetings and specific elements on John Howard Yoder in its historical and cultural contexts. That SCE event happened in the midst of the initial surge of the #MeToo hashtag movement on social media. (For a brief overview of the roots and founder of #MeToo, see the Historical Source Notes section of this post on Forty Years of Trends Leading to #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #SBCToo.)

Around the same time as the Society of Christian Ethics activities and publications, Duke Divinity School Professor Emeritus Stanley Hauerwas posted an article: In defence of “our respectable culture”: Trying to make sense of John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse (ABC Religion & Ethics; October 18, 2017). This sparked much debate, as seen in this tweet from Carol Penner …

… and in Hilary Scarsella’s extensive critique, Not Making Sense: Why Stanley Hauerwas’s Response to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark (The Mennonite; December 4, 2017). EXCERPT:

While Hauerwas’s article makes certain explicit claims in support of sexual violence survivors and in condemnation of Yoder’s abusive behavior, and while these doubtless have some value, it simultaneously reproduces logics and rhetoric that silence and dismiss those same survivors in order to preserve modes of thought and relationship dear to the writer that are threatened by the figure of the sexually abused. In so doing, what might be read as Hauerwas’s attempt to move himself into alliance with sexual violence survivors is, at the very least, compromised.

I must say at the outset that this response to Hauerwas’s article is only in part about Hauerwas. The reason I write has less to do with the individual Stanley Hauerwas and more to do with the fact that the problematic aspects of Hauerwas’s article are representative of logics and rhetoric that muddy reflection on sexual violence broadly. Because Hauerwas’s voice carries weight in the academy and the Christian church, it is necessary to name and address the ways his commentary on Yoder’s abusive behavior works against the interests of those harmed by Yoder and many harmed by sexual violence generally.

That is the goal of this response: to read Hauerwas’s article in a way that makes visible myriad forms of logic and rhetoric that perpetuate systems of sexual violence and, in so doing, risk enflaming the wounds of sexual violence survivors. My hope is that by using Hauerwas’s article to practice careful reading of logics and rhetoric that exacerbate sexual violence, we will get better at catching ourselves and others when we observe or participate in them.

Ms. Scarsella is a Mennonite and notes she is “Director of Theological Integrity for Into Account, an organization that offers support, advocacy, strategy and resources to survivors of sexual violence seeking to hold perpetrators and enablers of sexual harm in religious settings accountable. Our roots are in the Mennonite community, and Mennonite survivors of sexual violence-including some who were abused by Yoder-make up the majority of those with whom we partner and to whom we are accountable.”

Her article includes sections addressing Stanley Hauerwas’ concern for Yoder’s family, Hauerwas’ self-defense in writing this article, and making sense of Yoder’s predatory behavior. She concludes with a section and a question: What future has the Yoderian thought-world?


There are usually far more than just the cliché “two sides to every story.” For the best interpretation of a situation, I believe we benefit from analyzing the broadest pool of information available. So, I try to find other angles, other sources, in order to expand that pool of details from which we draw for analysis, interpretation, and practical implications. In this particular case, I found it applicable to other situations of abuse survival and systemic abuse repair that:

  • We not forget the path by which we got to where we are, as if our current stance is where we’ve always been.
  • We need people who have the big picture in mind, who can challenge us along the way so we don’t get mired in details.
  • We need people who have the micro-picture in mind, who can challenge us along the way so we don’t get lost in symbols or gestures that leave key people out.

Organizational rehabilitation does not act as if toxic actions of the past did not happen — a blissful sort of forgive-and-forget-ness — but instead moves us forward, mindful of the fact that they did indeed happen, that real people were harmed in the process, and that we are ethically bound to do what we can so we resolve the past and do not reenact it in the present or the future.

~ Brad Sargent, aka “brad/futuristguy”

These are points we need to contemplate in our own survivor communities, and also apply to the situations of dealing with malignant people and toxic systems as we move forward.

I hope this study has helped clarify the main questions emerging in our Christian culture from the case of John Howard Yoder; emphasized important points toward developing nuanced answers; and encouraged you to dig deeper in dynamics of investigating, lamenting, and remediating situations of systemic abuse.

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