The Holistic, Systems Example of the Mennonites

Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Abuse

by Top Denominational Theologian, John Howard Yoder

On the issue of authors and “moral turpitude,” one of the most impressive situations of repentance and repair work — 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.

His case and its eventual resolution is complex, involving 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 here 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.

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 The Politics of Jesus as part of a campus Christian group in the very early 1980s. Already even then, I occasionally heard there was this other, 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 the abuse; concealed it; ignored, shamed, and/or silenced the victims.

There were some attempts in the 1990s by institutions Mr. Yoder was associated with to address system issues. But, these reportedly were not rigorous enough and didn’t seem to turn out particularly righteous or reparative. And so, the damage persisted.

It took more decades to act, but at least the Mennonite denomination eventually lived up to their theology of peace-making and reconciliation. 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 are addressed by each bullet point item.)

  • 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 those harmed 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 decisions they made regarding books by Mr. Yoder that their publishing division had published, about their findings on his sins of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, and 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 Yoder situation and the very instructive FAQ page. There is also a lengthy list of news and links, and resources on dealing with sexual abuse. Analyze them for specifics of how they addressed the seven parts of their denominational systems: people, principles, practices, partnerships, processes, products, and impacts.

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.

I believe this extensive process of “institutional repentance/remediation” 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’ve been easy for them to do nothing, to just stay embarrassed at being taken in and called out. But hiding the truth doesn’t make an individual or institution trustworthy; transparency is needed to restore trust when it’s been shattered.

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.

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 continues to send forth ripples – and the waters will simply not 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.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE EXAMPLE OF THE MENNONITES. There are usually far more than just the cliché “two sides to every story.” For the best interpretation of a situation, we need the broadest pool of information to analyze. So, I try to find other witnesses, 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 that:

  • We cannot 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.

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.

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