Yoder-gate: learning how to speak nonviolently

yoderSometime in the last couple of weeks, I got wind of the John Howard Yoder sex scandal. Yoder is a hero in the Christian pacifist community and a key influence on Stanley Hauerwas, one of my key theologians. Anyway, Yoder sexually assaulted, harassed, and/or had adulterous relationships with a lot of women. A Mennonite commission was just formed to investigate cover-ups that happened. A whole lot of radical Christians in our Despised Ones bloggers collective have been heavily influenced by Yoder’s teachings. And then somebody asked a question about the sex scandal and the fit hit the shan. So I wanted to offer some reflections on our messy conversation. I’m not sure how interesting this will be to people outside of our little club, but I’ll try to write it in such a way that you can get something from it.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not read much of Yoder at all. Do not read this piece to be making any claims about his theology other than surface-level appearances. My interest here is providing a reflection on one specific very heated and not so nonviolent conversation that took place about an advocate of nonviolence and wondering aloud about how we can speak nonviolently instead of just theorizing about nonviolence.]

1) We are so good at talking past each other

In most disagreements, the basic disagreement is what you actually disagree on. In an internet forum, this problem gets exponentially worse. So the disagreement that was never resolved and we went round and round about is what was actually being said by calling out the hypocrisy of a man who preached nonviolence but was allegedly abusive to women.

Is it saying that we’re not allowed to read his books anymore? That we should try to see what aspects of his thought might be problematic? Or that throwing his name around in an unqualified positive sense might be painful to anyone who has also been sexually assaulted or known someone who was assaulted by a popular guy who everyone else liked?

An example of our mutual incomprehensibility that I found was a comment that we need to analyze and dismantle oppressive “systems” that allow for sexually abusive behavior like Yoder’s to happen. Several assumed in response to this comment that the “system” referred to Yoder’s system of thought and this comment was saying that we need to decide if Yoder’s philosophy has been poisoned by what he did.

But the more obvious understanding of the meaning of the word “system” in its context was not Yoder’s system of thought, but the system of celebrity worship that caused people who knew what Yoder was doing to keep it a secret. Asking how we avoid creating “untouchable” heroes who are unaccountable for their actions is very different than saying that their ideas need to be expunged from our discourse because of what they did.

2)The appearance of defending abuse is very hurtful to anyone who has ever been abused

The nature of sexual abuse is such that the abuser usually gets away with it and the victim usually isn’t believed. So whenever there is a conversation where an abuse is getting named and there are push-backs, attempts to nuance, etc, anyone privy to the conversation who has experienced sexual abuse and the attempt to silence it is likely going to relive their own personal injustice with each comment that says, “I hear what you’re saying, but…” For some of us, sexual abuse is a theoretical matter; for others of us, it is a deep personal scar. In conservations like this, we need to be very aware that we don’t know each others’ stories.

3) Hypocrites have a very accurate knowledge of their own demons

To the degree to which we are asking the question of whether Yoder’s thought should be thrown out or not on the general basis of hypocrisy, I would simply observe that it shouldn’t be surprising for people to have the most insight into their own personal demons. Someone in the comment thread observed that the reason he believes in Christian pacifism is because he knows what a monster he is capable of being, speculating that perhaps Yoder’s own acute awareness of his sin was part of the catalyst for his radical positions.

I write all the time about the curse of self-justification in which we are morally corrupted by the need to prove ourselves right with all of our actions because I am a huge self-justifier. I realize that there’s a categorical difference between that and sexual abuse, but if we’re talking on the generic level of hypocrisy, then hypocrisy itself doesn’t discredit thought.

4) The trouble with Yoder’s “revolutionary subordination”

Hannah H. who blogs at The Femonite (feminist + Mennonite) wrote a piece a few weeks ago expressing concern about a key aspect of Yoder’s thought, specifically his advocacy of a posture of “revolutionary subordination.” It is very reasonable to question a term like this coming from someone who allegedly abused his power with female graduate students who were subordinate to him. Hannah shares the following excerpt from his writing:

The subordinate person becomes a free ethical agent in the act of voluntarily acceding to subordination in the power of Christ instead of bowing to it either fatalistically or resentfully… It is because she knows that in Christ there is no male or female that the Christian wife can freely accept that subordination to her unbelieving husband which is her present lot. It is because Christ has freed us all, and slave and free are equal before God, that their relationship may continue as a humane and honest one within the framework of the present economy, the structure of which is passing away…

This all comes in the context of trying to reconcile the New Testament household codes (wives submit to your husbands, slave to your masters, etc) with Galatians 3:28 which declares that there is no longer free or slave, male and female, etc. So Yoder is basically saying that Galatians 3:28 is the ultimate goal of the new world Christ is creating, but since we live in the old world with its oppressive social systems, we submit to its order superficially and subvert it not through seizing worldly power but through love.

Here’s something very uncomfortable. Yoder’s line of argumentation sounds like the rationale neo-confederate Calvinist Doug Wilson uses to argue that abolitionism was evil. Wilson says the “scriptural” approach to abolishing slavery would not have been to fight a Civil War but for non-slave-holding Christians to sit down with their slave-holding brethren and love them “nonviolently” out of that lifestyle like Paul telling Philemon to accept Onesimius as a brother. Yes, I realize I’m not an Anabaptist and I don’t know the ins and outs of revolutionary subordination, but what prevents it from being misappropriated in that kind of way?

Now there seems to be something very powerful and appropriate about revolutionary subordination when you’re the person who actually has power. I have often argued that Jesus never advocated “leadership,” that golden calf of evangelical megachurchianity. He called for leaders to become servants. Period. Meaning that we not only serve others but we become their servants, submitting to their needs and asking them to tell us how we might best serve them. In social justice parlance, we call this servanthood true solidarity as opposed to the paternalism of deciding what marginalized people need on their behalf.

This is appropriate teaching for me as a bourgeois white male in a position of pastoral authority in a congregation. Of course, my servanthood to all (diakonos pantou) has to be balanced out by my slavery to Christ (doulos christou). I cannot allow others to make me do things that betray Christ. This tension between the two servanthoods I embody is a critical balance.

A nonviolence which “does not resist the evildoer” to the point of enabling another person’s sinful abuse is a betrayal of Christ. A passivist “nonviolence” towards sin against me does violence to truth. That’s why any principle like “revolutionary subordination” cannot be a universal which doesn’t take into account the social location of the person involved. it is not appropriate to tell people without power to renounce their legitimate quest to gain power.

I would say actually it is the duty of the oppressed to revolt in response to their oppression. As a privileged person, I am called to subordinate myself to others, but it is violence for me to impose that call on anyone else. You can take up your own cross, but you cannot give other people their crosses.

5) Cruciform power as a different articulation of nonviolence

This weekend I preached a sermon called “Standing your ground, Jesus style.” My primary text was 2 Timothy 4 where Paul counsels Timothy to “teach with patience” since he’s dealing with people who have “itching ears” and are ready to jump ship and go to a teacher who tells them what they want to hear. Timothy needs to be able to keep his cool in the face of fussy, itchy people and not give up declaring the truth.

I saw a connection between how Paul told Timothy to be and the actions of Decatur, Georgia elementary school clerk Antoinette Tuff this last week in talking down a mentally unstable young man named Michael Brandon Hill who came into her school with an AK-47. She stood her ground, Jesus style (which is the opposite of standing your ground the way that George Zimmerman stood his ground). She focused all of her energy on affirming and empathizing with Michael so that he would feel safe putting down his gun and surrendering. She overpowered him with her love.

This is a different posture of nonviolence than “revolutionary subordination.” I haven’t read enough Yoder to know what he would say about it. I would call Antoinette’s posture cruciform power, because her nonviolence was not a divestment of power, but an overpowering of violence. She didn’t submit to the violent person; she controlled the conversation with her love. Michael was disempowered and emancipated by her at the same time in an entirely benevolent way.

What would it look like to emulate this cruciform power in our conversations with others when we have conflict? To take responsibility for coaxing our interlocutors into putting down their weapons by affirming the good in what they’re saying even if we are at odds on a particular point and by demonstrating that we really are trying to hear them correctly and appreciate them.

What if we just decided to operate as though whenever others clash with us, particularly when they’re being unreasonable and uncharitable, it’s because we’re all frightened, confused people who forgot to take our medication and we need some nurture and encouragement in order to be restored into civility?

I think the main obstacle to embodying cruciform power is self-justification, when I need to have my correctness recognized by others. There’s a difference between needing the truth to be honored and needing to be personally justified. What if instead of feeling most responsible for defending my own justification, I felt most responsible for justifying my opponent instead? And what if I decided not to be bothered if another person doesn’t recognize that I was right on a particular point in the short-term because my long-term goal is to build enough trust between us that our eyes are opened to all the legitimate points in each others’ perspectives?

I don’t need to condone falsehood in order to validate a person I disagree with. It’s not about saying you’re right and I’m wrong in order to appease somebody. It’s about naming what is affirmation-worthy about the other person’s perspective or values without necessarily pulling back from my own convictions.

One of the best recent examples of this kind of posture in discourse is a post called “On Not Living in a Bubble” that fellow Methodist blogger Craig Adams just wrote about the LGBT issue. Craig has a traditional understanding of sexuality, but I have met few people who try harder than he does to hear and sympathize with those who disagree with him. And because of that, we have a very warm rapport between us.

The mirror image of Craig is Justin Lee, the facilitator of the Gay Christian Network, who is very passionate about sticking up for Christians who disapprove of his identity and not allowing them to be written off as bigots by other gay people. The way that Craig and Justin do conversation is a model of how to speak nonviolently.

I just think nonviolence understood as subordination falls short of truly emulating Christ, who did not merely allow himself to be stepped on, but rather seized the authority of love in perfect cruciform power. Love is the greatest authority, but in a way that only empowers and heals others. I haven’t ever read John Howard Yoder, but I’m not sure that I need to when I’ve got role models of nonviolence like Antoinette Tuff, Craig Adams, and Justin Lee to study and emulate.


11 thoughts on “Yoder-gate: learning how to speak nonviolently

  1. I came across this post from Fred Clark’s blog, and wanted to push back on one of your statements. You said:
    “Hypocrites have a very accurate knowledge of their own demons – To the degree to which we are asking the question of whether Yoder’s thought should be thrown out or not on the general basis of hypocrisy, I would simply observe that it shouldn’t be surprising for people to have the most insight into their own personal demons.”

    In the case of serial sexual predators, this is absolutely NOT true. if you talk with therapists who have treated sexual predators, they will tell you that most have a pretty well-developed internal justification for their behavior, are extremely manipulative, and adept at rationalizing what they do. Obviously, I can’t speak to Yoder’s interior life, but based on the literature (and my personal knowledge) on sexual predators, it is highly unlikely that Yoder was racked by guilt or terribly self-aware. When it comes to institutions dealing with sexual predators, it is vital that they know what they are dealing with. If they don’t, they will be easily manipulated.

    As a survivor of a number of years of sexual abuse – some of it by clergy – I’m almost amused by a discussion of whether several decades of predatory, almost certainly criminal behavior by a theologian/ethicist that directly contradicted everything he promoted MIGHT have poisoned the value of his work, using polite words like “problematic.” and if possibly he shouldn’t be given a central location in Christian pacifist circles. (I realize that you aren’t reading his work, but if he’s still a “hero” in the Christian pacifist community, that’s a community I want nothing to do with.)

    • Wow. Thanks for your testimony. I hope that my use of polite language wasn’t invalidating for you. I cannot begin to imagine what you have been through. I am very grateful that your voice is in the conversation. It is much needed to take this out of the realm of abstraction.

      • I just find it discouraging that the bar for being a “Christian pacifist hero” is apparently lower than the bar for being mayor of San Diego: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/gropes-and-sloppy-kisses-13-womens-accusations-against-bob-filner/278433/

        And at least Bob Filner was a Freedom Rider who spent 2 months in a Mississippi jail. Did Yoder’s embrace of pacifism ever cost him anything? I haven’t found any evidence that he was involved in the Civil Rights movement or particularly politically active or that he ever spent much time anywhere there was much violence. How hard is it to be non-violent as a straight, white, highly educated, tenured, middle class man surrounded by Mennonites in northern Indiana? It’s not like departmental meetings were likely to regularly devolve into fisticuffs. Even in that tremendously safe environment, he couldn’t manage to be a decent human being, much less a hero.

        He wrote a bunch of books and was a super smart dude and lousy human being. Why anyone thinks that makes him a hero is beyond me.

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  3. You write…
    A passivist “nonviolence” towards sin against me does violence to truth. That’s why any principle like “revolutionary subordination” cannot be a universal which doesn’t take into account the social location of the person involved.

    My rewrite…
    A passivist “nonviolence” towards sin against me (or others) does violence to truth. That’s why any principle like “revolutionary subordination” cannot be a universal which doesn’t take into account the (intrinsic worth) of the person(s) involved.

    To me, a seemingly slight but important difference.

    The white bourgeoisie (my goodness, I used to throw that word around, how I hated them, both male and female, but it was 99% envy after all…..why spotlight them? They are not any more or less sinful than anyone else.
    Don’t forge what Solzhenytsin said about the line separating good and evil. It does not pass between classes, political parties, religions (or races) but between our intimate selves, right through each of us.

    BTW “Free us for joyful obedience.” I really stumbled over that block when I heard it in my new Methodist church, when I first came in just off the pagan street. It still gives me pause, every time I confess, but that’s because of my pride, the most deadly of sins. I think it speaks to learning to be the person God actually created, and who can therefore make a free choice, instead of clinging to the caricature our egos created.

    • I really love that phrase from the prayer of confession as well. I can accept your edit. When I say white bourgeoisie of course I’m being autobiographical.

  4. Many good, important points here. Yoder, like Hauerwas, can be blind to the importance of social location. And I think revolutionary subordination, especially in the way he describes it, and especially in conjunction with his wrongdoing, is really problematic.

    The best way to read that part of his thought, I think, is in light of a comments he makes in Body Politics about women’s ordination. If we are going to have ordination that gives certain people authority and power, he says, obviously women should get that power. But we shouldn’t pretend that letting some women into the circle of elites really fundamentally changes the order of things. Similarly, does the fact that the American president killing people in the Middle East is now African American really change anything about global power?

    It’s not an argument against proximate change like (say) emancipation of women from 1st century social mores. It’s a refusal to see anything but the eschaton as truly revolutionary. Or better, all progress is measured by and pulled into the future by God’s kingdom, which is present in very small change along the way. And its not escapism to admit that some people’s lot in life is not actually going to get better in the near term – but that doesn’t prevent them from participating in the kingdom. I hope, for example, that we are fighting to get everyone off death row. That won’t happen for some of them, though, and they’ll be executed. I think something like revolutionary subordination, where their circumstance, though it should be changed, nonetheless does not prevent them from joining with Christ in their suffering as he suffered.

    But as you say, that’s easy for me to say as a white male! There are important womanist and feminist pushbacks to all of that. So I don’t know.

    Finally, though, how did you get out of Duke without reading Yoder?

    • Thanks for reframing it for me. That makes a lot of sense. It would probably be best to say that it’s a concept that can be misappropriated.

  5. Hi Morgan – Thanks for this piece and for picking up on my comments about John Howard Yoder and revolutionary subordination. I know this is confusing, but there are actually two Femonite blogs. I, Hannah H., blog over at The Femonite (www.femonite.com) and Meghan Florian blogs as The Femmonite (two m’s). We started our blogs within days of each other and not knowing what the other one was working on. Whoops. But we’re both advocating for gender justice Menno-style, so you gotta love that. Thanks again.

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