By Tobias Winright 10-23-2015

The question has plagued me for months now: What should we do about Mennonite nonviolence theologian John Howard Yoder’s works, in light of his stories of abuse — particularly for Christians like me who found considerable meaning in it?

Writer and doctoral student Claire Hein Blanton’s recent commentary, “Pacifists Should Disengage from Yoder,” addresses this question, arguing that Yoder’s case is different from that of other abusive Christian theologians like Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. Yoder’s Christological pacifism, which is the central theme of his theology and the main thing for which he was known (until now), is fatally contradicted by his “theologies of violent, sexual experimentation,” leading Blanton to “academically and personally” choose to “put Yoder to rest.”

The pivotal point for her is this: “When a theologian’s praxis contradicts his or her theology, and when the same theologian creates a secondary, contradictory theology in support of this negative praxis, the theologian has created a large enough discontinuity that justifies setting the works of that theologian aside.”

For me, the question of what to do with Yoder is not only an academic issue but a personal one. I was Yoder’s graduate assistant — and would be his next-to-last — for two years. Academically, how I teach my “War and Peace in the Christian Tradition” course is indebted in great extent to what I learned from him. As evident in numerous footnotes, my scholarship and publications, including for Sojourners, over the last two decades on just war and just policing also owe a lot to both his research and his mentoring.

Recently, however, when I finished drafting a long introduction for my forthcoming coedited volume, Can War Be Just in the Twenty-First Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition (Orbis, 2015), I realized that for the first time, when writing about pacifism and just war, I neither quoted from nor cited Yoder’s work. It’s not that I have totally set it aside — the astute reader may still discern echoes of what I learned from Yoder. Still, I intentionally avoided using any of the standard Yoder lines that I had used to great effect to make certain points in the past.

So, do I agree with Blanton’s recommendation?

I’m not sure. Elsewhere, recently, I found myself quoting from his work on just war. A certain “pacifist” interlocutor had recently seemed to treat me and my work rather “violently.” In my response, I highlighted how, in contrast to him, Yoder tried to give just war “a better hearing than it has asked for” out of respect for the integrity and dignity of his just war interlocutors (Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution, [Brazos, 2009], p. 78). But, then, I immediately made sure to add the following qualifier: “It breaks my heart, though, that he [Yoder] did not similarly nonviolently respect the dignity of many women, including students.”

I must confess, I am torn. When I was invited by Paul Martens and others to respond to some questions they had for Yoder’s graduate students at Notre Dame during the 1990s, I did not do so. I simply could not articulate what I thought then, and I am not sure I can even do so now. The publication of Rachel Waltner Goosen’s article in the January 2015 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review, detailing Yoder’s actions, brought to light even more from this shadow-side of him than I had ever imagined. What a nightmare, especially for these women, but also for me and others who as graduate students trusted him.

I went to Notre Dame in 1993 to learn from Yoder, among others. I had read some of his work previously at Duke Divinity School and, as a former law enforcement officer, I wanted to think further and harder about Christian ethics and the use of force.

The other grad students and I saw the Yoder others saw — he was quiet. He was awkward. But we also witnessed another oft-unseen side. He constantly deposited little handwritten notes in our mailboxes about things we should research or read, and he asked for feedback on outlines and manuscripts that he was writing. Every now and then we would catch a glimpse of a smile. At his final birthday party with graduate students just before his death, he joked with us.

There is more. When my spouse at the time left me and I got an annulment, I felt like I had hit rock bottom. To make things worse, if that was even possible, I also could not afford my car payments. Yoder sent me an email offering to trade cars with me, saying he would take over the payments. I did not accept, but I appreciated it and how he signed it “fraternally yours…”

In the months just preceding his unexpected death, Yoder was delegating different areas of his published and unpublished works to some of us graduate students. He invited Joseph Capizzi and me to work on his just war materials, even suggesting that we “could do it in your own names or in some case with mine.”

Those of us who were graduate students during those final several years of his life knew a man who was perhaps genuinely like Rodrigo Mendoza, the mercenary slaver, played by Robert De Niro in The Mission — a man undergoing penance for the violence he had committed. The very last message he communicated with anyone may have been the e-mail I received from him — he was in his office, I was at my library carrel — advising me about my upcoming on-campus job interview at Simpson College and offering feedback on my first paper I was preparing to give at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics a few days later. Twenty minutes after receiving his helpful e-mail, I was notified of his sudden death. I felt devastated as I telephoned another of my former professors, Stanley Hauerwas, to tell him the news.

So what to do with Yoder? I don’t know. I struggled over whether to use one of his books or essays in my course this semester. I didn’t want to. But, because I am writing a short new book on the history of just war, I am using his posthumously published Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution. I decided to use the book because it isn’t one of his theological defenses of Christian pacifism — instead, this text is more historical and descriptive of the various approaches of Christian reasoning. Still I hesitated to say anything about Yoder’s misconduct to my students. It took me a while before I did so.

Nevertheless, after this semester, I am leaning towards Blanton’s recommendation of setting Yoder’s work aside, at least for the foreseeable future. While I believe that the story of twentieth century Christian pacifism cannot be told without including Yoder, I think it is now possible to rely on the work of others for persuasive defenses of nonviolence and for strong critiques of Niebuhrian realism.

Believe me — I am still very torn. One year ago, while at a symposium on war and peace in Washington, D.C., I had one of those dreams that feel so real that its effect lingers through the following day. In it, the late Glen Stassen and John Howard Yoder welcomed me to their table, where we smiled and discussed what is happening in the world.

It was probably only my wishful thinking, but one of Yoder’s other graduate students told me she wasn’t so sure.

Either way, in eschatological terms—and speaking only for myself — what to do with Yoder is still a “not yet” for me. I just don’t want to make things any worse for the women he harmed.

This article originally appeared in longer form at Symposium Ethics. It has been edited and posted here with permission. 

Tobias Winwright

Tobias Winright is a contributing writer for Sojourners, and he holds the Maeder Chair in Health Care Ethics and teaches theological ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO. 

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