When Once-Respected Christian Leaders Do Bad Things | Sojourners

When Once-Respected Christian Leaders Do Bad Things

There's one key mistake we tend to make when responding to abusive leaders.
Photo by Jeremy Kuehn via Unsplash. Graphic by Mitchell Atencio/Sojourners. 

In January 2015, Mennonite Church USA published an extensive history detailing how John Howard Yoder — the church’s most influential theologian, widely regarded as the expert on Christian pacifism — sexually violated as many as 100 women. From the 1970s until his death in 1997, that history showed how he used his status and power as a leading Mennonite figure to facilitate the abuse, to silence those he abused, and to evade accountability.

Yoder’s abuse ignited vigorous debate: How are we to reconcile Yoder’s contributions to peace church theology with his perpetration of sexual violence? Should we continue to read his books? Is he still the authority on Christian pacifism?

Perhaps you’ve found yourself asking some of these questions. It doesn’t have to be Yoder; maybe you asked these questions about Jean Vanier, Ravi Zacharias, or a leader of a church you once attended. Unfortunately, the problem is pervasive. But regardless of the particular case, we tend to make the same mistake in our response: We focus on the abuser and their work.

Immoral exemplars leave us to grapple with a host of difficult ethical questions. Among these are certainly questions about their status and the value of their work. But these are not the only — or even the most important — issues. We also must consider the concerns of survivors, the integrity of our most treasured traditions and institutions, and how our response might contribute to a more just world. When we focus solely on the status of the tainted thinker and their work, much of the ethical picture fades from view.

The task here is complex: We must acknowledge the importance of these leaders’ work and their formative influence — an influence that cannot simply be revoked, however much we might wish it — without risking the perpetuation of its evil effects. To do this, we need to ask a different set of questions: How can we care for survivors? How do we move forward knowing that these authorities’ work irrevocably shaped lives and practices of individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions? How can we create a more just world for future generations?

Ways to respond

The work of reckoning with spiritual leaders who are found to be abusers is part of a distinct moral problem that I call “tainted legacies.” I like the word “legacy” because it acknowledges that tainted thinkers and their institutions are part of larger structures that wield irrevocable influence. It recognizes the ways these thinkers’ invaluable contributions and unjust harm reverberate from the past, into the present and future.

When confronted with tainted legacies, folks often respond in one of the following ways:

  • “Deniers” reject the problem outright. They treat tainted legacies as nonissues by refusing to recognize what taints the legacy, by minimizing or contextualizing the violations, or by claiming all is tainted. These are my colleagues who continue to teach Yoder’s work and cite it without acknowledging his violence. Or music fans who are willing to #MuteRKelly but could never delete a legend like Michael Jackson from their playlists. Other deniers just throw up their hands and exclaim, “Aren’t we all sinners? Why does it matter?”
  • “Separationists” improve on deniers by acknowledging that thinkers or institutions are tainted, but they posit a neat divide between the thinker/institution and its practice, arguing that violations have no bearing on the goods of the legacy. They say things like: “We must judge the work apart from the people who created it.”
  • “Abolitionists” join separationists in acknowledging that someone’s legacy is tainted, but they respond by banning their texts, revoking their authority. The abolitionist approach both avoids reinforcing the negative ideology these thinkers created and further burdening their victims; however, it fails to address the formative impact this now-tainted legacy has already had on individuals, communities, and institutions.
  • “Revisionists” and “redeemers” recognize not only the goods and their tainted status but also their enduring value. This prompts revisionists to renew investigations to reassess or reinterpret the legacy. This work often reveals that the authority in question may not be who we thought they were, identifying new authorities. It prompts redeemers to salvage good from the ashes through memorialization, learning, or putting the tainted goods to life-saving work. For example, many who once taught Yoder are redirecting their attention to Mennonite women like Martha Smith Good, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, and Ruth Krall, who put peacemaking into practice by mobilizing to end Yoder’s violence and hold him and Mennonite institutions accountable.

While I find abolitionist and revisionist responses more compelling than those of deniers and separationists, I advocate for a response I call the “reformer.” My position incorporates aspects of some of the others but moves beyond the question of what to do with the material “remainders” of tainted legacies to call for repair of the legacies themselves and the systemic injustices that produce them. With Yoder, this means not only discussing what to do with his work in light of his violations, but also analyzing the cultural, political, economic, and structural injustices that give rise to his tainted legacy. It sees sexual violence as the primary moral problem and tries to repair the structural evils that facilitated Yoder’s sexual abuse.

Repair of this kind is, of course, difficult. Tainted legacies involve injustices like slavery or sexual violence that inflict deep wounds that often go unaddressed for generations and that continue into the present. The violations of human dignity and other wrongdoing involved is of such a magnitude that it seems inappropriate to speak in the language of “repair.” Full restitution for such evils can never come this side of history.

The work of responding to tainted legacies always depends on grace, including the readiness of victims to forgive egregious violations and the willingness of perpetrators and the privileged to repent in the name of a more just future. We can’t assume or coerce either, but when forgiveness and repentance are offered, they are mercies for which we should be grateful. Without them, it may not be possible to reckon with past evils let alone those we perpetuate and perpetrate today.

Lest, however, we mistake this grace for the “cheap” variety of which theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned, we must be willing to get our hands dirty. We must risk engaging with the tainted legacies that confront us, trusting that God will make good on our failures and inadequacies. The work of repair, sustained by grace, must be equally as ongoing as our failures to mend these wounds.

When confronted with tainted legacies, it is all too easy to focus on questions about “remainders,” like what to do with someone’s books or the organizations they founded. And these debates are important! We need to discuss the fate of “remainders” because of the important messages they convey about who we are, our values, and how we want to order our communal life. The problem, however, is when we stop there. It is much easier to fight over these issues than to get down to the hard work of reform. Dealing with remainders is necessary but insufficient. Responding to tainted legacies is a matter of what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace,” a grace that frees us to risk responsible action in a fallen world where there are no easy solutions, innocent moral agents, or morally pure courses of action.

Confronting tainted legacies must become occasions for in-depth analysis of the unjust attitudes, practices, and policies that facilitated violence. We must act both retrospectively to enact repair of these legacies and prospectively to enhance resources for future generations. This is the most promising way to pursue human flourishing through our most treasured — yet tainted — legacies.

Portions of this article are reprinted, with permission, from The Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing after Traumatic Pasts, by Karen V. Guth, © Cambridge University Press, 2022.

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