Several years ago I interviewed for a teaching position at a small, private liberal arts university located in the non-mythical Northeast. I didn’t get the job, but who wants to live in the land of ‘Unsweetened Tea’, anyway?
During my first day of the eight-hour interview process (seriously, interviewing for teaching positions is horrific), a faculty member asked me about some of my research, my publications, and how I understood the role of feminism in Christian Ethics.
She began by asking me if I was a feminist. I answered by saying, “The first thing I learned in my feminist ethics courses is that there is no such thing as ‘feminism’; rather, what we have are ‘feminisms’–various, and occasionally disparate, feminist movements. So, you have to be more specific. If you’re merely asking me, at the most rudimentary level, if I’m opposed to gender inequality, then, yes, absolutely. Seems like a trick question, actually. Granted, I’ve learned just enough to know, from many of my stellar feminist graduate professors, that the problem with men claiming to be feminists is that it is often on their own terms–and this doesn’t even include the whole issue of self-deception. So, you probably need to ask some of these professors, your long-distance colleagues, if they think I’m a feminist. They would probably be able to give you a more accurate account than what I can provide.”
She smiled and told me she liked my response. She appreciated that I was open to correction and was willing to defer what I thought of myself to how others see me–especially in terms of whether or not any feminists would claim me as one of their own.
(I was bluffing of course, but it worked . . . for the moment, anyhow.)
She then moved on to question number two. She began by saying, “I see you’re heavily influenced by women activists such as Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Emma Goldman.”
Being thoroughly delighted that she had read some of my work, I responded confidently: “Definitely. Their lives and writings have been very formative for me. Their work, passion, and influence cannot be overstated. They’re just incredible.”
Giving me an entirely bemused yet sly look, she leaned toward me and slowly asked, “Then how can you possibly justify your obvious influence from that sexist pig John Howard Yoder?”
. . .
Talk about being blindsided.
I did not see that one coming.
She knew it, too.
That’s why she was smiling.
I think I stuttered something like, “Well, um, you know . . . I think we can plunder people’s work without idealizing that person or taking on their traits. I mean, Luther argued that it was permissible to ‘box’ your wife’s ears, but he’s still widely read . . . um, but, you know, I hate that guy . . . haha . . . no seriously, I really do. What an asshole! Oh, sorry. Bad word. I do that sometimes. Um, but, you know . . . there’s also King. Wasn’t it Cone who referred to him as a ‘skirt-chaser’. Maybe not. But you know what I’m saying. The good of his accomplishments clearly outweighed his, uh . . . vices . . . right? So, I just use Yoder’s incredibly astute arguments for Christian nonviolence while understanding that he is not a model for . . . um . . . uh . . . well . . . was there anything else you wanted to ask me?”
I think that was it. She was kind enough to change the subject. But it was at this point I realized I had certainly never thought about my affinity for so many female activists and how that either does or does not conflict with, say, the admiration one may have for a Gandhi who laid down with women to tempt himself, or a King who, it appears, committed violence via adultery, or a Yoder who, despite being, arguably, the most articulate voice for Christian nonviolence in the history of the church, exercised abusive power over women while he was, also, married.
So, how do we read Yoder in light of this reality? This has been asked countless times before, of course. It’s hardly a new question. As a matter of fact, when I was at The Believer’s Church Conference at Notre Dame back in 2002 this topic came up in front of all of the participants. Some people walked out, thinking this was not the place to have the conversation (Yoder’s wife and one of his daughters were in attendance), while others found it the ideal place to discuss his legacy–since that was the purpose of the conference (it was called, if memory serves me, ‘Assessing the Theological Legacy of John Howard Yoder’). In what was, quite possibly, the highlight of the event, an elderly Mennonite gal came forward to the microphone and started listing all of the men she had had sex with during her time working with one particular Mennonite institution.
You have to love Mennonites and their penchant for public confession.
And apparent lasciviousness, too!
Unfortunately, Catholic priest (at least at the time) Michael Baxter was serving as one of the moderators. He quickly went to the microphone and said, “This may be a conversation better suited for a more private audience.”
Anyway. I primarily bring this up because my good friend at Jesus Radicals recently published a piece called, John Howard Yoder and Sex: Wrestling with the Contradictions. Click on it and check it out. He goes into far more detail (including testimony from the women) than what I’m doing. Andy rarely ‘tiptoes’ lightly around anything, so it should be an interesting read. You can also read more about this subject from Ted Grimsrud’s Word and Deed: The Strange Case of John Howard Yoder, as well as in Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child (though, he only dedicates about four or five pages to it). Hauerwas’s specific interest in the matter is how Yoder submitted to the disciplining process practiced by the Mennonite Church. Based on Matthew 18:15-20, the church placed him under the ‘ban’ and after four years of working through this process, Yoder was reconciled back into his home church (a year or so, I believe, before he died). If nothing else, it proved that Yoder needed the Mennonite Church far more than the Mennonite Church needed Yoder. (Of course, whether or not reconciliation occurred between Yoder and those he caused to suffer is an altogether different conversation.)
The question, at least for me, often revolves around how my ‘need’ for Yoder’s work should or should not be trumped by what he was doing while writing some of his work. Of course, we should also factor in the ban, his submission to it (albeit, not an easy one from my understanding–apparently, he was on the ropes until McClendon convinced him to do it), and, finally, his eventual path back into his church. I don’t know that those are mere ‘extras’ to the story. Maybe, maybe not. You tell me. My question revolves more around my interpretive strategy of his work–that is, how do I continue reading his writings? By that, I do not mean, ‘How do I justify reading Yoder?’–though that certainly may be the first question; rather, I’m asking, ‘When reading Yoder, how do I read Yoder?’
For this, I defer to your keen authority.
[While I await your words of wisdom, I’m going to go listen to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Those riot grrrl rockers pummel me black and blue (yes, that was a Bratmobile reference). By the way, is it terrible that I find Kathleen Hanna to be so damn cute? If loving her is right, I don’t want to be wrong. Yes, I intentionally inverted that saying. In this context, it seems to make sense.]
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.