Noting Abusive Theologians
Ekklesia reports that the publishing agency of the Mennonite Church (USA and Canada) has decided, after a discernment process with denominational leaders, to include the following statement at the beginning of all books by John Howard Yoder:
John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.
At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.
This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.
I think this is an excellent approach. I commend the Mennonite church and press leaders for adopting it, and I hope it will set a precedent in the field.
In my class on the History of Systematic Theology, my classmates and I were shocked to learn from our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst. It generated an important discussion about the extent to which we could rely on the intellectual work of a theologian whose life showed such serious failings in his ability to “walk the talk,” on the one hand; and the extent to which all of us are sinners, and thus all theologians are sinners, so why do we expect anything different, on the other.
(I do not recall whether the discussion broke out along gender lines; I do recall that another woman student and I were among the most vocally horrified, and that our professor, a man, was rather strongly making the case that we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned.)
In Tracy Fessenden’s 1998 paper, she tells of a 1993 AAR panel in which she presented a paper that included biographical sources:
against what appeared to be a quiet consensus that, as Tom Driver puts it, the “lurid details” of Paul Tillich s “secret sexual life” given in Hannah Tillich’s From Time to Time had “no place in his theology,” I argued that Tillich the connoisseur of prostitutes and pornography and Tillich the systematic theologian might be seen to converge in, for example, the musings on the erotic resonance of “woman” in The Socialist Decision, the image of the ground of being as life-giving and life-extinguishing womb in Systematic Theology, or the sexualizing of primitive ritual and art in “The Demonic.”
and was met with “a spirited and mixed response,” including
A number of comments [which] suggested that while my paper was colorful, entertaining, or “interesting,” the concerns it raised remained outside the scope of theological discussion. One listener upbraided me for taking Hannah Tillich’s account of Paul Tillich’s sexual exploits at face value. Another asked what all of this had to do, finally, with Tillich s theology. An anonymous respondent to whom the paper was later circulated questioned “the cash value of references to Tillich’s own personal interest in sexuality—is it merely to elicit our interest? What is the point?” … Or as a professional acquaintance asked me privately after the panel, “What, exactly, is bothering you?”
That was twenty years ago; I certainly hope that times have changed.
One of the differences between “theology” and “religious studies” is that theology is carried out from within the perspective of the believer, while religious studies takes a strictly historical/sociological perspective. I am enrolled in a theological program: perhaps this is why my immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.
Inserting statements like the one that MennoMedia will be printing in Yoder’s work would at least raise the question for discussion, which I see as valuable in and of itself.
It’s important to note, however, that the MennoMedia decision is prompted specifically by concern for the victims of Yoder’s abuse:
Amy Gingerich, editorial director, said: “John Howard Yoder’s legacy remains painful and complex. Many have found Anabaptism because of his writings. At the same time, we cannot gloss over his continued abuse of power. By including this statement in our books we are signaling that Herald Press wants to be about reconciliation and healing, not masking abuses of power.”
By acknowledging the reality that Yoder’s victims experienced, by creating the space for their experiences to be real, this Mennonite publisher is standing with the victim even though it requires acknowledging that one of the best-known Mennonite theologians committed sexual abuse. This is a courageous decision, and I hope and pray that it will set an example for others.
1. Tracy Fessenden, “‘Woman’ and the ‘Primitive’ in Paul Tillich’s Life and Thought : Some Implications for the Study of Religion,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 2 (September 1, 1998): 45–76.
One more excerpt from this paper notes an instance of Tillich’s sexual abuse of students:
According to Richard Fox’s 1985 biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, Tillich was “not just unfaithful to his wife, Hannah; he was exuberantly, compulsively promiscuous. Niebuhr once sent one of his female students to see Tillich during his office hours. He welcomed her warmly, closed the door, and began fondling her. She reported the episode to Niebuhr, who never forgave Tillich.”