The Woody Allen Problem: How Do We Read Pacifist Theologian (and Sexual Abuser) John Howard Yoder?

When I was growing up as a Mennonite in central Kansas, John Howard Yoder was a household name, known as the theologian who brought legitimacy to our Christian pacifism. His books, most notably the 1972 The Politics of Jesusput our people on the religious map as something besides quaint separatists. He drew people to religious nonviolence, and inspired legions of Christian intellectuals. Mennonites were proud to claim him.

Small wonder, then, that Mennonite church leaders wanted nothing less than to deal with the evidence, mounting throughout the 1980s and 90s, that Yoder was a serial sex abuser. Many of his victims were women students at what is now the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), and at the University of Notre Dame, where he was also employed. Dozens of women lodged complaints with seminary officials and church leaders, who seemed by and large helpless or unwilling to control his predatory behavior. Yoder died in 1997 without any formal charges ever having been filed against him. The secrecy with which church leaders and administrators dealt with his behavior meant that many people who were influenced by his theology had no idea that women had accused him, repeatedly, of sexual violence.

It wasn’t that the Mennonite church did nothing to deal with Yoder; it’s just that what they did do was too little, too late, and more about institutional damage control than about justice or healing for Yoder’s victims. In August of last year, Mennonite Church USA officials announced that they would reinvestigate the case through means of a “discernment group,” which Mark Oppenheimer wrote about for the New York Times. He opened the piece with the a question blunter than almost any Mennonite I’ve ever met would pose: “Can a bad person be a good theologian?”

I’ve been thinking of Yoder since Woody Allen received his Golden Globe award for Lifetime Achievement last month which has resuscitated public discussion of whether a man who married his partner’s daughter, and who’s still accused of molestation by his now-adult daughter (who was seven years old at the time), should be receiving accolades of any kind. “There would be some measure of accountability in not giving Oscars and Golden Globes to such men,” writes Victoria Brownworth in Shewired. “A small gesture toward their victims, but a statement that those victims matter, irrespective of canon or genius. The only way to make the crimes stop is to stop rewarding their perpetrators. For now that seems to be the only recourse we still have.”

Whenever these cases surface, they’re accompanied by a discussion about whether or not we can or should appreciate the work of artists and writers who are accused of doing terrible things. It’s a question without any satisfying categorical answer, which I suppose is why it generates so much copy. The nuances are endless: does it matter if the artist in question is alive or not? If he or she is dead, does it matter how long? Is there a difference between music that has words and music that doesn’t? Between loving a movie made by an alleged sex offender and loving a work of theology written by one? How on earth do we weigh all of this?

Jim DeRogatis, the music journalist who broke the story of R. Kelly’s sex crimes and remains a vocal advocate for Kelly’s victims, talked to the Village Voice about the dilemma:

I can still listen to Led Zeppelin and take joy in Led Zeppelin or James Brown. I condemn the things they did. I’m not reminded constantly in the art, because the art is not about it. But if you’re listening to “I want to marry you, pussy,” and not realizing that he said that to Aaliyah, who was 14, and making an album he named Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that. That’s not an experience you’ve had. I’m not expecting you to feel the same way I do. But you can look at this body of evidence. “You” meaning everybody who cares.

What changes if we care? What changes if we make respect for the humanity of survivors our first priority?

Protective Gossip

The reemergence of Yoder’s case is a powerful reminder of the consequences of ignoring or dismissing survivors. Linda Gehman Peachey, a writer and survivor’s advocate involved with the Yoder case, told Oppenheimer, “Physically he died, but his work and his theological writings live on. For those who have known this other side—his behavior, particularly toward women—that is really painful.”

Such emotional trauma isn’t limited to the particular accusers in question, either. Writing of Allen in Bustle, Caroline Pate explains: “Seeing someone who’s been publicly accused as an abuser showered with accolades is not only hard for the victim, but it’s also hard to watch for other victims of rape and abuse who are reminded how easy it is for their abusers to walk free.“

That trauma is compounded because public discussions of such high-profile cases have a depressingly predictable, misogynistic script, regardless of whether those discussions happen in the context of pop journalism, blogs or Christian denominational magazines. One recurring theme is that of the mentally unstable accusers, motivated by vengeance. “The controversy over John Howard Yoder continues. I’m beginning to think his victims and those offended by him should demand that his body be exhumed so that he can be given a proper public execution. Maybe that will bring ‘closure,’” wrote a disgruntled reader in a recent issue of The Mennonite. Mia Farrow, of course, is one of the most celebrated recipients of the vengeance smear in the history of the internet.

Then there’s the “gossip” dismissal. If a case hasn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion, talking about it can always be labelled this way. People who spread gossip are supposed to be venal and petty. It’s a cultural idea with extraordinary power, particularly in religious contexts, although it’s deployed selectively in popular media as well. In The Daily Beast, Robert Weide writes, “I consider myself allergic to gossip and tabloids, and go out of my way to avoid them.” This was in the opening paragraph of a long piece largely devoted to discrediting Farrow by questioning her mental health and sexual morality. His sympathetic portrayal of Allen dwelt on the filmmaker’s high-minded aversion to Twitter, media, and all cultural commentary connected to the allegations from his past. I’m in no position to assess the veracity of Weide’s claims, but his rhetorical strategies—whether or not he’s conscious of them—are transparent.

“I don’t listen to gossip” was for years a repeated litany in response to the growing evidence against Yoder—and no doubt against other abusive churchmen. The dismissal had a sneaky gendered component as well given the way the word “gossip” is feminized.

But it’s also tricky, especially when the case in question is unresolved. Obviously, culpability matters. The Allen and Yoder cases, in different ways, both illustrate the extraordinary complexity of dealing with cases that either never went to court (Yoder) or were resolved in ways that left the innocence of the accused in doubt (Allen). One of the easiest ways to respond to that complexity is to dismiss unsubstantiated accusations as “rumors” and to proclaim the accused “innocent until proven guilty.” From a certain angle, this looks like the moral thing to do.

The problem with this approach is that it takes no account of the peculiarities of sexualized violence as a crime in our culture: our long history of blaming victims and placing disproportionate burden of proof upon them, and the very real threat of re-traumatization that happens when victims report sexual assaults to civil authorities. The horrifying fact remains that the majority of sexual assaults never get anywhere close to a courtroom. The majority of rapes still aren’t reported. Which means that the majority of the people who commit these crimes are free to continue to do so. How do assault survivors and their advocates operate in the face of the very real possibility that there will be no accessible legal justice for them?

“Gossip” was how women protected themselves from Yoder when their institutions failed them. In her extensive and recent study of the Yoder case, The Elephants in God’s Living Room, Mennonite psychologist and theologian Ruth Krall wrote that when she began seminary at AMBS, another woman student took her aside with this warning: “Don’t ever be alone with John Howard Yoder behind a closed door—not in his office, not in a conference room, and not even in a classroom. It is not safe for women to be alone with him.”

I don’t have any pat answers for how to deal with accusations that go unresolved for years, but it’s clear that denouncing the kind of communication Krall describes as gossip is a luxury of those who aren’t vulnerable to socially powerful predators.

Patriarchal Pacifism

“People are squeamish,” Derogatis says of his fellow music journalists. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to [report on an artist’s sexual abuse], don’t care to do it, and it’s way too much work. It’s just kind of disgusting to have to write about this and bum everyone out when you just want to review a record.” Journalists who cover arts and entertainment may be far out of their element when it comes to writing about sexual abuse. Perhaps that’s at least a partial explanation for why public discussions of accused artists devolve so quickly into the ickiest varieties of victim-blaming. It’s what fills the explanatory void created by a lack of informed analysis.

Theologians, however, have a more explicit engagement with morality in their job description, and we could speculate that they’d be better equipped to handle these discussions. But theology is a male-dominated field with a long history of covering, enabling, and trivializing sexualized violence. Pacifist theologians are no exception, and the ones who have built their careers as Yoder apologists seem particularly unable to assimilate or even acknowledge feminist critique.

Denying that Yoder hurt women is no longer in style in Mennonite circles. Armchair diagnostics, on the other hand, has become rather popular. “I still find Yoder’s published writings extraordinarily insightful,” Eastern Mennonite University theologian Ted Grimsrud writes. “So I have been moving in a bit of a different direction. Yoder did not really seem to fit the profile I would have in mind of a more typical sexual predator…[I] learned a bit about the autism spectrum and the mild expressions called Asperger’s syndrome, some lights began to come on in terms of trying to understand the Yoder phenomena.”

Regardless of whether Yoder had Asperger’s (the speculation continues unabated, despite clinicians’ frustrations with it), the larger point is that Grimsrud doesn’t seem to know anything about sexual predation, or what kinds of packages it come in—nor does he seem particularly aware of his lack of knowledge. As a powerful male leader operating in a patriarchal religious academia, Yoder was anything but atypical as a sexual predator. His pacifism makes for some interesting irony, but there’s always been something oddly masculinist about the way Mennonites teach nonviolence. Mennonite pacifist discourse evolved as a response to the dominant ideal of warrior masculinity, a way for men to justify not going to war; it has never been as fully formed or as celebrated for its challenge to interpersonal violence.

Perhaps that’s part of why Mennonites still struggle so mightily with the body of evidence against Yoder. The most celebrated twentieth-century voice for our long, much-maligned tradition of nonviolence was a violent sex offender. No scenario I can imagine could possibly make the limitations of patriarchal pacifism more obvious. And perhaps nowhere are those limitations more obvious than in Yoder’s final work, You Have it Coming: Good Punishment. Published posthumously last year in a collection of his writings about capital punishment, includes the following excerpt:

More recently men as a class have come to be vulnerable in a new way, as compensation for pain suffered by women, when that pain can be blamed upon the prior patriarchal tilt of our society…There should be room, logically, for the objection that beneficent patriarchal care, properly understood and benevolently exercised, would not be harmful; that what has hurt women has been the violation, not the implementation, of proper fatherly caring. This excuse would however not change the retaliatory dynamics, since the root of the power of the punitive drive is located not merely in a mistake the stronger party made but in the weaker party’s anger at being weaker.

I have yet to read a Mennonite theologian respond to You Have it Coming, and hopefully, in time some of them will. Following DeRogatis, I would say that in this case the body of evidence should matter to anyone who cares.