Yoder and the limits of Matthew 18 (follow-up to “Only those we need can betray us”)

After sharing reflections on my relationship to John Howard Yoder and his legacy in a previous blog entitled “Only Those We Need Can Betray Us,” I received the following comments (which I have edited somewhat) from a senior Mennonite scholar:

Thanks for your pain-ridden comments on Yoder.  I can’t say I had tears, but I certainly had a lot of pre-tearing sensations, as it moved me.  I guess I really did not know how deeply the Yoder saga affected you. 

If I lean back in my Mennonite lay theologian chair and ponder, though, I am inclined to point out that you made no allusion to the efforts at restitution by the Prairie Street congregation and Indiana-Michigan conference.  I am not saying you should have –your statement is your own– but I do make that observation. I find that the current re-opening of the Yoder case, aiming squarely at the Mennonite Church or its institutions, seems somewhat too-lawyerly.  Shouldn’t the Prairie Street / Indiana-Michigan conference effort count for something, along with Yoder’s submitting to it (or not, depending on how one judges his motives and reads his confession)?  The restitution process is a big part of the story, at least for me as a Mennonite who can understand Matthew-18-style shunning to be (at best) an act of putting sociology to the work of calling to repentance, and as one who does believe in corporate processes of restitution.

Postscript: You may have seen Leonard Gross’s letter to the Mennonite World Review some weeks ago, but if not, here it is FYI, and for a view just at the other and of a scale from yours.  I send it without further comment.

Letter to editor, Mennonite World Review
Theologian’s reconciliation with his church
Mar 31, 2014  

There is an essential side of the John Howard Yoder story that begs to see the light of day. Here is that story:

From its beginning the Anabaptist movement emphasized the redemptive process of the Rule of Christ (Matt. 18:15-17). This process seems to have been skipped in the case of John How­ard Yoder. Given the circumstances, one can empathize with the petitioner’s not desiring to face the accused, or even to be named. To be sure, the charges could have been made through an intermediary. Even in a public court case, the “who” needs to be identified, in conjunction with the “what.” Fortunately, there was a conference/congregational process lasting four years that eventuated in genuine reconciliation.

John M. Bender, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., elder, sums up the results of the process: “Dec. 6, 1996, Elder meeting minutes: ‘. . . It was noted from Conference communication that the charges against John have been satisfactorily settled and closed. Action: Moved and carried to recognize John Howard Yoder’s continued membership at Prairie Street Mennonite Church. . . .’ Elders and John and Annie again met for dinner on Feb. 1, 1997. . . . The meeting turned the tables for me in terms of apology, repentance on the part of John, restitution and restored fellowship with the congregation. I recall it as a turning point, a moment of grace that summed up all previous steps of accusation, discipline, counseling, apology, repentance and efforts to make things right. . . . John wanted to make things right as much as he could, but the multiple parties in the process had no clear lines of communication with each other” (letter to Leonard Gross, April 22, 2013).

John himself had established a fund to be used for those whom he had hurt. Those involved in the process came to the conclusion that John was aware of needed boundaries and would from now on stay within such boundaries. Indeed, John apologized publicly for the “inappropriateness of his actions and his desire for healing for the people he hurt” (Ted Grimsrud, “A Faithful Teacher in the Church,” The Mennonite, March 3, 1998).

We gave John his life back, rejoicing that an errant had repented!

Leonard Gross
Goshen, Ind.


Here is my response:

I suppose you did pick up on something important by observing that I said little about the congregational/conference efforts to follow a Matthew-18 process with John.  I did mention it in passing, but only as part of the chronology.  It is not that I consider it insignificant.  I am in fact surprised that you read me as on the very opposite end of a scale with Leonard Gross; I would see myself at a different place no doubt but not necessarily opposite.  I have practiced Matthew 18 processes in my life both literally and by deliberate analogy (conflict resolution “in the spirit of” Matthew 18).  And I continue to celebrate that John and Annie came to enough peace with Prairie Street that they could return once or twice in the weeks before he died.   But yes, in hindsight, there may have been reasons why I unconsciously left the process out of my own account.

At the most basic and obvious, I wasn’t there — not a member of the congregation and only present at a distance as a member of Indiana-Michigan Conference at the time.  This seemingly trivial fact is, I think, actually an important clue for thinking through the issues here.  Though I knew John personally, in most senses I related to him as a public figure.  The hurt he caused me and to the Mennonite Church as a whole, as well as other scholars he had influenced, was largely to his/our public reputation and witness, in his public role.  The hurt to an unknown number of women was surely more profound and direct and personal. But that is not my story.  My hurt and my story is enmeshed in the public one.

The question then is whether a face-to-face Matthew-18 process can handle this sort of public hurt.  Without buying into all the assumptions of a Max Weber or a Reinhold Niebuhr, the Gemeinschaft / Geselllschaft distinction between small face-to-face communities and complex mass societies seems relevant here.  Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 was set in the context of the face-to-face Gemeinschaft.  To be sure, even on a wider scale, there is a basic wisdom to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: If a conflict does not need to draw in more people than it already does, it shouldn’t.  But what happens when the conflict or violation already has public dimensions?  In a way it is already too late to begin with face-to-face confrontation/reconciliation.  Maybe only a few people knew of John’s violations on 1985 or 1990 but everyone who was involved knew that this would look terrible for Mennonites and those whose theology John had so influenced.  I.e. the matter was in that sense a public one even before it went public.

And that is where we really hit the limits of Matthew-18 processes, and have to be all the more mindful of those limits if we are committed to making such processes operative wherever possible.  Here I am no doubt sensitized by the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.  Many Catholics will say that they are realistic about human fallibility and sickness, and thus can understand or even forgive the original abusers, but their real outrage is directed at the decades of institutional cover-up.  The tragic lesson and cause for fool-me-twice-shame-on-me vigilance is that institutions have a tendency to circle the wagons and protect their reputations.

But just institutions?   No one would say that Prairie Street + IN-MI Conference + AMBS in the 1980s was a pure Gemeinschaft, but even if it were, or even if the Matthew-18 process were purely a congregational one and thus closest to a Gemeinschaft setting, can we always be sure that a face-to-face community would not use a Matthew-18 process as part of its own attempt to limit the fallout from a scandal in order to protect its own reputation?  One does not have to be cynical, nor be inclined to deconstruct the motives of all church authorities, to say:  Hardly!  So then if reputation-protection is possible even at the level of a face-to-face community – leaving pure Matthew-18 processes potentially inadequate – how much more might that be the case if some of the parties involved in a scandal are part of a larger social network of people who have come into relationship with a violator because of his prestige and power and public reputation? Here is where I do depart from Leonard Gross quite a bit.  He seems to be saying that we really should think that the Prairie Street process settled everything.  Analyzed sociologically, I don’t think it did or could.

I hadn’t really thought through any of this when I first wrote my recollections of the 1990s at Notre Dame for Martens and Tran.  But since you pressed me on the matter, I wonder if the limits of Matthew 18 as a template for dealing with a widely public network of scandalized relationships may actually go far to explain the resurgent scrutiny of John’s legacy and the adequacy of church leadership responses to his actions.  And its legitimacy.  I mean, look: I’m as tired of thinking about this stuff as anyone, and if I can’t simply “move on” in a facile way, I’ve at least resolved for myself the sense in which I can and cannot appropriate Yoder’s thought.  But precisely because we have a public figure with an ongoing legacy to deal with for better and for worse, we have to expect to deal with it for better AND for worse, perhaps indefinitely.  Legacies are like that, after all.  They wouldn’t be legacies if they didn’t linger.

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3 Responses to Yoder and the limits of Matthew 18 (follow-up to “Only those we need can betray us”)

  1. Samantha E. Lioi says:

    Thank you, Gerald, for your clarity, honesty, and persistent compassion. I am grateful, here and in the previous post, for your modeling a willingness to live with the pain and mess rather than avoid it or pass it on. I consider that willingness to be an essential trait of any peacemaker, and I long for more of us Christians of every persuasion to open ourselves, open into God, with this willingness.

  2. Mary Jane Breneman Eby says:

    Thanks to you who have explained the ‘efforts’ of cong. & church wide leaders -the process-es of possible ‘understanding’ the behavior of J.H. Yoder!!! I, as a female being called by the church to serve in leadership roles during the past decade when women were ‘few and far between’– I confess my response written below -obviously
    will not sound reasonable but hopefully it is needed! I propose that all the writings by J.H. Yoder be taken off the market – no published materials!! Personally, I find myself
    walking away from a proposed meeting where his writings are the assigned reading.
    This is painful BUT very important for those many persons who have been so badly
    abused!!! Obviously this comment needs processing but I beleive needed!!

    • Thank you for articulating the pain that leads some to suggest that Yoder go unpublished now, Mary Jane. As the very title of my previous blog implied — “Only those we need can betray us” — I am not quite convinced. Some of the reasons are in that post: We owe Yoder to great a debt for his decades of response to Niebuhrianism; one just can’t tell the story of 20th century pacifism without him. But another reason is that we need people like you to be reading Yoder in order to sort through where his rationalizations twisted his theology not only in obvious ways but in subtle ones, and where his theology nonetheless leaves us with abiding insights.

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