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Anabaptist re-vision: on John Howard Yoder's misrecognized sexual politics.

Abstract: This essay explores how John Howard Yoder's victims and others could have perceived his abusive sexual politics as a legitimate function of his ministry. Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "misrecognition" is used to show how cultural symbols can distract attention from oppressive domination. Yoder's writings on singleness and his comments to his victims are reviewed in order to suggest that their effectiveness derived from his ability to wield the symbols of positional authority, technical prowess, and socio-political radicalness. Deployment of these symbols would have provided compelling evidence of the legitimacy of his sexual politics. Understanding how Yoder's persuasion worked helps us to avoid its repetition. In doing so it contributes to a feminist "re-visioning" of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology.

In his essay "The Anabaptist Vision," published in 1944, Harold Bender largely construed "vision" as a matter of purpose and planning. "Anabaptism," he contended, "not only had clearly defined goals but also an action program of definiteness and power." (1) This program is "the great vision that shaped [the first Anabaptists'] course in history," a vision Bender famously summarized in terms of discipleship, the church as voluntary community, and the ethic of love and nonresistance. Although he admitted that "the Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society," he insisted that the Anabaptists did set out to construct God's kingdom on earth, just as Jesus intended. (2) The Anabaptists, in other words, were right that Jesus' was not "a heavenly vision," but rather (3) a vision of earthly disciples empowered by grace to live as he did.

With the possible exception of the phrase "heavenly vision," Bender did not reference the ocular meaning of "vision" in his text. Vision as metaphor for insight and imagination holds sway here, and the particular imagination in view is a highly pragmatic one. What the Anabaptists imagined, they did. Their vision was their reality, even if it got them killed. This closest of relationships between seeing and doing was, again, modeled on Jesus' vision, which was expressed in the "original New Testament church," the same church Anabaptists sought to "recreate without compromise." (4)

If Anabaptism achieves the elusive unity of theoria and praxis, then its seeing may be judged in light of its doing and vice versa. In this spirit, Dorothy Yoder Nyce, writing on the fiftieth anniversary of "The Anabaptist Vision," in 1994, questioned the viability of the Anabaptist vision of Bender and his milieu in light of its failure to challenge patriarchal order. Yoder Nyce argued that "as long as patriarchy was dominant and unchallenged, wholeness of vision was impossible-for women or men." (5) She illustrated this point by cataloguing the ways that "Bender's 'Vision' was not equipped to counter the established [patriarchal] social order": it did not offer a hermeneutic that could "reconstruct" biblical texts sanctioning the silencing and subordination of women; it did not redefine nonconformity to distance it from efforts to control women through restricted dress or head coverings; it did not disassociate atonement, suffering, or discipleship from the use of those doctrines by men to justify their abuse of women. (6) Unwholesome vision, indeed.

Yoder Nyce attended to the impossible wholeness of patriarchal vision in order to call for the "re-vision" that "is sacred work for each generation." (7) This re-vision seeks an "integrity" of vision in which male hierarchy is discerned and resisted. (8) In other words, integrated, whole vision sees and makes real a community of equals. Such re-vision, she imagined, would constitute "a re-formation break as bold as that from Catholicism" and is "ours to claim and join if we will choose to be faithful to Jesus the Christ." (9) Yoder Nyce's Anabaptist re-vision, like Bender's vision, was modeled on Jesus' vision. What she saw that Bender and his generation did not is "how radically Jesus validated women who denounced social barriers in speech and action." Insofar as Anabaptist communities today come to see women with Jesus, they abandon patriarchal stratification and embrace egalitarian community.

Nevertheless, as Yoder Nyce wrote, "Mennonite men have not been radical." Anabaptist-Mennonite men have not gone back to the root of faith, the women-affirming Jesus Christ, (10) and they have not pushed for a thorough break from patriarchal practice. They do not have Anabaptist re-vision. Allowing for rhetorical flourish--some Anabaptist-Mennonite men have likely been radical in the sense described-Yoder Nyce's judgment continues to urge the re-vision of male Anabaptist vision along feminist lines. If the re-vision is to be whole, then it must be shared by the whole church, men as well as women.

Twenty years after Yoder Nyce's initial re-vision casting, few male Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians have allowed our vision to be significantly re-visioned by feminism. (11) John Howard Yoder, the primary inheritor of Bender's vision, (12) has remained the public face of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology during that time. His relationship to feminism is problematic, to say the least. Until recently, when new attention to the non-radicalness of Yoder's personal life has forced the issue, male scholars of Yoder's work, such as myself, have mostly avoided explicit, sustained reflection on feminist perspectives and concerns. (13) Our vision did not include Yoder Nyce's judgment of Mennonite men, and Mennonite women and the whole church have suffered as a result. Our vision must be re-visioned.

This essay contributes to such a re-visioning of an Anabaptist vision that has been attenuated because it was attuned to patriarchal order. Its focus is on John Howard Yoder's theological vision and its relationship to his abusive sexual behavior. Using Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "misrecognition" to provide a theoretical framework for Yoder Nyce's reflections on the dis-integration of Anabaptist vision, I argue that certain features of Yoder's life and work can, when taken together, be conceived of as dis-integrating. That is, it is not just Yoder's sexual violence that produces ecclesial and personal rupture, but also aspects of his theological vision as seen in light of that violence. In Yoder's case, abusive behavior and theological vision coalesce as a problematic "sexual politics" whose features must be accounted for so that their ongoing force may be resisted and recurrence avoided. Here I am particularly concerned to describe the modus operandi of Yoder's sexual politics as deploying socially legitimated "symbols" to abuse, harass, and silence women: his positional and personal intellectual authority; accepted biblical, theological, and historical methods of argumentation; and, especially, the claim to be "radical." Yoder was able, consciously or not, to use these symbols to distract from his dis-integrating violence. Using the terms I develop below, Yoder caused some of his victims, and perhaps himself, to misrecognize his violence as a legitimate form of sexual politics.


As noted above, Dorothy Yoder Nyce has described how Bender's "Anabaptist Vision"-which she treats as a synecdoche for the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite vision of the mid-twentieth century--excluded antagonism to patriarchy and so failed to attain "wholeness of vision."

She went on to recommend a "re-vision" in which "integrity" is brought to Anabaptist vision by allying it to resistance to masculine domination.

In formal terms, Yoder Nyce's "re-vision" is as pragmatic as Bender's "Vision": they both understand vision as a mode of simultaneous seeing and doing. For Bender, the original Anabaptists' practical attempts to construct Christ's kingdom on earth were internal to their discerning the shape of that kingdom in Scripture and through Spirit. Seeing and doing were two sides of the same coin, of the same vision. Similarly, for Yoder Nyce, Anabaptist re-vision sees patriarchy, judges it, and works to overcome it in the same motion. What feminist re-vision sees that Bender's vision does not, according to Yoder Nyce, is how that vision's acceptance of patriarchy tears asunder the church, and especially women in the church. The patriarchal church is a fractured, fragmenting church. Re-vision is needed to make it whole.

I propose that it will be helpful for this re-vision to reflect on the specific operations through which Anabaptist vision has overlooked patriarchy, how its sight has habitually and systematically failed to take in the features of the patriarchal order that are so obviously "in plain sight" to feminists. (14) Quite simply, understanding those operations may supply re-visionaries with conceptual tools useful for their re-visioning. Knowing precisely how Anabaptist vision ignores patriarchy may inform feminist tactics of bringing patriarchy into Anabaptist sight.

Pierre Bourdieu, a twentieth-century French sociologist, has developed a set of conceptual tools that helpfully identify the operations of social domination. (15) Among those tools is a theory of social reproduction that aims to demonstrate how dominant power-holders are able to maintain their hegemony through changing times and in the face of challengers. Key to his view of reproduction is the concept of "symbolic violence/' which illuminates how those in power use symbolic resources to inculcate widespread assent to their dominance as natural, legitimate, and beneficent. Official histories, public art and architecture, the "common sense" reason and language generated by school, church, and media--all are symbolic resources, forms of capital, means of the reproduction of hegemony. (16) Although they are deeply implicated in material forms of life, including material forms of capital, they are "symbolic" in that they are formed as normative modes of representation and reasoning irreducible to the material.

The successful deployment of this symbolic capital by the dominant, according to Bourdieu, is an act of violence in that it causes agents-dominant and dominated alike--to misrecognize social order in the terms produced by the dominant. (17) To misrecognize is to have dominant vision, to see reality with the eyes of those whose interests the vision serves. Misrecognition (meconnaissance) is a partial, unwholesome, disintegrated way of seeing that furthers social fragmentation and stratification by overlooking the harm it does.

Misrecognition is a helpful conceptual tool for theorizing the dominant Anabaptist vision--for bringing its dominating operations into view-because it can show how the deployment of symbols widely recognized as legitimate in a Mennonite context committed to radical Christian peacemaking can sometimes serve to reinforce and reproduce violence. My suggestion is that the legitimizing recognition of Yoder's vision as radical and authoritative served to direct attention away from his abusive sexual politics.

The point is not that Yoder's vision was, in fact, hopelessly conservative and unreliable. After all, Yoder offered compelling theological challenges to the hegemonies of nation-state, militarism, and Christendom. He did not, however, compellingly challenge patriarchy, at least in the radical way described by Yoder Nyce. Furthermore, as many feminists have pointed out, the entwinement of patriarchy with other dominant social forms--such as the nation-state, militarism, and Christendom-means that gender analysis must be brought to bear on those other forms. (18)

Yoder's mostly gender-blind analysis often overlooks the gendered nature of socio-political domination. At those times it misrecognizes the dominant order as uninvolved in the exploitation of women. When it does attend to the gendered character of domination, as in the case presently under examination, it misrecognizes the mode of this exploitation with disastrous consequences. Yoder's Anabaptist vision was partial, fractured, and fragmenting. It needs to be re-visioned.

Yoder's Sexual Politics

What were whispered rumors about John Howard Yoder's sexual misconduct are now matters of public discussion. (19) As the character of his misconduct has become more widely known, debates have opened over how to relate Yoder's life and work. Some theologians suggest that separation between his life and work is possible; others argue that the work should at least be examined in light of the life. The present essay takes the second position, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. (20) In brief, I agree with Mennonite theologian and former mental health clinician Ruth Krall that we cannot answer the question of how to use Yoder's work until we look "to see if, where and how his theology has been stunted, twisted, misshapen, or otherwise damaged by his long-term management of his personal life."(21) "To do this work/' she goes on to say, "scholars need to revisit his personal life in the decades in which he was creating his mature body of [intellectual] work." This essay, accordingly, opens critical questions on Yoder's theological vision by tracing how it was intertwined with his sexual politics. In particular, I identify various connections among the published testimonies of Yoder's victims, his stature as an ecclesially authorized Christian theologian, his (largely unpublished) writings on singleness, and his published work.

In the fourth article of a five-part series on Yoder's misconduct published in July 1992, Tom Price of The Elkhart Truth newspaper quoted a source named as "Tina," now identified as Carolyn Holderread Heggen. (22) Yoder touched Heggen inappropriately during their first encounter and he proceeded to write her a series of letters seeking her theological opinions. Eventually those letters included sexually explicit suggestions. Heggen describes Yoder's strategy as "intellectual seduction": "to have John Howard Yoder acting like my ideas were profound and significant-it was real heady stuff." Further, she describes him as offering a theological justification for his actions. "One of the lines he used on a number of women I've met," Heggen says, "is 'We are the cutting edge. We are developing some models for the church. We are part of this grand, noble experiment. The Christian Church will be indebted to us for years to come.'"

Another of Price's sources, identified as "Clara," reports that in addition to "inappropriate hugs" and stalking behavior, Yoder would send her manuscripts on singleness for her commentary. Two of Yoder's writings on singleness are currently available online: "Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective," from 1973-1974, and "Single Dignity," from 1976. (23) In the first of these Yoder defended singleness as "the first normal state for every Christian" and then identified several changes the church would need to undergo if that claim were to be accepted. Among these changes is a move "to recreate extended family structures in which the single person can be at home socially, economically, in family prayer and household chores."(24) These structures might involve single-sex or mixed housing communities, of singles only or of singles with married couples. Accepting the presence of single persons in the church and creating communities in which they can thrive entails, in Yoder's view, freedom "from the tyranny of assuming that relations between two persons must always be seen as potential courtship."(25) A change commensurate with this shift is "a new liberty for the expression of affection and moral support between persons," a liberty that includes "spiritual intimacy and physical touching" between married and unmarried persons.

This vision is given a biblical basis in "Single Dignity." Taking up Jesus' line about "adultery of the heart" (Matthew 5:28), Yoder contended that Jesus' redefinition of women as sisters and daughters within the community of disciples creates the possibility of "non-erotic," non-lustful relationships between men and women. According to Yoder's interpretation, men can look at women without lust because they recognize them as sisters in Christ, as members of the same family, and so as "off limits" from erotic interaction. In short, Christ expands the incest taboo to all disciples, thereby eliminating lust. Yoder proposes that

if we could discover the dynamic of freedom with which Jesus could deal with any kind of woman... as a sister without erotic dimensions, then we might be far more able to give to our single sisters and brothers moral and social support including residential closeness [and] the affirmations of touch and time together....(26)

In a long memo from 1974 addressed to "sisters-in-faith," Yoder elaborated on the pastoral nature of his concern. (27) Since men and women (though he mostly writes about women) have natural sexual urges, it is better not to repress those urges. Instead of demanding that a single woman "shrivel the expression of her womanliness," he suggested that we ought to encourage her to "redistribute it by sharing it with other men (uncle, brother, colleague, nephew, teacher, pupil)." Such redistribution can be achieved through the affectional and physical exchanges described in his singleness papers, exchanges that at least in theory were to stop short of genital touching. (28)

In what follows I represent Yoder's oral and written comments to his victims, as reported by them and as seen in his writings on singleness, as acts of symbolic violence that operated through the logic of misrecognition. (29) His comments worked by drawing from a fund of highly valued symbolic capital, capital that could be exchanged for the recognition of those comments as legitimate and authorized. This exchange was an act of violence, I contend, because it caused some of Yoder's victims and perhaps others to accept the legitimacy of Yoder's sexual politics when, in fact, those politics conflicted with the terms of his authorization.

Yoder was authorized by the church to be a radical Christian intellectual, and he used that authorization for over two decades to legitimate his violent sexual politics. (30) By doing so, Yoder called into question his credentials as a radical Christian intellectual as such. Insofar as anyone aware of his sexual politics-his victims, readers of his essays on the topic, or even he himself-accepted his credentials without question, they became captive to the logic of misrecognition, blinded to the ways in which his sexual politics undermined his credentials.

This exercise of symbolic violence, I suggest, worked via the deployment of three sets or clusters of symbolic capital: symbols related to his positional and personal authority; symbols related to his authorized technical expertise as a biblical interpreter, theologian, and historian; and symbols related to his identification as "radical."

Authority Symbols

First are the symbols of Yoder's religious and intellectual authority as a Mennonite church leader and as an internationally recognized scholar. This authority legitimized his general access to the women he met in classrooms, churches, and at speaking engagements. He had access to them because his authority demanded it, even when his superiors knew of his propensity to abuse that authority and even when they tried to restrict his access. (31) Heggen's testimony further indicates that Yoder's authority persuaded some of his victims to let him into their lives. Intellectual attention from Yoder was seen as "real heady stuff." By deploying his authority as a grooming tactic, Yoder played on previously inculcated habits of respect for religious and intellectual authorities. Those habits gained him personal access to specific women, women whose assent to his engagement was based on recognition of his authority as legitimate.

In truth, however, the legitimacy of his authority was based on a contradiction: his abusive behavior repeatedly undermined the raison d'etre of the communities that conferred authority upon him. That raison d'etre might be identified by its reflection in Yoder's writings, given that the church commissioned most of those writings. (32) What did Yoder write about? In summary, he wrote about the true and false shape of radical Christian discipleship as discerned on biblical, theological, and historical grounds. (33) These terms might be analyzed further. Yoder defined "Christian discipleship" throughout his writings as a communal practice of conformity to the life and teachings of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament. Christian discipleship is, on this account, "radical" in at least three ways: it goes back to its "root" (radix)--Jesus Christ as portrayed in the New Testament; it is a form of "extreme" and unswayable commitment, of steadfast faith; and it repudiates significant areas of the socio-political status quo as vicious scenes of bondage and violence. This vision of radical Christian discipleship was based on three primary sources: biblical exegesis that described Jesus' life and teachings and the early church's conformity to them; theological arguments that clarified Jesus' logical coherence and normative force; and a historiography that demonstrated how Jesus has and has not been followed through time.

If the purpose of Yoder's writings was to articulate a vision of radical Christian discipleship vis-a-vis biblical, theological, and historical sources, then it is plausible that the institutions he worked for had similar purposes. But if that is the case, then Yoder's abusive behavior clearly contravened those purposes: it short-circuited a return to the Jesus who affirmed the personhood of women;(34) it demonstrated weak commitment to following after that Jesus; and it perpetuated the violence of the patriarchal status quo.

These conclusions are, perhaps, obvious, but they are important to name as evidence of the misrecognition that was at work in the collective recognition of Yoder's authority. Recognizing Yoder's authority required either ignorance of or blindness to the ways in which he persistently eroded the basis of that authority, that is, his personal integrity and the integrity of the church that authorized him.

Technical Symbols

The authorization of John Howard Yoder as a legitimate biblical interpreter, theologian, and historian brings us to the second cluster of symbols constitutive of his intellectual seduction. Yoder's intellectual seduction worked, when it worked, in part because his victims accepted the sources and methods he deployed as normative. Anyone familiar with Yoder's work will recognize the logic of his comments to his victims and of his writings on singleness. That logic is consistent with the logic he uses elsewhere. Yoder first identified the inadequacies of historical understandings of singleness and sexuality by comparing them with Scripture. (35) Jesus' life and teachings, as gleaned from biblical exegesis, supply the core norm. That norm is then traced into the apostolic church-in this case to Paul's teaching on the priority of singleness - to reinforce its plausibility as an interpretation of Jesus' life and teachings and to illustrate its possible historical realization. Once the norm is established on biblical grounds, and its superiority over historical rivals secured, its implications for Christian discipleship are enumerated at length and with impressive logical rigor.

Heggen's report that Yoder told some of his victims that their presumptively "non-erotic" physical and emotional relationships were "cutting edge," that they were "developing some models for the church," and that they were "part of this grand, noble experiment" further links his justificatory reasoning to central theological moves he made elsewhere. For instance, near the beginning of his career he wrote in The Christian Witness to the State of the church as "the 'pilot' creating experimentally new ways of meeting social needs."(36) The church's ministry, he argued, is "one of constant inventive vision for the good of the larger society" (20). These themes are echoed in a late paper, "Firstfruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God's People," that was first presented in 1992 and published in 1997. (37) As its title indicates, in that paper Yoder described how the social creativity of basic Christian practices, what he elsewhere describes as "sacraments,"(38) provides the substance of transformative Christian witness. With these examples in mind, it seems likely that Yoder understood his invitations to women to participate in a cutting-edge ecclesial experiment as in some way sacramental. They were invitations to put Jesus' precedent into present practice to transform church and world. (39)

Given the formal similarity of these invitations to the public invitations to radical Christian discipleship that he offered the entire church in his speeches and writings, it is possible to see how he and his victims could have seen his private invitations as authorized and so legitimate. It is possible to see, too, how those invitations would have been difficult to resist or recognized as illegitimate, even if their intent ran counter to the purposes for which Yoder was authorized to offer invitations to discipleship. Likewise, the formal similarities between Yoder's writings on singleness and his other, authorized writings suggest the difficulty many readers would have in separating the legitimate from the illegitimate. His private intellectual seduction was powerful and effective precisely because it deployed the authorized symbols of his public intellectual ministry.

Political Symbols: Yoder as "Radical"

In his comments to his victims and in his writings on singleness, Yoder used a specific kind of social and political language to portray the illicit emotional and physical relations he sought. That language might be summarized as the language of "socio-political radicalness," which represents the third and final symbolic cluster of Yoder's intellectual seduction. We have just reviewed Heggen's report that Yoder spoke to victims about being on the "cutting edge," of developing new ecclesial models, and of grand, noble experiments. In his manuscripts on singleness, as summarized above, he wrote of his proposed relationships as participating in a "freedom from tyranny," "new liberty," and "dynamic of freedom," all made possible by Jesus. This is the language of socio-political radicalness, of a definitive break from status quo bondage into a new beneficent order. Yoder even heightened the radical flavor of his position by claiming in his 1974 paper on singleness that "we may have been taught by 'the youth culture'" about appropriate, non-erotic physical intimacy between marrieds and singles. (40) His vision is radical, therefore, not only on biblical and theological grounds, but also by association with the radical sexual revolutionaries of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This sexual radicalness was not merely theoretical: Stanley Hauerwas has observed that Yoder's sexual "experiments" began in the 1960s and were likely influenced by the sexually experimental ethos of that era. (41)

The titles of Yoder's two major publications in the early 1970s play up his ties to the spirit of those times: The Original Revolution and The Politics of Jesus. (42) Moreover, at the beginning of the latter volume, Yoder invoked the "young 'rebels'" who claim Jesus as a countercultural icon, asking if their "half-spoofing exaggeration" might actually represent a "biblical truth" long hidden from Christian ethicists. (43) That truth, which The Politics of Jesus sets out to confirm, is that the New Testament depicts Jesus as a "model of radical political action." It seems, however, that Yoder's sympathies with the young rebels' radical Jesus extended beyond the specific economic and political concerns of The Politics of Jesus to the interpersonal politics explored in his writings on singleness and in his private invitations to women.

Alongside the previously examined depiction of ordinary Christian sacramental practice as socially transformative, these linguistic maneuvers firmly associated Yoder's vision with radical socio-politics. Yoder again and again showed how steadfast faith in Jesus Christ demanded disentanglement from the dominant order. At key points he expressed sympathy with movements with strong radical credentials, such as 1960s "youth culture" or the Latin American liberation theologians he occasionally engaged. (44) He wrote about a pacifistic, economically redistributive Jesus as the original revolutionary. His project was deeply invested in and with radical symbolism.

Although some of Yoder's writings may be justly imbued with this symbolism, the aura of radicalism that hung over his project may have abetted the misrecognition of his sexual politics. His authorized public persona as a cutting-edge, experimental Christian thinker provided weighty evidence in favor of accepting his sexual politics as legitimately radical and legitimately Christian, as a credible form of radical Christian discipleship. In the misty haze of radicalism, sexual violence was misrecognized. (45)

One of the paradoxes of Yoder's radicalism was that its transgressive political posture was based in a conserving return to the root sources of Christian faith. This alliance between a form of traditional Christianity and radical politics need not be incoherent; Yoder's biblical commitments to peace and economic justice indeed share much with some radical political currents. But regardless of its intellectual or political coherence, its reception as a plausible integration of radical politics and radical faith suggests that Yoder's vision was able to harness the symbols of radical return, radical commitment, and radical politics. This triple radicalism heavily endowed his vision with symbolic capital that could be converted into legitimating recognition. Recognized radicalism, in turn, was convertible with ever-greater positional authority and with an authorized interpretation of normative sources.

In other words, Yoder's authority depended on the fungibility of his radical credentials, his institutional credentials, and his technical credentials. (46)The merging of these three symbolic clusters sustained Yoder's legitimacy even when his actions again and again compromised his credibility. His ability to integrate powerful symbols into a widely recognized vision had dis-integrating effects on numerous women and the church as a whole. Yoder's vision must be re-visioned.


This contribution to Anabaptist re-vision has conceptualized John Howard Yoder's sexual politics as operating through the logic of misrecognition. As the theologian laureate of the Mennonite church, Yoder had considerable symbolic resources at his disposal, resources that legitimated his positional and personal authority as a biblical interpreter, theologian, historian, and socio-political radical. When those resources were deployed in, with, and under inappropriate seductive comments and touches, they would have been extremely difficult to recognize as illegitimate. But illegitimate they were, since the inappropriateness of the comments and touches violated the basis of their legitimacy. Legitimizing recognition of Yoder's sexual politics was misrecognition. Legitimacy was seen; delegitimizing abuse left unseen. Thus, the misrecognition of John Howard Yoder's sexual politics, in Dorothy Yoder Nyce's terms, had a dis-integrating effect on women and the church. As long as Yoder's vision is equated with the Anabaptist vision, the wholeness of the latter will remain impossible.

Anabaptist re-vision has a larger task than naming the operations of Yoder's sexual politics, even if that naming may aid resistance to contemporary misrecognitions of sexual violence. John Howard Yoder, of course, looms large in any account of the fate of the "Anabaptist Vision" of his mentor Harold Bender. But Dorothy Yoder Nyce's interest was in the inability of that larger vision to dispel patriarchy. Even if Yoder remains a primary point of re-visionary interest, Ruth Krall has maintained that attempts to understand him will need to include attempts to understand "the fault lines in his communities of reference."(47) A wider frame will be necessary to comprehend how American Mennonites have participated in and perpetuated the violence of patriarchal order, and to display Mennonite implication in the intersections of patriarchy with racial, sexual, class and other modes of domination. Within this frame, new work must be carried out in history, sociology, biblical studies, theology, and other disciplines, work that will both clarify the dominating operations of the past and preview the liberation to come. Some of this work has already been done, and waits to be engaged with the same widespread effort that has characterized the reception of John Howard Yoder's writings. (48) If male Mennonite theologians are going to provide counterevidence to Yoder Nyce's judgment that "Mennonite men have not been radical," then we have much of our own re-visionary work to do, at the same time as we renew forces to recruit, support, promote, and learn from women and other marginalized re-visionaries in our midst.

According to its dominant position in the dominant Anabaptist vision of the last few decades, John Howard Yoder's theological vision demands ongoing re-vision. Or, rather, Anabaptist re-vision demands critical feminist readings of Yoder's oeuvre. To quote Krall again, scholars should look "to see if, where and how his theology has been stunted, twisted, misshapen, or otherwise damaged by his long-term management of his personal life."(49) In this essay, I have largely confined my gaze to those writings that bear directly on his sexual politics. Good work has already begun on his interpretation of the Pauline household codes. (50) Another likely candidate for re-vision is his general ecclesiology, which presumes a dialogue among equals but contains no specific provisions for empowering women to full participation after two millennia of silencing. Yoder's rejection of women's ordination, on the grounds that ascension to the top of an oppressive hierarchy is no liberation, actually resembles the reasoning of some pro-women's ordination advocates. But their egalitarian visions address the requirement of intentional women's empowerment. As Yoder Nyce suggests, the Anabaptist vision has not been equipped for this role. It is time that it became so equipped. It is time that it be re-visioned, for the wholeness of the church and its women and men.

*Jamie Pitts is an assistant professor of Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and is co-editor of Anabaptist Witness.

(1.) Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 5.

(2.) Ibid., 35-36.

(3.) Since Bender says Jesus' vision was not "only a heavenly vision," the "rather" in the quotation could be changed to an "also." I use "rather" because he places his definition of "a heavenly vision" as something that would merely "keep His followers in tension until the last great day" in contrast with a vision of discipleship in the here and now.

(4.) Ibid., 14.

(5.) Yoder Nyce, "The Anabaptist Vision: Was It Visionary Enough for Women?," Conrad Grebel Review 12, no. 3 (Fall 1994), 309.

(6.) Ibid., 311-314, 316-319. In case this argument seems overly tendentious, it should be noted that Yoder Nyce sees Bender's "Vision" as "useful, in fact quite essential for a point in time. It focused and summarized central beliefs that needed ownership by a people who could benefit from a keener sense of identity. These beliefs were valid and a faithful expression of what had distinguished their Anabaptist forebears" (309). In case the argument seems anachronistic, it should also be noted that her "judgment" of the inadequacy of the "Vision" "is less a statement about Bender than about his context and the fifty years since then." Her evaluation is drawn from her own and other Mennonite women's experience growing up in a world in which the "Vision" was highly influential.

(7.) Ibid., 310.

(8.) Ibid., 312.

(9.) Ibid., 317.

(10.) Based on the relative lack of references to 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12 in the writings of Menno Simons, Dirk Phillips, and in the Martyrs Mirror, Yoder Nyce also suggests that early Anabaptist women would have seen "imposed silence" as "incongruent" (311)-presumably as incongruent from their normal practice of vocal participation in the church. In this case, Anabaptist re-vision would also be a radical return to sixteenth-century Anabaptist roots. Yoder Nyce is right that there were important egalitarian tendencies in early Anabaptism that can be lifted up today. The reality, however, was complex and patriarchy strong. See C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, "Introduction," in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, ed. Snyder and Huebert Hecht (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 8-12.

(11.) Examples of male Mennonite theologians interacting with feminism include Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, History, Constructive (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity, 2004), 80-84; Ben C. Ollenburger, "Is God the Friend of Slaves and Wives?," in Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, ed. Gayle Gerber Koontz and Willard Swartley (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1987), 97-112; and Willard M. Swartley, Slaven/, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press Press, 1983), 152-191.

(12.) Although it is true that Yoder distanced himself from Bender, it was because he saw the latter's institution-building as a betrayal of the Anabaptist vision. See Yoder, "Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality," in Consultation on Anabaptist Mennonite Theology, ed. A. J. Klassen (Fresno, Calif.: The Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970), 1-46; Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 450-471.

(13.) See the comments on Yoder scholarship by Ruth E. Krall, Vie Elephants in God's Living Room, Volume Three: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays (N.p.: Enduring Space, 2013), 87, 101. This book is available as a download at

(14.) My language here is influenced by the concept of "unseeing" from China Mieville's novel The City and the City (London: Macmillan, 2009). "Unseeing" might be defined as a kind of habitual, systematic not noticing of present aspects of a physical or symbolic landscape. As habitual, unseeing has both reflexive and intentional dimensions. As systematic, unseeing works on relatively stable principles; it is patterned, not random. In Tlie City and the City, one geographical region is divided into two city-states solely by enforced unseeing practices.

(15.) I summarize Bourdieu's central concepts throughout my book Principalities and Powers: Revising John Howard Yoder's Sociological Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013). See chapter 2 on social reproduction and chapter 3 on symbolic violence. Gender was an important analytical locus for much of Bourdieu's work, one he treated at length in the essay Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002). His thought has been engaged extensively by feminists, e.g., in Feminism after Bourdieu, ed. Lisa Adkins and Beverly Skeggs (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); Bridget Fowler, "Reading Bourdieu's Masculine Domination: Towards an Intersectional Analysis of Gender, Culture and Class," Cultural Studies 17, no. 3-4 (2003), 468-494; Beate Krais, "Gender, Sociological Theorv and Bourdieu's Sociology of Practice," Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 6 (2006), 119-134.

(16.) Bourdieu, "The Forms of Capital," trans. Richard Nice in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Robinson (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986), 241-258. See also Pitts, Principalities and Powers, 20-22.

(17.) It is important to state at the outset that Bourdieu repudiates a "conspiracy theoretical" view of the world, in which the dominant are viewed as conniving power monopolizers. Bourdieu's sociology is meant, rather, to show how the dominant are socially formed to reproduce their domination, even when they consciously act against it. Likewise, the dominated are formed to contribute to their own domination, often in spite of their best efforts. This perspective is not meant to exculpate the dominant, blame the dominated, or cast society as a grimly deterministic cycle of domination. Bourdieu hopes that realistic sociological description can give agents tools to discover "margins of freedom" from which domination might be undermined. See Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 234-236, and Pitts, Principalities and Powers, 50-54.

(18.) Mennonite feminist theologians have raised this issue for many years. For example: Mary Anne Hildebrand, "Domestic Violence: A Challenge to Mennonite Faith and Peace Theology," Conrad Grebel Review 10, no. 1 (Winter 1992), 73-80; Gayle Gerber Koontz, "Freedom, Discipleship, and Theological Reflection," in Freedom and Discipleship: Liberation Theology in an Anabaptist Perspective, ed. Daniel S. Schipani (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1989), 172-173; Gerber Koontz, "Peace Theology and Patriarchy: The Trajectory of Scripture and Feminist Conviction," in Essays on Peace Theology and Witness, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 154-178; Elizabeth G. Yoder, ed., Peace Theology and Violence against Women (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1992).

(19.) Although the rumors have surfaced before and some details were published in the Elkhart Truth in 1992, the allegations have not been the subject of sustained public discussion until recently. For a history of the discussion, see Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 71-86.

(20.) See my blog post "Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology," Practicing Reconciliation, Jan. 21, 2014,

(21.) Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 211.

(22.) For the following see Price, "Theologian Accused: Women Report Instances of Inappropriate Conduct" and "Yoder's Actions Framed in Writings," Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Ind.), July 13 and 14, 1992. The entire five-part series and a preceding overview article are available in Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 379-402. Heggen was named as the source "Tina" in Mark Oppenheimer, "A Theologian's Influence, and Stained Past, Live On," New York Times, Oct. 11, 2013, http://www.nytimes. com/2013/10/12/us/john-howard-yoders-dark-past-and-influence-lives-on-for-mennonites.html?pagewanted=all&-_r=0.

(23.) These manuscripts are available in the John Howard Yoder Digital Collection as separate files and as one document produced in 1980. For the latter see References to these manuscripts are in the body of the essay. Ruth Krall mentions various other related manuscripts in her book, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 195-196, 200-203.

(24.) Ibid., 3, 4.

(25.) Ibid., 7.

(26.) Yoder, "Single Dignity," 3, 5.

(27.) The memo, titled "Call to Aid," is reproduced in Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 200-201.

(28.) Genitals are presumably not involved because of the non-erotic character of the exchanges. Moreover, Yoder equates sexual intercourse with marriage in his paper "When is a Marriage Not a Marriage?" (1974), which is also available from the Digital Collection: If intercourse is marriage, then intimate touching between singles by definition does not include intercourse. That said, at some point it seems that Yoder either changed his mind about sexual intercourse or failed to follow his own guidelines. A June 2014 update from the Mennonite Church USA's John Howard Yoder Discernment Group stated that "there are documented reports of sexual violation by Yoder, including fondling and sexual intercourse." See

(29.) Note that I identify Yoder's oral and written comments to his victims as acts of symbolic violence. Hypothetical reconstructions of Christian sexual ethics are not inherently violent; they become violent when interwoven with coercive touch and other abusive and harassing behavior.

(30.) I do not enter the debate here over whether or not Yoder "truly repented" before his death in 1997. There does seem to be consensus that Yoder was unrepentant during the two previous decades (the first complaint to the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries was made in 1976), during which time he repudiated numerous interventions. For discussion, see Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 102-103, 109, 157, 232-233. Krall gives the 1976 date on p. 195, though she suggests his behavior may have begun as early as 1965 (332).

(31.) On efforts to confront and restrain Yoder, see Krall, Vie Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 203-204, 218-237, and the essay by Rachel Waltner Goossen published elsewhere in this issue.

(32.) Many, perhaps most, of Yoder's published writings have a note about their origins in some ecclesial commission or another. Yoder outlined his conception of the relationship between the theologian and the church in "Walk and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism," A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder's Nonviolent Epistemolog, ed. Chrishan E. Early and Ted G. Grimsrud (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), 81-97; and "The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective," Tlie Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 15-45.

(33.) I generalize here from extensive research in Yoder's oeuvre. See chapter 4 of my Principalities and Powers for an account of his theological method.

(34.) Yoder, "Single Dignity," 3.

(35.) In "Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective," Yoder counters the assumption of "modern western society" that "married life [is] the only proper way to be an adult human being" (1). He reviews five socio-cultural or religious paradigms that uphold marriage as normative (1-2). In "Single Dignity," it is "our mostly-married society" or "our western culture" that is in view, with its "fundamentally inadequate grasp of the entire realm of the bodily, the sexual, the animal in human nature" (1). He traces this inadequacy to two "non-Christian sources": body-denying Gnosticism, which entered Christianity via Augustinian Neo-Platonism, and body-fearing Paganism, which entered Christianity via near Eastern and Germanic fertility religions. He sees both sources as problematizing the body as a force to be repressed.

(36.) Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1992 [1964]), 19.

(37.) Yoder, "Firstfruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God's People," For The Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 15-36.

(38.) See, e.g., Yoder, "Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture," in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael Cartwright (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 359-373; and Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001).

(39.) To notice the formal similarities between, on the one hand, Yoder's comments to his victims and his writings on singleness and, on the other hand, his celebrated published writings is not to say that the logic of the former is always good logic. For instance, it is not clear how "non-erotic" relating will relieve the tension of repressed sexual desire. One can also take issue with Yoder's historical thesis about sexual repression. Michel Foucault, for instance, has written of the way the "repressive hypothesis" gets the history wrong and, in doing so, fails to see its own participation in the representation of sex as a "secret" that must be unlocked through proliferating sexual discourses and political attempts to shape and control sexuality (sometimes precisely by "liberating" it). Foucault thinks sex began to be represented in this wav in the eiehteenth centurv. See his History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).

(40.) Yoder, "Singleness in Ethical and Pastoral Perspective," 7.

(41.) Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (London: SCM, 2010), 244. See Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 356, for commentary on Hauerwas's claims.

(42.) Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971); Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994 [1972]).

(43.) Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 1-2.

(44.) On liberation theology see, e.g., Yoder, "Exodus and Exile: The Two Faces of Liberation," Cross Currents 23, no. 3 (Fall 1973), 297-309; Yoder, "The Wider Setting of 'Liberadon Theology,'" The Review of Politics 52, no. 2 (Spring 1990), 285-296. Yoder's lectures in Latin America during the 1960s have been published as Yoder, Revolutionary Christianity: The 1966 South America Lectures, ed. Paul Martens et al. (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2011).

(45.) Some feminists have seen the "sexual revolution" as inherently patriarchal. See, e.g., Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 122-124.

(46.) On capital conversion, see Bourdieu, "Forms of Capital," 252-254.

(47.) Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 237.

(48.) For Mennonite feminist work see, in addition to previously mentioned resources, inter alia, the writings of Lois Barrett, Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Lydia Harder, Hannah Heinzekehr, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Stephanie Krehbiel, Dorothy Yoder Nyce, and Mary Schertz. The Winter 1992, Spring 1996, and Winter 2005 issues of The Conrad Grebel Review collect papers from Women Doing Theology conferences. Among historical resources, see especially Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History, ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002).

(49.) Krall, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, 211.

(50.) Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone (Boston: Beacon, 1984), 81-83; Nekeisha Alexis Baker, "Freedom of the Cross: John Howard Yoder and Womanist Theologies in Conversation," in Powers and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, ed. Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2009), 83-98. Future work on this topic needs to follow Schussler Fiorenza and pursue the troubling footnotes in which Yoder strongly implies he draws a distinction between the equal dignity of men and women (which he supports) and equal roles within the church (which, at least in 1972, he seemed to question). See Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 173-175, notes 25-31.

(51.) For Yoder's position, see his The Fullness of Christ: Paul's Revolutionary Vision of Universal Ministry (Elgin, 111.: Brethren, 1987), 50-54, and Body Politics, 60. For feminist cases for women's ordination that reimagine church order, see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1993), esp. 23-38; Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology (London: SCM, 1983), 193-213; Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (New York: Harper & Row, 1985). Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 50-54, makes similar points but is more skeptical of ordination as such.
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Author:Pitts, Jamie
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Essay
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Date:Jan 1, 2015
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