Two stories on sexual abuse have re-emerged recently on the Mennonite scene that call for sober reflection and some self-examination, but not self-obsession. They should be seen, in the present, as “teachable moments” and occasions for healing, rather than harsh judgments on the sins of our fathers.
We refer to the re-surfacing, after some 20 years, of the sexual abuse of women by one of our leading theologians, the late John Howard Yoder. Although he creatively schooled those of my generation in a peace theology from our Anabaptist roots, that “provided a crucial witness to the secular world and combatted a host of injustices,” as his obituary in the New York Times noted on Jan. 7, 1998, he also sexually violated some 80 women, at last count.
These victims, now feeling free to tell their stories in a more enlightened time, are asking for an official acknowledgement from church leaders, and a more open and honest discussion of sexism broadly in the Mennonite church.
“My generation is still impacted by residual practices of church decision-makers,” wrote Charletta Erb, a marriage and family therapist intern, in a blog entry published online by The Mennonite.
“I am wary of our conflict avoidance, cautious for safety in the church, cautious of why women are not more at the forefront of church life, publishing our ideas in equal frequency to men. I have to ask what the church has learned through the experience, what could go better in restoration of victims and perpetrators in cases of sexual harassment and abuse? Where can growth continue?” she asks.
The safety of women in another setting—the Manitoba Old Colony of Bolivia—has also hit the international media in a recent in-depth story by Time reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky as a follow-up to the horrendous event in August 2011, when eight Manitoba men, aged 19 to 43, were convicted of raping women and children, using an anesthetic spray on their victims while they slept, and were sentenced to 25 years in prison. Officially there were 130 victims—at least one person from more than half of all Manitoba Colony households.
Two years later, Friedman-Rudovsky visited the colony, spending a week talking to the victims and to the leaders in an attempt to assess the culture that may have fostered this reprehensible behaviour. To her dismay and surprise, and to ours looking on, she found that rape is still occurring, with the colony leaders taking a rather casual, if not cavalier, attitude towards the crimes. “If a perpetrator is not ready to admit his sins, the question is whether the victim or the accuser will be believed . . . and women in Manitoba already know where that goes,” she writes.
Both of these stories are hard to read, and even harder to reconcile, as members of a faith community that ironically champions “justice” as one of its core beliefs. Can we, with God’s help, bring some kind of redemption to this shadowy narrative?
In both cases, we in the larger community can feel rather helpless. In the Yoder case, it is a distant event, happening in an era when, in a more patriarchal religious system, men took liberties that today are not tolerated. In the Bolivia Old Colony story, these are far-distant cousins, both in faith and practice, and in geography. We are shamed and saddened, but barely capable of reaching into such an insular communal group that first and foremost resents and resists any outside counsel or help.
Let me suggest two possible responses, one of which is already well underway:
• Acknowledge the far-reaching damage of Yoder’s behaviour while still maintaining respect for, and receiving theological instruction from, his creative thinking and influence well beyond our denominational borders.Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., where Yoder’s influence was most felt, has called for a public “revisit” of his legacy—“getting the facts straight and shouldering the urgent healing work that must still be done.” Mennonite Church U.S.A., through a joint effort with Shenk, has convened a six-member discernment group to “guide a process that hopes to contribute to the healing of victims of Yoder’s abuse as well as others deeply hurt by his harmful behaviour.”
• Look to persons like Eve and Helmut Isaak, already working with the Old Colony leaders to address the problems from the inside, “creating spaces for more wholesome living.”