Soon after the breaking news of the apology from Mennonite denomination on John Howard Yoder’s trespasses, HK Christian Times conducted an interview with me. Since the interview has to be cut short due to word count, here’s my full response to all the questions.
1) What do you think about the present apology of the Mennonite denomination？ What impact does it have in the US?
Since this has been an open secret in American Christianity, the response hasn’t been overwhelmingly shocking. Most people would say, “It’s better late than never.” His suspension of ministerial credential in the early 90’s already acknowledged all of his trespasses, but it’s harder to get rid of his academic credentials unless academic institutions also follow strict guidelines of sexual harassment. During that period of American history (back in the 60s to the 80s), sexual harassment policies were in their infancy. At the very least, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries discussed the inconsistency of his writing and his life and whether they should still use his work back when all this happened. The delayed apology does lessen the pain of the victims, but I would say that they had taken the necessary steps within the church denomination to deal with the situation way back when all this broke (especially after victims threatened to protest). I think the final step of apology is necessary and should’ve been done sooner. The delay is definitely a problem because it isn’t just about defrocking him from his ministry to keep him from victimizing more women in the future but apologizing to his victims of the past to bring them closure.
2) Yoder used research about sexual ethics as an excuse to vicitmize women and have sexual relationship outside of marriage. What do you think about this and what kind of environment would create this sort of ethos?
First, let’s make a clear separation between just having sex outside of marriage and sexual harassment. We mustn’t mix up the two. I believe the latter is more serious and harmful than the former. You know a lot of famous public figures, Christian theologians even, are dire failures when it comes to keeping their marriage bed pure. Paul Tillich was a well-known philanderer. Karl Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum who had assisted his work indicates also another failure of his marriage with his wife Nelly Barth. These failures however involve willing participants. Many public figures easily attract women because of their appeal and charisma. This however isn’t the same as what Yoder did. Yoder did far worse. Second, let’s look at what Yoder did. His life is a string of sexual harassments against women who might not have been willing participants (many weren’t). We’re moving from mere sexual relationship outside of marriage into the area of sexual politics and power. While the extramarital sex has roughly equal partnership with the two participants, sexual harassment has a one-sided power in favor of the predator. Yoder was a serial harasser. He was a predator. His trespasses had nothing to do with just sex outside of marriage. His trespasses involve abuse of his power against the oppressed. He had used his profession as his vehicle to satisfy his fetish. The academic guild that enabled him to do this has created a power structure against the victims. i call this star-power exceptionism.
3) Yoder wrote about the Politics of Jesus. Dr. Vincent Lau sees him as someone great in creating a radical and alternative community such as the Sojourners Community. How should we treat his work now that we know about his trespasses?
While the politics of Jesus had sided with the weak, Yoder has created a power structure that has sided with the strong, namely himself being a very famous scholar. In practice, I wonder if he truly understands the very core of his own interpretation. We all have blind spots, but his blind spot is more glaring than most. His life is the demonstration that when we wish to judge the splinter in our brothers’ eyes, we need to ask whether we have a beam because the splinter and the beam are both wood but the degree of harm very between the two. I find it emotionally tough to separate the man from his work.
4) What suggestions do you have for sexual victims? What about the lessons we can learn from this situation?
Besides counseling and a healing community for the victim, I have no suggestion. I’m no expert in sexual crimes. The church needs to learn a lesson though. However, these unfortunate events haven’t always taught the church any lesson. In our Chinese churches, there’re known sexual predators who are still ministering. I’m not talking about failures in marriage. Those we can solve by repentance, counseling and even restoration. I’m talking about something more serious. Would we put molesters of children in close proximity to children? Would we make them creche workers? No, so why are we allowing sexual predators against women to work in close proximity to women? Besides the very public events of sexual harassment, I’ve known some hidden ones where churches refuse to investigate their star speakers all, even if the churches have been told about the problem, because such speakers “bring people to the Lord”. It isn’t just an individual failure. It’s a systemic failure of power structure protecting against itself.