Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stephanie Krehbiel on the Woody Allen Case and the Problem of John Howard Yoder: A Must-Read Article

A must-read article from this past week: Stephanie Krehbiel on the "Woody Allen Problem": how is it possible to read pacifist Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder now, now that we know that Yoder was a serial sex abuser? Here's the problem:

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.

As Krehbiel goes on to point out, it's not just that the Mennonite church did nothing to deal with Yoder: "[W]hat they did do was too little, too late, and more about institutional damage control than about justice or healing for Yoder's victims." And, of course, as Krehbiel also notes, the re-emergence of the story that Woody Allen sexually molested his step-daughter Dylan Farrow raises questions all over again about what we do with Yoder's legacy--just as it is raising questions for many of us about how to interpret Allen's work.

Krehbiel makes extremely important points about the parallels between the two cases and how each affects the legacy of the man in question: first, "The reemergence of Yoder's case is a powerful reminder of the consequences of ignoring or dismissing survivors." As she notes, in both the Allen case and in Yoder's case, women who have sought to come forward with stories of sexual violence have been treated as "gossips" who do not deserve a hearing because, well, gossip is gossip.

In a legal (or church) system that seems inherently skewed in the direction of male power, in which powerful men can avail themselves of this system to protect themselves from "gossip" that they characterize as unfounded and malicious, gossip has another meaning: it becomes one of the only ways in which women susceptible to abuse by those men can make known the danger that the men pose, and can warn other women to avoid that danger.

Krehbiel makes another point that I consider extremely valuable: she notes (and she's absolutely correct about this) that "theology is a male-dominated field with a long history of covering, enabling, and trivializing sexualized violence." And the brand of pacifism promoted by Yoder and many of his followers is a particularly patriarchal kind of pacifism, one totally impervious to the insights of feminist theologians. As she points out,

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.

And so the quite serious challenge with which any of us who ever read Yoder's work with interest and approval (and I did so in the past) are left: 

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. 

In the thread following my last posting of an excerpt from John Corvino's What's Wrong with Homosexuality?, I've kicked around some of these questions with melissia. The position towards which I'm working in my own thinking about these questions is as follows: as Stephanie Krehbiel claims, theology has always been and remains a patriarchal enterprise in which the viewpoints of men are privileged over those of women, and in which the viewpoints of heterosexual males establish what is normal for all the rest of us. 

Theology is, therefore, by its very nature, a tainted enterprise--every bit as much as is much of the philosophy of the centuries, the literature, the art, the music. Tainted by patriarchal preconceptions that are deeply misogynistic and, to a great extent, heterosexist and homophobic . . . . 

I can't bring myself to see, however, that this taint ought to preclude my learning from the work of philosophers, theologians, artists, historians, etc., who display very clear misogynistic and/or heterosexist bias in their work--particularly when they lived in cultures in which there was no critique of or challenge to these biases, and they simply mirrored what was taken for granted in the culture around them. 

This does not mean that I accept that bias as I grapple with the work of these writers. It doesn't mean that I excuse it. It certainly does not mean that I combat anyone who seeks to bring this bias to the fore in critical commentary and challenge it--and who points out that how we assess the work of a writer from the past should have a great deal to do with how he (or she) handled the taken-for-granted biases of his/her culture.

I do, however, see a distinction between how this kind of critical enterprise functions as it addresses writers who lived in a cultural milieu in which misogyny, heterosexism, or all kinds of other -isms we now deplore were taken for granted, and how the critical enterprise handles writers who live in a milieu in which there are strong challenges to biases like misogyny and heterosexism. Plato lived in a world in which it was taken for granted that women--all women--had the standing of slaves. They were there to serve men, to make homes for men, to be men's sexual objects. And to be silent . . . . 

John Howard Yoder lived in an entirely different cultural milieu. He lived in a culture in which it is increasingly taken for granted that women have every bit as much right as men do to stand at the center of the stage of history, and to be autonomous actors on that stage. 

Yoder had  every reason in the world to know that women are not objects, and that sexual predation targeting women as objects of male violence is utterly unacceptable. To my way of thinking, this--the fact that Yoder pursued his work in a culture that increasingly makes sexual violence against women unacceptable (though that violence remains omnipresent and may even be increasing in many societies around the world today, and is tacitly approved of by many of the powerful institutions in all societies)--means that I cannot appropriate his work in any way at all except by recognizing that it's tainted at the outset by completely unacceptable presuppositions about these matters.

(The same holds true for Woody Allen, though, as I've said in previous postings, I continue to try to avoid judging him guilty without a fair hearing, even as I listen carefully to Dylan Farrow, because I have come to have a kind of preferential option for those who claim to have suffered childhood sexual abuse as it becomes increasingly apparent to me that abuse survivors have not received a careful and sympathetic hearing until very recently.)

One final note: Stephanie Krehbiel's essay recommends Ruth Krall's book on the Mennonite church and the Yoder case, The Elephants in God's Living Room. I've just begun reading the latest volume in the book, which is available at Ruth's website (the preceding link points to it). It's exceptionally powerful, and I strongly second Krehbiel's recommendation of the book.

The photo of Stephanie Krehbiel is from the website of the Department of American Studies at University of Kansas, where she's a Ph.D. student.

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