The Complicated Legacy of John Howard Yoder

I never knew John Howard Yoder. I met him once, at a picnic at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., 1982, but that was the closest I got to the man considered by many to be the foremost Mennonite theologian of the 20th century. I had read and struggled through The Politics of Jesus during my first year in seminary and, while not understanding everything, at least understood it to be ground-breaking and profound. In person he seemed shy and even socially awkward. My wife, who worked at AMBS, occasionally transcribed his papers. She said he used words that she didn’t even know existed.

Over a decade later I became aware, like many, of the charges of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against him. I was shocked, but heartened to hear that there was a process in place in the church for discipline, and that he was cooperating with it. Like many, I thought the case closed when I heard of his death in late 1997.

Another decade and a half later, I now find myself in the position as one of the primary publishers (via Herald Press) of his books. In recent months it has come to light that the process of healing and reconciliation is incomplete for many of his victims. Mennonite Church USA and AMBS (now called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) have both issued statements about this, including a new discernment process (led by Ervin Stutzman and Sara Wenger Shenk) which hopes to “…enable the church to move toward deeper reconciliation and healing for victims of sexual abuse by John Howard Yoder.” Sara wrote an important and thoughtful blog posting about it and the AMBS faculty also has issued a statement about how they will deal with Yoder’s complicated legacy—a helpful, insightful and well-written piece.

What is MennoMedia to do in light of all this? Some have asked that we cease publication of his books entirely; others have suggested that we simply go on as before and say nothing. I recently met with the Board of Directors of MennoMedia and we discussed how we should respond. We have decided that we will follow closely the process that Ervin and Sara are leading and hope that it leads to deeper healing and redemption and enables us to share and understand, as a Mennonite Church, his complex legacy. While I doubt we will cease to publish his works, I think that we will more forthrightly acknowledge his personal difficulty, in our role as publisher and not ignore it. I hope that we will be able to walk a fine line as needed and that something about this process will be incorporated into our own statements about Yoder.

We pray also that this process will be redemptive for the victims and will also bear witness to our ability as a church to deal with our own difficult past. I thank those who lead this process and wish them God’s Spirit as they go forward. As always, we invite your comments and prayers for all involved.


~Russ Eanes, director of MennoMedia