Thursday, April 9, 2015

War, Sex, & Yoder

Today's National Catholic Reporter - Online carried an article announcing that the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana has officially apologized (to victims) for its role in evading the issue for decades of pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder's actions as a serial sexual predator.

In my recently published book on war, sex, and the church, I made a claim - which I tried to support with evidence from multiple perspectives, that war - as reality, symbol, and imagination - provides key conceptual coordinates for masculinity constructed as domination, control, even direct violence.  In that same book, in a chapter near the end, I admitted that in using this thesis to examine the sins of the church - church participation in and support for war, as well as church-men's many and terrible devaluations of women - I had perhaps over-emphasized war in a way that threatens to undermine my thesis.  The case of Yoder was what I cited as the most problematic for my claims, or at least for my emphasis, which suggests that war is the practice that is the most formative of this transhistorical phenomenon of masculinity's identification with conquest . . . whether of enemies or of women.

I don't think I actually made that explicit claim; but I did privilege war, in part because my own background is military, and in part because the present-day apologetics for war are more theoretically "defensible" and more widely accepted than Christian apologetics for the devaluation of and male control over women.

The case is fairly easy to make that militarism and patriarchy, military culture and misogyny, are indissoluble.  But when we ask the chicken-and-egg question, it is not clear that war came first.  We can only speculate, since this question casts us back into prehistory.  In the case of John Howard Yoder, we have a man who has rejected war as decisively as possible, yet who by his own actions has demonstrated that this rejection of conquest and predation by organized armed forces did not carry over into his convictions about relations with women.  While this may not prove that the domination of women by men set the stage for war, it certainly gives this hypothesis more force.

Given that the church is, in many (certainly not all) cases and several confessions, embracing some key aspects of feminism, e.g., equality before the law and mutuality in personal relations, sexual and non-sexual, between men and women, the number of church people and confessions who reject war remain far fewer.  I personally believe these are both urgent issues, and I am more than a little disheartened by the damage that Yoder, and any equivocal or apologetic male accounts of Yoder's history of sexual harassment and assault, have done to the effort to move the church closer to a consistent and eschatological commitment to non-violence, which would include the refusal of Christians to support and participate in war.

Yoder articulated a very systematic and influential theology of non-violence, so influential that his name came to be associated with Christian pacifism in general; and now that the whole and terrible truth is coming out about his history of serial sexual assault - and his refusal to decisively repent of his actions - Christians, like myself, who believe that non-violence is an inevitable and essential aspect of our proclamation that Jesus the Christ is sovereign - in the political sense - can no longer cite the work of Yoder without being obliged to cite and denounce Yoder's career as a sexual predator.

I realize that his sexual crimes do not automatically destroy the coherence of his arguments, but the way that this is most often stated comes off as just another attempt to divert attention from his crimes and his victims.  So that is not what I am going to emphasize in this commentary.  His actions as a sexual predator certainly do tell us something about his theses on non-violence, even if I don't believe they were wrong, as far as they went.

They are certainly incomplete.  His theses are incomplete because they did not incorporate any understanding of war as a gendered phenomenon, because once that is acknowledged, we can no longer ignore the issue of relations, personal and structural, between men and women.

This is how Yoder could become the theological spokesman for non-violence at the same time he was victimizing dozens of women.  This is how he could write The Politics of Jesus without dropping stone dead from cognitive dissonance.

I hope that the theologies of peace will resolve henceforth to never again engage this debate about peace and war without first acknowledging that men are the principle authors of war, and that we may very well have first embraced violence and conquest not in contests with one another, but in the sins against our sisters.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.