Prison, sexual assault and editing John Howard Yoder: one man's storyby Andy Alexis-Baker
A lot of people are talking about John Howard Yoder's harassment, abuse and assault of women. Even the New York Times published an article about him. Some of the articles and blog posts have been defensive, trying to explain Yoder as a man, putting his actions in context, or trying to divorce his actions from his writings on pacifism.
Other pieces have lamented the attention Yoder has received as a theological ethicist, saying, as one Mennonite article put it, that most of the remaining Yoder devotees are young white men anyhow.
Over a year and a half ago, I wrote an online article wrestling with the issue of Yoder's conduct toward women. But I have not entered into this discussion in the personal way that this article will. I learned from Yoder, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul to be suspicious of including my personal narrative in theological discourse.
My personal story may distract from the gospel. Focus on Jesus instead. But I have learned that I cannot tell God’s story abstractly because I have a stake in the gospel.
God has acted in my life and there is no reason to hide God's action. Telling how God has acted in our lives simply follows the Apostle Paul's example, who never seemed to tire of sharing his encounter with Christ.
I first read John Howard Yoder’s work as an undergraduate student. He made the case for peace so powerfully that I joined the Mennonite church, thinking erroneously that I needed a pacifist church to support me or I would not be able to sustain my convictions.
When I went to seminary, I delved into editing Yoder's work, and have subsequently co-edited four of his books for publication, more than any other scholar.
So I am deeply grieved that Yoder assaulted a woman in her own home by pushing her down and lying on top of her while she screamed at him to stop. Then he mocked her in front of her husband when she hid from him, afraid to be in her own home. He harassed, groped, and creeped out many other women.
He may have gone through a long and unpleasant disciplinary process with his church, but the internalized violence he left behind remains unresolved and largely silenced.
Consequently, as a male, and as a person who has put enormous energy into publishing Yoder's work, it behooves me to talk about my involvement in his work and how my own views have shifted after learning about the severity of Yoder's actions.
I did not become peaceable by reading Yoder. That happened to me long before when I became Christian in prison.
I was convicted of arson in 1994 and served four years in a state prison as a result. I was an angry and very violent young man when I entered.
My hatred and resentment toward others eventually crushed me, when I realized I would never make it out of jail if I did not change. I prayed to God—if there was one—to give me what some other prisoners had: peace even in jail. I searched for God.
I read everything from the Bible to Karl Marx to Dante. C.S. Lewis helped me understand the Gospels, which broke down all my intellectual objections at the time, so I went to Protestant chapel and became good friends with the Christian fellowship in the cellblock.
Not long after I began to believe in God and that Jesus is God, I was tested in a way that connects to my role as an editor of Yoder's works.
One night, while sleeping, I woke up to find my cellmate of two years touching me in a sexual way.
When he realized I had awoken, he quickly tried to get in his bunk and act like he was sleeping. It took me a moment to realize I was not dreaming. This was actually happening.
Anger flooded me. I leaned over my bunk. Looking down at him, I warned him that if he ever touched me again I would kill him. I don't know exactly what he said in response, but I know he indicated he had touched me previously in my sleep.
That admission infuriated me further. I jumped down from my bunk, raving. My yelling woke up a lot of inmates who heard what I was saying.
One of the first things I was taught upon entering prison was that I should never let another inmate talk to me or touch me in a sexual way without physically fighting them.
If I didn't fight, and fight back hard, other predators would see me as weak and take advantage of me.
In that cell, in my anger, I decided to fight. Having lifted weights twice a day, six days a week for several years, I was bigger and stronger than my roommate.
I was determined he would not walk out of that cell; he would be carried out because of his injuries. I wanted to hurt him, and I knew I had to do it for my own survival.
But as I moved toward him, fists rising, a voice stopped me in my tracks. "He is sick, don't do it."
Stunned, I looked at him again. His lip was quivering. Then I knew the voice was the Holy Spirit's. Nothing in my past or present experience would have frozen me in place to listen and see.
The Spirit was effectively saying: "Have compassion. Do not kill. Do not fight. This man is very sick and pathetic."
Although I had the power and prowess to inflict harm on him, God called me to something else entirely. Though I uttered another threat, I also told him that since I had become Christian, I would not hurt him back.
The only thing I would do to him is talk to the prison guards to get him out of my cell and far away from me. Moving him would take some time though. I didn't sleep for two long, dreadful nights.
My cellmate was a Latin King gang member. The Latin Kings have internal rules about their members engaging in "homosexual" behavior. If they do it, they can be severely beaten if not killed outright. Since a lot of inmates heard my accusations, rumors started to spread.
Before they would attack one of their own, however, they targeted me, assuming that I had lied. Kings protect each other. I was completely unprotected since I refused to join any gang while in prison.
One evening, three Latin Kings pulled me aside, threatened me, and started shoving me, saying that I had spread a lie that brought disrepute on them as Kings.
I didn’t know what to do. I only knew what I could not do: fight.
So I told them that. I had become Christian recently and I simply could not fight them, nor do I tell lies about people. Ironically, my refusal to fight back caused them to back down and reconsider whether I had lied.
This is where the story ends as I usually tell it. This is a story of God making me nonviolent even before I ever heard of something called "pacifism."
The Spirit acted to turn a violent person completely around in the face of something really hurtful. God did this. I am okay. I am now a peacemaker and live my life toward that end. No need to talk about the internal trauma these events inflicted upon me.
I don't talk about the loneliness that resulted. A friend I had known and lived with for years had sexually assaulted me as I slept. I lost a friend that night, and doubted his motives to that point.
Other inmates, even the Christians, ostracized me. Since I didn't fight the guy, they suspected that my cellmate and I had been in a relationship that went sour or that I had lied.
What had I done wrong in that situation? My cellmate had violated me, not the other way around.
Yet I had been ostracized and threatened by other people as a result. At the time, I chalked it up to being tempted by the devil for my newly found faith.
I am not so sure the about a devil being involved, but I am sure that my cellmates actions and the fact that other people looked at me askance rather than blaming the perpetrator helped erode my ability to trust other people.
It not only eroded my ability to trust, but it also affected my ability to develop any lasting and true friendships at all. I find it hard to trust people, and even harder to make friends, to this day.
Even the Christians backed away: afraid I might be a closet homosexual (an idea that those Christians, in line with so much of Christianity, could not stand unfortunately). It was a lonely time in my prison experience.
I also don't talk about the fear and confusion. For months, every time I walked out of my cell I did not know if I would be attacked by Latin Kings, which would not end well for me. Even in my cell I did not feel safe. I made sure to have a top bunk because that is a safer place than a bottom one if somebody were to attack me.
I also began to avoid placing my body with my head facing the entrance where I would be more vulnerable to attack. For years afterward, I had anxiety about sitting in a room in a position where I could not see the rest of the room or the entrance in case of attackers.
For months after the encounter with my cellmate, I felt a constant tension in my body: my abdomen hurt from the tension, I would awake in night terrors about Kings, and I became a little paranoid because the Kings had let me know they were still watching me closely.
Every time a King glanced my way I wondered if the moment was coming when I’d be "shanked" (i.e. knifed) unsuspectingly. It is hard to live that way.
Hours on my knees at night in prayer helped me to find some comfort from the tension, but nothing could really take away the sense of threat and danger that was actually there around me. The experience drove me to God, but away from others.
The experience also had long-term effects on how I viewed myself as a male. Telling the story in a way that only highlights the dramatic "Damascus Road" type of moment I had, masks the internal struggles that God did not heal at that moment.
I could not tell the story in a way that suggested I was a "victim" of sexual abuse. Not then as a prisoner and not later as a free male. I knew from experience that people would see me differently if I told the story in a way that would highlight the hurt, the betrayals, the confusion and shame.
This had to be a story of transformation; a Damascus Road event; a triumph. As a male, a Christian male, I did not want to be seen as a victim of sexual assault. Had my cellmate attacked me in some other violent way, I may have been able to talk about the emotional and spiritual pain it caused.
But as a male, admitting one's complete powerlessness in a situation remains taboo in our culture. I knew that then from experience. Why tell the rest? Besides, I would tell myself, I was not actually raped or anything. It was not that bad, and it all worked out in the end.
Having to wrestle with John Howard Yoder's actions has forced me to revisit my experiences and how I talk about them.
On the one hand, I was in prison for being a violent person. I can relate to that part of Yoder that could dehumanize another person and see them as a simple object to be used or discarded. God continually works in me to have more constant thought of the other, rather than myself.
I can also relate to that part of Yoder that yearned for connection, that sick part of him that just didn't seem able to reach out to people in healthy ways. Yoder was like my cellmate in being ill. But he is also like me, finding it hard to connect to people for some unknown reasons to us. He never gave us a deeply introspective look at his life, a confession of sorts. I can relate to that resistance; but it has to be overcome.
However, even more, I sympathize with the women whose trusts and bodies Yoder violated.
I know how hard it is to come forward. I know the shame, the anger, and the hurt that comes with having had some man put his hands on you when you didn’t want them to be there. I can sympathize with the husbands and the women who wanted to lash out and fight back physically. I know what it is like to have others turn on you when you are the one who was violated. I know the temptation to keep it in and to forget it: to downplay and minimize the event. I know what it is like to see the perpetrator later, walking around giddy, while I am hurting, afraid, and angry. I know now how his actions almost assuredly caused long-lasting emotional, social, and spiritual problems for the women whose trust he violated.
Yet here I am, the scholar who has edited so many books by John Howard Yoder. Had I known about his actions as an undergraduate student or realized as a seminary student that his actions were more than bouts of social awkwardness that demanded discipline, I would neither have picked up his books, nor tied my name to his in so public a manner.
But I may also have never learned a deeper pacifism. The Spirit stopped me in my tracks and kept me from fighting. But my experience since then is that kind of intervention is a rare event. It is one to look back on and grow from, but it is not enough to keep going over time.
Yoder's work helped me to see how integral peace is to the gospel, a gospel that set me on a radically different course of life. The Spirit made me nonviolent, but Yoder helped keep me there. I am glad I have learned from him, and I do not regret my role in spreading his work. I hope more people learn not only from him, but from those of us who have learned from him.
That is not to say that I think Yoder's work is enough. I have also learned that I have to go beyond his work. His systematic negating of personal story has not been helpful to me. The focus on the politics of Jesus has allowed me to be peaceful in my political outlook, but less so in my personal life.
Peace has not always come out of an inner disposition for me, but out of a duty to imitate Christ. Being an academic, I have at times bought into the hierarchical notions inherent in academia, which fed into my distrust of people resulting from the sexual violence. Yoder's theology did not help me overcome mistrust of others nor to resist the temptation to see others as objects.
Anecdotes about his rude behavior toward others, including men, only reinforced the fact that my Christianity could become insulated in an ivory tower of academia.
His disparagement of therapy and counseling hindered me as I bought it hook line and sinker: like him I have been stubborn, thinking that I could handle my issues on my own; a macho man to the end.
I could be against war, as The Politics of Jesus suggested. But peaceableness has been something else entirely, something that I have had to find outside of theology as a discipline, amongst people who have stories like my own.
Yoder's work also did not help me overcome the triumphalism of the Damascus Road event. Overcoming violence and becoming nonviolent makes for a great and true story.
But it does not necessarily reflect the trauma of the cross. Lacking any space for personal narrative, Yoder could not help me tell the story in any other way than as one of triumph over violence. He could not help me tell the ongoing story, where I needed therapy, where I needed introspection, where I internalized patterns that were destructive to me.
I could not heal as a "Yoderian" focused solely on the politics of Jesus. I have to break the chain and find another way beyond his work that emphasizes the terror and trauma of, for example, Holy Saturday, which I first encountered in Hans Urs Von Balthasar.
Victims must be able to tell the dark and forbidden tales of unresolved internalized violence so we can find new identities in Christ, who also experienced trauma.
My story connects to Yoder's story in ways that I never would have thought possible. My life also connects to other people’s stories who encountered Yoder and were abused.
I understand completely if some people cannot read him now. We have our own stories to tell.
Andy Alexis Baker is the co-editor of John Howard Yoder's Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos 2009); Radical Christian Discipleship (Herald Press 2012); Radical Christian Citizenship (Herald Press, 2013); and Theology of Mission (InterVarsity, 2014). He is currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology and Theological Ethics at Marquette University.
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