“To my knowledge, no American (United States, Canadian, Central American or South American) Mennonite scholar has looked critically at John Howard Yoder’s written and taught theology and system of ethics through the lenses of his harassing behavior from 1970 until his death in 1997 (the years of his greatest academic productivity and the years of his sexual misconduct).” Ruth Elizabeth Krall

john yoder

John Howard Yoder, perhaps more than any modern-day theologian, closed the gap between the Christian walk (living the Christian life) and Christian thought (theology) as a replacement for abstract “theological methodology.” His theology, in refusing scholasticism (and “Constantinianism”), is seen as the alternative to onto-theology (which presumes to be able to establish theology on a philosophical ground). In turning from metaphysical speculation, he brought ethics back into the heart of theology and advocated a holistic ecclesiology that would equate the Church and Christian life with an alternative culture. In giving inspiration to James McClendon Jr. and Stanley Hauerwas he succeeded in making Mennonite theology part of mainstream theological conversation. My own theological understanding has been profoundly shaped by Yoder. I use his books and ideas in my classes and I continue to mine his theology.

Yoder, however, has left a mixed and confusing legacy that only this year (more than 15 years after his death) is being addressed by his denomination and the seminary where he spent most of his career. In Yoder’s explanation, he conducted an “experiment” (of some twenty years duration) in “non-genital touching.” The women who were the subjects of these experiments (more than 100 in recent counts) describe “unwanted sexual violations” ranging from public sexual harassment and aggression, to stalking, to indecent exposure. In short, John Howard Yoder, the premier theological ethicist and pacifist of the 20th century was (to use the technical term advanced by Lacan and Žižek and not meant as a form of derogation as it is universal) a pervert.

As of now, there are two distinct realms dealing with Yoder: that which honors his legacy with conferences, named lectureships, festschrifts, collected essays,[1] and the growing documentation of his sexual harassment and an outcry against the long silence engineered by his seminary and denomination. The critical assessment of his theology has, for the most part (as indicated by Krall in the epigraph), not been viewed in conjunction with his sexual perversion. Given Yoder’s own theological holism and narrative approach to theology, the duration and widespread nature of his “experiment,” and the fact that he defended his actions on the basis of his theology, it would seem both necessary and easy to link his sexual proclivities to a systemic failure of thought. By Yoder’s own standards, his violence toward women and his long-term moral failure would seem to indicate an inherent and obvious problem, not just in the character of the man but in his theology (which Yoder would not want to separate).


The notion that one’s belief system or worldview can be read from one’s actions is inherent in Jesus linking of mouth and heart (Mt. 15:18).   Žižek’s link between the philosophical and psychoanalytical (on the same order as “mouth” and “heart”) provides the concrete tools for apprehending the structure behind particular orientations and behaviors. Thus, hysteria and perversion are not simply psychological orientations but identify philosophical systems (e.g., “Hegel is the most sublime of hysterics”). It is originally Lacan’s point that perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the Subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment (Ticklish Subject , 247- 51). At the same time, it is a disavowal of castration or a disavowal of anything lacking, and the pervert takes it upon himself to complete or cover up what is lacking (Seminar IV, 192 – 3). The pervert seeks to completely establish the law through a transgressive relationship to the law – sinning so as to increase grace or merging law and sin into two sides of the same coin with each side dependent upon the other.[2]

The hermeneutical tools that would draw these two realms (the practical orientation of sexuality and the theoretical aspects of thought) together are largely lacking in theology. Yoder, in particular, lends such weight to ethics and ecclesiology (as explanation for anthropology) that his theology is completely lacking in a moral psychology.[3] Theologically and personally Yoder had little interest in issues of subjectivity. Stanley Hauerwas, who (personally and theologically) has emphasized his need for friendship, nonetheless, following Yoder’s lead, says he does not “give a . . . about subjectivity.”[4]  What Hauerwas misses is that his account of friendship comes with notions of subjectivity that are diametrically counter to the implicit structure of Yoder’s theology.

In other words, some of the best of theology is working blind when it comes to a robust account (inclusive of sexuality and personality) of the structure of the sinful Subject. By bringing together a critical but appreciative account of Yoder[5] with Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Paul I provide below a worked example of how the sinful Subject might be accounted for in theology. The failure to name sin, to be able even to identify the Subject of sin, shows itself in the characteristic failures of theology. If we cannot name the systemic distortion we cannot effectively resist it. [6]


“I think what is most destructive for living truthful and good lives is not what we do, but the justifications we give for what we do to hide from ourselves what we have done. Too often the result is a life lived in which we cannot acknowledge or recognize who we are.” Stanley Hauerwas[7]

Hauerwas has a profound sense of the depth of self-deception and he understood how that applied to his friend; what he seems to have missed is the structural nature of the deception in Yoder’s theology. Perversion is the notion that law or the symbolic realm (inclusive of law in the normative sense but also theories or principles) encompasses and accounts for all of reality. Thus in science, Newtonian theory, with its notion of absolute laws of nature, and in theology, onto-theology, with its notion that theological explanation is all-encompassing, would be perverse. As with Newtonian science (as opposed to Einsteinian science), what gets left out is an account of the scientist or the observer. In onto-theology, likewise, the theologian does not account for his own situatedness but presumes to speak from a God-like point of view. Yoder’s theology opposed this sort of philosophical foundationalism but in assuming the Subject is accounted for in ethics (a point I explain below) the Subject is reduced (with his emotions, interiority, empathy, if not his humanity) to the choices he makes.

Hauerwas, in his memorial essay on Yoder in First Things, relates one of his favorite stories about his friend:[8]

“The 1978 Festival Quarterly featured a profile of John Howard Yoder. The interviewer asked John     if he enjoyed his significance. ‘Oh, time has passed me by,’ he responded. (The questioner noted he said this ‘without feeling.) ‘I won’t strategize making sure I get my monument.’

Failing in his first effort to get Yoder to be introspective, the interviewer tried again by asking him if he was happy. ‘I haven’t found it very useful to ask that question,’ John replied. But, he conceded, he was thankful. ‘So far our children haven’t hurt their parents much. I have tenure. And I don’t think I’ll run out of Anabaptist sources.’” [9]

Here is classic Yoder– “without feeling,” simultaneously off-putting (alienating) to the interviewer and refusing introspection, and completely utilitarian in a “thankfulness” not related to happiness. This snippet is simultaneously indicative of his ecclesiology (which is his anthropology or lack thereof), his personality (odd, frustrating – according to various accounts), and his low regard theologically and personally for the affective registers (happiness, delight, warmth, etc.).

As Hauerwas puts it, “Charm and John Howard Yoder were antithetical.”[10] Due to “his intellect as well his shyness and personal awkwardness . . . he often seemed ‘alone.’”[11] Though Hauerwas says he was his friend, it was always a friendship he had to “work at.” “I think I was one of John Yoder’s closest friends. I have no idea what that meant . . . I loved John Yoder. I think he loved me.” [12] For Hauerwas depth of friendship is a key part of his theology, but what he seems to miss is that this warmth was not reciprocated by Yoder (in Hauerwas’ own description) as the very structure of his theology and personality were bent in another direction.


Yoder’s sexual perversion evolves from the mid 1970’s to the early 1990’s with a theological perspective that came to focus almost exclusively on ethics and politics, to the exclusion of the uniqueness of Christ. In Paul Martens’ description Yoder’s theology subtly shifts toward equating Christianity and Judaism: “it is beginning to appear that Yoder understood a certain expression of Christianity to be very similar to a certain expression of Judaism, pushing his ecumenical and sociological concerns against the absolute uniqueness of Christianity.” [13] As a result, “secular thinkers have begun to appropriate aspects of the politics of Yoder without particular interest in the theological importance of either Jesus or Christianity.” [14]

Martens (who is intimately familiar with Yoder as the compiler and editor of several of his works) maintains that Yoder comes to equate kingdom building with morality and the kingdom itself with politics and social practices.[15] The Church and Israel differ only in that the Church includes Gentiles and the Church is inaugurating rule under the Lamb but Yoder equates this with “humbly building a grassroots culture” (as with Jeremiah), or defying the pagan King (as with Daniel and his friends). He equates it with the call of Abraham and a social revolution constituted as “the creation of a distinct community with its own deviant set of values.”[16] Though Martens does not make the connection, Yoder’s sexual experimentation and his theological reduction of the Kingdom devolve to immediate experience of a deviant socio-political situation with its own deviant sexuality.

Yoder’s turn from the metaphysical and ontological abstractions often found in theology (the very thing which is in many ways attractive in his theology) was in his early theology off-set by his Christocentrism. However, as Martens describes, his early theological emphasis is undermined by his later emphasis: “The late Yoder has ecumenically attempted to bring Judaism and Christianity together in both their sociological expression of “not being in charge” and in their theological reasons for doing so. But in the process, he has reduced many of his earlier claims to secondary afterthoughts, if not untruths; claims that the life and death of Jesus is uniquely definitional, claims that peace is a goal and hope but not observable results of behavior, claims that Jeremiah proclaimed ‘peace’ when there was no peace are all reframed and subordinated to the ongoing privileged position of ‘not being in charge. . .’” [17] As a result, his theology comes to embrace secular-like notions of the idea of progress which can be verified by “serious social science.”[18]


With the shift away from (or subordination of) the unique role of Christ, what is left is social harmony constituted from the elements already present in any particular culture: “‘peace’ becomes synonymous with ‘the salvation of the culture’ in social and political terms” and this reduces to “secular well-being” in Yoder’s own phrase.[19] Martens claims that in the late Yoder there is no need for the particularities of Jesus once the function of his paradigmatic politics is understood.[20]

For Yoder politics becomes the universal element of Christianity, requiring no translation (the wider world need not learn the foreign language of Christian theology or Christian narrative) into the secular idiom (being already understood) and serving as the unifying element in ecumenism, as the propositional confessions of sectarianism are set aside for the prime reality of politics. The “wrapping paper” of “emotions, matters of the soul, spiritual development, divine mystery, propositional confessions of faith” can be disposed of “once the package itself is opened.”[21] The politics of Jesus pose the alternative reality of the Church to the false politics of the world and this constitutes the “direct communication” of Christian witness.

What Yoder seems to miss is that the “law of sin and death” in Paul is a universal law grounded in self-deception. The Subject grounded in a lie is dependent on a gap in communication as this gap constitutes his subjectivity. The law or the symbolic world of language manifests itself in an internal “politics” of the Subject in which the “I” (or ego in Paul’s description in Romans 7) would establish itself by integrating itself completely in the “law.” But this “law” is not ethical or moral, rather it is immoral; it is sin itself. The desire for/of this law (covetousness in some translations of Romans 7:7) is built on deception – so that the desire is itself the substance of the lie. The “I” passively relinquishes control so that it is no longer “I” that does it – but the law of sin within me (Rom. 7:17). The pervert imagines, without question (or hysteria), that to passively serve this law (through perverse sexuality or suffering) he is integrated into it. The very nature of the perverse Subject is to relinquish his own subjectivity to the law so as to establish the law (sinning so that grace may abound).

Yoder’s sexual experiments, like his theology, in passing over Paul’s picture of two alternative Subjects and two alternative laws (the law of sin and death and the law of life in the Spirit) misses the moral-psychological element inherent in the politics of Jesus. The gap between the politics of the world and the Church is itself grounded in alternative forms of the Subject and alternative laws and ethics. The law of sin and death is a deception that posits the notion that there is life in the law (when in reality there is only death).

Just as the pervert would equate the sign (the law, the symbolic order of language, the rules of society) with the signified (life, being, or God), Yoder comes to equate ethics and politics with salvation (and none of these is grounded in or entails an alternative ontology of the Subject). In the process the secondary order of human sexuality comes to dominate his pursuit of the “deviant kingdom.” The theological perversion reflected in the sexual perversion (and the other way round) is the reduction of a secondary form (the sign, sex) to a primary element (life, salvation).


In avoiding the “magical” element of Catholic sacramentalism and the rational reductionism of Zwingli, Yoder comes to equate the sacraments to social processes.[22] Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which traditionally mark metaphysical/ontological participation in Christ) reduced to their immanent forms become egalitarianism and socialism. Given the notion of participation in Christ, egalitarianism and socialism might be apt descriptions, but Yoder seems to refer to processes in which Christ is paradigmatic or prototypical but not the enabling ground.

Baptism is the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, male and female, and so amounts to a trans-ethnic and trans-gendered inclusivism.[23] Yoder maintains communion “is the name for the group and not merely the sacrament.”[24] Eating the bread is an act of social sharing – a communion that is “to be visible in every place in the reality of persons whose lives are wholly shared with one another.”[25] Again, the statement may be read in an orthodox fashion, but if it is understood that the late Yoder is removing any notion of a transcendent or inter-Trinitarian participation, sharing bread is simply one of many empirical and sociological practices which together constitute a community visibly distinct from the world.[26]

To attain uninhibited communication and communion may require empirical and sociological practices that are otherwise considered deviant.  As Martens and friends conclude, “In pursuing what he called ‘nongenital affective relationships’ with women, Yoder may very well have seen himself ‘incarnating’ the ‘deviant set of values’ of this ‘distinct community.’”[27] Where participation in Christ is reduced not merely to the immanent but, with Yoder’s displacement of the subjective, to the exterior, new forms of touching may have been as close as he could come to intimacy.   Friendship and fellowship, drained of interiority, leaves only the eroticism of bodies and a koinonia of the flesh.

(To be continued)

[1] See Elizabeth Krall, The Elephant in the Room (a self-published book available online), p. 28.

[2] The pervert does not question the law or the power of the symbolic realm but presumes that life itself is to be found there (thus making epistemology the means of establishing ontology).[

3] See J. Alexander Sider, “Friendship, Alienation, Love: Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder” in Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2010).

[4] Ibid 418.

[5] Primarily the work of Paul Martens.

[6] In turn, fallenness and redemption are expressed sexually as that is the sort of creatures we are. So too a systemic failure of thought will express itself in the peculiarities of our orientation to life (eros) and death (thanatos).

[7] Stanley Hauerwas. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (p. 246). Kindle Edition.

[8] I am following Sider here.

[9] Stanley Hauerwas, “Remembering John Howard Yoder: December 29, 1927 – December 30, 1997,” First Things 82 (April 1998), 15-16.

[10] Hauerwas. Hannah’s Child, 117.

[11] Ibid 244.

[12] Ibid 146-7.

[13] Paul Martens, “Universal History and a Not-Particularly Christian Particularity: Jeremiah and John Howard Yoder’s Social Gospel” in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder eds. Chris K Huebner, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker (Herald Press, 2013), 131-132.

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid 137-138

[16] Ibid 140

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid 141

[20] Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 144.

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid 138.

[23] Ibid 137.

[24] Yoder, Revolutionary Christianity (Cascade Books, 2012), 30. Quoted in Martens, Heterodox Yoder, 127.

[25] Ibid 31

[26] Martens, Heterodox Yoder, 138. As Martens is careful to point out, Yoder can be and is read as falling within an orthodox understanding. The point of his book is to demonstrate that he devolves through heterodoxy to what may be pure heresy.

[27] David Cramer, Jenny Howell, Paul Martens, and Jonathan Tran, “Theology and misconduct: The case of John Howard Yoder,” The Christian Century, Aug 04, 2014.


  1. Jesse schrader

    Very insightful connection. Just when I thought all there was to read about yoder and glean from his thought and practice had been written, his narrative unfolds even more and thus the implications of his emphasis on outward systems, (politics, community, culture,etc) come to light. And the dangers of doing so to the extent of losing the self. Such a focus Makes me very interested in his childhood. Such an aversion to introspection and expression of natural emotions is nearly always traceable to childhood and early adult life. He seems to have been beyond stoic. Got anything on his early life that at all connects with this?



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