Asking the Right Questions about John Howard Yoder (and Powerful Men Who Abuse the Vulnerable): Hillary Kobernick Reflects on the Issues
About the celebrated Mennonite theologian (and serial sexual abuser of women* who were his students or had sought his pastoral counseling), Mennonite pastor and poet Hillary Kobernick thinks we’re asking the wrong question. As she notes, even after the history of Yoder’s predatory activities over many years is becoming clear, Kobernick continues to encounter people asking how we can use his work and honor him as an advocate for peace — sanitizing the story of the life from which this work proceeds, as it were.
Kobernick reports that she recently met a student who told her he was drawn to Anabaptist Mennonite Theological Seminary, where Yoder once taught, by Yoder’s legacy. The student asked Kobernick how we can continue to use Yoder’s work, then suggested his own answer to that question:
Yoder was brilliant. He’s such an articulate thinker and he lays such an important foundation for Mennonites. I think we can still redeem his work and use it to represent our church.
Kobernick’s powerful reply:
I asked him if he was, as he seemed to be, a straight white male with no history of sexual abuse. He said he was. Then I got angry, and with less grace than I wished I had. “That is not your question,” I said. “You do not get to decide how we use Yoder’s scholarship. You don’t get to answer anything. Your job, right now, is to sit down and listen to the women who were abused. Women who are in their 60’s and 70’s now who have spent 40 years keeping their mouths shut. They took the brunt of the pain. They suffered for us, among us, so we could maintain our rosy-eyed ignorance about the man himself. Why don’t you bring this question to them, and let them answer it in their own good time? It might take years, but it’s not your job to answer.”
As she concludes, what’s at stake in this discussion isn’t really the question of John Howard Yoder per se. What’s at stake is recognizing that an entire sorry system of men who control things, dispose of other human beings as human garbage, allocate power so that they themselves predictably have it and no one else does, stands behind a Yoder and his predatory behavior. That system is called patriarchy, and as Kobernick notes, it’s “about men in power who think they are untouchable and so they can touch whatever they want.”
I thought of Hillary Kobernick’s essay this morning when I read Ben Quinn and Helen Pidd’s report in The Guardian of the sentencing of renowned musician Philip Pickett after his rape, over a period of years, of young women who were his students. Those who have come forward report that Pickett lured them into soundproof rooms where no one could hear their screams as he turned out the lights and assaulted them.
Several points leap out as I read Quinn and Pidd’s report. One is that, as in so many cases similar to Pickett’s, there are strong suggestions that those who have now come forward to report that he raped him are the tip of the iceberg. Exceptionally strong pressures keep people who were sexually assaulted, especially at vulnerable points in their lives, from speaking out.
Another detail that strikes me: when a 17-year-old girl and her parents reported in the late 1970s that Pickett had raped the girl, officials of the Guildhall classical music school at which he taught told them that they had not had other reports like this, and she should seek another music school. The raped girl was the problem — not Pickett. The institution closed ranks and protected its own at the price of further victimizing a sexually traumatized teenaged girl.
Finally, there’s what I would call the “systemic” aspect of Pickett’s story. Quinn and Pidd note that in 2013 Michael Brewer, head of Chetham music school in Manchester, was tried and sentenced for the rape of student Frances Andrade when she was 14 years old. Andrade was a gifted violinist who took her life after she testified against her former teacher. As Quinn and Pidd underscore, there appears to be a “dark secret” of such abuse of female pupils by male mentors at more than one prestigious music school in the U.K.
Given the many strong indicators available to any of us who want to open our eyes that systems of heterosexual male power and privilege — and that’s to say, most of the world in which we live — predictably cover up for men who abuse women and other vulnerable people in their male-controlled guilds, with lethal consequences to those violated by such systems of power and privilege, I think Hillary Kobernick is right on the mark with her commentary. It’s time for the men who run things to shut up and listen.
It’s time for them to sit down and listen respectfully to the victims of the self-serving systems of power and privilege they’ve created as they divvy up power among themselves while turning others into objects in the process. Not that I imagine for a minute this kind of listening is really going to take place, however — even when the credibility of most of the morally significant institutions in our cultural world, notably religious groups, depends in the most decisive way possible on the ability of heterosexual men to start doing just that.
If it did take place, we’d be talking about the unmaking of the entire world, wouldn’t we?
* If you click on this link to a previous Bilgrimage posting about Yoder’s history, please note its links to Ruth Krall’s Enduring Space site, which has a wealth of resources for understanding the Yoder story and its implications.