A Mountain-top Experience: Impetus to Confront Yoder’s Violence Against Women
As a long-time social worker, I know that individuals and families are always embedded in and influenced by their environments. In a similar way, context and environment influence historical events.
Twenty-three years have passed since John Howard Yoder, an internationally known Mennonite author and theologian, was disinvited as a headlining speaker at Bethel College’s 1992
Violence and Nonviolence in the American Experience conference. An arguably critical part of the context that influenced that decision was a conference for Mennonite men held during February of that year. What follows are my memories of the conference, aided by my own notes and by the writings and memories of several other participants. I acknowledge possible inaccuracies emanating from my particular standpoint as one of a few women present at the event and from the normal erosion of memories over the intervening years.
In February 1992, approximately three dozen men met at snowy Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp at Divide, Colorado, for a conference called
Men Working to End Violence Against Women. The men came from many walks of life, but were all connected in some way with the larger Mennonite church.
The seed of the conference had been planted several years earlier when Fred Loganbill, then a mediator living in Newton, Kansas, and Clare Schumm, who worked in family life ministry for the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and the Mennonite Church (MC), attended a similar conference in New York sponsored by the National Council of Churches (Houser, 1992; Loganbill, 2015). Following the NCC conference, Schuum and Loganbill suggested the Mennonites should hold their own conference addressing gender power and privilege within Mennonite institutions and churches.
A planning group eventually invited four resource people from the Men Stopping Violence batterers’ intervention and education agency in Atlanta to facilitate the Rocky Mountain conference. The facilitators included Kathleen Carlin, executive director, and counselors/staff members Dick Bathrick, Gus Kaufman Jr. and Sulaiman Nuriddin.
I attended as one of seven women
consultants. In addition, the consultant group comprised Lois Edmund, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Albuquerque, Clarice Kratz, Waukesha, Wisconsin, Mary Schertz, Elkhart, Indiana, Nancy Good Sider, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, Goshen, Indiana. Among the seven women were two psychologists, one pastor, one seminary professor, one editor and two social workers (I was and remain a social work professor at Bethel College). Each of the women was associated with at least one Mennonite institution.
In preparation meetings, Kathleen Carlin, executive director of Men Stopping Violence, explained to the women that men cannot change in isolation from women because men are primed to see only their own views of reality. We learned that our role as consultants was to speak about women’s lives and perspectives in an atmosphere where men could really listen. Through our own small-group women-only preparation meetings, we remembered and shared our experiences of being or feeling excluded from church leadership; silenced in faculty meetings; intimidated and subordinated in interpersonal relationships; and sometimes abused emotionally or physically.
Gender power and privilege emerged as common themes in these discussions. Carlin warned us not to be tempted to reassure or rescue men, and to not allow ourselves to be separated out from other women or seen as different from all the other women in these men’s lives (Schmidt-Tieszen, conference notes, 1992).
When the conference got underway, with both male attendees and women consultants present, our resource leaders spoke of the prevalence of violence towards women. They said that between one-half and two-thirds of all men in relationships have used some type of violence. Men Stopping Violence saw gender violence not only in individual choices and actions but in societal structures.
Woman battering is not an issue of individual pathology but of class oppression. … Battering is necessary behavior to maintain the regime or patriarchy (Schmidt-Tieszen, conference notes, 1992). All men benefit from the battering behavior of a few; the potential of violence intimidates women and prevents use of women’s full powers. Carlin told us that
the men who commit rape, murder and battering are the storm troops for all men (Schmidt-Tieszen, conference notes, 1992).
The presenters went on to describe the
Power and Control Wheel, developed by battered women in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as ways in which physical and sexual violence are reinforced by additional controlling behaviors such as isolation; using male privilege; intimidation; economic abuse; threats and coercion; emotional abuse; using children; and minimizing, denying and blaming.
The men not only listened to the women consultants share their experiences with men and with power, but also spoke with each other about their own behaviors and attitudes. By the second night of the conference, when participants watched a film depicting battering and sexual abuse, men sat in silence starring at the floor as the film concluded. As one participant reported,
The title of that evening’s film described what we felt: Shame. Despite our ‘better nature,’ our tendency to have something to say, to take action, we could only sit and feel a desperate pain (Houser, 1992, p. 100). –
Guilt, shame and sorrow filled the conference room. Men expressed a desire to jump into action. –
Advice came from Dick Bathrick and Gus Kaufman, two of the male leaders with Men Stopping Violence.
It is so hard to stand with women. … We should not hold confidential the information that a man has abused a woman. … Justice for women is more important than this male privilege [of confidentiality].
On the issue of trust, they said,
…We don’t lose trust by making mistakes, but we lose trust by hiding mistakes (Schmidt-Tieszen, conference notes, 1992). Several books were mentioned as resources for men: Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power Betray Women’s Trust by Peter Rutter, M.D., Is Nothing Sacred? by Marie Fortune, and Refusing to be a Man by John Stoltenberg.
By the last day of the conference, men were genuinely moved to act, to show that they were defectors from the patriarchy as Carlin urged (Schmidt-Tieszen, conference notes, 1992). Although facilitators encouraged the men to sit with their emotions of guilt or shame and cautioned them to avoid premature action, a number of the men wrote
A Covenant to Break the Silence.
Covenant, the following statements appeared:
We commit ourselves to do the following: …name the sins of abuse, violence and oppression wherever and whenever we see it; …listen to, believe and accept the stories of victims and the reality of women as defined by them; …hold all church boards and agencies accountable for abuse that occurs within their organizations, is known about and not dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner. … (
A Covenant to Break the Silence, Feb. 12, 1992). Twenty-seven of the men present at the conference signed the document, which The Mennonite later published in the Feb. 25, 1992, issue. (The
Covenant, as it appeared in The Mennonite, accompanies this article.)
In the midst of the participants’ newfound understanding of power, gender privilege and men’s abuse of women, instances of abuse by a powerful man arose in conversation. During informal times between some of the last sessions of the conference, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a psychologist working with survivors of sexual and power abuse and one of the female consultants, voiced a concern about John Howard Yoder and an ensuing investigation into his alleged abuses of women (Loganbill, 2015). While protecting the confidentiality of individual women, she described instances in which Yoder had sexually abused and/or harassed women in Mennonite church institutions as well as other women he met during world-wide speaking engagements and travels. She described his typical
grooming approaches to women based on his power as an admired theologian, ethicist and teacher.
Having just pledged to
break the silence, several Kansas men with connections to Bethel College began discussing actions that could be taken to confront the abuses perpetrated by Yoder. Roused to action by the mountain-top experiences at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, these men returned to the flat land of Kansas and initiated meetings with Professor of History James Juhnke, President John Zehr and others on the Bethel campus concerning Yoder’s upcoming keynote speech scheduled for Bethel’s
Violence and Nonviolence in the American Experience conference April 10-12, 1992.
March 5, 1992, The Bethel Collegian’s front-page headline announced:
Yoder disinvited to conference (Cott, 1992). In the article, President Zehr is quoted as saying that Yoder’s actions had been
inconsistent with the nonviolent topic addressed by the conference (Cott, 1992, p. 1). What began in the mountains of Colorado gained energy and bore fruit on the plains of Kansas.
Cott, K. “Yoder disinvited to conference,” The Bethel Collegian, 80 (8), March 5, 1992, pp. 1, 8.
“A Covenant to Break the Silence.” Conference on Men Working to End Violence Against Women, Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, Divide, Colorado, Feb. 12, 1992.
Houser, G. “Defectors from the patriarchy,” The Mennonite, 107 (4), Feb. 25, 1992, pp. 99-101.
Loganbill, F. Personal communication, April 2015.
Schmidt-Tieszen, A. Notes taken during the Men Working to End Violence Against Women Conference, Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, Divide, Colorado, Feb. 9-12, 1992