Content Trumps Character? The Real Message Of Disclaimer Labels On Theological Books

Content Trumps Character? The Real Message Of Disclaimer Labels On Theological Books December 26, 2013

The recent uproar surrounding charges of plagiarism swirling around some of Mark Driscoll (click here and here) has nearly obscured another story that may have even greater implications for the church – and, ironically, maybe even for Driscoll’s future publishing endeavors. While the late John Howard Yoder’s name is less familiar to mainstream Evangelicals than Driscoll’s, this recent story about how Yoder’s publisher will include a disclaimer on all of his books may reverberate long after Driscoll fades from memory.

Other than excerpts of his work in the books and blogs of a few academics I follow, I haven’t read Yoder’s work for myself. His work has helped those academics grapple with the Anabaptist understanding about what the Bible has to say about power and nonviolence. I have appreciated the way in which Yoder’s perspective has broadened the thinking of these individuals.

For all of his intellectual brilliance, he was a man of deeply flawed character who abused a number of women from his position of power. His brilliance rationalized those actions by relying on the notion that a spiritually-mature man could engage in intimate, “healing” physical touch just this side of intercourse with a woman, insisting that this contact wasn’t sinful if he didn’t feel lust prior to or during the contact. He managed to repackage his own needs and appetites by deconstructing Scripture with his well-trained mind while insisting that his more evolved spirituality was the reason he could give his non-sexual luvin’ to his cross-gendered friends. He was a peacemaker, after all.

Well, except for the sexual assaults.

As these things usually do, it took years for the rumors of his abuse to come to light, and for the victims to discover that they had plenty of company. Shortly before he died in 1997, Yoder affirmed that he’d uh, probably crossed a few non-blurred lines and went through some sort of formal restoration process with his home church. None of the women he’d assaulted received an apology, nor was there any sort of counseling or financial renumeration follow-up offered them as far as I could discern. (If you know otherwise, please email me, as I’d be happy to correct this statement if I missed something.)

Now, after years of discernment meetings and discussion, Yoder’s publisher, Herald Press, will be publishing a disclaimer, acknowledging his history of sexual sin while continuing to commend his writing to readers.

While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

                                              (From the Herald Press disclaimer statement)

At this point in the story, since the perp has been dead for 16 years, I think this is probably a good start. It underscores that there is a difference between baby and bathwater. While there is now no way for those who were abused by Yoder with their allegations, it would be a nice gesture if either his publisher or his denomination offered to pay for counseling for anyone with a credible abuse account. Perhaps I’m being a bit idealistic with this suggestion; I am assuming that few would go to the trouble of coming forward at this point with a false account in order to score some counseling. At this point, those most in need of help may have already sought it. In Yoder’s Mennonite tradition, turning the other cheek is core to following Jesus, so it is possible that many of his survivors have processed what he did to them. Maybe a half of handful of the dozens of victims would ask for help. Maybe only one. But that one deserves the dignity of compassionate care. Her life has been altered by the selfish actions of this man.

Which brings me to what the Herald Press statement says to me. If Yoder was still alive and had been found guilty, a responsible publisher would pull the books no matter how good his ideas are. But the decision for Herald Press to continue to publish Yoder’s books with a disclaimer communicates to me that in this life, he got away with his sin – and gets to have the final, published word. Character is disconnected from message, which is a textbook description of hypocrisy.

What do you think? Should publishers continue to print the books of those who’ve confessed to sin (as Yoder did at the end of his life) or been caught red-handed in the act? Does a disclaimer make a difference?



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