Privilege in Christian Pacifism: Privileged Pacifism’s Worldview Problem

Privilege in Christian Pacifism: Privileged Pacifism’s Worldview Problem November 6, 2013

This is my fourth, and final (probably…for now at least) piece on some of the problems that unevaluated privilege can cause in Christian pacifist movements. I’m linking this series up to h00die_R’s synchroblog on the topic–The New Pacifism. Be sure to check out my other posts here,  here, and here

Content Note: Discussion of Hugo Schwyzer, John Howard Yoder, sexual abuse, and abuse apology

Over the past few weeks at my church, my pastor–Julian Davies–has been going through a series of sermons on worldview. When I first heard about the series, I cringed a little. I had to take a “worldview” class in my Christian college, and often, to Christians, “worldview” means “this is the only way you’re allowed to view the world and anyone who views the world differently is BAD.” But it’s actually been an enlightening series. Rather than putting forth ways in which all Christians must view the world, Pastor Julian has been challenging folks at our church to rethink the worldviews handed down to us by an oppressive society and reflect on how those worldviews may be affecting the way we view and treat others.

Do we look at people in poverty and think, “Get a job, lazy bums!”? What worldview leads to that thinking? Do we see children or elderly folks or women or abuse survivors as less than human? What worldview leads to that thinking? How can we challenge and change these worldview problems in order to create a more equal and just society?

We often fail to think about worldview. Pastor Julian describes it as the roots of the tree, which are buried underground, but which grow into and nourish the tree trunk, branches, and leaves that we do see. Problems in the roots will lead to problems in the branches, whether we recognize what’s going on in the roots or not.

I’m going to suggest that some branches of privileged Christian pacifism have a worldview problem. 

Back when I was really into Christian pacifism a couple of years ago, several people recommended  that I read the book Political Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. Eventually I went on Amazon to read the reviews. Though I’d never heard of John Howard Yoder, the first review was a name I was very familiar with. This familiar reviewer gave Political Jesus five stars, calling it “the most valued theological work I own.”

This familiar reviewer was Hugo Schwyzer.

(You can read the entire review on Amazon here. It’s still the top review)

Knowing Schwyzer’s history (not to mention his present), this turned me off to the book for awhile. I was uncomfortable with the idea that Schwyzer–a man with a history of abusive and predatory behaviors–could read this theological work and come to the conclusion that it was “the most valued theological work” he owned.

Months later, my discomfort was affirmed when I discovered that John Howard Yoder and Hugo Schwyzer’s lives had some disturbing similarities.

John Howard Yoder sexually assaulted and sexually harassed multiple women (some estimate over 80 or even over 100). Then, when he submitted to church discipline and apologized, some chose to either completely ignore his history but continue to promote his work, or to treat him like the hero in a redemption narrative. 

Today, Yoder’s books continue to be popular among some Christian pacifists. Shane Claiborne quotes him in his books, Stanley Hauerwas continues to praise his work, and other pacifists say it is essential reading on the topic of pacifism.

There are certainly pacifists who are not afraid to call out Yoder’s behavior for what it is (check out the blog Our Stories Untold for a great example of this, especially this important piece and this one–both were essential research for me as I wrote this post), but it sure as hell doesn’t make me feel safe in pacifist movements that there is such an effort to ignore, minimize, or dismiss what Yoder did.

How can so many pacifists continue to minimize Yoder’s actions and still call themselves non-violent?

What are some possible worldview problems that lead to this thinking?

They can accept Yoder without question or disclaimer because they treat pacifist theology as a hypothetical thought exercise, instead of as a “reflection on praxis” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation).

They can accept him because we live in a patriarchal society where we’re more concerned about the reputations of white men than the safety of those they hurt. As this writer exemplifies: “I am concerned that we can get the impression that the words abusive and harassing capture the sum total of Yoder’s relationships with women.”

They can accept him because there is this idea floating around that all sin is equal and unaffected by power differentiation, and that includes violence. A quote I stumbled across while doing research for this post sums up this idea disturbingly well: “When we know that all of us fall short of God’s will, why are we singling out Yoder’s behaviour?”

They can accept him because they have a limited definition of what violence is, and that definition does not include (or begrudgingly includes) sexual assault that falls short of forced intercourse. This is why you see so many people talking about Yoder’s actions as “sexual misconduct” or “inappropriate behavior” instead of as what they are: Violence.

They can accept him because they are influenced by the same rape myths and rape culture ideologies as the folks who write Christian dating booksA quote by Stanley Hauerwas (who has described Yoder’s behavior, not as assault, but as “experimenting” in the free love movement of the 60s), illustrates the idea that even pacifists can teach ideology that enables sexual assault: “In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private.”

They can accept him because they, like much of American culture, uncritically consume redemption narratives, as Dianna Anderson puts it in this wonderful blog post.

This unchecked privilege and these unevaluated worldviews scare me. They are dangerous. They can create a climate where abusers like Hugo Schwyzer feel more welcome than survivors of sexual abuse do. They can lead to a climate where abusers see opportunity to hurt others.

I believe in peace-making. I believe it’s an important, essential part of creating a just and equal world. But privilege and dangerous worldviews can turn pacifist movements into just another tool of oppression. Are we truly creating paths with our pacifism that can lead to liberation for all? Or is our pacifism just a cover for privileged folks to gain more power?

Let’s reflect on that, and then let’s not be afraid to speak up, call out, and make changes.

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  • YES. for as many unfathomably horrible conversations i’ve had over the past few months with Yoder fans and supposed pacifists with a bad case of cognitive dissonance and a desire to protect his legacy above all else, i am encouraged by an increasing number of voices–within and without anabaptism–who are shining a light on these shadows, calling his abuses of power and people what they were, and willing to engage in these needed conversations.

    i am still speechless at the amazon review/connection to schwyzer. until our faith and theology are our praxis, they are utterly meaningless, no matter how pretty our words or well-meaning our intentions. this shouldn’t be that hard!

    i believe in peace-making, too, but i think many, particularly powerful/privileged sorts, desire something more akin to peace-keeping, which says “don’t rock the boat” and only serves to prop up an unjust status quo. the work of cultivating shalom is a much more difficult, long-term vocation, requiring eyes to see the sin and feet to forge a better path.

    thank you for your work here. i’m grateful for your voice.

  • h00die_R

    yes yes yes yes yes!

  • David William McKay

    Another worldview issue: since the Emlightenment–we have embraced the notion that an individual’s behaviour can be kept in a separate box that their professed ideas. In other words, “Just because JHY was a predator doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take his theological work as seriously–his ideas and arguments are separate. Yes, but what does Jesus say? By their fruits you shall know them.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Great point!

  • Ben Howard

    I definitely think you’re right about the problem of privilege within Christian Pacifism. At the very least, many of those who claim pacifism are never forced to enter into any situation where a practical belief in pacifism would be necessary. It’s certainly an appealing theory, but rarely more than that.

    I would also agree about the limitations of what constitutes violence, which is something I certainly didn’t consider nearly enough until reading this post.

    With that said, I did take issue with some of your characterization of the people involved. I can certainly understand being turned off to Yoder because of Schwyzer’s role as the reviewer, but I’m not sure how that connects the two in the sense of praxis.

    Additionally, I would argue that the Hauerwas quote is taken out of context from the original source mentioned in the link. The line about “experimenting” was calling back to an earlier reference and wasn’t a standalone remark.

    The whole source is here:

    Sorry for writing such a long response, thank you for the food for thought!

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Both Schwyzer and Yoder are serial abusers who claim pacifist theology despite practicing the opposite and have been held up as examples of the wonder of redemption.

  • The Schwyzer book review led me down a rabbit-trail, and I happened to find another review, from 2000, in which he praises an author who argues in favor of teacher-student sex. He muses on the “temptations” of sleeping with his students, but ultimately decides “I reject her thesis, but I applaud her daring and recommend this book enthusiastically”.

    Who could have seen his, er, “fall”, coming?

  • lollardheretic

    This is such a amazingly fraught topic. On one hand, I agree with you 100%. On the other, I find the notion of dismissing what someone says (intellectually) because of what they do at least a little problematic. Does it work the other way? If someone lives a good life (define that however you want–but the life is truly good), but writes something terrible (say a work of fiction glorifying something you hate on principle–like violence) do you dismiss them as a person? So a great humanitarian is a pro a writing slasher films. He’s not secretly dismembering folks in his basement, or harrassing his staff. He’s a good guy, (or girl–either way) really. Do we dismiss his humanitarian efforts because of the films?

    I don’t watch Polanski films–that is, I won’t pay to see them. No netflix, etc. because I won’t give him money. That said, I can acknowledge that he is a skilled filmaker. No question.

    Except with your example, you’re talking about violence and pacificm, so it seems that if someone is encouraging the latter, they can’t take part in the former and be taken seriously. I suppose a scholar of the latter (as opposed to an activist) might be different.

    Do you go to the best surgeon in the world if you know he abuses children? (Extreme example). The two seem little related on the surface, but maybe not. The idea that we’ll know folks by their works is true, but that doesn’t tell us, does it, how we should value their works, only how we should know them as people. So, maybe this guy is a horrid person, but again, that doesn’t necessarily mean is ideas are bad. (And, let me make clear, I have not read any of his works, so I am NOT defending him on this. I’m not an apologist for his behavior. This whole thing is a question for me. I’ve got no side in it, except to say that Schwyzer is clearly an abuser, too, I agree with that).

  • CarysBirch

    Wow! I studied under a Yoder-fan in undergrad. I always threw a wonky eye at his pacifism, because… well because of what you’ve been saying in this series, except I couldn’t have articulated it this well. That particular professor’s pacifism felt disembodied, severed from reality, too theoretical to take seriously. I have never known about Yoder himself though, as my undergrad days are in the far past and I haven’t thought about him in years. Thanks for giving me a new perspective in this series.

    (And sorry for the late comment!)