Stephanie Krehbiel on Ruth Krall's Importance in Understanding Yoder Story: "without Her Steadfast Work of Decades, I Don't Want to Imagine Where We'd Be"
By William D. Lindsey
March 11, 2016
Several days ago, I published an essay here by the distinguished Mennonite scholar and abuse survivors' advocate Ruth Krall, responding to her erasure from the record of Mennonite scholarship and activism regarding the legacy of John Howard Yoder in a recent National Catholic Reporter article about these matters. Today, I'm delighted to add to this discussion an excellent essay written by a young Mennonite scholar, Stephanie Krehbiel, who strongly defends Ruth and her contribution to the discussion of Yoder's legacy, noting,
If Krall were some sort of fringe player in the Yoder drama, . . . younger scholars could be forgiven for glancing over her name. But—for the love of the historical evidence, people, please!—Krall has been at the center of the struggle to make people take Yoder's abuse seriously for almost forty years. There's no excuse for ignoring her work.
Here's Stephanie's essay:
There was something refreshing about reading the opening line of Kyle Lambelet and Brian Hamilton's recent NCR piece, "Engage Survivors More, and Yoder Less." Right there at the outset, they write,
Over the course of his acclaimed career, Christian theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder (1927-97) stalked, harassed and sexually assaulted more than a hundred women.
The language in this sentence is evidence of a feminist victory. For years, survivors' advocates in the Mennonite church pushed back against the sanitized and indistinct language that people used to talk about what Yoder did to women. "Misconduct." "Boundary crossing." There may be times when that kind of non-specific language is necessary, but for the women who knew how violent John Howard Yoder actually was, it added another layer of abuse to the violations already committed.
That change in language in public writing about Yoder took hold after the release of Rachel Waltner Goossen's research. With her unprecedented access to the Yoder-related archives, granted to her by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and her thorough historical reporting, she provided academic legitimacy to the knowledge that a lot of women in the Mennonite church already had. I suspect that her work was humiliating for a number of Yoderian scholars and admirers who ignored, diminished, or attacked the women who bore that message before her. (For an example, scroll to the addendum at the bottom of this piece to see the quote from Yoder’s close friend and defender Stanley Hauerwas.)
So given that this NCR piece began with such direct language, and given its ostensibly survivor-centric plea, I was astounded to reach the end of it without finding a single specific mention of the work of Ruth Krall, and particularly her The Elephants in God’s Living Room, vol. 3: The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays, published in 2013. The authors reference her work only obliquely, through several mentions of feminist organizing that link to a blog post on the Mennonite by Tim Nafziger (note: this is the article linked at the end of the preceding paragraph).
After Krall's response appeared on Bilgrimage, someone at NCR added an embedded link to Krall's website into the text of Lambelet and Hamilton's piece, without comment and with no note that the original online text had been altered. (See the original here. The paragraph in question starts, "Beginning in 2013…") While I’m glad to see that change, it does nothing to change the published edition of the piece, and is frankly too little and too late. It would be one thing if Krall were some sort of fringe player in the Yoder drama; if that were the case, younger scholars could be forgiven for glancing over her name. But—for the love of the historical evidence, people, please!—Krall has been at the center of the struggle to make people take Yoder's abuse seriously for almost forty years. There's no excuse for ignoring her work.
The Elephants in God’s Living Room, vol. 3 is an inconvenient book. It's inconvenient because now, in 2016, after Goossen's research has added the irrefutable evidence of archives to what was previously the all-too-easily dismissible evidence of women's words, few Yoderian scholars quite want to admit how much denial Krall was up against when Elephants was released in 2013. It's inconvenient because it's the third volume of a what is now a four-volume set devoted to the study of clerical sexual abuse, and the literature review and analyses in the first two volumes provide exactly the kind of context that Mennonites were ignoring. It insists on the relevance of Catholic examples and Catholic abuse experts like Richard Sipe and Tom Doyle, and despite Yoder's long employment at a Catholic institution, I don't think most Mennonite theologians want to admit that Yoder's abuse could have any meaningful connection to the Catholic abuse crisis. It's inconvenient because it's self-published, and most academics are trained to ignore self-published work. (It would have been nearly impossible to find a publisher willing to publish such a niche academic book at an affordable price, but Krall never sought that avenue for publication anyway; she chose web publishing for accessibility's sake, with survivors in mind.)
It's inconvenient because it's interdisciplinary. As Lambelet and Hamilton write,
We need to engage with alternative modes of analysis. Others — feminists and womanists, psychologists and sociologists, clinicians and pastors and activists — have been working to understand and combat sexualized violence for a long time. We need to engage them more, and Yoder less.
Yes. Krall made that same point, again and again, and in Elephants, proceeded to do just that. Few Yoderian theologians were ready to listen.
But most of all, I think it's inconvenient because the story it tells is long and ugly, and Krall doesn't use cheap spirituality to try to make it OK. Elephants is a book written with passion, with great love, and through many tears. Perhaps it's because I know Krall as a person, but I can't read Elephants without feeling her grief for a church that has betrayed and destroyed so many lives. It's not just a book about Yoder and the women he violated. It's a book about the spiritual damage that epidemic sexual abuse does to a body of believers.
Elephants has been extremely influential among Mennonites and our communities of survivors and survivors' advocates, but influential in an underground sort of way that academic theologians don't seem to believe they have to take seriously. Though I find it somewhat hard to believe, perhaps some haven't heard of Krall’s work; as Krall herself makes clear in her own response to the NCR piece, the gate-keeping power of academic men is a major force in her erasure from the Yoder saga. But I suspect the deeper problem is that Krall persistently pushes up against what counts as knowledge in the world of theology. She does this in the same way that feminist scholars have always challenged male supremacist knowledge traditions: by insisting that the specifics of human experience are necessary components to any conversation about meaning, and by insisting that women are human beings with human experiences.
In Elephants, Krall does exactly what Lambelet and Hamilton call for in their piece: she engages survivors more, and Yoder less. Which is not to say that she ignores Yoder's personality or his theology; a full chapter of the book is devoted to a case study of Yoder himself. But in 2013, what I found particularly refreshing about Krall's scholarly treatment of Yoder was her complete lack of interest in proving Yoder to be exceptional. While Yoder enthusiasts throughout the Anabaptist and neo-Anabaptist world wrung their hands over the supposedly bizarre contradiction of a peace theologian who committed acts of violence, Krall worked from the body of knowledge that she already possessed, as a feminist theologian, a longtime ally in the Catholic survivors' struggle, and a therapist. She knew that Yoder had built his career at a particular intersection of traditions with a high tolerance for sexual violence: Anabaptism, Catholicism, and academia. And she argued, with a mountain of evidence, that Yoder's predation and institutional enablement fit into the same well-worn categories of manipulation, hypocrisy, and intimidation that always appear in clerical abuse cases.
In 2013 and 2014, as Mennonite debates about Yoder were once again heating up, I was researching a dissertation on LGBTQ activism and sexualized violence in the Mennonite church. When I keyed in to the current conversations happening among Mennonites about the intersections of violence, pacifist discourse, and sexuality, Yoder was everywhere. I don't fully understand all of the reasons for that, but it was clear was that one major reason that Yoder was everywhere was that Krall had just released her book. When Lambelet and Hamilton mention that the buzz began with feminist bloggers, what they don't mention is that almost every one of those bloggers was referencing Krall.
Without her steadfast work of decades, I don't want to imagine where we'd be.
(As advocates for abuse survivors, both Ruth Krall and Stephanie Krehbiel are founding members of the Mennonite chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, SNAP-Menno. Ruth is a mental health clinician and pastoral theologian with an M.S. degree in Psychiatric Nursing from University of Cincinnati and a doctorate in pastoral theology from Southern California School of Theology at Claremont. Stephanie Krehbiel holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from University of Kansas.)