tw: perhaps all theologians should come with trigger warnings

a serious proposal

This blog post is two months in the making.  When I first got wind of the story of the MennoMedia’s decision to include a statement in Yoder’s published works, I wanted to post my thoughts, and I still plan on doing so in a “Your Fave Theologian Is Problematic” series that will include guest posts too.  The statement simply reads:

“John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. 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.

“This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.”

When it comes to studying the impact of theologians, I believe complexity is something that we should shoot for. Unfortunately, the field of theology as I see it now, has a problem of making theologians into unassailable figures with squeaky-clean, whitewashed histories. Just as the biblical figure Jacob wrestled with God, so are Christians called to wrestle with the histories and theologies of persons who have chosen to study words about the divine. The usefulness of trigger warnings on blogposts is to place the experience of victims in society first. It is very much consistent with Liberation Theology’s preferential option for the poor. Lord knows that on my own posts in the past I should have used trigger warnings or content notes.

Last year, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes suggested that television shows should have trigger warnings after public outcry for one of the show’s episodes. If there are Christians who are claim to be concerned with the well-being of the oppressed, I believe that one of the best possible practices could be to extend trigger warnings to all forms of media. To take a non-theological example, I believe the Hunger Games trilogy would have benefited from trigger warnings related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so that parents or teachers could have been better prepare to explain to elementary school children what was going on in one of the novels. Trigger warnings or even just merely content notes can help readers in theology not read texts in a vacuum. For example, a long time ago, one Joel Watts (before he went Super-Wesleyan) was singing the praises of Jonathan Edwards and I chastised him because Edwards endorsed the enslavement of Africans in his personal letters.

Do I believe we should just dismiss Jonathan Edwards and his whole body of work? No! But what I was saying was that we need to look at his (and other theologians’ truth claims) and examine the concrete practices they themselves preferred. With a topic as abstract and theoretical and highly philosophical as theology can get, it (theology) has to take on flesh in the end. Part of doing theology that resists and emancipates is to theologize with those on the underside of history. What would peace theologies look like if they started with the stories of the 80 women that John Howard Yoder sexually harassed?

So, what do you think? Should theology books have trigger warnings or content notes? Why or Why not?

21 thoughts on “tw: perhaps all theologians should come with trigger warnings

  1. Rebecca Aske

    I agree with the trigger warnings! Yes they should be included at the very least! I am also more inclined to absolutely dismiss theologians who have such abhorrent behavior. I simply don’t want to listen to someone who has sexually abused women. Nor do I want to read Jonathon Edwards because of his endorsement of slavery. So I struggle with knowing at what point do we still listen…or absolutely dismiss them because of the abuse inflicted upon so many. Good questions to process.

    Reply
  2. AO Green

    I think it could be helpful in some instances but when dealing with a situation like Yoder where discipline was carried out and he adhered to the parameters of said discipline till the end I do not think it is necessary. For me it just seems like individuals did not like the form of discipline administered and that is something they need to work out with their local congregation or denomination. Whether they like it or not the man did his time and as far as I know he did not do anything again.

    It’s like someone went to prison for murder and they served their time and never did anything violent again but the victims’ families follow this person around every where they go screaming “murderer coming” all because they felt like the person should have gotten life or death.

    Now if you are dealing with someone like John Calvin that never repented or took their punishment or even felt they were justified in their actions then yes provide a warning.

    Reply
      1. AO Green

        I will just leave it at this, sometimes the victims are too emotionally caught up to determine what justice looks like objectively. That is the job of the congregational authorities or the law enforcement, groups or individuals that does not have anything invested in the matter.

        And the publishing company only did that because of the flack they were receiving from certain groups. The way I see it is why put that disclaimer now after certain groups started protesting? If they was all about doing the right thing they should have did it a long time ago and if what certain groups feel is accurate in their (the publisher’s eyes) why still carry his books at all?

        But anyway thanks for creating a place where this issue can be discussed, it is real hard to do so in some places.

        Reply
        1. jasdye

          “Sometimes the victims are too emotionally caught up to determine what justice looks like objectively”?

          Yeah, stupid victims and their experiences, amirite?

          Reply
          1. AO Green

            No, people have done things to me and MY emotional reaction to it have required more than what the offense required. When caught up in our feelings we make the issue bigger than what it is when all things considered. Trust me it is not just talk, I experienced things as a child that is not the norm or supposed to happen and I will leave that part as that. But my reaction to it was to kill or seriously hurt someone. Why because I wanted to react purely on emotion, I could not look at the matter objectively and why the actions with what is required as a means of recompense. Some outside party have to be involved that is not emotionally invested but sympathetic.

          2. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

            No one is talking about executing a dead person AO. Fact is Hauerwas and his friends covered for Yoder. Your objectivity is a shield for the powerful.

          3. jasdye

            It’s okay to own that you wanted harm to come to your abusers, AO. That’s human. And to deny that is… well, it leaves us less than human. To attempt to look at the dynamics in abuse and try to parse it out through what is and isn’t “objective” is to deny the reality that objectivity dies in the face of abuse. There is no objectivity here (or, I would argue, anywhere else). Your experience and emotions are valid.

            It sure as hell doesn’t mean you have a right to act them out. But denying them for yourself – nor for others – has no place in healing, Christian or otherwise.

          4. AO Green

            Rod

            I can’t speak for why Hauerwas and his friends covered for Yoder I am just presenting my own perspective on the matter. And I would view the situation the same whether someone famous or powerful was involved or not. Celebrity has nothing to do with it on my end.

          5. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

            It’s only by pure coincidence whenever folk invoke the rhetoric of objectivity or “balanced viewpoints,” it’s the side that works against the victims’ favor.

  3. Bruce

    As someone who identifies as Anabaptist in theological orientation largely because of some of the writings of JHY I have found his theological arguments powerful and persuasive. Since then I have heard bits and pieces about the problematic aspects of his life. Could you direct me to any good sources of discussion of the issues that arise when the contradiction between a theologians convictions and his life are so dramatic. Is there material on how Anabaptist communities and theologians are grappling with this that you know of. I am a bit out of the loop.

    Reply
  4. Susan

    Thanks for this, R.H. (Supervillain? That’s a new moniker for you.) I think, ideally, a person who desires to be in a position of leadership (power, authority) will be open about his or her struggles, past or present. I think that in itself says a lot about a leader. Those whom I admire most are the ones who can be vulnerable and admit to various struggles. I don’t need another hero, and all that jazz

    Knowing the limitations of the man (Yoder), I think one would definitely read his work through a different lens. It’s too bad that was, apparently, unable to engage with this aspect of his personal struggle in his writing about peace and reconciliation. Wouldn’t that have added a richer dimension to the subject?

    Reply
  5. George Friesen

    If we were to post warnings about the indiscreet private lives of theologians, I would think each edition of every version of the Bible should contain an introductory warning to the Book of Psalms that David was an adulterer and a murderer, and a suggestion to readers to temper their readings accordingly. No. no. Let him (her) who is without sin here cast the first stone. This applies here, if ever it did. If the writings of John Howard Yoder were profound, insightful and true before we knew of his aggressive behaviour toward women, then they are still true and are not either disqualified or without equal merit. The Anabaptist community has now an opportunity to model to the world how followers of Christ deal with sexual transgressions, just like the Amish mothers, who attended the funerals of the children’s killer, modelled to the world how followers of Christ deal with murder. Unfortunately, many still cry out for some form of revenge, which of course, they would call “justice that must be served.” The justice that must be served within the Christian community is unqualified, unmerited, and unequivocal forgiveness. As I see it, that is the example of Christ.

    Reply
    1. jasdye

      Why yes. Yes, when we read the work of David, we need to recognize that for all his greatness, he was also troubling and screwed people royally. That’s kind of the point. The bible itself doesn’t skip out on this, so why should we?

      Reply
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