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?