Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Own "Woody Allen Moment"

Recently a public debate has raged about whether your opinion of Woody Allen's films should be impacted or even determined by your opinion as to whether or not he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was seven years old.  In case you somehow missed it, Farrow (adopted by Allen and Mia Farrow when they were a couple) recently published an open letter claiming that Allen molested her over twenty years ago.  This charge first came out in a 1992 Vanity Fair expose as a part of the bitter and public custody battle between Mia Farrow and Allen at that time.  Although many wondered then if Allen's career would suffer, he has continued to write and direct star-studded movies on an annual basis since that time.  It was the occasion of Allen being given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes this year which prompted Dylan Farrow to publicly declare her accusation in a piece that called out Hollywood celebs for working with and celebrating a child molester. 
Allen has his defenders; so does Dylan Farrow.  It's important to note that criminal charges were never filed against Allen, but untangling the piles of evidence each side brings to the fight is a difficult task.  I have read and listened to a number of discussions regarding the question of if Allen did molest Farrow, then what does that mean for one's appreciation of Allen's art?  It's a difficult question, but largely an abstract one for me.  I'm not particularly a fan of Allen's movies--I appreciate them for being an important part of American cinema, but I don't really enjoy watching them.  I don't think I have ever had a repeat viewing of a Woody Allen film.  If Allen did molest Farrow, I do not feel put in an ethical quandary regarding his movies, because I don't care that much about them.

I did, however, find myself in just such a dilemma this week when I discovered that a theologian who has been very influential to my own belief system was a serial sex abuser.  John Howard Yoder was a Mennonite theologian who wrote a groundbreaking book titled The Politics of Jesus.  Yoder, who died in 1997, published his classic book in 1972 and it changed the way many Christian ethicists understood Jesus' teachings.  Prior to Yoder, conventional wisdom among theologians was that Jesus' teachings were aimed at personal behavior and did not have a social dimension.  Some would allow that Jesus' teachings were concerned with the broader social sphere but they were contingent upon Jesus' belief that the end of the world was immanent.  In other words, if Jesus cared about social justice his teachings are unrealistic because he believed God would soon end the world.  Jesus' teachings in this view are an unrealistic ideal that are unfit for navigating the reality we experience.  Yoder argued convincingly against such a view and convinced a generation of thinkers that Jesus' teachings on nonviolence and equal distribution of the world's resources were meant to be lived out by all who claimed to follow Jesus.

I read the book in seminary and it continues to impact my passion for social justice and equality for all people.  I have quoted Yoder's book in sermons and in classes.  So, when I found out--what has apparently been public knowledge for over ten years, I was shocked.  What does it mean that someone who so eloquently wrote about Jesus' teachings on nonviolence could harass, abuse and assault  his female students and colleagues ?  If his life was so twisted and abhorrent in its abuse of those he was charged to care for, does that mean his writings are therefore bankrupt?

The case of John Howard Yoder is different from Allen in the sense that prior to his death Yoder submitted to discipline by the Mennonite Church, although writings published posthumously suggest he felt he was an innocent scapegoat.  Victims of Yoder have continued to feel the denomination failed to adequately deal with Yoder's abuse, and last year the Mennonites created a commission to revisit the process undertaken to address the theologian's actions.  While some may choose to believe Woody Allen's side of his story, there is no one offering a credible defense of Yoder.

I realize my own sense of betrayal at finding out about Yoder's abuse pales in comparison to the multitude of people who have suffered so greatly by being abused by Catholic and Protestant clergymen.  Throughout my career I have heard the stories of men and women who have entrusted me with their experiences of abuse--sometimes that abuse was carried out by trusted religious leaders.  Each case is a horrible act of betrayal that leaves a lifetime of scars.  I'm aware of this, and don't mean to compare my feelings to one who has been abused.  I do wonder, however, what do I do with the thought of John Howard Yoder that has been meaningful to me?

Let's face it, we don't want to know too much about the people we idolize.  Much of the art, music, philosophy and yes, theology that moves us has been created by deeply flawed people.  Some of those flawed people have done terrible things.  Does their terrible actions make their work less meaningful or even empty it of meaning altogether?  Maybe.

Two weeks ago I participated in our congregation's training for those who want to work with children. The training was largely about ensuring that children in the care of the church are protected from predators.  Our facilitator Dr. Jeanne Hoeft reminded us that child predators hide in plain sight.  They are usually male and heterosexual.  They usually were sexually abused themselves.  It is disturbing to be reminded that serial abusers are in our midst, but the stakes are too high not to have such a conversation.  Jeanne also reminded us that the damage inflicted upon a child by sexual abuse can be heightened or lessened by how other adults in authority respond to acts of abuse.  If those in power sweep it under the rug or move to protect an institution by blaming the victim, the abused person's pain is exponentially increased.  If, however, adults in authority put the welfare of the child first, the pain suffered and its effects can be decreased.

Which brings me back to the question of what do I do as a minister with the work of a theologian who has been found out to be an abuser?  First of all, I know that I won't quote anymore from Yoder's book in my sermons or other ministry settings.  Doing so seems irresponsible given that such a quotation carries with it an implicit endorsement of an abuser's actions.  I would never want to increase the suffering of those in my congregation who have been abused by offering the words of an abuser to them. 

Second, I think it is worthwhile to question Yoder's theology in light of his actions.  One Mennonite feminist writer points out that Mennonite pacifism developed as a way to justify men not going to war--a masculine defense for men who chose not to do what is typically masculine.  Such an ethic remains patriarchal and unconcerned with women and oppressed people.  This seems like an interesting argument for critiquing much that is considered good in Christianity; most of what is preached and taught even in progressive and liberal churches came from men who enjoyed privileged positions.  Because they developed their ideas from a position of power, they did not always consider how those ideas affect or even harm people without power.  Just because something seems progressive and radical doesn't mean that it is immune from also being oppressive.

Finally, I am reminded once again how crucial (and also rare) are communities of faith that offer safe spaces for healing for those who have experienced abuse.  Religion is so easily twisted to do harm; yet I remain a believer that God can work wonders through communities of people who seek to act in humility and to care for one another.  I have experienced the church as a place of great pain and also a community of grace. Because a communities of faith can do such good is precisely why predators will make use of them for their own destructive ends.

Let us be vigilant together as we seek to protect the souls whom God has entrusted to us.

Grace and Peace,

1 comment:

Not a Troll said...

I hate to tell you, but Yoder may not be an isolated case. Paul Tillich was something of a sexual libertine. I was talking with someone who worked with the late James McClendon, and she characterized him as "something of a lech." There are others, but those are two significant theologians I have heard about.