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The Message or the Messenger: A Question of Legacy

The recent death of Joshu Sasaki Roshi and the publication of an extensive article on John Howard Yoder raise once again the contradiction of beneficial teachings and abusive teachers. What legacies do these prominent faith leaders leave?

The recent death of Joshu Sasaki Roshi and the publication of an extensive article on John Howard Yoder raise once again the contradiction of beneficial teachings and abusive teachers.  What legacies do these prominent faith leaders leave?

Joshu Sasaki Roshi was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher who came to the U.S. in 1962 and taught for over 50 years.  He was very influential in bringing Zen Buddhism to the U.S. and he was equally controversial because of his sexual abuse of women students. Although many people knew about Sasaki’s misconduct, no one was able to successfully challenge him or hold him accountable.  Some teachers and students explained that Sasaki’s sexual touching of women students was part of his “teaching.” Others were clear that he was abusing students and some began to speak out.

In an article by Mark Oppenheimer, Bob Mammoser, a resident monk at Rinzai-ji, said that he had heard allegations about Sasaki since 1980 and did not doubt their veracity. Mammoser also said, “What’s important and is overlooked, is that, besides this aspect (italics mine), Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity, and happiness in their own lives.”  What about the hundreds of Sasaki’s students who found chaos, confusion and suffering in their lives because of his sexual abuse?

John Howard Yoder was one of the most prominent U.S. theologians of the 20th century.  He was a Mennonite and taught at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (he subsequently resigned after an investigation of allegations of sexual abuse) and at the University of Notre Dame.  His most well-known book, The Politics of Jesus, is a classic still taught in many seminary courses.  He was the voice of Christian pacifism and nonviolence and an advocate for social justice. He also sexually abused numerous women students and colleagues for 30 years. Fledgling efforts to hold him accountable were unsuccessful.

Those who suffered at the hands of Yoder, as well as those who were inspired by his teachings, have to face a profound and explicit contradiction between his words and actions. In an unpublished 1973 essay, Yoder explains what “violence” means to him:

“‘Violence’ is thus meaningless apart from the concept of that which is being violated. That which is violated is the dignity or integrity of some being. . . I believe it is a Christian imperative always to respect the dignity of every person: I must never willingly or knowingly violate that dignity.”

The authors of the article “Scandalizing John Howard Yoder” wrestle with the inconsistencies between the message and the messenger:

"Given the lengths and demands of his theology and the degree of his violations, there are other hallmarks of his theology that put the lie to Yoder’s behaviors (for example, much can be said about how his secrecy and deception betray his writing on public witness and transparency), but we take these two as sufficient to demonstrate how Yoder’s theology and his behavior proved inconsistent. For most people, however, no such demonstration is needed, for the nature of that inconsistency is just straightforwardly obvious. For them, the question is, what do we do with the theology of a violent and deceptive theologian?"

I look at Yoder’s body of work with great skepticism because it appears that for him, what happens to women doesn’t count. If he can make this kind of theological and ethical assertion about violence and human dignity at the same time that he is exploiting and abusing women, I can only conclude that women are excluded from his theology. This means his theology, grand as it may sound on paper, is of no use to me.

Of course there is nothing new here in juxtaposing Sasaki with Yoder. Each of our faith traditions has many similar characters:  the beloved priest, rabbi, imam, or teacher who betrays the trust of their followers. This is perhaps the most difficult dimension of sexual abuse and betrayal of trust by a respected faith leader.  Whether for the survivor or the bystander, it is the explicit or implicit contradiction that causes the deepest wound.

Some, like Mammoser, choose to minimize the contradiction: “You get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.” This is like saying to a battered woman, “you get your spouse’s wonderful qualities and abuse as well,” as if this is to be expected and accepted.  No, these contradictions cannot be overlooked or simply confined to a footnote.

The profound theological and existential question here is does the value of the message depend on the character of the messenger?  To which I must answer “yes and no.”  Hopefully the value of the message or teaching stands on its own, sometimes in spite of the teacher.  If the teaching is true for you, receive it with a grateful heart and mind.  But do not allow the value of the teaching or message to blind you to the serious faults of the teacher or messenger.

For those of us who have been given the privilege of being messengers and teachers, we do carry a burden of responsibility.  Our people do not expect us to be perfect.  But they should expect us to be consistent in our words and deeds.  This is what it means to be faithful to our calling.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune

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taking the bad and the good....

Posted by Kristen Leslie at Aug 27, 2014 07:07 PM
Thanks, Marie, for this thoughtful piece. You write of Mammoser minimizing the contradiction, "taking the good with the bad," and it left me to wonder about his basic premise: that despite the great harm done by Yoder, his good work is important enough to out weigh the bad. I find myself needing to change the premise: despite the good work that Yoder did, the years of violence he perpetrated (all the while writing about the problem of violence) limits his authority and devalues his work. I don't need a voice to peace to be pure, but I do need it to be honest.

where is the line?

Posted by Beverly Dale at Aug 27, 2014 07:11 PM
Thanks for your comments on the theologians, Buddhist and Christian, who apparently have a disconnect between their spirituality and their sexuality. The inconsistencies between their teaching (on violence for example) and the violence of abusing one's position of power is obvious, most especially given the number of women each were involved with. I am wondering however (and perhaps you address this elsewhere) where to draw the line? Given that professors/pastors etc do fall in love with students and that often is sexual with or without marriage,is this always always out of bounds or aren't there steps to be taken to protect and minimize any possible conflict of interest or coercion? And, assuming the latter, is one of the criteria for ethical behavior that marriage has to be an end result? That, seems to me, gets sticky. Just wondering.

message & messenger

Posted by Beverley Burlock at Aug 27, 2014 07:13 PM
Oh Marie, I agree with you 100% here.
BUT, or rather AND, what about all the
male classical theologians we (women) were
required to study ('worship', honour)
in seminary?
Not only did a lot, if not a majority, of them
have terrible attitudes and opinions of women,
BUT their theologies also reflected that same
terrible 'stuff'.
And we were just supposed to accept it.
When I raised concern or complaints,
(to mostly male professors)
how dare I a mere mortal
(& woman at that) question
such exalted 'saints', geniuses and scholars
who had such long-standing authority, approval
and high recognition and respect?
Because I am me, I continiued to rebel
and speak out,
but Oh it was so very sickening to be
forced to stomach.
I still get the feeling when I think of
current seminarians might still be
subjected to them and this response.

John Howard Yoder

Posted by Kay Shively at Aug 27, 2014 07:15 PM
Thank you, Marie! Nor can I overlook or excuse John Howard Yoder's abuse of women and his violation of the trust of countless members of the Mennonite Church and the wider community. I did not know the man personally, but I presume he had a wife. His violation of that unfortunate woman was also unspeakable. Unfortunately, all of his "good" work is null and void so far as I am concerned. No amount of good works can balance the scale.

Distinguished abusers

Posted by Gus Kaufman at Aug 27, 2014 07:15 PM
The list is too long to even begin. In my faith tradition, one of equal prominence and renown was Shlomo Carlbach.

Today's article

Posted by Pr Dawn Gregg at Aug 27, 2014 07:16 PM
Right on, Sister. Right on.

I also have a problem who profess to be Christians while cutting food stamps, et al.
Thank you for your work and words.

Legacy questions

Posted by Ruth E. Krall at Feb 06, 2015 01:39 PM
Kramer and Alstad (the Guru Papers) address this issue of legacy in the best book I have seen. If the guru abuses the students/disciples, then the guru does not know his teachings are true. Therefore all is hypothetical because by his abusive behavior, the teacher betrays his teachings and all becomes a lie. This is my paraphrase. As a Mennonite, Kramer and Alstad help me to understand the questions of the Yoder legacy in both of its complexities - his theological, ecclesiological, and ethical legacy and his long legacy of abuse in four or five languages all around the world.

We have never met, Marie, but I know your work and I know you have worked with Mennonite women and Mennonite institutions to help us understand the forms of violence inside our Mennonite communities. Thank you very much.

color purple

Posted by Sonia Layne at Feb 06, 2015 01:39 PM
First I must say I commend you on a job well done. Is it an individual person or organization that designated the color purple for Domestic Violence. I am interested to know who they are?