Discover more from Bad Theology in the Good Place
What to do with bad theologians
Cancelling, redemption, and paying attention to ourselves
Should I still listen to Hillsong music or sing it in my church? Or read John Howard Yoder? What about a book on anti-racism from an anti-gay pastor? Is this just another form of purity politics? Isn’t everyone a mix of good and bad?
These are challenging ethical and theological questions I frequently come across. I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions, but this is how I’ve negotiated these questions for myself.
First, I share that these questions are personal for me. I grew up in an anti-gay church, a church that exists to offer an anti-gay alternative to The Episcopal Church. Thank God social media wasn’t around at the time when I was most actively involved in the work of what is now ACNA. It would have been a true mess. I’m very grateful that I am not tied forever to what I believed at 16.
The lack of my public footprint to advance ACNA’s anti-gay cause when I was a teenager doesn’t make me any less culpable. But I recognize that my complicity is complicated by the fact that my formation in this church began as a child. How much of what I received was beyond my control? How much of it did I look squarely in the eye and decide to forge through despite the harm? I don’t know the answer, but I do know this – I am consistently honest about the fact that, regardless of a clear line of commission, I said and did things that hurt people. It’s the hurt that matters, and I had something to do with that.
I don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in my shame over these years. I was a kid. I have asked forgiveness of the people who I know I hurt. And I work towards the liberation of queer folks, knowing my liberation is bound up in theirs. Sometimes that has been costly for me.
I love redemption stories. I love my own. I don’t want purity but I do want honesty. We owe each other the hard work of excavation and clarity about what we have given and cost one another. This is especially true for teachers, preachers, and writers -- people (like me) who have dedicated our lives to public formation. If our work (songs, poems, books, sermons) are acting on other people, then we have opened ourselves up to increased scrutiny.
These questions are also personal to me because I came to the Mennonite church through the writings of John Howard Yoder, the most prominent theologian in my tradition. Several years later survivors and advocates revealed that Yoder was a serial sexual predator who utilized his power and position to abuse dozens of women. Not only were these crimes covered up by church leaders, Yoder was moved to different institutions where he harmed even more women.
Like a lot of Mennonites, I had to decide what to do. I knew two things were true: there was no way to extract Yoder from my mind. He had formed me and pretending that wasn’t the case wouldn’t change the facts. I also knew that I was responsible to undertake the work of discovering how that formation acted on me. I was responsible to discover how reading Yoder passed along theology that justified his predation to himself and others. I undertook this with seriousness.
At no point did I say to myself, “his life just didn’t line up with his theology.” Of course it did. We are not brains floating inside a meat suit. The purpose of theological inquiry is to shape our lives! That doesn’t mean that every piece of theology I received from Yoder reveals a root in predation, but every word is linked to his abuse. I don’t need to make every book or essay into a justification of his behavior towards women, but I am careful to look at what has been passed down.
I also realized I don’t need Yoder. In some ways, Yoder’s theology offered an easy out to bypass work in my tradition that I needed to explore on my own. There are enough theologians and writers and hymn writers that I don’t need to rely on Yoder to guide my theological life. I can think without him, and so I do. I’ve made him non-essential for my theological life by not reading him. And now, two decades later, most of the ways I’m formed by Yoder are worked out of me, replaced by a larger crowd of witnesses.
That doesn’t mean I throw out every theologian whose done something bad. It’s important for me in theology (and every other part of life) to be able to discern between kinds of harms and their impact. Plagiarism is bad and it is not the same as Christian nationalism or heterosexism. I don’t have a hierarchy of harms, but I do recognize that the impact of harm shifts and is part of a larger calculation. Did this person admit their fault? Did they grow? Did they persist in harming others? How did that shift or change the way their work unfolded? How did it change their life?
This becomes more complex with theologians who are long deceased. I don’t expect Augustine to make a case for women pastors but I am attentive to the times when his theology naturalizes gender (which also naturalizes enslavement). When we read backwards in time, it may be more helpful to look at the “how” of a person’s decisions if we discover that they run counter to the world we imagine in the fullness of God’s vision of justice.
All of this requires attentiveness and rigor. When people tell me they hate Augustine (for example) I want to ask, which one? Early, middle, or late Augustine? There’s a lot of ground to cover, some of the work shifting dramatically over time and in response to the primary dispute of the day. Often in the midst of Augustine’s work we discover disruptions that are only apparent now, within the questions that are coming to us in this time, at this particular moment. How did Augustine work the questions of his day? Where did he fall short? What can we learn here?
The survivors of Yoder’s abuse are still alive. The institutional structures that allowed his abuse to thrive are still active in the Mennonite church. My church doesn’t sing the songs of David Haas because I know someone affected by his abuse could be in worship that morning, wondering why we don’t imagine that this may mean something to them. My decisions about who I use in my writing – especially who I cite – are pastoral decisions. Those pastoral decisions extend in all theological work. I ask myself over and over again: is this good news for someone who suffered intimate partner violence? Is this good news for trans people? Is this good news for those whose cultures and people have been decimated by colonialism?
I do worry when I start to see a rigorous purity creeping into our theological world, a way of regulating people’s writing and thinking in a way that looks a lot like policing. And I would love to fill my mind with the people who have never enacted harm on another person, but they don’t exist. I also recognize that frustration at the continued use of abusers in theological writing and worship is rooted in centuries of refusal to hear survivors and to take seriously what is at stake. Those conversations require courageous engagement, not dismissiveness.
Like many people, I also recognize that someone or something I read a while ago has taken me a step along the way, even as I look back and find them unhelpful now. I can both name that person’s role in my journey and offer critical feedback as to why their theology no longer serves me. I can wish they’d also pressed on in their work, or had access to the questions that are in front of me recognizing that the questions before them were very different (temple sex cults and the Manicheans are not the pressing questions of my community). Theological work that stands the test of time is rare because our questions are (and should be!) particular.
I also know this -- at the end of the day, we all have a line we know cannot be crossed before we find a writer’s work difficult to engage with integrity – it’s just not the same for everyone. And that may be a place to spend some time reflecting on what that line is for you and why. If you are using someone’s ideas, are you paying attention to what is tethered to their particular thought or argument?
There’s no checklist for assessing the work and life of our theologians but there are ways we can take seriously how they act on us, how they form us. It requires discernment, assessment, and evaluation. It takes attentiveness to the work before us but even more so attentiveness to ourselves.