Contributed by Stephanie Krehbiel
In 2009, I started a doctoral program in American Studies at the University of Kansas, with a plan to study what, on a good day, I call “the conflicts around sexual diversity in the Mennonite church,” and what, on a bad day, I call, “Mennonites and their f*#ked-up sex problems.” I have also resorted to the fast and efficient descriptor “LGBTQ issues in the Mennonite church,” because the phrase “sexual diversity,” outside of LGBTQ and academic circles, often leads to a “come again?” But increasingly I feel allergic to the word “issues.” Mennonites use that word like a armored shield against people whose actual bodies they’re afraid of. The further I get into this, the more “f*#ked-up sex problems” seems like the way to go.
Is that too glib? Possibly. It’s hard to study anything related to gender and sexuality without hitting a mass of tangles, and realizing how throughly ensnared all sexuality-related…issues…are with each other, and with a whole bunch of other things. Start pulling at the string labeled “contraception,” for instance, and you’ll end up with a big fibrous knot of deep-set cultural anxiety over all non-reproductive sex. Pull harder and the tangles get deeper: whom do we actually believe should be reproducing? How much money do they have? What color are they? Pull at the historical construct that is the term “homosexual” and you’ll pull up that same wad of anxiety about non-reproductive sex, and then just when you think you can contain that wad in the sanctuary of a church, you hit the stuff on nationalism and masculinity, and it all goes bananas. Pull on the thread that is LGBTQ justice in the U.S., and you’ll get knotted right up with the foundational ambivalences in the separation of church and state, with changing scientific discourses, and with the complex, evolving meanings of that precious thing that we call civil rights.
Do you see why I default to the “f*&ked-up sex problems”? Trying to understand what’s going on is exhausting. (Also, I swear a lot. It’s a coping mechanism.)
What about the thread that is LGBTQ justice in the Mennonite church? What comes up? We could start with the history of the Mennonite Church/General Conference merger, and the ways in which LGBTQ people were forced to be symbols of the merging groups’ ongoing clashes over polity. We could talk about gender and the ministry, the way women pastors have shaped the LGBTQ justice struggle, the methods by which these pastors are scolded when they break the rules. We could talk about the center/margins discourse that Mennonite love so much, how it is enacted spatially at denominational conventions, and how Pink Menno subverts it. We could talk about the insidious myth that LGBTQ justice is something that only white people care about, and where that myth manifests in the MCUSA body, and whose personhood it denies. We could talk about how Mennonites define community, and how easily those definitions are wielded as weapons.
We could talk about all of those things. We could pull on all of those threads. All of them, sooner or later, would take us to something that I’ve come to think of as the violence of process. Carol Wise put it to me this way:
I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, then somehow we have not engaged in violence. We have been fair, good, and kind people. It’s such a distortion. People trust it. And then it gets misused. I think it’s a powerful mechanism to carry violence, and I see it over and over and over again.
The word “process” is often coupled with “discernment.” I hate to smear discernment, because many people I respect use it and I think they use it well. In a free church tradition, discernment is inescapable. If faith communities are going to engage in any kind of decision-making without a big boss calling the shots, they need some sort of discernment process in place. From where I’m sitting, as an academic who doesn’t go to church, I can’t tell Mennonites to give up on discernment.
What I can do, though, is bear witness to at least some of the evidence that Mennonite discernment processes leave a lot of casualties. These processes have developed over the years as methods for white male Mennonite leadership to manage dissent and maintain their own ideological control over their communities. In claiming this, I don’t mean to suggest that everybody who ever sits down around a Mennonite table to “discern” does so with such an intent in mind. Intentions are often quite benevolent. The problem, of course, is that processes that were designed by and for straight white men (and undoubtedly some closeted gay ones), practiced in a denomination where the lion’s share of power is still concentrated in the hands of straight white men will, in all likelihood, reaffirm and reproduce the enduring privileges of straight white men, even when many of those straight white men are enlightened enough to know that their enshrined supremacy is a big problem.
The evidence of this is not hard to find, nor is it restricted to any particular era. In Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Churches (which I dearly wish every member of the MCUSA Executive Board would have to read), Tobin Miller Shearer writes about the gradual disillusioning of civil rights leader Vincent Harding over the recalcitrance of white Mennonites to act meaningfully in opposition to racist violence and oppression. (http://books.google.com/books/about/Daily_Demonstrators.html?id=C2DjEl5MnxQC) Shearer takes on a thorny job with which I can sympathize—conveying the tedium of process in such a way that we see through the details to the human consequences. Here, for example, is his telling of a General Conference Board meeting in which Harding, frustrated with that tedium, attempted to call his white Mennonite brothers to account. He spoke fervently and at length about his frustration with the way Mennonites played “games with this issue so often”:
The Mennonite theological commitment to nonconformity, love, and selfless sacrifice, [Harding] argued, lost all its integrity if church members held back from forceful engagement with the civil rights struggle…Harding concluded with a challenge to the white male leaders in the room: “This revolution will never be complete until the church does what it was called upon to do in the first place.”
The response to Harding’s impassioned plea proved disheartening. Chair Robert Kreider sidestepped Harding’s criticisms and returned the discussion to educational initiatives by asking, “What about the joint secretariat idea?” Committee member David Habegger suggested that a few members of the group draft “some sort of statement” in response to the racial crisis. No one leapt up and called for a march, a demonstration, or a letter-writing campaign. The meeting ended with a tentative commitment to appoint church staff to educate Mennonites on racial issues. Among this group of General Conference leaders—some of whom had personally lobbied politicians to obtain conscientious objector status for young white men —Harding’s call for political advocacy on behalf of African-Americans went unanswered (125).
I groaned when I read this, because it sounded so utterly familiar. Oh, these blessed educational initiatives, these subcommittees, these study groups. These people who glimpse at the sheer magnitude of the violence, the reality of their own disproportionate power in relation to it, and suggest drafting a statement. I know the names mentioned in this passage; they are good people. I don’t know that I would have done any better in that moment. But that’s the problem with a subtly violent process. Reproducing the violence becomes the default position.
Let me give another example. In the early 1980s, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church committed to a jointly-run study of human sexuality, which was to conclude with a report that might then be disseminated to congregations for educational purposes. For four years, a group of carefully selected professionals in both conferences labored to produce this document. By several accounts I have heard and read in interviews and archives, it was a remarkably non-contentious process, despite a wide diversity of views on the committee. At one point, according to committee member Su Flickinger, the committee invited BMC representatives to come talk to the them about homosexuality, and BMC obliged. (Can you imagine such an invitation coming from an MCUSA committee today? I can’t.) The committee’s report, while asserting that homosexuality and premarital sex were sinful, was remarkably nuanced. They got away with it, Flickinger suggested to me, because the church hadn’t yet had time to polarize over homosexuality.
The report was entitled Human Sexuality and the Christian Life: A Working Document for Study and Dialogue. It is briefly acknowledged in the 1986 Saskatoon and 1987 Purdue statements, which are still technically part of the lineage of church declarations that is routinely invoked in attempts to quell LGBTQ activism. But the report was largely ignored. In his encyclopedia article, “Homosexuality and the Mennonite Church,” Loren Johns writes, “The original committee was disappointed with how few congregations actually studied their document.” (http://ljohns.ambs.edu/H&MC.htm)
About a decade later, the two conferences tried another committee. This time, they didn’t bother making it about human sexuality as a whole. The Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns delivered their report to the conferences in 1992. (http://ljohns.ambs.edu/LCRecomm.htm) I’ll be honest—when I first picked up this document I was prepared to read an obfuscating load of nonsense. I had already read about forty years’ worth of Mennonite denominational publications at that point, and if that doesn’t make a person grumpy and cynical about all things church-related, nothing will. But the Listening Committee report startled me with its almost scathing honesty: about the ambivalence of their mandate; about how the “listening” process itself was unsafe for gay and lesbian people; about “the extensive and convoluted history” of Mennonite study groups on “sexuality and homosexuality.”
One passage in particular referred back to the Human Sexuality document of the 1980s. (Stay with me here. I promise there’s a point to this.):
When the assemblies accepted the sexuality committee’s report and recommended its study in the congregations but nevertheless passed resolutions concerning homosexuality not in that report, a popular confusion emerged on whether the assemblies really wanted congregations to study the SEXUALITY committee’s report on homosexuality or not for, as some have told us, “there is nothing to study, the assemblies have spoken.” This confusion persists to the present time (emphasis in original).
This isn’t particularly clear wording, but here’s my interpretation of what the passage is trying to say: Over the course of four years, the Human Sexuality committee gradually assembled a report with recommendations related to Christian sexual ethics (we’re back in the 1980s now—keep up). Conference leaders accepted the report, which they subsequently used as support for denominational statements declaring homosexuality to be a sin (Saskatoon and Purdue). From then on, the majority of Mennonite congregations disregarded the meat of the extensively-researched report because they believed that the conference assemblies had already settled the matter with their declarations against homosexuality. The committee’s extensive study on sexual ethics was almost entirely disregarded. In other words, the majority of Mennonite congregations avoided a nuanced discussion of what constituted good and bad sexual behavior in general and focused instead on what they believed to be wrong with gay people.
And then, in the 1990s, the Listening Committee attempted to point this out in their report, and both the MC and GC conferences suppressed it. I can see why they did it, too—the report veered dangerously close to calling bullsh*t on the entire discernment enterprise. In the end, congregations had no official channels through which to access it.
If you’re interested in the connections between Mennonite sexual ethics conversations and sexualized violence, you might be noticing these dates. Roughly around the same time that the Human Sexuality Committee was meeting to discuss Christian sexual ethics in the 1980s, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries dismissed John Howard Yoder because he would not stop sexually harassing women students and faculty. The agreement was that no one would say anything about why he was dismissed. They let him loose on the women of the University of Notre Dame, his other employer, and told no one at that school why AMBS had let him go. In the early 1990s, as the accumulation of abuse reports against Yoder in Mennonite and ecumenical circles became unmanageable, both the Prairie Street Mennonite Church (Yoder’s home congregation) and the Indiana-Michigan Conference undertook discernment processes in hopes of reigning in Yoder’s behavior. After several years of process, Yoder was declared forgiven, albeit without his ministerial credentials, which, frankly, he wasn’t using anyway. The process was always more about institutional damage control than it was about justice for the women Yoder had hurt. After the process concluded, no one was in charge of overseeing his behavior. He died in 1997.
Yoder was far from the most conservative Mennonite when it came to homosexuality, but he profited from his church’s perverse obsession with the sexuality of gay and gender-non-conforming people as a stand-in for having real conversations about ethical sexual behavior. While sexual minorities were forced to carry the banner of sexual dysfunction, Yoder and untold legions of other Mennonite men, mostly straight, engaged in sexualized violence that went shamefully unchecked.
I can’t help wondering how this situation might be different if Mennonites hadn’t spent so much of their “discernment” energy drafting and defending rule-based church statements on “the homosexuality issue.” Maybe then it wouldn’t be such a denomination-wide revelation that pacifists, even renowned pacifists like Yoder, can and do hurt people.
Maybe then Mennonites would not still be suffering so much from sexualized violence, because the church would have had more honest conversations about the roots of such violence, and congregations would know better how to prevent it. The survivors in our midst might at least be spared the admonitions that derail such conversations, such as “we’re all sinners,” and “let’s be careful not to demonize the perpetrator,” because Mennonites might have some collective knowledge about the history of sexualized violence and how survival and healing really happens. What if more Mennonites were talking seriously about the violence inherent in a rule-based system of sexual ethics that is more or less the product of a worldview within which reproduction is a mandate and women and children are property?
Well, for starters, there probably wouldn’t be a Mennonite Church USA, at least not in the form in which we currently know it. But maybe, just maybe, Mennonite institutions would be worthy of some credibility with their young people when it comes to sex and sexuality.
(con’t in part 2)