Contributed by Stephanie Krehbiel
This is a strange time to be writing about Mennonites and sexuality. In less than a year, I’m scheduled to defend my dissertation on sexual diversity, LGBTQ Anabaptist activism, and the effects of heterosexism in Mennonite institutions. And just following the news cycle is keeping me so busy that I have to force myself to write.
Anyone who reads this blog is probably aware of all the things that have been happening in the Mennonite Church USA lately that both challenge and reaffirm the dominant heterosexist practices of its institutions and communities. What I’d like to talk about here is how those practices intersect with the enormous and still largely unrecognized problem that Mennonites have with sexualized violence.
You might be nodding now, if you know from experience how bad that problem is. Or you might be wondering, “Is it really as bad as all that?” Or—the question I sometimes get when I tell Mennonites about my research—“Are Mennonites really any worse than anybody else?”
Here’s how I want to respond, sometimes: Are you asking because you don’t believe there’s anything interesting to say about Mennonites on this subject, or because you’d rather that people who write about Mennonites restrict themselves to topics that make Mennonites look good?
This stuff does not make Mennonites look good. I should add, however, that it doesn’t necessarily make Mennonites look worse than other Christians. Globally speaking, Christianity is in the midst of a foundation-shattering tidal wave of revelations about the depth and breadth of sexualized violence as an everyday, culturally embedded practice that is justified and perpetuated through popular theology. Those revelations began in the Catholic world; now it’s increasingly clear that Protestants, particularly evangelical Protestants, are just as afflicted.[i]
What’s noteworthy about Mennonites, of course, is that we’re supposed to be peaceful. That’s what led me to start paying attention to sexualized violence in the first place, in the context of a project that is largely about LGBTQ people and their experiences with being treated as an “issue” in Mennonite churches. I started asking questions about how Mennonites define violence, and how sex and gender might be involved. And to make a long story short, that led me to the messy legacy of John Howard Yoder, and ultimately to a community of sexual violence survivor advocates who, much like the many longtime LGBTQ activists I know, have been standing in the middle of pacifist battlegrounds for many years, trying to get people to pay attention to the bleeding obvious. They were asking the same questions about violence that I was asking, and coming up with some pretty damning answers.
To some extent, Mennonite leaders are finally paying attention to sexualized violence, at least as it pertains to the complicated, sordid cesspit that is the John Howard Yoder story. They’re responding, finally, to the monumental efforts of Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Barbra Graber, and Ruth Krall, among others. And honestly, the word monumental doesn’t even begin to cut it. At every step along that path, these advocates have encountered profound resistance. Graber described that resistance in a recent comment on the blog of EMU professor Mark Thiessen Nation, a Yoderian theologian whose name you may recognize from his long history of propogating heterosexist theology (regularly challenged by his Yoderian colleague Ted Grimsrud). Nation’s work is also noteworthy for its consistent attempts to dismiss the trauma experienced by the women Yoder victimized. Here Graber responds to a guest post by J. Glenn Friesen.[ii] The post itself is a lengthy screed of misogynist abuse apologism—there’s no point in mincing words there. (Aside: as a college instructor, knowing what I know about campus rape, I’m incensed to find this on EMU webspace.) But Graber responds:
Friesen is like a man standing in the middle of a football field strewn with wounded bodies and rather than asking them what has happened to them, he sits down with his lap-top and attempts to define in precise and careful legal terms the scene he is witnessing. When someone hollers from the sidelines,“Some sort of gross wrong has been committed here, can we get your help?!”, he turns his back, gets on his computer and with great conviction and long-winded verbosity picks apart the language the person on the sidelines has just used to describe the terrible scene in front of them…
I and others have been standing in that football field of bodies for two decades hollering from the sidelines. And not only about John Howard Yoder. He is the least of my worries because he is no longer living. But he remains a symbol for the way in which the church has historically dealt with the sexual abuses of power by its leaders. Until we settle that account, so deep and wide and complex in its offensiveness, we will not settle any accounts that arise in the future.
And here I’d add that until more Mennonites pay attention to the ways in which regulating “homosexuality” has functioned as an institutional distraction and theological scapegoat, while sexual predators have decimated Mennonite communities, we are going to keep living these same sad, sick stories. We’ll keep policing the lives of queer people when we should be talking about sexual ethics and consent. We’ll keep fighting against terrible odds to move from victimization to survival. Survivors will keep leaving the church, without anyone in power taking note of their departures. We’ll keep putting up with theology that shames survivors for what happened to them and then compounds the violence by shaming them for the anger they experience. And Mennonite church policies will continue be the sad norm, not a transformative exception, when it comes to legitimizing a pathological fear of LGBTQ people that is at least partly rooted in a legacy of misinformation and discredited psychologizing about sexual abuse and queerness.
There are some barriers to talking about sexualized violence in the context of LGBTQ justice, and I’m sure many of you who are reading know much more about them than I do. One of these barriers is that many heterosexist Christians are still preoccupied with ideas about queer people as both survivors and perpetrators of sexual abuse. Anti-gay, conservative Christians repeat theories about gay identity and “same-sex attraction” that have been discredited by mainstream psychology, and those theories are pernicious weapons when they’re targeted at vulnerable people. Some of these theories involve causal speculation about sexual orientation and sexual abuse.
Here’s an example, courtesy of Pax Ressler, a queer Mennonite advocate and Pink Menno leader. After kindly but firmly confronting a commenter on his derisive remarks about the Goshen College Open Letter campaign, Pax received this response:
How did you determine that you were “queer”? Did anyone cross boundaries sexually with you when you were a child? In my experience this is frequently the case with those professing same sex attraction, so I am not asking to be intrusive. Can you tell me more about your family?…Thanks for being willing to engage me and for opportunity to dialogue. I have a lot of time and interest when it comes to MCUSA and same sex coupling and positions regarding same.[iii]
There are a number of things one could say about a comment like this. First of all, it’s just straight-up creepy as hell. This kind of intrusive questioning is representative of the church-sanctioned sexual harassment that queer people have endured for decades within the context of so-called “dialogues” about their lives. “I understand that your experience has led you to ask this question about sexual abuse, but it is incredibly intrusive,” Pax wrote in response. “Please don’t ask that question to anyone, LGBTQ or otherwise. A person’s decision to be public about their experience with sexual abuse is their own and has nothing to do with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.” And Pax is absolutely right.
Also—and forgive me this foray into the realm of the obvious—the experience of childhood sexual violation is frequently the case in the population in general. I know a number of people who identify as queer who are survivors of sexualized violence. I know legions of people who identify as straight who are survivors of sexualized violence. Because sexualized violence is an epidemic, a societal scourge. We know this now. Many of us knew this a long time ago. This epidemic doesn’t just affect queer people. It affects everyone.
The best available research finds no causal relationship between sexual abuse and sexual orientation.[iv] But for me, the larger point is that comments like the one I shared above don’t come from any kind of sound ethical barometer for measuring the worth of human sexual relationships. Comments like these come from a desire to eradicate queer sexuality. The endgame isn’t to create a world without sexualized violence. The endgame is sexual uniformity—a violent endgame if ever there were one.
What do we lose, when we let these untruths and conflations go unchallenged, or treat them, much as MCUSA denominational leadership does, as legitimate viewpoints within a constituency that must be appeased? We lose the language to name violation as violation. We use sexual shame as a substitute for sexual ethics. Some of our best straight men are afraid to be out as allies for fear they’ll be seen as predators. And how many gay men have stayed closeted for the same reason?
Then there’s this sad reality: Sometimes the only rubric that people have to interpret sexualized violence committed by male-bodied people against other male-bodied people is the one that conflates homosexuality and pedophilia. Which makes it all about what kinds of gendered bodies are involved, rather than about the real problem, which is the violent objectification of a human being. It’s clear that this conflation is playing a role in the vociferous opposition to LGBTQ inclusion in churches. What do these homophobic fictions about sexual abuse do to male abuse survivors? How do these fictions hinder all of us in having conversations about sexual diversity and consent that aren’t poisoned by fear and lies?
The multi-tiered evangelical Christian business of misinformation about LGBTQ people—a pretty profitable business too, I might add—has made it that much more difficult for queer people to talk about sexualized violence when it does affect them. At the same time, in many settings, queer people are disproportionately vulnerable to sexualized violence. Our churches contribute to this problem by creating atmospheres of hostility, judgment, overt and passive aggression that can isolate our queer youth from their families and communities. Sexual predators demonstrate well-documented patterns of looking for isolation, loneliness and vulnerability in potential victims. Many of our so-called peace churches are truly dangerous places for queer youth. And most of our denominational leaders have been utterly derelict in their duty to help protect those youth.
Mennonites leaders are still pretty terrified to talk about sex. I know, news flash, right? Talking about sex leads to talking about queer people, and then anti-gay conservatives come out with their fear and their anger, their de-contextualized bludgeon verses and their misinformation about sexual orientation and sexual abuse, and then we’re no longer talking about how responsible, pleasurable, consensual sex actually happens, or about how sexual violation actually happens. We’re talking about “a divisive issue in the church,” how we can manage the conflict “it” generates, and “cultivate indifference” [v] by leaving our “petty desires” and “selfish ambitions” at the door.
Sometimes, in the midst of a church “dialogue” about queer people, I get the sense that there’s another conversation going on in the same room, a ghost conversation about real sexualized violence that has gone unnamed, and that there are survivors and perpetrators in the room there with me. And what I’m witnessing then isn’t dialogue or discernment; it’s multiple layers of spiritual carnage.
I’m dreading the MCUSA convention in Kansas City. Here’s why: The MCUSA Discernment Group on sexual abuse is planning a “service of lament” at the convention,[vi] a spiritual response to the enormous problem they’re trying to confront. I know some of the people involved in that process and I know that there have been some remarkable, courageous breakthroughs in terms of honesty and a commitment to institutional transparency—particularly in relation to John Howard Yoder.
The Executive Board of the MCUSA, meanwhile, has just set out the bait for a delegate battle over the lives of queer people.[vii]
I fear that the sexual abuse repentance service will become the MCUSA leadership’s claim to higher ground in the realm of sexuality, and those leaders for whom it is convenient will use their public commitments to sexual abuse prevention as a means of once again ignoring and trivializing the lives, experiences, and commitments of LGBTQ Mennonites.
If you haven’t already—and I’m betting many of you have—take a moment to visualize how this might happen. We know it can happen. The MCUSA has leaders that have proven themselves more than capable of the twisted ethical calculus that would lead us to yet another divide-and-conquer, false dichotomy, this time one that pits the interests of queer people against those of sexual abuse survivors.
I can’t imagine the spiritual consequences of that. I don’t want to. I can’t bear it. Especially not when there are so many voices in the church leading the call for an open honest conversation about the full spectrums of human sexuality, and about sexual ethics. We have to follow their lead, and engage openly, honestly, and supportively. To quote a painfully ironic Mennonite poster from the 1970s, “It’s as simple, as hard, and as complicated as that.”
[iii] Thanks to Pax Ressler for sharing this email correspondence with me.