Contributed by Stephanie Krehbiel
(con’t from part 1)
Let’s look at some more recent history. In 2011, in advance of the Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh, Everett Thomas, editor of The Mennonite at the time, wrote an editorial for the magazine suggesting that the MCUSA may need to reconsider its biennial convention structure in light of the “difficult experience” that Pink Menno activists brought to the Columbus convention. He quotes MCUSA director Ervin Stutzman as saying, “The experience of Pink Mennos at Columbus in 2009 introduced a new level of engagement in controversial matters. … The techniques of social advocacy and confrontation that we have taught young adults in our schools has come to haunt our church’s most visible gathering, to the end that convention-goers feel immense pressure to take up sides against one another on [homosexuality].” (http://www.themennonite.org/issues/14-5/articles/Unconventional_conventions)
It was a classic move of outcasting, one that echoed phrases in the panicked damage control letter that former MCUSA director Jim Schrag sent out two years earlier, after the Columbus convention, in which he referred to “persons associated with a group calling itself PinkMennos [sic].” And rightly, LGBTQ Mennonites and their allies called it out as such, pointing out the scapegoating, the historical inepititude, the paternalism and rhetorical violence of the statement. Blogger Tim Nafziger wrote, “[Stutzman’s statement] implicitly suggests that social advocacy and confrontation are recent inventions of ‘our schools’ rather than central parts of the Anabaptist and gospel traditions. Perhaps these tools can be tolerated as long as they are focused elsewhere, but not when they are used within the church.” (https://themennonite.org/anabaptist-ghosts-social-advocacy-and-confrontation-part-1/) By the time the Pittsburgh convention rolled around, Pink Menno activists had already reappropriated the statement for their own claim of radical Anabaptist authenticity, on a blue t-shirt with a pink Pacman ghost that read “Haunting the Church since 1525.” Not only did the t-shirt send a loaded wink back to Stutzman and Thomas, it also associated the existing Mennonite church structure with the foundational nemesis of Anabaptism, the oppressive magisterial Protestantism of early modern Europe. That’s one very powerful way to make visible the violence of process. (I bought that t-shirt for my dad this past Christmas. He wears it with veritable glee.)
It’s offensive and demeaning to be labelled as a ghost when you are, in fact, a person. Yet I also found something backhandedly honest about Stutzman’s use of haunting as a metaphor. Haunting is what happens when a piece of history is buried. We’re haunted by the harm that is done to us when it isn’t acknowledged or owned by anyone. We’re haunted when we are the ones who do the harm, then create a rationale for it that isn’t sitting right, that is interrupted again and again by unwanted appearances of reality; when, as sociologist Avery Gordon writes, “ the over-and-done-with comes alive.” (http://books.google.com/books/about/Ghostly_Matters.html?id=LbaHaN4BhEQC) Here’s how Gordon defines haunting:
Haunting…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present…[it is] that moment (of however long duration) when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done (xvi).
The “issue” of LGBTQ people and their lives was supposed to be an “over-and-done-with” in the MCUSA, resolved by membership guidelines that many conservative churches insisted upon as conditional to their joining the newly-merged denomination in 2001. It was supposed to be over and done with in the early 1990s, when the Listening Committee’s report was discarded and suppressed by both General Conference and Mennonite Church leaders, who proceeded with the thoroughly heterosexist statements in the 1995 Confession of Faith. It was supposed to be over and done with in 1986 and 1987 with the Saskatoon and Purdue statements.
Except that it also wasn’t. For one thing, Mennonites don’t agree on what denominational policy actually is. Is it doctrine? What is a “teaching statement”? How much power should these statements have, and who should enforce that power? For another, the statements that Mennonite delegate bodies have affirmed and reaffirmed indicate a need for further dialogue, which implies at least some unfinished business. For some Mennonites, these affirmations of dialogue are unforgivable concessions to the forces of worldliness, or liberalism, or sin. For others, “dialogue,” “discernment,” and even “conversation” are code words for situations in which their disproportionate vulnerability will be exploited. They are codes that hide the banal violence of Mennonite process under the veneer of good intentions.
The cracks and rigging of MCUSA are exposed now. Pink Menno showed up at the 2013 convention in Phoenix with a confident unwillingness to be marginalized and more evidence that its organizers are astute students of social change. The Supportive Communities Network of Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests has grown over the past five years at a rate that should lay to rest any hope executive leadership might yet have that “the non-celibate gays” will go quietly. Mennonite colleges are under increasing pressure to change heterosexist hiring policies; the Mountain States Conference licensed Theda Good as a pastor. One hundred and fifty ordained Mennonites just signed a letter requesting that the denomination stop holding the threat of discipline over inclusive pastors and congregations. And none of this evidence of the breadth and depth of support for full LGBTQ inclusion has quieted the Biblical literalists in the denomination who regularly threaten to leave.
MCUSA is a haunted institution, built on unacknowledged grief and promises that can’t be kept. And they could never have been kept, it seems to me. I spend my days now in an office full of photocopies from archives that bear testament to nearly forty years of a serious Anabaptist movement for LGBT and queer inclusion: grassroots, theologically reflective, tenacious, endlessly creative in its attempts at education, and above all, available. To congregations, to leadership, to families. I have no doubt in my mind that this movement has quite literally saved multiple lives. Which is not to say that it has been utopian or perfect, or not plagued with infighting, and -isms, and activist fatigue. The point is that it existed, and it exists. This movement has never been an issue to be neatly managed and resolved by church authorities. It has always been living, breathing people, and the memories of people who once lived and breathed. It was foolish, delusional even, to act as though denying BMC a booth at every denominational convention for over two decades would make that movement disappear.
And while it may seem obvious to say so, the current momentum of the pro-inclusion movement is built on what came before. A lot of people speak about generational inevitability when it comes to LGBTQ justice, at least in the U.S., and to some extent I think they’re right. The evidence is overwhelming: there is no way that the millennial generation of American churchgoers is going to tolerate the kind of heterosexism that still defines their parents’ church. But they didn’t get that way because time inherently moves in that direction. As Martin Luther King famously told the white moderates who hated his noisy demonstrating, time itself is neutral. Sometimes I hear Mennonite liberals talk about Pink Menno as if it sprang like Athena from the smooth forehead of American youth culture, with its refreshing acceptance of sexual diversity and lack of troublesome baggage. This interpretation comes from an inclusive political impulse, but it’s still a form of historical erasure, and it’s dangerous.
Pink Menno leaders, in my experience, don’t talk that way. It’s their straight elders who have the most trouble remembering that time is neutral. That it didn’t have to go this way, toward the moment when Katie Hochstetler stood before the assembled MCUSA delegates in Phoenix this past July, and said, without apology, “We refuse to be strangers to one another.”
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation,” King wrote. (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html) Pink Menno has built on decades of hard work from gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, queer, and ally Mennonites and Brethren, people who refused the social stagnation offered to them by their churches. They didn’t ride the wheels of inevitability. They shaped time, and often at great cost to themselves. They faced the violence of Mennonite process and did not emerge unscathed. May they never again be treated as ghosts.
Being what some academics call an “insider scholar,” it can be easy for me to fall into the same trap that Mennonites always fall into, of talking about ourselves as though we’re somehow separate from this thing called “wider society” or “the culture,” or “the world,” just because we have a theological propensity for thinking that we should be. The fact is, most of the people in the MCUSA are Americans, and as a nation, rigorous historical memory has never been our strong suit. When I teach introductory American Studies, I must always confront students—white students, that is—who are convinced that any talk of the slavery and genocide in U.S. history is just a pointless bummer. They are so over it. Why must we dwell on the past, they ask me. As if the brutal trafficking in and mass extermination of human beings, juxtaposed with the Enlightenment freedoms created by and exclusively for European men, didn’t make the world we all still live in. But the people who were bought and sold, displaced and driven to death, systemically tortured, raped and murdered, haunt us in literal, material ways. We have to find ways to listen to them. Because they are part of our human family, and because we need them to find what Gordon calls “the address of the present.”
This deep, violent denial of historical injustice, and the triumphalist revisionism papered thinly over it, is part of the ideological buttress that maintains our structures of inequality in the U.S. It shapes Mennonites just like it shapes everyone else. Even in something as mundane-sounding as a “discernment process.”
In claiming this, I don’t mean to imply that this bleak modern context dooms such a process to endlessly reproduce cycles of violence. Everywhere I look, there are fiercely inspiring people working against the violence of historical revisionism and erasure. They do it by listening and then refusing to forget what they have heard, by understanding their own capacity for violence, and facing it honestly. They do it by sharing stories that are difficult to tell and difficult to hear. And by making themselves vulnerable to the possibility of transformation.
I don’t know if Mennonites are capable of doing a better job at discernment processes or not. But I suspect that we are, if we can bring ourselves to be transformed by the people who are brave enough to remember.