I first encountered Ruth Krall’s work at the same time that many Mennonites did, in 2013, with the release of the third volume of her online series of books on religious sexual violence, The Elephants in God’s Living Room. That volume, more than any work that came before it, brought attention to the John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence as a symptom of a systemic problem, enabled by negligent institutions and a religious culture that elevated male leaders and devalued the lives of sexual abuse victims.
While theological scholars of Yoder were mostly unreceptive to Krall’s book, it hit the crumbling institutional wall of silence around Yoder’s abuse with an enormous shove. Within less than a year of its release, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen granted historian Rachel Waltner Goossen access to numerous sealed files on Yoder. Goossen’s work made clear what many Mennonite women and abuse survivors had known for years: Krall was a central figure challenging the Mennonite institutional players who enabled and covered up Yoder’s violations of women.
Krall started out as a nurse, and her clinical background has never ceased to be the ethical ground on which she stands. As a young woman, Krall was on a fast-track career in psychiatric/community-health nursing and administration. In 1974, she was a member of the first class to be certified by the American Nurses’ Association as a psychiatric/mental health clinical nurse specialist – the forerunner of today’s certified nurse practitioners. But her formative experiences as a counselor for rape victims left her with a desire for a better understanding of the roots of violence, which led her to a doctorate in theology and ultimately to 20 years of teaching in Goshen (Indiana) College’s peace, justice and conflict studies program, which she helped to design.
Krall’s work experiences inside and outside the religious academy put her in contact with both abusers and victims. Seeking to understand this phenomenon, she turned to emerging Roman Catholic literature about priest sexual abuse of the laity and institutional clericalism. Through the work of Catholic anti-abuse activists such as Father Tom Doyle and Richard Sipe, Krall added an ecumenically minded analysis of clericalism to the knowledge she had already accrued from second-wave feminism and the women’s health movement.
For the purposes of understanding its role in sexual abuse, Krall defines clericalism as Mennonites often resist comparisons with Roman Catholics when it comes to church-enabled sexual abuse. But for Krall, the connections are inescapable.
In February 2015, we spent a morning on the phone for a wide-ranging conversation about clericalism, John Howard Yoder, the things Mennonites have yet to do to protect victims and the links between sexual violence and the oppression of LGBTQ people.
Stephanie Krehbiel: When I look at the fallout from sexual violence cases, what I see, again and again, is people showing concern for everyone and everything but the victims. They agonize over broken churches, families and careers. It makes me wonder about what sites of violation we actually see as sacred. Victims always seem to be at the bottom of that list.
Ruth Krall: If you look at clericalism as a structure, this is part of that structure. I’m not a structuralist, exactly. I’m a clinician; we will dip and pick wherever it is helpful. But I’m convinced that there is a structure to this stuff, and if we really could understand it, we might be able to break it open. I don’t think we’ve broken it open yet. Somewhere in Mennoland today, a minister or youth minister or a Sunday School teacher is abusing somebody.
The Yoder biography, the reason I did it as a case study, was not to say I have all the knowledge of God and the world about this. But case studies in medicine and in nursing are very helpful. They don’t do what a survey of a thousand people does, but what they do is help you to understand the underlying pathology of the problem at hand.
SK: One thing I’ve noticed consistently in your work is the way you approach sexualized violence as a public health issue.
RK: Yes. My background is psychiatric/community mental health nursing. That means that I did a study of human personality inside a model of the community. Community mental health and public health are not the same, but they are very similar. So I have a very strong public health commitment to this. Public health helps you to diagnose the underlying pathology on one individual or situation so that you can begin to understand the multiples of that individual’s pathology. Once you understand what you are looking at, conceptually, then you can do the epidemiology, the demographics, by surveying 1,000 people or a million.
SK: It’s fascinating to me how there will be this dismissal in the form of a critique of the focus on Yoder, saying And it seems like that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what survivors’ advocates like you are trying to do. You get sort of recast as being obsessed with John Howard Yoder, when what you’re trying to do is put Yoder in a larger context. That’s a nuance that it seems like a lot of your critics miss.
I also pick up this dismissal of your work that is rooted in frustration with your critique of violence in the Mennonite church. It’s as though because the critique isn’t of violence in the world, that it isn’t as real or as serious. Most Yoderian theologians don’t really engage what you’ve written. It’s as though they think that because you question and challenge church institutions and church dogma, that they don’t have engage with your work. I’ve even heard men in the Mennonite academy dismiss you by saying, And that becomes an excuse to ignore you.
RK: From an academic standpoint, that’s really bad scholarship. You don’t read it, so you don’t have to deal with it, so you don’t have to put it in a footnote, so you just ignore it and hope it goes away.
SK: It’s where you see how church-based academia can backfire on itself. You can decide, well, this person doesn’t belong in the fold, and therefore I don’t have to consider their perspective at all.
RK: It also comes back to a structural issue about the way women are treated in the academy. If men don’t want to hear what we have to say, they just don’t read it. They don’t comment on it, they don’t quote it; it’s like it never happened.
SK: It’s the same thing as being in a classroom full of men, and they just pretend you’re not there.
RK: Yes. And it’s also as if, by putting Elephants into cyberspace, instead of publishing it as a that it does not matter. But I published it online because I wanted it free and accessible. The Elephants/Yoder book’s downloads continue at a respectable pace and, if it were a real paper-and-ink book, would be somewhere between a fourth and fifth printing. And the truth is that within those download statistics, Mennonite geographic areas are a small number in compared to other parts of the world. I think the Catholic and the multi-denominational component makes it accessible. People can read Yoder in light of the Mormon situation or the Baptist situation. And because I talk about Buddhism, I think we probably draw some Buddhist readers as well.
Two of the women I knew early on have crossed over. They were Yoder survivors from his first round of confrontations. Both had read a rough draft of the Mennonite Church-Yoder volume in the Elephants series and both had full veto powers about what I had written. Neither one exercised that right. They were very supportive. They did not want to be identified; they did not want to be quoted. So I shielded their stories in a variety of ways. But they are very present in my case study. We not only spoke on their behalf, they spoke. I’m sure they’re somewhere in that prurient list that Marlin [Miller, former president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary] kept.
SK: Did anything in Rachel’s [Waltner Goossen] account surprise you?
RK: No. I’ve integrated her factual details, because there were a few things that I dated wrong. But there was absolutely nothing that surprised me.
SK: The extent to which Marlin Miller covered things up – were you aware that he kept that much information?
RK: When I began the research for the Elephants series, I became aware of the presence of sealed documents. I could smell the fear in people when I would ask them questions. But within the framework of their fear, people told me stuff. And then somebody broke rank and told me specifically that there were hidden files at AMBS, and that there were sealed files in the archive [Mennonite Church USA archive in Goshen], and there were sealed files in Indiana-Michigan [archives of Indiana-Michigan Conference of Mennonite Church USA]. Then I knew that there were records.
The first story I heard when coming back to Indiana was in the context of having been in a department where this stuff was rampant. This stuff was rampant in the secular academy. The ’70s were the era when people joked about dissertation students being the sexual slaves of their advisers. I knew several of those casualties. So starting from when I was 30, 31, in the secular academy, I knew it was wrong. I had professional teaching – nurses take the Nightingale pledge – about not harming people. I had ethical training in my professional programs. So I knew it was wrong. But I just tended to see it in terms of womanizing. I didn’t have – certainly everybody knew rape was violent, but if a doctor was having an affair with a nurse who he supervised, nobody thought that was violent. For me, it’s been a lifelong process of adjusting and then readjusting and then readjusting how I have phrased this in my own language.
Those of us in the 1970s women’s health movement and in the 1970s anti-rape movement needed to create language because the existing language was so hostile to victims of sexual violence. In addition, there was no real awareness of what we have now come to understand as post-traumatic stress disorder. The feminist women’s health movement and the Vietnam Vet activists in the 1970s and 1980s collaborated on the basic trauma research. Now, research universities such as Harvard have mapped the trauma response and we now know the terrible damages done by sexual abuse across the human life span.
I am part of an entire generation of feminist women who the issue of sexual violence and we changed the way the surrounding culture has understood rape. We did the systemic diagnosis work, clinical advocacy work for our clients and educational or preventive work within whatever work environments we occupied. We changed it from a sexual/slut model to a violent/victimization model. We did the clinical work with wounded people and we did the political advocacy and educational work within our larger culture. I was politically active in the secular academy and I brought that history of activism with me when I re-entered the Mennonite Church academy [Goshen College].
SK: Your experience in the secular academy brings me to another question about Yoder. There were so many leftist men from the ’60s and ’70s – and I’m trying to understand my parents’ generation here—who believed in sexual revolution, but they didn’t believe in sexual revolution in a feminist sense. They believed in sexual revolution as When you have sexual revolution without feminism, you don’t have consciousness of power and coercion as worthy things to talk about when it comes to sex. Rachel’s account really solidified that for me, the association of Yoder with that kind of sexist leftism.
RK: If you go back to the first wave of American feminism, early feminists understood this connection, the issues of domination in a sexual voice. The nurse who advocated for birth control, Margaret Sanger, understood this. The social worker Jane Addams, who worked in the nation’s slums with women who had too many children to support and care for, understood this. It is important, Stephanie, to understand that we are not the first generation of women to tackle these issues of sexual violence and social oppression of women. Now, did these women do it in 1970s language? We are their beneficiaries in that they opened the doors for women in many ways. Our academic positions as fully papered women with doctoral degrees means we stand on the shoulders of entire generations of women who never had such privilege. But they spoke out in their own voice. We must honor them and we much take heart from them when we are most discouraged by the ways in which women and their children are mistreated by patriarchal societies and cultures – including the academic culture.
But pertaining to your comment about sexism and sexual revolution, what happened in my generation was that we went from to
SK: So then there’s still the question of and
RK: Yes. Of course, rape has gone on as far back in history as we know. The old scriptures tell us that. What is really new in my generation, people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, what really made a difference was that they focused on the violence of rape as opposed to sex of rape. That has been the turning point. The second thing that has been the turning point is that feminist women, very early, understood that they needed data. They needed hard, scientific data. Consequently, the Ms. Foundation has been funding places that gather data.
We’re not anywhere close to through with this. But you know, what happens in California often makes its way across the country. That’s not totally true, but certainly the sexual revolution began in California. And the law school demonstrations about freedom of speech spread across the country. The California law about is going to definitely move across the country. So college student women will be, in another 15 to 20 years, better protected than they are right now.
But women in my generation, Stephanie, we have made a major difference. I am part of an entire generation of feminist women who the issue of sexual violence, and we changed the way the our culture understands rape. We changed it from a sexual/slut model to a violent/victimization model. We did the clinical work with wounded people and we did the political advocacy and educational work within our larger culture. Both are essential for anyone seeking to know why I have done what I have done vis-à-vis the Yoder-Mennonite Church issues.
SK: One thing that’s frustrating for me in the Mennonite church – and of course the Mennonite church reflects a lot of things that are endemic in American society – is this tendency, when you get to some sort of place of progress, whether it’s the incorporation of anti-racism as a denominational principle, or at least some modest gains when it comes to sexism, there’s a tendency to want to erase the history that got you there. And behave as though, well, this is what we’ve been doing all along, we just sort of needed to get here because time was moving in this direction anyway. So let’s pat ourselves on the back and not think too hard about the people who helped do this. It’s easier to pretend that then to tell the stories of the people who had to push. We have a fundamentally dishonest approach to our own history.
RK: Yeah. Yeah. Where I immediately go there is race. Vincent Harding witnessed repeatedly to the Mennonite church about getting involved [with the civil rights movement]. Eventually, Vince got so angry that he broke his membership with the Mennonite Church. He was persona non grata at Goshen for 10 or 15 years, at least informally. I met Vince when he and Rosemarie were at Woodlawn [Mennonite Church in Chicago]. I was a college student and he was so influential in my life at that point. Then I was outside the Mennonite world totally for quite a while. The year I came back to Goshen, J.R. Burkholder brokered the end of Vince being barred from Goshen. I don’t think Vince ever re-joined the Mennonite Church, but from that night until his death, he would periodically return to Goshen to give public lectures and to consult with the faculty about issues of racism.
We made peace, but the expense was that we would never, as a community, deal with why Vince had been persona non grata on our campus.
SK: So what is the cost, then from an educational standpoint? Of not being fully honest about that history?
RK: If faculty are honest with students, then students will be honest with others. If faculty are dishonest with students, then students will be dishonest with others. This is a process of modeling desired outcomes. Juniors and seniors are more capable than most undergraduate establishments think they are.
And it is in that honest moment of saying, – that’s when the peacemaker is born. The genuine peacemaker is not the one who goes in and says, That’s not the genuine peacemaker. The genuine peacemaker goes humbly, and stumbling, and saying,
I learned more about peacemaking in 20 years of teaching at Goshen than I knew when I started. I always started with my health-care background, and I still carry my health-care background; that’s the opening premise of anything I do. How do we bring healing in this situation?
For instance, if we had gone to Yoder’s victims and said, we would be so much further along.
SK: How do you feel about what the Mennonite church is doing right now for sexual abuse survivors? Are there things that worry you about the current responses?
RK: I am highly suspicious of top-down laments and formal religious services of reconciliation. The Roman Catholic situation where bishops or cardinals lie on the floor to demonstrate the church’s remorse for its own sins have made a negligible to negative impact on victims of clergy abuse and clericalism. In some ways, these kinds of ceremonial responses reinforce the anger of victims and re-victimize many of them. They tend to replicate and reinforce the victim’s experience of being manipulated by their perpetrator. So I worry about that.
With that said, I do think that some liturgical responses can help us, when they come from victims. I’ll give you a story from Pennsylvania in the mid-’90s. I was preaching in my home congregation at one of these sexual violence conferences sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee. I preached the Friday night sermon. In that sermon, I raised the question of lament. I used the phrase from the Old Testament. Where are we willing to weep with those who have been so violated?
The next morning, a woman came in, and she was dressed totally in a burlap rag, with ashes smudged all over her face. The perfect liturgical moment. This was a victim who chose to do this, not some church telling her to do it. She and I have become very good friends in the years since then. She is one of the victims of the church. She is no longer a Mennonite, although at that moment I think she probably still was.
When I think about the power of that liturgical moment – it has to come from the victims. They have to tell us what they need, and what they know. It cannot be me saying, I haven’t a clue what a specific person needs in order to heal, not a clue! Because what George needs to heal and what Mary needs to heal and what Suzy needs to heal, they are all different.
The other fear I have is that after we publicly lament, we will say that it’s done and that we need to move on. I don’t think that we’re ready to move on. We’re not done.
SK: No, we’re not. I know from my generation that we’re not done.
RK: When we replicated psychologist’s Mary Koss’s work by using her Sexual Experiences Survey research instrument at Goshen, it was clear: Goshen College fit the studies Koss had done in colleges and universities across the United States. We had a rape problem and we had a hidden rape problem and we had a student rapist problem.
After that, I made the decision to teach rape in one of my general education classes each year. That would bring the stories right out. The quantity of affinity violence –parental incest, sibling incest, grandfather incest, the quantity of affinity rape – it just is mind-blowing. No, we’re not done. Your generation is not done.
SK: So then what do we need to push for? From your experience, what are the concrete things that Mennonite schools and campuses need to be doing that they aren’t doing, or aren’t doing well?
RK: That’s a complex question. I will mention several things. But each needs discussion and decision-making at communal levels.
First of all, we need to make it safe for victims to speak their truth in our midst. We must believe them and we must be compassionate with their dilemma about how to search for and find healing of their wounds.
Denomination-wide, we need to tackle this issue of rape on our grade school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate school campuses. I think the first place to begin is our college and university and seminary campuses. We need a thoroughgoing public conversation about rape on these campuses. I have recently suggested to MC USA and to MEA [Mennonite Education Agency] that they should initiate a blue-ribbon panel of experts and that each Mennonite campus should participate if they want church assistance in any way – be that free advertising in church papers or financial assistance.
I think this is urgent for two reasons. For one thing, rape damages a human life in ways that are devastating and long-lasting. Prevention is so much easier to do than to repair a life. And secondly, the civil damages lawsuit filed at Western Mennonite High School in Oregon tells us we have entered a new era. Mennonites will now sue negligent institutions. Spending a hal- million dollars to a million dollars now in preventative planning will save millions of dollars. None of this is rocket science. I hope readers will think about how they can urge the Mennonite church to think preventively rather than reactively.
The time is now – but this window of opportunity won’t last forever. In part this is true because it is clear that the United States federal government is getting involved in campus rape prevention. I personally think a peace church should put its principles into action before being coerced by federal and state governments to clean up this campus rape problem.
SK: I’ve been trying to help bridge the discussions about sexualized violence and LGBTQ oppression. One thing that’s become increasingly clear to me is that there seems to be an incredible motivation on the part of church leadership to keep those conversations totally separate.
RK: Of course. You know, it’s not that haven’t been active and it’s not that I haven’t protested [for LGBTQ justice], but I have not seen this connection nearly as clearly as you have seen. I’m now teaching myself what the connection is. Because until we can untangle this connection, it’s a mess. We’re not going to deal effectively with sexual violence, and we’re not going to deal effectively with full inclusion for LGBTQ people. I want to understand where the roots of this mess are.
I became aware of that connection in the year when it became quite clear to me that AMBS was protecting Yoder. This was also the year that they formally, by a vote of the board of overseers, barred gay and lesbian students from AMBS.
SK: So many people – some people are able to name more specifically the connections that they see; some people just say,
RK: That’s where I’ve been.
SK: So that’s where I start – by just naming that very fact. So many people experience connections between sexualized violence, homophobia, heterosexism. And even if people can’t articulate exactly what the connections are – perhaps especially if they can’t – they’re haunted by them.
RK: I think haunting is a good metaphor. Because what is this nonsense? A seminary can decide to expel a gay student on the basis of their relationship. At the same time, they’re engaging in a theological debate about the sexual ethic of John Howard Yoder, a man who is having oral sex with his students in chapels and classrooms. It is incomprehensible, but those occurred simultaneously. They are related.
I tend to think in stories. That’s how I tend to anchor my own thinking about this stuff, in stories. Otherwise it just eludes me.
SK: That’s interesting, because that’s why I originally gravitated towards your contributions to discussions about Yoder. It seemed like Yoderian theologians were suspicious of anything that was grounded in stories, because their epistemology took them away from stories. Particularly if those stories were coming from women. Whereas feminist epistemology is rooted in lived experience.
RK: Yes. I don’t think we make peace by solving antinomies. I’m not ignorant of philosophy, but that’s not how I do business. Many women begin theory-building with a story. Does that mean that one story can represent a million stories? Of course not. That’s a ridiculous idea in itself. But the Yoderians prefer the abstraction. Which blows my mind. Peacemaking is on the ground! You can’t do it in the abstract! If you and I are at war, we have to get down to what is the cause. That means that we have to talk. But it doesn’t mean that we have a discussion about the nature of good and evil.
SK: It also seems like a symptom of a sectarian, separatist approach to pacifism, in some ways. Because it’s a matter of keeping pacifism in the realms of theory within the bounds of a community that is safe for at least some of us, and those for whom the community isn’t safe, we don’t have to talk about. It’s the kind of thing that gets pacifists charged with irrelevance.
RK: But you know what, I think there are more people in the pews who don’t feel safe than those who do feel safe. I’m probably talking about my generation here. I know so many women who have defected in place. They go to church, but they don’t believe a damn bit of it. I don’t mean that everyone in the pews is a nonbeliever, but the quantity of Mennonite women who are silent is troubling. I think there’s more of that than we know.
And then the second thing is that the quality of the leadership means that the people are kept spiritually immature. If you are taught by televangelists and by your preachers that being gay is a sin, based on one verse in Leviticus, number one you’ve never been taught how to read scripture critically, analytically. You’ve never been taught about the trajectory of scripture. You’ve never been taught about the Jesus movement. So how would you expect the people in such churches to do anything but vote to leave their denominational conference when it isn’t anti-gay enough for them? How would you expect them to know? They have been betrayed by their church. They don’t know that. They think that a purity code means that they’re Christian. I would say that the Jesus trajectory is to reject the purity codes.
Tom Doyle said in Elkhart that the people who terrify the Roman Catholic bishops the most are spiritually mature people. Isn’t that a devastating critique? The church is about spiritual maturity, and yet you have leaders who are afraid of it.
SK: How would you define spiritual maturity?
RK: It’s anchored in integrity, and it’s anchored in being present for what is, as opposed to what should be or what should not be. It’s being aware of suffering. In some ways, the Samaritan story is the key for me. Stopping, pausing, helping. And learning to think beyond the sound-bytes of our culture, because our culture is so sound-byte-driven. It means having some principles, but understanding that sometimes our principles are grounded in bad things. Like the principle that there should be no sin in a community, that’s just a ridiculous notion. There will be sin in the community. Every one of us does it one time or another. For me, it’s pretty much grounded in the practice of gratitude for my life, and my desire to both recognize suffering for what it is, and to see if there’s anything I can do about it. It’s very simple. Not very fancy.
SK: As you’re talking, I’m thinking about conversations that you and I have had about piety. And how much we distrust it, particularly when it’s cheap. What you’re describing feels like the opposite of that. Sometimes what happens to me when I try to get involved in church conversations about LGBTQ people is that, at some point, somebody will jump in and say, Or Things like that. To me that comes across as
RK: Well, you know, if I’m really uncomfortable with what you’re saying, one of the best ways I can shut you up is to talk about Jesus, don’t you think? That’s more cynical than I should be. But Jesus gets used in really bad ways. We have two thousand years of Jesus talk to subvert. We can’t wholly rely on the text. And now I’m heretical, because I’ve called into question the accuracy of the text, and I’ve called into question the accuracy of the tradition. But the idealism of the Christian scriptures is quite clear in its trajectory. It is for the widow, the orphan, the excluded, the vulnerable, the weak, the child. That is who it is for. It is not for the powerful. But when the powerful hear that, they get uncomfortable. They subvert Jesus, and they quote Jesus against the Jesus tradition.
One thing my Roman Catholic theologian friend and colleague Bill Lindsey is doing is helping me to reclaim Jesus. As a gay man who has been excluded, he still holds to image of the church as the place where he belongs. And I have held to the position that I don’t belong. Whether I will change that in the next few years, I don’t know. But it is sobering when someone who is told that they don’t belong insists that they do belong. That opens up the whole question of hospitality. Are we welcoming when somebody whom we have excluded looks us straight in the face and says, ?
Stephanie Krehbiel is a writer living in Lawrence, Kansas, and recently completed her PhD in American Studies at the University of Kansas. Her dissertation is entitled
6.25. 2015Written By: Stephanie Krehbiel with The Mennonite staff
Stephanie Krehbiel’s dissertation focuses on the movement for LGBTQ inclusion within the Mennonite Church USA. The title of her dissertation, “Pacifist Battlegrounds,” refers both to the long fight for LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite churches and to the related ideological struggles among Mennonites over how to define violence, nonviolence, and community. Krehbiel lives in Lawrence, Kan.
1. First, can you provide a little background about yourself and your connection to Mennonites?
I grew up in North Newton, Kan., and my home church was the Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan. I lived there in the 1980s and the early-to-mid 1990s. The formation of MCUSA happened when I was in my early twenties. I am straight, but that was also the point when LGBTQ justice became a really important part of my life. I was struggling with a lot of fear and anxiety over some queer friends and family members who were suicidal. I was also in professional settings with queer mentors and colleagues.
2. You are an ethnographer. Please describe what an ethnographer is/does.
The best description of ethnography that I’ve ever heard comes from one of my mentors, who described it as “attentive hanging out.” That means spending time with the people whose lives are of interest to you, doing interviews, attending events, and keeping very good notes. I focus my scholarly attention on the people who are most vulnerable and most affected by the conditions I’m studying.
3. Violence is a major theme in your dissertation. How did that happen?
When I started this research, I didn’t know that the concept of violence was going to be so central. Then I started reading the writings of LGBTQ Anabaptists, and seeing language like “ecclesial violence,” “spiritual violence,” “institutional violence,” and “rhetorical violence.” People talked to me in interviews about battlegrounds, combat zones, and weaponry. The more of that language I encountered, the more I started to see the LGBTQ justice movement as a struggle over contested definitions of violence.
4. What can you say about coded language that Mennonites use when talking about LGBTQ inclusion?
I could go on and on about the various trends in coded language, particularly among church professionals who sometimes forget how inaccessible their language can be to laypeople. One conspicuous recent example was the Executive Board’s reference to “exacerbated polarities.” But the most obvious example of coded language, to me, is the way that a lot of Mennonites refer to the Confession of Faith. Almost every public reference that Mennonites make to that document is related to Article 19. So “following the Confession of Faith” has come to mean, essentially, “not LGBTQ-affirming.”
5. Why do Mennonites use “dialogue” and “discernment” to describe processes—particularly those referring to LGBT inclusion? Why do you believe this is damaging?
I’m not arguing that the words “dialogue” and “discernment” are necessarily damaging. They are practical words that have come into use to describe the ways that churches with horizontal forms of polity determine their priorities, apply their principles, and make decisions. The reason these words have become so charged, for LGBTQ Mennonites especially, is that the processes to which they refer have been abusive. “Dialogue” and “discernment” have come to mean “Straight people with institutional power will set the terms of this exchange, and LGBTQ people should feel grateful to be invited and to give straight people the chance to adjudicate their lives.” A lot of LGBTQ Mennonites who have participated in these discussions have ended up feeling quite violated by them, and as a scholar I take those claims seriously.
6. Chapter 3 of your dissertation addresses Phoenix 2013. Can you describe what happened with the empty chairs on the stage and provide some background?
Because Iglesia Menonita Hispana boycotted the Phoenix 2013 convention, and because they are an officially recognized constituent group within Mennonite Church USA, the stage at the delegate sessions in Phoenix had an empty chair in place, a chair meant to represent both IMH’s official absence and a recognition that they were still part of MC USA. During Pink Menno’s action on the delegate floor, one of the silent demonstrators walked up and stood in front of that stage, carrying an empty chair that they held aloft to represent the continued absence of LGBTQ representatives at the decision-making table. It was a beautiful and tragic moment. Here was the cruelty of the white, patriarchal church at work. A church that forces vulnerable, marginalized people to compete with each other for the great honor of being represented by an officially-sanctioned empty chair. I don’t know exactly how to define violence, but I know that this is violence.
7. Describe your critique and findings on the theme of Phoenix 2013, “Citizens of God’s Kingdom”?
I think the idea with that convention theme was to appropriate the idea of citizenship, to transform it spiritually, to remind people that the nation is not the entity to which they owe their ultimate allegiance. That has a Biblical precedent. However, the moment when I became uneasy about that choice of theme was when I saw the sermon that Ervin Stutzman gave in Phoenix. Here we were in Arizona, a place where undocumented Mennonites could not visit without risking their very lives, and the executive director of MC USA gave a sermon in which he spoke about how entering the kingdom of God is like going through airport security. How placing your luggage and shoes onto the conveyor belt is like surrendering your earthly possessions to God; how raising your hands above your head for the full-body X-ray is like coming to Jesus. Essentially, he used airport security as a metaphor for a moment when everybody is equal before God.
But for a lot of people, airport security is dangerous. Airport security demands that you demonstrate your social legitimacy. The further your body is from the dominant norms of U.S. citizenship, generally speaking, the more vulnerable you are as you pass through TSA surveillance. Black people with natural hair put up with having their hair intrusively touched. Gender non-conforming people get invasive questions and harassment from TSA officials. The X-rays and pat-downs can be upsetting for people whose bodies have been violated before. And, of course, Sikh and Muslim people who wear visible markers of their faith have to deal with everyone’s suspicion. It’s not an equalizing process at all. But if you pass through airport security with ease, none of that has to be visible to you. And you can continue to move through the world imagining that everyone shares that sense of belonging that you are allowed to feel. That privileged obliviousness is part of the problem.
And that, in a nutshell, is the pitfall of citizenship as a spiritually inclusive metaphor. Citizenship is a construct that masquerades as inclusive while simultaneously defining itself against strangers, others, aliens. So was citizenship the wrong metaphor for MCUSA to use in Phoenix? Or was it inadvertently, disturbingly accurate in its representation of the actual politics of the denomination?
8. Talk about what you learned—and are continuing to learn—about the complexities of Latino Mennonites and LGBT inclusion?
In American political discourse there’s this tortuous, dehumanizing dichotomy at work whereby the “good Latinos” are upstanding representatives of conservative family values and the “bad Latinos” are those who can be portrayed as culturally degenerate in one way or another—usually through associations with drugs, sex, and criminality. I think this larger context is very relevant to the complexities that you refer to in your question. Racism in the United States is dependent on the idea of people of color as sexually suspect. Is it any wonder that the appearance of heterosexual, conservative respectability within communities of color is such a powerful form of political currency for combating racism?
9. Why is it advantageous for certain white Mennonites to “make concerned pronouncements about LGBTQ activism on the supposed behalf of people of color?” What did you learn about this?
That it’s complicated. I think white people making these statements are often doing their best to represent the people of color they know and talk to. I’m also a white person making concerned statements on behalf of people of color, and I know I’m not immune to messing up, either. It’s dangerously easy to politically objectify marginalized people when we’re trying to be good advocates from positions of privilege.
But here’s why I had to write about that: I read almost every Mennonite publication I could get my hands on, and started seeing an undeniable trend of white men with institutional authority talking about how troubling it was that LGBTQ people were using civil rights language, or expressing concern about how Pink Menno was driving away Mennonites of color, or implying that LGBTQ activism was a misappropriation of the Mennonite peacemaking tradition, which was better directed towards anti-racist work. And there was often a kind of gloating undercurrent.
On a similar note, I read a review that John Roth wrote last November, of Felipe Hinojosa’s excellent book on the history of Latino Mennonites. In that review, Roth wrote that Latino Mennonites and white progressive Mennonite were “natural allies,” up until white progressives alienated Latinos by taking up the cause of LGBTQ justice. When I read that, I thought, did we read the same book? Because most of the people Hinojosa wrote about left the Mennonite church before the debates about gay and lesbian members had even really begun, and part of why they left was because they simply could not convince white Mennonites to extend beyond their own self-serving and paternalistic frameworks for understanding social justice and anti-racist activism. When I asked Felipe about that review, he told me, “To assume that ‘natural alliances’ have today been disrupted only serves to romanticize the struggles that Latina/o Mennonites and other people of color have had in the Mennonite Church, especially with white progressives.” Anti-LGBTQ politics have become a smokescreen for white ignorance about the details of the Mennonite church’s racist legacy.
People of color are no more monolithic in the way they approach sexual and gender diversity than white people are. And people of color are no more likely to be straight than white people are. These are the truths that are constantly being lost in this din of divide-and-conquer politics.
10. You conclude with some of your worries concerning the LGBTQ movement in MC USA. Share a little about that here.
I see younger LGBTQ people having their goodwill and patience exploited by the church. And I see older LGBTQ people being dismissed as bitter, because they’ve been around long enough to know that they can’t trust church leaders or church processes. And so I guess that’s my message to LGBTQ young people: you don’t owe this church your patience. Surround yourself with people who are equipped to tell you when your patience is being abused. Church leaders may mean well, but they will sacrifice you for what they believe to be the preservation of their institutions, and you deserve better. I don’t necessarily want to be right here, but that’s what Mennonite history has shown us, too many times to count. And to the older LGBTQ folks, I say, Call me. I want to hear what you have to say, and I don’t mind if you’re bitter.