Friday, May 29, 2015

Critically Important to Analyzing Duggar Story: Stephanie Krehbiel and Ruth Krall Discussing Issues of Sexual Violence (and Cover-Up) in Churches

In the latest issue of Mennonite Life (issue 2015, vol. 69) (online here), Stephanie Krehbiel interviews Ruth Krall on the topic "Breaking Open the Structure of Sexual Violence." As she notes, Ruth's magisterial book The Elephants in God's Living Room, which Ruth published at her Enduring Space blog, has done a tremendous amount to publicize the sexual violence practiced by the noted Mennonite 20th-century theologian John Howard Yoder. Perhaps more than any other Mennonite scholar, Ruth has been responsible for organizing Mennonite women to force the male-dominated leadership structure of their church to face the Yoder story and do something about it.

Here's Stephanie's testimony about the importance of Ruth's book in her own journey as a Mennonite woman and scholar:

That volume [i.e., Elephants in God's Living Room], 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.

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: as you can see, Ruth's analysis ties right into the conversation about the Duggar story, and, in particular, the analysis of Diary of an Autodidact about which I just posted, which argues that "few churches are really safe places for victims."

Ruth's response to Stephanie on this point:

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.

To which Stephanie responds, putting her finger on a serious problem within many churches and the academies they sponsor, which accounts for the inability to surface conversations about male sexual violence towards women:

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 marriage is constraining and we should have access to more avenues towards sexual pleasure. 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.

Until feminist thinkers began to push and push hard against the refusal of men running various churches and the institutions those churches sponsor to talk about issues of sexual violence involving church leaders, no conversation took place. The men running things simply ignored the women calling them to accountability, and/or pretended that they were a disaffected minority with some ax to grind. And in the last generation or two of the academy, these churchmen were often liberal men who were gung-ho about the sexual revolution — as long as that revolution served the needs and interests of straight men.

The work of scholars like Ruth Krall and Stephanie Krehbiel in the Mennonite church and any number of similar women in other churches has opened an important space for a much-needed conversation about these issues in churches and the academies they sponsor. What has been learned in this conversation has the most direct possible on the Duggar story — though I wouldn't count on the people supporting the Duggars to be interested in learning about these conversations and how sexual violence against women is rooted in the behavior and ideology of many religious communities.

For a previous discussion here of Stephanie Krehbiel's work, see here. For discussions of Ruth Krall's work here, click on her name in the tags below this posting.

The photo is from a blog of Mennonite women discussing issues of sexual violence in churches, Our Stories Untold, where it's used to illustrate Ruth Krall's work.

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