Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stephanie Krehbiel on Violence, Community, and Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church: Parallels to Catholic Conversations — Or, Why LGBT Folks Remain the Problem Even As Straight Men Engage in Sexual Predation

I've mentioned the work of Mennonite American Studies scholar Stephanie Krehbiel here in the past — for instance, in this February 2014 posting highlighting an article she published at Religion Dispatches on the parallels between "the Woody Allen problem" and the story of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. As she notes, in the stories of both of these men, we encounter troubling questions about the ability of not merely conservative social and ecclesial structures, but also liberal ones, to shelter and offer excuses for the predatory sexual behavior of powerful men.

One of the questions driving Krehbiel's work is the question of how and why various institutions — notably, her church of origin, the Mennonite Church USA — can for so long shield such men while resisting accountability and transparency, especially as the victims of their sexual abuse come forward with their stories. As I noted in the February 2014 posting linked above, part of the answer to this puzzle, Stephanie suggests, is that "theology is a male-dominated field with a long history of covering, enabling, and trivializing sexualized violence."

But in Yoder's case, there's the added fillip, the grand irony, of his world-renowned witness to the Mennonite value of non-violence — a witness he was offering at the same time that he was sexually coercing female students and women under his pastoral guidance. In her article about Allen and Yoder, Krehbiel writes,

As a powerful male leader operating in a patriarchal religious academia, Yoder was anything but atypical as a sexual predator. His pacifism makes for some interesting irony, but there's always been something oddly masculinist about the way Mennonites teach nonviolence. Mennonite pacifist discourse evolved as a response to the dominant ideal of warrior masculinity, a way for men to justify not going to war; it has never been as fully formed or as celebrated for its challenge to interpersonal violence.

I returned to Krehbiel's work this past May when she published an interview with Mennonite theologian (and a mentor of Stephanie) Ruth Krall in the journal Mennonite Life. As I noted in that posting, Stephanie notes the importance of Ruth's work, in her ground-breaking book Elephants in God's Living Room, in forcing the leaders of the Mennonite Church to recognize that the Yoder story speaks to "a symptom of a systemic problem [in churches], enabled by negligent institutions and a religious culture that elevated male leaders and devalued the lives of sexual abuse victims."

And again the irony, underscored by Stephanie in this interview with Ruth as follows:

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.

I'd like to return to Stephanie Krehbiel's important work again today, because I have recently finished reading her Ph.D. dissertation "Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA," which Stephanie defended at University of Kansas this past April. Stephanie generously shared the dissertation with me (she's sharing it with scholars interested in her work who contact her, since it has not yet been published, though she's working on a number of articles based on the dissertation and also looking for a publisher — and I predict she'll find one, since her dissertation is superb).

Several things draw me to the work of Stephanie Krehbiel and Ruth Krall: there's, first of all, the fact that they stand within a tradition that is oddly close to the Catholic tradition in its approach to issues of gender and sexuality, though the Catholic and Anabaptist streams of Christianity have been strongly inimical to each other from the period of the Reformation forward. Both are churches with what might be called a split personality: both place a strong emphasis on Christian discipleship that manifests itself in acts of social concern which aim at building more just and inclusive societies. And, yet, in the area of sexual ethics, both tend to a patriarchal heterosexism that places men on too and women below them, and finds serious difficulty in acknowledging and including LGBT people.

So some of the to-the-roots questions with which queer-inclusive feminist activists like Stephanie and Ruth struggle in the Mennonite context are questions with which I and others like me struggle in the Catholic context — questions like the following:

Why are the same religious structures that are resistant to including and empowering women and their viewpoints also resistant to including gay folks and their viewpoints? What does this resistance say to us about those structures and what really makes them tick? 
In the case of churches, theological academies, etc., what does it say about how the gender (male) and sexual orientation (heterosexual, or, frequently in the Catholic context, presumably so) of those running the church show has been normalized, presented to the rest of us as the unquestionable norm by which the rest of us should judge our own lives? What does it say to us about how the God these show-runners present to us is themselves dressed up in deific garb?  

One of the fascinating answers Stephanie's dissertation offers to these questions is her insight that churches — perhaps particularly those with a veneer of inclusiveness, churches that profess to value justice for all — often engage in what might be called "process violence" as they deal with queer members or women coming forth to report rape by ministers. On the surface, the questions or demands of both groups are met with professions of concern on the part of the institution's leaders: yes, we'll dialogue with you.*

We'll create committees to hear and weigh your concerns. We'll build some "listening sessions" that enable people to hear your voices. 

But, in the final analysis, these processes seldom move anywhere constructive, and certainly not in a direction that challenges or threatens the structures of the male-dominated heterosexist institution offering these panaceas to its marginalized members. In the final analysis, Stephanie argues, the processes themselves treat such church members as the tokenized, less than human game pieces being moved around a playing board that has nothing really to do with them, but everything to do with battles about the identity and future of the church being fought with these human lives as objects.

Stephanie writes, 

In structured conversations, denominational conventions, committee meetings, Sunday school circles, and many other less formal settings, queer people have been discussed; they are a concern; they have been the subjects of dialogue and discernment. They have, on numerous occasions, been asked to share their stories. My italics are not meant to signify complete cynicism as to the results of such processes (though cynicism may be warranted), but rather to highlight the degree to which the terms of these processes constitute queer Mennonites as an unsolvable problem. Thus, I echo W.E.B. Dubois in posing this question: how does it feel to be an unsolvable problem? For queer Mennonites, what material and affective experiences result from being constituted in this way? (p. 27) 


In the discourse of careful moderation employed by process brokers, denominational unity has come to operate in an ethical dialectic with LGBTQ inclusion, the former ever posited as impossible to sustain should the latter come to fruition. For a church that cannot decide whether or not to stay together, the sad harmed queer functions as a convenient generative tool. The processes by which this figure is made into spectacle are a reliable well of pain, ensuring a never-ending supply of vulnerable queer bodies. At the same time, the processes themselves produce a sense of satisfaction, that all have been heard, that the right thing has been done for the moment. As a discursive figure, the sad harmed queer helps to maintain a holding pattern that looks, from some angles, like peace. The figure’s pain is an appeasement to liberals who want recognition of past and ongoing wrongs, while its seemingly irredeemable brokenness can assuage conservative fantasies of rescuing the sexual sinner. 
In fact, for the past forty years, willingly or unwillingly, people who embody non- normative sexuality and gender have been made into symbols for Mennonites' most intractable disagreements about how to be in community with one another . . . Mennonites are much like other U.S. Christians in their decades-long tendency to use queer bodies and queer sexuality as a means through which to articulate political, spiritual, and organizational identities (pp. 33-4).** 

And so LGBT church members find themselves used as the "divisive issue" par excellence about which we have to agree to disagree, since to do otherwise would tear the church apart (p. 35). They find themselves used as the "distracting issue" that fritters away time and energy as the church seeks to focus its concern on real issues of real social justice, like poverty, the environment, peace-making (pp. 47-8). But in both frameworks, they retain their great utility as objects for church leaders who are, when all is said and done, fighting not over the issue of homosexuality but over questions of organizational identity: what kind of church do we intend to be in the 21st century and who will lead it (ibid.)?

As these intraecclesial discussions, dialogues, listening sessions, discernment sessions, committee meetings, and deliberations play out over queer bodies and queer lives, queer church members asking to be included in the conversations defining their identities are "consistently marginalized within the context of these discussions, and speaking on their own behalf often made them targets for verbal abuse" (p. 50). When they do speak forcefully and in a public, political way, as they have done in the Mennonite context through the group Pink Menno (whose history Stephanie's dissertation traces), they're likely to be met by church with leaders as calls for "civility" that "ultimately reinscribe white male power again and again" as normative for the "civil" community that is the church (p. 61).

The church is civil when straight white males are in charge of its conversations, dialogues, listening sessions, etc. It becomes uncivil when those being discussed as the other, the elephant in the room, open their mouths to speak. It aims at a mythical "third way" that will enable it to continue objectifying its queer members, while professing to be all about peace and justice (p. 63)

And so what does all this scintillating, critically important analysis of how the Mennonite Church USA has met the demands of its LGBT members to be fully included and treated as fully human have to do with John Howard Yoder and his years of sexually abusing female students and women he was guiding pastorally? In Stephanie's view, as someone actively involved in both conversations in the Mennonite church (in the case of Pink Menno, as a straight, heterosexually married ally), the two have everything in the world to do with each other. As she argues,

In July 2014, I wrote a blog post for the Pink Menno website, entitled "Naming Violation: Sexualized Violence and LGBTQ Justice," with the following paragraph:  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 (pp. 134-5).

And as she also maintains,

In many ways haunting is how I account for that which I do not yet understand. And yet, I understand this much about sexualized violence and LGBTQ exclusion in Mennonite contexts: they are both bound up in and around the processes through which Mennonites try to make peace. Both sexualized violence survivors and queer people (which are not mutually exclusive groups) within Mennonite contexts are frequent casualties of Mennonite peace-making process (p. 136).

The very same religious community, the peace-and-justice-oriented Mennonite Church USA, which finds queer folks the unsolvable problem, the "challenge" that cannot ever be resolved because the church will be split if it's resolved — the very same peace-and-justice-oriented religious community that has made LGBT people the carriers of what is diseased and violent within the "civil" community that is the church — has also protected men, heterosexual or presumably heterosexual men, abusing women. Even while it claims that the real problem, the real threat to the integrity of the church's witness in the 21st century and to the moral tradition on which that witness stands, is queer folks . . . .

If this sounds familiar to any of you readers who have followed Catholic discussions about gay people and the abuse crisis in the past two decades, then you're absolutely correct to detect very strong parallels here. As Ruth Krall, who has also been involved in both of these conversations in the Mennonite Church, as well as in conversations about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, notes,

It is quite clear to me that the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy and the Mennonite Church's hierarchy have both used twentieth-century debates about homosexuality as a diversionary tactic in their efforts to manage, hide and evade institutional transparency in situations of clergy sexual misconduct and acts of sexual violence ("Anywhere But Here," as cited, p. 177)

As I noted several weeks ago (and here), when John Howard Yoder found himself persona non grata at Goshen Biblical Seminary as his sexually predatory activities came to light, the Catholic university of Notre Dame — Notre Dame with its liberal theology department — snapped Yoder up and gave him a scholarly home for the rest of his career. This occurred right at the same time that the grand chill introduced into the world of Catholic theology departments by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger was making life a living hell for gay people seeking to enter those departments or survive in them — a purge of gay theologians in no way resisted by "liberal" Catholic theologians at the time. And as the two postings to which I've just pointed note, there's compelling evidence that Notre Dame — including leading figures in its liberal theology department — knew full well the score about Yoder's abuse of female students at Goshen when Notre Dame hired him. And there's also compelling evidence that the sexual predation continued at Notre Dame.

There are links here, links between institutions that make the experience of heterosexual males a norm by which the experience of all other church members is to be judged, and that protect sexual predators while accusing LGBT people of being the serious problem to be confronted by the institution, as it holds fast to its traditional sexual moral teachings. There are significant links between how the Mennonite Church USA and the Catholic church, which are in so many respects polar opposites otherwise, have chosen to deal with these issues.

The playing of women's and gay issues against "real" social justice issues like poverty by white male Catholic "liberals" continues to be on full display in Catholic conversations — as recently as yesterday, in Michael Sean Winters's ugly broadside attack against the recent Chicago Theological Seminary conference "Women in the Catholic Church: What Francis Needs to Know." As if the treatment of women and LGBT people within the Catholic church is not in and of itself a justice issue, and as if the refusal to treat women and LGBT folks as fully human does not radically undermine everything else the Catholic church wants to say about those other real issues of poverty and socioeconomic justice . . . . And as if poverty at a global level does not wear a woman's face, and as if women and the children they raise are not, in many societies, mired in intractable poverty precisely because of the opposition of Catholic leaders to women's autonomy, control over their sexual lives, access to contraception, education, etc. . . . 

It is perhaps not in the least accidental that "liberal" Mennonite leaders and "liberal" Catholic journalists like Michael Sean Winters can sound precisely like Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta when President Obama challenged him to recognize that LGBT rights are real rights, and the refusal to treat LGBT people with human dignity undermines the rights of everyone in a society that goes down this path: just as the "liberal" Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters does in his broadside attack on the recent Chicago conference on women in the Catholic church, Kenyatta replied to Mr. Obama that gay rights are a "non-issue"; Kenyans are concerned about the real issues of social and economic justice.

Though the "non-issue" of rights for homosexual people in Kenya is oddly represented by draconian laws that criminalze homosexuality and place openly gay people in prison in Kenya . . . . 

Obviously, much work remains to be done in this area of "conversations" about LGBT people and women, in the Mennonite church, the Catholic church, and other churches. Especially when the "liberal" thinkers of these churches are often every bit as resistant to the full inclusion of women and LGBT folks in the lives of their churches as are the conservative wings of these churches . . . . As that work continues, I find it fascinating to see how much Catholic folks involved in such conversations stand to learn from the work of Mennonite activists like Stephanie Krehbiel and Ruth Krall.

* On the concept of "process violence" and its roots in the work of Carol Wise, see Stephanie Krehbiel's comment following this posting.

** On the "sad harmed queer" and the source for this phrase in the work of Jennifer Yoder, see Stephanie Krehbiel's comment following this posting.

The photo of Stephanie Krehbiel is from Mennonite.org.

No comments: