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Q&A: Krehbiel on the LGBTQ inclusion movement in MC USA

6.25. 2015 Written By: Stephanie Krehbiel with The Mennonite staff 5,540 Times read

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.

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12 Responses to “Q&A: Krehbiel on the LGBTQ inclusion movement in MC USA”

  1. Berry Friesen says:

    Social/political advocacy attempts to shift the frame of “reasonable” public discourse toward inclusion of its advocacy goals. This entails many tactical judgments about language. Stephanie, your frequent use of “violence” to describe traditional Mennonite morality and your effort to delegitimize documents and vocabulary that reflect consensus Mennonite positions are examples of tactics you have chosen. But of course, there are other tactics that push the discourse along a different path and may be more effective within a community like ours that has a long history of resisting the social and political conventions of the majority; the hymn-singing of Pink Mennos is one example.

    I’ve been engaged in social/political advocacy for much of the past 36 years. Part of what I’ve learned is that an advocate loses nearly all of the arguments, but that the frame of reasonable discourse can be shifted over the decades. When one’s own identity is bound up in one’s advocacy, it’s especially difficult to maintain emotional equilibrium and practice the right kind of patience (as you note); a certain kind of fierce self-protection is required. So you are wise to encourage a steely realism among advocates so that the passion (including anger) that lights the lamp lasts until morning.

    • Luke Miller says:

      Berry, I’m not really sure what your point was about Stephanie’s use of the word violence in reference to the experience of LGBTQ people in (and at the hands of) the Mennonite church. As she points out in this interview, this language did not originate with her; it is the language of many LGBTQ people (myself certainly included) that she approached with curiosity and performed a deep analysis using the tools of her discipline. The palatability of this language to those said to be perpetrating the violence doesn’t enter into her concern. If she can be said to have any “tactic” as an advocate, it is simply to faithfully use the tools of ethnography to speak truths as she finds them.

      • Berry Friesen says:

        Luke, as ethnographer Stephanie is part of an advocacy effort and frequently speaks as an advocate, I meant to draw attention to the tactical choices she makes vis-a-vis the targeted group. I take your point that she draws on voices that speak out of their own experiences, but that is generally true of advocacy.

        • Peter Epp says:

          One would have to know more about Krehbiel’s chosen methodology, which I bet she outlines in her dissertation itself, to know whether or not she “speaks truth as she finds them.” If her methodology claims to do so, she would definitely be taking an approach that is increasingly out of fashion among qualitative researchers. Most qualitative researchers today would see what they produce as a construction of “truths” created by themselves and the group they’ve studied, thereby openly embracing the fact that they are incapable of objectively representing exactly what is there among their subjects. Rather, they are always filtering what they find through their own experiences, goals, and preferences.

          This doesn’t mean she’s wrong; it just means that I bet she would acknowledge that, to some degree, the emphasis on violence was both something she heard repeatedly AND something she participated in choosing and developing as an emphasis.

          In that way, I think you’re both right in that:
          1) We cannot easily discount her emphasis on violence, since, if she is a trustworthy ethnographer (and I trust she is), this is an accurate account of what she noticed as particularly potent among those she spent time with and in herself as she spent time with them, and
          2) Her final product must be recognized as influenced by her own choices, as she would likely acknowledge this herself, which means that the emphases she chose are open for critique, especially as they pertain to her goals. If her goal is advocacy, as she seems to indicate in this interview, then one is certainly welcome to ask if the emphases she chose to focus on will make her a more or less successful advocate.

          In other words, we would do well to take her insights VERY seriously, but we should all also be welcome to continue to ask what methods will be the most helpful in addressing it.

  2. Kudos for the effort to deconstruct institutional language and gobbledygook.

  3. Thank you to The Mennonite for publishing a much broader range of thought than it did even just a year or two ago, reflecting better the scope and diversity of thought and practice in the membership. And thank you, Stephanie, for your articulate study.

    Whatever the discussions going forward, whatever the actions in Kansas City, at root, this conversation is finished. The language of the confession has been guarded, held up and waved as a thin valence to make believe that the vast sweep of change to inclusion does not exist. The valence is threadbare and worn through. Time for those who have born the burden of this refusal of seeing, this willed and willful blindness, to rest and to heal, to claim the balm of Gilead and to walk forward, to discard the rag that has been cast over them these many generations.

  4. Karl Shelly says:

    Thanks to the Mennonite for providing us with fascinating, thought-provoking voices like this. It’s refreshing!

  5. Thank you Anna for doing this interview with Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel. Her words might taste like bitter medicine but I believe her voice and those of others in her generation are calling us toward a more compassionate and authentic life in Christ. She continues to teach me.

  6. Kevin says:

    She ascribes violence to language and terminology; yet interestingly, in the Gospels Jesus often addressed people; pharisees and his disciples included in language that was quite harsh. So someone feeling hurt or “victimized” by critical or even harsh language does not mean that language is inappropriate or untrue.

  7. Andrew says:

    I have to take issue with one statement made here, that “people of color are no more monolithic in the way they approach” these issues. Actually, they are, at least if you are talking about Hispanic Christians. There is almost no disagreement within the Iglesia Menonita Hispana about the Bible’s view of homosexuality or whether the church should bless same-sex relationships, ordain gay pastors, etc. And if you actually go to Latin America (or Africa), where I worked for years, the “monolithicness” is even more stark. In Latin American churches this is not even an issue, the sinfulness of homosexuality is taken as a given, the Biblical passages on the matter are taken at face value.

    Just as you don’t want “white men” to speak on behalf of people of color to support their positions, don’t distort reality by saying that Hispanic Mennonites are just as divided on this issue as “white” Mennonites. They are not. And that is a reality that progressives wishing to “honor” both LGTBQ voices and “non-white” voices need to deal with.

  8. Frank Lostaunau says:

    I sure hope ‘n pray that the folks that dislike LBGTQ Mennonites don’t OD on porkchops ‘n raisins…just sayin…

  9. Lynn Miller says:

    Stephanie, you said, “’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.”
    No matter who is responsible for making institutional decisions–when the institution is a church–those decision makers have a duty to ensure the statement of faith lines up with the Word of God. If LGBTQ Mennonites feel violated by the Word of God, then they can join the crowd of all people who chose to live in rebellion against God. No one likes to be told they are sinning, yet we all sin. If we care about finding peace with God and want to please him and know him better, then we must align ourselves with his will and his way. The LGBTQ community does not have the corner on difficulties to overcome. I believe it is harmful to all involved to take the stance of the world and ignore God’s clear words.
    I have great empathy for all of us on this journey, but I am shocked to see how the MC USA is addressing this issue. Don’t think that you can help anyone by saying, “It’s OK. God didn’t really mean what he said.” That is something that should cause fear and anxiety.

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