Photo: John Paul Lederach receives the Niwano Peace Prize. Photo (c) Niwano Peace Foundation. Mennonite peacebuilder John Paul Lederach received the Niwano Peace Prize on […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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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