Being Unreasonable: Culture, Abuse and Support

Others have said it before and better and for some time I have indeed believed or understood those who have it said before. However, it seems that I am only coming to feel or, not really to feel, but to have those beliefs rub against, agitate, a deeper formation in me that, it seems, has remain largely undisturbed.

Almost by definition a culture (perhaps this is not the right word, we may be talking about a world here) can only convict and condemn that which is not culture, uncultured. While we might talk about a culture of violence or abuse this designation proves the point of what tends to be signified when we talk about culture in itself. To be cultured is to be good. This remains the track record of black, indigenous, poor, mentally ill and other populations. These groups and individuals (not to fully equate them) are often defined apart from, are deviant from culture. What I am coming to more deeply understand is how this relates to questions of abuse.

When abuse is perpetrated by people who already occupy an uncultured position then the conviction of abuse tends to be easier. However when an individual occupies enough of a cultured position then allegations of abuse tend not to stick. This is logical. Explicitly, our culture denounces and condemns abuse (the term itself of course remains contested). Culture condemns abuse. Therefore if a cultured environment cannot readily identify an experience or event as abusive and yet an individual emerges with an accusation of abuse then that individual is not only accusing an individual but is also accusing a culture.

That is, if a person is cultured and has not themselves admitted or confessed to abuse then the culture itself has little resources to convict one of its own. Culture has no inherent capacity for siding with those making accusations of abuse against a cultured person. An accusation against such a person is an accusation against the culture. I have not fully appreciated this reality because I also have been intimately and fundamental formed in contexts that have explicitly normalized, enculturated actions and individuals that are abusive. I was brought up in a logic that dismissed and rejected the disruption of accusation. This is not as easy to dismantle and discard as I once thought.

If the connection between culture and cultured (or the in the church you can substitute the words ‘faithful’ or ‘righteous’ here) individuals is true then accusations of abuse may be by definition unreasonable. As I have begun wading into my own experience of those speaking out about their abuse I can testify as to how quickly and easily rationalizations emerge. I remain a deeply cultured person. Within this logic there is always a reasonable explanation for what happened that softens (at the least) or can fully discredit the accuser’s claims.

I suspect that the working assumption in dominant culture is that real abuse will be self-evident, that a clear outlining of the ‘facts’ will render a verdict irrefutable. Perhaps we can accept that ‘good’ and cultured people do from time to time abuse and then deny it to protect themselves but surely we as a civilized culture will be able to discern these matters clearly. But if we listen to advocates of abused individuals we will hear the refrain that our culture and courts create an environment that benefits and protects abusers. We may agree that such injustices occur but have we interrogated our own enmeshment with a culture that by definition exists to protect its own? What follows are observations that I have read before but now they come more as confessions of my own enmeshment and as validation for those who needed to break this ground pioneering outposts rejected by culture.

  1. There will always be a reasonable explanation to deny or minimize abuse allegations. The accused would never do such a thing. The account is exaggerated. The accuser has ulterior motives. The accuser is not well. There was a misunderstanding. I knew these things but when in closer proximity to such accounts I was astonished at how quickly and how naturally these responses came. Do not underestimate this.
  2. You will probably never get the ‘victim’ you want. We likely have an image of a victim we want to help save (and it should be noted that image was likely produced by our culture). It may feel easier to support a victim who seems victimized and needs our protection from an easily identifiable predator. Perhaps it is someone unsure needing our confirmation. This image may well fit some situations but there is also a good chance that you will encounter a victim who is also, by personality or circumstance, a bit of a jerk; or, if not a jerk tends towards hyperbole in expression or uses ‘inappropriate’ language or characterizations. The accuser may be exceedingly angry or disarmingly confident. And unless you have a lot of experience in this area most accusers, in whatever form they express themselves, may well seem unreasonable. Be prepared for this.
  3. To side with an accuser is to take a risk. To side with someone who has experienced abuse is to leave your investment in power and your cultural protection. You won’t know the facts first hand and you may never feel like you know ‘the truth’ or that some lingering doubts remain. This is the risk. Reason, reasonableness is culture’s terrain of safety. To side with someone making accusations of abuse is almost by definition to be unreasonable. Culture tells us that abuse is in fact unacceptable and so the fact that someone needs to make accusations is to already make an accusation against the culture. To accuse the culture of at the very least being inadequate. This is a risk, understand that.
  4. If you are like me you will make mistakes. Your formation, despite your best intentions, will work against you. Expect this. Apologize when you have actually seen the error but don’t make the apology about you. My sense is that there will be times when you just need to get out of the way if you are no longer the person to be trusted.

These are expressions, articulations that I have read often enough but slowly I am trying to articulate them from my own experience, particularly as my own formation is working against my attempts to be consistently supportive. This is not as easy and not as clear as I thought. For those of us who have fit well enough in our culture there tends to be little reason to articulate the negative conditions and forces of that environment because to do so means questioning an authority that has protected us and perhaps being criticized for biting the hand that feeds us. Rearrange your humility and your defensiveness so that it might better serve those vulnerable to our culture. It is unreasonable to consistently walk with those making accusations of abuse. Learn to be unreasonable and keep walking.

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Weathering a violent world; Or, Law is what pleases the king

[The following was preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg Sunday, January 22, 2017.]

Esther 1:1-12

The Book of Esther is a story of weathering a violent world. In the coming weeks we will be focusing on various women in the Bible. We did not have a clear agenda for this series and I wasn’t particularly intentional about beginning with the book of Esther but it is as good as any to begin to think about women in the Bible as well as the experience of women in history and the present. As too many have experienced and as many of us learn too late the experience of women can indeed be that of weathering a violent world.

Continue reading “Weathering a violent world; Or, Law is what pleases the king”

Just let him finish; Or, you cannot serve both process and advocacy

“No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact.” – bell hooks

“I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, we have been fair, good, and kind people.” – Carol Wise, Executive Director, Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests [1]

“Just let him finish.” – Patriarchy

“Institutional process is not advocacy.” – Me, thinking about church

Last week I interrupted two men speaking from the floor at a meeting of Mennonite Church Manitoba. The meeting was meant to understand what it means for congregations with differing understandings of marriage and human sexuality to continue to be in fellowship with each other as an area church. It was explicitly stated that this was NOT a meeting to debate any particular issue within that diversity but to imagine what life as a larger denomination can look like going forward.

Most of the meeting, I think, was on topic. Towards the end of the meeting things began taking a turn. One man got up and spoke about the recent edition of National Geographic that explored our changing understanding of gender and how we needed science to help us in the church. This may be true but it was already outside the parameters of the conversations. I wish some comment of clarification would have already been made at that point. What happened after that was that I interrupted two speakers in the middle of their comments. The first speaker equated this change, the intentional creation of space for differences on marriage, with changing the Word of God. To create space for same sex marriages was to deviate from the eternal Word of God. I interrupted by calling on the speaker to try and maintain the parameters of the conversation I was told, ‘Just let him finish’. He did.

Then another man got up and began to speculate on behalf of queer Mennonites wondering if perhaps gays and lesbians are leaving the church because they are convicted by the Holy Spirit. Then he asked us to consider this from a ‘spiritual warfare perspective’ that perhaps all the trouble going on in Mennonite Church Canada can be attributed to Satan using gays and lesbians . . . I interrupted again. I don’t even know what I said. The man did not finish. He left the building immediately. The meeting ended shortly afterwards. I have been reflecting on my actions and the events since. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

I realize now that my actions last week are directly related to my experience in Saskatoon this past summer during the national gathering of Mennonite Church Canada. During the floor discussion in Saskatoon there was a point when a man got up and over several minutes went over the biblical and theological laundry lists of why homosexuals will be damned to hell. Here again, our moderator and our delegate body were content to ‘just let him finish’.

Later that evening I was one of the General Board representatives that met with a group simply called ‘Family and Friends’. This is a support group for LGBTQ Mennonites as well as family and friends. That this group has such an ambiguous existence among the formal gatherings of MC Canada already speaks volumes. During that time people shared their hurt and anger over the leadership’s inability to recognize the inappropriate and harmful actions from the man speaking from the floor. They looked at me as a General Board member to be accountable for such an action. That experience led me to understand that unless ‘church process’ is directly accountable to the experience of and advocacy for the most vulnerable then one will need to choose. There are times when you cannot serve both process and advocacy.

Trying to understand my experience during summer I found a short entry in my notebook from summer in which I confessed that I felt I needed “to let him say his piece.” And I apologized for not having “the immediate presence of mind to name such language as both hateful and heretical. . . . [And] that whatever diversity we express going forward it cannot tolerate expressions of faith that expose LGBTQ believers as condemned.” Even though I forgot these exact words I can see how my actions last week grew out of them.

If we can accept that patriarchy continues to be a negative influence for our church then we need to learn how to NOT ‘let him finish’. This is hard. We, men, are used to getting to finish even if after the fact we might acknowledge that it was not the best thing. I am not putting this on the moderator of the meeting, this has been the practice of the church myself included.

With regards to regional or national leadership I don’t think there needs to be a choice between process and advocacy. In summer in Saskatoon I spoke with two church leaders about this, one from MC Canada the other MC USA. Both acknowledged that there is a difference between the role of prophet and priest but one said that he viewed his role as trying to protect the prophet so that places and opportunities can be given for her voice even though he recognizes that he cannot occupy that place. The other leader said that we need to be careful over interest groups and that good process keeps the ‘lynch mob’ at bay. There is a marked difference here (even though the former is still problematic). And that one leader can equate advocacy for LGBTQ Mennonites as a potential ‘lynch mob’ is unnerving to say the least.

With regards to individual actions that interrupt, protest, or resist larger church processes we need to be prepared to be criticized. This should go without saying but I was surprised by the type of criticism I received after my actions at the meeting. Two criticisms came from older ‘tolerant’ men accusing me of arrogance and narcissism for acting in the way I did. This reminded me of Stephanie Krehbiel’s research on LGBTQ advocacy in the Mennonite church where she states that, “Because Mennonites are theologically wedded to the notion of ‘community’ as the vehicle through which God’s will is mediated, charges of individualism bear a particular sting.” To interrupt, to not let him finish is to assert individualism and therefore to be wrong by default in the Mennonite world. I am well aware that I talk a lot (and write), more than I need to at times but I don’t think this should be confused with our fear of or indifference towards interrupting him.

This also reminded that we need to be clear about what becoming an ‘affirming’ congregation means. I heard several voices that night coming from formally ‘affirming’ congregations that continued to also affirm anti-queer positions in the larger Mennonite body. That including homophobic voices in gatherings was an acceptable form of unity in diversity. This does not make sense to me. We can certainly acknowledge that such diversity exists; we can acknowledge our own ambivalence and uncertainties on some of these matters; we can create parameters around when and if such conversations are helpful when we gather as a larger body. However, is there really value in affirming a theological position and practice that a congregation has discerned as harmful and inappropriate? The second man whom I interrupted literally attempted to create fear in us by suggesting that Satan might be working through gays and lesbians to destroy the church. And this is what we are now wrestling with. What does it look like to gather as a larger body after formally affirming the space for those congregations who have departed from traditional views on marriage? As someone mentioned to me after the meeting, LGBTQ Mennonites know that not all ‘affirming’ congregations are the same. Affirmation is a commitment to work at stopping violence towards the vulnerable and excluded not an achievement to boast or even rest in.

What will I do? I hope to connect with LGBTQ Mennonites as well as any family and friends to learn how to best be supportive. If my actions at the meeting (or in general) simply reinforce the arena of dudes-talking-to-each-other-about-important-things then I want to change and learn what actions are best. I want to keep learning to be accountable.

I hope that Stephanie Krehbiel’s dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA, will eventually gain popular publication. It is a tremendous resource in these matters. In Chapter One she recounts an interview with Carol Wise who Krehbiel says could be described as a ‘senior member’ of the queer Anabaptist movement. To conclude (not letting myself finish!) I will quote a portion of their interaction,

 As we sat down over breakfast, Wise told me immediately that she found our email exchange reassuring. Upon hearing that there was a straight, Mennonite ethnographer interested in this subject, she told me that her initial response was to worry that I would try to argue that Mennonites were exceptional in their treatment of queer people—that is, exceptionally good. That she would worry about this gulf of difference between her perception and mine, I think, speaks to the continued presence of the tensions I described in the previous section. Years of experience with church process had taught many LGBTQ Mennonites that even ostensible allies were likely to read the state of queer justice in the church much differently than they did. In our emails, Wise was notably encouraged when I responded to her counsel that my work might make me unpopular with church leaders with evidence that I was already becoming unpopular with them. “My observation is many leaders feel betrayed by allies because allies are finally, finally speaking up, asking questions, and not automatically assuming the good will of church leaders,” she wrote.

The question of what to do with assumptions of the “good will” of process brokers was a recurring theme throughout our conversation that morning. “At some point, the church can say, we didn’t know. We didn’t know,” Wise said. “But once you know, if you continue to act in that way, now you’re doing violence willfully… the danger to the church itself is increasing exponentially, the longer it willfully enforces and maintains those structures of racism and sexism and heterosexism. Because there’s no innocence left in it.”

[1] Recorded by interview in Stephanie Krehbiel’s doctoral dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA (University of Kansas, 2015).

Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

Continue reading “Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.”