Toward Mennonite sexual integrity

Mar 23, 2015 by

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The Mennonite church needs a conversation about sexual integrity, how people respect their own bodies and those of other people. Sexual abuse — and even sexual promiscuity — requires dehumanizing male and female bodies as objects to consume. We live in a consumption-based culture. As Anabaptists, we should interrogate our complicity with all forms of consumption.

A conversation about sexual integrity could help the Mennonite church find common ground that allows us to dialogue with each other more productively in both talking about sexual abuse and in discussing how to welcome all people, including those with same-sex sexuality, into our churches.

Here are four things Mennonites should consider on sexuality integrity.

1. In too many Mennonite homes and congregations, sexual abuse has been passed on from generation to generation. We need to be careful not to only focus on specific perpetrators in Mennonite institutions, but also examine a broader pattern of abuse. Did our collective persecution and trauma feed into this cycle of abuse? Communities that experience persecution from outside forces — like Mennonites did — often eventually take on abusive behaviors within their communities. Unhealed trauma festers on, revealing itself in self-destructive behaviors. For example, Indigenous communities suffered genocidal violence in North America. Today sexual abuse and substance abuse plague Indigenous communities, replacing persecution by outside forces, an echo of their traumatic past. Indigenous leaders are now leading a historical healing process to address current sexual abuse and to heal the generational trauma. Mennonites desperately need to match our public pacifism with reflection on our collective public and private traumas, and the violence in our midst.

2. A perverse theology of redemptive suffering paired with belief in male entitlement and female subservience still encourages too many victims of sexual abuse to simply bear the cross of sexual violence and stay silent. In too many Mennonite institutions there are continuing patterns of misogyny — a subtle but stern exclusion and silencing of women and the gifts and insights they have to offer. The secular culture of patriarchy has been mistakenly embraced as religious belief. Mennonite theology cannot have an authentic pacifist voice that endorses domination or suffering of any kind. Suffering sexual violence is not redemptive.

3. Most Mennonites have never had the opportunity to consider their sexual orientation. Scientists do not yet know what percentage of the population holds a same-sex sexual orientation. Most surveys show that 3-6 percent of people “self-identify” as having a same-sex orientation. But we can assume that the actual number is much higher since anyone willing to identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (GLBTQ) will without doubt suffer social punishment — both from secular and religious homophobia. Researchers find that surveys guaranteeing anonymity result in much higher numbers of people — somewhere between 10-30 percent of the population — admitting to having had a same-sex attraction at some point in their life. All church leaders should remember that it is statistically probable that there are multiple people with a same-sex orientation in every church meeting.

Some people gifted with same-sex sexuality choose to deny and closet their sexual identity. They stay single or marry someone of the opposite sex just because it seemed to be the only acceptable option in their community. New policies that welcome people with all sexual orientations may fundamentally devastate the very identity of those who have built every aspect of their lives on the need to repress their sexuality. It may call into question a lifetime of personal sacrifices. Those on all sides of the Mennonite Church USA discussions — especially progressives pushing for inclusion — should remember the pain of our brothers and sisters who prefer to remain in the closet rather than question their life choices in the context of new Biblical understanding about sexuality. Church leaders and advocates of LGBTQ inclusion should make it safe for new generations of Mennonites with same-sex sexuality to be welcomed fully in the church at the same time that we acknowledge the deeply personal, traumatic and life-altering impacts of opening closet doors for those who were forced into a closeted life.

4. The church’s silencing of women victims of Mennonite leaders and their rejection of people with same-sex sexuality must be seen within a larger context of closeting all aspects of sexuality. Both are indications that sexuality continues to be taboo within many Mennonite communities. Repressing sexuality and refusing to talk about it creates problems.

The churches repression of open discussions of sexuality and its recitation of simple rules about sex in marriage does not support sexual integrity. A review of Anabaptist family records shows us that in the early church, childbirth out of wedlock was widespread. Furthermore, some of the same leaders who chose to ignore or downplay sexual abuse happening in Mennonite institutions are now leading the charges against Mennonites who welcome membership of people with diverse sexual orientations. All things having to do with sex have been force into a closet.

Children taught to know and understand their bodies and their sexuality are more likely to report sexual abuse and make healthy choices in their own lives, based on knowledge, not fear and ignorance. Empowering youth to learn how to live with sexual integrity requires teaching them to critique secular media and sexual violence that exploits people’s bodies. The church can do better to support a theology of sexual integrity, including: preparing to protect youth from sexual predators, educating both youth and adults about patterns of abuse and sexual violence, making it safe for victims to speak out, the biological and emotional dangers of sexual objectification, sexual promiscuity, and abusive sexuality and acknowledging the beauty of our bodies and the natural desire for non-exploitative human touch.

Lisa Schirch is director of human security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and a research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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  • Lisa Schirch

    In my fourth point, I should have stated “The church’s silencing of women AND MEN victims….” I apologize. All too often we assume that women are the only victims. In reality, boys and men have also been victims of sexual abuse in mennonite institutions and families.

  • Scott R. Troyer

    Violence against women is a large part of our cultural history, both sacred and secular. Lisa has pointed to some very real problems of violence in our communities that need to be reconciled with our commitment to peace. Such an attitude even manifests itself in our youth groups. Many of them have conversations about appropriate dress for women, how women are to dress on mission trips, and what kind of swim suits would be appropriate if they went swimming. The reason behind these conversations always seems to me to be about how they could avoid arousing men in the youth group and in society. It pust responsibility for men’s thoughts and actions on women, but I don’t recall the responsibility for women’s thoughts and actions being put on men. This appears to be a manifestation of our world’s reluctance to hold men accountable for their own actions, the “boys will be boys” excuse. Sexism. misogyny, and homophobia are woven throughout our communities, and we need to acknowledge that and start working on ways to heal.

  • Berry Friesen

    To help us decide whether Schirch’s proposal is farsighted, nearsighted or astigmatic, here are a few off-the-cuff ways the proposal could be implemented:

    1. Ushers in Mennonite congregations could give visitors a card with this warning: “In many Mennonite homes and congregations, sexual abuse has been passed on from generation to generation.”

    2. The Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns could provide skilled discussion leaders for congregational retreats on how one can fruitfully reconsider sexual orientation.

    3. A Sunday school curriculum could prepare children for a sex-saturated society by learning about sexual victimization, sexual abuse, sexual objectification and sexual promiscuity.

    4. A listening group could visit worship services in Mennonite congregations, listen for sermons or hymns that use variations of the word “redemptive” when describing Jesus’ death on the cross, and list on a website the names of offending congregations.

    • Mary Mae Schwartzentruber

      I am so pleased to read this third suggestion. YES! Let’s do it!

    • Lisa Schirch

      Berry, if I understand you correctly, you are disrespectfully mocking my opinions because you believe:
      1. That Mennonite congregations should not be informed of sexual perpetrators in their churches.
      2. That groups like the Brethren/Mennonite Council are actually trying to change people’s sexual orientation.
      3. That Mennonite children should not be taught anything about sexuality, as this is the wisest course in helping them to deal with a sex-saturated society.
      4. That sexual violence against women and men in our churches should be welcomed, as this experience makes them more Christ-like.

      Have I heard you correctly?

      • Berry Friesen

        Lisa, the answers to your four questions are no, no, no and no. Though I mean no disrespect to you personally, your proposal irresistibly elicits parody. I’m a moth to the flame!

        • Jim Maust

          I’m trying to figure out how parody is respectful.

    • David Jost

      A more charitable and vastly more plausible interpretation could be that:

      1. We ought to learn about trauma and how trauma reverberates after events are over and take trauma study seriously, as experts do (20% of Iraq war veterans that have PTSD didn’t take it with them when they went over there, events matter)

      2. We could consider why, if indeed we believe that women are called to ministry and leadership, women comprise a small minority of our ministers and leaders (how likely is it that they are just coincidentally born without those gifts?)

      3. All church leaders should remember that it is statistically probable that there are
      multiple people with a same-sex orientation in every church meeting.

      4. People should be fine with sermons and hymns that describe Jesus as having redeemed us. Suffering sexual violence, however, is not redemptive, and should be resisted and avoided.

      I don’t think her proposal elicits parody, I think it elicits lament. I am grateful that you evidently haven’t suffered sexual violence, and wish you had the empathy to appreciate that it isn’t a topic for mockery.

      David Jost

  • John K. Stoner

    I find Lisa Schirch’s points relevant to Mennonite history in the US, and important for our attention. For many years I have spoken and worked for full inclusion of GLBTQ people in the Mennonite Church.

    In 1998 I helped to draft “A Welcoming Open Letter on Homosexuality” which we published in the Mennonite Weekly Review in 2000. The two main points of the letter were: 1. “We believe that affectional orientation is determined very early in an individual’s life by a complex mix of biological and environmental factors that are beyond his or her control. Since God has made and continues to make a significant minority of persons whose primary attraction is to persons of the same gender, we believe it is wrong to require anyone to undergo a miraculous change of sexual orientation before being deemed fit to belong to the community of believers…. 2. We believe the church should bless monogamous relationships of same-sex couples and affirm covenant vows between persons who pledge mutual lifelong fidelity and support to one another….”

    The full content of this letter, which ultimately garnered hundreds of signatories, is available online. On the same site is my 2001 article “‘Homosexuality’ and Church Membership: A Model of Power for Unity and Renewal” My views there will be seen to roundly support Lisa Schirch’s counsel to the Mennonite Church today.