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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