Book review: ‘Living on the Edge of the Edge’

Mar 12, 2018 by

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The cover of Living on the Edge of the Edge: Letters to a Younger Colleague shows a dramatic photograph with a deep and beautiful canyon in the background. In the foreground is a cairn mounted on the upper shelf of the cliff. A mound of rough stones built as a memorial or landmark, a cairn is recognizable as a way to mark trails in the wilderness.

"Living on the Edge of the Edge"

“Living on the Edge of the Edge”

Living on the Edge of the Edge is a compelling book of essays written from Ruth Elizabeth Krall to a colleague, reflecting her lifetime of experiencing and studying some of the Mennonite church’s most potent subjects of gender, sexual abuse and leadership. Now in her retirement years, she has a long and distinguished career in psychiatric nursing, feminist studies and theology. She taught for many years at Goshen (Ind.) College and served as director of peace, justice and conflict studies there.

For me and others, Krall is best known for her role in reporting and defining the abusive behavior of theologian John Howard Yoder. As explained by Rachel Waltner Goossen in her article, “Defanging the Beast,” published in the January 2015 Mennonite Quarterly Review, Krall learned of Yoder’s abuse from his victims in her work as a clinical counselor. According to Goossen, Krall was unique in her analysis that Yoder’s behavior could not be isolated from the sexism in the larger church and bold in her attempt to communicate that to a church leader.

In this book, Krall lays out a series of 19 letters, both personal and professional, on a broad array of topics: how to know the truth, roots of sexual violence, personal healing, the meaning of pacifism, pushback from the academic community, and sexual abuse by clergy in other religious practices.

Of particular note is a discussion about the relationship between clergy sex abuse and exclusion of LGBTQ people (issues she describes as poisonous trees in the same forest requiring different remedies), and her pointed definition of “Mennonite phallacy” as the “embedded belief that there is only one narrow way to be a proper Mennonite woman.”

If there is one idea that captures the energy of Krall’s intellectual and spiritual journey, it is her articulation of the tension between the church’s peace witness and the inadequate way abuse in the church is handled. As she explains, “Today the Mennonite Church’s historical anti-war stance is compromised by every insider act of unchallenged sexual abuse and every ignored incident of insider domestic violence against women and their children.”

Krall’s essays are complemented by the inclusion of two articles by Lisa Schirch, the younger colleague Krall addresses. Schirch, a research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and the North American research director for the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, contributes one piece dealing with the legacy of John Howard Yoder in the church (“Yoder has a place on our bookshelves, but not on a pedestal”) and another calling for “Mennonite Sexual Integrity.”

In one of her letters, Krall admits to distrusting brief information sources when it comes to topics “bone-deep in complexity.” That conviction seems embodied in the book’s length (almost 400 pages in a large format) and the lack of tight and cohesive editing. The writing is conversational but meandering and repetitive. Its academic tone may lend itself to classroom discussions, but I fear access to the book will be limited because it takes so long to navigate.

In recent months, we have seen an unprecedented wave of women’s statements testifying to sexual abuse and harassment and subsequent suspensions and firings. In “A Pastor’s #MeToo Story” (The Christian Century, Dec. 20), Ruth Everhart writes: “The question the church needs to ask itself is really quite simple: Why are women considered less valuable than men? Churches cannot respond effectively to sexual harassment and assault until we know the answer to that question.”

Krall made this same assertion 35 years ago. The Mennonite church is still stumbling to adequately address and respond to reports of abuse and harassment.

As I observe the stories of sexual violence and intimidation reported about prominent journalists, entertainers, pastors, athletes, writers and executives, I am struck with how conspicuous the subsequent “loss” of their voices seems in our everyday lives. But their victims, almost without exception, never had a public voice until now. Almost by definition, those who are victimized have less public stature. Perpetrators pick on people with less power.

To respond with justice and mercy to reports of abuse, we must empathize with individuals outside our everyday lives or comfort zones. Following the way of Christ requires us to pay attention to just such people. Krall’s book can help point the way.

Ardie S. Goering is a Christmas tree farmer and writer living in both central Kansas and Albuquerque, N.M.

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