Guest post from…Hilary Scarsella is a recent graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary who researches and writes on the intersection of violence against women and worship. She lives in Elkhart, Indiana as a part of the Prairie Wolf Collective and enjoys spending time with family.
This post is one in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman. You can check out earlier entries in the series here.
Being Mennonite has always been an important part of my self-identity. Though I attended church as a kid with my family every Sunday, I hardly ever spent time with other Mennonites during the week. It would have been rare for me even to spend time with other Christians. Consistently, my friends and peers seemed to be Jewish or Hindu or secular – anything but Christian and definitely not Mennonite. In fact, when the topic of conversation turned to religion I remember being grilled again and again. “If you’re Mennonite, how come you have electricity?” “How can you be Christian and believe in evolution?” “Do you think that God spoke the exact words that are printed in the Bible?” And, the question I answered most frequently, “How can you be a pacifist when there are horrible things happening in the world that need to be stopped?” I was aware of my Mennonite identity and thankful for it all the time, because I was made to account for it by my curious (and often critical) peers.
These days, the tables have turned, and it’s rare that I have an extended conversation with someone who isn’t Mennonite (save for my childhood and college friends, of course). I have just finished an MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and within a one mile radius from my home there is a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, at least three Mennonite churches, AMBS (the seminary), Mennonite Church USA headquarters, Mennonite Mission Network offices, and more. Instead of my Mennonite identity causing me to seem suspect it’s what allows me to belong. Now, it is my identity as a feminist woman that seems to pose a potential threat to my credibility. I’m not sure if the feeling that this is a threat is one produced from within me or absorbed from my surroundings, but I feel it all the same. It is with gratitude that I can say many of the people around me are warmly supportive of feminist theology and work hard to undo oppression against women, people of color, people of the lower socio-economic class, people of lgbt orientations, and so on. Even so, I sense an odd undercurrent that is at least very different from the interreligious and secular subculture I grew up in.
It is one that has me questioning my ambition. For example, I recently used a vocational assessment tool to help me discern next steps, and part of the feedback I received was, “Motivational levels are highest for Hilary when in the limelight where recognition is earned, deserved, or given.” From a feminist perspective, there is no shame in appreciating and striving toward recognition for a job well done. All people should be appropriately recognized for the work that they do. But, as a Mennonite, accepting this truth about myself – that I am motivated by the potential for recognition – feels a bit like failure; failure to be happy with simplicity, failure to be humble, failure to be selfless, failure to be Mennonite. Somehow, though I don’t think this was ever said to me explicitly, I’ve absorbed the idea that a “good Mennonite woman” is one who blends into the background and delights in helping others into the limelight. Thus, my Mennonite identity and my identity as a feminist woman have at times become tangled, each seeming to paralyze the other.
To untangle the knot, it’s been important for me to recognize and accept several things. As a Mennonite woman I find myself needing to work a bit harder than my secular female peers to feel justified in seeking out and accepting my own gifts, talents, and successes (however “success” is defined). I find myself needing to qualify and explain myself carefully when I self-identify as a feminist in church settings. I find myself needing to pay closer attention to my own mannerisms in order to prevent myself from defaulting to a more quiet and apologetic female role than is true to my nature.
On the other hand, as a Mennonite woman I also find myself supported and formed by an absolutely stellar community of people who help me hold faith and justice and reconciliation as values to center my life on. I appreciate that my Mennonite formation keeps me from getting caught up in the spirit of cut-throat competition that sometimes characterizes various feminist and professional circles. In Mennonite tradition and scholarship I find resources for valuing my “womanness” that have been essential elements of my personal, spiritual, and vocational development.
For me, being a Mennonite and feminist woman means feeling confused and stuck sometimes. It also means that joy and healing and faith are with me as steadfast friends for the journey.