Tag Archives: Identity

The Space Between

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the spaces in between things. There are the transition times, or the waiting

times, that Justin talked about in an earlier blog post, but there are also the spaces between myself and others. The small cracks between on part of my identity and another, where my competing selves butt up against one another, sometimes gently and other times with brute force. There is my identity as a Mennonite, as a woman, as a young adult, as a white person, as an activist (although, full disclosure here, I feel like I often fall short in this category), as a spouse, as a friend, as a sister, daughter, team member, employee, Master’s student (for at least four more days), a democrat, a middle-class person, a pacifist and this list could go on.

The Space Between from KeenPress

Given this list, there are moments when I want to resist any simple definitions of who I am and how I’m associated. I would rather dwell in an in-between, hybrid space: a place where each of these unique identities can co-mingle and brush up against one another, without being forced to fit together too neatly.

And I know that I am not alone. Certainly there are people whose very race, gender, sexuality or class makes it impossible to “blend” with any one group. By virtue of who they are, these individuals navigate multiple worlds and cultures all the time, as well as competing messages from themselves and from society about who or how they should act and be. This is why there has been so much controversy and conversation recently surrounding the little “identity boxes” that we are asked to check on surveys or a census. How does one choose or privilege one racial or gender identity over another when the truth is so very far from that small, confined, neat box?

In her famous book, Borderlands/La Frontera (which you most definitely should read if you haven’t yet), Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa writes, In a few centuries, the future will belong to the mestiza.Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is a change in the way we perceive reality,

the way we see ourselves and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our language, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle…”

And Anzaldúa is right. Increasingly, the United States is becoming home to children and young adults who are bi-racial and multi-racial. Queer theory is challenging us to resist narrow definitions of sexual identity, marriage and partnership. And

people are increasingly pulling on religious symbols, beliefs and models from a variety of denominations and faiths in order to build a robust spiritual identity. We will need to begin to develop much more fluid concepts of identity and selfhood.

Gloria Anzaldua

Jeannine Hill Fletcher suggests that feminist understandings of identity, which define identity as hybrid, multi-faceted and formed by individual experiences and social location, can help to break through our traditional identity frameworks. Fletcher notes that in every individual, there is a “dynamic intersection of identity categories,” which cannot simply be easily reconciled or reduced down to any one comprehensive identity criteria. Therefore, “…one cannot ask what it means to be Christian without recognizing that the answer is also conditioned by other identity categories.” Likewise, one cannot make broad, far-reaching statements about what it means to be a Mennonite or Anabaptist, without also analyzing the other social identity constructs that enter into the fiber of each individual congregation and church member.

If I am a convinced Anabaptist coming from another faith tradition, or a Nigerian Mennonite pastor leading a congregation in Los Angeles, my Mennonite identity will almost certainly look slightly different from someone who grew up within the Mennonite church and lives in Goshen, Indiana. Each of these social locations is valuable and can offer a unique lens through which to view the church and Anabaptist theology, but it is good to realize that although we all belong to one denominational body and are unified in this way, it is not a unity without complexity or diversity.

And we need to realize that this complexity is a gift.

If we can come to understand each of our internal hybridity, the church then can become a body which reflects, “infinite internal diversity.” Fletcher suggests that to move forward, holding an awareness of and respect for this diversity, will entail an exercise in “collaborative solidarity,” that seeks to construct hybrid group identities as an alternative to rigidly bound group categories.

Rita Nakashima Brock

To me, this is an incredibly freeing idea. It frees me to be fully me, and to understand that I am the product of a whole lifetime of experiences, influences, theologies, gender experiences, etc. and that I don’t have to privilege one of my identities over another. And I don’t have to demand that anyone else does either. I can begin to see that we all resist simple definition. Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock suggests that we can begin to live with interstitial integrity (a term I first heard my friend Joanna Shenk bust out during a talk at a church assembly) when we embody a, “…refusal to rest in one place, to reject a narrowing of who we are by either/or decisions, or to be placed always on the periphery…”

Although it may feel risky to stay there, this interstitial space in between may in fact be the place where we can be most fully ourselves.

Where are the places where you feel most at home and fully yourself? What does the idea of “complex unity” mean to you?

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Invisible Covering

This post is the first in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

Laura Lehman Amstutz

Guest post from…Laura Lehman Amstutz works for Eastern Mennonite Seminary, gardens, cooks and snuggles with her cat. She also leads The Table Mennonite Church, runs half marathons, and supports her husband Brandon in owning and running Downtown Fine Furniture. No wonder she longs for simplicity!

My mom told me that in high school they used to put their coverings in their garter belts so they’d be handy for chapel. For some reason, the image of a white net covering stuffed in a garter belt underneath a 1960’s skirt symbolizes what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

I’ve never worn a covering. My mom stopped sometime shortly after high school. I’ve never even seen my grandmothers wear coverings. And yet, sometimes I wonder if I’m still fighting the invisible covering.

I vividly remember a conversation with my mother during seminary when we were discussing my upcoming internship year. I began to cry in a restaurant (which is probably why I remember it so well) because there were so many rules about what I “should” and “should not” wear in front of a congregation.  Mostly it was “should not”.

And after finally settling on a series of suits that had appropriately conservative length skirts but were still relatively stylish, I got a searing review from a male classmate about the height of my high heels (which incidentally I only bought because the pulpit in the congregation where I was interning was built for a man who was 6’2”).

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the first thoughts I have when I think about being a Mennonite woman have to do with clothes. We may be beyond cape dresses and coverings, but sometimes I think it’s not behind us.  Or perhaps it is simply the line I dance between my generation’s emphasis on appearance and the Mennonite cultural emphasis on simplicity which used to equal certain hair and clothing styles for women. So, if I don’t define simplicity this way anymore, how do I define it?

I think as a Mennonite woman I dance on a lot of lines. I dance between the desire to stay home and live modestly and the desire to be a high-powered professional. I dance along the line of when and how to have children. I provide primary financial support so my husband can pursue his dream, and so I dance between feeling powerful and being crushed by the weight of responsibility as the breadwinner (perhaps as most men feel).

Perhaps because of this complicated dance, I long for simplicity. I read cooking blogs, crochet blogs, gardening websites and sewing blogs and sometimes I actually get to cook, crochet, garden and sew. I am glad that I can work with men who respect me and my gifts, but I value settings where there are only women.  Even though I’ve never attended them, I imagine this is what those Mennonite sewing and quilting circles used to be, a feminine sub-culture.

Some of my current Mennonite feminine role models sometimes annoy me.  I’m annoyed at professional Mennonite women who don’t seem to know how to dress fashionably. Please don’t wear socks with sandals or faded, frumpy ankle-length dresses, and please, please, find a good hair dresser.

So here we are back at clothes again.

I don’t know why I keep getting stuck there. A smart friend of mine pointed out that maybe it’s because in the past women’s bodies were the way The Body (as in the church) judged its simplicity. It’s what made us distinctive, and so somewhere in my psyche there is an invisible covering, fighting with my  generation X (or is it Y, I’m never sure) emphasis on image and appearance.

Perhaps the real problem is that I’m still sorting out what simplicity is as a 21st century Mennonite woman. I value the simplicity of staying home, making my own food, and having a garden.  But I also value the feminist movement that allows me to work full-time, support my family, lead a church and wear stylish clothes when I preach. I want it all. And so I dance on lines, with my invisible covering shoved in my garter belt, ready to be retrieved when necessary.

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