Tag Archives: John Howard Yoder

Naming Sexual Violence

This week, on The Femonite blog, we are going to be focusing on themes of sexual violence. I hope you will join us for the ongoing conversation, and add your own questions, stories, and insights.

  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted
  • Throughout their lifetimes, 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual violence or assault
  • 44% of sexual violence victims are under the age of 18

These stats are horrific. I’m sure none of us read through these statistics and feel untouched or unaffected. In fact, what these statistics are saying is that 20% of all women are affected by sexual violence, which means that, even if you are like me and you are lucky enough to have not experienced this form of violence directly, you have friends, family members and acquaintances who have, whether you know it or not.

During my recent stint as a juror, I was interviewed for service on a case that dealt with four cases of sexual assault, rape and battery with a deadly weapon. The jury selection process took two full days, because the judge and lawyers were hoping to find “impartial jurors,” which they defined as people who had not been affected by sexual violence themselves, or close to anyone who had been. They interviewed 106 jurors before they were able to find 12 who met that criteria.

But perhaps the most startling statistics of all are not about the acts themselves, but the silence that shrouds and protects them.

  • 54% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police
  • 97% of rapists are not sentenced to any jail time

And perhaps nowhere is this silence more deafening than within church walls. In the past year, my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has been rocked by not one, but two allegations of sexual abuse at our secondary education institutions in Pennsylvania and  Oregon. Over the course of the past few years, there have been accounts of pastors perpetrating sexual abuse and members of MCUSA have bravely come forward to share their own stories and accounts of sexual violence. And in an ironic twist, one of the most iconic Mennonite writers and peace ethicists, John Howard Yoder, was embroiled in a scandal regarding sexual harassment of many women during his tenure at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a legacy that sometimes gets swept under the rug, but can still leave some women, myself included, feeling squeamish about using his work.

And yet, Mennonite Church USA as a whole, along with many other Christian denominations, has not made many strong statements naming sexual violence as a reality within our congregations, and condemning it. The church does provide resources for helping a church to deal with sexual misconduct when it arises, but these documents are tucked away in the “polity” section of the MCUSA website.

As a historic peace church, MCUSA spends a lot of time talking about justice issues and condemning violence on many fronts: we’ve made statements about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we host large scale relief sales to support development work in countries that have been ravaged by war, we advocate against unjust immigration policies and condemn violence in many other forms. For this pacifist stance to maintain its integrity, it must advocate against injustice in all forms, including sexual violence.

And even if the church that you attend does not have a strict pacifist stance, I cannot think of a single Christian congregation that would not emphasize the importance of love. It is the key component in Jesus’ two largest commandments, after all. But as Margaret Farley notes, not all loves are “good.” In order for a love to be good, it must also be just. As Farley notes, if sexuality is to be “creative and not destructive,” we must always be asking whether our expressions of love are also just.

Too often, we may feel like we are protecting or even loving ourselves or others by remaining quiet. But silence can often be conflated with complicity. It is time to make space for victims of sexual violence to speak and to share their stories, if they wish, but also to begin having more public conversations about what it takes to create communities where women, children and all people can feel safe and secure.

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Anabaptists, Ecclesiology and Community

Yesterday I reflected on the ways that the movie, Lars and the Real Girl, offers us a vision of ecclesiology that is founded on radical love for the individual and for a whole community. Love that is both fluid/adaptable and inherently particular.

John Howard Yoder

The Mennonite and Anabaptist faith tradition also takes seriously the particularity of each church body. In his book, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, seminal Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, addresses the diverse and evolving nature of Christian communities. Yoder notes that congregations must see moral discernment as an ongoing process. He writes, “Just as a wisely written constitution for an institution or government provides procedures for amendment and for decision making rather than immutable prescriptions, so the Christian community is equipped not with a code but with decision-making potential.” He goes on to emphasize that communities must take their social location and overall situation into account when developing ecclesiological standards. Yoder writes, “Any full system of goals and procedures which could be adequate to guide the obedience of Christians in one specific situation, would by that very fact have to be out of date or out of place in other situations.”

Yoder’s ecclesiological practices are similar to  Marjorie Suchocki’s process ecclesiology, which I discussed yesterday. Both emphasize

Marjorie Suchoki

that the ways love and justice, the guiding principles of the church, manifest themselves and will need to be discerned within each individual church community. This may seem obvious. The various Mennonite congregations that I have had occasion to visit all have different ideas about what it means to be church, and their ministries reflect these distinctive callings. Congregations full of middle-class professionals in Goshen, Indiana will support each other in different ways than a congregation in the midst of a rapidly evolving agricultural area in Pennsylvania or than the congregation full of first-generation immigrants to the United States in the middle of Los Angeles. Although there are Mennonite and Anabaptist congregations that fit each of these very diverse distinctions, and the majority of these congregations identify their work as growing out of the legacy of Jesus Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and love, each of these congregations interprets their call to ministry very differently. 

Yoder also describes the process of moral discernment and the discovery of community standards as a community process that must be inclusive of all members of each church or group. Building on the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, written out in the Bible, Yoder emphasizes that “everyone has something to say.” The emphasis on the priesthood and participation of all believers is one of the distinctive elements of traditional Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology.

In the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, one attempt to represent the key beliefs of Mennonite Church USA in this current moment, it states, “In making decisions…all members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as a constant guide…In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.” This focus on consensus-building and the inclusion of all members’ voices is important. Although the church has often fallen short of privileging the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and others, the underlying principle of the church emphasizes the importance of including as many voices as possible in a decision-making process. In fact, due to some unfortunate circumstances surrounding Yoder’s relationships with other women (which could certainly merit a whole other series of blog posts on their own), he himself was at one point asked to submit to the broader church’s discernment and communal discipline.  In fact, one could suggest that an Anabaptist ecclesiology implies that the broader the swath of voices included, the more integrity a decision-making process has. 

This focus on equality and inclusivity is also compatible with Suchocki’s process ecclesiology. It seems logical that any ecclesiology that emphasizes love and justice as guiding ecclesiological principles will care about equality and inclusivity. Suchocki emphasizes the importance of both the individual and the community. She notes that it is the community that brings an individual into being, but that in return, the individual contributes to the life of the community. She also emphasizes that the church can only “manifest holiness” through its communal structure. Individuals within each church are bound together by a common identity in Christ, and are therefore each called to participate in the communal work and ministry of the church.

Clearly, the ecclesiology espoused throughout Anabaptist history is much more radical and inclusive than we perhaps believe and/or live out today.

So, how does your church fit within this picture? What does the idea of church and/or ecclesiology mean to you?

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The Dirty E-Word (Evangelism. Shhh!)

I have a confession. I really hate the word evangelism. It has baggage. It seems easier to avoid than to deal with. When I think of evangelism, I think of corny church signs (Example: Read the Bible: It will scare the Hell out of you), people going door-to-door handing out Bibles or tracts, and sermons employing a variety of scare tactics meant to drive people into a relationship with Jesus, willing or not. And I think of the ways that Christianity has used its power throughout history to demand conversion and assimilation from people, and has at times painted other faith traditions as “evil” or “fallen.” And frankly, all these associations make me paranoid about coming too close to anything that resembles evangelism.

I like mission, when it’s done in partnership with local leaders. I can even often get really exciting about visions for church planting. But evangelism is just a word that I have steered clear of.

So, when I read the article in the recent edition of The Mennonite about First Mennonite Church in Denver (a progressive congregation that I must confess I’ve had a bit of a “church crush” on for the past several years) talking about overcoming  an “evangelism allergy,” I was intrigued. Vern Rempel, pastor at First Mennonite, says, “For some reason, when it’s church, we have all these hesitations: ‘I don’t want to tell people; they’ll think I’m evangelizing them.’ But what occurred to me is that everybody needs good community in their lives. And I thought, I can invite people to community, where the goal would be not for me to tell them what I know they need to know but for us to meet each other and discover what the Holy Spirit has between us.”

Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder also discusses the idea of evangelism. In his book, The Priestly Kingdom, Yoder suggests that the word evangelism is composed of two parts: angellion or news and eu or good. According to Yoder, this sharing of beliefs is news because people may not know or understand it unless they hear it or it is somehow shared with them, and it is good because it is about a message of liberation and not alienation. But precisely because it is about freedom, evangelism always must include within it the possibility of rejection.

Both of these definitions frame evangelism in a new way. I think that often when we postmodern people enter into conversations with those who think differently than we do, it’s easy to think that we should just agree to disagree and to keep our own beliefs to ourselves, especially when it comes to faith. We don’t seem to have these same qualms about political viewpoints, but that’s a whole other blog post in and of itself. I am often highly conscious of my status as a white, middle-class, Christian female, and the power that all of those symbols bring with them, and I wonder if it is fair or right to engage in evangelism. I wonder whether anything I say can actually be completely non-coercive, or whether it always carries some systemic weight with it, whether I want it to or not.

But, if I do believe that something is true, and if these beliefs and communities have been helpful to me in making sense of the world, I should be willing to share them, right? And I think we can carefully do this even as we boldly celebrate the fact that diverse truths exist and are meaningful and valuable for individuals (hence the reason coercion can’t really factor into real evangelism). The example of First Mennonite in Denver is helpful here: they began a “Mennonite Pentecostal contemplative service,” that focused on bringing together talented musicians to provide a space for reflection with great live jazz and blues music to undergird it. The vision for this service grew out of Vern Rempel and other musicians’ desires to share their music in a church setting, and to provide a space for contemplation, and people have been drawn to this idea. Not because someone told them it represented ultimate truth, but because the music and the space filled a need that they were experiencing.

So, maybe I should be more comfortable inviting a friend to a church service, a potluck meal or perhaps the next relief sale to support Mennonite Central Committee’s development work around the world. In sharing these spaces with friends, I am not coercively suggesting that they believe like I do, but am instead making myself vulnerable, and sharing another key piece of who I am with them.

What are your thoughts on evangelism? As Mennonites and Christians, how are we called to participate in ministry?

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