The discernment of knowledge: Sexualised violence in the Mennonite church

Stephanie Krehbiel

This case begins with an unsettling email. It came from a powerful man of the church, a Mennonite executive, and it was a response to an email from me, in which I told this leader that he was perpetuating violence against queer people.

I was an ethnographer writing about the Mennonite movement for queer justice, and I also was a Mennonite, at least by background. In the interviews I was doing with LGBTQ Mennonites around the country, I kept hearing the word ‘violence’: rhetorical violence, spiritual violence, institutional violence, systemic violence. The violence they spoke of was often quiet and subtle, invisible to many. It happened in the wording of denominational statements, in all the ways in which LGBTQ identities were cast as worldly distractions from more important church work; inherited patterns of sexual shame that thrived on the spectre of a monstrous sexual outsider were evident within families. They were made more evident still in the process of what Mennonites call ‘discernment’.

Mennonites have little in the way of doctrine. What they do have are committees, some of which are called ‘discernment groups’. Listening committees are a regular feature of Mennonite discernment, particularly in the realm of LGBTQ people, who in the course of the forty-year history of their organising within Mennonite contexts have often been invited to ‘share their stories’ in front of appointed listeners. I will return to discernment, but for the moment, I will say two things about it.

One, I don’t believe I know any LGBTQ Mennonites for whom the word ‘discernment’ fails to produce groans, eyerolls and other expressions of deep cynicism. For them, discernment about whether they are acceptable to the church has rarely yielded anything more than promises of more discernment. Two, the powerful church leader whose email I am about to quote has written a book about discernment and its role in understanding God’s will.

I had initially approached this leader with the presumption that he would be an informant, but when you’re doing ethnography on the same religious group that you grew up in, boundaries get fuzzy. Many of the people I could call ‘informants’ I relate to in multiple ways: friends, family, antagonists, co-conspirators, to name a few. I have not attended a Mennonite church for almost fifteen years, but my last name, Krehbiel, is a common one in Mennonite circles, and thus I can never present myself without revealing some piece of my own history. The name ‘Krehbiel’ generates questions such as, ‘Who are your parents and grandparents?’ ‘Where are you from?’ and finally, ‘Where do you go to church?’ To this last one, the answer ‘nowhere’ is unremarkable for most of my informants. They have their own fraught relationships with church.

But for this leader, I knew immediately that my lack of church attendance would be an issue. His theology was based in binaries. In The Book of Jerry Falwell, Susan Harding writes of the evangelicals she studied, ‘There is no such thing as a neutral position, no place for an ethnographer who seeks “information”. Either you are lost, or you are saved’.1 As with Harding’s evangelical informants, this leader wanted to save me. Given how Mennonites had already marked me, it need not even be a dramatic conversion. It would be more a matter of gently urging me back into a semiotic universe in which I would be suitably chastened by his authority.

Prior to receiving my email, the leader had answered my lengthy questions about church polity and authority structures with a mentorly condescension. I learned about him from these exchanges, and it was invaluable to my work. I learned that he had specialised listening skills. He listened not for content but for rhetoric, the verbal cues that would place a person on the cultural/political map he seemed to carry in his head. Though he presented himself as a mostly powerless servant of the battling forces within his denomination, he communicated as someone who likes to control people, and I could tell he was measuring me, looking for my vulnerabilities. I learned that he prized his notion of himself as a detached intellectual, as the one who interprets what’s really going on. I saw that he wasn’t particularly good at recognising his own limitations; he was almost a parody of a mansplainer at times, used to women performing subservience to him. What did it say about the denomination I was studying, that this man had ascended to power within it? That’s what I wanted to know.

But eventually, I got sick of the patronising. I wanted to break out of the rhetorical dance I was doing with this man. I could tell that at some level the exchange was hurting me; I was sleeping badly, unable to shake off the gnawing sense of menace that I felt in the subtext of his communications. So I wrote him another email and told him that his repressive leadership reproduced the same patterns of violence and shame that I saw manifested in my own family. In response to that email, he wrote me this:

Thank you so much for telling me about your family. This explanation helps me understand the context out of which you are writing. I felt the hot breath of your anger as I read and reread your email. I acknowledge your accusations of violence and abuse. I do not take these accusations and judgments lightly; they strike me like sharp arrows in my heart… Since I am pastor at heart, your story stirs up deep empathy in me. I would love to sit with you in person to explore the ways that your church has failed to be there for your family in times of deepest need.

My memories of reading this email, two years ago, are physical. I was on the couch in my living room, and my body was suffused with adrenaline, pulsing shame, the familiar nausea of feeling an older man’s predatory intent: I fucked up. I brought this on myself. Why on earth had I addressed him like this, as someone with whom I had a relationship built on any sort of trust? How did that serve me, methodologically speaking? I’d given him an invitation to address me as a pastor might address a lost sheep. I’d tried to break out of his rhetorical cage and walked right into his next trap.

To complicate the situation further, a friend with whom I shared the email I had written to the church leader asked my permission to publish it as an open letter on her popular blog about Mennonite sexual violence. I consented to this, and thus it appeared in a public forum even before he had responded to it. I later regretted allowing it to be posted like this. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I’d written, but the public nature of the communication no doubt fuelled this leader’s embrace of a martyr position in relation to my critiques. He was pierced in the heart by sharp arrows, flung indiscriminately by me in my fit of angry emotion. His response to me, of course, was private. He had to reset the stage, back into a context in which he had the authority to mediate my claims.

I’d written to him of a family incident several generations old, when my grandmother’s sister was forced to apologise in front of her church for divorcing a husband who had cheated on her. The incident had a profound effect upon my grandmother, for reasons I suspect are tied to some sexualised abuse in her own past, alluded to but never named outright. She came back to the story of the public apology again and again, in vague fragments I tried to piece together, and when she died, I felt that I’d inherited a puzzle, something to do with the violence of a theology in which a heterosexual marriage bond is so sacred that it must be fed with sacrificial victims.

I was trying to get at something systemic, but this church leader insistently focused on the personal, transforming me into a case – not someone with an analysis of anything, just a person with an emotional problem. My academic work that critiqued his leadership and my advocacy for queer justice was just a symptom of something broken in my family; he was the one with intellectual remove.

My sense of ethnographic failure in this exchange was layered over something deeper and for me, profoundly Mennonite. I felt vulnerability and violation, coupled as always with an internalised admonition that my feelings of violation were histrionic and paranoid, taking up space in a world where far more consequential violations were taking place. Why did an unwelcome offer of pastoral care trouble me beyond the energy it would take to reject or ignore it? Somehow I could not bear the fact that he presumed.

In order to explain the kind of violence that Mennonites do, I have to start with their love of peace. Born out of the Anabaptist religious movement in sixteenth-century Europe, Mennonites hold nonviolence as a central tenet of their faith. For centuries, separatist Mennonite communities migrated through Europe, and eventually, to North and South America as well, settling wherever governments would accommodate their refusal to serve in militaries. Mennonites in the United States have forged their pacifism in response to the wars of the twentieth century, under the threat of conscription of their young men. Mennonite pacifism developed as a masculinist discourse, not only about men’s choices in relation to the state, but about their choices in response to those who called them queers, among other things, for refusing to fight.

Mennonite men have trouble admitting, or even understanding, that they have power. It’s a problem that comes with generations of defining themselves against dominant, warrior masculinities. This is a generalisation, of course. I’ve met plenty of thoughtful and reflexive Mennonite men, some of whom are gay, who recognise the problem of unacknowledged power and work to challenge it. But the problem remains.

Like many religious groups, Mennonites commit a lot of sexualised violence. I use the word ‘sexualised’ here rather than ‘sexual’, because it suggests a broader spectrum of violation, encompassing not only what bodies can do to other bodies, but also what theology, institutional structures and communal processes can manifest in the lives of those who are caught up within them. For the past seven years, while carrying out activism aimed at documenting the epidemic of sexual abuse in Mennonite churches, I’ve been writing about the ways in which Mennonite peace-making practices enable and perpetuate certain kinds of violence. Woven through all this work have been competing claims about what constitutes violence.

Carol Wise, director of the forty-year-old Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests, speaks of the ‘violence of process’ in Mennonite practice.2 In Mennonite theology, God speaks not through divinely-appointed individuals but through community. In order to decide how God is speaking in a given situation, Mennonites engage in the process of ‘discernment.’ Who is worthy of being in the room when the discernment takes place, and whose claims to truth can be heard as the voice of God? For Mennonites, these questions are the stuff of schism.

Given this focus on discernment practices as a means to access truth, perhaps it is not surprising that when Mennonites want to push back against another Mennonite’s claim of violence, they attack at the level of knowledge. It’s less, ‘you’re lying,’ and more ‘What you think you know is based on a false way of knowing.’ Or, with a more pastoral veneer, like the e-mail that so upset me, ‘You make the claims that you make not because they are true but because you’re damaged. Let’s sit down together and talk about how you can be repaired.’

This essay, then, is about how knowledge is legitimised and authorised. In my experiences with Mennonites, nowhere does that contestation feel more acute than in the realm of sexualised violence and survivor advocacy. In the summer of 2015, after finishing my PhD, I helped to assemble a new chapter of the thirty-year-old, largely Catholic, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). We are a small assemblage of Mennonites and ex-Mennonites, academics and activists. In the course of conducting my research on queer Mennonites, I had heard so many disclosures of sexual violence that I was desperate to act.

Most of us in the group, at some level, are struggling with the effects of trauma, be it primary or secondary. Few of us can walk comfortably into a Mennonite church. None of us has any official role within Mennonite church structures. We try to agitate from the outside, as whistleblowers, although sometimes the line between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ feels as fuzzy in this activism as it does in ethnography. We collect the stories that are told to us: of adult women abused by pastors who offer them counselling, only to be told their experiences were ‘consensual’; of students abused by professors at Mennonite colleges, and children abused by church members in congregations that rushed to forgive the perpetrators and isolated the parents of the abused child; of church officials who gaslight survivors and demand that they ‘forgive’ their abusers; of abusive pastors who manipulate congregations into loving them; and of incest, endless stories of incest, a violation that seems to set up so many of its survivors for a lifetime of encounters with predators. It is soul-searing work to collect these stories, to keep lists of perpetrator names that I can only reveal under the correct legal circumstances, and to see in horrific detail where Mennonite theology and communal practice has failed.

There seems to be no room within the practice of discernment for full acknowledgment of this reality. Mennonites, like so much of the rest of society, are perpetually waiting for the perfect survivor, innocent until violated, whose story can be managed into coherent narrative, unbroken by the memory fragmentation of trauma, that culminates in healing and reconciliation with the community, the perpetrator and God. This expectation is a trap, of course; real human beings never meet its standards of blamelessness. The stories I collect are mixed up with the failures of marriage, with alcohol and drugs that numb PTSD, with sexual yearning that is exploited, with buried queerness that manifests as sexual vulnerability, with thwarted attempts to resist sexual shame. To share and narrate these stories is to bear witness to a fundamental failure of the church’s heterosexist sexual ethic. The monstrous sexual outsider has always been inside, and the monster has never been queerness.

Sometimes Mennonites who feel attacked by my work accuse me of having power I don’t deserve. Usually these accusations come from angry men on the internet. Sometimes they call me ‘Dr Krehbiel’ as though it’s an epithet, as if they’re so affronted by the audacity of my title that they have to spit it out. They’re right in a sense: I do have power. It’s tied to having a PhD, but it’s bigger than that. It’s the power that comes from knowing the people for whom the existing sexual ethics aren’t working; it comes with naming, with claiming, with pronouncing what is violence and what isn’t, what is abuse and what isn’t, what is love and what isn’t. It is the also the power of secrets, of knowing things I’m not supposed to know. The church is supposed to have that power. The carefully selected discerning committee is supposed to have that power. The men who sneer ‘Dr Krehbiel’ at me aren’t just afraid of what I represent, as a woman with a PhD. They are, I think quite literally, afraid of what I know.

My friend Jay Yoder, a queer Mennonite activist as well as a survivor of rape and sexual abuse, breaks down one of the ways that discernment takes power from survivors:

So, you’re the one who has experienced trauma and you have come out the other side with incredible and painfully-earned expertise. And you make yourself vulnerable and share that experience and expertise. Then church officials tell you that they’re going to form a panel and serve as judge and jury as to whether your experiences ring true and are worthy of real change or if they just don’t matter that much in the eyes of the church, and by turn, God. Where do they get off and just what makes them feel qualified to be an expert on realities that as a rule are not theirs?3

‘Where do they get off?’ That’s the question we’re always asking, in my Mennonite activist circles, with the double entendre fully intended. Mennonites don’t like to talk about power and the way it organises their communities. To talk about power, it seems, is to admit that they are not peaceful. It could become an admission that discernment can be violent, that it can go wrong, that God could misspeak, or that the community could misspeak what God was trying to say. To talk about power might also be to acknowledge that power can be erotic. I suspect that denying the erotics of power makes those erotics all the more destructive.

My files are full of stories of queer people and sexual abuse survivors made to feel shame and then offered that consolation, the private, pastoral words, the words that make a person feel like an individual, aberrant case. Those encounters often end with something sexual, or something that feels sexual in a way that also makes the vulnerable person in the situation feel as though they’ve lost track of reality. When shame permeates sex, then talking about sexual violence or queerness becomes an act of intimacy. When the role of power in that intimacy is ignored, then, to again quote my friend Jay, ‘power is a sexy secret.’

This essay began with an unsettling email, and to tell the truth, I’m still unsettled by it. I responded to that email with a finality that ended my correspondence with the presumptuous executive. I wrote, ‘There isn’t anything exceptional about my family stories. Please just add them to your body of knowledge; let them help you to historicise this particular moment in the denomination that you are directing. That’s all I’m asking of you. Personally, I am fine.’ I reclaimed my own authority. I asked that he respect what I know.

But what I really wanted to say was straight from my case files, from the many queer people and survivors who shared their story alone in a room to a caring church official, only to say later, after the betrayal, ‘I want my story back.’


1 See Harding, S. F., The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000).

2 Carol Wise, interview with the author, 22 October 2013.

3 Jennifer Yoder, interview with the author, 3 February 2016.