The discernment of knowledge: sexualized violence in the Mennonite church by 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; it happened in families, inherited patterns of sexual shame that thrived on the specter of a monstrous sexual outsider. It happened most particularly 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 organizing 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.

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