This is part 6 in a series of posts by sexual violence survivors and advocates who want the opportunity to respond to the findings released in November by Eastern Mennonite University’s hired compliance firm D. Stafford and Associates. The first, second,
In this last post of the series, Director of Our Stories Untold, Hilary Scarsella, reflects back on all that has been shared in previous posts and offers an exceptionally inspired and empowering letter written with love to survivors of sexual violence. Hilary’s always incisive reflections come from a deep well. She has not only survived the lived experience of sexual violence personally, she also thinks and writes about the complex intersections of religion, sexuality, personal and cultural trauma as a scholar.
In the midst of preparing for the milestone of comprehensive exams for her doctoral program in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University, Hilary has made time to write especially and exclusively to our OSU family of survivors. It matters not whether you have chosen to say it out loud or not, this love letter is for you.
Thank you Hilary, for this gift of profound insight, knowledge, and encouragement.
Often, posts on Our Stories Untold are written to a broad audience – survivors, skeptics, administrators, church-goers. Please be aware that this is not one of those posts. Anyone is welcome to read it, but in the wake of Eastern Mennonite University’s announcement that they were found to have acted promptly and appropriately with respect to the way they handle sexual violence claims, all I really want to do is huddle in a warm room and talk with survivors and the people who love us. If your heart was not broken by EMU’s declaration of innocence, if you can “see both sides,” or if you have not experienced existing in the U.S. Mennonite church this last year as one betrayal after the next, be aware as you continue to read that what I have to say wasn’t written with you in mind. This doesn’t mean that you don’t matter. You do. It means that you might not identify with or understand everything that is said here, and that if you don’t, you are welcome to respectfully seek understanding from someone around you who does.
For survivors of sexualized violence and our loved ones in the North American Mennonite church, the past year has been gut-wrenching. Our intrusive memories and traumatic anxieties have nudged themselves against our wills back into our present lives, waking and sleeping, because we’ve watched as the unconscionable things that happened to us were done in real time, all over again, to others – particularly, though not only, to Lauren Shifflett. And, this time, it was all done in public. With some notable and courageous exceptions (you know who you are), the people who were supposed to care did not. To an alarming extent, those holding positions of power and authority – spiritually, vocationally, socially – chose to abandon the abused in order to protect themselves and their own stability instead.
Some of us have survived our abuse all these years by hiding it from the world and convincing ourselves that if our present communities only knew what happened to us they would stand by our sides or that if religious and community leaders only had the opportunity and resources to make the right decisions, they would. After witnessing Mennonite leaders and communities of all stripes repeatedly refuse to demonstrate even a basic commitment to respect survivors, much less act in solidarity with us, the capacity to sustain that belief has been categorically destroyed. For many among us life has taken a turn toward despair.
I hear it in survivors’ voices, and I read it in your comments on the blog. Many among us are depleted and discouraged, and why wouldn’t we be? Eastern Mennonite University’s declaration of innocence with respect to their handling of sexual violence claims was icing on a toxic cake. When I read it, I felt something cold and distant climb into my body. I remember exactly where I was. I remember what song was playing and that there was a yellow lab with a red collar tied to the tree outside the window.
I see your pain, your exhaustion, your frustration, your grief, your indifference, your numb heart, your strained love, your inner child running to hide, your gears overwhelmed and overwhelmed and overwhelmed. I honor them. I have them too.
These reactions are real and warranted.
At the same time, they don’t exhaust our options.
Womanist theologians – black women in the U.S. who live their religiosity as a commitment to the well-being and survival of black women and all who are oppressed – have a saying: make a way out of no way. These spiritual leaders whose great grandmothers were raped in enslavement and who today face the daily, concrete oppressions of racism and sexism know far too well that to be denied voice, agency, power and value by the dominant culture means death, literally and figuratively. The womanist view of the world starts from an embodied, painfully lived understanding that the conditions that make for despair are precisely the conditions that structure the daily lives of all the world’s oppressed.
Despair threatens to set in when we have the sense that we have been left with no options, when we have been thoroughly overpowered, when it seems inevitable that we will be denied the opportunity to survive or to live with an adequate level of dignity, freedom and well-being. What does one do when denied options for meaningful survival?
Womanist theologians see in their sacred texts a Divine One who tends in committed love and power to exactly those who are left without options. When Hagar is abandoned by Abraham and Sarah to die of thirst in the desert with her infant son the Divine One sends water and makes a way. When the Israelites are caught between Pharaoh’s army and a turbulent sea, the One who loves the oppressed parts the waters and makes a way. And, because the Love that grounds the cosmos is about the work of way-making, people who live in the power of that Love are to become way-makers too. Faced with conditions that allow only for despair, womanists teach their daughters to honor their suffering and then get to work making a way where there is no way, trusting that the Divine One is with them in every moment of the struggle.
The number of those in the world whose humanity has been denied by people and powers that should have offered care is unfathomable. In itself, this is a devastating truth, but it also means that we who are currently feeling shut down, overpowered and left without options by the decisions of Mennonite institutions like Eastern Mennonite University are in good company. We have womanist and feminist and mujerista and liberation queer theologies to guide us – spiritual and political resources written in love and wisdom born of heartbreaking struggle. We have each other. We have allies. We have SNAP and Our Stories Untold and Into Account and Dove’s Nest. We have LGBTQ folks and people of color among us and beside us who know through their own lenses what it means to be silenced and devalued in Mennonite contexts. We can make common cause together, and as we do, we can start to make a way out of the isolation and powerlessness that decisions like EMU’s inflicts on us.
There is no shortage of courage and power and wisdom streaming forth from the world’s abandoned for us to honor and from which we might learn and draw strength. There is no limit to that which we might glean from and gift to each other if we continue to seek out and affirm the wisdom present in every one of us, born of our own struggles to survive and make a life worth living in a world that tried to snuff us out.
But, there is a cost. And, here’s what it is: We are going to need to give up the false but mighty sense of security we get from ceding our power to “the community.”
People often think that the reason survivors of sexualized violence don’t speak up about what we’ve experienced and what we know is that we have been made to feel that our voices don’t matter. There is some truth to this, but the greater truth is that we don’t speak up because we know in our guts that we do have power. We stay quiet because we fear that once our words have been spoken out loud the whole world might change. People might lose their jobs. Significant relationships might crumble. The church might split. The careful balances we’ve struggled so hard to achieve in our lives might shift and turn beneath our feet. We stay quiet and hidden because we sense that if everyone knew what we know the chaos that has hurtled through our lives might take over the lives of our communities and schools and workplaces and families and destroy all of them like it has threatened to destroy us. We know we are powerful, but we have been shaped to see our power as a dangerous power, an evil power that must be contained within us so that it does not get loose and tear apart the world.
This is a lie, one of the many whispered to us through the nightmares we’ve lived.
Like all lies told to the abused, this one is designed to protect the perpetrator. It makes us believe that if we dare to use the most potent tool we have for defense and transformation – our power to speak truth and enact the change we know to be needed – we will prove ourselves to be as evil and corrupt as the violence originally made us feel. The lie persuades us to believe that when the pain and chaos of the sexual violence done to us visibly impacts our communities after we speak up, we are the ones who bear responsibility for that pain instead of those who perpetrated and enabled the violence in the first place.
This lie is a sophisticated version of victim blaming.
It trains us to be more afraid of ourselves than our perpetrators. Systemically, sexual violence has to persuade us to reject our own power because the system knows that it can only continue for as long as we stand down.
Here’s the truth: We have power, and it is radiant. Fierce? Yes. Turbulent? Sometimes. It creates waves. It might even split the sea. It can also be gentle, soothing, creative, erotic and playful. The knowledge and power that we put so much energy into containing within ourselves is the knowledge and power of transformation. We are the way forward, because we are the ones who know what forward looks like.
This is a tricky thing to consider, because I do not want to create even a shred of space for anyone to worry that since survivors have the power to transform systems of sexual violence and often fear that power it’s our fault that such systems continue. The only way I can possibly be heard as I intend is if victim blaming is completely off the table from the beginning and it is understood that the responsibility for dismantling systems of sexual violence lies with everyone, particularly those who have not been abused, and especially with those who hold positions of social and religious power. That survivors have a unique and radiant power within us to transform sexualized violence does not mean that we alone are responsible for that transformation but that we are uniquely empowered to bring it about if and when we desire and freely choose to walk that path. It means we are not powerless.
It means that we don’t need people in positions of social, church or institutional authority to affirm the fact of our inherent value or get on board with our ideas about how sexual violence ought to be resisted in our communities in order to make real change. They can and should be on board, and we will continue to hold them accountable to their responsibilities, but we can also make major strides toward justice and well-being without them.
Notice what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that we ought to take on an ‘us vs. them’ combat mentality. I’m not saying that every one of us should break off our relationships with people who represent the church or with the church in general, though some may rightly decide to do so. I’m also not saying people in those positions of authority don’t have anything valuable to contribute or that they don’t have a significant degree of power with respect to our lives. I’m saying that as we carry on and relate to the church and its decision-makers in whatever capacity is right for each of us, we do so with our roots sunk deep into the truth that we are fully authorized to do whatever needs to be done to resist sexualized violence in our communities regardless of whether or not we have the support of our churches.
I suspect this will make some of us who are formed by a community-oriented faith squirm. Who are we to assert that we know better than our communities? Who are we to act in opposition to the wisdom of the faithful majority? A theologian named Kathryn Tanner points out that while emphasis on community is biblically sound and an important corrective to contemporary individualism, it only works when it is practiced alongside an equal prophetic respect for individual voice and power. Jesus, she points out, did not wait for the majority of his community to come to consensus in support of his mission before he decided to put it into action. He enacted the Love he knew and made it concrete in the lives of the suffering at a time when the leaders and majority in his community did not recognize his gift as Holy. Therefore, for those of us who claim a Christian faith, the call is not to cede power to the community, but rather, to contribute one’s vision and voice and power in the name of Love and Fire, whether or not the community has developed eyes able to see God dancing in our flames.
We long for our communities of faith to stand with us. Of course, we do. Perhaps, the day will come. But for as long as that day is not today, say it with me: We don’t need our universities or our denominations or our delegates or our pastors or our professors or any other place of authority in the church to affirm our value, knowledge or power in order for us to together channel that power into transformative radiance. We are powerful and worthy of using that power for justice and healing all on our own.
I mean you. You are powerful. You have a voice. You have expertise and creativity that is valuable and transformative. Your knowledge and gifts are needed and worthwhile, whether they take the shape of public action, creative arts, nurturing relationships, legal expertise, web design, or any one of a thousand different forms.
In this first season of 2017, a year that is bound to intensify global cause for despair, let’s ask ourselves what would happen if this year we all looked our fear of our own radiant power in the face, took a breath, and let it go. What would happen if we welcomed our transformative power as we would a friend? If we stopped giving our power away to people and institutions and communities who reinforce the lie that it is bad? What would happen if, instead, we practiced trusting our wisdom and that of our silenced kin?
What would happen if we saw our primary mandate not as “keeping the peace” but, in the wisdom and oversight of our womanist teachers, as making a way where there is no way and standing with sisters and brothers committed to doing the same?
What would happen if we saw each other as the primary community to which we are beholden?
Think of the mustard seed.
Womanist theology reading suggestions:
- Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness
- Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Introducing a Womanist Theology
- Monica Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology or Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith
*A note to white readers: When we read womanist theology and draw insight and strength from its wisdom we need to also take care not to appropriate womanist ideas and treat them as if they are ours. The difference between appreciating womanist thought and appropriating it has to do, in part, with how well we remember to always give credit for the ideas we find meaningful to the womanist thinkers who came up with them. For example, the idea of making a way out of no way was developed by black women for black women. No matter how it transforms our lives for the better, the concept will never be ours to do with as we please. Read these books. Open yourself to them. Learn from them. Love them. Let them them shape you. Just remember to give womanists credit for what you glean, and remember that the privilege of shaping womanist ideas in new directions does not belong to us.
*As always, we want to remind you that if you are burning with an untold story of a sexual misdeed committed against you, we are here to listen, confidentially. We honor your path and your personal goals for healing, without expectation for any further sharing or action. If (and only if) you become ready at some future time to take further action toward accountability and justice, we are here to help you explore all your options with independent professionals. We believe in the importance of specially trained and licensed therapists and body workers. We have also found strength and healing through coming together anonymously with other survivors in peer support, self-help groups. Check here to see if there is a SNAP Survivor Support group meeting near you. And look for us at the 2017 Mennonite Convention in Orlando.