But Peace Does Not Destroy Everyone
I first heard of the Mennonite pastor Chester Wenger in the fall of 2014, when he released his open letter to the Mennonite Church explaining his decision to perform a gay marriage ceremony for his son. I read that letter carefully, shared it with my Mennonite parents, and promptly forgot about it until a warm evening in the summer of 2016 when I queued up the final episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series and went for a walk through a field on my parents’ central Pennsylvania farm. I’d heard Gladwell say that the final episode of his show was his favorite, but I had no sense of the specific topic. And then Chester Wenger’s voice flooded my earbuds.
Wenger speaks gently, yet firmly, with a slight Pennsylvania-Dutch accent. He is in his late nineties, but his voice, though occasionally quavery, is clear and warm. As Wenger articulated his decision to defy his conservative Mennonite conference and support his son in his decision to marry his partner, something unlocked in my chest: admiration for Wenger’s grace, deep sorrow at the homophobic position of so many Mennonite polities, and another deeper, more complicated longing. Listening to Wenger, it was like I was back in one of the wooden pews of the Mennonite church of my youth, listening to the preaching of the pastor who had baptized me, and whom I’d grown up admiring. That man and Chester Wenger have the same accent, the same cadences, the same warm, vowelly, hospitable tones. It’s the sort of voice I’ve only ever encountered in Mennonite communities. It’s the voice I associate with my home.
I thought of Chester Wenger again about a year later when I read the Mennonite writer Miriam Toews’s Granta essay, “Peace Shall Destroy Many.” That devastating piece reads like a series of charges against the Mennonite values of silence, conformity, and submission: within Toews’s family, in her home community of Steinbach, Manitoba, and in the Mennonite colony in Bolivia where a number of Mennonite men tranquilized neighboring women while they slept and then raped them, horrifying events that are detailed in “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia” in Vice. If Chester Wenger’s graceful response to his son’s sexuality and to his own critics represents the best of the Mennonite values of humility and forgiveness, it’s possible to see these rapes—and their concealment, and the colony’s denial of the victims’ trauma and insistence that they forgive the men who violated them—as exemplifying the darkest, most coercive possible expression of the Mennonite spirit of forbearance and unity, which can produce what Toews calls, “the conviction that certain realities shouldn’t be exposed,” the idea that some subjects are simply too disruptive to group harmony and congregational authority to be spoken of. And so, cruelty and violence fester under the veneer of conformity and obedience, like black mold behind the paneling that covers a church basement’s walls.
The violence encouraged by fidelity to congregational authority haunts the Mennonite community in Rudy Wiebe’s 1962, Peace Shall Destroy Many, the novel that gives Toews’s essay its title and frames its argument about Mennonite complicity in violence. Wiebe’s novel depicts the coming-of-age of the thoughtful Mennonite farmboy, Thom Wiens, and the attempts by the Mennonite deacon, Peter Block, to maintain his control over every facet of life in the community. Deacon Block is a force; he’s handsome, virile, prosperous, and powerful. He led the community out of famine-stricken revolutionary Russia to safety in Saskatchewan and helped it to achieve independence. Within the congregation, his word is law. And yet as the novel details in thrilling flashback, Block is the worst possible hypocrite: during the famine in revolutionary Russia, he killed a man, a non-Mennonite villager who stole a cache of meat Block had secreted in his barn to feed his infant son. This murder, the novel tells us, motivated all Block’s efforts on behalf of the village. Upon reflecting on what he had done, Block “was driven by furies...driven to confess and repent, driven to labour for the Widow Esau and her family as for himself, driven to lift the village out of the morass of poverty, driven to bring them back to the paths of the fathers that they had missed over the years, driven to innumerable massive efforts, alone, that he might be an example to his son.” But for all Block’s private attempts to atone, his penchant for violence follows him to Canada. After his daughter is impregnated by one his Métis employees and dies in childbirth, Block attacks the father and threatens to castrate him—and then buys out the property of all of the Métis neighbors, forcing them to leave so that they won’t pose any further threat to the “purity” of the congregation.
I read Wiebe’s novel much as I read Toews’s essay, in awe at its lucidity and with a sense of sickening recognition: as a gay man, I’ve felt the ways Mennonite conformity and rigidity can refuse to accept the complexity of lived human reality. But something gnawed at me as I reflected on both of these texts. I recognized so much in the communities Toews and Wiebe depict—the repression and the productivity, the transcendent force of the music and the silence—and yet the depths of violence in the Saskatchewan community and the Mennonite communities Toews describes seemed foreign.
The church of my youth was not like this, I told myself. Our deacon for many years was a kindly, graying farmer, hardly an enforcer. And the pastor worked by suasion and exhortation, not by fiat, far more a kindly “Chester Wenger” than a murderous “Peter Block.” Even now, when I think of my home congregation, gentle memories come to mind. Warm breezes drifting through the open windows on summer mornings. Candlelight Christmas services. January frost on the high, clear windowpanes. The voices of the all the members swelling in harmony during my favorite hymn, Number 538 in The Mennonite Hymnal, “The Love of God.” The warm and gentle tones of the pastor as he led us in the benediction: ‘And now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”
The same warmth that flowed from my pastor’s features shone on the faces of all four of my grandparents. They all spoke with that same “Dutchie” accent, smiled just as easily. They mostly lived with the Mennonite grace that Chester Wenger modeled when he agreed to perform a marriage ceremony for his gay son. When I came out, my grandmothers, at least, accepted me. When I married my partner last December, my Grandma Hess left me a wedding check. When my partner announced that he wanted to start going by his Chinese name, my Grandma Harnish was among the first to start calling him “Kai,” and, at 83, she uses his name far more reliably than my parents.
There is nostalgia here, I know that. Some of these memories are unquestionably softened by a sense of loss. My grandmother died Christmas Eve of 2016, preceded by her husband and sister earlier that year. In the span of seven months, several of the most resolutely graceful and affirming people I have ever known departed. They were all Mennonites. I am not a churchgoer, at least for now, but I have to admit that the tumult of that year—very much including the shock of the 2016 U.S. election result and the ever-deepening darkness of our national politics—has made the simplicity of my Mennonite youth seem increasingly attractive, or what I’ve tried to think of as that simplicity.
But the more I’ve considered the church of my youth, the more my resistance to Toews’s argument and Wiebe’s narrative has broken down. Yes, the pastor of my youth reminds me of Chester Wenger. Yes, the men have the same gentle locutions, the same warmth. But the fact that they sound alike and exude the same gentle charisma does not mean that they are alike in how they deal with difference or injustice or human complexity.
When I left the church at eighteen, after an abortive attempt to lead an M.Y.F. Bible study in a lesson on Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, I never heard from the pastor. And when I visited the church a few summers ago for my cousins’ missionary commissioning, my sexuality now widely known, the pastor and his wife, retired now, hurried past me without a word—no confrontation there, no outright violence. But as Toews rightly points out in her essay, it is a mistake to suppose that only the Peter Blocks of the world bully their congregants, or that brute force is the only corrosive form of power.
The insistent attribution of absolute power to Scripture can also wound. This is its own implacable means of asserting authority, a maneuver that allows the fundamentalist to point to a particular verse and insist that every homophobic decision, every rebuke, every withdrawal of fellowship, is, alas, simply the will of the Almighty as stated in Scripture. These passive-seeming appeals to Scripture can be wielded skillfully, charismatically, and even with an authentic sense of grief and sorrow. This is how the pastor of my home congregation wielded it, and how the conservative conferences of the Mennonite church wield it where the issue of homosexuality is concerned.
And the more I reflect on the church of my youth, the more I recognize violence I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge at the time, cruelty that was hidden in plain sight, like my own queer suffering. I am still haunted by the lost look in the eyes of the spouse of the congregation’s most notorious failed farmer, a man whose farm had once been a showplace, and was now full of rusted out old tractors, rotting tires, and collapsing barns. The farmer himself seldom came to the meetinghouse, but his wife moved between the sanctuary and foyer as in a daze. Another farmer was notorious for serving milk from his allegedly organic herd in Clorox bottles and cutting the fences of the Amishman who’d make the mistake of purchasing the acres that debt had forced him to sell. That farmer’s wife was bedridden for decades, at least in part, I think, as a response to her husband’s aggression and recklessness. How many other taciturn men in the congregation bullied and abused their wives? Plenty did not; there were many happy marriages, like those of my parents and many of their friends. But I will never forget the Sunday morning when one of the pastor’s close relatives came before the congregation and explained that, actually, he’d been trying to witness to the prostitute he’d been ticketed for soliciting in Lancaster City, on Water Street. His wife supported this, and I think he also asked for some sort of sidelong forgiveness, and so we all agreed to accept, if not believe, this obvious lie.
And then there is the violence I am implicated in. A mission trip to Richmond, Virginia took our church bus past rows of sagging homes. “Porch monkeys,” one of my friends hissed. I had never heard the euphemism; I didn’t make the connection to the community’s African-American residents until much later, though when I did, I didn’t confront my friend, just as I didn’t rebuke him over his relentless misogyny, the “teasing” of one of our young female youth leaders with the phrase, “Get back to the kitchen,” said with an especially sadistic mixture of playfulness and cruelty. The woman laughed, each time. I recognized the pain in her eyes and said nothing.
All of this, I’ve managed to blot out for years, like I’ve managed to mostly forget the homophobia of that same friend group. In high school, we all had a strange preoccupation with “pig Latin.” Gay spelled backwards is “yag.” “Yag” became the default label for anything that was “ugly,” “uncool,” “effeminate” or “stupid.” Week upon week, month upon month, the term of derision shuddered through me—and sometimes passed my lips—and I refused to accept that it had anything whatsoever to do with me: even as my faith frayed, even as I longed for some of the same men throwing the word around so easily. Is it any wonder I fled the congregation so abruptly, cut off contact with those friends, and sought comfort in the sweetness of my youthful memories of the congregation and amber glow of nostalgia?
And these are just the individual cruelties in the congregation. Then there is the subtler, structural cruelty of the “evangelical industrial” theology that frames the “sin” of abortion as such an abomination that it supersedes all other questions of political morality and justice, freeing Christians from having to engage with any of the entailments of a Republican legislative agenda that is very good to landed Mennonites and lethal for the poor, many of whom are people of color. Care for the fetus supersedes care for all living and breathing people scarred by poverty, whether in struggling urban neighborhoods or the trailer parks scattered between Lancaster County farms, mostly populated by poor whites. There is the ableism of the church, the way it disdains those who cannot sustain the rigors of productive labor and scorns those who admit to mental difference, discouraging the discussion of these matters. And most painful for me, the church’s refusal of membership to gay and transgendered people.
I am in my thirties now, and so, as I reflect upon the church of my youth, I’m forced to acknowledge that the church that I remember is gone. Even the building is different, the new sanctuary more like a mega-church auditorium, the theology inflected by the “evangelical industrial complex,” which attributes absolute power to Scripture in the service of a political ideology that it is entirely “of the world.” The example of Donald Trump, who the members of my home congregation mostly voted for, could not be less Mennonite—Mennonite in the sense of plainness, humility, and sacrifice. But then, it seems to me it is just a matter of time before the word “Mennonite” disappears from the church sign.
Shortly after the 2016 election, my husband and I had dinner with one of my childhood friends from the congregation, a kind man who was also a collaborator in the racism, homophobia, and misogyny that made up so much of our youthful “comedy.” Trump came up, of course. My husband, an immigrant, voiced his concerns that Trump is enabling racism.
“You mean the white supremacists?’ my friend said. “They’re just a bunch of crazies. You can’t give any credit to what they think.”
His words chilled me. And the more I’ve reflected on them, the more his words have seemed to crystalize the ways rural Mennonites—and white evangelicals all over the United States—have shrugged off the rising tide of racist violence in the United States by consigning it to outsiders.
Perhaps overt racist violence is still uncommon in most Mennonite congregations. Certainly, I hope it is. But when overt racism and misogyny appear, they often go unconfronted. Like spousal abuse, sexual harassment, and so many other forms of “unspeakable” violence, they are ignored and met with silence. Certainly, this was how it was in my home church. The racist jokes and the worst of the misogyny and homophobia in our youth group originated with one person—another close relative of the pastor—and yet at the time, none of us confronted him; we allowed the cruel rhetoric to spread unchecked, and it touched and poisoned all of us. It made us toxic.
Sometime during our high school years, a couple from New York City moved to our community and became active in the church, and even youth leaders for a time. Their oldest son was a wheelchair user. For a while, he became a part of my circle of friends. But our indifference to his needs, our mockery of his fierce and intelligent mother, and the toxicity of the racism and misogyny that flickered behind the surfaces of our jokes drove that family from the congregation. And as our “humor” festered unchecked, it further infected the congregation with the embittered values of white, rural America. This pattern of quiet scorn for the other seems to have repeated itself in conservative Mennonite congregations across the United States, where allegiance to the quiet tribe of the congregation has been replaced by tribal allegiance to a white evangelical identity movement, whose leaders are bent on wielding theocratic earthly power.
So, the more that I reflect upon my objections to Toews’s and Wiebe’s critiques of Mennonite culture, the more I have to acknowledge the darkness and violence that lurked behind the mild faces of all the upright and decent members who populated of the congregation of my youth. When I try to pine for the old Mennonite resistance to worldliness, for the quietism that seems far preferable to activist, structurally violent evangelical humor and politics, I have to concede that, as Toews and Wiebe reveal, even the “purer” strains of Mennonite theology left and – still leave – marginalized members vulnerable to abuse.
But the Chester Wengers of the world are still with us. My home congregation is not the only Mennonite church that marked me. For many years, my aunt and uncle were members of Hyattsville Mennonite Church, just outside Washington, D.C. That congregation is as “open and affirming” as my home church is closed and censorious. Over the years, as I struggled to make sense of my body and came out to my parents, my aunt and uncle supported me—gently, gracefully, thoughtfully, and humbly, and their grace has suffused my family; it’s helped my parents and extended family to accept me, and now, my partner.
Chester Wenger’s spirit lives in churches like Hyattsville, which recently licensed a gay pastor, and in open and affirming Mennonite churches all across North America and beyond. And that same loving and generous spirit lives richly outside the Mennonite faith, in the counter-publics and academic communities whose often explicitly anti-religious activism on this and other issues moved the church, insofar as it has been moved to advocate for queer people, people with disabilities, people of color.
So, while I accept most of Toews’s criticisms in her brilliant essay, and while I grant the verisimilitude of Wiebe’s narrative, I would still like to call for a little more nuance in the deployment and understanding of the term Mennonite. The word has such strong connotations of order and lockstep conformity, especially to outsiders. But there is a great deal of variety in the Mennonite world. There’s so much difference in the ways the Mennonite values of non-resistance, submission, and humility are applied and lived out. It may be that, in the face of individual and structural political violence, most Mennonite communities do “resound a ‘deafening silence,’” as Toews puts it. Traditional Mennonite values unquestionably empower abusers and silence victims in fundamentalist Mennonite communities all over the world.
But perhaps the key word here is fundamentalist, and not Mennonite. And rural isolation, warped by waves of evangelically inflected political propaganda, is often almost as destructive as unchecked patriarchal power. Combined, these make for the sorts of horrifying abuses perpetrated by the men of the Bolivian Mennonite colony, and they help explain the widespread evangelical support for Donald Trump that is now menacing American democracy.
Fundamentalism, embittered isolation, and authoritarianism: these, I think, are the great threats to peace and justice, insofar as they exist now. How should we address these threats? I wish I knew. As my husband’s research in Hong Kong has shown me, peaceful protest and advocacy can only do so much in the face of implacable authoritarianism. But part of me—the part that is inspired by Chester Wenger, and that still draws comfort from the warmest memories of the church of my youth—believes that progressive, open and affirming communities of faith—and perhaps especially Mennonite communities—might play some important part in the ongoing struggle for global peace and justice, even if only as counter-publics that offer a retreat from nationalism, warmongering, and attacks upon the other.