An openness to learning is the first step

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Scholar Kim Penner talks about Christian ethics, the Mennonite church and sexual abuse

February 7, 2018 | Young Voices | Volume 22 Issue 04
Aaron Epp, Young Voices Editor
An ally holds a sign at the Winnipeg Women’s March in January 2018. ‘We need to acknowledge the fact that we are not presently equal,’ Kim Penner says. (Photo by Matthew Sawatzky)

Kim Penner graduated last November with a PhD in theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Canadian Mennonite called Penner at her home in Waterloo, Ont., to ask her about her dissertation, “Discipleship as erotic peacemaking: Toward a feminist Mennonite theo-ethics of embodiment and sexuality,” and what her work has to offer the Mennonite church. The interview has been edited and condensed for reasons of space.

CM: What is your PhD dissertation about?

KP: My dissertation is about the methods, sources and norms that Mennonites use to do Christian ethics. I bring in a critical feminist perspective that looks for how relationships of power are operating in all of those circumstances. In particular, I was interested in looking at sexuality and embodiment as the context for doing Christian ethics. What I end up proposing is a particular type of sexual ethics that I call “erotic peacemaking,” which is both, I think, faithful to a Mennonite approach to doing ethics and committed to the well-being of the most vulnerable members [women, LGBTQ persons, people with disabilities, people of colour] of a community of faith. To me, that’s a big part of what makes it feminist.

CM: What inspired this research?

KP: I grew up with many positive experiences of what it means to be Mennonite and how to be a disciple of Jesus within the community of faith, but I also experienced some things that didn’t seem to match what I thought the church was supposed to be committed to. For example, I thought that if I was part of a church that is committed to peace and nonviolence, that we should be talking about those things with regards to gender and sexuality. I didn’t hear that happening, and, in fact, I heard those conversations being shut down or not taking seriously the experiences of the people who were being affected the most, which would have been women and LGBTQ persons. The failure of Mennonite peace theology and ethics to address human sexuality and gender-based violence was also a key [inspiration].

CM: What do you want people to learn from your work?

KP: Power exists in all of our relationships, including among Mennonites. Mennonites are not exempt from relationships of privilege and disadvantage. As much as we would like to be a community of equals, and we should strive for that, we need to acknowledge the fact that we are not presently equal, at least in our social context and relationships. We need to start our conversation and our ethics by talking about power and privileging the voices and experiences of those with the least amount of privilege or power in a given conversation. That means listening to those experiences in community, and in relationship with Scripture, to see how the Holy Spirit might be working there. I also would love people to take away an understanding of sexuality as good and intrinsic to our human experience, and that God shows how good our sexuality is in part by the fact that God became flesh and human in Jesus. To be human is to be a sexual person, so that is an affirmation of our sexuality, if we understand sexuality as—broadly speaking—our need for intimate relationships.

CM: Your dissertation explores in part Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s methodical perpetration of sexual violence against upwards of 100 women. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated just how prevalent sexual assault and harassment is in society. What can Canadian Mennonites learn from this, and how might we respond?

KP: There is clearly a lot to learn right now, and it’s really being open to learning that is the first step. What Canadian Mennonites can learn from [the case of] John Howard Yoder is that we need to examine our theology in order to see if there are particular ways that our beliefs about God, or how we interpret Scripture, could potentially perpetuate violence or sexual abuse. On a practical level, an immediate thing we can do is learn about the importance of believing victims. John Howard Yoder’s victims were not believed, and there are many reasons for this, but some of it had to do with, I think, an emphasis on the Mennonite community as a place where this violence doesn’t happen. We know now that it does happen among Mennonites. Of course, wanting to prevent abuse from happening means looking at abuse of power and creating better systems of accountability in our churches and in the academy as well.

CM: What do you have to say to young Canadian Mennonites—I’m thinking people between the ages of 16 and 25—about the #MeToo movement?

KP: Be encouraged by this example of bravery, and the support that the movement has received. Change is possible. Sometimes change happens outside of the church first before it happens inside the church. The #MeToo movement can be inspirational for young Canadian Mennonites to motivate them to work for change within their own congregations, to promote listening to the experiences of survivors of abuse, and also to work to prevent sexual abuse from happening in the first place.

An ally holds a sign at the Winnipeg Women’s March in January 2018. ‘We need to acknowledge the fact that we are not presently equal,’ Kim Penner says. (Photo by Matthew Sawatzky)

Kim Penner holds a PhD in theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Kim Penner)

Kim Penner with Marilyn Legge, her PhD advisor, at Penner’s graduation last November. (Photo courtesy of Kim Penner)

Participants make their way along Main Street as part of the Winnipeg Women’s March. ‘There is clearly a lot to learn right now, and it’s really being open to learning that is the first step,’ Kim Penner says. (Photo by Matthew Sawatzky)

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