We came together because we started out as children who were saved by stories, stories read to us at night when we were little, stories we read by ourselves, in which we could get lost and thereby found. — Anne Lamott,Steinbeck Country
My husband and I are sitting at a table in the Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas. We’re sipping microbrew, celebrating our sixth anniversary, trying to forget about our grueling workweeks, and discussing the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, on whom we disagree.
He likes Clinton. Lately whenever she comes up in conversations, with me or with anyone, he says,
She’s got my vote. I usually counter him as I do tonight: Clinton is too hawkish, too establishment-beholden. Clinton should have known better than to vote for the war. If she were nominated, of course I’d vote for her in the general election; I’d plaster her stickers on my car and register voters for the Democratic party; I’d drop to my knees and kiss the ground and praise God through hot, jubilant tears if she were ever elected President of the United States. Because I am that desperate. But that doesn’t mean I’m voting for her in the primary.
I like Obama, I say to my husband, as if he doesn’t know. We can’t stop having this conversation. It’s turning into one of those favored arguments, the kind of thing so many couples keep in their repertoire to remind themselves why they both exasperate and attract one another. But this one has a short shelf life; we have to exploit it while we have it. I’m half a beer to the wind, now, which doesn’t sound like much but is enough for me on an empty stomach, and by the time I start extolling the virtues of Barack Obama (I’ll spare you my list, since this essay isn’t actually about Democratic presidential candidates) I’m having way more fun than I normally have discussing electoral politics.
Of course, my husband says,
when the time comes, you’ll be voting for both of us.
In the primary, he says.
Because I’m not a member of the Democratic party.
How did I not know this about him? Some couples stay married by keeping their political lives confined to the voting booth, but Eric and I have never been of that ilk. We started dating in the spring of 1998, during Bill Clinton’s most heated confrontation with Saddam Hussein over his weapons programs. With a handful of other Bethel students, we wrote letters to Clinton, protested our government’s brinksmanship in front of the courthouse and endured together the jeers of passing Newtonians yelling
Hippies! and all the other witless things they holler at peace marchers. (
Get a job! That’s my favorite one.) In the intervening years we’ve stood hand in hand at far larger demonstrations against the actions of far more nefarious politicians under circumstances we were too naïve to even imagine during our Bethel years. I know he is not a Republican, would not vote for a Republican under any imaginable circumstances—this is a man who can blame Republicans for a flat tire.
Why in heaven’s name are you not a member of the Democratic party?
I register Independent, he says.
I’m not a joiner.
He’s not a joiner. Great.
Why am I so irritated by this? Clearly, the Democratic party is not all we peace-loving liberals would like it to be. In fact, I could name twenty serious problems I have with the Democratic party right now, and every single one of them could get me hot-headed and agitated and table-pounding. And still, this joiner line gets in my craw.
It hearkens back to my days as a union activist in graduate school, when I helped organize the strike that got teaching assistants a fair-ish contract, then sat on the union steering committee for a year and recruited new members by knocking on office doors all over the university, trying to think of diplomatic responses to the line,
I’m not a joiner. Mostly, I felt like yelling. Who got you this raise? Who got you better health benefits? Who gives you your only chance at a stand against the jerks who run this university? How will you have a voice if you never join anything? Resisting my lower instincts, I would pause before speaking, reminding myself that unions are flawed, that unions carry baggage. It is not a cut-and-dried moral imperative for everyone to join the union. Now stay calm, I’d think, listen to their concerns, and then convince them why they should.
I try this strategy on Eric. I acknowledge the flaws of the party, those of the two-party system in general; I tip my hat to the Green Party; I play nice.
Here’s the thing, I say.
I’m a pragmatist. I’ve always felt that the need to thwart the dangers presented by having Republicans in office is more pressing than the need to make my tiny symbolic protest against the two-party system by voting for third-party candidates who don’t have a chance. And if I’m going to vote Democratic, I have to join the party. I have to claim my voice in the party. It’s the best way I know to effect actual change. (I actually talk like this. Blame it on the union.)
We go on with this a little longer, but we’ve reached a impasse with a dash of paradox: He’s extolling the virtues of a politician that I dislike based on her record as a keeper of the status quo, and I’m trying to convince him to join the establishment. We won’t resolve it tonight, and we’ve lost the energy for it now anyway. The beer’s good, our dinner is on the way, and we’re trying to relax. Like the masochists we are, we turn next to religion.
I suppose this join-to-effect-change argument could also be applied to the Mennonite church, I say.
There are probably people out there who would say that we have no right to criticize it if we don’t participate. Harold Bender said that.
Who’s Harold Bender? Eric and I are children of the General Conference; I didn’t know who Bender was either until long after graduating from Bethel College.
Goshen professor, mid-twentieth century, I say.
One of those über-Mennos. Big metaphorical black coat.
Oh. Well anyway, that’s crap. It’s not like you’re in the church or out of it, and that’s the end of that. We’re Mennonites. That’s where we come from. No one gets to tell us that we don’t have a right to say anything about Mennonites just because we don’t go to church.
It’s fun to watch his rhetoric shift on this one. Mostly, he’s defending me, since I’m the one who writes about Mennonites. Though raised in the church, he’s not baptized—he’s not a joiner, after all—and uses this fact as a distancing technique whenever Mennonite institutions particularly appall or disappoint him. I’m baptized, myself, but I was only fourteen at the time and it was more an act of a conformist than a believer; these days, there is little perceivable difference between his commitment to the church, or lack thereof, and my own.
Our food has arrived, and besides, there are laws against discussing Mennonite identity on your anniversary. Or at least there should be. We drop the subject, and eat.
* * *
A few days later I sat down at my computer and read five articles, published in the spring 2007 issue of Mennonite Life, written in response to my December 2006 article,
Staying Alive: How Martyrdom Made Me a Warrior and
A One-Sided Diet: Martyrs and Warriors, the companion piece written by Mel Goering. Mostly I read with gratitude that my story had prompted other stories, and it was the stories of the Martyrs Mirror in several of the respondents’ lives that I most appreciated, that most helped me understand the weight of this volume in Anabaptist history. There were moments in the responses that reminded me how much peacemaking has yet to happen across the divides of gender, generations, and differing experiences amongst those of us who call ourselves Mennonite, moments that reminded me how easily we read past one another, looking for an entrenched position we can then argue against. We’re all guilty of this, from time to time, and I’m no exception myself.
Here’s a humbling lesson that I’ve learned before and will keeping relearning as long as I keep writing: Once you finish something and send it out into the world—particularly when your currency is ambiguous narrative and personal reflection rather than unambiguously stated positions—you relinquish all control over what people will make of it. After finishing the last article of the series, in which Hannah Kehr refers to
Stephanie Krehbiel in her argument against the martyrs, I felt an old, familiar exhaustion, a close cousin to my sentiments on those rare occasions I subject myself to the absurdly dichotomist world of CNN punditry (or have it forced upon me—these days my CNN exposure is more or less restricted to airports). If there’s one thing that doesn’t interest me about the discussion, it’s the potential for a polemic war in which we argue back and forth as to whether or not the martyrs should be declared universally irrelevant and booted out of history. I don’t consider my essay an anti-martyr manifesto, though I don’t necessarily privilege my author’s interpretation over a reader’s, and I knew, when writing it, that some people would read it that way. What does interest me, coming out of all this, is how storytelling addresses our deepest needs, whether we stand at the top or the middle or the bottom of the ladder of privilege.
* * *
Agency: such an annoying, academic word for something we all want so badly. (If you know of a better word for it, drop me a line. There’s
power, of course, but I don’t want to unpack that baggage again.) Having passed through a two hundred hour yoga teacher-training course, with all the required workshop attendance and yoga magazine reading entailed in such an experience, I’m more familiar with the insipid abuses of this concept rampant in American pop spirituality than I ever wanted to be. I almost threw in my yoga mat during one workshop at a high-end studio in a northern Detroit suburb, led by two fashionable yoga celebrities with great pretensions to spiritual wisdom. As they wandered around the room, adjusting our sweating bodies, they intoned, over and over,
You create your own reality. Well, to a point, perhaps. But I was as dizzy from the privilege fumes as I was from the incense. If I hadn’t needed the extra credit hours for my certification, I would have walked out.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. The saving grace of my yoga experience was the location of my teacher training classes, which was across the city in a bleak, ugly, lower-middle-class southern Detroit suburb. Few of my fellow classmates had much money, and most were suspicious of the goopier extremes of yoga subculture. I particularly remember the uncomfortable pause that opened a discussion of a lousy textbook assigned to us, within which another pop guru gushed for pages about how yoga would transform our lives into blissful waking dreams, free us from all suffering, and basically absolve us from the need to ever think, ever again. (To be fair to my instructors, it was by far the worst thing we read.)
After a moment or so, the pierced, tattooed, Goth boy next to me broke the silence:
Uh, is it just me, or is this book a piece of s**t?
If I thought agency was as gloriously accessible as such books would lead me to believe, I’d probably be in one of two places: the New Age workshop circuit, or the local Republican party headquarters. So I understand Joseph Liechty when he writes:
For many people in hard times and hard places, the extent of their agency is similar to that of the martyrs, to respond with the greatest integrity possible to their massively constrained agency. Perhaps many North Americans will never face this hard truth. But it is good that they should practice their own lavish agency in the awareness that it is a privilege, and the martyrs can help teach that.
It’s an argument I’ve heard from Mennonites in the past, and it both attracts and frustrates me. On the one hand, the Martyrs Mirror stories witness to some hard truths about injustice, not to mention the dangers of theocracy, that a lot of North American cultural and religious voices seem vested in denying. I’m glad my Sunday school teachers didn’t candy-coat the darkness, much as I wish they’d steered clear of gruesome excess. Recognizing this, though, I still find myself needing to ask: are we actually hard up for stories that show how unfairly agency is distributed in our world? It’s true that Americans (here I’m focusing on my own countryfolk, out of familiarity rather than chauvinism) can be relentlessly oblivious to how good we have it, that we prefer cozy lies to facing the often-frightening responsibility that comes with our privileges. But Americans do, in fact, have access to a plethora of stories—true and invented, local and international, current and historical, scriptural and mythic—that challenge this complacency, much though many of us prefer to ignore them. I can only speak from my own, limited thirty-one years of experience as an American, but it seems to me the greater problem is that on the occasions when we encounter difficult stories, we respond with either
dismissive irritation (such as Liechty espoused in relation to Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness in his opening paragraph) or by making whatever interpretive stretch is needed to render the difficult stories the least challenging to our worldview.
(As for those of us who are trying to get our fellow Americans to see what they don’t want to see, I’ve discovered one of the fastest ways of shooting ourselves in the feet is our tendency to patronizing smugness. I sympathize with Liechty’s smugness, despite being the butt of it—I have my own smugness issues. The line between
smartassed is pretty blurry.)
None of this is meant as an argument for forgetting about the martyrs, or throwing out their stories. Ignoring history is a terrible idea. On a personal level, of course, it’s true that I keep my distance from the Martyr’s Mirror. I find that with ready access to daily news of people of all faiths rampantly killing and oppressing one another, I don’t have much appetite for a seventeenth-century text with a central message of Christian triumphalism. I write this knowing that what sounds like triumphalism to my twenty-first-century ears may well have been downright broad-minded for the martyrs’ Europe, that there are a lot of ways to take the martyr stories, and this aspect needn’t be front and center. My distaste for the stories speaks in part to my own needs as a card-carrying pluralist who’s had to make her way in secular, religiously diverse institutions, as well as to my needs as a Bible Belt-bred American who’s heard enough Christian triumphalism to last me a few very grouchy lifetimes.
While I’m by no means suggesting that it’s a universal affliction of socially and globally conscious Mennonites, it troubles me that many continue to talk as though Mennonites and a handful of other theologically sympathetic Christians are the only Americans who really
get peace and justice (or the need to wash out and reuse plastic bags, for that matter). In my old hometown of Newton, Kansas, I think the inevitable town vs. gown tensions between the moderately progressive Bethel campus and its largely conservative surroundings exacerbates this tendency. I don’t know to what extent this is the case elsewhere. Of course I would hate for this statement to be perceived as disparaging of Mennonites who have suffered harassment and persecution beyond their control for their peace-loving stance—my own experiences in that department have been mercifully scant in the scheme of things, but powerful enough that I can imagine how much worse it can be. But the Mennonites I most respect (and there are many) strive to avoid using such experiences as justification for rendering themselves oblivious to potential allies, even—or especially—non-Christian ones. I strive to follow their example.
My spiritual and social conscience, while born in Mennonite quarters, is just as much a product of an adult life spent mostly in Big Ten university towns with large international populations, and a disciplinary proximity to cultural anthropology, a field with a fraught relationship to Christianity, to say the least. The majority of the friends I’ve made since college are not practicing Christians, or are Christians struggling mightily to figure out if they still belong in the faith. They are, in various combinations and no particular order, artists, accountants, musicians, parents, married, single, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, pop culture junkies, agnostics, professors, public servants, Americans, Arabs, Africans, and Asians. Every one of them is as peace-loving, as morally grounded, and as committed to transforming the world as the best Mennonites I know. They are unquestionably, to use Robert Kreider’s words, my spiritual kinfolk.
Kreider notes the absence of Gospel in my account.
The Anabaptist martyr narrative doesn’t make sense without the Jesus master narrative, he writes. I agree. I also agree with Kehr that
one can view the sacrifice of the martyrs as an act of agency. My own martyr education was fairly agency-denying, but I’ve never doubted that the Anabaptist martyrs made extraordinary use of the small scraps of agency they were left in their ghastly and far-too-common circumstances. The difficulty, for me, is finding empowerment in the religious framework they used to do so. If I am a Christian, then I am not the sort of Christian who feels much certainty about who Jesus was. Nor much about why he died, beyond what I think is obvious: that empires try to destroy their truth-tellers, and we the people tend to go along with that, the consequences of defiance being more clearly dangerous than those of complicity. The Gospels are a source of hope for me, but not my master narrative. I don’t have a master narrative.
But here I arrive back at the problem Eric and I brooded over last week: having confessed all this, do I relinquish my right to usage of the Mennonite
we, something I did a few times in
Staying Alive? I’m not sure, to be honest. I wrote the bulk of
Staying Alive over a year ago, and as with all my past work, I can barely read it without breaking into hives. If anything bothers me about that essay, it’s the Mennonite
we, but not for the reason Liechty suggests, that a personal story can claim no wider relevance for other Mennonites. It’s more that I’ve learned to distrust the whole concept of the Mennonite
No one thing unites Mennonites, despite what any denominational publication says: not culture, not ethnicity, not beliefs. That’s not a cynical statement, just a comment on our diversity, the web-like nature of our connections to one another. If you grew up in Kinshasa or Bogotá or even Lancaster County, I have little to no idea what being a Mennonite means to you, or what stories you have been told. Sometimes people fall back on defining a Mennonite as someone who attends a Mennonite church, but that, I’ve realized, is just an opinion on the matter, not a definition I can trust.
The treacherous Mennonite insider/outsider binary has been explored by writers and scholars far superior to myself, so I’ll leave further details to them, for now, and keep my reasons short. Why did I write to a Mennonite audience (whatever that means)—why am I still doing so now? Because that audience motivates me. Because I don’t think it would kill powerful Mennonites to hear from more women my age. Because I don’t have much to lose in doing so.
I feel as strongly as Kreider does that
an agent of change needs a base community and that spiritual kinfolk are vital to sustained, world-changing activism. I’ve defended Christianity and organized religion in general to skeptical peers on countless occasions, usually with this reason at the forefront of my mind. Yet for me, this is painful terrain. My found spiritual family is now scattered across the country and to some extent, the globe, and I miss a lot of what a church community has to offer. In fact, I think lack of religious and/or spiritual community plays a huge role in the despair that is frankly epidemic in my generation; many of us are lonely, and alienated, and struggle to find hope and agency.
Still, I’ve never suggested to a struggling friend that he or she try a Mennonite church. I’m not
missional. The Mennonite Church USA, in its current state, is too patriarchal, homophobic, and anti-pluralist to be an option for most of the non-Mennonite, justice-minded seekers of my acquaintance. This isn’t offered as a judgment of anyone who is living faithfully within the church while struggling with these issues. This isn’t to deny the great and wondrous good that so many Mennonites do, cleaning up after disasters, feeding the hungry, serving the downtrodden, speaking the truth about war and poverty to power, following in the steps of Jesus Christ. It’s just the simple truth on the ground where I stand.
I am a person of faith, someone who prays daily, who finds great solace in the belief that there are forces for good at work in this universe wholly beyond my reckoning. And unlike my husband, I’m a joiner, when I feel joining would be to the greater good as well as my own. No
to join or not to join dilemma has given me more heartache than the one that has led me—for now, anyway—away from the Mennonite church. Compared to this, deciding my political party affiliation is a cakewalk.
* * *
But I want to get back to stories, because no one survives without them, regardless of circumstance. I received an e-mail from a Mennonite friend and colleague last month that got me thinking:
Our church here is a kind of neat, relatively liberalaffirmingcongregation. People have been really nice to us the whole time we’ve been there. They reach out. And we’ve got friends there. But for some reason, I don’t feel like going lately. I think it’s partly because my community of friends these days…doesn’t see the Biblical stories as particularly meaningful. I used to read the Bible a lot, for the stories. I still think the stories are where it’s at in the Bible, really, not the letters or theological principles people take from things, not the ethics or morals: just the stories of people, the imprints of particular people being, and the recasting of their stories as the way of the sensible universe; good, intention, tragedy, death, et al come into being. When I was most excited about church, those stories and my stories seemed to have a lot in common: drinking coffee or beer with a friend, talking late into the night about whatever, making music, going on a long trip, writing poetry…I don’t think my friends these days see our interactions as numinous in quite this way. I don’t think my church does either: sermons extract bits of liberal humanist wisdom, and social ethics, out of these stories—that’s the point of exegesis.
Here, I thought, is a liberal Mennonite who misses what I’m missing. Gerald Mast is getting at the same problem, I think, when he writes,
A re-acquaintance with the Martyrs Mirror will serve to subvert a kind of incipient conservative Unitarianism one finds all too often among progressive Mennonites, focused around service to others and activism on behalf of good human causes, but scandalized by the biblical good news that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. His religious beliefs probably differ from my own and my friend’s, but I suspect we agree on this: Solid humanist ethics are not enough to sustain us.
Ethics are vital, of course. Progressive churches are emphasizing them because so many conservative churches have deserted them. But in isolation from passionate storytelling, they leave a lot of us cold. They leave us hopeless, because as Liechty aptly observed, there is so much wrong that we can’t do a thing about. Sometimes progressive church services remind me of union steering committee meetings. We
affirm, and we
dialogue, but we fear the fire, the mystery, and to use my friend’s well-chosen word, the numinous. We fear these things because they can’t be tamed by morals and ethics.
The five responses to
Staying Alive and
A One-Sided Diet all point to the need for what I’ve come to refer to—clumsily, I know—as high-stakes, life-and-death, hardcore dangerous storytelling. By this I mean stories that take us into the heart of the things we fear, the most extreme situations we can imagine, and show us how, under such circumstances, people find hope and make choices. The best narratives in this category, whether they’re fiction, folklore, or myth, are problematic and difficult. The best narratives are untamable, paradox-ridden, open to a vast array of interpretations.
It’s a testament to how desperately we need these stories that we fight incessantly over what they are actually saying.
* * *
When it comes to such stories, our taste has everything to do with what we’re lacking and what we’re craving. Our religious beliefs play some role in that, as does our gender. My husband once told me that as a man he found the Martyrs Mirror empowering because against a wider cultural backdrop of narratives celebrating male aggression and dominance, it offered a kind of power based not on worldly success but on the strength of one’s heart and one’s spirit—a subversive take on masculine agency, to be certain. Mast implies the same in contrasting the book to the
war-glorifying, male-centered histories he read as a boy.
My cultural backdrop is different. This premise that is so radical to men, that overwhelming might can be met with a physically defenseless and yet powerful witness, is frankly old news for a lot of women. For a woman who believes in gender equality and her right to her own voice, spiritual survival is nearly impossible without acceptance of this premise. Most of us learn early on that women who threaten establishment and cultural norms are frequently repaid with censure, sometimes violent, often devastating. Our culture is replete with narratives that illustrate this. Some of these narratives have their own inherent misogyny; some are honest and necessary reflections of a misogynist reality. Sometimes it’s devilishly difficult to figure out if they are one or the other. Regardless, one thing is certain: they are ubiquitous. (Gender was the ghost at my shoulder when I wrote
Staying Alive; looking back, I wonder if it shouldn’t have been at the essay’s center.)
This isn’t to say that the Martyrs Mirror can’t speak to women. Clearly it can, and does to many. There are magnificent women in these stories: courageous, indomitable women who stood up to crushing institutional power, in return for which they were gruesomely killed. I don’t advocate for protecting anyone, child or adult, from the knowledge of this sort of injustice, but religious educators and parents need to realize that many girls and women come to the table already saturated with stories of victimization with which they can’t help but identify. Women are at a higher risk than men for making an immediate causal relationship between the condition of speaking one’s truth and the condition of being punished for that. That causal relationship is something our churches should work to heal; taken to excess, its reinforcement is one more way of keeping women silent.
A complete foreigner to Anabaptism, after taking a surface reading of Mennonite history, might be forgiven for concluding that the one and only time Mennonites have allowed women to speak with as much force and conviction as men was when they were headed for the executioner’s block. I often feel this way about the abstract group that is
my people, though I wouldn’t state it in court; as I said in my previous essay, I am not an historian. I am a woman who reads stories, and responds to them deeply, and from this position, and no other, I say this: Women need to hear stories in which women save themselves. For that matter, men need to hear them too.
* * *
Staying Alive, I wrote,
Of course, I’m not going to convince any Mennonites to start showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Sunday school, and that’s hardly my intent. Shortly after publication, a dear friend, then an Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary student, now a pastor of a large Mennonite congregation, wrote to thank me for the article, and told me about her latest AMBS project: a Sunday school curriculum based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I doubt if I’ll ever find a church to actually present this in, she wrote. I doubt it too, but I think I know why the idea attracts her: in addition to addressing violence in a more nuanced fashion than most television, Buffy shows a woman grappling with grave responsibility who does not defer to patriarchal authorities or look to them for salvation. The show has its Hollywood problems, but it’s hard, still very hard, to get more radical than that.
Mennonites have a long history of distrusting stories that come to us from outside a Christian, or even Anabaptist, framework. I won’t rehash the historical reasons; we know them already. This distrust is a subtext in several of the responses to my original essay. And while I understand it to some degree—heaven knows, there’s plenty of garbage out there, some of it completely unredeemable—no stance towards
outsider stories will give us a free pass out of the dangers inherent in storytelling. The best way to mute those dangers is to tell an awful lot of stories.
The fantasy writer Neil Gaiman opens his poem,
Locks, with the line
We owe it to each other to tell stories. When asked what he believes, Gaiman claims this line as the closest thing he has to a credo. It’s the closest I have as well, and in the end, this credo means much more to me than staying Mennonite. As it happens, though, there’s no consensus on what it means to be a Mennonite. So for the time being, I think I’ll keep being one.