Forging a New Language about Violence and Peace

I was working as a homemaker for Family and Children Services. Early one winter morning, I arrived at the home where I was working to find the door swinging open. The doorjamb was splintered and broken. I heard yelling and banging from the second floor. I ran inside, noting the disarray. The phone was pulled out of the wall. Someone had kicked or punched holes in the hallway walls. I followed the noise upstairs. I saw the woman I worked for huddled and shaking with fear in a corner of the bathroom. Her screaming ex-husband was standing menacingly over her. The two children were crying in the hallway. The little five-year-old girl ran to cling to her father’s leg, “Daddy, daddy, let’s go shopping.” She tried to distract him from his violence.

Seeing me, the woman yelled, “Call the police!” At this point he grabbed her and twisted her arm behind her back. He dragged her down the stairs to the kitchen and told her to put on her shoes and coat. She protested; she didn’t want to go anywhere with him. He raised his fist and threatened to hit her. Holding his two-year-old son I said, in a very tiny voice, “Don’t hit her.” At this point, he whirled around and started cursing at me. Within a minute he’d dragged her out of the house. I ran with the children to the neighbors’ and called the police.

The police arrived, and her next of kin came. Everyone was very worried because her ex-husband had threatened to kill her several times before. They told me to go home, they would take care of the children.

I felt totally numb. I managed to make it to some friends’ apartment. When they opened the door I dissolved into tears. I lay in their apartment for hours crying and reliving what I had just seen.

Later that evening I found out that the woman got home safely. She managed to talk her ex-husband down. She pretended she wanted to be with him and suggested they go shopping together for the kids. They spent some time at the mall, and he took her home.

That morning was pivotal for me—a moment that I’ve marked time from. It marked my beginning of thinking theologically about violence against women. When that event happened, I had just graduated from Bible College, where I’d spent years studying peace theology. I knew all about just war theory and why Mennonites don’t fight. I’d learned about conscientious objection and pacifism. But I had never heard about was the violence I had just witnessed. It was never brought up as a context for peace.

Faced with this violence, I felt speechless. I felt betrayed by my faith and by the education I’d received. Why had no one talked about this type of violence? Why didn’t I have ways to think faithfully about this? What did it mean to believe in nonviolence when I felt totally powerless to stop a 6’3″, 200 pound man from beating his wife right in front of me?

I started rethinking what I’d learned in college and in church. When I thought about it, most of the stories I’d heard involved men: men having to decide not to enlist, men choosing not to carry weapons. Outside of the war context, the question usually was, “If a man broke into your house and was going to rape your wife and children, would you kill him to protect them?” Peacemaking as it was taught to me was trying to find the language to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a man and a Mennonite?” What was never talked about was, “What does it mean to be a woman and a Mennonite?” What do you do when the man you love tries to hurt you or a man in your family abuses you? How do you respond when you see a man hurting a woman? These questions just weren’t on the radar screen.

And so that morning, I began a journey to find a new language—a new theological language to describe what I’d just seen, a language that would help me to speak to God about the pain I was witnessing. It took me many years to find the words and concepts I needed. I didn’t find them in the Mennonite world. I found them in the women’s movement and in feminist theology. I took what I learned, and it helped me make sense of my life and the life of my family and friends. I realized that violence was insidious and deeply rooted. Violence was very close to home. Having a language for violence helped me to be able to recognize it and decide to work against it.

Using this language took courage. I remember the first sermon I preached about this topic. My knees shook as I took the pulpit. I didn’t know if I would be allowed back after I used the words rape, incest and wife beating. At that time I didn’t think the words patriarchy or sexism were within the realm of possible language for the church.

Using this new language in the Mennonite church took practice. My doctoral thesis in theology was a place where I worked on that language. I looked at Mennonite concepts of suffering, obedience and forgiveness, and what those teachings meant for women in a patriarchal culture, where violence by men against women is a reality. I networked with other women and some men in the Mennonite church who were struggling with this new language. I worked for MCC, preaching and doing workshops to raise awareness about violence against women. Together, I saw people working slowly, incrementally, to change sexist attitudes about women that set the stage for violence.

And yet two decades later, I’m not sure how much has changed. How active are churches in ending violence against women? I know very few churches that support women’s shelters with their time or money. Very little writing is done on this subject. There are fewer workshops and conferences being offered about this subject then there were ten years ago.

I wonder about the woman graduating from a Mennonite college today who suddenly comes face to face with a woman being beaten by her partner. Would she have a language to speak about her experience? Is violence against women on the radar screen in colleges today? I spent some time checking out websites of Mennonite colleges and seminaries. I was pleased to see that gender issues are addressed in college curriculums. There has been movement in the twenty years since I graduated. There are courses on feminist theology, or gender in war and peace. Some colleges do have courses that look at justice issues, in which they list sexism along with racism and other topics. Sometimes gender relations are listed as a topic in justice courses. Interestingly, a course on marriage and family in Christian theology looks at special dynamics created by adoption, childlessness, divorce and remarriage. Violence is not mentioned—an ironic omission within the peace church tradition.

But there is a peripheral tone to the courses on violence against women. Most colleges still have core courses on “War, Peace and Non-resistance” that talk primarily about war. This is important, of course! War is a horrible thing, and we need to know our own history and what we stand for as Anabaptists in terms of war. However, Canadian students are two generations removed from the last military conscription, Americans are one generation removed. In the North American context, only men were called to fight, and yet women are required to take the “War and Peace” courses as requirements for their degrees. Any courses that focus on violence against women are optional. My own experience on teaching courses like that leads me to the observation that enrollment is low and mostly women sign up. Ironically one third of the women in college classrooms have experienced violence against them because of their gender. Why can’t we learn a language that helps us address the violence we are facing?

I would like to see a revamping of our theological teaching about nonviolence. We will always talk about war because war is a reality in our world. But the violence of sexism and racism is just as insidious in the lives of our college students and our churches and deserves equal billing with the violence of war. We need a language to speak for peace in the face of the violence in our lives.

I dream of being able to see this year’s college student walk away from the scene of violence. She’ll have been able to draw on strategies to survive the attack and help the other woman survive. She will cry. It will still be devastating. But she will have words. She’ll be able to understand what type of violence this is. She’ll be able to think of Bible stories that will give context for her feelings and emotions. She’ll be able to pray, remembering that her church has prayed for both victims and perpetrators of violence against women. She’ll know that her church supports the local women’s shelter. She’ll be able to speak of her experience in her congregation. She’ll be able to say, “This is sexism, this is violence against women. It’s a sin and it’s something that we as a church are working against.”


By Carol Penner, reprinted from Women’s Concerns Report No. 164 November-December 2002.

Exit this website now