How does peace theology look different when we put it in the context of violence against Anabaptist women? What does it mean to do theological work experientially, in our bodies? I approach this issue from several vantage points: as MCC U.S. Women’s Concerns director, a position that puts me in touch with survivors of sexual abuse in the wider Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches; as a scholar pursuing an advanced degree in Women’s Studies; and as a rape survivor. I am not a theologian by training, but I have benefited from the belief that we all do theology as we reflect on God’s work in our lives.
As Carol Penner has noted in her doctoral dissertation entitled “Mennonite Silences and Feminist Voices: Peace Theology and Violence Against Women,” traditional peace theology has not been helpful to victims of sexual abuse or assault. In fact, I believe it has often added a layer of guilt. Our tradition of nonresistance has helped contribute to violence against women by implicitly encouraging women to accept abuse as Christ-like suffering, rather than to resist. But Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil,” as I discuss later.
Reconsiderations about violence against women
At the outset it seems important to say that a woman is not to blame for violence directed against her. Some of what passes for suggestions (nonviolent or otherwise) to women facing sexual abuse overlooks the fact that the United States is a rape-prone society, as compared to countries like Japan that are comparatively rape-free societies. The single most effective comment I heard in this regard came from the police detective who took my story hours after the rape. When I apologized for opening the door to my assailant that afternoon, the detective said, “Look, you didn’t do anything wrong here. He’s the one who committed a crime, not you.” I, like many survivors, need to be reminded to put the blame squarely on the perpetrator. We should live in a world where rape is unthinkable. The fact that it occurs is not a woman’s fault.
In addition, we must recognize that women submit to violence for many understandable reasons: shock/disbelief; being overwhelmed by a weapon, physical force or the power of a perpetrator’s status or position (abuse of power); out of a desire to protect children or other family members, etc. Every woman should be commended, not blamed, for whatever she did or didn’t do to get through the abuse or assault.
It’s also important to note that when we think of pacifism and women’s self-defense, we are usually assuming assault by a stranger (my situation, which represents less than 15 percent of all rapes). By contrast, the far more common incidents of battering, pastoral sexual abuse, date rape and child molestation within our Mennonite and BIC communities are committed by persons known to the girl or woman. Nonviolent resistance looks much different in situations where personal intimacy or trust is betrayed and women are caught off-guard by persons known to them. I fear that promoting nonviolent principles to women in such situations encourages acceptance rather than confrontation against these abuses. It may also drive women out of the church.
As I have struggled to make sense of my experience spiritually, I believe that what is needed is a new theological framework. Rather than the more typical sin-salvation-atonement framework, I would like to suggest a three-part survivor theology of security, resistance, and accompaniment.
Fundamentally, I believe that security comes from understanding ourselves to be daughters of God. In a 1997 publication entitled, Piecework: A Women’s Peace Theology (available from the MCC U.S. and Canada women’s desks) the authors wrote, “Looking inside ourselves, there has to be a deep awareness that women are made in the image of God. We need to hold onto this especially in the face of experiences that might make us feel like objects.” This understanding becomes particularly important in situations of sexual violence or abuse, reminding us that even though experiences seek to objectify or demean us, we carry the divine feminine within.
The Bible is full of verses emphasizing the safety and protection of God. (Psalm 16:1: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Proverbs 28:18: “One who walks in integrity will be safe.”) Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was, “protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15b). I cannot claim I thought of any of this during my assault. At the time I was terrified. As an author in Piecework wrote, “There needs to be a way of speaking spiritually about fear and violation but I’m not sure how to do it. It’s very hard to feel spiritually connected when you are scared.” Fear is a regular companion for many survivors of violence and abuse. Scriptures as fundamental as Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” can be hard verses for survivors to hold on to. Nevertheless, I have found it useful to claim God’s promises of safety, especially in moments when I don’t feel it.
Spirituality of Resistance
Second, I want to claim resistance as an important theological construct. Evil is clearly against the will of God (Psalm 97: 10: “The Lord loves those who hate evil.” And Romans 12:9: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”) Sexual abuse and violence are evil acts, even when perpetrated by acquaintances or family members who are not evil themselves. In a lecture on abuse given a few years ago, James Newton Poling argued that the life and ministry of Jesus was one of resistance to evil. To my mind, the clearest example of this is Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple.
In the book Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way, that was helpful to me as I tried to make sense of my own experience, theologian Walter Wink examines Bible verses that are key for pacifists. Wink argues that a better translation of Matt. 5: 39 (“Do not resist evil”) would be: “Do not repay evil for evil,” or, “Do not resist evil in kind,” that is, by using lethal violence or armed resistance. Wink argues that violence is injurious or murderous harm; non-lethal force (such as Jesus cleansing the temple by driving out the animals and their sellers) is different. Applying this principle to a context of violence against women, anything short of lasting injury or death to one’s attacker could constitute nonviolence.
Some pacifists may take the position that part of one’s commitment to nonviolence is submitting to one’s attacker as an example of loving one’s enemies. I have respect for that position but I am not there. Sexual abuse and assault against women is a violation of bodily integrity that can have long-lasting consequences. I would never counsel someone to submit to that in the name of pacifism, whereas submitting in the face of overwhelming threat or force may be a rational choice that many women make in order to survive the experience.
From a Black Womanist perspective, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book The Black Christ, coins the term, “spirituality of resistance” to describe the notion of actively opposing that which is oppressive. Brown calls Christians to develop a spirituality of resistance that “nurtures a connectedness to God” and roots us in the stories of other people in history who have resisted evil.
Given Anabaptist peace theology, I wonder what such a spirituality of resistance would look like for us? After my assault, I was commended for reacting non-violently (apparently fighting for the weapon, sliding it under the refrigerator, and running out the door was considered nonviolent.) My goal at the time was survival; political or pacifist correctness was beside the point. Whether or not fighting back and running away was nonviolent, it was certainly an act of resistance.
For me it was useful to have considered my response to the possibility of sexual assault before I had to face it. I am grateful to the Women’s Studies literature I had read, most particularly a piece on rape avoidance strategies. That article was based on interviews with several hundred women who’d been assaulted. It found that those women who had used one or more avoidance strategies were more likely to have avoided rape. These strategies were not limited to fighting back but included such actions as screaming, trying to talk to or reason with one’s attacker, non-cooperation (passive resistance), stalling for time (until help arrives), making use of environmental intervention (a noise outside, a passerby), and running away.
I did all of those things. I also resisted my attacker by fighting for his knife. I doubt I would have done that had he been armed with a gun. We were both cut. He was later arrested and sentenced to jail time based on DNA analysis of his blood left at the scene. I was lucky. Not every woman is.
One of the most helpful things said to me in a pastoral visit after the assault was in response to my question, “Where was God when this was happening?” My pastor replied, “I believe that God was with you in the struggle.” I found it profoundly comforting to visualize a God with me, resisting my attacker. I derive tremendous comfort from the idea that Jesus was struggling with me during the assault, hating the evil as much as I did.
Finally, I would add to my theology a concept adapted from Latin American liberation theology, that of accompaniment. Guatemalan archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero spoke of the “pastoral de acompanamiento.” Romero meant by this the pastoral work of accompanying Christians in their struggle for justice as a manifestation of Christ’s presence with us. Mennonite Brethren writer Katie Funk Wiebe has written: “Where is God when we suffer? On the cross with us.” This experience of Jesus as co-sufferer fits my theology of accompaniment.
My accompaniment took many forms. Friends from church planned and led a house-cleansing service after the assault in my home. During my at-home anxiety in the early months after the assault, women came to be with me during my working days in front of the computer, when just the simple fact of someone else’s presence made it possible for me to concentrate on my academic work. Other friends attended court hearings and supported me in dealings with the criminal justice system. Their concrete actions gave tangible evidence to me of the accompaniment of Jesus.
I wish that these reflections could begin a long-overdue dialogue among Mennonite and BIC women about how the strands of peacemaking and violence against women inter-connect. Of course, our stories are hard to tell because being vulnerable can increase our sense of false shame, which every survivor struggles with. But I hope that someday it will become safe enough for more of us who have survived sexual abuse or assault to discuss these experiences in the context of Anabaptist peace theology. Coming to see ourselves as blameless for the experience can help us break the silence.
The area of violence against women is seldom discussed in peace studies courses or contexts, but I believe it is time to bring those disparate threads together, since they connect to many women’s lives. As these threads begin to intertwine, so may the fabric of the Anabaptist community’s commitment to peacemaking include and invest in women’s stories of confronting violence.
By Beth Graybill, former MCC U.S. Women’s Concerns Director, reprinted from Women’s Concerns Report, No. 164 NovemberDecember 2002, “An Anabaptist theology opposing violence against women.”