“Let’s talk about sex,” doesn’t mean what it used to. At one time these provocative song lyrics spoke specifically to the act of sex and would never have been spoken openly in many of our church communities. Mennonites, and the majority of Christians, have a long history of shutting down conversations about the body, but the past few years have forced our hand.
Mennonite Church USA got a cold shock when influential Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s decades of harassment and sexual abuse of more than 50 women finally came to full light in 2013. The Mennonite Church has had to grapple with what it means to face the reality that leaders—champions of peace and ethics no less—and members of our own congregations are capable of such persistent violent disrespect for the bodies of humans.
Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement and a wave of sexual assault survivors coming forward over the past year should be no surprise to Mennonites. Now the lyrics “Let’s talk about sex,” have a profound relevance in our churches and communities. Now it’s a plea for our faith communities to explore the complexities of our embodied human sexuality, both as a healing response to profound trauma and a hope that we can learn to embrace the embodied existence God has gifted us.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a perfect time for kicking off the first in a series of three free webinars from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.’s We Will Speak Out (WWSO). This Christian coalition is committed to ending sexual violence, and these webinars seek to engage our leaders and congregations in a long overdue conversation about healthy sexuality and sexual violence prevention.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator with MCC and moderator for the webinars, has seen first hand the church’s reluctance to talk about and adequately support survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Amstutz moderated the first webinar on April 11 with Katherine Goerzen, co-pastor of Tabor Mennonite Church, Newton, Kansas, and the Rev. Benjamin Ledell Reynolds, a Ph.D. candidate at Chicago (Illinois) Theological Seminary and pastor of Chicago First Church of the Brethren, in an online conversation about how our congregations are called to explore our sexual identities as individuals and faith communities because we all wonderfully made in God’s image (Psalm 139:14). Titled “Healthy Sexuality in Our Congregations,” this dialogue started to frame a conversation that will continue with the next two webinars on the complex and difficult topics of sexualized violence, our churches responses to sexual violence and the importance of cultivating healthy concepts of masculinity (3-4pm May 9 & June 13).
It is vital that this webinar series starts this conversation from a place that recognizes and embraces our sexuality as good. This is so necessary because we cannot deny that in addressing issues around sexual assault, we are facing the traumatic consequences that result from our inability and reluctance to talk about and teach sexuality in a fundamentally good, joyous, healthy and whole way.
There is undeniable need for action as well as conversation. Whether it’s talking about preventing intimate partner violence or preventing sexual harassment—issues that an estimated 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men nationwide experience—talking about what it means to cultivate a healthy sexuality is a critical piece in the process of our faith communities creating safe places for survivors. We need to engage and critique our understandings and experiences of healthy sexuality and harmful sexuality on a regular basis. Sexuality is a part of what makes us human and should not be isolated from our spiritual life as individuals or as communities of faith.
My first experience diving into sexuality as a healthy spiritual practice was in my undergraduate reading of Sexuality: God’s Gift by Anne Krabill Herhberger, an important compilation of essays that should be a staple in every church library. Now, almost 10 years later, I am encouraged to see the broader church dive more into healthy sexuality as well. The MC USA 2015 Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse has tangible calls to action that each congregation should remind themselves of. And the board of Mennonite Men are speaking out and taking action to change the toxic masculinity that has long been a part of the church’s and our society’s history of sexual harassment and trauma.
How do we continue to support this shift in our understanding of sexuality and the deep wounds sexual violence tears through our faith communities? We carry our sexuality with us, right alongside our spirituality, when we enter our churches. No more leaving it at the door.
What is your church doing to prevent sexual violence? Maybe your church leadership is reading through a sexuality education curriculum, such as Body and Soul—a biblical sexuality study created by MC USA—or the frequently recommended Our Whole Lives curriculum developed for all ages. And maybe your church is implementing it in Bible study and parent and youth groups.
What is your church doing to support victims of sexual violence when they are brave enough to voice their trauma? Maybe you’re utilizing some of the many resources MCC provides congregations and pastors to learn how to create safe communities where survivors are heard and trauma-informed care and support cultivates healing for survivors and offenders.
What is your church doing to shine the light of Christ on the misogyny and toxic masculinity that rots us from the inside? Maybe you’re getting involved in Mennonite Men’s JoinMen movement to discover and teach healthier understandings of masculinity, or you’re seeking a comprehensive understanding of sexuality through one of the curriculums mentioned above.
What is your church doing to cultivate a community that revels in the beauty of our whole God-given selves as sexual and spiritual beings? Maybe you’re watching MCC’s webinars as a congregation and preaching on the topics of healthy sexuality, healthy masculinity and the need to recognize and empower those who’ve experienced sexual violence.
We need so much more than just violence prevention; we need medically accurate, scripturally interpreted, informed explorations about what it means to be sexual and spiritual beings. Whether you’re a curious teen, a bold parent or a faith leader, I implore you to be a champion for healthy sexuality in your congregation.
Indigo Rey Miller is a registered nurse and is pursuing a Masters of Public Health at Boston (Massachusetts) University. Her home congregation is Beth-El Mennonite Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she is currently a member of Mennonite Congregation of Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts.