When peace theology is violent

I needed to end an abusive marriage. People told me I was unforgiving.

Susannah Griffith with husband Michael and daughters, Easter 2023. Susannah and Michael were married in April 2023. — Susannah Griffith Susannah Griffith with husband Michael and daughters, Easter 2023. Susannah and Michael were married in April 2023. — Susannah Griffith

The findings of an investigation reported in “Hesston College officials vow to ‘earn back trust’ after sexual violence report” are tragic but not surprising. The college’s mishandling of sexual violence reports and spiritual abuse of survivors under the guise of forgiveness and reconciliation matches my own experience in Mennonite institutions.

From 2017 to 2022, I sought to end my abusive marriage. My ex-husband and father of my children trapped me in a cycle of violence, which began with physical violence and led to my expressions of desire for a divorce. He responded with suicide attempts and more physical violence.

Because I was completing a Ph.D., had young children and lacked family support or other means of financial stability, I did not divorce him at that time. The fear that he would kill himself or me, or both of us, also limited my options. Counselors told me I was in danger of death in a murder-suicide.

Our situation stabilized after I decided I would wait quietly to seek a divorce until I had finished my Ph.D. and attained a tenure-track teaching job.

The way out appeared to come with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s offer of a professorship, leading me to Indiana in 2020. I entered the Mennonite world naively. I knew the story of theologian John Howard Yoder and his history of sexual abuse of dozens of women enabled by AMBS, but I erroneously believed these problems were behind the community.

Initially, the environment seemed like one in which I could exit my marriage in safety. My family was folded into a Mennonite congregation, which welcomed us with offers of babysitting, dinners and financial support in times of difficulty. I felt at home.

However, when I shared with congregational leaders the history of abuse and the fact that, although the physical violence had ended, I wanted to leave the relationship, the trouble started. One evening in October 2020, after I texted a leader that I had left the home to go to a hotel after an episode of verbal abuse, the leader forwarded the text to my husband.

In December 2020, when my husband, in the middle of a seemingly trivial argument, left the house screaming his suicidal intentions, I decided that I was done with the relationship, for good. Within a few weeks, I purchased a home for my daughters and myself in my own name.

People from my church and the seminary offered financial support, food and friendship. President David Boshart himself brought me hundreds of dollars’ worth of groceries, as my body threatened to go into preterm labor with my third daughter. There were ample sources of support, from the highest levels of the AMBS administration and the church.

But there was also a shadow side. I began receiving texts, calls and emails from people I knew in the local Mennonite community. One colleague offered “marriage mentoring” as the antidote to the separation. Another person with power over me told me he prayed “we were working on our relationship.” A spouse of a pastor told me she “prayed reconciliation was possible.” Other colleagues and fellow congregants told me I was damaging my children by choosing to leave.

All these responses amounted to emotional torture — reeling, as I already was, from the guilt of leaving a man who claimed our marriage kept him alive and separating my children from living with their father on a daily basis.

Though I filed for divorce during this separation, a couple of months later I allowed my husband to return. My guilt would not allow me to let the marriage die. Immediately, I knew I had a made a mistake. The symptoms of trauma I had experienced before our separation returned intensely.

I told church leaders I desired to end the marriage. I was informed that my wishes reflected a perception skewed by trauma. Because my husband was repentant, there were no valid grounds for me to end my marriage. Instead, I was asked to participate in a monthslong “forgiveness journey” before earning church support to end the relationship.

I agreed to this because I was desperately lonely and needed the social support my church friends brought me. But the suggestion of this “forgiveness journey” was painful in its implications. In these leaders’ perspective, it was my lack of forgiveness that threatened to end the marriage. My husband’s past abuse was not the reason. The blame lay with me, because my trauma, in their view, twisted my thinking.

Susannah Griffith wrote Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible and Standing with Survivors (Herald, 2021) under her previous name, Susannah Larry. — Annette Brill Bergstresser/AMBS
Susannah Griffith wrote Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible and Standing with Survivors (Herald, 2021) under her previous name, Susannah Larry. — Annette Brill Bergstresser/AMBS

In the end, I did divorce my husband. I felt profound peace and joy — and yes, even forgiveness — as a result. I did so with the support of a Mennonite pastor, David Cramer, who talked me through the distorted understandings of forgiveness and reconciliation that I’d been handed.

I could finally accept that the voice of my experience, informed by my trauma, was leading me in the right direction. It was the will of God for me to be whole.

David accompanied me to the lawyer’s office, where I signed divorce ­papers, and sat with me while I cried out five years of trauma, relief and hope.

Without David’s support, countering the false narratives of others within the Mennonite community, I believe I would still be married to my children’s father. Or dead.

Exhortations to forgiveness and reconciliation after abuse harmed the young woman and others like her quoted in the Anabaptist World story about Hesston College. They further trapped me when I tried to divorce my abuser.

The spiritually abusive weaponization of forgiveness and reconciliation runs deep through the veins of Mennonite culture. These distortions of forgiveness and reconciliation, devoid of accountability or justice, figure into peace theology and hurt vulnerable people. It’s time for Mennonites to own up to the violence that privileged peace theology does to survivors and victims.

One final word to the officials at Hesston College, just as I would say to leaders of institutions that abused me: There often isn’t an earning back of trust after the spiritual abuse of burdening survivors with forgiveness or reconciliation instead of supporting their safety. I’d wager that victims of this spiritual abuse will not trust their institution again. Restoration of relationship is not always possible.

It is inappropriate for Hesston officials to expect that survivors will desire a future relationship with the college. The idea that survivors should trust even formerly abusive institutions replicates the traumatizing logic that told survivors to forgive their abusers and stay relationally connected.

I commit myself, through my forthcoming book with Brazos Press, Forgiveness After Trauma, to unravel the violence of peace theology. The message is simple: Forgiveness doesn’t mean anyone has to stay in relationship with their abuser. Reconciliation is the work of God, not the burden of survivors.

Susannah Griffith is assistant professor of biblical studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and interim assistant pastor at Keller Park Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in South Bend, Ind.

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