This post was first published in September, 2015. It discusses a news item that’s a little less timely now, but the overall issues remain.
Pour yourself a stiff drink.
Because today we are talking about the dark corners in the Mennonite Church where power has nothing to do with glory.
I have an uncle who says that Mennonites are fundamentally anti-hierarchical. Never mind that this particular uncle hasn’t stepped inside a Mennonite Church for over forty years except for the occasional wedding or funeral. Never mind that. He’s referring to the Priesthood of all Believers and to our proud Anabaptist past when we threw off the fetters of the big, bad Medieval Roman Catholic Church institution.
In this particular Anabaptist fantasy, Mennonites have no power structures, each and every member of the community equally empowered and disempowered at the same time. Which results in a perfect equilibrium of not-power. Or something.
But if none of us wield power, how is it that so many of us are so adept at abusing it?
Not very long ago, I learned that credible charges of “sexual and ethical misconduct.” have been leveled against the man who pastored my home Church during my teen years. I have tried but failed to imagine a best case scenario that isn’t bad. He was not, I know from experience, a predator who preyed on young teen aged girls like me (at least, not exactly like me). Nor did he create an atmosphere of general discomfort for all young women. I was privileged enough to grow up oblivious. That’s as good as it gets.
But then, he didn’t really have a lot of power over me. My parents were lay leaders in the Church and probably had as much power over him as he over us. I didn’t even particularly admire him, so wasn’t subject to the sort of soft power that a charismatic leader might have over an impressionable young mind. I didn’t dislike him. Or have some sort of preternatural distrust. I was just disinterested.
Which isn’t to say that he held no power over anyone. As it turns out, we have not actually succeeded in eliminating all systems of power; we have only hidden them from view. It is true that we don’t have rigid hierarchies of power, but that only means that now power shifts uneasily among us like toxic oil sands beneath our feet.
In the Facebook chatter that followed the announcement, one friend imagined a best case scenario in which sexual misconduct involved no power imbalance — presumably an extramarital affair (or some other inappropriate pastoral behaviour) among equals. It is not inconceivable that such a thing could happen — a lay leader or another pastor might be considered an equal. One would have to dig into the depths of the MRA movement, however, to find someone who thought it likely that a woman would come forward to the Church authorities not only more than fifteen years after an equal and consensual affair but also that long after her paramour’s death.
No. I have tried to believe it is all spurious. But my credulity just doesn’t stretch that far.
The conversation to date in the Mennonite and non-Mennonite social and traditional media has all focused around whether the Church was right to release the information that it did. The information we have was necessarily partial and some people wanted more. A few wanted the woman’s name revealed and more details so they could personally judge her credibility and weigh the crimes against their own personal metrics. I am not surprised that she doesn’t welcome such scrutiny.
Others, feeling for the family of the deceased, wanted less. I felt for the family too — I once knew them — though I was, I admit, pretty surprised to see the KW Record step forward as the first media outlet in the history of journalism to chastise a Church for NOT covering up a sex scandal.
But it is remarkable to me that our reaction, when something like this happens, is to wonder whether we should even know, whether we should tarnish the memory of our heroes, whether such tarnished stories should be in the first or last chapters of our history books.
That’s not the question I’m asking. I am asking how it is that we have failed so miserably to fight the power.
I don’t mean the power of corporations and governments and men in suits. We can talk about that kind of power another day. I mean the power that we harbour in our communities and in ourselves, the power that we might not even believe we have over each other because we have persuaded ourselves that we have no hierarchy. We could respond with constant vigilance and maybe we should. But I hope it won’t be a fear-driven individualistic vigilance, imagining predatorial monsters lurking behind every pulpit and pew.
Cause that’s not fighting the power.
I actually like the fantasy of an Anabaptist power-free utopia. But we can only slouch towards that mennotopia by looking deeply at ourselves, each other and especially our structures. Holding to the light to whatever trappings of power we find, and then squashing as many of them as we can, and just staring at the others until they feel really uncomfortable.
Yeah. That’s my plan. Imagining the trappings of power as if they are tiny insects and then metaphorically squashing them underfoot. That, and drinking.
It may be a good thing I’m not in charge. Except in the ways that I am.
Sorry about that.
I assume you have finished your first drink by now but since crushing systems of power is thirsty work, you probably need another. Today’s cocktail is a bitter one and strong; strong enough the scrape the foul taste of personal oppression off the roof of your mouth. It’s a variation on the Negroni – gin, Campari and a fortified wine just sweet enough to overcome the incapacitating bitterness of Campari, which I gotta admit is bitter enough to make me believe there really are trappings of power squashed like bugs infused within it. This variation adds a dash of nuttiness. Just because.
The Trappings of Power
1 oz Gin
1 oz Campari
1 oz white sweet vermouth
dash of frangelico
- Combine ingredients in short glass.
- Add ice
- Garnish with a couple cherries
- Prepare to repudiate power