Institutional Power and Mennonite Responses

Yesterday, I posted about EMU’s use of institutional power to erase and silence Christian Parks’ performance of Corpus Christi.

Previously, there was also an excellent in-depth article detailing the process and experience of that cancellation for Christian and for EMU by Howard Sherman.

As these pieces have made their way through the Mennonite world (and the rest of the world, but the Menno one specifically), there have been a number of commenters on Sherman’s piece and mine, as well as on FB in response to these pieces.

I wanted to share here Stephanie Krehbiel’s thoughts on some of these comments.

Stephanie Krehbiel is a PhD candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas. She holds a graduate certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In April, she will defend her dissertation: Pacifist Battlegrounds: Sexual Diversity, Violence, and the Politics of Belonging in the Mennonite Church USA, looking particularly at the effects of institutional violence against LGBTQ Mennonites. She has blogged at Pink Menno, Our Stories Untold, and Religion Dispatches.
Below is a Facebook note from her, quoted directly.

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I’m posting about this again, because it’s important to me–apologies to my Facebook friends who are tired of the barrage (just hide me if you are). These thoughts are somewhat inspired by the comments to Howard Sherman’s recent piece, which I don’t think are really representative, but nonetheless express sentiments that I have seen elsewhere in discussions of this situation. Friends who find them useful, please feel free to share.

1) Debating whether or not Corpus Christi is the right play to do gay ambassadorial work on this campus is irrelevant. Corpus Christi is the play that Christian chose to direct for their senior thesis project. It was approved by their department. Read the details of the case here and note the inconsistencies in the administration’s reasons for withdrawing support for the production. Howard Sherman does a fine job of breaking this down.

2) On a related note: I can testify from multiple settings that Christian Parks is an incredibly skilled and effective activist. However, it is not Christian’s job to singlehandedly carry the torch for the cause of LGBTQ inclusion in the Mennonite church in the context of this production, and if you treat Christian like it is, you are denying their singular humanity and opportunity to be a student. Christian is not yours, is not mine, is not ours to project our desired behavior or intention onto. Christian is their own self.

And in the context of this act of institutional power, Christian is a student. The treatment by EMU of Christian in this situation has been nothing short of abusive, and I don’t use that term lightly. There are shared standards for the treatment of students. When they are broken, academics who care about students notice, and we get mad. If EMU thinks that catering to the religious controversy around this play is more important than those standards, then EMU is a Bible college, and should advertise itself as such. But it won’t, because that does not fit its marketing goals. Which is why everyone who knows a student who is considering attendance at EMU needs to tell that student this story, especially if they are considering an arts major, and *especially* if that student is queer. College should be an opportunity for education, not an opportunity for martyrdom.

3) If I hear/read one more argument that “maybe EMU just isn’t ready for this production,” I am going to scream. No one will hear me but my cats, but know that I am out here in the Rogue Theocracy of Sam Brownback, tearing out my hair. The world does not, in fact, unfold in an inevitable linear narrative of progress towards ever more inclusive and humanitarian realities, and neither do universities. It’s more like this: People make decisions, and then there are consequences. As our beloved and overquoted MLK once said, time is neutral. We shape it. We shape it by deciding who and what deserves our commitments and our alliegances, and by deciding what risks are worth taking. We shape it by deciding who and what we’re going to worship. White, moderate Mennonites worship their institutions, their processes, and their aspirations for ever more denominational unity and harmony, and that contributes to making them pathologically incapable of recognizing abuses of power in their own communities, even as they denounce violence that happens elsewhere. No condition is more fraught with vulnerability to bullies. Mennonites are more afraid of naming bullies than they are of what bullies do. (John Howard Yoder was a bully. He mostly got away with it.)

Students like Christian Parks are then forced to bear the consequences. What I appreciated most about Howard Sherman’s analysis is that he, coming from the outside, was able to see the obvious power imbalances that led to Christian’s decision to cancel. To quote Christian here: “After doing some strategic planning in my mind, that is when I went in and I knew that they were going to shut it down. I knew. And so instead of the story being written as they shut it down, I’d rather it be written as I took it down, because I refuse to be a victim. I refuse, I refuse.” As Sherman wrote, “The administration has responsibility for the denouement.” Christian–again, with a skillfulness I recognize from their Pink Menno work–took charge of the only thing they could really influence: the narrative.

Christian told Sherman that part of their motivation for choosing Corpus Christi was to communicate what the EMU “Listening Process” felt like for them as a queer person on campus. “It didn’t really work because they still don’t understand and don’t want to understand,” Christian said. And that lack of understanding on the part of administration doesn’t have anything to do with Christian’s choice of play.

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