“Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles

Ted Grimsrud

I came across a quote in the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that helped me think a bit more about our current discussions about sexuality in the Mennonite world. I’ll share the quote in a bit, but first I want to set the context.

Othering and the Cold War

Several years ago, as I was working on my book on World War II’s moral legacy, I struggled to understand how the phenomenon of “global communism” could justify the American commitment to its national security state and military interventions around the world. I realized that a key moment was President Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech in 1947 that stated, in effect, that there is only one communism, that this communism is behind a vast system of anti-American actions around the world, and the presence of such anti-American actions requires swift and decisive American military intervention. To label people communists was effectively to signify them as the “other” who are different and are inherently a threat to our security. So, military actions (public and secret) in such disparate locations as Greece, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Iran followed over the next few decades.

I was struck by how this dynamic insured that little effort would be exercised actually to understand the specific, on-the-ground context for the “anti-American” dynamics. It was a simple process: if there was a lack of support for American interests it was because of global communism. If the lack of support could be labeled as communist-inspired, then everything needed to be known was obvious. There is only one “communist practice”—all communists are essentially the same (and, even more pernicious, all “anti-Americans” are communists). It is quite remarkable to take even a cursory look at the series of conflicts that U.S. engaged in and see an almost identical pattern over and over again where the “enemies” of the U.S. were labeled as “communist” (i.e., definitely labeled as immoral and worthy of violent opposition) and responded to with often devastating force.

The end of the Soviet Union deprived the U.S. of the “global communism” label as a justification of militarism. However, surely not coincidentally, at about the same time as the end of the Soviet empire, the spectre of global terrorism arose and in many ways, down to our present day, successfully played the same role. Again, there seems to be only one terrorism. When we apply that label to resistance to American interests, we know all we need to know and proceed accordingly.

Criminals as “other”

Another example of how this dynamic of “othering” underwrites violence is the current American criminal justice system. I discussed this in the opening chapter of my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness.

According to prominent sociologist and legal scholar David Garland in his book The Culture of Contral, we have created a “criminology of the other.” This criminology assumes “that certain criminals are ‘simply wicked’ and in this respect different from the rest of us….Being intrinsically evil or wicked, some offenders are not like us. They are dangerous others who threaten our safety and have no calls on our fellow feeling. The appropriate reaction for society is one of social defense: we should defend ourselves against these dangerous enemies rather than concern ourselves with their welfare and prospects for rehabilitation.”

Garland continues:Intrinsic evil defies all attempts at rational comprehension or criminological explanation.  There can be no mutual intelligibility, no bridge of understanding, no real communication between ‘us’ and ‘them.’  To treat them as understandable – as criminology has traditionally done – is to bring criminals into our domain, to humanize them, to see ourselves in them and them in ourselves.  The criminology of the other encourages us, in the words of a British Prime Minister, to be prepared ‘to condemn more and to understand less.’  It prompts us to treat them as ‘opaquely monstrous creatures beyond or beneath our knowing—which helps still the conscience of anyone who might have qualms about incapacitating millions of people, and even killing a few, all in the name of public safety.” (Garland, Culture, pages 184-5)

Stereotyping as a prerequisite for violence

These reflections on the use of “communist,” “terrorist,” and “criminal” as tools for the process of othering and justifying violence have led me to think more generally about the use of stereotyping in our social life—and in our moral discernment.

In my introductory “Ethics in the Way of Jesus” class, we read Donald Kraybill’s popular-level introduction to Jesus as moral guide, The Upside-Down Kingdom. Kraybill has a chapter called “Birds of a Feather” where he discusses stereotyping and how Jesus challenges stereotypes. His main example is the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. In that encounter, Jesus treats this person as a human being, not as a “Samaritan” (the enemy of temple-centered Jews), or a “woman” (someone he should not talk with in public nor expect to be capable of sharing his message with her friends and family), or an “unclean person” (a person with multiple husbands who would “contaminate” a good Jewish male such as Jesus).

Kraybill, as a sociologist, recognizes the inevitable and even necessary role that stereotyping plays in how human beings navigate social life. We need categories to help us make sense of other people. However, the danger is always that such categories become boxes into which we place others to the detriment of our ability to encounter the other person as a unique and complex person worthy of our interest and respect.

Kraybill does not push this analysis as far as I do in class discussions. I suggest that stereotyping, when it goes too far, actually serves as a prerequisite for most of the violence we do toward each other. The stereotyping is the first step toward defining someone else as “other.” And this definition of someone else as “other” is a key move in thinking of them as different, even in fundamental ways. Then it is much easier to think of the Other as, in Garland’s words, not having a “call on our fellow feeling.” Hence, the use of “communist,” “terrorist,” and “criminal” as stereotypes (along with many others) makes violence much easier to justify.

Back to Hardt and Negri

I have suspected that similar dynamics related to stereotyping have been operative in how Christians, including Mennonites, have typically responded to sexual minorities—especially those labeled as “homosexual.” In the midst, just lately, of renewed reflection on stereotyping and hostility toward gays, I read this following quote from Hardt and Negri’s Empire that helped me understand these dynamics a little better.

They are summarizing the thought of Edward Said, the prominent Palestinian social thinker, in his oft-cited book Orientalism.

“[Said wrote,] ‘I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature, that the Orient was created—or, as I call it, Orientalized.’ Orientalism is not simply a scholarly project to gain more accurate knowledge of a real object, the Orient, but rather a discourse that creates its own object in the unfolding of the discourse itself. The two primary characteristics of this Orientalist project are the homogenization of the Orient from Maghreb to India (Orientals everywhere are all nearly the same) and its essentialization (the Orient and the Oriental character are timeless and unchanging identities). The result, as Said points out, is not the Orient as it is, an empirical object, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized, an object of European discourse. The Orient, then, at least as we know it through Orientalism, is a creation of discourse, made in Europe and exported back to the Orient. The representation is at once a form of creation and a form of exclusion.” (p. 125)

What I note is that in Said’s account, “orientalism” is a process of stereotyping and othering that to some degree is repeated in all of these examples I have alluded to (“communists,” “terrorists,” “criminals,” and “homosexuals”). This is how the process works—(1) the homogenization of the phenomenon (“Orientals [or communists or terrorists or criminals or homosexuals] everywhere are all nearly the same”), (2) its essentialization (“the Orient and the Oriental [or communism or terrorism or crime or homosexuality] are timeless and unchanging identities”), (3) the result is an “Orient” (et al) that is not an empirical reality but the creation of the “European” that is “exported back to the Orient,” (4) with the consequence of excluding (“othering”) the Oriental (et al).

Mennonite and “homosexual practice”

We may see how this stereotyping leading to othering dynamic has worked in relation to Mennonites and “homosexuality” when we unpack the common use of the term “homosexual practice” in the singular (rather than referring to “homosexual practices”).

The use of the term in the singular is characteristic for many who take a restrictive approach that argues for limited access to the churches for gays. Such use of the singular, though, is never explained—nor is there reflection on the implications of that usage are for how we address the issues and especially for how we interpret and apply the “direct texts” in the Bible said to be definitive for the churches’ approach to the issue.

Presumably, all those holding restrictive views would agree that there are many “heterosexual practices” when it comes to sexual behavior. For example, a theologian arguing for a restrictive approach, Mark Thiessen Nation, writes in Reasoning Together about the goodness of morally appropriate sexual intimacy (within the context of opposite-sex marriages). He also writes of morally inappropriate “heterosexual practices” (e.g., a friend who suffered from a sexual addiction). So, we have many “heterosexual practices” (that is, occasions for sexual intimacy)—some sinful, some blessed by God as good.

However, we have only one “homosexual practice,” and it is always sinful. What might this mean? It would seem that the restrictive folks must be saying that all the various forms of sexual intimacy that might be practiced by same-sex couples fit into a single category for the purposes of moral discernment (that is, same-sex sexual intimacy is “homogenized” in ways opposite-sex sexual intimacy is not). What follows from such an understanding is the practical conclusion that since each type of same-sex sexual intimacy is an example of “homosexual practice” and “homosexual practice” (of whatever variety) is sinful, we do not need to pay much attention to what specific type of behavior is in mind when we conclude that it is wrong.

So, when we turn to the Bible, we do not need to concern ourselves with the specific context or type of behavior our several direct texts speak to. If today’s same-sex marriages between two committed Christians fit into this rubric of “homosexual practice,” they are wrong, just as all the allusions to “homosexual practice” in the Bible are also wrong.

We may identify two ramifications from this logic. First, since there is just one “homosexual practice,” all we need to establish from the Bible is that this “practice” is condemned in order to be certain that every type of behavior that is an example of this one practice is sinful. And, clearly we may establish this condemnation from the direct texts that all are negative about this “practice.” Second, we accept that “homosexual” and “heterosexual” sexual behaviors are not morally parallel. We may recognize a variety of “heterosexual practices,” each with its own distinct moral status, while also recognizing only one “homosexual practice” with a uniform moral status for all varieties of behavior within this single “practice.”

When we consider the other option, seeing a variety of “homosexual practices” analogous to the variety of “heterosexual practices,” we can see why so many of the inclusive/restrictive conversations make little progress. This is so, at least in part, because one’s understanding of whether we should be thinking in terms of a single homosexual “practice” or a variety of homosexual “practices” will greatly shape one’s way of reading and applying the Bible.

Those who are more inclined to think in terms of “homosexual practices” with distinct kinds of moral status for the distinct practices (parallel to how everyone seems to think of “heterosexual practices”) will put much more weight on the specific contexts for the direct texts. They may well think that those texts, when read in context, actually are proscribing specific practices for men (all the direct texts that clearly link behavior with gender refer to men) that would be equally sinful for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. If so, they would reason, there is no reason not to assume, based on the Bible itself, that “practices” that are morally approved for opposite-sex couples would not also be acceptable for same-sex couples.

This is to say, the notion of a single “homosexual practice” seems all too similar to the kind of dynamic Edward Said refers to in relation to “Orientalism”—homogenization of the phenomenon, essentialization of the Other who fits in the category of “homosexual,” the projecting of an ideologically generated definition back onto the people being stereotyped, and the exclusion of those people (often accompanied with violence that is easier to justify because of the “otherness” of LGBTQ people).

How broadly applicable is this analysis?

It seems that we can’t avoid some manner of stereotyping. And stereotyping seems like an essential element in working to understand and deal redemptively with hurtful human behavior. To work at understanding the world and at responding to brokenness, we need categories to help us try to make sense of things, to see similarities among various phenomena, to make diagnoses and analyses that can help in the healing process. However, we always run the danger of thinking of our categories as too real and too rigid and too definitive. We must resist the temptation to reduce any human being to a category or type. And we must also be aware of the tendency for humans to “other” and ultimately do violence against those we stereotype.

For me these issues are part of the struggle to make sense of another recent case of Mennonites and sexuality—the current response to the renewed awareness of John Howard Yoder’s hurtful sexual misconduct. In my series of blog posts last August that reflected on Yoder, I spent one on the general theme of “sexual violence” where I discussed the centrality of a lack of empathy in hurtful sexual actions—but also wondered if we need as well to be wary of a loss of empathy in how we respond to perpetrators of sexual violence.

I wrote then: “One important aspect of opposing evil without adding to it is to seek to cultivate empathy and resist ‘othering’ and ‘dehumanizing’ even in relation to those who themselves ‘other’ and dehumanize and with their lack of empathy hurt others by transgressing boundaries they are oblivious to or are disdainful of. I wonder if the use of labels to define people such as ‘predator’ and ‘abuser’ rather than behavioral descriptions such as ‘predatory behavior’ and ‘abusive acts’ might at times lead to the dehumanization of violators. Alice Miller and James Gilligan, for example, offer us models of writers who are strong in their opposition to violent behavior yet understand that the cycle of dehumanization itself should be resisted through treating offenders as human beings—responsible for their acts and needing to be stopped in their hurtful acts but still individual human beings who should be understood and helped to heal, not simply condemned.”

I wonder if the comments by David Garland I quoted above might apply to how the conversation concerning Yoder has continued since August;

“Certain criminals are ‘simply wicked’ and in this respect different from the rest of us…. Being intrinsically evil or wicked, some offenders are … dangerous others who threaten our safety and have no calls on our fellow feeling…. Intrinsic evil defies all attempts at rational comprehension…. There can be no mutual intelligibility, no bridge of understanding, no real communication between ‘us’ and ‘them.’  To treat them as understandable … is to bring criminals into our domain, to humanize them, to see ourselves in them and them in ourselves.  The criminology of the other encourages us … to be prepared ‘to condemn more and to understand less.’  It prompts us to treat them as opaquely monstrous creatures beyond or beneath our knowing.” 

Where is the line between helpful diagnoses of a problem such as sexual transgression and resorting to reductive stereotypes that perpetuate the cycle of dehumanization?

7 thoughts on ““Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles

  1. Part of the problem we fall into in the stereotyping of homosexuals is that we only consider intimate physical sexual behavior as that which defines them, and not their preference for, attraction to, and desire to love a person of their same gender. We do not usually think or speak of “heterosexuals” in terms of their sexual activity (despite the joke about Laura Bush being opposed to same sex marriages because she has been trying to get George to do something different in bed for years), we usually think and speak of them as people who are attracted to and love other persons of the opposite gender. Likewise, when we use talk of marriages between these “heterosexual” folks we don’t often speak of “opposite-sex” marriages, just marriages. But when we speak of marriages between people who are of the same gender, we speak of “same-sex” marriages or homosexual marriages, as if sexual activity was the only thing those marriages are made up of. The more same-gender couples I meet and get to know the more I understand that their marriages are very similar to my “opposite gender” marriage, sexual practices are an important part, but only a small part. I think it would help if we replaced the word “sex” with “gender” unless we are speaking of an intimate physical practice that brings physical pleasure.

  2. Thank you, Ted, for a provocative set of reflections on these issues.

    Some of what you have said above reminds me of Walter Brueggeman’s insightful comments comparing the function of the “leper” in ancient Israel and the function of “homosexuality” in more conservative elements in our own society. Brueggeman suggests that the leper represented not only moral wrong but also danger, threat to the social order, contagion, etc. The corresponding responses to such people was wariness, suspicion, alienation, and segregation/containment. It does seem to me that many of those who do continue to maintain the more traditional moral teaching of the church regarding homosexual acts are often guilty of such “othering.”

    Now, with that said, it seems to me that you are failing to distinguish between the truth of a moral judgment with how that moral judgment can be used to alienate and destroy. If there is such a distinction, and I believe there is, then it is possible to make a moral judgment without using that distinction to undermine the humanity of the other. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, as is evident in the many different examples that you have cited, including the dehumanizing of Yoder.

    Frankly, though I still maintain a traditional stance on sexual morality, I often feel like those churches that are “affirming” demonstrate Jesus much more authentically than those on the other side. Which brings me to the very Bonhoefferian thought that Jesus Christ is not the embodiment of a moral ideal as much as he is a way of moving in love from me to the “other.”

    Which brings me to the most important point of all, which is….you should read our book on Bonhoeffer and get to back to me about it, especially concerning those chapters written by yours truly. haha.

    Many blessings.

  3. Constructive analysis, Ted, of applying the dynamics of public and political life to ecclesial polity and ethics.

    I do wonder, however, if the denominations resisting LGBTQ inclusion and an open table of hospitality have not become irrelevant for cultural, civic, public and political life? I wonder if spending so much time and life energy on intramural denominational debates doesn’t become a distraction from seeking the peace of the city and joining the movement of worldly holiness beyond the cultural-linguistic agendas that are making these denominations obsolete in the quest for just peace in the world.

    When might it be time to allow the dead to bury the dead and more freely unite with God’s work in the world rather than quarrel endlessly about positions that are more about the ecclesial captivity of the Divine than love of God and neighbor?

    1. I would say, Holland, that you are a bit out of touch with reality. Those denominations that have gone beyond their “cultural-linguistic agendas” and are “joining the movement of worldly holiness” are exactly those denominations that are dying.

      My own diagnosis of the Church of the Brethren, for example, is that it is loosing members precisely because of a lack of knowledge of and appreciation for it’s own history, tradition, and theology. It lacks conviction and self-confidence; and, frankly, based upon your comments above I’m not so sure you aren’t part of the problem.

      1. Ah, and you think you know Bonhoeffer?

        Sociologist Carl Bowman’s “Portrait of a People” contends, via data, that a majority of the membership of the CoB has become center-right in theology and politics. The many I know who are exiting, including family and friends, are leaving for this reason, in search of God in public.

  4. Ted, given your interest in the connections between Othering practices as they manifest in notions of criminality, in imperialism, and in political mobilization, I hope you’ll consider looking at a few of the following books. This is also in acknowledgment of Jen Yoder’s post in which she asks you to look at the field of queer theory, which has been producing intellectual work on the themes you’re writing about here for about two decades.

    This is a very short list; I’d be happy to talk about other works that I think are relevant to your interests. I have often wished that more peace-oriented theologians would engage with this work. There is a diversity of perspectives here that your field is still very much struggling to hear.

    Sara Ahmed:
    Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality
    Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

    Judith Butler:
    Undoing Gender
    Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

    Chela Sandoval:
    Methodology of the Oppressed: Theory Out of Bounds

    Miranda Joseph:
    Against the Romance of Community

    Jasbir Puar:
    Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times

    Lauren Berlant:
    The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

    Michael Warner:
    The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life

    M. Jacqui Alexander:
    Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations of Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred

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