Clasped Hands, Love and Power

Hilary J. Scarsella is co-coordinator of the Women in Leadership Project for Mennonite Church USA. She was the lead organizer for the conference All You Need is Love.
Hilary J. Scarsella is co-coordinator of the Women in Leadership Project for Mennonite Church USA. She was the lead organizer for the conference All You Need is Love.

This reflection was shared by Hilary J. Scarsella during a chapel service at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary on Friday, February 28th, 2014. The chapel was focused on the Anabaptist women’s theology conference, All You Need is Love, that had happened the week previously. The original questions, framing her reflection, came from the chapel planners at AMBS, who were participants at All You Need is Love. Hilary shared this again at the Mennonite Church Offices in Elkhart, Ind., on Thursday, April 10th, during a report-back about the conference.  

By Hilary J. Scarsella

I was asked to share a couple things this morning. First, how has my faith been harmed by the patriarchal white supremacist capitalist culture that persists even in the Anabaptist tradition which strives for peace and reconciliation? And second, how do you see the All You Need is Love gathering as one that contributes to undoing these oppressions? Interesting questions.

So, first, how has my faith been harmed by the various oppressions that persist among us despite our best efforts…

Patriarchy, a systemic preference for men over women, persists in our tradition, and as a result:

I learned that it is offensive to suggest that God could appropriately be spoken of in female terms on a regular basis. No one told me it was flat out wrong, but no one needed to! The anxiety that surrounds the conversation (almost no matter who is having it) spoke loud and clear. And so, I learned that femaleness and Godliness don’t match. Femaleness and goodness or faithfulness or worthiness or even okay-ness, don’t match. I learned that because I am female I will always be separate from God.

I learned that being faithful means being quiet and kind and agreeable and caring and hospitable and eager to help others and willing to let go of what I want and need. Sometimes, this is what being faithful means, and no one told me that I shouldn’t speak boldly, trust that God put words in my mouth for a reason – even words that sometimes ruffle feathers or go against the grain. No one told me, in so many words, that I shouldn’t take care of myself, protect my own boundaries, and fight for what I want and need because my sense of desire might be holy. But, even as I say these words now, “my sense of desire might be holy,” I can feel the glaring eyes around me, silently coaxing me to put that crazy idea out of my head.

I don’t know where those glaring eyes come from, but they are here, among us, a part of our tradition.  So, in the moments when God is calling me to assert myself, use my voice, speak truth even though it won’t be received well by all who hear it, and step into positions of authority, it’s hard for me to hear it, hard for me to even recognize that these could be calls from the Divine.  I’m far more likely to attribute nudges I feel toward taking up space as selfish temptations I should learn to overcome.  Patriarchy is a destructive system that I am constantly trying to weed out of my faith.

White supremacy, a systemic preference for people with white skin over people of color, persists in our tradition as well, and as a result:

Growing up as a white person I learned pretty much the opposite of everything I learned from patriarchy but to equally harmful ends. Because whiteness carries with it power, I learned that my role in God’s story of the world was to be like those biblical characters who held positions of power in the community, the saviors, and that those who needed to be saved often lived outside of my community and had dark skin. Nobody said it out loud, but the assumption was in the air. And that assumption that I am a key player in God’s mission to help others “out there” threatens to make me blind to the ways that God is calling key players from out there or in here to come save me.

Or, perhaps, the saving I need is to learn to see and read and live God’s story in ways that don’t assume that my experience as a white person of the dominant culture is the experience that will orient the community of faith I am a part of. And, if I can learn to step aside and make room for people of color to shape the community I belong to, I am positive that I will also learn a whole lot more than I know right now about what it means to be a part of the people of God. Racism is a destructive system that I am constantly trying to weed out of my faith.

You likely noticed that these two systems, white supremacy or racism and patriarchy, have had conflicting formative effects in my life. One taught me to believe that I am worth little and should take up as little space as possible. The other taught me that I am a savior and have the right to take up as much space as I please. If these two canceled each other out and brought me to some sort of balance in the middle, I might be okay, but they don’t.

Racism and Patriarchy are intersecting oppressions which have distorted the shape I was given by God so that I am now both too small and too big, so that I need to learn to both grow and shrink. Of course, this is true because I am white and female. The experience of patriarchy and racism held by a woman of color or by a white man may look different.

The fact that these oppressions exist alongside each other in the Anabaptist tradition and in the broader world makes each one of them more complicated to address and makes it essential that we address both of them together, along with the other oppressions that exist among us.

Love markThis is what the Women in Leadership Project is striving to do: to use an intersectional approach in working toward untangling and undoing the many oppressions that persist in our midst as a community of faith. And, this commitment was at the center of the motivation and planning for the recent gathering, All You Need is Love. Of course, we did not do a perfect job, but I do think that the 192 women and three men who gathered together made significant steps in an encouraging direction.

While the majority of the planning work was done by white women, the majority of the visioning was done by women of color. The majority of those leading the large group in theological conversation and worship were women of color. As a whole group, we did theology together by listening to each other’s stories in ways that brought rigorous intellectual reflection together with spiritual awareness, vulnerability, and compassion for one another.

The stories that shaped the conversation we were having were mostly stories from the margins, so that the voices that have been too often minimized could be amplified and the voices that too often ring in the center of our communities could rest, make space and listen.

All together, as women, we took up space by moving, dancing, hugging, laughing, eating, crying, and yelling words of faith. We talked together about what it would mean for each of us to do our part to help the space where we gathered to be as safe as it could be for people of all identities. We messed up sometimes, and we learned from it and continue to learn. In worship, in conversation, in reflection, we were embodied and the Spirit among us was embodied in us.

Perhaps, one of the more profound experiences we had as a whole group was on the last morning of our time together. In the preceding days it was clear that we were a group that was experiencing significant pain over the conversation in the broader church related to sexual orientation and belonging, pain that was shared across many different perspectives on the issue.

That morning, as a group we found a way to express that pain vulnerably, to listen and hear each other in the midst of disagreement, to name and recognize that various relational and power dynamics exacerbating the pain of our circumstances, and then to chose to love each other anyway.

In a moment of profound vulnerability in the midst of this conversation, the whole group sang together words that spoke of our hope, our lament, and our longing.  As we sang, we spontaneously stood and took each other’s hands. And, when our singing faded to silence, every pair of clasped hands rose up. The silence became a holy silence. Love in the midst of pain. Unity in the midst of division. Commitment to see each other and hear each other and not be divided by the oppressive systems that weigh on us.

It was a small step. It was a beginning and not an ending. But, it was a significant beginning and perhaps an important step toward learning what it means to be church together in the midst of the various oppressive systems that divide us.

We shared this experience together in the midst of the conversation we were having about sexual orientation and belonging, but I have to believe it was also a response to the broader conversations we’d been having throughout our time together – conversations about racism, conversations about patriarchy, conversations about what it means to love each other in the midst of a world rife with struggle and oppression of all kinds.

Our hands clasped above our heads was a sign of the depth of our desire to be community with each other in ways that disrupt each of the oppressive systems that persist among us.

As those of us who were gathered together at All You Need is Love have rejoined or own communities, we are asking ourselves: How can space be made for the Spirit that so graciously made itself known to us at the conference spread out and catch fire among us all?

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