Beth Martin Birky
On a small table sat two bowls of water: one old, dented metal and one cut glass. With “Amazing Grace” playing in the background, women were invited to come forward in pairs for the closing ritual of the first college Sister Care workshop.
At the dented bowl, each woman dipped her fingers in the water and placed them on her own cheeks, a sign of her need for healing. At the glass bowl, one woman dipped her fingers in the water and touched the other woman’s eyes, forehead, cheeks or heart, to anoint her with a symbol of compassion and love.
This scene marked the end of 8 hours together, which included input from the leaders, Rhoda Keener, the director of Mennonite Women, and Carolyn Heggen, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery. Activities included table discussions, short activities, and delicious food served by supportive women from local churches.
As I watched the women embrace, I was touched by their vulnerability and their compassion as they saw new aspects of God’s face in each other, acknowledging that we need community to find healing.
Reminders of love and compassion are important, especially on a college campus. As an academic, I’ve been trained to gather information, analyze and defend my position. As a feminist, I’ve used those skills to address gender oppression and work toward equal, respect-filled and healthy lives for every person. As a Christian feminist, I believe that God’s love is the basis for wholeness and health.
The challenge I’ve faced is balancing knowledge and analysis with vision, love, courage, and compassion. When it comes to gender identity, sexual identity, and the many other factors shaping our experience, that balance is particularly tenuous. Gender and sexuality are deeply personal and yet inextricably tied to context: social, cultural, economic, racial, familial and interpersonal.
Gender movements have contributed knowledge, vision and courage throughout history. (Gender Studies is an imperfect label for gender-focused analysis of issues faced by diverse women, men, and LGBTQIA+—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, etc.—individuals from different cultural, economic, racial, and ethnic contexts.) While those movements have brought about change, we continue to need healing.
In the last 50 years, the Christian church has begun to address centuries-old gender issues. The Mennonite church, like others, has been slow to recognize the structural patterns in our social contexts, our communities and families, as well as our theology, that perpetuate inequality, unhealthy relationships and abuse, pain and alienation around gender and sexuality.
The handling of theologian John Howard Yoder’s sexual misconduct demonstrates how an imbalance between knowledge and love, justice and compassion can perpetuate individual and corporate pain.
The recent re-examination of Yoder’s treatment of women and last Sunday’s ceremony of lament and apology to Yoder’s victims at AMBS (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) also shows that we can work toward a balance of knowledge and compassion, even though healing—individual and corporate—is not guaranteed.
Like the closing ritual of Sister Care, the AMBS service was an effort to embody God’s love for each of us and our love for one another.
Whether we are just beginning to think about how gender issues impact us or whether we are very familiar with gender theory and engaged in gender activism, we need to consider many aspects of social and personal change.
I need information and analysis, but I also need love: for the hurt I carry with me, for others who walk beside me, and for the amazing God who created us all in Her image.