It’s so very difficult to put into words. So when a poet hits the nail on the head it can take your breath away.
That was the case when I first read Di Brandt’s poem non-resistance or love Mennonite style. Without this poem it seems this website is incomplete.
Conversing with Di Brandt along the way toward her poem’s publishing here, she responded to my first email inquiry with “good god, what a website! i’m glad to discover it! brava!! do most mennonites know about this site?” And later: “i’ve been trying to get people in the mennonite communities to talk about these things for 30 years, and have been much vilified by many of them for it. i was shunned from most of my family for outing the domestic violence and abuse among them. (tho also much celebrated by others.) so glad yr doing all this.”
And we are glad to be publishing your poem here, Di Brandt. Brandt is an award-winning Canadian poet and literary critic, whose books have won numerous prizes including the CAA National Poetry Prize for Jerusalem, beloved, the Foreword Gold Medal for Fiction for Watermelon Syrup: A Novel (with Annie Jacobsen and Jane Finlay-Young), and the Gabrielle Roy Prize for “best book of literary criticism in Canada,” for Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry, ed. with Barbara Godard. She teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at Brandon University, Manitoba, Canada.
Brandt says she wrote the poem after another Mennonite woman told her about her childhood experience. “It is a poem of empathy for the suffering of other women in our culture at a time when I was just finding out about how common these kinds of experiences were even though they were very hushed up, trying to understand the thinking that supported such a pervasive cover up.”
This speaks to the gift of empathy that artists seem to inherently carry as they help to connect us through the suffering of the human heart and soul. As the ancient dramatist Terence of Rome said around 195 BC, “I am human, [therefore] nothing human can be alien to me.”
Especially poignant are the connections Brandt draws between the teachings of our Mennonite faith and the cultivation, protection and even encouragement of sexually predatory behavior in our communities. From the time I was small the teachings were clear:
immediately forgive anyone for anything no matter the cost to yourself
God does not want us to bring lawsuits against persons who break the law
disobeying our parents threatens our salvation
if we want to truly live as Jesus lived we must love our enemies no matter how heinous the crime against us
we must never, ever become angry
we must never, ever engage in combative behavior (including self-protection) that might fuel a conflict
we must always return evil with good
we dress modestly so as not to cause men to sin
A few years ago I was party to a case in Virginia in which young Amish women were being raped by the same man. The women reported it to the church leaders and a group of Amish men showed up at the sex offenders home to attempt to mediate the situation and respectfully ask the man to stop his harmful behavior, but to no avail. The man knew full well they would never bring charges against him. The Amish community insisted on not involving the police.
With these traditional peace teachings at the fore, it is truly no wonder that conscientious and sensitive Mennonite children and young people are especially reticent to tell others of crimes committed against them, much less attempt to retaliate against their perpetrator in the moment. “Why didn’t they kick him in the balls?” an older woman asked me, finding it hard to believe the young women who were assaulted by John Howard Yoder weren’t somehow to blame and in fact played a part in his abuses over two decades.
Brandt’s poem is a welcomed contribution toward the answer to her question.
No matter how relevant to this war-weary world, Mennonite teachings of peace and non-violence can unwittingly endanger our most vulnerable populations. Church leaders would do well to remember that their teachings from the pulpit and in the Sunday School room fall on the ears of children and impressionable young persons living with the reality/threat of sexual molestation and abuse by persons their parents and other congregants may know and trust, including members of their own family.
Some re-tooling of the ways in which we communicate the most cherished teachings of our faith tradition is urgently needed.
We are grateful to Di Brandt and Turnstone Press for permission to publish her poem here and we welcome your comments.
nonresistance, or love Mennonite style
for L. and the others
turn the other cheek when your brother
hits you & your best friend tells fibs
about you & the teacher punishes you
unfairly if someone steals your shirt
give him your coat to boot this will
heap coals of fire on his head & let him
know how greatly superior you are
while he & his cronies dicker & bargain
their way to hell you can hold your
head up that is down humbly knowing
you’re bound for the better place where
it gets tricky is when your grandfather
tickles you too hard or your cousins
want to play doctor & your uncle kisses
you too long on the lips & part of you
wants it & the other part knows it’s
wrong & you want to run away but you
can’t because he’s a man like your father
& the secret place inside you feels itchy
& hot & you wonder if this is what hell
feels like & you remember the look on
your mother’s face when she makes
herself obey your dad & meanwhile her
body is shouting No! No! & he doesn’t
even notice & you wish you could stop
being angry all the time but you can’t
because God is watching & he sees
everything there isn’t any place to let
it out & you understand about love the
lavish sacrifice in it how it will stretch
your woman’s belly and heap fire on your
head you understand how love is like
a knife & a daughter is not a son & the
only way you will be saved is by
submitting quietly in your grandfather’s
house your flesh smouldering in the
darkened room as you love your enemy
deeply unwillingly and full of shame.
Di Brandt, from Agnes in the sky (Winnipeg, Canada: Turnstone Press, 1990)
9 previous comments
CAROLYN HEGGEN says:
Jan 21, 2014
Oh my! Thank you Di Brandt and Barb Graber for these powerful words and reflections. They give me chills–and hope in the naming.
Carolyn Holderread Heggen
ANGELA MICHAEL says:
Jan 24, 2014
Barbra and Di speak the truth!! If only people would listen and take action! People in the Mennonite Church are especially vulnerable because of the theology taught and assimilated. Some may believe the last “leper” in our society is the Sexual offender,and thus take pride in accepting them into our worship space. I contend , the person being shunned is the victim/survivor of sexualized violence. Very few within the church are willing to listen,believe,walk with and give safe haven to the victims. Teaching children self-esteem is not enough, adults must protect the vulnerable! May we continue to give voice to the unspeakable in order to stop the violence!
SHIRLEY HERSHEY SHOWALTER says:
Jan 24, 2014
Thank you, Barbra, for this eloquent testimonial to the double horror of sexual violence when perpetrated in a context of teachings of nonresistance. And to Di Brandt for naming this condition long ago.
It took great courage to say these things.
And I too feel hope when truth speaks. Love, truth, justice, peace. All of these must speak. John Paul Lederach, Julia Kasdorf, Di Brandt, Barbra Graber, Ruth Krall, Carolyn Yoder, David Anderson Hooker, Carolyn Heggen, and others I don’t know — together could help all of us.
PETER ATTWOOD says:
Jan 27, 2014
I thought that this deserved detailed treatment on my own blog tonight.
Jan 30, 2014
Barb thank you for sharing this and thank you Di Brandt for writing this. My heart hurts for the many people who are carrying painful experiences. I think we all have things in our past that need to be heard so healing can happen. I share with many as I do my job that have a past that needs healing! Thank you for the work you are doing.
Feb 4, 2014
My friend is a Mennonite man, 18 and was raped a few months ago but won’t say anything in fear of being shunned. Can they really do that to him if he tells them he was raped by another man?
BARBRA GRABER says:
Feb 4, 2014
Thank you for commenting, james. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s violation. The answer to your question is yes, some will likely shun him. But not all! I hope your friend will contact us. This is a safe place for victims of sexualized violence in Mennonite communities to find support and gentle guidance toward what is best for their healing journey. We don’t believe in coercing or forcing anyone to break the silence about the crime committed against them, but we do know from our own experience that telling others who can support the journey is the only road to true healing. This is not an experience that just “works itself out” on its own. We can waste years trying to shove it down, but it tends to stifle our lives in a myriad of ways, especially in relationships. Please invite your friend to reach out. There are many of us and we understand the pain. Barbra Graber firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct 10, 2014
Civil governments typically declare failure to report serious crimes to the police authorities a serious crime in itself. Wilful failure to report such crimes of which one has personal knowledge is a prison offense.
A parent or other person having custody of a child, who in the USA is one under the age of 18, who knows that such a child within his (or her) responsibility is the victim of a crime of violence or sexual assault and who fails to report the incident may be convicted of felony.
A parent who fails to act to stop his (or her) child from engaging in sexual activity, and to report the assault to the police authority, may be convicted both of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and of failure to report a felony (statutory rape).
In the church Christians are not so much as to eat with one called a (Christian) brother (or sister) who is a notorious sinner. How are others to know not to have fellowship with such a person if his (or her) sins are kept secret by his (or her) victim and by any witness?
BARBRA GRABER says:
Oct 10, 2014
Thank you Robbie for so clearly outlining our responsibility as adults to children and minors in our own communities. Every adult in every church, in every home, in every community must take pro-active responsibility to protect our children. There is an epidemic of sexual violation of children going on right under our noses, especially in Christian environments. We must educate ourselves and face reality.