LGBTQ Magazine

Ruth Krall, "A Sin Or a Crime?"

Posted on the 05 February 2020 by William Lindsey @wdlindsy

Ruth Krall, Crime?

David Stoltzfus Smucker (age 75) wheeled into court in Lancaster, PA, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 24 Jan. 2020

I'm happy to share today a recent essay by Ruth Krall that packs a lot of valuable information and theological reflection into a small space. Though it's specifically focused on questions about how abuse of vulnerable people is handled in her own religious community of origin, it offers a valuable lens through with those studying abuse in other religious or institutional settings can also look. Ruth writes:
Sentence: 38-76 years of imprisonment: This means that Smucker will likely die in jail.  The crime: 20 felony counts for sexually molesting children, i.e., rape, of his grandchildren.
I have been following this case by means of media coverage. Mennonites often idealize the Amish —while not wanting to be Amish. I have never done this kind of idealizing.
I don't know what my Lutheran father knew but he was quite clear with me that many Amish men and many Mennonite men were not nice men and that, as I began to date, I needed to protect myself. It was an explicit message about not dating and not marrying a Mennonite man.
Even as a very young girl I absorbed the warning and protected myself. As I became a teenager on the cusp of adult life he was much more explicit with me about the need to protect myself when he could no longer do this as my father — because he was not going to be present as I matured into young adult life.
My answer, therefore, to the sin or crime dilemma is that sexual abuse of children and adolescents, i.e., rape, by their grandfather, is a crime and a sin phenomenon. It is a sin problem for the perpetrator’s religious community to manage and it is a crime problem for the perpetrator's secular community to manage. It is, therefore, simultaneously both a sin and a crime problem. For the victims of child or adolescent sexual abuse, the act of sexual violation is a sin against them and it is also a crime act against them.
In addition, because Mennonites have an important theology of the people of God as a communal people, the sin against children is also a sin against the community. Whether it is the unforgivable sin is open to debate. As an unforgiveable sin, the only needed communal response is deep mourning because there is no way to repair the damages done. Not only, therefore, will the abused individual be faced with almost intractable dilemmas about how to live life after abuse, the community will also face its own dilemmas about how to continue to be a community in the face of such fractured trust.
Both aspects of the perpetrator's violation must be acknowledged. A sin has occurred inside the community and a crime has also occurred. The respective communities of perpetrators and victims must manage these sins and these crimes in appropriate ways.
In addition, it is a sin and a crime problem for the children's immediate and extended family. The damage done is pervasive; the harm done is incalculable. In many — probably most — situations, the harm is intergenerational and will be passed forward in history. If left unmanaged, it is very likely that replications of the abuse will occur in future generations. It is very likely that family and community secrets will manifest themselves in repetitious behavioral re-enactments.Future generations of children will be, therefore, at risk.
While the church may hand out forgiveness to child molesters and abusers of adolescents like M and M candies on Halloween, the secular state must guarantee the safety of its citizens and this means it must dole out justice.
According to many Jewish authors, (1) only G-d can forgive sins against G-d; (2) only the victim of harm/sin can forgive the perpetrator of harm, i.e., sin and evil done against them (in other words., there is no substitute); and (3) only the community gathered collectively at Yom Kippur can liturgically deal with confessions of guilt inside the community.  (i) Vis-à-vis sins against the Jewish individual and/or the Jewish community, there is no ritual scapegoat to be led away into the desert and abandoned to the wolves as an act of liturgical propitiation.
In my mind the question remains: Can evil acts against small children be forgiven at all? (ii) These are transgressions that happen to them when they are powerless to repel the violator or report the crime,when they are not yet mature enough to protect themselves. The damage done to them is life-long. And often there are generational consequences as well — the intergenerational transmission of violence and victimization. (iii)
What is needed, I think, but likely won't happen, is for Mennonite sociologists such as Steve Nolt (Goshen College) and Don Kraybill (Elizabethtown College) and David Weaver-Zercher (Messiah College) to stop romanticizing the Amish Community and its theological praxis of forgiveness. (iv) It is also past-time for Mennonite academics such as Mark Thiessen-Nation (Eastern Mennonite Seminary), Ted Grimsrud (Eastern Mennonite University), Harry and Chris Huebner (Canadian Mennonite Bible College) to stop romanticizing John Howard Yoder's theology of individual and communal forgiveness. (v)
We Mennonite academics and retired academics need to re-think our own sociology in light of the vast amounts of child and adolescent abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, theological, and religious) inside of our families and communities. It is time — perhaps way past time — for the Mennonite community to revisit the Schleitheim Confession and its theology of forgiveness inside the community of faith. (vi) It is time, in my opinion, to jettison this ancient confession of faith as the foundation of Christian formation for Mennonite culture and theology.
Urgently needed is a re-visitation of the theology of John Howard Yoder — most particularly his theology of forgiveness. Young Mennonite scholars need to review Yoderian theology in light of his sexual misconduct. Until this work is done, it is impossible to prevent future sexual transgressions of a recidivist mode. The critical books are Yoder's two theological books The Politics of Jesus (1972) and Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community (1992). These volumes were written during the same time frame that Yoder was abusing adult women.
i. Eckhardt, A. L. "Dilemma of Forgiveness." Yad Vashem.
ii. Wiesenthal, S. (1998). The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and the Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken.
iii. Imber-Black, E. (1999). The Secret Life of Families: Making Decisions about Secrets; When Keeping Secrets Can Harm You; When Keeping Secrets Can Heal You … And How to Know the Difference. New York: Bantam.
iv. Kraybill, D. B., Nolt, S. M. , and Weaver-Zercher, D. L. (2010). Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. New York: Jossey-Bass.
v. Yoder, J.H. (2003). Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.
vi. Sattler, M. (1527); translator John Howard Yoder (1973). The Schleitheim Confession. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

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