Settling in for what I knew would be a wild ride, Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning film for adapted screenplay, Women Talking, I recognized quickly what this movie was about: discernment. Somehow I hadn’t known that going in, though I knew the premise: the women in a community of Old Order Mennonites gather to decide what to do after it is revealed that men and boys are committing widespread sexual assault against the women and girls. What I didn’t expect was to recognize the process by which they were making the decision. I saw it in action when I was the communications director for a large women’s Benedictine community.
In its most basic terms, discernment is a process of group decision-making. It involves taking a vote, listening to the cases made by all sides, then taking another vote. Then, usually, listening again to responses and reactions, then taking another vote. If you are a community that can engage in deep listening, with empathy, to other points of view than your own, then discernment works. It might take a long time. It might take breaks and reconvening and more discussion before the desired result, unanimity, is achieved.
Above all else, it is a process of empathy. The community acts as a whole, and its decisions affect everyone. Understanding the effects and addressing them is a large part of the community discernment process. This process is used often to make difficult decisions for a community, about keeping or letting go of a ministry, for example, or choosing a new prioress or abbess, or even whether or not to close a monastery whose members are few and aging, and where to go if the monastery does close. Should the members scatter, join a larger community as a group, or “age in place” and simply stay put with care options in place until the community dies out? That is perhaps the hardest decision that religious orders, male and female, face currently.
If you are a community that can engage in deep listening, with empathy, then discernment works.
The women and girls in Women Talking identify three choices: stay and forgive, stay and fight, or leave as a group. All the men are in town for twenty-four hours to support those who have been arrested, so the women have limited time to discern their own future. The first vote, participated in by everyone, narrows the choices to “fight” or “leave.” Now that they know what is happening and who the perpetrators are, only a few of the women and girls want to stay and forgive, which they all know will simply allow the criminal behavior to continue.
Because they are a large community, they choose families representing each position to meet in the hayloft of the barn and discern what all of the women of the community will do. One woman and her daughters (or daughter and granddaughter, this is often unclear) want to stay and forgive. Scarface Janz, played by Frances McDormand, presents the “faith” position of forgiveness, as well as obedience to husbands and the male leadership of the community, as a requirement of community life. It is as clear to her as the scars on her face. Who are they without obedience? Without the men? Without their roles? But others argue that her position reflects rules, not faith. The women quickly dismiss this position (it did not make the cut in the vote, after all) as untenable and not a matter of faith. Forgiveness may be possible, they argue, but not forgiveness and staying. McDormand’s character takes the two girls and leaves the hayloft. She leaves the discernment process and will go her own way, staying no matter their decision.
Discernment is decision-making in the context of a lifetime of spiritual formation.
At first the opposition and white heat of anger and hurt expressed by the women made me think they faced an impossible task. Both leaving and fighting were valid choices. How would they possibly come to agreement? But then the work of discernment begins. Because discernment is not just about decision-making. Rather, it is decision-making in the context of a lifetime of spiritual formation. Discernment is the lifelong process of keeping one’s orientation open to God in all ways, attentive to particular moments. The decision becomes clear in the context of that lifelong orientation. This is especially evident in Women Talking. In addition to expressing their opinions, their anger, the pros and cons of each side, and their own stories, the women pause to recite Scripture to each other, to sing hymns that are deeply in their bones. They are guided in their decision by faith, deep faith. To the movie’s credit, it is a faith that does not oppress or validate their oppression but liberates and grounds them. Many of these hymn texts and psalms were familiar to me, and they were always astonishing when someone interjected them, in their seeming dissonance with the conversation, and their ability to soothe and redirect.
Staying and fighting, in order to be acceptable, has to be rooted in change. The women discuss what it is they want, under what conditions they could safely stay. What rules would the men need to follow? What kind of transformation would have to happen for the community to be loving and nonviolent toward the women? One woman, whose five-year-old daughter has been raped, simply wants revenge, to kill all the perpetrators when they return. But that’s not something this community is going to get behind.
To the film’s credit, their faith does not oppress but liberates and grounds them.
Ultimately, their faith leads them to a pacifist position. Safety is the primary issue, for themselves and for their daughters and granddaughters. Pacifism is not passivity; it is active. It does not preclude forgiveness, but its primary purpose is to not allow further violence. Mahatma Ghandi also expressed this position, in a story about a tiger terrorizing a village. It was an act of pacifism, he argued, to kill the tiger so it would no longer commit violence against the village. Standing up to the tiger was not an option, nor was convincing the tiger to change his murderous ways. Whether the men and boys of this community could be convinced, or forced, to change, seems unlikely. Whatever course of action these women would choose had to be nonviolent and also disallow the continuation of violence.
The only choice, in the end, was to leave.
The thing about true discernment is that in the end the decision feels inevitable, as happens in the film. We feel the murderous rage of some of the women, and it is justified, but they are not murderers, and staying and fighting, giving way to this impulse, would make them murderers. We feel even the fear of what it would mean to leave the community and start over, the risk of bad things happening and encountering other types of violence, including the violence of poverty, their vulnerability because they are illiterate and have lived so long separate from the world beyond this plot of land. Leaving takes great courage, and also a commitment to care for each other, especially the old and the young. In the end, as women and children invite those more vulnerable, the blind and disabled, into their buggies, you see the strength and commitment their faith has given them.
They also decide to take their young sons with them, both because they cannot bear to leave their sons behind and also in the belief that these boys can still be formed as nonviolent beings who respect women. When we see how one woman uses the same tactics the men used to subdue the women before raping them, in order to make her teenage son go with the women against his will, we see both how complicated the situation is (how could she leave her son behind with these violent men) and possible seeds of conflict in the future. This same woman, Salome Friesen, played by Claire Foy, the most ardent advocate for fighting, also reveals to the audience that she is taking weapons with her, prepared for self-defense.
However, the ending is uplifting and the sight of the long row of wagons ready to leave the colony is inspiring. The audience feels certain that somehow the women will make it work, with their animals and their share of the harvest, their skills and, especially, their faith.
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Ruth Marie Johnston says
Susan– I did not see this movie but so appreciate experiencing it through this essay. I am a Mennonite (joined as an adult, I grew up United Methodist.) I would say that the Mennonite’s practice of discernment through consensus (the word for that voting, talking, revoting, etc) is both a strength and a problem at times. It sounds like in the movie there was a time element that required a swift outcome/answer. In the reality of Mennonite congregations, consensus can take years, even decades. Meanwhile there can be suffering for some. It also has a tendency to alienate some folks (such as the women who decided they would stay and left the meetings.) There have been many splits in the Anabaptist world, in part because not everyone can concede to an outcome they feel is morally wrong. I see discernment through consensus as a beautiful ideal, but on the ground sometimes as painful and messy as other forms of decision-making. It is good to hear that something in our modern media (a movie) took seriously faith resources such as scripture and hymns as these have sometimes been left out or cheapened. Thank you for this thought-provoking essay.
Gale Walden says
Thanks for this, Susan. I’ve been a little hesitant to see this movie, but this essay makes me want to go.