…REFLECTIONS ON COLUMBUS 09
THIS WAS NOT YOUR FATHER’S MENNONITE NATIONAL CONVENTION….
…..I thought it providential that, after the conference, our wonderful hosts in Goshen, Indiana, (Milton and Ruth Cender) shared stories and memories about how Mennonite conferences and congregations fifty or more years ago were preoccupied with, or divided by, matters such as head coverings or cape dresses for women, or hair length and plain coats for men. To the few who call me from time to time, wondering if we still enforce such codes, and obviously hoping that we do, I would say that enforcing and obeying such outward signs of conformity are no guarantee of inward spiritual transformation and submission to God. In fact, they can become easy substitutes for such inward work and growth.
Anyone who finds security and inspiration in outward signs of submission would have come away from Columbus 09 in despair. Although the contemporary rock and roll style of the music in the youth conference was not always my cup of tea, I was glad it was for the majority of the youth who came. I just hope they understand that we can’t often recreate the same experience in our home congregations, not for reasons of disapproval, necessarily, but for reasons of available skill sets in worship and music. When God gifts Emmanuel Mennonite Church with the people and the instrumental skills for a praise and worship band (as I have often prayed, and see the glimmers of an answer coming), we will have a praise and worship band, though not for every song, probably.
As an aside, I commend the musicians at the youth conference for the ways in which they also presented and treated some old, standard hymns, such as, “Come, Thou Fount.” Youth were treated to the richness and depth of such hymns, but in stylistic settings they could appreciate.
In addition to loud and fast music, there was also dancing, on stage and in the aisles, like at a rock concert. There was also beautiful, skillful, expressive and disciplined dancing on the part of a trained interpretive dancer. But again I thought of previous generations of Mennonites who would have been horrified at the thought of such goings-on. I know what they were reacting against, so I can sympathize with them. But only to a point, when I know there are ways to reclaim worship as a more bodily experience, like what one reads about in the Old Testament. Just ask our African Christian friends.
If anything, Mennonite Church USA is engaged in a bold experiment, to proclaim that the essential seed of the Anabaptist Christian faith can take root and grow in a multiplicity of cultural settings and expressions, contrary to the historic tendency of our recent ancestors, and of many other Mennonite groups, to hedge it about with strict cultural boundaries. And then we begin to confuse the cultural boundary markers, like dress, language and hair styles, with the essence of the faith, which I believe to be trans-cultural. I am all for this experiment. Its what allowed me to join.
OF PEACE AND PIETY
Anyone who came to Columbus 09 as a peace activist looking to network with other peace activists would have felt that he or she had hit the jackpot. Anyone who came as a missionary looking to network with other missionaries would likely have felt thus blessed. Anyone who came simply to pray, worship and adore God would have felt, at times, like John the Revelator, transported to the throng around the Throne of the Lamb. And anyone who came hoping to integrate all thre above expressions and experiences of the Christian faith (I’m sure there are more) would have wanted the conference to last another week at least.
Its a hard thing for any denomination, let alone a congregation or a person, to integrate peace, piety and evangelism. Denominations and churches often tend to major in one to the exclusion of the others. But if MCUSA fails in integrating these in symbiotic ways, it will not be for a lack of trying. Our peace activism may put us in partnership with peace activists who come at their work from a more humanistic, secular starting point, which is fine and necessary for getting anything accomplished. Its also a good witness, although the witness goes in both directions. Elements of humanistic, secular philosophy can and do work their way into members of MCUSA, but that is only a reason to ramp up discernment, not a reason to cut off engagement. And our missional activities may put us in touch with people who don’t share, or who even despise, our peace position. But there’s no law against working together on common concerns or against picking and choosing resources and ideas that work and which can fit into our peace church framework. Nor is it a crime to go outside of our five hundred years of tradition to borrow and rework the resources and wisdom of other denominations for worship, when the worship to come, around the throne of the Lamb, will be decidedly nondenominational.
THE PINK MENNO CAMPAIGN
For someone who was drawn to Christian faith through the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is an odd and unsettling experience to find oneself at the receiving end of a moral crusade. But to some people in the church and at the most recent national biennial convention in Columbus, Ohio, the full inclusion, affirmation and celebration of GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) identities, relationships and lifestyles into every part of church and society is the next stage in the eternal and ongoing civil rights revolution. Maybe even in the coming of God’s kingdom.
The Pink Menno campaign, a movement at the convention to highlight and press the agenda of full inclusion and affirmation of GLBTQ members, pastors and leaders in the life and leadership of the Mennonite Church, was present, powerful, and visibly advocating even during worship, delegate business meetings, and other venues, simply by showing up in pink. Pink shirts, pink scarves, pink wristbands. From what I observed, I’d say for the most part that they were respectful in their words and comportment. Some of what they advocated included revisiting (and revising) church statements on sexuality, including perhaps the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, freedom for congregations to address and include GLBTQ members and relationships as they see fit, and an apology for, and a halt to, the practice of disciplining leaders and churches at variance on this issue.
I attended one Pink Menno-recommended function about how to talk when we disagree on sexuality (or any other issue, I should hope). Talking about how to talk together is a very good place to start. Some of the recommendations for dialog are well worth pondering, such as the observation that it is hard to have an honest dialog when the fear of discipline hangs over the heads of only one party, and that we should assume the good faith and integrity of those with whom we disagree.
The point of the meeting was simply to air suggestions about how to talk, not to debate them. Only now, in this posting, do I have a time and place to weigh some of the other suggestions that I heard. It helped me to remember them that, when we broke into smaller groups to generate suggestions, I was the recorder for our particular group. Below are listed some of the things I heard in my discussion group, from other groups in that meeting, plus a few that were voiced in other times during the conference. I have mulled over and thought much about them. See if they raise any red flags for you, as they did for me:
“Don’t talk about the issue; talk with us.”
“Remember, with anything you say, its not just an issue you’re talking about; its us you’re talking about.”
“Talking about issues like the authority of the Bible, the accountability of pastors to conferences, or variance policies for churches, is just dancing around the real issue, which is this issue, and us.”
“Why do they always focus only on us and this issue? [asked with no sense of irony by someone wearing a pink shirt].”
“Leave the interpretation of any Bible passages relevant to homosexuality to us [GLBTQ people].”
“My generation was never consulted when the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was drafted.”
“Its because they don’t know us personally that they advocate exclusion.”
“Don’t engage in the emotional blackmail of saying you’ll leave the church if this controversy doesn’t go your way [I heartily agree],” followed by saying, “Lots of people will leave the church if it doesn’t change fast enough on this issue.”
“Their reluctance to change on this matter is driving young gay people to suicide and encouraging violence against us.”
“This is no different from previous controversies over dress and head coverings, or the ordination of women.”
“Don’t begin your study of the Bible with the expectation that it will yield any lasting, universal guidance on this or any other matter.”
“Don’t think that you can ever come to an understanding of what any Bible author or any Bible passage really means or meant to its writer and its original audience. Its only meaning is in what the reader brings to it.”
“If you put all the Bible passages together that have to do with sex, it becomes obvious that there is no biblical sexual ethic at all; the only thing that matters is love.”
And even: “Don’t start your moral reasoning on this issue (italics mine) with the Bible.”
Now for some responses. Talking respectfully, even lovingly, with people who live and believe differently than myself constitutes much of my life and work, especially in my friendly relations with other pastors of many denominations who take a different stance than mine on sexuality, war and wealth. And rigorous, honest discernment will require that we relate lovingly to persons even while we “talk about” issues and ideas honestly, without personalizing them to the point that they become referenda on the worth of groups and individuals. That’s unfortunately what Fred Phelps does by picketing the funerals of AIDS victims with the most hateful signs and words. But the sum total of the ground rules for dialog quoted above nearly preclude any respectful dialog; taken together, they effectively silence, even shame, anyone with any questions or concerns. They even make people parties to violence, suicide and murder, just for having questions and reservations. I share the fear, pain and grief over violence directed at GLBTQ people, having experienced the violence myself when I was identified (wrongly) in high school as gay. Perhaps we can find common ground, for starters, in advocating against the violence, contempt and ridicule that so many have experienced for their sexuality. While we’re at it, we could also raise our voices against the culturally mainstream machismo and misogyny that is connected to such violence and contempt. But anyone who really believes that someone’s reluctance to change a long-standing boundary amounts to complicity with murder and suicide is no longer obligated to dialog, tolerance, or respect. That amounts to complicity with the complicit.
As criteria for moral reasoning go, the statements above are highly selective. On no other issues do Christians engage in the kind of biblical exegesis and moral reasoning requested above. I keep thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s dictum: “There is a thought that stops all thinking.” And there are words that put a halt to all talking.
Hermeneutics, biblical or otherwise, is about seeking to get as close as possible to the originally intended meaning for both the author and the audience. Obviously, humility is required. But the hermeneutical despair quoted above is neither helpful nor necessary. It invites dissolution of the church, not inclusion, if there is no commonly held and understandable source of authority around which to gather. Any belief that requires such despair should be examined carefully. When applied to the Bible, such hermeneutical despair is selective and even self-contradictory. I’ve heard no one advocate the same kind of despair for the plays of Shakespeare or the writings of Plato. Even saying that we can never really understand and apply anything anyone else says requires understanding and application of what someone else says.
A consistent line of moral reasoning, suitable for all moral issues, is not something to jettison lightly. When people do become morally selective, we (hopefully) recognize the danger of hypocrisy and self-serving ethical reasoning. As for who does moral reasoning and scriptural exegesis, the witness of the earliest church leaders is unanimous in saying that it is best done by those who are making the effort and paying the price of living the Bible, in the spirit of Romans 12:1-4 (“Offer yourself a living sacrifice…be not conformed this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind; then you will be able to discern what is the will of God…”) Of course future generations are never consulted in the process. That my generation was never consulted about the formation of the canon or the Apostle’s Creed neither validates nor invalidates them. When did generations become the arbiters of truth? Again, to paraphrase Chesterton, “If truth changes according to generations, why doesn’t it change every Tuesday?”
Homosexuality is not the same kind of issue as dress codes or head coverings. Or at least we cannot simultaneously claim that it is a sacred, God-given identity, so central as sexuality is, at the same time that it is a disputable matter of no more significance than dress codes and head coverings. Nor is it the same as the ordination of women, at least not to those who see women’s equality and empowerment as being rooted in the same doctrine of creation by which “male and female” humans are both necessary to reflecting the image of God, including when joined sexually as “one flesh (Gen. 2).”
As someone with serious questions and concerns about the Pink Menno movement, some of the criteria stated above left me feeling something approaching the judgment, shunning and silencing that the Pink Menno advocacy is drawing to our attention. I suppose that is a valuable experience for a biblicist like myself, one which helps me understand what others have gone through. But two shamings don’t make for a reconciliation. And squaring off against each other with mirroring stances of ridicule, fear, judgment, shaming and silencing is no way to dialog. The invitation of the Pink Menno campaign for us to come to actually know each other is a godsend. I can testify to that by personal experience. But that doesn’t preclude some heavy spiritual and intellectual lifting by way of discernment on any issue, not only about homosexuality, but about what to do about homosexuality and our differences over it, especially when very good and noble people for very good and noble reasons may never come to agreement about it. It was such kinds of advocacy that distressed me more than did the things being advocated. I believe I can trust, and live more easily with, varieties of pastoral and congregational responses to homosexuality than I can with the varieties of reasoning that I am addressing.
To be fair, we must acknowledge that the case for inclusivity does not rest only on the logic I have cited above. Ted Grimsrud, in his contributions to the book he co-authored with Mark Thiessen Nation, Reasoning Together, attempts to base his arguments and advocacy on a more conservative approach to the Bible, one that respects its authority, and our ability to understand and apply it. But the presence and the prevalence of the kind of moral reasoning, and the hermeneutic of despair cited above, in the church should be a serious pastoral and missional concern for all leaders and pastors, whatever their position on homosexuality. It does not reflect well on many of the advocates of inclusion whom I know and respect, nor does it serve their cause well. And it only confirms some of the worst fears of those who hold a more traditional position.
What we have, in part, is a case of divergent narratives. One narrative says that God is still speaking and is revealing a divinely unfolding diversity of sexual identities (not just homosexuality) that connects with the Biblical call for hospitality, inclusion, justice and peace-making, as revealed in the prophets, Jesus, and the church’s mission to the Gentiles. Embracing that narrative may require at least as much faith as does the church’s historic stance on sexuality.
On the other side is a narrative that says…..that says….uh…We’re not sure yet what the other narrative is, except that the loudest voices only seem to be saying, “You’re wrong, you’re bad, because the Bible says….” That’s hardly a convincing, compelling or inviting narrative. Nor does it help us dialog either. No wonder it reminds many people of the previous controversies over dress, hair style and language, in effect, the quest for security through external boundaries and conformity alone. I wonder if the Mennonite Church is not still running from that fire long after the flames have been put out. If so, we are reacting to the abuse of authority by abusing authorities, like the Bible.
I feel our denomination’s division over this issue running right through the middle of me. I know, respect and love people on both sides of the controversy. My own feelings and struggles over the matter cannot be reduced to a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. Trusting in the good faith of those who wish to change the denomination’s position on sexuality, I would ask the same trust for those who have not joined, or who can not join, the Pink Menno program.
My own personal narrative keeps me from joining the Pink Menno campaign, even while it keeps me going to such events as the one I attended, looking for more light. To say that I believe that Jesus is always right is not to say that I believe that I am always right. To say that the Bible is my guide is not to claim that I am sure that I always understand and interpret it correctly. But I warn us against any hermeneutic of despair that would keep us from trying to understand and apply it better, and believing that we can.
My personal narrative is captured in the words of the hymn, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” It was when I realized my propensity and captivity to sin that I was born again. Sin, in all its forms, had—and still has– the capacity to entice, entrap, enslave and confuse me, from which I cannot rescue myself. I, “the chief of sinners” for all I know, need a savior.
I have no fear of homosexuality or of people with same sex attraction, neither in society, nor in the church. I am simply raising concerns about the moral reasoning and the Bible hermeneutic I described above. They sound very much like the moral reasoning of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960’s, which not only failed to prevent me from slipping into some serious moral danger in my pre-Christian years, it also greased the skids. If I fear anything, it is that I, as a pastor and teacher, would do anything to make the position of anyone else more precarious on the slippery slopes on which we all live, including myself. That includes people I know who are seeking to live faithfully with their besetting temptations, as they see them, including the desire for same sex activity. As I worshiped and talked and prayed and attended seminars with many friends and others unknown in their pink shirts, I looked hopefully for signs that maybe we could differ on this one issue even while keeping a sense of biblical authority, moral urgency and missional engagement with the world intact. The results of that quest have been mixed. But I’m willing to keep looking.
If it sounds as though I have come to Christ and the church looking (in part) for moral boundaries and security, I plead guilty, if that be a crime. As the Sexual Revolution unfolds, look for more walking wounded to come limping into church, looking for mercy, safety and guidance. They will find no deep mercy where there are no high standards. But that’s a different narrative, of course, from that of those who look to church and to God for the affirmation and celebration of their liberation from many of the same boundaries. “I was born again when I acknowledged I was a sinner,” is a different narrative from, “I was born again when I affirmed that I wasn’t a sinner.”
I don’t know how to bridge the gap between people who see many or all of the varieties of sexual desire and behavior as the Spirit’s wonderful work of liberation, creation and variation, and those, like myself, who aren’t convinced they are not signs of an ancient and multi-faceted broken-ness that affects and afflicts all of us in ways that few of us would choose. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between such narratives with anything but love for the people who differ.
But I hope that, over time, we will see emerging, in the gap between these different narratives, a greater, deeper truth underneath, one that is different from the positions in the hermeneutical corners into which people on both sides of the issue are currently painting themselves, a truth which will emerge over time as we seek to be faithful to God and each other, in spite of our differences. I stake no claim to knowing fully what the underlying truth is that will resolve or transcend our differences and disputes on this matter. But it will surely have a strong elements of love, faith and humility.