I came across a quote in the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that helped me think a bit more about our current discussions about sexuality in the Mennonite world. I’ll share the quote in a bit, but first I want to set the context.
Othering and the Cold War
Several years ago, as I was working on my book on World War II’s moral legacy, I struggled to understand how the phenomenon of “global communism” could justify the American commitment to its national security state and military interventions around the world. I realized that a key moment was President Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech in 1947 that stated, in effect, that there is only one communism, that this communism is behind a vast system of anti-American actions around the world, and the presence of such anti-American actions requires swift and decisive American military intervention. To label people communists was effectively to signify them as the “other” who are different and are inherently a threat to our security. So, military actions (public and secret) in such disparate locations as Greece, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Iran followed over the next few decades.
I was struck by how this dynamic insured that little effort would be exercised actually to understand the specific, on-the-ground context for the “anti-American” dynamics. It was a simple process: if there was a lack of support for American interests it was because of global communism. If the lack of support could be labeled as communist-inspired, then everything needed to be known was obvious. There is only one “communist practice”—all communists are essentially the same (and, even more pernicious, all “anti-Americans” are communists). It is quite remarkable to take even a cursory look at the series of conflicts that U.S. engaged in and see an almost identical pattern over and over again where the “enemies” of the U.S. were labeled as “communist” (i.e., definitely labeled as immoral and worthy of violent opposition) and responded to with often devastating force.
The end of the Soviet Union deprived the U.S. of the “global communism” label as a justification of militarism. However, surely not coincidentally, at about the same time as the end of the Soviet empire, the spectre of global terrorism arose and in many ways, down to our present day, successfully played the same role. Again, there seems to be only one terrorism. When we apply that label to resistance to American interests, we know all we need to know and proceed accordingly. Continue reading
[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]
Merger and the “Membership Guidelines”
In February of 2000, an open letter was published in the Mennonite Weekly Review signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including numerous pastors and other church leaders, calling for a more inclusive approach. The letter asked for more conversation among those in Mennonite churches and sought to demonstrate that those who favored inclusion made up a sizable minority of church members.
I signed the MWR letter and afterwards learned that I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to sign it. About a year after the MWR letter, VMC issued a statement requiring ordained people in the conference to agree not to advocate against the statement’s points about “homosexual practice”—including this one: ”We believe that the practice of homosexuality is rebuked by Scripture as sin.” This requirement was never actually strictly enforced, but I did face an extended process of having my credentials reviewed. In the end, the conference pressured me to resign my ordination but was not quite willing to remove it when I resisted the pressure.
The MWR letter was released in the midst of negotiations between the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church to merge. Numerous people took the impending merger as an opportunity to exert pressure to keep Mennonite churches from allowing for the presence of the inclusive perspective affirmed in the MWR letter.
At the joint general assembly of MCs and GCs in 1999, the GCs voted to affirm the merger. And, Canadian members of both denominations decided to join together apart from the US churches and form Mennonite Church Canada as a separate entity from the US churches. However, the MC delegates did not achieve the pro-merger vote that was required, so the process continued. One of the main stated issues was that numerous MC delegates threatened to reject the merger unless the anti-inclusive stance of the denomination were strengthened.
So, what became the 2001 Membership Guidelines were formulated. Enough of those who opposed inclusion found the strict anti-inclusion provisions acceptable (and enough of those who supported inclusion were willing to give up on a more inclusive denominational stance for the sake of achieving the merger) that the delegate approved the merger and Mennonite Church USA was created.
It was notable, that in face of the threats by some not to agree to the merger, these Guidelines, a relatively short document (4 pages) that spoke to the key issues that would shape the proposed new denomination devoted about 25% of its length and one of its three main sections to “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” in effect giving the “homosexuality” issue status as the most important issue facing this new denomination (I have written a critique of the Guidelines here). Continue reading
The denomination I have been part of since 1981, the Mennonite Church, is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. The longer-term trend for some time has been shrinking membership totals and an aging demographic.
The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, was founded and has existed with the purpose (not always directly stated) of keeping Mennonite young people in the Mennonite community. When I began teaching here in 1996, the student body was a bit more than 60% Mennonite. Now, with the enrollment being roughly the same, the percentage of Mennonite students in our first-year class is about half of what it was 17 years ago. Not a good sign.
Another factor that has led to MC USA shrinking, besides smaller families and the younger generation losing its loyalty to the denomination, has been a steady stream of conservative congregations leaving the denomination—and numerous others continuing to threaten to leave. (It is an interesting phenomenon that it is only conservative congregations that are voluntarily leaving—the couple of progressive congregations that left MC USA since its current structure was established in 2001 with the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Church were kicked out.)
In recent weeks I have heard dispirited speculation from several denominational leaders better informed and much closer to the centers of power than I am that MC USA may not be long for the world. I have no idea how realistic such speculation actually is. I do find it difficult to imagine that the denomination itself would die, but I suppose it is reasonable to imagine a significantly diminished institution.
I perceive that it would be pretty difficult to describe accurately all the factors that are contributing to these troubles. Most of those who talk about these things (including me) may have ideological axes to grind in our analyses. Our understanding of the why of the problem is often shaped by our ideals about what we want the denomination to do.
What I want to reflect on in this post is not so much a wide-ranging diagnosis of the factors that are troubling MC USA as taking one particular factor and thinking about how it might have contributing something to our current situation. This is my thesis: The soul of MC USA has been damaged by a tendency for church leaders and others to allow those who are opposed to efforts to make the denomination more gay-friendly to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination. Our current crises follow—at least in part—from this tendency. Continue reading
I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.
While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.
There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible? Continue reading
[This is the sixth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first five posts in the series.]
The Basic Argument: Old Testament Salvation
For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice required to make salvation possible. This is the doctrine of the atonement, commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification through his sacrifice on the cross.” However, the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’s death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God.
The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants who would form a people to bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land; and (5) the sustenance of this community even after the destruction by the Babylonians through the prophets and Torah.
The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. In none of these cases was God constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. In some cases, violence may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice. However, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment. It is unearned; the violence is not inherent in its bestowal.
The centrality of the gift may be seen in the role the law and sacrifices play in salvation. Both are second steps, responses to the gift. God acts directly to give life to Abraham and Sarah; then they offer sacrifices. God acts directly to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; then God gives the law to shape the people’s responsive living. Salvation is not the consequence of obedience to the law or the offering of sacrifices. To the contrary, obedience to the law and the offering of sacrifices are consequences of salvation.
This view of salvation is reinforced by Israel’s prophets even amidst their sharp critiques. They proclaim that salvation is a gift; it simply requires trust, while its fruit is faithful living. Reject the gift and you will face consequences—but even then God awaits your return should you choose to do so. Continue reading
[This is the fifth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first four posts in the series.]
Paul on the need for salvation
The interpreter of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection who has shaped the generations since most powerfully has been the Apostle Paul. Christian salvation theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. After examining key elements of Paul’s thought, I conclude that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.
Like his predecessors, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor. Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.
Romans 1–3 provides one important opportunity for Paul to spell out his understanding of Jesus as savior. At the heart of the sin problem for Paul is the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God—with the consequence that instead of experience God’s healing justice, idolators experience “wrath.”
As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are about salvation. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger directly aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel. “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.
The true law exposes the sins of us all. It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols. At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives. This problem characterizes Jews and Greeks alike. This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (Rom 3:9) over all groups of people. Being a member of the empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah. In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry. Continue reading
[This is the fourth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first three posts in the series.]
The story of Jesus’s death helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us answer the question of how to respond to violence without adding to the violence. This story helps us understand why the simple message of God’s love has not been readily embraced in our world. And this story helps us understand how God works to overcome these problems.
Using the logic of retribution (and its application in atonement theology) as the basis for understanding the meaning of Jesus’s death and our salvation actually leads to the opposite conclusion from what the story conveys. The story tells us that the logic of retribution was an instrument of the fallen Powers, not God—and that Jesus’s followers should see in the story a direct refutation of that logic.
In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the dominance of the fallen Powers? The Powers rely on belief. As long as we believe in their ultimacy, trusting in them for security and meaning, the Powers rule. Jesus challenges human beings to change our allegiance. He asks us to trust in God’s love and not the sense of superiority over others that legalistic belief in the law provides. He asks us to end our trust in the assured access to God that sacred rituals (at a price) provide. He asks us to end our trust in the sense of power over others that being on good terms with the empire provides. In these ways, trust in Jesus breaks the hold of the Powers.
Jesus’s death links with salvation in that: (1) it exposes the fallacy of the logic of retribution; (2) it exposes the direct link between this murderous logic and the institutions that exploit it; (3) it shows that the spiral of violence that is set loose and ever-deepened by this logic may be broken only by non-retaliation and mercy in the way Jesus embodied them; and (4) it sets the stage for God’s act that vindicates how Jesus exposed the Powers and embodied domination-free life when God raises Jesus from the dead. Continue reading