Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)

Ted Grimsrud

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

The goodness of marriage

Before we consider what the main bases for discrimination may be, we need to spend a bit of time on marriage—in part of strengthen our sense that a rationale to deny marriage to a gay couple or to force a gay person to choose between marriage and employment at a place such as EMU needs to be strong and clear.

Christians consider marriage to be a good thing. While the Bible does not give a detailed blueprint for what constitutes a Christian marriage (in fact, it may be a bit surprising when one looks for such a blueprint to realize how little direct help the Bible gives—and a bit surprising also to realize what happens should we scrutinize the Bible looking for a model husband given that virtually all the major male characters in the Bible are either married to more than one woman or to none at all!), contemporary Christians see in the Bible general themes that contribute to our sense of Christian marriage.

Contemporary Christians would tend to see many of the following as part of their understanding of marriage: (1) it is based on the couple’s shared Christian values and commitments; (2) it is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, monogamy; (3) it is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement; (4) it is considered to be permanent, “until death do us part;” (5) it is characterized by companionship and intimacy (a key part of my recent thinking about marriage is the significance of the original image in Genesis 2 where Adam is joined by Eve, in part, because he was “lonely”); and (6) it is the context for the birthing and nurturing of children.

Let’s imagine a couple, two Christian women named “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (my description here is based on actual people that I know). They are legally married, life-long Christians who followed the typical path of joining their lives together: courtship, pre-marital counseling, discernment before committing themselves to one another, marriage, a shared life of fidelity and mutual respect, children, ministry.

We see in their lives the fruits of a healthy, life-giving marriage. What would be bases for EMU denying one of them employment, assuming she has the training and abilities to be seen as a strong candidate, one who would likely succeed and offer much to the EMU community and mission? Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)”

Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)

Ted Grimsrud

The place where I have been working since 1996, Eastern Mennonite University, is currently engaged in a “listening process.” This process is meant to provide input for the school’s leadership as it considers making an overt policy of non-discrimination in relation to hiring faculty and staff who are in “covenanted same-sex relationships.” In the public statements concerning this process, the main rationale that has been given for changing hiring practices has been, it seems, that people in the EMU community disagree about these issues, that increasing numbers of new hires at EMU express disagreement with the assumed position of Mennonite Church USA (owner of EMU) that covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful, and a sense that younger people (i.e., including prospective EMU students) are less likely to share the restrictive views of the older generation.

This process is explicitly not about considering these issues from a theological framework. This is from one of the FAQs on the EMU website: “It is not our desire in this listening process to enter into theological debate when some of the most respected theologians and church leaders do not agree on interpretation. Rather, it is our desire to focus on relationships and prayer in a way that reflects the life and love of Christ in the midst of deeply held beliefs and values.”

However, since I am a Mennonite theologian (teaching in the Bible and Religion Department at EMU and an ordained Mennonite pastor), I can’t help but think about these issues theologically. So I want to articulate a theological rationale for EMU to quit discriminating. One reason that I think such a rationale is important for EMU’s consideration is my sense that the only possible reason for discrimination is theological (that is, that God declares such relationships to be sinful). So, this is inherently theological terrain that cannot be navigated without, we could say, a theological compass.
Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)”

How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy

Ted Grimsrud

My friend and EMU colleague, Dave Brubaker (a.k.a., “Mr. Make-it-Practical”), who teaches in our Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, has challenged me to push out more some of the allusions I made at the end of my “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive” post concerning the future of our denomination. This is an exact quote from Dave: “I think a number of us have ‘imagined’ a different structural arrangement…the key question is how we get there.” So, all in good fun, I thought it might be interesting to spin out a fantasy about “how we get there.”

I want to emphasize that this is a fantasy. Not that I am not serious. But this is totally a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. I’m just the “ivory tower” thinker, right?

Cooperation from people at the top

In my fantasy there are key roles played by people at the top in MC USA and, even more so, by people at the grassroots. Certainly, it matters little what the people at the top do if they don’t have support from the grassroots. On the other hand, those at the grassroots might have quite a bit they can accomplish even without the cooperation of those at the top (at least, this is the case in the world of my fantasy). But it would be nice to have that cooperation.

The main thing the people at the top might do is publicly explicitly to promise to refuse to cooperate with any efforts to kick anybody out of the denomination—be it a congregation or conference. They could insist that we are all part of the same family, and that what that family-ness means is that everyone in the family has the responsibility to be there and to have their voice be part of the group’s discernment. Now, I can’t imagine exactly how we can get to the place where this promise would be given. Certainly, partly it may simply be a matter of luck in having people appointed or elected to these positions who would believe in making such a promise. At the same time, perhaps if strong and clear communication were given to people at the top from a sufficient number of grassroots people, they could persuaded to make and hold to such a promise.

It seems that a promise not to kick people out is a prerequisite for genuine discernment processes. However, people who truly care about the well-being of MC USA will insist on expressing their convictions regardless of whether they are promised safety or not. So, promises from the people at the top are not absolutely essential.

Something else people at the top could do is be willing to devote the denomination’s staff time, monetary resources, and publicity channels to support the kind of regional and local conversations I will sketch below. Again, such support may not be absolutely essential—people who care about the well-being of MC USA will work at creating contexts for conversation regardless of support from the top, but such support could help a great deal. Continue reading “How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy”

“Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles

Ted Grimsrud

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 ““Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles”

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)

[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 “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)”

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

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.

Downward trends

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 “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)”

More thoughts on same-sex marriage and Christianity

Ted Grimsrud—July 2, 2013

I read two articles yesterday that provide a couple of interesting perspectives on the continuing unfolding of the discussion about same-sex marriage.

Virginia Mennonite pastor Harold Miller’s “A right that is wrong” (published in the June 24, 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review—the on-line article is accompanied by a remarkably civil and lively discussion from various points of view) reiterates the case for seeing same-sex marriage as inherently wrong for Christians.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor with the liberal current affairs journal, The American Prospect. His article, “The Religious Right’s terms of surrender” (published on the on-line version of the Prospect on July 1) points to the various leaders among America’s political conservatives who seem to concede the inevitability of the acceptance of same-sex marriage. At the same time, the rank-and-file, especially Christian conservatives, continue to fight against this acceptance.

The final rationale for opposing same-sex marriage

To some degree, though writing with a more irenic tone than many who share his views, Miller represents the sentiment Arana discusses, where Christian conservatives are as yet unwilling to show openness toward acceptance. Continue reading “More thoughts on same-sex marriage and Christianity”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2013

This final part will focus on the main reason many Christians offer for rejecting gay marriage—the belief that the Bible commands against it (that is, that the Bible commands against “homosexual practice” [sexual intercourse], which certainly means marriage is out of the question). The argument I develop in this series of posts proposes that the biblical call to hospitality (part one on hospitality is here) and the positive value we place on marriage (part two on marriage is here) should make us start with the benefit of the doubt in favor of embracing gay marriage—unless we have some overriding evidence that requires us to overcome that benefit of the doubt.

In much of the literature and in most discussions of which I have been part, the basis for arguing against gay marriage is the belief that the Bible does provide clear teaching against “homosexual practice.” This teaching requires Christians to overcome this benefit of the doubt in favor of welcome. Maybe we should be welcoming in general, they may say, but we also must stand against sin (“welcome the sinner but require that the sin be left behind”). And the Bible teaches that “homosexual practice” is sinful. So, I will here examine the biblical teaching to discern whether this belief about the Bible being against “homosexual practice” is well founded.

First, let me suggest that it is not merely semantic nitpicking to note that the Bible does not contain the word “homosexual” (in spite of misleading English translations over the generations). The word is not in the Bible, in part, because the word and what the word conveys (“homosexuality” as an identity, as a way of being, where one’s fundamental affectional attraction is toward people of one’s own sex) are modern notions. In fact, this word is not used in English until 1892. Ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek simply did not have words that mean the same as “homosexual.”

The few places in the Bible that allude to problematic sexual behavior between people of the same sex focus on the behavior, not on the sexual identity of the people involved. Even though many on the restrictive side in relation to gay marriage try to reflect the Bible’s focus on behavior by use of the term “homosexual practice” instead of “homosexuality” or “homosexual identity,” the use of “practice” in the singular still imposes a modern notion of sexuality on the Bible.

“Homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, there is only one “practice” common to all “homosexual” people. What matters, then, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not what the specific “practice” might be. As a consequence, in this view, we do not actually need to pay much attention to the specific issues that are being spoken to in each of the biblical texts that are cited to support the claim that “homosexual practice” is sinful. The point is not to try to understand the particular context of each text in order to understand what kind of practice is being addressed. All we need to know is that the text refers to “homosexual practice”—that’s enough to support the proscription of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.

If we are going to be accurate in reading the Bible, though, we need to try to play close attention to its own way of presenting themes and be careful about imposing modern concepts on the biblical materials. Specifically, in relation to gay marriage and the question whether we have clear evidence from the Bible that proves that the same-sexness itself of same-sex marriage is wrong, we should not start with the modern category of “homosexuality” as if it applies to each and every text with the sense that the Bible only speaks of “homosexual practice” rather than speaks of different types of behavior. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2013

In the first of these posts on gay marriage, I suggested that our starting point—whether (1) we assume acceptance unless persuaded to withhold it by the evidence or (2) assume withholding acceptance unless we are persuaded by the evidence to give it—is crucial in considering the issue of how Christians might respond to gay marriage. I suggested that the benefit of the doubt should be in favor of churches embracing such relationships and the people in them. One main reason for an accepting starting point, that I discussed in the first post, is the importance of hospitality in the biblical story.

The second main reason for an accepting starting point, that I will discuss in this post, has to do with the goodness of marriage. My third post will focus on the biblical bases usually used by those who would withhold acceptance, testing whether that evidence is strong enough to persuade us to withhold acceptance after all.

Most of the theological literature in relation to homosexuality until quite recently did not focus particularly closely on marriage. Major books from a “restrictive” perspective that urged Christians not to “normalize” homosexuality could comfortably repeat stereotypes about sexual promiscuity and short-term relationships being the norm especially among gay men (and probably among lesbians as well).

It was easy to equate “homosexuality” with obvious “sexual immorality” since gays and lesbians were, it seemed, not involved in committed, long-term relationships—and probably did not really desire to. So in the literature, we encountered widespread use of terms such as “the gay lifestyle” and “homosexual practice” (note the singular) as if there was only one “lifestyle” or “practice” and it involved a lot of casual sex with multiple partners.

Of course, all along in the debate over the past 40 or so years, many gay people and allies argued against these stereotypes. In just the past few years, though, as the movement toward legalizing and affirming gay marriage has gained remarkable traction, increasing numbers of people are learning of the existence of countless same-sex marriages that have existed for decades and reflect similar patterns as opposite-sex marriages—for better and for worse.

So, is it possible to construct a theology of marriage that does not discriminate against same-sex couples and that accounts for the actual experience of healthy marriages of many such couples?  Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)

Ted Grimsrud—April 28, 2013

It appears that at this moment in the United States, our society may be nearing an acceptance of gay marriage. At least this is what the pundits are saying. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s impending decisions on the two cases related to gay marriage that they are considering, many people are saying that change is happening, accelerating, and will continue to do so. This seems to be an accurate perception; at least I hope it is.

However, at the same time, everyone also seems to agree that Christians are being left behind in this time of change. That is, it is perceived, Christians remain resolutely anti-gay marriage. At least evangelical Christians and Catholics—who seem any more to be the only Christians in mind when the term “Christian” is used in public conversations.

Still, there surely is a lot of ferment in Christian circles as well. It could be that a kind of anti-gay circling the wagons effort by many visible leaders and institutions is masking a potential sea change within even evangelical Christianity. Surveys do seem to indicate quite a bit more acceptance of gay marriage among younger evangelicals.

I take it that one response to these interesting events for a Christian theologian who supports gay marriage and also takes many cues from the Bible is to continue to work at articulating a biblically-oriented theology of welcome. One hope with such work is that as the discussion spreads to more of the evangelical world, such a theology might be found useful. I also believe that such a theology might give pause to those on the pro-gay side who tend to believe that such a disposition requires a distancing of oneself from Christianity.

I was recently given the opportunity to present a lecture that allowed me to pull together some of my thoughts on this topic. First Mennonite Church in Canton, Ohio, invited me to present on a Sunday afternoon as part of a series of sessions they have been having. I followed another theology professor for a local Christian college who a few weeks earlier spoke for the restrictive side.

Over the next few weeks, I will post a reconstruction of the lecture in three parts that correspond to the three sections of the talk. Part one focuses on introductory reflections and the theme of hospitality. Part two focuses on marriage. And part three focuses on interpreting the biblical passages that typically are used to lead to negative conclusions regarding gay marriage. It was a good experience for me and I think for the congregation. Though I am sure my talk seemed to go on and on for the listeners, I was only able to sketch the barest outline of a perspective. I’ll post that sketch here and hope to continue as time permits to expand it and maybe end up with a book. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)”