The church’s tale of two systems

My national denomination (Mennonite Church Canada) has engaged the national body of congregations in two major processes. One dealing with an ethical and exegetical matter the other with the overhaul of our organizational structure. These processes as well as my increased involvement with the national church body have heightened my sense of two conflicting ways of being church in the midst of potentially divisive processes. Now what follows is admittedly simplified but I want to take a stab at clarifying at least one basic factor in the division and conflict that we are experiencing. Mennonite Church Canada (as well as many other churches I am sure) is currently a tale of two systems.

The first system, patriarchy, is relatively well known even if it not fully understood. Feminist theorist bell hooks describes patriarchy in this way.

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.
– bell hooks (http://imaginenoborders.org/zines/#UnderstandingPatriarchy)

There is no light touch to this definition and many will reject it out of hand at least in terms of their own complicity in patriarchy. If this is patriarchy then I certainly do not practice it. But this response misses the point. It is not enough and at times is not possible to simply ‘opt-out’ of a system. It is clear that Mennonite Church Canada (MC Can) participates in the patriarchal system. MC Can still allows congregations to hire ministers on the basis on gender discrimination. Most MC Can congregations (to my knowledge) still privilege masculine language for God. Many MC Can congregations are reflective of their immediate cultural settings that are still explicitly patriarchal. MC Can would never articulate their position as hooks defines patriarchy but our structure is unwilling to actively dismantle what remains of patriarchal systems and so we must acknowledge our complicity.

And beyond identifying some of the explicit forms of patriarchy we would do well to pay attention to what George Yancy (speaking of the systemic nature of racism) calls the embeddedness of systemic prejudices. Here Yancy refers to how racism can ambush white people surprising them with thoughts they would be too ashamed to repeat or in outbursts such as Michael Richards racist tirade and later apology where after claiming he is not racist confessed that it somehow still ‘fired out’ of him. It ambushed him (see George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, 2012).

In the case of patriarchy the church still has a long way to go in addressing issues of sexual misconduct and abuse where it still seems to ‘fire out’ of us in subtle and violent ways as men are able to assert dominance women.

To describe the second system I will use the term neoliberalism. An in important component of neoliberalism is the role of the individual, though neoliberalism should not be equated with individualism. To consider this simply a matter of individualism would be to make the same mistake that is often done with thinking about patriarchy, namely locating the force of these realities in the choices and actions of the individual without considering the environment, the system that creates various pressures.

Wendy Brown defines neoliberalism as,

a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market. [emphasis mine]
– Wendy Brown (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/booked-3-what-exactly-is-neoliberalism-wendy-brown-undoing-the-demos)

I find the system of neoliberalism to be quite distinct from that of patriarchy (at least how it tends to play out in the church). Religious patriarchy tends towards a centralizing control of ethical behaviour. Patriarchy attempts to bring behaviour into line. Neoliberalism on the other hand is happy to promote diversity. Increased diversity means increased possibility for new products and markets. Are you gay? Great! Look at all these shows and magazines just tailored to your lifestyle. Are you an activist? Super! We have reconfigured social media platforms to get your important message out. Neoliberalism does not really care what you do so long as you are a good consumer.

My sense is that many ‘progressive’ Christians have happily or at least unconsciously adopted neoliberalism because of how it felt compared to their experience in patriarchy. This was a breathe of fresh air, it felt like freedom. It allowed them to speak of love over law and hold open acceptance to those once excluded. And while in particular contexts these expressions should be welcomed and were indeed experienced as good news I am concerned that we are simply being complicit in yet another dominating system.
[It should be noted that neoliberalism is what enables Justin Trudeau to act in such a ‘progressive’ manner in matters of cultural diversity and gender equality while not having to change fundamental economic practices.]

But neoliberalism’s  benevolence can quickly turn fierce. It is a system that will hold open and actively pursue diverse expressions (new markets) but see what happens when you get in the way of the material flow of wealth. Is the church willing to stand alongside Indigenous communities when they set up blockades disrupting the flow oil or other resources? Are we willing to stand firm in demanding government policies that will force more equitable distribution of wealth?

Wendy Brown warns that neoliberalism ultimately forms an individual who experiences life as utterly unrelieved. The opportunity for ‘freedom’ becomes a demand for consumption and when individual acts of resistance emerge the larger system easily absorbs or discards them as impotent. The individual is reduced to guilt and rage or attempts at personal perfection (‘green’ and ‘ethical’ living) without actually impacting systemic change.

As I said at the beginning this is a very simplified sketch of how I am trying to understand some of our differences in MC Can. There are many points of debate and dispute to be had. What I hope to highlight by thinking in these terms is that different systems inform and enable different theologies to be practiced as well as ways of reading the Bible. And that the source of the difference may not be a matter of piety and faithfulness but a blindness to more pressing powers (one might be reminded of the Apostle Paul here).

I’ve made it no secret that I have tried to move away from a patriarchal model of church and theology. This process is ongoing. What I am still coming to grips with is the system that has facilitated my current theology. Neoliberalism offered me a sort of grace in leaving patriarchy but it has only been in the last few years that I see how little my theology actually and actively supports those who continue to suffer and struggle.

My sense is that much of our theology and church practice in MC Can remains housed in these systems. We have spent too much time defining ourselves by what we oppose. This has left us blind to (and like) the idols of our age. What I am beginning to wonder is whether our differences (or at least some of them) could be more helpfully framed in these or related ways. When we act as though our personal choices or actions function independently of our environment it can be easy to consider ourselves or our community in the light that we want to shed on it. And so patriarchal (‘conservative’) communities will herald their commitment to biblical faithfulness while neoliberal (‘progressive’) communities proclaim a gospel of tolerance and acceptance allowing each community absolution from taking critical stock of the forces that have shaped it.

Is there a way we can spend time as one body in mutual confession for our adherence to these idols as well as effective organization to resist them? I am doubtful. Both sides actually embrace what I am articulating as harmful. And to be clear I am not advocating for a ‘third way’. The Gospel is too problematic for such a middle path. Just beware that your movement away from or against what you recognized as unfaithful or harmful will never be a movement into a neutral place. The idols are everywhere.

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