Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)

The first part of this series was an attempt to situate the current theological state of Mennonite Church Canada. The commitment I would like to nurture is a moral commitment to remain attentive to those suffering and struggling in the midst of our churches and cultures. I hope that this commitment will also help us to open up some of our broader theological commitments.

In the next two parts I will look at the two dominant theological forms at work in Mennonite Church Canada. My accounts are neither complete nor exclusive to other influences at work. However, the terms liberal and conservative get thrown around so much that is worth paying attention to them and clarifying their insufficiency in relation to a gospel drawing our unity and attention to the realities of suffering and injustice. After these next two critical sections I will try and offer some more constructive pieces in moving forward (Hint: It’s not a ‘third-way’!).

Since it will come as no surprise to those who know me I am critical of conservative/patriarchal theology instead I thought I would begin with my still developing understanding and critique of liberalism.

The church continues an unhealthy investment in liberalism. Perhaps a more accurate and contemporary term could be neoliberalism but I think the current state of liberalism broadly understood is in need of critique. By liberalism I refer to the beliefs and practices that prioritize the individual and individual choice (what neoliberalism tends to add is clarity of how individual ‘choice’ remains a slave to capitalist markets). My sense is that many people in the Mennonite Church who moved away from conservatism moved into liberalism. Many ‘progressive’ Christians seem to have happily (if unconsciously) adopted liberalism because of how it felt compared to their experience in patriarchy. This was a breath of fresh air, it felt like freedom. It allowed them to speak of love over law and hold open acceptance to those once excluded. While those particular expressions were welcomed it could be difficult to see that liberalism is also a dominating system.

Liberalism is happy to promote diversity and tolerance. But this is a particular form of diversity and tolerance. This is a diversity and tolerance that is required by our economy. 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. Concerned about macho culture in professional sports? Let’s make football players where pink to raise money for breast cancer. Actions within liberalism may be good or bad but liberalism itself does not really care what you do so long as you are a good consumer.

Liberalism’s benevolence can quickly turn fierce. Its diversity and tolerance is based on obedience to the market. Acknowledging indigenous spirituality is great so long as it does not block the development of new oil pipelines. Raising your own chickens and eating locally is cool just don’t interfere with policies banning environmentally harmful agri-business practices. It’s great that you give to a charity just don’t demand that material equity is a fundamental right. Even more than with patriarchy the church remains unwilling to actively dismantle liberalism (we would hate to lose our charitable status after all!).

What is more, liberalism has produced the most fantastic trick. Liberalism has not only demanded that we produce and consume but it has created the illusion that anything wrong with the world is the fault of the individual. You had your chance to vote! You can always choose something else! If you don’t like something about society then you need to change it. If you don’t achieve the success you desired it is your fault for not trying hard enough. Despite allowing obscene concentrations of wealth, disregarding indigenous rights, and neglecting environmental impacts law makers, politicians, and CEOs invested in liberalism make us dependent on them and then blame us if they don’t treat us well. In the liberal liberal paradigm the authoritative doctrine only gives the individual “enough agency to be blameworthy, but not enough to really change anything.” [1] These notions of liberalism are not unique to Mennonites and, I think, Mennonites have some unique resources for challenging these realities. However, I am not convinced we have understood contemporary liberalism and asked ourselves clearly how we can shape a collective vision of well-being that is not dependent on the illusion of individual choice but names the powers that profit from this illusion?

The liberal Mennonite church does not align completely with liberal society/economics. We have carved some deeply socialist and even anarchist streams in our tradition. However, the liberal Mennonite church remains overly invested in prioritizing individual choice. When we gather we tend to believe that all expressions should be honoured. We ‘create space’ for people of faith once condemned but we do this without naming and condemning the theologies and practices that led us to such a harmful posture. The liberal church wants to respect all points of view but what if the point of view is that we prioritize our attention towards matter of suffering and injustice? The liberal church will allow this as committee work, it will name it as a value but not allow such a posture to be a guiding and authoritative vision for the whole.

Can our unity be a means of naming and dismantling liberalism?

[1] This quote and much of my thinking here is indebted to a piece on neoliberalism by Adam Kotsko.

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