A while back I noticed a curious phrase in the Book of Kings. I remember it saying something to the effect of accusing the king of ‘causing Israel to sin’. Such a phrase feels pivotal at this point in our political/historical moment. We are increasingly comfortable naming things like ‘structural violence’ but still tend to collapse into very individualistic based responses. More and more attempts are being made highlight how these appeals to individual actions actually fall well within how the powers of our age organize and communicate. Such a system of placing the burden on the individual offloads any guilt or charge of responsibility from those places and people where power is concentrated. One of the places endorsing the responsibility of individual is the church. The church, broadly understood, heralds the virtue of the individual. This emphasis cuts across liberal/conservative divides as both look to the individual whether for personal, spiritual salvation or in discipleship responding to social injustices. [See Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World for how the church’s theological traditions have informed our current understanding of the individual].
Speeding toward the ground
Through the air without a sound
Each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful
– Pedro the Lion ‘June 18, 1976’
My neighbourhood shifts noticeably in spring. Through fall and winter everyone has the same destinations and schedules but we are all hurried moving from warmth to warmth in a cold world. In spring it seems that the neighbourhood grows. Children in particular appear to multiply through the slower commutes to and from school. Now they talk and laugh and tease meandering the sidewalks and lingering at bus stops. My walk to work takes me through the paths of numerous school children. In the past few days I have found myself feeling almost unbearably sad walking through these scenes. I have witnessed nothing to be sad about. They are beautiful. There is a boy who is probably around 12. He is large, not quite obese, just large framed and slow moving. There is nothing that commends him by the world’s standards but neither is he dirty or in worn out clothing just poorly styled in nearly every respect. Wide straight jeans, large t-shirt, short uniform hair, fuzzy hair on his upper lip. In the past two days my timing has been such that I watch him walk out his door on his way to school. By the gate to the sidewalk he turns and looks back to his mother or grandmother and offers a huge smile and vigorous wave.
This morning there was a car accident at the corner of my street. I took a little longer slowly walking by and then when I turned to go up Toronto St and little girl quickly left her house and caught her stride alongside me and asked what happened. We had never met. I felt awkward and unsure what protocol was for such an occasion. We fell into conversation and walked for a block as she was going to meet a friend who she walks to school with. She was in grade four, curious, good-natured and a good conversationalist (did I mention I was a stranger). She liked recess and gym, school was going well for her. As quickly as came alongside of me she crossed over the street to meet her friend. I wished her a good day and as she faded away she said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’
After walking on for a while I started to cry, just for a bit. I treasured these images. But where did the sadness come from? It was my speculation. I speculated about their place and future in this world. I considered how the world might value and use them. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this was all just my own arrogance. But these images have added to many, many others that lead me to believe that beauty is something plus vulnerability. I don’t know what the something is but I know the vulnerability. If we value beauty we must also at some point reject the world.
This led me to think of the church. I have been highly critical of the church. Increasingly my only real concern is whether the church can be a place of rest, refuge, and resistance to the evaluation of the world. That is all that really matters. I find I have much more grace for the church but this only comes with an increased sense of complete intolerance for vipers who may reside within. The only course of action there is strike at the neck or crush with the heel.
Ryan Jantzi’s column, ‘Honouring the bride of Christ’ struck a chord with me. In the short article Jantzi conjures the well known image of a group gazing at the adorned bride coming down the aisle of at a wedding. Jantzi observes, this is how we adore brides, but this is not how we adore the bride of Christ, the church. I admit that I was put off with Janzti connecting the church to imagery that remains deeply embedded in the history of brides as prize and property. It is easy to offload all of our ideals of purity, beauty, and faithfulness onto women who already face endless demands by our culture while excluding those who do not conform to these traditions.
However, as I sat with my discomfort this image did bring to mind a memory growing up on the farm. I was probably around 8 years old when my two older sisters dressed me up as girl by putting me in a skirt and makeup. I remember twirling around to make the skirt rise and fall, much to the joy of my sisters. My sisters then brought me out to the field where my fathers and uncles were working. I remember going in anticipation, carrying my experience of being adorned and adored, hoping to bring them this joy as well. I don’t remember exactly what happened when I got to the field but I was left with a feeling of wrong doing; that such adornment was not to be repeated and was certainly not adored.
I agree with Jantzi this is indeed is how the bride of Christ is often left to feel. Adornment is not a traditional value for Mennonites. But thinking of myself as part of the church, thinking of myself as the bride of Christ I was encouraged to wonder about how men (in particular) can embrace being adorned and adored. In May a number of drag queens are offering public readings for children at two libraries in Winnipeg. I confess that I had mixed feelings hearing about this event. I still have my own gender stigmas and preconceptions. However, thinking of my own experience I was reminded of how easy it is to internalize shame and criticism then projecting it onto others; the cycle is easy to reproduce. I really did find joy dressing up as a girl, I enjoyed the beauty that this performance offered my sisters. Why would I want to take that from others?
I am as active as any in criticizing the church. I am never sure if or when I cross the line from being insightful and creative to being boring and cynical. While I will continue to strive for healthy criticism I also want those in and around the church to be renewed with a sense of how to adorn and adore themselves and each other.
In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.
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.
I have spent ten years in full time ministry in Mennonite Church Canada. My professionals career has run parallel to the Being a Faithful Church process. As the ‘process’ has now concluded I wanted to reflect on the next ten years of my ministry and the life of my denomination.
[The following was preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg Sunday, January 22, 2017.]
The Book of Esther is a story of weathering a violent world. In the coming weeks we will be focusing on various women in the Bible. We did not have a clear agenda for this series and I wasn’t particularly intentional about beginning with the book of Esther but it is as good as any to begin to think about women in the Bible as well as the experience of women in history and the present. As too many have experienced and as many of us learn too late the experience of women can indeed be that of weathering a violent world.