Just let him finish; Or, you cannot serve both process and advocacy

“No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact.” – bell hooks

“I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, we have been fair, good, and kind people.” – Carol Wise, Executive Director, Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests [1]

“Just let him finish.” – Patriarchy

“Institutional process is not advocacy.” – Me, thinking about church

Last week I interrupted two men speaking from the floor at a meeting of Mennonite Church Manitoba. The meeting was meant to understand what it means for congregations with differing understandings of marriage and human sexuality to continue to be in fellowship with each other as an area church. It was explicitly stated that this was NOT a meeting to debate any particular issue within that diversity but to imagine what life as a larger denomination can look like going forward.

Most of the meeting, I think, was on topic. Towards the end of the meeting things began taking a turn. One man got up and spoke about the recent edition of National Geographic that explored our changing understanding of gender and how we needed science to help us in the church. This may be true but it was already outside the parameters of the conversations. I wish some comment of clarification would have already been made at that point. What happened after that was that I interrupted two speakers in the middle of their comments. The first speaker equated this change, the intentional creation of space for differences on marriage, with changing the Word of God. To create space for same sex marriages was to deviate from the eternal Word of God. I interrupted by calling on the speaker to try and maintain the parameters of the conversation I was told, ‘Just let him finish’. He did.

Then another man got up and began to speculate on behalf of queer Mennonites wondering if perhaps gays and lesbians are leaving the church because they are convicted by the Holy Spirit. Then he asked us to consider this from a ‘spiritual warfare perspective’ that perhaps all the trouble going on in Mennonite Church Canada can be attributed to Satan using gays and lesbians . . . I interrupted again. I don’t even know what I said. The man did not finish. He left the building immediately. The meeting ended shortly afterwards. I have been reflecting on my actions and the events since. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

I realize now that my actions last week are directly related to my experience in Saskatoon this past summer during the national gathering of Mennonite Church Canada. During the floor discussion in Saskatoon there was a point when a man got up and over several minutes went over the biblical and theological laundry lists of why homosexuals will be damned to hell. Here again, our moderator and our delegate body were content to ‘just let him finish’.

Later that evening I was one of the General Board representatives that met with a group simply called ‘Family and Friends’. This is a support group for LGBTQ Mennonites as well as family and friends. That this group has such an ambiguous existence among the formal gatherings of MC Canada already speaks volumes. During that time people shared their hurt and anger over the leadership’s inability to recognize the inappropriate and harmful actions from the man speaking from the floor. They looked at me as a General Board member to be accountable for such an action. That experience led me to understand that unless ‘church process’ is directly accountable to the experience of and advocacy for the most vulnerable then one will need to choose. There are times when you cannot serve both process and advocacy.

Trying to understand my experience during summer I found a short entry in my notebook from summer in which I confessed that I felt I needed “to let him say his piece.” And I apologized for not having “the immediate presence of mind to name such language as both hateful and heretical. . . . [And] that whatever diversity we express going forward it cannot tolerate expressions of faith that expose LGBTQ believers as condemned.” Even though I forgot these exact words I can see how my actions last week grew out of them.

If we can accept that patriarchy continues to be a negative influence for our church then we need to learn how to NOT ‘let him finish’. This is hard. We, men, are used to getting to finish even if after the fact we might acknowledge that it was not the best thing. I am not putting this on the moderator of the meeting, this has been the practice of the church myself included.

With regards to regional or national leadership I don’t think there needs to be a choice between process and advocacy. In summer in Saskatoon I spoke with two church leaders about this, one from MC Canada the other MC USA. Both acknowledged that there is a difference between the role of prophet and priest but one said that he viewed his role as trying to protect the prophet so that places and opportunities can be given for her voice even though he recognizes that he cannot occupy that place. The other leader said that we need to be careful over interest groups and that good process keeps the ‘lynch mob’ at bay. There is a marked difference here (even though the former is still problematic). And that one leader can equate advocacy for LGBTQ Mennonites as a potential ‘lynch mob’ is unnerving to say the least.

With regards to individual actions that interrupt, protest, or resist larger church processes we need to be prepared to be criticized. This should go without saying but I was surprised by the type of criticism I received after my actions at the meeting. Two criticisms came from older ‘tolerant’ men accusing me of arrogance and narcissism for acting in the way I did. This reminded me of Stephanie Krehbiel’s research on LGBTQ advocacy in the Mennonite church where she states that, “Because Mennonites are theologically wedded to the notion of ‘community’ as the vehicle through which God’s will is mediated, charges of individualism bear a particular sting.” To interrupt, to not let him finish is to assert individualism and therefore to be wrong by default in the Mennonite world. I am well aware that I talk a lot (and write), more than I need to at times but I don’t think this should be confused with our fear of or indifference towards interrupting him.

This also reminded that we need to be clear about what becoming an ‘affirming’ congregation means. I heard several voices that night coming from formally ‘affirming’ congregations that continued to also affirm anti-queer positions in the larger Mennonite body. That including homophobic voices in gatherings was an acceptable form of unity in diversity. This does not make sense to me. We can certainly acknowledge that such diversity exists; we can acknowledge our own ambivalence and uncertainties on some of these matters; we can create parameters around when and if such conversations are helpful when we gather as a larger body. However, is there really value in affirming a theological position and practice that a congregation has discerned as harmful and inappropriate? The second man whom I interrupted literally attempted to create fear in us by suggesting that Satan might be working through gays and lesbians to destroy the church. And this is what we are now wrestling with. What does it look like to gather as a larger body after formally affirming the space for those congregations who have departed from traditional views on marriage? As someone mentioned to me after the meeting, LGBTQ Mennonites know that not all ‘affirming’ congregations are the same. Affirmation is a commitment to work at stopping violence towards the vulnerable and excluded not an achievement to boast or even rest in.

What will I do? I hope to connect with LGBTQ Mennonites as well as any family and friends to learn how to best be supportive. If my actions at the meeting (or in general) simply reinforce the arena of dudes-talking-to-each-other-about-important-things then I want to change and learn what actions are best. I want to keep learning to be accountable.

I hope that Stephanie Krehbiel’s dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA, will eventually gain popular publication. It is a tremendous resource in these matters. In Chapter One she recounts an interview with Carol Wise who Krehbiel says could be described as a ‘senior member’ of the queer Anabaptist movement. To conclude (not letting myself finish!) I will quote a portion of their interaction,

 As we sat down over breakfast, Wise told me immediately that she found our email exchange reassuring. Upon hearing that there was a straight, Mennonite ethnographer interested in this subject, she told me that her initial response was to worry that I would try to argue that Mennonites were exceptional in their treatment of queer people—that is, exceptionally good. That she would worry about this gulf of difference between her perception and mine, I think, speaks to the continued presence of the tensions I described in the previous section. Years of experience with church process had taught many LGBTQ Mennonites that even ostensible allies were likely to read the state of queer justice in the church much differently than they did. In our emails, Wise was notably encouraged when I responded to her counsel that my work might make me unpopular with church leaders with evidence that I was already becoming unpopular with them. “My observation is many leaders feel betrayed by allies because allies are finally, finally speaking up, asking questions, and not automatically assuming the good will of church leaders,” she wrote.

The question of what to do with assumptions of the “good will” of process brokers was a recurring theme throughout our conversation that morning. “At some point, the church can say, we didn’t know. We didn’t know,” Wise said. “But once you know, if you continue to act in that way, now you’re doing violence willfully… the danger to the church itself is increasing exponentially, the longer it willfully enforces and maintains those structures of racism and sexism and heterosexism. Because there’s no innocence left in it.”

[1] Recorded by interview in Stephanie Krehbiel’s doctoral dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA (University of Kansas, 2015).

The future of the Mennonite Church After Identity: A review essay

Robert Zacharias, editor. After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

I grew up in the Mennonite stew of southern Manitoba. I began in the Sommerfelder Mennonite church but stopped attending around junior high. My parents were regular but not devote attendees. When I was old enough to stay home they never forced me to go. I flirted with Bergthaler and Mennonite Brethren youth groups until I committed to the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church with baptism and membership. I had a short but formative liaison at St. Margaret’s Anglican church in Winnipeg, Manitoba (that is, Winnipeg’s ‘Mennonite’ Anglican Church) and was later caretaker of an apartment block run by an inner-city Baptist church. Then before I knew I had left home for good and found myself functionally estranged from the Mennonite church. I did not think much of this reality at the time because it felt as though all options were open to me. I could go wherever the Spirit led. But after a failed run at academia I began looking into pastoral ministry. Open to all but finding none I soon realized that I could not pastor ‘from everywhere’ and found that though my theological trajectory had carried me far from my church of origins I found myself to be, in the end, Mennonite.

Continue reading “The future of the Mennonite Church After Identity: A review essay”

Taking him apart: Seeing Tonstad’s theologian in the mirror

The following is meant to provide a minimal context to highlight what is one of the most succinct and demanding criticisms of orthodox theology I have recently come across. Linn Marie Tonstad’s God and Difference is a critical examination and constructive proposal of trinitarian theology (see here for an extended book event).

Continue reading “Taking him apart: Seeing Tonstad’s theologian in the mirror”

That was a fine trick they discovered!

“Search Scripture, for you seem to think, you presume to imagine, that you will gain your salvation there” (Jn 5:39). Words cannot tell how cruelly this defrauds the poor and needy folk. For all their words and deeds ensure that the poor man is too worried about getting his food to have time to learn to read; moreover they have the nerve to preach that the poor man should let himself be flayed and fleeced by the tyrants. How on earth is he to learn to read the Scripture? Yes, yes, my dear Thomas, but you are getting too fanatical! The biblical scholars should read their fine books and the peasant should listen to them, for faith comes by listening. O yes, that was a fine trick they discovered! It would replace the priests and monks with worse rascals than have been since the very beginning of the world. . . . Christ speaks to these pious people, the biblical scholars: ‘My word will not remain with you’ (Jn 5:38).

– Thomas Müntzer, ‘A Manifest Exposé of False Faith

Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

Continue reading “Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.”

The Gospel According to Mni Winconi

Increasingly I can only understand the Gospel story, to the extent that I can understand it all, as the story of the Indigenous people that surround me. For a more general survey of what this can mean see Dan Oudshoorn’s blog posts A Blog Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, written for Settlers in the Occupied Territories called Canada (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

For me this has culminated in the resistance at Standing Rock particularly as the Advent season begins. The elders and water protectors at Standing Rock have declared a spiritual act of resistance in protection of the land and the waters. The events surrounding these acts have an uncanny resonance with Advent.

Advent begins with apocalyptic imagery. In the prophets there are images of longing that seemingly unstoppable powers can be overcome.

Oh come, oh come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” – Mark 13:24-25

There are visions of the nations and wealth that will stream to God’s holy mountain in which the people will gather that they might learn war no more.

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. – Isaiah 2:2-4

And the nations have come to Standing Rock, the nations of the world represented by various tribes, religions, cultures, and causes (with military veterans being the latest to join putting down their guns with a commitment to ‘fight’ in the nonviolent ways led by the water protectors). The prophets say that the wealth of nations will flow to this mountain in that time as well, and it has with millions in monetary support as well as gifts of various sorts coming in.

Advent is marked by signs. At Bethlehem they followed a start at to Standing Rock they have followed a river and the Black Snake (from the Sacred Stone website: When we refer to the pipeline as a black snake, we are referencing an old Lakota prophecy that speaks of a black snake (zuzeca sape) crossing the land, bringing with it destruction and devastation.).  And to be clear stars in the Ancient Near East were political symbols and a shift or sign in the heavens reflected a shift in the powers of the earth.

Around the world we watched as a buffalo herd came to show strength and support to the water protectors. We watched as the US empire doubled down in its power electing Donald Trump who heralded the ‘good old days’ of law and order (for white people). As Adrian Jacobs tweeted,

The eagle spoke concerning Trump.
The sparrow spoke concerning Bernie.
The buffalo spoke concerning #NoDAPL.
The colonizers did not listen.

The signs were given.

And then we heard news of the birth of a child.  mni-wiconi

We heard good news. A woman with child came to the camp to make a supportive space for other women there. She gave birth alone to which she later testified that the spirits of her ancestors surrounding her; this cloud of women calling her blessed. And she has named her child Mni Winconi, Water is Life.

I do not claim anything profound or original in these observations only to say that if ever I have felt the weight and presence of signs and wonders it is now. If ever I have got a sense of what it means to have the privilege of overhearing the Gospel, even at a distance, it is now. It is hopeful, deeply hopeful. But it is frightful because the Gospel is clear about the how the powers of this world will respond [as Adrian Jacobs reminded after posting this many ‘Rachels’ will no doubt continue to weep in the events to come]. God have grace and God have mercy this holy Advent. Protect our Water Protectors and protect Mni Winconi.

Becoming Mennonite again, and again

Chantal and I rarely make a point of going to art exhibit openings but on occasion we pass by them and end up wandering in. We recently walked through a photo exhibit with massive images measuring around 4×8 feet or so. They were in black and white and included a single human figure ‘blended’ into some aspect of nature, mostly wood if I remember correctly. The theme was straightforward enough particularly in relation to the artist statement. What I remember from the statement was some comment about the artist’s connection to nature and how they could ‘feel it in their bones’. This sort of statement is common and I remember mentioning to Chantal that I have never understood this sentiment. I cannot relate to this experience but I am beginning to relate this inexperience to my faith tradition.

Continue reading “Becoming Mennonite again, and again”