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).