Category Archives: loving viewpoint enemies

Wishing for a Treaty

In distress, my daughter who loves the music of Leonard Cohen phoned us parents just after the November U.S. elections. Cohen, she said, was dead. I was reminded of the prior Sunday when Cohen’s just-released “Treaty” came on the radio and we heard it, rapt, for the first time.

Now Cohen is dead at 82. An election has been held. A presidential transition has been completed. Shock and awe is underway. We yearn for safe passage across unmapped terrain. I wonder if in “Treaty” Cohen gives clues. In lyrics that, as so often with Cohen, echo the Bible, he evokes turning water into wine, Jubilee, the snake baffled by sin. Wishing “there was a treaty we could sign,” Cohen sings of being angry and tired and not caring “who takes this bloody hill.” He wishes for a treaty “Between your love and mine.”

“Treaty” also reminds me of Will Campbell’s journey during dynamics so different yet so connected with today’s. A Baptist minister who sharply challenged his own denomination’s racism, Campbell was a fiery civil rights fighter in the 1960s. In Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977, pp. 245-247), a heartrending memoir of brokenness and justice and grace, Campbell tells of putting his life on the line for civil rights—while gradually realizing that even the “enemy,” the KKK, deserved some understanding.

Campbell tells of President Johnson’s nationally televised warning to the Klan, in which Johnson says, “Get out of the Klan, and back into decent society while there is still time.” Then he says this:

The closing five words must certainly have been heard by those in the Klan as a threat from an impending police state. And the President did not tell them just how they could get into the decent society of which he spoke, how they could break out of the cycle of milltown squalor, generations of poverty, a racist society presided over, not by a pitiful and powerless few people marching around a burning cross in a Carolina cow pasture, not by a Georgia farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right, but by those in the “decent society” to which the President referred, the mammas and the daddies of the young radicals who would soon go home to run the mills, the factories, the courthouses and legislative halls, the universities and churches and prisons they were then threatening to burn to the ground.

Campbell is not interested in justifying the Klan. But he is realizing that the Klan is not only a fount of evil, though it is that, but also a product of the “same social forces” that have produced national structures of violence and violation, including the then-raging Vietnam War.

As he grapples with tragedies of race and class and cruelty shredding 1960s America, Campbell remains a fierce prophet. Listening to leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Campbell also concludes that “to do something in race relations maybe we should go work with our own people“ and that in relation to the Klan he was “learner more than I was teacher.”

Offering a striking echo in The New York Times, Trevor Noah insists that “We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”

Presidents, governors, politicians scorn opponents. Executive edicts are issued and political “nuclear options” are launched. The wheel of power turns; the flamethrowers rotate; the prior regime’s goals burst into flame. The next regime, somehow always sure its era will forever endure, happily starts piling the tinder for its (and maybe our) own demise.

There are stunningly problematic trends strengthening in the U.S. as brothers and sisters belonging to vulnerable populations are reviled or barred, scriptural commands to take special care of the strangers and sojourners are violated,  money talks louder than ever, a fragile earth is trampled. Prophetic naming of travesties is called for. Yet if we can do no better than vilify, will the turning of the wheel ever stop?

Writing of her quest to participate in a women’s march in a spirit of “Solidarity Without Enmity,” Lindsey Paris-Lopez says that

the spirit of solidarity that infused Saturday’s marches worldwide was hopeful and invigorating. But solidarity can be channeled over and against enemies, or it can be channeled toward a vision of ever-widening inclusivity that rejects the concept of enmity altogether. Such a vision is fueled by fierce love that doesn’t let injustice stand, but honors the truth that even perpetrators of injustice can be redeemed. It acknowledges that we have come and are coming together through reconciliation and mercy, and it offers to extend the same mercy and reconciliation to the people behind the oppressive systems that must be torn down. May such a fierce love guide the movement birthed in these women’s marches around the nation and around the world.

“I wish . . .” sings Leonard Cohen, as his life fades toward its end while a country divides, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.”

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University’s seminary and graduate programs. The Campbell section is indebted to King’s book Fractured Dance (Pandora Press U.S., 2001, pp. 174-176). He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review, which published an earlier version of this post.

Tenderly Inviting All to Christ’s Banquet

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72For long decades now I’ve dreamed of a setting in which we could learn how—offering each other the tenderness for which every human so longs—to pull out chairs for every single one of us who wish to do so to sit at Christ’s banquet table. I’ve dreamed of Jesus our host and we as his body,  with the courtesy such a momentous moment so deserves, together pulling out each other’s chairs and helping each one of us be seated.

In my circle of innermost loved ones, including family and dear friends, are those who as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in their respective states married long-time partners. Others in that same circle are against this and have been troubled that, for instance, my employer Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) opened a hiring policy review and listening process to discern whether to hire persons in same-sex relationships. I wish for all of these dear ones to be at the banquet table. I wish for the table to groan with such amazingly nurturing and varied foods that all can eat with joy.

I speak of this dream now because I’m deeply moved to see confirmed a context for extending such tenderness and for continuing to test and learn how it’s done in ways that honor all at the table. Last Thursday, July 16, 2015, the EMU Board of Trustees voted to pass this action:

Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, Eastern Mennonite University expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of, and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the college.

In speaking to the EMU community, Board Chair Kay Nussbaum and President Loren Swartzendruber indicated that

Therefore—as we affirm the goodness of singleness, celibacy, and sexual intimacy within the context of a covenanted relationship (marriage)—our hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. The Board of Trustees and EMU leadership believe this is the right decision for Eastern Mennonite University as an institution at this time.

I’m moved because through such action I do hear EMU (along with Goshen College, whose board made the same decision) inviting persons and entities like these to that wobbly version of Christ’s table  which is the best we know how to offer each other on earth: my own divided loved ones, students who wrestle with each other’s differing understandings, those holding multiple perspectives within EMU, those pained by fractures within Mennonite Church USA and the range of denominations  an ecumenical EMU serves, persons forming EVANA as a network of Mennonite congregations both intersecting with but also sometimes providing alternatives to MC USA perspectives, and so many more.

I recognize that it’s right about at this point that things get complicated: Some brothers and sisters in Christ have already had a table setting.  A question they’re wrestling with is whether, if they view it as violating faithfulness to Scripture, they can still experience nurture at the table if others fully join them.

This is a riddle I don’t entirely  know how to solve. That’s why I addressed it in various ways in my seven-part “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series. That’s why I’ve basically said God, I don’t know how this can be done or if it can be done, give us a Pentecost miracle.

I think Nussbaum and Swartzendruber address the riddle when they say that

We are keenly aware of the deep divide within our denomination—as well as the broader Christian Church—regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. We mourn the broken relationships and pain for people with differing understandings of Scripture and what it means to live as Christ called us to live. We remain deeply committed to Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist values as an institution.

They don’t offer a magic wand. But I draw hope from their recognition of the riddle and from their closing invitation calling

for respect and care in our community as people from a variety of perspectives hear about this decision. Thank you for extending grace and compassion as we move forward living and learning in community together.

As dean of the seminary division of an EMU now operating within our new hiring policy, I know there is much journeying to be done.  We’ll need at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and EMU to learn more of what it means to experience our new banquet table. We’ll need to discern how to share what we learn in a wider church still wrestling with who belongs at the table and how.

We’ll need to continue to benefit from insights of those who, whether internally or externally, disagree with our new non-discrimination commitments. In fact, I believe we’ll have succeeded in honoring the spirit of our new policy precisely to the extent we’re able to invite persons who disagree to be among those who experience themselves as part of an “us” tenderly pulling out for them their banquet chair.

And so I am daring to dream toward learning more about Pentecost through this EMU/EMS laboratory within which I’m privileged to serve. During that first wild Pentecost, winds gusting and flames falling, those gathered so trembled in the Holy Spirit that they were thought drunk with wine as a miracle unfolded: tribes from countless nations understood each other across so many divisions in culture and thought and language. Might the winds and flames similarly fall on us as we invite all to Christ’s table?

I don’t want to claim we at EMU and EMS already fully know how to embody Pentecost. Even as, starting in 1917, the shapers of EMU have fervently sought the guidance of the Spirit all along, as frail humans we’ve still only begun to grasp how large the Spirit’s work among us might be. But I do view us as committed to seeking, together, to invite the Spirit to use us as a laboratory for testing how we all take chairs at the table. Through the EMU Board decision, I see us as making two critical, historic moves:

First, we’re saying not, as we so often have, that all must hold the same LGBTQ-related theology to be at the table; rather, we’re saying that we’ll start with all at the table. Then we’ll continue to wrestle carefully and discerningly—attending to Jesus, Scripture, the core Anabaptist-Mennonite values of MC USA, and insights of the church universal—with how God is speaking amid our varying and sometimes opposing perspectives.

Second, we’re saying that from now on at EMU those who identify as LGBTQ will not be persons the rest of us talk about and whose presence or absence at the table others make decisions about. From now on those of us who identify as LGBTQ will be part of the new EMU “us” we can all now jointly and gently and tenderly form. Even as disagreements in our community will continue and indeed—as befits an institution of higher learning—be treasured, we’ll find our way together into the future of EMU and of EMS within EMU.

I pray that we’ll experience a few more chapters of a Story in which, as Jesus puts it in Luke 14, those who feel most welcome at the table take the lowest place, and those who feel least welcome at the table are in fact invited first.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS and EMU, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a division of Eastern Mennonite University; vice-president, EMU; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 6: “Honoring Conscience”

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72As the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to marriage (with Scalia savaging Kennedy) and Mennonites begin our pilgrimage to next week’s Kansas City convention and a potentially fateful appointment with history : This is the only way forward, I tell you; I can do no other. No, this is the only way forward, you tell me; you can do no other.

Below I share “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars” as Part 6 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” for two reasons. First, it’s my most recent published effort (The Mennonite, May 2015) to engage the latest incarnations of those matters I earlier described as being so intensely in play at Purdue 87 and now again before us at a juncture I’ve indeed heard more than one Mennonite Church USA denominational leader name “historic.”

Perhaps what’s about to happen at the Kansas City, Missouri, MC USA biennial convention will surprise us all with its low-stakes outcome. Perhaps we’ll simply muddle on for however many more years of muddling are called for. Yet it seems possible we’ll be parsing and engaging the consequences of Kansas City over the coming generation in ways comparable to the generation we’ve spent unpacking the Purdue 87 assembly.

Second, this represents my final pre-Kansas City effort to testify to why I see space for variance, or what I’d call faithful dissent, as so critical. I simply see no way forward that doesn’t in some way allow sharply opposing voices of conscience to be honored. We don’t disagree so intensely because we want to be cruel, to make trouble, to dishonor Scripture and God. We’re waging what MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman has rightly, I believe, called “civil war” precisely because the very core of what we truly believe is at risk.

A resolution to be processed and voted on at Kansas City calls us to “forebearance.” Meanwhile another resolution calls for reaffirmation of Mennonite Church Membership Guidelines for at least four years. How might these two resolutions work with or against each other? What if one is adopted and the other not?

Time will tell. But I draw some hope from thoughts on the resolutions Stutzman offers in an FAQ. Agree or disagree (and certainly both responses will be offered!)  he provides a rationale for seeking to maintain stability of current denominational teachings on sexuality for at least some years. Then in one comment that strikes me as key to the quest for living together as our voices of conscience offer opposing proclamations, he sees the combination of resolutions as “inviting us to hold the documents more lightly than we hold onto each other as members of the body of Christ.”

I was preparing to post this at noon today, June 26, 2015, to take a breather (and give readers one!) before heading next week to Kansas City and posting Part 7 as a report from there. Then before noon came word of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional. I imagine the country and denominations and churches and in many ways the entire globe will be parsing this decision for years to come.

It seems hard to believe it won’t have some sort of context-setting impact in Kansas City. Might some of us see it as underscoring the need for Christians to be counter-cultural? We dissent from a culture of war; do we need to dissent from a culture that undoes what we consider God’s order of creation? Might others conclude sometimes God speaks through culture? Did culture, we might wonder, help a recalcitrant church reach fresh understandings regarding women in leadership? Has something similar happened again here?

Complexity lies ahead for the church and is presaged in the hot contestations within the Supreme Court. Take Kennedy: He will greatly move some and trouble others as he concludes on behalf of those who identify as LGBTQ that “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

He also takes pains to reach out to persons of faith who will disagree:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.

 Yet hold on, insists John Roberts (whom I’ll focus on as a more temperate critic that some of the SCOTUS dissenters), it’s not going to be that simple:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

So there we’ll be in Kansas City, precisely in the middle of these waves. They’ll be crashing from multiple sides against a frail peninsula of discernment jutting out into the ocean of decisions and dynamics that lie ahead for church, culture, and world.

One week in Kansas City can’t clarify for MC USA what next. Yet if anything the Supreme Court decision seems to me to heighten the need for the church to be a zone of peacemaking reconciliation, a gentler and safer harbor than many will experience amid the towering breakers.

I do hope we leave Kansas City with some type of truly mutual forebearance embraced. I hope we provide for all a denominational home that offers foretastes of that Home with its many mansions. I hope we pursue the miracle of providing home, in this world of so much homelessness of body and mind and soul, for consciences entirely at odds with each other to be honored as treasures.

I hope we ask what it would mean for every single one of us to be understood to enrich the body of Christ.  What would we offer ourselves, in a world of beheadings in the name of God, if we built this home not only as isolated individuals but as part of a larger community of discernment and faithfulness and love? Might we then in amazing ways, as a roaring sound comes from heaven like a mighty windstorm and tongues of fire descend, offer clues to the mind of a God whose ways are so much more wonderful, as Job came to understand, than any of us alone can grasp? Might a startled world gasp that oh my, they seem to be drunk?

Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars

Should pastors be forbidden to officiate at same-sex weddings? Or forbidden not to? I draw lessons from a first-grade play.

“But my parents won’t allow me to be in the play because it’s wrong to hold a gun,” I explained, barely pushing out the words against racing heart and tightening throat.

Mrs. Navarro, coiffed white hair not softening stern features she said traced back to Mexico’s most revered president, was not about to budge: “Is there a problem with your brain, young man? What could be wrong with pretending to carry a gun in a play?”

I was in first grade, son of Mennonite missionary parents who had just moved our family to Mexico City. Between culture shock, theological shock, and sheer terror, I had about used up my explanatory resources but tried one last time: “My parents say war is wrong. We’re Mennonites, and that’s what we’re taught. They say because war is wrong even carrying guns in a play is wrong.”

Mrs. Navarro snorted. “I’m not impressed; you are strange people. If you just won’t carry a gun, fine, fine, unhappy boy. But you must be in the play. You’ll get a tiny part and be bored while your classmates have the fun you could be having.”

Half a century later, I can smile at the memory. But I still recall the sting. And it took me decades to shift from blaming my parents for the misery they could have spared me had their consciences been more flexible. It was only a play! Did you have to make me a laughingstock in first grade, not to mention seventh when you made me exercise on a gym floor mat while my classmates learned dancing, another seduction of evil culture? Or college, when I had to confess I’d never been to a movie theater because that too was bad? Yet now that my parents are gone, I’m thankful for their great gift: teaching me that pearl of great price which is obeying conscience.

I’m grateful also for the tradition undergirding my parents’ treasuring of conscience. For centuries Anabaptist-Mennonites have believed with the Peter of Acts 5:29, and the radical reformers inspired by Peter, that when human rules and God’s clash, “We must obey God instead of people!”

This matters today as denominational battles over same-sex understandings rage on. It matters because, I believe, the root cause of the war and our inability to extend ceasefire is conscience. No matter our perspective, most of us are convinced that to believe other than we do is to violate conscience. Any ceasefire must then solve the riddle of how more than one voice of conscience can exist in the same faith community.

In Mennonite Church USA, which I serve as dean at an Eastern Mennonite Seminary confronted with how we form and honor consciences amid voices so at odds, the way forward is unclear. Yet finding a path is critical as divisions roil us.

Some congregations or regional conferences are voting to leave MC USA because same-sex relationships are sinful, they must obey God at any price, and they believe MC USA is not adequately maintaining dikes against sin.

Convinced justice and obedience to God require it, other congregations or conferences are, in effect, engaging in civil disobedience. Even as it goes against current MC USA teachings, they are installing pastors in same-sex relationships or their pastors are officiating at same-sex weddings.

At EMS, students preparing for ministry must wrestle with which theological convictions they may hold without running afoul of one denominational layer or another. How do they navigate when at times theology or practice of one layer—whether congregational, conference, or national—is at odds with another? Dare they candidly express their theologies (on any side of the spectrum) except at high cost? The price can involve external consequences for holding the “wrong” position— or internal soul, conscience, integrity consequences of blending in by sublimating convictions.

There is talk of somehow restructuring MC USA to take us beyond this wilderness. I don’t pretend to be sure how, but it will have to address opposing voices of conscience. Such efforts may then further incite those wanting to exclude or marginalize Mennonite Church USA voices judged to be obeying humans over God.

As tensions mount, my faith in a reconciling outcome is shaken. But I know what I wish for: the non-negotiability of conscience somehow to be named and honored. So for example, MC USA is debating a.) whether our newest polity handbook should forbid officiation at same-sex weddings and b.) whether the handbook offers rules or more flexible guidelines. Meanwhile some—pointing, say, to the Cour D’Alene, Idaho requirement that the for-profit Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel serve all comers including LGBTQ—worry that someday a polity flip-flop could make same-sex wedding officiation a requirement. I yearn for an outcome that doesn’t in effect “criminalize” ministers who make the “wrong” choice—whether conscience calls for refusing or embracing officiation at same-sex weddings.

A complexity of Mennonite—and often broader Christian—history is that commitment conscientiously to obey God has repeatedly foundered on opposing hearings of God. So generation after generation we face a paradox: Mennonites whose tradition sprang from commitment to hear God even if this required dissent to the established church in turn marginalize or sever relationships with those who dare dissent to current Mennonite understandings.

The war over theology and polity of same-sex relationships has brought MC USA and many denominations (including United Methodist, to which the second-largest cohort of EMS students belong) to a watershed. We can do the usual thing. Putting our own consciences first, we can sanction or refuse to honor as faithful Christians those we believe hear God wrongly. Or we can ask whether this time—this time at last, confronted with a historic test—we could try a new thing: structuring ourselves in ways that honor multiple voices of conscience.

In any denomination facing this riddle, many congregations, pastors, members, and denominational entities are convinced they must obey God in ways anathema to the others. A striking MC USA example: one pastor’s officiation at a gay son’s wedding generated widely circulated open letters from family members offering contrasting—yet passionately Christian and scripturally based—expressions of conscience. In other denominational settings, some resonate with Frank Schaefer, United Methodist pastor defrocked for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son before being re-frocked. He explained his inability to uphold the UM Book of Discipline:

Frankly, my conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire Discipline, because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters. It denies them their full humanity. I simply cannot uphold those parts of the Discipline.

And some echo Michael Bradley, who in the Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse (“Between Magisterium and Magistrate: Notre Dame’s Choice on Marriage’s Meaning,” Oct. 28, 2014) opposes same-sex marriage and approvingly cites these words from the Roman Catholic 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws. . . . In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

It may be impossible for such opposing voices of conscience to remain in fellowship. Solving the riddle will take something like the Pentecost inbreaking of the Spirit that enabled understanding across a babble of languages. {Just yesterday—as of the insertion of this update on June 26, 2015—Meghan Good offered in-depth thoughts on how the Tower of Babel and Pentecost might connect with our current circumstances.] Yet I pray that instead of emulating our culture’s fragmentation into an individualistic affiliation only with our own kind, we contribute our individual voices to a divine project larger than any of us alone can build.

To echo Ervin Stutzman (The Mennonite, Nov. 24, 2014), I pray that we learn how to honor “both individual conscience and the value of Gelassenheit (yieldedness) in the face of disagreements.” [Stutzman also elaborates on this in just-published June 23, 2015 comments on the polarities of freedom and mutual accountability.]

I dare imagine that in the reconciling and peacemaking power of Christ there is neither LGBTQ nor straight and even that in Christ there is neither traditionalist nor progressive. I imagine the Spirit descending even on today’s speakers of different and often battling tongues. I imagine Christians, guns holstered not only in plays but when loving LGBTQ-viewpoint enemies, able still to shake hands, to pray together, to break communion bread together. I imagine us able to look into each other’s eyes and to see on the other side this paradox and this treasure: one whose conscience is thoroughly at odds with my own yet who remains a faithful Christian and in some way, however creatively or miraculously this is structured, a member of my faith community.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and author, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001), which analyzes the difficulties of understanding opposing voices of conscience. This article was first published in The Mennonite, May 2015.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 5: “Double Conversion”

As tears surrKCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72ounded the cross, heaven didn’t fully come down. Some flinched from too much emotion, and I respect that. But I at least had rarely  experienced burdens of alienation  so palpably laid down.

I share this post as part 5 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it does two main things: (1) offers some thoughts on ways to hear the story of Peter and Cornelius potentially pertinent to our current divisions; and (2) reports on an actual effort to implement, through worship, a commitment to meet Jesus at the foot of the cross beyond our divisions.

One additional comment: after this post first appeared in Mennonite World Review, it was criticized for the linkage of elephants with persons who identify as LGBTQ. As I responded then, the intent was by no means to imply a linkage between elephants and people but to label the issue—divisions over LGBTQ-related understandings—as the elephant in the room.

However, I also saw how easily the image could slide from issue to people and apologized. I’m maintaining the imagery here because it’s part of the historical record. But I agree with the critics who pointedly and prophetically reminded me and us that what we’re addressing are not merely dry bones of doctrine but, to echo Ezekiel, real people “with skin on,” as I heard a child once put it, real people with real flesh and blood, with real hearts and souls and minds and feelings.

Double Conversion

At the 2014 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, we planned to offer keynotes, case studies, and workshops on discernment. As SLT neared, churchwide rifts between same-sex-attraction theologies were deepening. We didn’t want to make things worse; we didn’t want to claim we knew the right discernment strategies. Yet not to name LGBTQ-discernment links would be to ignore a giant elephant in the room.

So we planned an “Elephant in the Room” worship service (as movingly reported on by Laura Amstutz, photo by Lindsey Kolb). We didn’t provide discernment guidance. We simply sought a context within which to offer LGBTQ-related hopes and fears to God.

The service wasn’t perfect. Some on opposite LGBTQ theology sides thought there was an appeal to emotions when the focus should have been on the hard scriptural and theological wrestling the times cry out for.

Yet what happened seems a story worth telling. First, however, let me link it to the Acts 10 story of Peter and Cornelius. When asked to preach on this just after the “Elephant” service, I found the two stories almost demanding to be joined.

Particularly illuminating seemed the worship planners’ request that I ponder “double conversion.” On two sides, in this riveting narrative from the early church, the Holy Spirit is at work.

Cornelius, though a military officer outside the faith communities Acts highlights, prays constantly and wants to live faithfully. When in a vision an angel tells him to visit this stranger Simon in Joppa, he is both terrified and obedient. He sends two slaves plus one of his devout soldiers to find Simon.

Meanwhile Simon Peter, his quest to follow Jesus often blending confusion, passion, betrayal, and love, has a vision of “something like a large sheet” coming down from heaven with all kinds of creatures on it. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals.

Shocked and horrified, Peter objects. Not only are the animals unclean (as Lev. 11, Ezek. 22:26 and 44:23, or Daniel 1 insist) but the clean/unclean distinction is key to his people’s counter-cultural witness.

Scarier yet, as we often stress to each other today, Peter knows visions must be tested against God’s word. As both Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and Galatians 1:6-9 underscore, angels, prophets, or any of God’s people swayed by dreams that go against God’s commandments are to be cast out, even killed. No wonder “By no means, Lord” is Peter’s response to the command to eat unclean animals.

Amid his bewilderment the visitors from Cornelius show up. Finally Cornelius himself arrives and falls at Peter’s feet but is told to get up, Peter is just mortal. The two dream-addled mortals sort things out. I had this strange vision, says Cornelius. Oh my, and I had the oddest one myself, reports Peter.

Finally it all falls together for Peter. Each vision interprets the other. He sees what God is meaning to do. He reports to those gathered to ponder the unfolding mysteries, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Cornelius, a Gentile, a man outside the boundaries of the people of God as then defined, has to trust a vision breaking in from beyond. Peter, thoroughly within the boundaries, has to trust a vision insisting age-old walls need no longer keep Cornelius and other Gentiles outside. Together Cornelius and Peter must learn that in Christ both can experience God’s welcome. But what travel adventures, whether physical or in faith understandings, each must undergo to achieve such a dramatic double breakthrough.

This takes me back to the Elephant service. As our LGBTQ-related theological divisions deepen, commitments to faithfulness are only strengthening. The cries of conscience are intensifying. People are dreaming dreams and seeing visions.

Some are convinced a hedonistic culture is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down precisely the wrong path. They dream of a church faithful, cross-shaped, counter-cultural even if the price is to be called a bigot.

Others are certain the there can be no avoiding confrontation with those hate-filled aspects of culture that have led to suicide, torture, and even killing of some of us deemed today’s unclean. They dream of Christians being faithful even when the price is to be called disobedient to the church.

I don’t know how many people were dreaming which dreams at EMS the morning of January 22. I do know this: Some were having visions in which God said one thing; others were dreaming of a voice from above commanding something different. Scores to hundreds of dreamers dropped into a basket at the foot of a cross (beside which was an elephant) LGBTQ-related fears and hopes written on paper. And I know that tears were falling. And falling. And falling.

Why the tears? I can only guess this: What we’re doing to each other is traumatizing us. We don’t wish to destroy each other. Yet we don’t know how to obey the God whose voice we are hearing and honor the person who hears God saying the opposite. So we continue toward a house divided.

Yet for those precious moments at the foot of the cross, we were united in our anguish. We were like the soldiers singing “Silent Night” across the trenches at Christmas before they picked up their weapons once more.

I don’t know how we build on such evanescent moments of unity. Even the story of Peter and Cornelius, even that SLT worship service and whether it met or hindered its goals, is part of the LGBTQ-related battleground. So I can only testify to my own fallible dream. In my dream, a voice says no one in the LGBTQ-related wars is unclean. God shows no partiality based on our views. Rather, God is inviting each of us not only to weep for a minute together at the foot of a cross in Martin Chapel but also to linger there for days, for months, for years—until we learn what a double conversion even across this divide might look like.

Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in Mennonite World Review, March 3, 2014.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 4: “Painholders”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72At a difficult discernment meeting a participant was wracked by the realization that no matter the decision made, it would hurt persons dearly loved. That took me back: I’ll never forget that evening of listening to the leaders I came to call “painholders.” So often they found themselves seeking to hold the pain of persons who in being true to themselves wounded others even as others likewise wounded them.

“Painholders on Holy Ground” is Part 4 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it foregrounds the riddle of how we proceed  when any path anyone can conceptualize inflicts pain on someone. I wish we could solve the riddle even though clearly I haven’t managed this.

My perspective is shaped by and addresses particularly my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. However,  just as I was preparing to launch this post, I saw word of overlapping developments in a conference of the United Methodist Church,  to which a significant number of students at the seminary I lead belong. UMC faces its own complex and often pain-wracked discernment process. This is an equal-opportunity journey of pain and painholding for many denominations and faith communities.

I know the solution is eluding me because precisely persons I’d wish to have felt heard and honored in this article have told me they disagree with my approach to “painholders.” They want to be released to get on with the journey as they see it. They don’t want to be made to feel that their quest to be faithful in ways with which others disagree is itself somehow problematic.

John Troyer, the current leader of the EVANA Network, one of the entities wishing for space to leave at least some aspects of Mennonite Church USA, has observed that those of us who call for unity are sometimes guilty of character assassination. As I’ve mentioned to Troyer in personal conversation, I don’t wish to contribute to labeling that stings; the opposite was my hope in writing on painholders. Yet as I told Troyer, I do recognize that, paradoxically, even the dream of unity can be experienced as an assault by those who feel coerced into betraying their own consciences if they agree to remain in fellowship.

I also take to heart that some who read the original version of “Painholders” thought I was too hard on Franconia Mennonite Conference when highlighting several FMC excommunications and my personal connections to them. I do find myself wanting to be more gentle in this introduction. These are my people. We often ask too much of our own people, whose connections with our wounds are sometimes particularly easy to trace or confront, whether fairly or not.

I think (still journeying!) what I end up believing is this: a.) I bore appropriate testimony to the trauma excommunication inflicts; and b.) I can wound in the act of naming ways I perceive wounding to have been done.

I remain troubled by excommunication as a way of doing church. I find myself unable to make peace with it, deep though its roots in the Anabaptist-Mennonite commitment to faithfulness do go. The trauma seems so much greater than the justifications.

Yet I also recognize that all of us struggle to find our way through ambiguities and perplexities and actions that can seem so right at one time and so wrong later. So I want not to cast the stone quite as hard now as I did during my 2013 writing of “Painholders.”

The need for gentleness struck me, for example, when after he wrote an article calling us beyond division, former FMC leader James M. Lapp was invited “to practice what he preaches and return to the people of Germantown and apologize for excommunicating them.” This was his moving response, which in turn conveys the healing grace offered by “the pastor at Germantown”:

I appreciate the concern of this letter. I have grieved deeply about my involvement in this action by our conference. I did not believe in 1997, nor do I believe now, that it is necessary to divide over this issue. The article was intended to make that point. I confessed my regrets about my involvement in this action to the pastor at Germantown, and she extended grace to me. I have spoken to conference leaders about my desire to seek healing between the Germantown congregation and our conference. Sometimes leaders need to act on behalf of the people or organization they serve, even if it is contrary to their convictions or preferences. I am now largely retired and freed from such institutional constraints. But I respect those who carry such responsibilities and the challenges they face. They need our prayers, understanding and grace.

I would wish for “painholding” to be an activity that spans the spectrum of theological and biblical understandings rather than becoming one more source of polarization. I see hints in Lapp’s comments and elsewhere that others are dreaming toward overlapping visions, as in the case of pastors in Lancaster Mennonite Conference who say that if they’re “anti-anything, it’s walking away from each other.” So I’ll share the vision one more time—but amid recognition of its imperfections and that the riddle is far from solved.

Painholders on Holy Ground: The Riddle of the Open Closed to the Closed and the Closed Closed to the Open

In our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition we have followed Jesus—and evicted whoever gets it wrong. A denominational body excommunicated my father’s parents for starting a Sunday school. My aunt tells of that 1930s “chilly morning when the little Bishop with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his box-like Model-T . . . to tell my parents [they] . . . were going to be put out” (Evelyn King Mumaw, The Merging, DreamSeeker Books, 2000, 184-185).

In the 1990s the same denominational body excommunicated for its stand on homosexuality a congregation I had pastored in the 1980s. My father’s family would have approved.

It seems Mennonites were ahead of the times. Today literal and verbal bombs maim bodies and spirits. Across church, culture, politics, faith traditions, and world, chasms open. We fight about how Scripture is to be interpreted including how literally, sexuality, abortion, evolution, gun rights, climate change, whether government is problem or solution, and so much more. We battle not only over how to bridge differences but even over whether to bridge them.

As one who feels in my bones the wounds centuries of splitting have inflicted, I dream of better. I dream of what might happen if more of us became painholders on holy ground.

But to set the stage for painholders, let me a.) probe the riddle lurking when we try to bridge divisions, b.) introduce communities of discernment as a way forward, and c.) highlight the need for heroes able to hold the pain involved.

The Riddle

I crashed into the riddle when studying discussions of delegates who excommunicated my former congregation. In my dissertation research, I drew on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to look for evidence of success or failure in the delegate conversations. Based on the essential ingredient of conversational success I saw in Gadamer’s thought—openness to grow when faced with the other’s understandings—I found mostly failure. And I spied the riddle:

Gadamer’s prejudice toward openness . . . seems to place problematic limits on precisely the unfettered conversations it means to encourage. It leaves inadequate room for conversation partners who believe the essential integrity of their prejudice will be violated by any compromise. . . . They hold the stance precisely because it is the one “right” stance required for them to be true to their community and their understanding of its doctrines; how then can they allow their stance to be enlarged? Meanwhile it seems Gadamer cannot accept their closure without violating the non-negotiable openness on which his conversation depends. (Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, Pandora Press U.S., 2001, 172-173)

With Gadamer, I conclude true conversation requires genuine openness to the other. I’m inspired by the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 conviction that now we know only in part. Hence we’ll want to allow our partial understandings to grow. And growth involves openness to views other than the one we start out holding.

But “the open” find it hard to be open to “the closed.” And “the closed” see it as violating their stand to be open to “the open.” So I can preach till blue in the face (and my face is often blue) that Christians will be open to treasures in perspectives other than our own. Yet the “closed” will hear me as imposing an openness that closes them out, as demanding they play a game rigged against them. Should they in turn insist our divisions can heal only if I yield to their One True Truth, I’ll likewise experience the game as rigged. That’s the riddle.

From Battle to Communities of Discernment

Can we solve the riddle? If we could do it easily, we’d not lob more missiles by the hour. Yet I dream of painholders helping us try.

Their work is rooted in our moving from battling each other to collaborating in discernment. Among Christians, I’d define discernment as involving the community of believers gathered in Jesus’ name around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit to let God show us the way through the urgent, complicated, and often divisive issues of a given time and place.

The Jesus of Matthew 18:18-20 inspires this vision for becoming communities of discernment. When two or three gather in his name, Matthew’s Jesus promises to be present. Jesus also amazingly says that what we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven.

What if Jesus is giving us the holy and agonizing mandate properly to discern in our given settings how God is inviting us to think and speak and live?

If so, openness is involved—but it’s an openness to Scripture and Spirit. The call is not simply to be open to each other’s fallible human opinions but also together to tussle with something from Beyond.

Amid such grappling, just maybe “the open” can begin to see some “closed” views as valuable commitments to faithful hearings of Scripture and Spirit. And just maybe “the closed” can see some “open” views as not only misguided efforts to dilute the faith but as likewise flowing from Scripture and Spirit.

 Painholders on Holy Ground

But this is difficult, complicated, agonizing work. That’s why we need the painholders.

I met them one evening over supper at a retreat. Because they help lead congregational groupings geographically near each other, they not only confer regularly but are sometimes drawn into the same dynamics. My fallible impression is that they might themselves tend toward different sides of some divides.

Yet both are passionately committed to something larger than position-imposing/defending. Both love the people in their charge, whatever their views. Both root for a church grander than whatever slivers manage to remain connected if in any disagreement one side must be victorious or both must split so each may go its “faithful” way.

When divisions come, these painholders resist widening them. Instead they walk lovingly into the torment, with a courage that evokes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego preferring life in the fiery furnace to giving up faithfulness to God. They absorb the pain. They absorb. And absorb still more as they nurture not splitting but discernment.

Ceaselessly they roam among their shouting, suffering people. Relentlessly they invite the open to see in “the closed” not only blind rigidities or legalisms but a faithfulness the open ought also be open to. Endlessly they invite “the closed” to be open to the possibility that in “the open” there may be faithfulness and not only error.

The results are rarely clear-cut; we live in the mess of our times. But what I glimpsed that night at supper, as they told of pain they sought to hold and not heighten, was the hope of the church. I saw that they walk on holy ground. The ground is holy because God, as the lyrics of Arna Czarnikow remind us, “walks the dark hills” even of our peaks and valleys of hate. So the painholders look for God’s spoor even in the desolate deserts of division.

Instead of only imposing their theological biases—though like all of us they have them—they invite worshiping the God of the burning bush. They invite taking off our shoes before the God who is God beyond our human names for and understandings of God. You can see the cost in their faces. Still, Gethsemane in their bones, they hold the pain.

I dream of such painholders as models. I dream of them as offering templates for living the gospel in that far-off land whose outskirts the better angels of my splitting-prone ancestors invite us to enter: God’s country. In this country we love enemies, heap blessings on those who persecute us, send forgiveness seventy times seven down like waters on those who have offended us, at last pluck from our own eye the redwood log so we can see how tiny is the speck in the other’s eye.

As a seminary dean, I dream of seminaries, denominations, and congregations coming to see painholders as the heroes of our time. I dream of teaching our students, congregants, each other that in our day painholding is a calling of callings. And I dream of painholders in turn showing us how at least to take another step toward solving the riddle of the open closed to the closed and the closed closed to the open.

—Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, which he is helping shape as a discernment training center; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in The Mennonite, February 2014.