Of all my Amish aunts and uncles, "Levi" and "Sarah" were the most delightful (though at some point in my growing up, I learned that we were not related at all). We particularly enjoyed Aunt Sarahshe spoke her mind freely and had a deep-throated, hearty laugh. I remember occasionally commenting about her low voice and being amused, along with my siblings, by the few strands of long gray hair combed out over a brown wigall under a prayer covering, of course. And we wondered why they never had any children.
It was sometime after Aunt Sarah died in a distant state that I heard more details about her. It became clear that she had chosenor someone had done the choosing for herto be female despite having (very small) male genitalia. I was shocked; the news raised many new questions for me. Levi and Sarah were completely accepted by the Amish (and non-Amish) community. Was Sarah actually male and this was the only way for "her" and Levi to have a (homosexual) relationship and marriage? If that was the case, their relationship would be condemned by (most) Mennonite and Amish standards. What if Sarah, raised as a girl in the Amish community, actually felt like a man and fell in love with "Hannah?" That relationship would have been considered a lesbian one and therefore also outside the standards of the community.
I have since come to know another intersexed person (see Lin Garbers chapter, below) who had "genital reconstruction" and was raised as a girl. As a young adult, she fell in love with "Alice" and is now perceived, by herself and others, as a lesbian. What if her parents had made the "opposite" decision? S/he could have married Alice with the churchs blessing. Why is one condemned and the other not? What makes us male and female? What is gender anyway? How is it connected to sexual orientation?
These confused and confusing questions (indeed, I had a hard time even trying to articulate them as I was writing) cast the whole discussion of homosexuality and "same-sex" relationships in a new light for me. These situations, as well as learning about other similar ones, have not brought me clarity. They have, in fact, muddied the water even more for me. I cannot hear these kinds of stories and not begin to question the assumptions concerning gender and sexuality that I have grown up with. And that questioning of ones assumptions, in my view, is a critical element of dialogue, or of "genuine conversation," as Michael calls it.
The conversation that follows in this book is marked by courage and candor from many writers (as well as the editor!). These are not stories or convictions that are easily written. They are full of vulnerability and pathos and struggle. Sometimes I felt the need to turn the pages gently as a holy story unfolded. I was particularly moved by the chapters in which the authors seemed reluctant to be too declarative but rather, within their current convictions, were continuing the search for truth. It was as if they, too, sense their search to be a holy one.
Holding ones truth somewhat lightly is another mark of dialogue. I have a friend who introduced me to the "grace of uncertainty" concept, and I have come to believe that this grace is critical to true dialogue. I often tell my conflict studies students that one of the first casualties of escalated conflict is uncertaintymeaning that as the tension rises, people tend to become more certain that their particular view of truth is the right one. Listening, I tell my students, is the next casualty; for what is the purpose of listening if I am already completely certain I am right? (I am talking about truly listening to understand, not just using the right technique to give the perception of listening.)
M. Scott Peck summarizes these principles wonderfully in a section from Further Along the Road Less Traveled. He describes telling his patients that it was wonderful when they were confused because it meant they were actually "poor in spirit." He says,
Does this collection of essays actually represent meaningful dialogue/genuine conversation? I agree with Michael that you, the reader, will need to decide. Whether it does may depend on your definition of dialogue/conversation. There is not a completely consistent understanding among the various authors. Michael argues that a marker of genuine conversation is the ability to "see the value in the others view and to grow in my own understanding by incorporating as much of the others perspective as I can without loosing the integrity of my own convictions," something he wishes were more apparent. Sheldon Burkhalter declares that "true dialogue amid conflict is openness to change." According to John Linscheid, the Mennonite denominational Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy defined dialogue as "reiteration of LGBT-despising positions" (a reiteration of the Mennonite Churchs teaching position). John D. Roth is clear that the "rhetoric of empathy" is needed for dialogueand he also seems to believe that the time for dialogue on homosexuality is over.
What exactly makes dialogue genuine? Does one need to be open to changing ones perspective or conviction about an issue? In my view, that readiness to change is the ideal but it is rarely realistic, especially in relation to issues as charged as homosexuality. I have come to believe that a minimum requirement for genuine dialogue is a readiness to change or modify ones perspective about the person or persons holding the opposite point of view. (Perhaps this is moving from the rhetoric of empathy to the actual experience of empathy.) Is this element present throughout these essays? Only the authors know for certain, of course, but I sensed its presence in a variety of them.
While I believe passionately in the need for dialogue and have worked over the years to promote healthy exchanges between those holding divergent viewpoints, I have also become more understanding of the suspicion dialogue stirs. For some dialogue is a tired and overused word; that is perhaps why Michael chose to use "genuine conversation" instead.
But for others dialogue is actually an objectionable word and concept. I see at least two reasons for this. One is that it seems nearly impossible to truly listen to a story from the soul of another and not be moved by it. Our stories connect us to each other; they change us and the relationship. That makes dialogue risky and frightening. Having said that, it is also true that sometimes "dialogue" is simply a code word for "change your mind"and people use it toward that end. When that is the case, suspicion is an appropriate response. Some of us forget that it is possible to truly listen, understand, respect, and empathize without accepting as ones own the views of the other.
I also have come to understand, at some level, the passion and angeryes angerexperienced by LGBT folks who have long been struggling to find their place in the church, as well as in their families, their workplaces, and society in general. Their weariness, impatience, and disillusionment seems inevitable given what is at stake for themand has been for a long time.
The essays in this book are sufficiently diverse to provide a broad perspectivethough I would have welcomed hearing more from the "traditional" voice. I found myself often interacting actively with the authorsagreeing, disagreeing, being surprised, perplexed, and often, very often, deeply empathetic. I also found myself wondering about the next step: Where do we go from here? Are there gaps that need to be filled? A few things come to mind.
For one, I dont see the issue of power being adequately addressed. Clearly Mennonites shy away from talking about power in general, but I dont think it is possible to adequately address homosexuality in the church without addressing power dynamics more clearly than we have thus far. As I read John Linscheids chapter, I was reminded of several situations in which I served as a mediator/conflict consultant in relation to the role of women and was presented with a fundamental dilemma: What was I to do when a key part of my role was to ensure the participation of all relevant voicesbut the women, who would be most affected by the outcome of the discussion, were not allowed to be part of the discussion?
Such is too often the case with homosexuality in the church today. How do we address such a clear power imbalance? Perhaps a small next step is a book of essays co-edited by a GLBT person and a straight person. Perhaps Michael and John Linscheid could take on such a challenge. I would also wish for face-to-face forums that could be safe and more balanced. That kind of forum would likely move us further from the "parallel monologue" tendency of the essay forum.
There are frequent references to other issues, such as divorce and remarriage and women and leadership, in which the Mennonite church has departed from seemingly clear biblical directives. I wonder how our journey through those issues is similar to, and different from, our current journey. What specific things might be instructive for us today?
I agree with several of the writers that we need to give more attention to sexuality in general, heterosexual as well as homosexual. While it is hard to talk about the state of our unions, especially in church circles, we must do so. We need much more conversation about intimacy, sexual ethics, faithfulness in relationships, and a whole range of related issues.
In addition, I believe we as a denominationa peace church denominationhave much more to learn about how to address our differences. (The jokes about being passive-aggressive are getting old.) Ill name three specific areas of needed learning:
(1) We need more training and lots more practice in reaching agreement around the contentious issues. That means more dialogue. It means finding and building on commonalities. It means really trying to understand how the interests of the other can be addressed in a resolution. It often means some compromise from what I think is the best path. Mennonites seem to mostly focus on our points of difference. We give up too quickly in our search for mutually satisfying resolutions.
(2) When issues involve differences that truly remain too great for any kind of resolution, we need to become more comfortable with agreeing to disagree, with continuing to mutually respect each other, and with ongoing worship and work within the same body. It is not possible, or even desirable, to have everyone in any church body think and believe alike. Our differences are manysome of them quite significant. That is appropriate. We can do better at accepting each other and living with our differences.
(3) Finally, I concede that there may be times when our differences are so great, our values or worldview or theological perspectives so divergent, that separation is appropriate. But I believe such circumstances are very, very rare. The more I understand the life and mandate of Jesus, the clearer I am that we should not cut ourselves off from each other or judge each other out of the kingdom, even when some kind of separation is necessary. So I am offering a "simple" proposal: that we not allow ourselves to separate from each other until each group can bless the other and the others ministry. A commitment to this would in and of itself go a long way in transforming our conflicts around homosexualityand, indeed, our relationships.
Stumbling Toward a Genuine
Conversation is a compelling read, and I commend it
to you. Michael has done the church an enormous service
and I hope it is read by many people. A colleague of mine
commented that perhaps it is coming a decade or more too
late. Maybe hes right, but Im not sure we
were ready for it then. Hopefully we are now. And truly,
we are a long way from being finished with the struggle
around these issues.
1. M. Scott Peck, Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Towards Spiritual Growth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 80-81.
© 2007 by Cascadia Publishing House