Mennonite Church USA

John Chinaman

Reading old Newspapers can often be an exciting experience.  Especially in small town newspapers many editors were quite blunt and do the point.  Sometimes this makes for rather humorous descriptions of the rough and tumble life of early white frontier settlers.  Other times, their bluntness cut straight to the heart of an issue, convicting not only the readers of old but those who still gaze upon the articles today.  Recently I found such an article.

On May 18, 1888 the Harper Daily Sentinel in Harper, Ks published an op-ed piece about one of the Asian workmen who had left Harper to go back home.  While the wording grates on modern sensibilities, especially in the final sentence, the point comes across loud and clear.

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Save Buddhism from Christian Missionaries: A Manifesto

Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are some of the hallmarks of the teachings of Jesus. But those concepts didn’t originate with Jesus.

He found them tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the Torah. Almost every saying in the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. The genius of Jesus was the way in which he put his own “spin” on the Scriptures, highlighting and elevating the positive aspects of God’s personality, while ignoring and rejecting the negative aspects.

The ideals of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity weren’t the unique property of the Judaic tradition, however. They could also be found earlier, and further east, in what is now India, Nepal, Bhutan. In the Fifth Century before Jesus, a man named Gotoma developed a body of teachings based on what are called “The Four Immeasurables”: (more…)

Final Judgment: A Parable

On the great day of judgment, all of humanity was gathered in a celestial banquet hall. It was a huge space, with a massive round table in the middle. The table was so big that it accommodated what seemed to be hundreds of thousands of people, probably more. As one looked to the left or the right, there were people as far as the eye could see. Yet somehow, by some supernatural optical phenomenon, one had no trouble seeing clearly everyone seated directly across the table. In a position of prominence was the Almighty herself, who interestingly had an appearance not unlike the way God was portrayed in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” yet whose Voice was unmistakably feminine. After a while, some grumbling was to be heard, as people began to take notice of who was present. Finally, a lone voice cried out, a voice with a thick Brooklyn accent, saying, “Hey God, I’m happy to be here, of course, but I see my old neighbor Moshe sitting over there and I know that rotten sonofabitch rascal ought to be in the other place. What gives?” (more…)

Mennonite justification for removing prayer from public schools

Some people find it odd that I am both a pastor and against having mandatory prayer in the public school system. After all, didn’t Jesus say things like, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation,” and “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory”? Aren’t we called to boldly proclaim the Gospel in every area of our life?

The short answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, that’s an answer to the wrong question. The real question for me as a pastor does not have to do with religious freedom but rather with religious coercion. In other words, the question is not, “Can I freely share my faith,” but rather, “Can I force others to share my faith?” As I said, the answer to the first question is “yes,” but the answer to the second is “no.” More importantly, considering that our schools and teachers are representatives of the federal government, the second question is not simply, “Can I force others to share my faith,” but rather, “Can the government force others to share my faith?”

In fact, these two questions are tied together, and the answer cannot be “yes” to both of them. If we live in a society where the answer to the second question is, “Yes, we can force others to have or express a particular faith,” then it is also true that, “No, we do not truly have the freedom to express our faith as we see fit.” (more…)

A study in Tweaking: Steve Jobs, Vincent Harding and Mennonites

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This month Malcom Gladwell had an article in the New Yorker looking at the legacy of Steve Jobs. His central thesis is that Jobs’ gift was not originality, but rather tweaking: the ability to take the inventions of others and refine and improve them dramatically. Gladwell points out that the iPod came out 5 years after the first digital music players and the iPhone more than a decade after the first smart phones hit the market.

Gladwell is building on the work of economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr who used this lens to look at the industrial revolution in Britain. For example, they point out the importance of the many engineers who improved on Samuel Crompton’s original invention of the spinning mule. These “tweakers” dramatically improving its productivity through minor changes.

Likewise, Gladwell says, “Jobs’ sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him—the tablet with stylus—and ruthlessly refining it.” Gladwell makes his point with many episodes from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. Job’s particular way of tweaking made him very difficult to get along with, even as he was dying of cancer:

At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated… Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. . . . He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.

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Widening the Circle Book Discussion and Signing

YAR contributors ST and TimN have chapters in the new book, Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship edited by Joanna Shenk, also a YAR writer. If you are near Goshen, Indiana, we’d love to have you join Joanna, Tim and other chapter authors for discussion and a book signing on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm at Waterford Mennonite Church, 65975 State Road 15.

If you’re on Facebook, you can sign up here. At the event Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor at Goshen College, will give input about her chapter which explores issues of racial diversity and Mennonite identity. Andre Gingerich Stoner, staff with Mennonite Church USA, will share about his experience at the Sojourners community in DC in the 80s and how that has continued to shape his vocation. James Nelson Gingerich, medical doctor in Goshen, will share about the founding and ongoing work of Maple City Health Care Center as the organization has chosen to be mission driven rather than survival driven. (more…)

Manifesto of the Marginal Mennonite Society

We are Marginal Mennonites, and we are not ashamed.

We are marginal because no self-respecting Mennonite organization would have us. (Not that we care about no stinkin’ respect anyway.)

We reject all creeds, doctrines, dogmas and rituals, because they’re man-made and were created for the purpose of excluding people. Their primary function is to determine who’s in (those who accept the creeds) and who’s out (those who don’t). The earliest anabaptists were also non-creedal.

We are inclusive. There are no dues or fees for membership. The only requirement is the desire to identify oneself as a Marginal Mennonite. We have no protocol for exclusion.

We are universalists. We believe every person who’s ever lived gets a seat at the celestial banquet table. No questions asked! Mystic-humanist (and anabaptist) Hans Denck was quoted saying that “even demons in the end will be saved.”

We reject missionary activity. Christian mission, historically, goes hand-in-hand with cultural extermination. We love human diversity and seek to preserve it. Thus, we oppose evangelistic campaigns and mission boards, no matter how innocuous or charitable they claim to be.

We like Jesus. A lot. The real Jesus, not the supernatural one. We like the one who was 100% human, who moved around in space and time. The one who enjoyed the company of women and was obsessed with the kingdom of God. The one who said “Become passersby!” (Gospel of Thomas 42), which we interpret as an anti-automobile sentiment. (more…)

Fierce and Fabulous

Who knew queer anabaptists had such great stories. When I was sitting on the South Shore Line on my way to the BMC retreat I had no idea what to expect from the weekend.

“The BMC”, as it is commonly called, is short for The Brethren Council on Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Interests. I know the name is long and very forgettable but the people who are part of the BMC definitely aren’t . This year the BMC celebrated 35 years of fierceness and fabulousness. That’s nine years longer than I’ve been alive. Some of the people I met this weekend were advocating for LGBT inclusion before I knew I was gay and even before I was born. For over three decades these people’s voices have been silenced by both Mennonite and Brethren denominations and yet they keep working, keep advocating, and most surprisingly they keep laughing.

The laughing part is what most surprised me; these people have some painful stories to tell but they also have some absolutely hysterical ones. Everyone had stories to tell and so many of these stories resulted in hearty laughter. Whether it’s an awkward coming out story or taking a family picture in plain drag, these queer folk have some amazing stories. (more…)

becoming Mennonite

Last year I had an opportunity to visit eight Mennonite communities in the United States. I talk about it as my get-to-know-the-family tour (I haven’t been a Mennonite for very long). I am discovering that we are quite a diverse denomination. I ended up writing a series of reflections for The Mennonite Weekly Review about my experiences in these different congregations (see the column, Life of the Body).

I ended the column with a summary reflection about what it means to think of Anabaptism as a living tradition in which we can participate by being part of the Mennonite church (among other Anabaptist denominational bodies):

An Anabaptist vision that is simply an essence distilled from various histories turns our tradition into a corpse. Anabaptism as a system of principles ends up killing the past. Once we have a system, we no longer let the twists and turns of our present life give us new ears to hear what we may have missed before. Within a living tradition, old voices are made new as we let our ever-changing world open us to displays of faithfulness from different times and places. Anabaptism comes alive when we locate ourselves within cultures of worship that become spaces where stories can echo back and forth through the ages. (“Faith that lives“–not my chosen title)

Anyhow, that’s were I’ve ended up, at least for now. If you are interested in further thoughts in this direction, I put together a booklet of my reflections. It’s available at the website of the church I’m a part of: CHMF, Mennonites. But I’ll also post it here, if you’re interested:

Isaac Villegas, Life in the Body (2011). (click to download the whole booklet in pdf form)

Below are some passages from the booklet, if you want to get a taste of it to make sure its worth your while. (more…)

Mennonites on the Bowery

Photo of Weaverland Choir by CharlieK

There’s a building boom on the Bowery these days. It’s been happening for a while, but the last couple years have witnessed an escalation in development, turning the neighborhood into a hip destination point.

Fifty years ago the Bowery was the largest skid row in the world. There were gin joints and flophouses on every block. That’s all gone now, thanks to the forces of gentrification. In their place are condos, art galleries and upscale eateries. Only one skid-row relic remains: the Bowery Mission.

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting behind the Mission’s pulpit in the 1960s, looking onto a sea of expectant faces while my father preached. In retrospect I realize the men behind those faces were awaiting the sermon’s conclusion so they could get their grub. (more…)

Saving a denomination

This is a reflection about the MCUSA national convention in Pittsburgh shortly after I returned home.  On the urging of a fellow YARer, I offer this reflection here and would ask for your perspective.

Originally posted here on July 12, 2011

I have a variety of reflections from the Mennonite Church USA national convention that was held in Pittsburgh, PA this last week.  This is just one, hopefully there will be more coming yet.

I went to this convention not knowing for sure if MCUSA would survive past the convention.  The reason was because it felt like there is currently an abnormally large amount of tension in the denomination right now.  There are a lot of issues that are causing tension but the big one is homosexuality, mainly because of one particular situation. (more…)

MCUSA, what keeps us together?

After spending some time visiting some member congregations of Mennonite Church USA (see Life of the Body), I’m trying to think through what unifies the denomination. How do we describe our belonging to the same body of faith, the same Christian tradition?

One way that’s quite popular these days is the essentialist approach. Stuart Murray seems to be the current instantiation of this perspective. In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010), Murray wants to find an “Anabaptism [that is] stripped down to the bare essentials” (15). He continues: “it is legitimate, and often helpful, to strip back the historical and cultural accretions from traditions that have persisted through the centuries” (44). His work is an “attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism” (44). Because Stuart thinks he can strip away the husks of contemporary Mennonite communities and get to the Anabaptist kernel, he finds no reason to be in institutional communion with flesh and blood Anabaptists: “I will not become Hutterite, Amish, or Mennonite, but I am grateful that the principles of ‘naked Anabaptism’ are sometimes clothed in Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite dress” (158-159).

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Confessions of a white anti-racist

I arrived in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the week of convention, eager to take it all in.  I couldn’t wait to run into old friends in the hallway, participate in thought-provoking seminars, and, close to the top of the list, add my voice to the community of voices as we sang familiar hymns.  I even announced (pre-emptively) in my Facebook status that “nothing says happy 4th [of July] like thousands of peace church members singing their theology together in four part harmony!”So when I arrived in the hall for the opening worship service on Monday evening, I was surprised to discover that hymns did not form the backbone of the singing.  As the week progressed, it appeared that in fact hymns would take a backseat in the adult worship services for the duration.  I was disappointed, a little confused, and as Betsy Headrick McCrae noted in her story Wednesday afternoon, thrown off-balance.  I didn’t know the songs the worship band led.  I missed the hymns I had grown up singing and come to love.  Wasn’t this the Mennonite convention, after all?  Weren’t hymns and four part harmony our bread and butter?  I heard a similar sentiment echoed frequently throughout the week.  Where had the hymns gone? (more…)

Haunting straight Mennonites moderates, pt 2: crisis and conciliation

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I’ve been reading the thread of comments in response to my post on Anabaptist Ghosts on The Mennonite. I think the concerns by the Aaron Kauffman (read his comment) and Harold Miller (read his comment) are shared by others as well and need to be addressed.

As I understand them, one of the key arguments that Kauffman and Miller are making is that my focus on social advocacy and confrontation is “cutting [me] off from any word of wisdom that other parts of the Body of Christ might have to offer.” In other words, their claim is that the haunting social advocacy and confrontation, as I am describing it, does not leave room for dialogue.

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Haunting straight Mennonite moderates: the Christian tradition of confrontation

This piece is cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled

In this month’s editorial in The Mennonite, editor Everett Thomas quoted Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman as follows:

“The experience of Pink Mennos at Columbus in 2009,” Stutzman said, “introduced a new level of engagement in controversial matters … The techniques of social advocacy and confrontation that we have taught young adults in our schools has come to haunt our church’s most visible gathering, to the end that convention-goers feel immense pressure to take up sides against one another on [homosexuality].”

Mennonite pastor Amy Yoder McGloughlin has already written quite eloquently and diplomatically on how Ervin’s words ignore the real ghosts who haunt the Mennonite convention. So I’d like to focus particularly on Ervin’s use of the term, “haunt,” to refer to the use of social advocacy and confrontation by Pink Mennos. As a Mennonite, I find social advocacy and confrontation at the heart of the gospel and at the roots of my Anabaptist tradition. To suggest that those of us who sought to embody this tradition as Pink Mennos at Colombus were “haunting” the convention is highly problematic.

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