Polygamous Anabaptists

The Mennonite Weekly Review reported this week that the world’s largest Anabaptist Conference, the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopa, recently made two groundbreaking (maybe even radical) decisions. One is that women can now be fully active in leadership in the church. My only comment to that one is: well done, the church will be better for it. More interesting to me is the other decision. Polygamous converts can now be baptised into the church without divorcing all but one of their wives. The church is still saying monogamy is the way to go (their “teaching position”) and men shouldn’t marry any more wives once they are part of the church (also probably shouldn’t be leaders).

The church is saying that while polygamy isn’t their bag (I would generally agree) the brokeness that comes from those divorces in that culture don’t really help anyone. I guess when you are faced with this patriarchal tradition within a patriarchal society, the best you can do in the short run is to minimize the damage (that would come to those other wives and children if they were pushed out) and do what you can to work against the patriarchy for the long run (let women be part of church leadership). So, I guess they did the best they could with what they had to work with. Well done, the church will be better for it.

The little cynic sitting on my left shoulder wants to make a comment. According to MWR “Regional church leaders said the church’s witness had been handicapped by denying baptism to polygamous converts, especially in Muslim areas.” The little cynic also sees a clever business decision nestled in among the “concern for the community.” From my understanding (which, of course, could be wrong), a man that is able to have more than one wife would probably be fairly wealthy and powerful. If you keep him out, you also keep out his wealth and power. If you let him in but make him get divorced, he may lose some wealth and power plus there is the damage to the family. If you let him in, with his whole family (I would have to guess this would be a big family that would also join), you gain a big pile of members (can the women who are part of polygamous marriages be leaders? – the cynic is also wondering) plus a wealthy fellow that will hopefully pass on some of that to the church. So, I guess everyone wins. Well done and the church will be better for it (financially speaking).

There’s a clever little Mennonite lesbian sitting on my right shoulder, tapping my ear. She wonders if we in North America could make any interesting parallels to either of these decisions that were made in Ethiopia. Since I don’t know of many polyamorous Anabaptists in North America asking to be included in the Mennonite Church and women are already supposedly equal (I’m not going to get into that one right now), I guess I’ll have to consider the situation that I’m quite concerned with. Here’s my proposal. While the Mennonite Churches of North America currently treat LGBTQ people a bit like the Meserete Kristos church was treating polygamous men before this decision, and for that matter also similarly to how they will be treating them after the decision, my suggestion is that Mennonite Church (US and Canada) parallel the Ethiopian decision on women and not on polygamous men. Then I would say: well done, the church will be better for it.

I’ll explain. Right now the Mennonite “teaching position” on same-sex sexual behavior is kinda like the “teaching position” of the MKC was on polygamy: it’s bad, you should change if you want to join us (even if it is personally damaging) and you definitely can’t be in a same-sex relationship. It is also kinda like the new decision on polygamy: it’s still bad but we can see how it could be personally damaging to change so you can be here as long as you are celibate (or safely in the closet), also, you still can’t be in leadership (but you are welcome to sit here, share your gifts of money and talents as long as you don’t ask for any respect for heaven’s sake). So basically, you can stay as long as you hate yourself enough to follow our bigoted rules or shut up about it enough that we don’t have to notice (also, could you play the organ on Sunday? Oh, and we’re looking for pledges for the new building project, do you think you and your “roommate” could help us out with that? -nudge- -wink-). That was the little cynical Mennonite lesbian sitting on top of my head.

Another similarity with the Mennonites here is that the “concern for community” shown by those leaders that are keeping up the status quo could be seen as a business decision as well. By not challenging this injustice, church leaders feel they are keeping the wonderful “unity” we have in our church. They don’t want to treat the lgbtq community with respect because they are afraid of the wealthy and powerful anti-gay Mennonites who have threatened to pull funding and (Goddess forbid) leave. That is the wonderful “unity” our church leaders are working to preserve. I say: bloody well done, the church will definitely be better for it. -nudge- -wink-

So, instead, I would suggest the Mennonite Churches in North America model their relationship with lgbtq Mennonites like that of MKC to women. It might sound like this: “Oh, wow, you are a person, created by God, with wonderful gifts. Thanks for being part of this group and sticking with us when we were in that nasty mean stage. I don’t know what we were thinking, so sorry about that. You have some gifts we could really use in this church. We’ll start by treating you like a human.” Well done, the church will be better for it.

Comments (4)

  1. TimN

    Katie, I love the image of the clever little Mennonite lesbian sitting on your right shoulder, tapping on your ear and the little cynical Mennonite lesbian sitting on top of your head, fuming away. My only question is, who or what is on your left shoulder?

    Your proposal is an attractive and intriguing one. It’s nice to fantasize about showing the Mennonite Weekly Review article to Mennonite leaders and seeing a little Mennonite light bulb pop on above their heads: “Wow, we could treat LGBTQ people with respect and still maintain our teaching position”

    One striking parallel is the wealth aspect. Sometimes I wonder if the tipping point for acceptance of LGBTQ folks as normal in mainstream US culture (at least some segments) was the discovery of the pink dollar. It would be sad and ironic if the Mennonite church waited to become accepting until the giving potential of LGBTQ Mennonites outweighed that of conservative anti-LGBTQ donors. The church would not be better for it.

  2. Katie (Post author)

    Tim, I agree with you that it would be little improvement if Menno leadership were to give in to the financial pressure from the queer community instead of the homophobic commununity. It would be a shift in power that would really change nothing other than the direction of power and not actually question the function of financial power in the church.

    On the topic of polygamy: In that weird way that when you learn a new word or idea you suddenly hear it the very next day (does anyone know the word for that?) here are two articles I just came across. One relating to polygamy in modern society and the other polygamous Anabaptists.

    Polygamy in Two Restoration Movements (I am actually too lazy to read the whole thing now but strange huh?)

    Polygamists Fight to be Seen as Part of Mainstream Society – from the Washington Post, today

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