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.

First of all, it implicitly suggests that social advocacy and confrontation are recent inventions of “our schools” rather than central parts of the Anabaptist and gospel traditions. Perhaps these tools can be tolerated as long as they are focused elsewhere, but not when they are used within the church.

Have we forgotten that in the cleansing of the temple, Jesus aimed his confrontation–his most in-your-face public witness–at his own religious leaders in the middle of the annual religious convention? Make no mistake, his focus was not on the sleazy merchants crowding the temple court. It was on the chief priests and religious leaders who were intent on excluding the foreigner and the eunuch. That’s what he was talking about when he reclaimed the temple as a house of prayer for all nations. Just like Ervin, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he referenced Isaiah 56:7. Let’s look at the broader message that Jesus was referencing in short hand:

4 For this is what the Lord Says   
  “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, 
     who choose what pleases me 
     and hold fast to my covenant– 
  5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls 
     a memorial and a name 
     better than sons and daughters; 
  I will give them an everlasting name 
     that will endure forever. 
  6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD 
     to minister to him, 
  to love the name of the LORD, 
     and to be his servants, 
  all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it 
     and who hold fast to my covenant– 
  7 these I will bring to my holy mountain 
     and give them joy in my house of prayer. 
  Their burnt offerings and sacrifices 
     will be accepted on my altar; 
  for my house will be called 
     a house of prayer for all nations.” 
  8 The Sovereign LORD declares– 
     he who gathers the exiles of Israel: 
  “I will gather still others to them 
     besides those already gathered.”

No wonder they started plotting to kill him. He was telling them they needed to let in the illegal immigrants and those who didn’t fit gender norms.

It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

King knew that in situations of power imbalance and injustice, the absence of tension puts the full burden of conflict on the opressed. If Pink Mennos avoid confrontation, as Ervin would prefer, LGBTQ folks will continue to be bullied in Mennonite elementary schools, thrown out of their churchs and ostracized from their families. The straight moderate can continue to promise dialogue and conversation indefinitely, without substantial change.

The early Anabaptists understood this as well. George Blaurock, one of the key Anabaptist leaders, was nicknamed “Strong George” for his confrontational style. He was known for shouting down pastors from the back of churches. Here are two such stories from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia:

On Sunday, Jan 29, 1525 Blaurock appeared with a group of his followers in the church in Zollikon and stopped the Zwinglian assistant on his way to the pulpit with the question, What are you going to do there. When the preacher answered, “Preach the Word of God,” Blaurock said, “Not you, but I am sent to preach.”

And later that year he arrived before the pastor did and took his place:

8 October found Blaurock again in the Zürich highlands, apparently with Grebel. Before an audience of more than 200 he began to preach from the pulpit of the church in Hinwyl. “Whose is this place? If this place is God’s, where the Word is to be proclaimed, then I am a messenger from the Father to proclaim the Word of God.” When Parson Brennwald arrived he listened patiently until Blaurock began to speak on baptism. Then confusion ensued in the church. Brennwald hastened to Grüningen to report to Berger, the magistrate, and secure his assistance. When the latter arrived with his soldiers Blaurock was still in the pulpit, and was taken.

This Christian tradition of strong and public advocacy for justice was begun by Jesus of Nazareth and continued by Blaurock and King. Pink Mennos embody and continue this stream today as they joyfolly advocate and lovingly confront the inaction of many in the Mennonite community. If we are to sustain a living community of Anabaptist practice, we would do well to make room for them at the table.

Photo caption: Young man from a youth group who made t-shirts responding to Pink Menno presence at Mennonite convention in Columbus in 2009. Photo by Tim Nafziger

Comments (12)

  1. admin

    From Facebook:

    Jeremy Garber Well said as usual, Tim. I am convinced more and more (this is a chapter in my dissertation, actually) that the relevant heart of Anabaptism is not the cautious and practical survivor generations but the courageous, sometimes frightening, always challenging, Spirit-filled first generation.

    Tim Nafziger Jeremy, I think your term “survivor generation” is an apt one in that it acknowledges the generational traumas in Mennonite history and the way that experience shaped the attitudes and behaviors of Mennonites for so many years.

    Isaac Villegas For Jeremy: For Jeremy: “the princes had to take control of the Reformation. Only if they could bring it under political control could revolt be eliminated root and branch. They had to shear the Reformation of its revolutionary components, which they did by denying the communal principle as a mode of Christian life both in theory and practice… The proof of this is a glance at the history of the Anabaptists. They sought to save the remnant of the communal Reformation by withdrawing from the realm of this world, but the rulers mercilessly exterminated them.” Peter Blickle, Revolution of 1525 (1981).

    Steve Dintaman So every radical in-your-face movement for social change is Anabaptist?

    Jeremy Garber Steve: I don’t read anyone here (including Tim) having said that. Clearly there’s a particular theological shape to first-generation Anabaptist radicalism as there is to contemporary Anabaptist radicalism – Christ-centeredness (including a focus on the Gospels over other parts of Scripture), communal hermeneutics, emphasis on ethics as well as belief, etc.

    Steve Dintaman – I assume the same, I just wanted it said! I like your phrase “a particular theological shape”, which makes the inheritors of Anabaptism conservatives on at least some level. I also question privileging the first generation Anabaptists. Some of them were whack. We also learn through history, testing and experience.

  2. Sam

    Can I confess I read Ervin’s ‘haunt’ language just a little bit differently?
    I know I’m coming from a particular perspective here, since I’m delighted our Mennonite Colleges teach radical non-violent action, and I love how that got expressed publicly through the Pink Menno movement at Columbus.
    However, reading this quote from Ervin, I notice that while he’s expressing concern because of the financial and political implications of the Pink Menno movement at conventions, I also heard him acknowledging that the movement 1) is a significant minority in the church coming from within church institutions and largely driven by young adults and 2) using faithful and theologically appropriate methods to critique the denomination from within. Also, 3) I like the ‘haunt’ language because this minority has been treated as if they are invisible-like ghosts, and it has all sorts of good Shakespearean resonance of being hoisted on one’s own petard-suggesting either that we (Mennonites) have to quit teaching our young people to be so good at non-violent direct action or maybe begin considering their demands. Just my 2 cents.

  3. joe

    I’m interested to know more about the counter-pink demonstrations. What did the Pink Mennos think of the counter non-violence confrontation (presumably) as expressed by this t-shirt?

  4. TimN (Post author)

    Good question, Joe. I certainly can’t speak for all Pink Mennos, but I know that many Pink Mennos went through a workshop before the convention on how to handle conversations with “counter-pink” people in calm and de-escalate tense situations. I saw this approach being used a number of times during the Columbus convention with people wearing anti Pink Menno t-shirts.

  5. joe

    OK maybe I’m not expressing myself well. Gandhian non-violent resistance aims to very directly prick the conscience of an oppressor by getting him to a position where the only response to your (fairly minor) disobedience is to escalate the response beyond the point which is tenable in his own mind, or to give in. Or like the old woman in Jesus’ parable, it works by continuous annoying nagging until you get justice – if nothing else because it is so annoying.

    I’m not sure what happens when a non-violent resistance movement meets another non-violent resistance movement operating in an equal and opposite direction. Clearly one side can train themselves to refuse to react to a tense situation (which is obviously admirable) but I’m not sure what happens if both sides have been taught the same tactics.

    Maybe what happens is that both groups immediately see the good in the other people – if not their argument – and they drink tea and talk it through. Then maybe they either decide on some kind of compromise or decide that although they understand the position of the other, it is never going to work.

    Apologies for the tangent..

  6. ethel

    joe — I think your tangent is very relevant to the discussion. Even if both movements (pink and counter-pink) have the same non-violent exterior, I think that pink can still “prick the conscience” of counter-pink and “escalate the response beyond the point which is tenable in [counter-pink’s] own mind.” I think pink’s big advantage is that their members can stay personally, spiritually, and emotionally centered during conversation and confrontation. God has permeated the world with love, and this gives an enormous advantage to activists–like pink–who are working on the side of love and inclusion. In the face of this love, counter-pink or similar demonstrations will end up flailing about, trying to hold on to a fleeting justification for exclusion. Even if their techniques are non-violent, I believe that the deep core of this exclusion is small-mind hate (small-mind in the Buddhist sense). Hate is spiteful and petty, and a person can’t dwell in it indefinitely.

    Here’s my tangent: exclusion is a very simple thing to institutionalize. Pink aims to transform individuals, but what can it do if the convention leaders successfully marginalize the conversation by declaring that “controversial” topics can only be discussed in designated spaces? How will pink continue to haunt the convention center?

  7. Joseph P

    Good article, Tim.

    I do think though that Sam’s alternate interpretation of Ervin’s quote should be taken seriously.

    At the least we can admit that we don’t have the full context of the quote. Also, we don’t know if Ervin was speaking casually or if the word “haunt” was carefully chosen and put to paper.

    I try to be empathetic to a leader’s imperative to represent many sides of a constituency. To that end, I would say that we can appreciate how Ervin has clearly admitted that the techniques of Pink Menno are precisely the techniques that our schools teach. Even as he reinterprets this negatively with the word “haunt,” he is still telling people on the other side that Pink Mennos are (to quote Sam) “using faithful and theologically appropriate methods to critique the denomination from within.” That’s important for them to hear.

    Also, while I don’t read Ervin’s use of the word “haunt” as positively as Sam does, I would agree that Mennonite Church USA NEEDS to be haunted by the ghosts of any injustice. Pink Mennos can be satisfied that they succeeded in that haunting, especially while remaining completely nonviolent and non-coercive.

    I hope that none of my points seem to take away from Tim’s excellent evaluation of the spirit and techniques of the Anabaptist movement.

  8. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    Ervin did respond to my letter to him, and addressed his use of the word “haunt”. See below for his response:

    My words were quoted in a different context than I intended. My point was that young social activists are simply doing what we have taught them to do in other (generally political) contexts, and now we are feeling the brunt of it in a church where many shy away from confrontation. This means that many who disagree will simply not show up at the meeting or will feel pressured to this confrontation in negative ways. Years of experience in conflict settings has shown that we have the most productive conversations about deep differences in a setting where people choose to dialogue. When one or more of the parties feels forced, it is difficult to listen with care.

  9. BrianP

    Tim, thank you for your perspective on Ervin’s comments and for supporting the merits of the Pink Menno movement.

    Fear (namely, of the other) is what is creating, and has created, division in the church.

    I think the real ghosts in this scenario are the ghosts of fear of the other, fear of confrontation, fear of joining hands with those whom with we disagree, etc.

    May we all summon the perfect love that drives out all fear.

  10. AlanS

    Many poignant points here. I’ll add a couple things that are on my mind as I ponder this in relation to another experience I had this week.

    This week I sat in on a seminar about adolescent brain development. There were a couple of interesting thoughts in this seminar. One of the key ones was that the brain (generally speaking) works from bottom to top and back to front. What this really means is that our brain makes decisions starting with the most basic and primitive parts of the brain and then moves to the most cognitive parts of the brain. Or, the way the presenter put it, we make decisions with our emotions and then we try to figure out how to justify them cognitively. Very rarely does anyone change their mind by thinking about it. This is why we’ve all heard someone say in an argument, “yeah, I understand your point, but I still just think you’re wrong”. It’s not the cognitive brain that has the ultimate control, but the emotional brain.

    In the context of this discussion (and any discussion or argument about homosexuality in general) this means that arguing, or discussing, won’t really have that much of an impact on anyones beliefs. The real impact of Pink Mennos on peoples beliefs comes through the amount of emotional connection that they can generate. I know that this is sure true in my own life. I remember the exact moment that I changed everything I believe about this. It was when I found out that I had a gay relative. As soon as I had an emotional connection the intellectual arguments just fell into place.

    The other thing from this seminar was an interesting tidbit about the old stereotypes that girls are pink and boys are blue. He said that that notion came in in the early 1900’s, but that originally boys were pink and girls were blue. It switched in the 40’s and no one knows why. Maybe not relevant, but when talking about a group of pink people….well it just seemed interesting.

  11. Joseph P

    Amy, thanks for sharing Ervin’s response.

    I think it may be true on some level that Pink Menno’s advocacy has a negative effect on “dialogue,” and it makes sense for Ervin to represent that position, but it’s kind of beside the point from a Pink Menno standpoint.

    Pink Mennos are standing up on a justice issue. If we’re arguing over carpet in the sanctuary or new office buildings then dialogue is important, but when people are being systematically oppressed, dialogue is of secondary importance.

    People avoid dialogue because they’re afraid they might have to confront uncomfortable truths or because they’re afraid dialogue will open the door for change. The pressure that Pink Menno applies guarantees that people won’t get away with easy dialogue, which may cause people to avoid it altogether. From an institutional standpoint that would naturally raise concerns, but ultimately we’re in it because we believe it will sharpen and improve the institution.

    And besides, to me Pink Menno’s importance is less about changing people’s minds than it is about sending a message to any sexual minority person who might feel unsure about their place at convention or in the church, saying, “You’re not alone and you have supporters ready to struggle with you and for you.”

  12. MfromPA

    This is what disturbs me as a young Mennonite today. The idea that just because a certain viewpoint has at some time not been accepted in the church we must now accept it with open arms to be truly radical. That the Pink Mennos are not the most popular does not change the plain and simple truth that the Bible,the inspired word of God, says that active homosexuality is a sin. Case closed.

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