Mennonite Church USA

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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Patterns of this World, part 3: Patriarchy, Pacifism and Powerlessness

Stained Glass at Cathedralis SS. Michaelis et GuduLae

In the first article of this series, I did a broad overview of the bureaucratization trends in the Mennonite Church. In the second article, I looked specifically at the philosophy of institutions put forth by J. Lawrence Burkholder and practiced by James Brenneman and Howard Brenneman as presidents of Goshen (Ind.) College and Mennonite Mutual Aid respectively. In this third part I’ll look at the history of this thought in the Anabaptist tradition as well as Mennonite and feminist critique of Neihbur and Burkholder. I’ll continue to draw heavily from The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder as well as The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy.

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Love Wins

Is Gandhi in hell?  What’s more, what is hell?  Or heaven, for that matter?

These are some of the questions that have sparked a bit of a firestorm around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: a book about heaven hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived.  This first came across my radar screen when I read a post on Tony Jones’s blog late last week about the growing attention and criticism about this book.  Then I did some searching and saw that it has even made a splash on the national news scene from CNN to ABC.

Here’s the book promo video:

Controversy in and of itself isn’t surprising with Rob Bell.  That’s happened before.  What is striking is that judgment has been leveled by a number of people who haven’t even read the book yet because it has not yet been released!

Ultimately the controversy stems from the fact that Bell is raising core questions about issues that are central to the Christian faith.  He has posed the questions in ways that have led some to conclude that Bell is promoting something called Universalism; a doctrine where everyone gets saved, no matter what.  Again, these are all assumptions because none of his critics have actually read the book yet.  The only worthwhile critique I’ve read so far is Greg Boyd’s, namely because he actually has read the book.  (As a side note, as an Anabaptist, it’s worth paying attention to Boyd partly because he’s grown very close to Mennonites in recent years, even flirting with the idea of joining MCUSA.) (more…)

Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder

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When we left the first part in this series, I promised that the second part would look specifically at Mennonite educational organizations and the case of James Brenneman and J. Lawrence Burkholder. However, I’d like to start by giving some background on J. Lawrence Burkholder and his influence with another Mennonite institution: the institution formerly known as Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), now Everence.

I first became familiar with this story in Keith Graber Miller’s piece “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” In it he tells the story of MMA adopting the practice of underwriting. The practice meant that healthier people would pay less for their insurance policies and sicker people would pay more or be denied coverage all together. It was seen by some in MMA’s leadership as necessary for the survival of the institution. Underwriting had become the norm among most insurance companies at the time. But in practice, it would have a painful impact on sick or at-risk people who would be denied coverage, and it was difficult for those in MMA who were responsible for denying them aid in their time of need. In 1988, an MMA task force went so far as to say that strict underwriting was “contrary to the mission of MMA.” The report also said, “We are caught between those conflicting needs of serving the church and being a sound business.”

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Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I referenced Romans 12:2 in a comment on SteveK’s post on fire codes and faith. Tim B questioned whether this was a relevant passage. This post represents my further thoughts on the passages relevance to bureaucracy.

Jesus is the Answer

“In the world, but not of it.” This is a concept long embraced by Mennonites in style of dress and rejection of other “worldy” trappings. But in the last 50 years, the stance of mainstream Mennonites has changed dramatically. Embracing radio, television and lipstick, we’ve come to see our Christian distinctiveness through our dissenting view on war, our commitment to simple living and our Christian service. Unfortunately, in our rush to engage the world on these issues, we have uncritically embraced a piece of this aion (Gk., spirit of this world) far more dangerous then lipstick and ties. That is: institutional structures and bureaucracy.

Tim, you might say, aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic? Can institutional structures really hurt anyone? Aren’t they just neutral tools that can be used for good or ill?

In this first part of my series on bureaucracy and institutionalism, I’ll draw on three writers to make my case. The first is Kathy Ferguson in her book, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy. (more…)

Stories from National Anthem Conscientious Objectors

Last year many of you were saddened to learn that the administration at Goshen College decided to begin playing the national anthem before sporting events.  A group of faculty, staff and students at the college is hosting a new website for those opposed to the decision to share life experiences that have shaped their convictions.  See http://anthemCOstories.posterous.com/ .

Several stories are being posted each week, and we encourage more submissions.  Stories currently posted share experiences from the U.S. as well as from conflicts in Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, and Vietnam.  Events of other stories originated in Costa Rica, Uruguay, Trinidad, and Haiti.  Take a look and consider sharing with others the experiences that forged your convictions about civil religion.

Mennonite Church USA, Phoenix 2013 convention and Anabaptist networks and alliances

Goose Sunset on Hampstead Heath

On Saturday, the Mennonite Church USA executive board decided to hold the MC-USA 2013 convention in Phoenix, thus saving the $300,000 deposit $460,994 (source: MCUSA staff) that otherwise would have been lost. Any delegates who feel unsafe (or uncomfortable) meeting in Phoenix due to Arizona’s targeting of the Latino community will be shepherded to a “satellite” gathering at an unspecified location. Thus, their marginalization will move from the realm of metaphor to a literal, physical fact. The decision is a real triumph of institutional logic.

As I read the news in my inbox this morning, I felt something inside me drop. I realized that I had let myself hope that the executive board might listen to the clear message from Iglesia Mennonita Hispana and many others. I had let myself hope that this decision would be different from the decision to move ahead with the building in Elkhart last year. I let myself hope that the institution could re-member itself as the beloved community and take a prophetic stand with a real cost.

If you’re looking for a further critique and de-construction of the decision, I recommend, Andy Alexis-Baker’s piece Becoming Anabaptist: A Protest to the Mennonite Church. I want to focus elsewhere in the remainder of this piece.

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Mennonite Takeover?

Just read this article. I feel misunderstood; but in a way they do call us out on some stuff. It’s called “Mennonite Takeover?.” What do you think?

An excerpt:

All these neo-Anabaptists denounce traditional American Christianity for its supposed seduction by American civil religion and ostensible support for the “empire.” They reject and identify America with the reputed fatal accommodation between Christianity and the Roman Emperor Constantine capturing the Church as a supposed instrument of state power. Conservative Christians are neo-Anabaptists’ favorite targets for their alleged usurpation by Republican Party politics. But the neo-Anabaptists increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites. Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to a tradition that rejects or, at most, passively abides state power, they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state commandeering health care, regulating the environment, and punishing wicked industries.

Even more strangely, though maybe unsurprisingly, mainstream religious liberals now echo the Anabaptist message, especially its pacifism. The Evangelical Left especially appreciates that the neo-Anabaptist claim to offer the very simple “politics of Jesus” appeals to young evangelicals disenchanted with old-style conservatives but reluctant to align directly with the Left. Most famously, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, once a clear-cut old style Religious Left activist who championed Students for a Democratic Society and Marxist liberationist movements like the Sandinistas, now speaks in neo-Anabaptist tones.

preaching on the suffering of war

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“The Iraq War will surely go down in history as an embarrassment to the Christian church. Zealous Christian preachers promoted the cause from their pulpits, urging the nation to engage in a preemptive strike against a country presumed to have the capacity to eventually wage nuclear war. What troubles me most is that many of those warmongering sermons made little or no reference to Jesus, the one who taught us to love our enemies. Further, as Charles Marsh argues convincingly in his book Wayward Christian Soldiers, Christians from around the world vigorously appealed to keep our nation from this action. The recent release of classified documents only adds to my distress. I urge preachers to take this new preaching project seriously.”

~ Ervin R. Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church USA

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If you’re a preacher, please consider participating. If you’re not, please forward the invitation to a pastor near you!
Thanks,
isaac

Sparking Renewal and Becoming Undone: What I’ve been up to recently

For the last few months I haven’t been as active on Young Anabaptist Radicals as usual. Aside from my normal work doing web design and work for Christian Peacemaker Teams, I took a class on Anabaptist History and Theology. I’ve also been part of organizing a gathering in conjunction with the US Social Forum in Detroit. It’s called Becoming Undone: a gathering of Christians drawn to Anabaptism and the continuing work of Undoing Opressions. Follow the link for more details. There’s still room if you register now!

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I’ve also been very involved in a movement called Spark Renewal.

For many years, I’ve been fascinated (and disturbed) by the way that institutions tend to drift away from their original mission and towards self-preservation. I started writing about it in back in 2004, but the decision by Goshen College to start playing the anthem got me thinking about it a lot more. Around the same time friends started sharing their concerns and frustrations with the “Joining Together” campaign to build a new Mennonite Church office building on the campus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. (more…)