Church

Groanings Too Deep for Words: The Zimmerman Verdict and the Dividing Wall Between Us

By Pam Nath. Cross-posted from The Mennonite
Image by Ricardo Levins Morales

If “your” elected officials are middle-aged, white people who smile at you a lot, it may be time to relocate. Being a “minority” – even a sizable minority – in a city with white officials has become more of a hazard than at any time in the last twenty years. American justice is divvied out across a great racial divide. We don’t believe that Black elected officials are – on their own – a cure for our problems. However, we do have a greater ability to pressure them. [Living in a white community], you may have more government services, but those services include more policing by officers who think your child is dangerous. If you move, the idea that your child is not as easily singled out can give some comfort.

Kamau Franklin, New Rules for the Black Community after the Zimmerman Verdict

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8: 22–23a, 26

Because I know that Kamau Franklin’s words in the quote above are likely to be disturbing to many people who read this column, and some may be tempted to dismiss them as the words of a hateful demagogue, I want to begin by saying that I have met Kamau on several occasions, and once participated in a two-day strategic planning meeting with him. He has never been anything but kind and friendly to me, a white woman, and in fact, has always struck me as a particularly gentle and thoughtful person. If his words seem jarring and painful to you, my plea to you is to struggle to hear them nonetheless. I think doing so is critically important to the life of our church because I am sure there are other Mennonites who are reading this column who totally get where Kamau is coming from, and in fact are feeling and wondering similar things as he. We are a divided church and sadly, the dividing walls between us (Ephesians 2:14), rather than being broken down by a free movement of the Spirit, too often are growing ever thicker.

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A Pink Menno case study: Tension and Nonviolent Direct Action

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

An energetic mix of excitement and anxiety hung in the air. It was 10 pm on July 4, the second-to-last night of the Mennonite Church USA convention in the Pink Menno space. I was sitting with 40 others as we talked through the following morning. We planned to enter the national delegate assembly of Mennonite Church USA and use our bodies to make a visible, silent witness challenging the church to repent from its treatment of LGBTQ people. We didn’t know what would happen, but we knew that we had to take a stand.

Only 24 hours earlier, seven Pink Menno planners had developed the vision for the witness. It was our third convention organizing Pink Menno hymn sings and they had become a fun, familiar presence outside the worship spaces. We had our space a block and a half from the convention center. We had hundreds of people coming to seminars we hosted. However, we were a known quantity that could be too easily ignored. It was a situation that has been faced by many social change movements over the years.

Tension and MLK

Tension is a crucial part of nonviolent social change work, whether in the church or in broader society. (more…)

Wanted: Stories of Women & Leadership in Mennonite Church USA (which I always think sounds like a sports team)

“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”
~Leslie Marmon Silko

I truly believe that sharing our stories–including the actual process of writing them out–is one of our most powerful tools–a small act that starts a transformation in ourselves and the world around us. What if sharing our stories could help future generations of both men and women? What if a story could “overturn a table” in the various Temples of our day– including in the bellies of our own communities and congregations? Social media’s given more women affiliated with Mennonite Church USA a chance to get a glimpse of the diversity and reality present in our national congregations and communities–a reality and diversity that’s not always heard or lived out, let alone celebrated.

Let’s change that. Every step and every story counts.

Wanted: Stories from any woman or girl who considers herself Mennonite or shaped by the Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions. Check out the newly launched Mennonite Monologues web site where stories can be told through essays, poems, art, songs, photographs, and other forms of creative expression. The Women and Leadership Project needs stories that speak to your truth and experience: joy and gratitude, as well as stories of lament and pain. Multiple stories are encouraged. Whatever story you wish to tell, it is welcome. All will be collected on our blog and may be submitted with a name or anonymously.

“Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”
~Adrienne Rich


Prompts to help get you started

-As a woman, what are the stories that have shaped your sense of leadership?
-What are your experiences of being called (or not called) to leadership in Mennonite Church USA?
-How have you been empowered by the church to lead?
-How have you been discouraged from taking on leadership roles?
-Do you think there is a difference in the ways women and men are cultivated to be leaders?
-Did you grow up seeing women in leadership?
-Who were your mentors?
-What is your ideal vision of church leadership in the future? Where do you fit in?

YAR, we need your awesomely radical selves! Thanks for helping to spread the word. ~Women in Leadership Project, Mennonite Monologues team

Jesus’ bad example: Overturning tables in Phoenix

Image by Dave King www.flickr.com/photos/djking/3728775956/

Oh how I wish Jesus had set a better example!

Let’s be reasonable here. He should have proposed his prophetic action in consultation with the religious leadership far in advance of the Passover feasts. This would have reduced so much stress for the Pharisees and scribes.

He shouldn’t have made his case using sacred scriptures. Too risky, too radical, too much playing his religion card like he knew it all. Why did he have to bring Isaiah or Jeremiah into this, crazy activists claiming God’s house for foreigners, eunuchs and the like! One issue at a time now! How dare he come to the temple with an agenda!

He certainly should have worked within the structures to ensure no one would be offended, no one would risk the chance at dialogue due to untimely, unvetted mention of certain outcasts. Didn’t he know that if you want to include these people, you have to exclude those people.

He should have toned it down at least a little, no name-calling nor blocking pedestrian traffic in the temple. And what’s with the whip of cords!?

Read more and get involved over at overturningtables.org!

My Day With the Mennonites

I have been identifying with Anabaptist Christianity since some point last year. There was so much I loved about that particular approach to Christianity, and that is still the case. When I first found out what Anabaptism was, and I seriously wanted to identify with it, I quickly realized that I was in a black hole of the Anabaptist tradition. The Brethren churches formed a circle around my area, but there was not one in my area. When it came to the Mennonites, there were a few churches, but they were not close enough for me to attend regularly. At first, I thought I was stuck, but recently I was finally able to get in touch with some of the Mennonites in the area. Today was particularly special in that I was able to visit one of the Mennonite churches.

At first, I thought that I would not be able to visit because of my limited access to transportation, but then I started talking to one of the members of the church. First, they got me in touch with some Mennonites who are operating closer to me than I thought, and I have made plans to work with them in the near future. I still, however, wanted to visit a Mennonite church beforehand. I have heard a stereotype that Mennonites are supposed to be hospitable people. Well in this case, the stereotype proved correct, because my friend offered to take me to visit his church, even though it would mean an hour drive. So, we arranged for me to visit. (more…)

More with Much Less: An Anorexic’s Guide to Mennonite Cooking

Since becoming Mennonite, I have thought more about the ethics of consumption than I had previously as a generically evangelical Christian. I have been challenged to analyze the impact of how I spend my money (and how much I spend), where I shop for clothes, what food I eat, etc. I imagine that–like me–many Mennonites (and other Anabaptists and fellow Christians) had these issues brought to their attention through such classics as Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger or Doris Janzen Longacre’s More with Less cookbook. While I have found the Mennonite emphasis on simplicity to be one of its more attractive (albeit challenging) features, it wasn’t until I met my anorexic friend, Michelle, at our local Mennonite church that I saw the potentially damaging effects this teaching could have on those who already struggle with food-related issues. For those interesting in thinking through these difficult questions, I commend to you Michelle’s new blog, More with Much Less: An Anorexic’s Guide to Mennonite Cooking. In the meantime, here’s hoping that she’ll invite me over for some of Janzen Longacre’s recipes!

Beware of the Ministry-Industrial Complex

Occasionally, I end up going to one of those “Christian” stores, or I get some sort of advertisement from them. Where I live, they are called “Family Christian Stores” with an emphasis on the family part. In other parts of the country, such stores also exist, but with different names. We have all been to those kinds of places. When I was an evangelical, that was where you went to get a Bible or some accessory for it, but I still occasionally end up going there for one reason or another. These stores have books by Sarah Palin and Joel Osteen, and entire walls devoted to American flags and New International Versions. We all know the type.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an advertisement catalog from one of those stores, and for some reason I looked through it. First, there was a bunch of customized Bibles. Sort of like some sort of collector’s item, there was a bunch of needless varieties of Bibles for purchasing. I always see this whenever I go to any bookstore – people treating the Bible like some sort of fashion statement. What really annoyed me was when I saw this. They have this line of patriotic clothing, but it is not just patriotic. They mix Christianity into their patriotism in an amazing way. They even have a “Jesus Saves” shirt stylized to read “JesUSAves.” They literally made Jesus an American and linked Christian salvation to Americanism. They are mixing Christianity, capitalism, and the American state into one single chimera. Now, this is not new. I have known that they were doing this for a long time, but this example proved to be the ideal opportunity to bring up the issue. (more…)

Grafting streams: from Church of Christ to Anabaptist

I grew up in Church of Christ, a branch of the Stone/Campbell movement (along with the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ with the Church of Christ being the most conservative). If you think of them as Southern Baptists without a formal denomination structure or musical instruments in worship, you would have a fair approximation. I grew up conflating Christianity with America, the Republican Party (particularly the Libertarian wing) and the military.

Among the strengths of the church were the desire to do the will of God, a strong theology of the priesthood of all (unfortunately just male) adult believers, and the willingness to be counter-cultural. They are officially non-creedal, but they have collected a set of traditions, especially of which parts of scripture are enshrined and which are explained away that can be at least as powerful as any written creed. (more…)

Becoming Franciscan

When my Christian faith first began to radicalize, I became very interested in the Franciscan tradition. The advocacy for radical discipleship, peace, and social and environmental justice that is associated with the ministry of Francis of Assisi naturally appealed to me. At first, I did as many do, and associated the Franciscan tradition with Roman Catholicism, but as I studied more, I found that the Franciscan movement is actually surprisingly diverse.

Back when Francis first started out, there were already a few different sects that identified with his movement, and some were so radical that they were even expelled as heretics. To be honest, I am surprised that Francis was not expelled as a heretic, like so many similar figures were. Even today, there are multiple Franciscan orders in the Roman Catholic Church, and there are numerous Anglican, Lutheran, Old Catholic, and ecumenical Franciscan orders. When I first started investigating the Franciscan tradition, and considered joining it, it was the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans that appealed to me. I actually planned on joining this order. I had spoken with one of their members about it, and even had the application ready to send in, but other events in my life caused me to put that on hold. I started to study other radical traditions, such as the Anabaptists, instead.

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Community and Tradition

I was not raised in the Christian religion. Like many from the First World, I was raised in a Christian culture, but I was not raised in the church or with a knowledge of the Christian religion. I spent most of my childhood as an agnostic with some Buddhist flavor, and when I was exposed to the Bible, it was through a children’s storybook. As a result, I associated the Bible with fairy tales. This would eventually come to change as I felt the desire to actually study religion. Part of it due to my brother’s influence.

My brother was like me. He was not raised in Christianity, but later converted to it as a teenager. He originally came to Christ through the Pentecostals, then he became an Evangelical. It was when he was attending an Evangelical Free church that I first came to truly appreciate Christianity again. It was also during this time that I got my first Bible, which was the New Living Translation. I did not believe in Christianity during this time, but it was something interesting to study and do on the weekends.

One thing that I learned from Evangelical Protestantism was that everything is personal and private. We are supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. We are supposed to personally convert to Christianity, and salvation was all about personal redemption from sin and death. Even the Bible was to be read and interpreted privately. Even in economics, Evangelicals tend to stress capitalism and enterprise over community and charity. Then, I began to study Catholic theology, and I started to use a New American Bible.

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Changing the World Inside of Us: Undoing Sexism among the Mennonites

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crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

It was five years ago in May 2008 when the Mennonite bishops of Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference finally allowed minsterial credentialing of women in their churches. Notably, they stipulated that women were still not allowed to become bishops.

I followed this story closely because I grew up in the Lancaster Conference until I was 13. I watched the damaging impact the anti-women culture had on my mother when she became Sunday school superintendent in the church where I grew up. Shortly after my grandmother’s brother left the church as a result of my mother’s new role, my grandmother came to visit. I’ll never forget listening to my mother tearfully explaining to my grandmother why she’d taken on the role. "No one else wanted to do it," she explained. She had hoped that the male leaders in the church would back her up, but they did not. They were both crying by the end of the conversation.

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Stories Long Untold: The Yuckiness of the Cross and Sexualized Violence

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As I attempt to focus on the death of Jesus today, on Good Friday, I find it difficult. I’d rather check Facebook, read a magazine or stare out the window. Tonight there’s a church service that I’ll go to, but for now the ugly reality of death and violence feels far away.

What happens if I look more closely at that aversion: that sense of yuckiness? Recently, Rachel Halder of Our Stories Untold, shared with me a story that got me thinking about this in a different way. Rachel is a survivor of sexual abuse who has become an speaker and organizer around the issue of sexualized violence within the Mennonite Church in the U.S. She shared this story about an experience working with women in a Mennonite related project:

I brought up the fact that we needed to collect stories of women who have been abused. Again, as they always are, people were very hesitant about this. They were (perhaps rightfully?) worried that older women in the church would be turned off by overt language about abuse and they wouldn’t be willing to talk about any of their stories because of that "yucky" topic.

I too often find myself avoiding the topic of rape, sexualized violence or sexual abuse. These are topics that are extremely uncomfortable. I know they are important, but I’d rather let someone else talk about them. And this is where the yuckiness of the cross challenges me. In Philippians 2:7-8, we read that Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."

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Reconstitution Not Reform

The original Anabaptists’ intention was to attend to their Lord and their God’s will in a manner that was satisfying. However, there was an accompanying goal that is seamlessly interconnected with the initial one. This objective was to reconstitute the ekklesia in the pattern of the archetypical first century apostolic assembly. To reconstitute something is “to constitute again or anew; especially…to restore to a former condition” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. According to The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology the Anabaptists “saw the church as “fallen” and therefore beyond mere reform, and called for its reconstitution along New Testament lines” (70).

Roger Olson goes into greater detail regarding this objective in The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform when he explains that the Anabaptists were more protestant than Protestants in the sense that the Anabaptists:

“protested what they saw as halfway measures taken by Luther and the other magisterial Reformers in purifying the church of Roman Catholic elements. Their ideal was to restore the New Testament church as a persecuted remnant as it was in the Roman Empire before Constantine. To them, the magisterial Reformers were all stuck in Constantinianism and Augustinianism. These were the two main diseases of medieval Christianity that the radical Reformers wished to eradicate from their own independent and autonomous congregations, if not from Christianity itself” (415).

The Protestant Reformers desired to reform the Church, according to the above-mentioned dictionary to reform means “to put or change into an improved form or condition”. It also means, “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses” and finally “to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action”.

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The Appeal of Anabaptism Today

When I was a small child, I had my exposures to Christianity. At the time, my family forced me to attend a Presbyterian church, and I was even forced to be baptized in that church. Eventually, my family stopped attending church altogether, and I was left with a perception of Christianity that was seriously flawed, and very negative. When I stopped going to church in my early childhood, I did not understand the Bible, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the Apostles Creed, and so many other parts of the Christian faith. For my family and I, Christianity was essentially a cultural gathering rather than the Way. For much of my childhood after this, I stayed away from Christianity, especially the Mainline churches that I had negatively experienced as a child. It was not until a few years later that I would begin going to church again.

Not long after my older brother had converted to Christianity through the Pentecostals, he had persuaded me to go to church with him. I did not believe in it, but I respected the teachings of Jesus and the community, so I gave it a try. The church that we attended was an Evangelical Free church (which really appealed to me since they only baptized those who voluntarily chose Christ). Despite the wonderful, lively way of doing church, the Evangelical faith that I was being exposed to was only a facade. On the surface, they appeared to be non-hierarchical and modern, but just beneath the surface was Christendom. Behind the rock bands and charisma was the backing of coercive missionaries, Republican politicians, and war. I had to leave. (more…)

Theology of Christendom

Anabaptism, to me, is one of the few beacons of hope that Christianity can still be relevant and authentic. Anabaptism is one of the few strains of Christianity that has not been completely co-opted. However, I still find myself in an awkward place that makes it somewhat problematic for me to call myself an Anabaptist openly.

First of all, I think that I am more than just an Anabaptist. Yes, I believe in the priesthood of all believers, voluntary believers baptism, the centrality of Christ, and I love the first few generations of Anabaptists, but I also love the Diggers, Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, modern progressives, and so many other groups. I could be defined as an Anabaptist, but then there is also a lot more to it that I love. The fundamental difference between these other radical groups and the generic Anabaptist today seems to be one of theology. (more…)