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Anabaptist Ghosts, Part 1: Social advocacy and confrontation

5.9. 2011 Posted By: Tim Nafziger 256 Times read

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.

Here is part 2: Anabaptist Ghosts, part 2: Dialogue and Conciliation

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One Response to “Anabaptist Ghosts, Part 1: Social advocacy and confrontation”

  1. Tim Nafziger says:

    Comments from the original post:

    • Posted by gundyj at Monday, May 09, 2011 at 11:15 AM

      Thanks and amen, Tim. Like you and many others, I’m deeply disappointed in the recent actions of church leaders. The quote from MLK about his disappointment with “white moderates” who are more concerned about surface calm than about justice is especially apt.

    • Posted by lukedy at Monday, May 09, 2011 at 12:24 PM

      As always, Tim, this is very well said. I agree with gundyj about how relevant the statement of Dr. King is to Ervin’s handling of Pink Menno and “activism” within MC USA. I still strongly believe that MC USA can find a creative third way forward, but it will take visionary leadership and a willingness to confront our differences. Will the straight, white moderate raise his/her voice to support the marginalized? And not just LGBTQ marginalized, but the immigrant marginalized and the racially marginalized and those marginalized due to poverty….

    • Posted by Debra Hope at Monday, May 09, 2011 at 01:28 PM

      Yes, this straight white used to be Mennonite will raise her voice (as she has done all her life) to support the marginalized. Great piece, Tim. You give me hope for the young ‘uns.

    • Posted by rkmacmaster at Monday, May 09, 2011 at 01:44 PM

      Tim rightly goes beyond the specific context of Columbus 2009. What is truly shocking about Ervin’s comment is his dismissive attitude towards peace and justice advocacy as somehow peripheral to the real work of the church! Tim brings us back to reality: that this is an essential part of our commitment to following Jesus in The Way.

    • Posted by kathleentemple at Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 06:51 AM

      Thanks very much for your great work on this, Tim!

    • Posted by joelipj at Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:53 AM

      Let’s also keep in mind that Pink Mennos’ primary tactics included singing hymns of the church and wearing pink. Hardly radical confrontation, but radical in the sense of being unapologetially present and visible, with a refreshingly joyful tone.
      Joel M.

    • Posted by aaron.kauffman at Friday, May 13, 2011 at 10:57 AM

      I admire the depth of conviction that you evince in this piece, Tim. In a culture (and church) that is increasingly relativistic, this is refreshing. I also appreciate your effort to name the broader context of Isaiah 56:7, the verse Jesus quotes in his prophetic act of cleansing the Temple. Many biblical scholars would agree that we do well to explore the context of OT quotes used in the NT to gain a clearer sense of what the NT writers were trying to communicate.

      But I also have some concerns about what you have written. I fear that the position you espouse invites little opportunity for dialogue since you set yourself up as the normative representation of Jesus, Blaurock and King. You risk cutting yourself off from any word of wisdom that other parts of the Body of Christ might have to offer. Since we are not Jesus, it seems crucially important to listen to others who recognize him as Lord and seek to follow him faithfully. Other believers may see something we have missed. Are you and Pink Mennos willing to listen to those who disagree with you, in particular, the very people you advocate for who happen to have a different perspective than yours? Where is there room for critique and push back?

      I also wonder whether you do justice to the biblical witness about Jesus. Surely prophetic witness is an integral part of what Jesus did and calls his followers to do. But to say that social advocacy and confrontation are “at the heart of the gospel” can be misleading. The gospel is the whole story of Jesus Christ. Whenever we name any of our deep passions and commitments as being at “the heart of the gospel,” we run the risk of abstracting them from the Jesus story, distorting that story to get it to say whatever we want it to.

      When we read the whole story of Jesus, not just one isolated (but important) incident, we discover that he is both radically hospitable AND radically demanding, challenging both systemic and personal sin alike. He flings wide the gates of the kingdom to welcome everyone, and at the same time he calls everyone to repent, die to themselves, and follow him. Reducing the Jesus story to a predetermined agenda turns it into autobiography, not the good news that can set us free. In other words, my concern is that you seem to read Jesus (not to mention Blaurock and King) to reinforce your prior commitments, rather than letting Jesus set the agenda and perhaps redefine your cause. Of course we all read scripture with our own set of lenses. But isn’t that why we need each other to interpret it faithfully?

    • Posted by hnmiller at Friday, May 13, 2011 at 05:01 PM

      Tim, you (and Joel and others) see this as a justice issue and so you rightly are angry with church leaders silencing protests or advocacy. You’re even quoting MLK at them. But, right or wrong, one can instead see this as a matter of church polity. The sexual expression being advocated is one the church said in 1986-87 and 1995 and 2001 is contrary to the belief and practice of the church. And shouldn’t we have a polity of honoring our teaching position? I know those statements weren’t creeds and shouldn’t be used as clubs. But isn’t it healthy rather than unjust when church leaders let the discernment of the church carry weight? Sure, it’s a judgment call as to the shape that weight should take; folks on all sides will disagree on that. I’m just wanting to give you another way to look at the leaders of your church. You know Ervin as a person, don’t you? His conscience would not allow him to be motivated by injustice or oppression of a minority.
      Harold N Miller

    • Posted by Debra Hope at Friday, May 13, 2011 at 08:21 PM

      Harold, your statement, “But isn’t it healthy rather than unjust when church leaders let the discernment of the church carry weight?” gives me pause. I think a lot of us know that “discernment of the church” was long ago thrown under the bus. “Policy” decisions are made by the powers that be, discussed barely, quickly and only by certified delegates and then quickly rubber stamped. I think if you go back and read Tim’s column, you’ll discover that he is writing about Ervin’s flippant dismissal of “techniques of social advocacy and confrontation.” The outrage is about Ervin’s comment, not about the range of human sexuality and Ervin’s fear of how that may “haunt” the church.

    • Posted by hnmiller at Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 09:04 AM

      Debra,
      None of the leaders in the Mennonite Church would dismiss the “techniques of social advocacy and confrontation.” But surely all of us would acknowledge that every good thing can be used in a way that causes harm.
      And how do we decide when something is harmful? Most of us value the discernment of the church as we gather around the Scriptures in the Spirit of Christ; it’s very imperfect but it’s all we’ve got. Especially when that discernment comes at the end of multi-year processes involving dialogue and input at congregational, conference and denominational levels, as happened in those statements from 1986-87 and 1995 and 2001.
      Harold Miller

    • Posted by mdanner at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 05:09 PM

      If I’m not mistaken, Ervin has his PhD in rhetoric. He knows that words have meaning and power. When he says that social advocacy and confrontation came back to “haunt our church’s most visible gathering” in the form of Pink Mennos, he is clearly tipping his hand. Perhaps he was misquoted. Perhaps Ervin is chuckling about how social advocacy and confrontation are more comfortable when pointed away from us, not towards us. But, he does make a point. Non-violent direction action is powerful. Pink Mennos definitely put gay inclusion back on the church’s agenda. Add the issues surrounding Randall Spaulding and Pastor Harader from WDC, and we are back in the thick of it concerning gay marriage, gay inclusion and gay ordination.

      From the perspective of Ervin, perhaps “haunt” is the word that best fits how he is feeling right about now! An issue he thought was dead is alive and well and present!

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