Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
I joined the Mennonite church as a teenager. Mennonite Church USA as a denomination was still new, and I found it fitting that I was starting my journey as a Mennonite at the same time this denomination was trying to get itself off the ground. I was pretty convinced this denomination was a perfect fit for me, and that Mennonites were taking the call of Jesus seriously, maybe even more seriously than anyone else.
I was in a “Mennonite Honeymoon Stage” for about five years. Then my faith and views began to change to incorporate the world around me, and my Mennonite faith remained “stuck.” The Mennonite faith was not as inclusive as I thought it was. I was an “outsider” with my brown-ish skin and different last name; my young friends felt they had no voice; peace and justice was slowly becoming seldom discussed; and more often than not I started to hear about “right living.” I was all about “right living,” until I learned it left out many people I loved, including myself. “Right living” excluded my LGBTQ friends. “Right living” excluded me, as a single, childless person. “Right living” was a barrier that kept so many earnest, God-loving, liberation-seeking folks away from this new denomination.
While I respect Ryan Ahlgrim’s 34 years of experience as a pastor and a Mennonite, I have a different perspective regarding what makes the question of LGBTQ inclusion so divisive in MC USA. I don’t believe this is limited to Mennonites. I have clergy friends of other denominations that face the same challenges in their context that MC USA is facing. Maybe the divisiveness of the LGBTQ inclusion conversation has less to do with mergers, polities and “rootedness,” and more to do with deep, embedded privilege and narrative dominance in a world of otherness and difference.
In the book of Acts, an errant jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” They replied that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you and your household will be saved. This belief in the resurrected Christ is at the heart of the Gospel message, and at the heart of the message of the Apostles. It is the same message I heard as a teenager joining the Mennonite church. I think we have strayed from this message of inclusion, and if I had to boil it down to only three reasons (which I will for brevity’s sake), this is what I believe to be at the crux of the issue:
1. We like limiting salvation. This is human nature. If God loves everyone, then is there less “God” for me? Don’t I get “more” God because of my “right living?” I’ve been following Christ my whole life and here comes some person who, according to me, doesn’t live a Godly life, and they expect to get the same rights and privileges as I have? Yes, they are expecting that, and yes, they do deserve it. More of God’s love for everyone does not mean less of God’s love for you. Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Workers that a landowner went out and hired people to work in his vineyard. He hired people at various points in the day, and at 5 p.m. he found people who still hadn’t been hired. They were willing to work, but had thus far been excluded. The landowner lets them work, and at the end of the day pays them all a denarius, as was promised. The “early in the day” workers balk at this, saying that those who have only worked an hour shouldn’t deserve the same amount of money. The landowner tells them, “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15) I think we are indeed envious because God is generous. Those who we think are undeserving are actually just as deserving as anybody else.
2. We are afraid of what we don’t know. The root of all “phobia,” be that homophobia, xenophobia, racism and bigotry, comes from fear of the unknown. People who love someone of the same gender, who don’t identify with any gender, people who don’t worship in the ways we do, people who don’t look like we do, and people who have customs and cultures different from us are scary because the dominant culture tells us we should be scared. Jesus’ example and teaching show that crossing barriers in the name of love is at the heart of the Christian message. We are not given a spirit of fear, as 2 Timonthy 1:7 states, but “but of power, love and a sound mind.”
3. We don’t trust God to do God’s work in the world. When the question of LGBTQ inclusion arises, we are certain God cannot work through or be dwelling in “those” people because of “sin,” or some other such language that has been constructed to keep queer folk “in their place” and out of the life of the church. This same rhetoric was used against people of color (think Curse of Ham in Genesis 9:20-27) and in the scriptures Ahlgrim mentioned regarding maintaining slavery. By deciding ourselves who’s “in” and who’s “out,” are we allowing God to work in God’s unexpected ways? Or are we hindering God, placing limits on what God can and cannot do, who God should and should not accept?
Borders, boundaries, walls and barriers made by humankind have no place in the Kingdom of God. By drawing dividing lines – be it lines in regard to sexuality, race, gender, socio-economic status or ability – we are taking on the role of our Creator, a Creator who explicitly tells us through Jesus that whosoever believes in him shall not die, but have everlasting life.
LGBTQ folks are not here to divide the church. LGBTQ folks are coming to take part in the Kingdom that has been intended for all of us. In a world that threatens walls and borders, maybe as a denomination we should focus on being the openers of doors to New Life.
Joanne Gallardo is pastor of faith formation at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana.
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