Jon Carlson serves as lead pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, Pennsylvania, and assistant moderator of Atlantic Coast Conference. He and his wife, […]
This piece grew out of a request for counsel from Mountain States Mennonite Conference as they considered the request to ordain a pastor in a same-sex relationship. On Dec. 11, Theda Good was ordained at First Mennonite Church in Denver. John Paul Lederach is professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) and an international peace practitioner. Photo by Larry Bartel, Hesston College.
Your questions [from the MSMC Ministerial Council] have been bumping around in my heart and head for the past few days, and have generated a fair number of reflections and further questions.
Unfortunately, these divisive challenges tend to express themselves in ways that would be hard to describe as loving kindness. Rather they track toward defensiveness, blame, escalating polarization, and at times painful dehumanization, and this is experienced on all sides.
Your questions hold a challenging paradox: The need to make a decision knowing that there is no perfect answer that will attend to the deep feelings on all sides of this issue while showing respect and honor. The reason this becomes such a challenge emerges from the concern and fears that the decision will precipitate further separation and mostly likely, in and of itself, will be experienced as a lack of respect for heartfelt belief and practice on one side or another.
Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe or a perfect decision on matters of deep difference around cherished belief. However, there may be ways to frame, or perhaps re-frame the ideas about respect and honor in terms of how ‘we’ envision and hold our very notion of ‘we,’ which I think is the core dynamic at play. Here I cannot help but offer a few observations.
Our Anabaptist tradition did not equip us with constructive rituals of separation. This may be also true for wider Christianity, but we seem to have had a genius for separating over divergent belief while carrying the trauma of harm we have felt and inflicted as we sought to stay true and pure. This probably constitutes a trans-generational trauma that plays itself out in different ways across our wider church body and in our individual journeys.
A constructive ritual of separation resides in the kind of love that blesses even those who wish you harm, and harder yet, blesses those from your own church family with whom you disagree. These latter tend to be deeper wounds, the ones Zechariah referred to as “wounds suffered in the house of a friend.” We might look to Jacob and Esau, both in the ways they found the face of God in the other they feared and even in their choosing to follow different paths.
This is our challenge: To not lose sight of our humanity wherein the very image of God resides. While painful, a ritual of separation as blessing might suggest a single quality: May the blessed love of God touch your life, shine through you in all you do and with all you meet. Go and be true to the quality of love God has expressed in your life.
I have spent a vocational lifetime trying to develop, design, and facilitate processes for people to find their way through deep division and pain. In this I have found two things. First, we never get a perfect process, there is always more to learn, things we could have done better and things we simply do not control. I think this is particularly true when whole body polity brings together people of deep faith and genuine concern who find they cannot agree on matters they consider fundamental to their faith.
Second, commitment to process must also acquire the wisdom to recognize when more talk will only replicate and potentially embitter the divisions it was designed to ameliorate. Tyranny is a hard word. It essentially means to dominate. We feel trapped by the lack of options. When commitment to process works well, it helps offer clarity of participation, deepening of understanding, potential ways forward, and increased respect for those participating.
When dealing with differences around deep belief and cultural patterns, we find that these rarely lend themselves to a single consensus. At the same time, growth and direction of lived faith requires us to take steps.
So we fall back to common pathways yet another time. We commission a new study, we establish another committee, we propose that we re-listen to what we have already heard, or we bring a new amendment that gets hung up in debate at the annual meeting. Signs that this has gone round enough emerge when the process serves primarily for people to defend more creatively their deeply held convictions, paralyzes the ability of leadership to make decisions and offer directions, and requires endless discussion at the expense of learning our way into practice and polity.
The weight of tyranny usually has subtle forms of fear-primarily around exclusion and feeling judged-though the greatest sign of process tyranny shows itself when the conversation no longer holds the promise of being meaningful to people, nourishes relationships or brings forward shared decisions. When we arrive at a place where commitment to process is experienced by most as unproductive, I think it wise to seek a shift of landscape and vision.
Difficult decisions where beliefs are confronted subtly descend toward the need to defend positions. In Church circles, this seems to play out a bit like biblical verse tennis. The dynamics become very reactive and can easily lose sight of basic humanity and vision.
Instead, taking the advice of Edwin Friedman, people (leaders in particular) should be encouraged to openly share their I have a dream speech. An I have a dream speech in the context of your Council requires each of us to envision and articulate more openly how we would like our local congregation, our wider church, and our society to embody the love of God in our midst. It is not a speech built around what I believe in terms of doctrine and dogma, the citing of 10 verses that indicate my belief is correct, or the right church policy on any given issue. It asks you to imagine how the love of God will be embodied in our relationships.
Making the speech does not mean a decision is made. The key is to create the environment where all of us are encouraged to engage in imagination and the shift toward proactive, inviting conversation that permits us to deepen respect and honor difference.
When process tyranny sets in, we need less formal process with highly charged events and pronouncements and we need smaller commitments that embrace friendship and recreate the promise of meaningful conversation.
This ties into practicing compassion with each other in a context where we essentially face deep differences.
I think we have a deficit of compassion expressed across the current divisions in our church where, quite frankly, we seem to emulate society-wide polarizations.
When I have suggested this in a few contexts I find that people are startled. The proposal simply points to the idea that the purpose of your coffee encounter is informal, not oriented toward convincing each other of your beliefs or a making a decision, and requires a caring and honest relationship. You commit to just be together, to have an everyday conversation, and to bear witness to your lives in friendship.
It’s simple enough, this idea that we can be friends and be different. We do this all the time in Mennonite Central Committee assignments in far off lands. We do it in Mennonite Disaster Service when we show up in places where people are suffering from lost homes due to floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. We do it on our college campuses. We just have not found a way to do it within our local church families and conferences.
We are better at outsourcing compassion than we are at practicing it at home. No formal council, church, or conference decisions or process replaces the need for compassion and friendship. But friendship may contribute to more meaningful large polity process and conversation. Our deficit of compassion requires us to find ways to reignite this simple verb: To befriend.
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