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Arguing our way toward a storm-worthy moral canopy

1.11. 2017 Written By: Sara Wenger Shenk 336 Times read

Sara Wenger Shenk is President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. 

On a mostly sunny afternoon soon after moving to Indiana, with only possible thunderstorms predicted, my husband, Gerald, and I were biking through flat farm fields when a tornado siren blast reached us eight miles out of town. With no shelter nearby, we hightailed it back. Soon gale-force horizontal winds and rain forced us to abandon our bicycles. Under the onslaught, we scurried down a bank to crouch under small trees. As lightning flashed, feeling completely vulnerable to the ferocious storm, I began to cross myself in prayer. Mercifully the storm abated, and we made it home — muddied, drenched to the bone, and a little wiser to the ways of Indiana weather.

Shelter from the storm

Elemental forces have threatened human beings in every age. No human community has survived without finding or constructing shelter from the elements. This is true both physically and spiritually. Many of us would agree that social, religious and political forces are currently creating a dangerous confluence of storm conditions. What we need as Anabaptist communities is a storm-worthy moral canopy under which we can stand together, even with our differences.

A moral canopy

I have long appreciated philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition for tradition as a historically extended, socially embodied argument about how best to interpret and apply the formative text(s) of a particular community. When understood this way, tradition — or (to use my present analogy) the moral canopy that defines our life together — isn’t a deposit of narratives and practices, but a continuous embodied argument about how we can live together with ethical integrity — how we can best communally embody the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The word “argument” often connotes contentious, angry word fights. I grew up in a large family. When my siblings and I were teenagers, our arguments were often quite mean. As we matured, our arguments became the testing ground, under the strong canopy of familial loyalty and love, to solve problems and move toward decisions despite our different perspectives.

A historically extended, socially embodied argument gave rise to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and to Mennonite World Conference’s Shared Convictions. These statements grew out of animated grassroots, congregational and academic argumentation about how to best interpret and apply the narratives of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Confessions, convictions and statements of belief aren’t meant to call a halt to ongoing debates. When not reduced to one or another article, they provide a canopy under which our arguments can meaningfully continue as we reference new data, urgent needs and hard-won wisdom.

When real people are at risk of deportation and are experiencing ostracism, incarceration and abuse, our confessions and convictions provide a context for seriously wrestling with how to maintain unity within the bond of peace, even as we search out alternative ways to justly and faithfully respond. When there are no more shared confessions or convictions worth arguing about, our faith community might as well be dead.

Ripping of the canopy

This week I will serve on a panel at the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) with Stanley Hauerwas, Karen Guth and Traci West to reflect on professional and institutional responses to the sordid sexual legacy of John Howard Yoder, a former professor of theology at AMBS. The SCE annual meeting overall is entitled: “Structural Evil, Individual Harm and Personal Responsibility.” Yoder was a former president of the society and influenced the peace ethics of many participants, which prompts this year’s stated intent to reflect self-critically on issues of sexual violence, professional ethics and the problem of complicity.

When leaders and those we trust abuse power and harm vulnerable persons, they badly damage the moral canopy of a faith community. As part of reweaving or repairing a canopy, those of us on whose watch these horrendous violations occur must do what we can to provide a transparent, truthful account of what happened. We must say clearly that what happened should never have happened and that we are sorry for what we did or didn’t do that allowed persons to be harmed. The canopy can only begin to be painstakingly patched or restored when leaders and others involved say publicly and wholeheartedly that what happened was horribly wrong and a violation of our most cherished confessions and convictions.

Arguments worth having as we weave a storm-worthy moral canopy

At the beginning of a new year, I challenge those of us at AMBS and in the church at large to engender the respectful and urgent arguments needed to weave resilient strands into what may otherwise become a threadbare and frayed moral canopy. I offer only three (of many) arguments I hope we will actively engage:

  • On matters of justice, we need many more socially embodied enactments about how to move with radical Jesus-like love against bullying and hatred in any form. For predominantly white communities, this will mean moving out of our comfort zone to actively engage with persons of color to learn from and work together on behalf of those at risk in our communities. Sometimes this may involve wholehearted arguments to move toward deeper trust and collaboration.
  • On matters of sexuality, we are painfully divided over the meaning of “consent” as the basis for sexual intimacy, how to appropriately confront sexual abuse, and whether or not to bless same-sex relationships. Our preoccupation with these divisive issues has led, in my view, to the neglect of a morally defining feature of healthy communities: community-forged marital covenants. We need to talk (and yes, argue) more about the enduring beauty and power of marriage covenants and how they relate to the health of families and children.
  • On matters of climate change that pose an enormous threat to the viability of our entire planet, we need many more arguments about how best to integrate science and faith to care for our local watershed, live out our love for the land and define what our responsibility is to care for the fellow creatures and plants with which our Creator so lavishly blessed the Earth.

What we need is a storm-worthy moral canopy to provide Mennonite and other faith communities with the resilience needed not only to withstand the onslaught of the storm, but also to provide compassionate, just leadership on behalf of those most at risk. Such a canopy can only be woven of hard-won convictions, usually forged in crucibles of suffering and tested with strenuous, respectful and socially embodied argumentation until proven storm-worthy — and worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This post originally ran on the Practicing Reconciliation blog of AMBS. This “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.

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