Mennonites, Sexuality and the Abuse of Scripture

Delegates to the Mennonite Church USA convention this week passed three resolutions regarding human sexuality.  The first, supported by more than two-thirds of those gathered, affirmed a stance of forbearance, or tolerance, for practices in the church that reflect deeply held beliefs of many, but are in direct conflict with the one man/one woman marriage clause of the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective.  The second resolution, in direct contradiction of the spirit of the first and passed by just over a majority, reaffirmed the confession as it stands and tabled consideration of changes in confession language for a period of four years.  The third resolution named and repented a generation of brushing over the sexual abuse perpetrated by a prominent Mennonite theologian, bringing finally to full light an exceedingly slow and painful journey for the victims who steadfastly refused the darkness.

Let me be perfectly clear.  Thousands of us in the Mennonite Church are firm in our stance in support of inclusion and broken-hearted by what is at best an extension of tenuous tolerance by the church.  And we are dismayed in our souls by the grinding inertia of a body of believers whose roots are deep in radical transformation of society and the church.  Somehow we keep missing trains that have long ago left the station.  We arrive at what might have been prophetic voice a generation late, the potential public witness having slipped through our fingers, the sands of dynamic time in a heap of entropy on an increasingly empty platform.

A people originally martyred for their courageous stance against a church lost in the abuses of control and power have grown up and become the dragon they once dared to face.   The most hopeful events of the convention took place in the heartrending songs of solidarity sung with brave and gentle protesters outside the doors of the official gatherings.  And the pervasive sense of a meagerly attended convention was one of discouragement and weariness under a thin and tattered veil of praise band rah-rah.

Sixteen hundred years ago the intended bride of Christ eloped with the government of Rome at the altar of Augustine.  Despite the various reforms and the occasional bright spots of true social transformation initiated and carried forward by the prophetic few, we have dumbed ourselves down almost every day since.  Our view has been one of an irretrievably fallen creation, connected to its bloodthirsty author by a closed canon of scripture read through the lens of violent sacrifice.  We choose the easy path of institutional judgment and control, expressed through burdens of guilt, alleviated through sacraments meted by the priestly caste to masses numbed out by empty and mindless repetition of the sweet name of Jesus.  In this we mock the very one who died inviting each so powerfully to freedom from political, social and religious oppression.

We need an entirely new and far more expansive faith and view of scripture, a view that sees us unequivocally created in the image, enlivened by the very breath of God – creatures with the gift of choice tooled into our minds and the Word of Love written on our hearts.

Scripture, dear friends, was written for people and by people.  It is the human record of our slow waking to our connection and oneness with our Divine Creator.  It is useful.  It is not finished.  You, and your Aunt Susie, too, were granted every gift of Adam, of Rahab, Ruth and Jesus, the one who over and over called us brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of God.  We just will have none of it.

True scripture explodes outside the cover of any book.  It is never, never, never beaten into swords to wear down and crush the weary.  It is the Word of Love, written for all time on the walls of our hearts, expressed in every breath of creation.  And when we read that Word in the depth of our spirit, we know that we are one – not just in relationship with each other but truly one.  And when we trust and yield to it, we celebrate and welcome the other, for they are us.

Sexuality through the lens of that faith, that scripture, looks entirely different.  It is the gift of deep beauty, the flowering of our embodiment.  Each bloom is lovely.  The only possible profanity is the wanton destruction of our own bloom or that of another through acts of disrespect, shame and abuse.

Our twisted view and discomfort with sexuality lie largely at the feet of Augustine, who projected his own distraught struggle with and rejection of God’s good gift so effectively and pervasively, now for more than a millennium and one half, onto the life of the church.  It fits so neatly with institutional control and power, and with our own refusal to accept the goodness of creation in the sexuality of every living being.  We are complicit in our abdication of freedom in favor of the sword of guilt and shame, granted freely to the hand of our ready institutions.

Time is long past to stop bashing each other with a wearied and sorely abused book, squandering the opportunity for our own salvation, freedom and relevant public witness.  The Word of Love is profoundly simple.  And its beauty is expressed with glory in the flower of our sexuality.  We must embrace, nurture and celebrate this beautiful gift, with deep respect and welcome for all.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype. Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

Stand Clear of the Closing Dogma

For five years in the 1980’s, I had the wonderful privilege of working for New York University, in the heart of Greenwich Village.  I commuted by train, the first two years by subway and the last three by a combination of commuter railroad and the PATH tubes under the Hudson River.

Unlike the automated trains I took for years at Denver International Airport, these trains had human operators, accelerating, braking and using their own voices to announce station stops and safety messages.  The standard warning on the NY Subway system before departure was, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”  One memorable operator had a deep, slow, ominous and very serious voice, a real attention getter.  “Stand  Clear  of  the  Closing  Doors.”  Never lost a passenger, that one.

And so, in my deepest, most serious and reverential voice, I implore you, “Stand clear of the closing dogma.”  If you must believe any hard and fast set of words, believe the words silent, open and empty.  I mean it.  Take it all and take it all in.  And then throw on that grain of salt.

Every message out there since the beginning of time has contained the whole truth.  It’s just been wrapped up in limited human words and experience.  The stories unfold and circle around, carrying the cloak of their own times and the long since desiccated husks of the messengers who told the tales.

We turn these words and tales into idols when we insist that they are carved in stone, unchanging, hard and fast rules for life and salvation.  “Dogmattit!  Do it this way or go to hell.  Go directly to hell.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200!”

My poor Mennonite Church USA is going through the throws of dogmattit right now, with a herd of selective literalist thumpers holding up their marble idols, their rock hard billy-clubs insisting that, “Dogmattit, the divine billy-club says you can only have sex this way, under these circumstances, with one individual from the opposite sex and only for procreation, to boot.  Dogmattit!”

“Dogmat mutual respect or right relationship.  Dogmat the way you were created and the one you love.  Dogmat you both.  Dogmat all’a’y’all.  Dogmat you straight to hell!  And we love you.  We just can’t abide that you don’t kiss our holy billy-club.”

“We stand firm at the holy doors, dogmat billy-club in hand.  Stay out, you that were made to tickle in the wrong place.  Stay out, the one who would give their life and lifetime to you.  Stay out ‘r I’ll club you and all the other vermin that snuck in here when I wasn’t lookin’!  And don’t forget I love ya.’  And God does, too, dogmattit!  Just can’t abide your low down ways.  And by the way, I’m a pacifist, just like Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong.”

Ah, the painters, poets, songwriters and novelists get it right.  We accept and appreciate the changing styles and times when it comes to art.  If only all the religions of the world could do the same with their scriptures.  Take a step back.  See the line, the beauty, the color.  Soak up the kindness and truth in the whole picture, the whole story.  Let it fill your heart and feed your soul.

Make no mistake.  We need to learn the rules and ropes.  We need grammar and syntax.  We need technique, tools and methods.  It is good to teach our children.  But as we master our trade, our art form, we grow when we see and paint something entirely new – something entirely new that will become old and tested in tireless time.  And we need to give it to the world, the gift of picture and story that will be viewed and heard and felt, so long as its communally acclaimed quality speaks a growing, evolving, universal truth.

Scriptures are stories and pictures, dear friends, stories and pictures to show and tell under the Tree of Life.  The ones who see and hear have hearts of flesh and not of stone, hearts that beat in relationship and compassion.  Hearts that grow and evolve and create, radiating kindness and beauty and welcome.  Dogmattit!  Tell me a story.  Sing me a song. Show me a picture.  And please, put down that billy-club.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Sex and the City of God

My Mennonite denomination (Mennonite Church USA) finally seems near the point of over-determination on issues of human sexuality.  That is to say, the tipping point, however long and tortuous the path, seems imminent on elevating the gospel message of loving relationship over the ancient purity codes around human sexual preference and practices.  Recalling the early church’s angst over circumcision, I find it interesting that two millennia down the road, the hottest topic in the church still revolves around what happens with men’s penises.  At least today vaginas are on the table, as well.  We can be grateful for small steps.

Sexuality is powerful.  Where there is power, there is danger of abuse.  Perhaps a good measure of the power of sexuality is the immense catalog of abuses it has accumulated over the millennia.  The major sections of the book would include slavery, domination, profiteering and the threats of damnation used to perpetuate religious institutions.

Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil.  It just is.  And the biblical lens on sexuality reflects this.  We each have power – whether sexual, monetary or otherwise – in various measures.  The primary tasks – and the biblical admonition – in our connection to power are to submit it in relationship and to use it in the service of justice.

For Christians, perhaps the most instructive biblical lessons on sexuality and power are in Matthew’s less than subtle but almost completely ignored inclusion of four women, all notably not Israelite, in his genealogy of Jesus.

The first among them is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Tamar seduced Judah and bore his son in order to shame him into honoring his obligations to care for family, whether Hebrew or other.  When all else failed, she effectively used sexual power in the service of justice.

The second is Rahab, the Canaanite woman who ran a house of prostitution on the walls of Jericho.  It is interesting that Joshua and his band of spies stayed with her and was protected by her on that holiest of land grabs, the retaking of the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt.  Rahab apparently married one of the troops and was elevated to the status of a progenitor of the Christ, despite the fact that the ancient world thought women played only the role of incubator in the process of procreation.  Sexual power, here, was turned to relationship.

The third is Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of the Hebrew Naomi.  Ruth, with the direction and support of her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz, effectively claiming a rightful inheritance and protection for these socially vulnerable women.  Ruth was the grandmother of King David.  Sexual power, here, was used to secure protection.

And finally, there is Bathsheba, the Hittite who withstood the murder of her husband and the uncontrolled sexual urges of King David, becoming the mother of Solomon in the royal line of the (biblically) chosen people.  In an act of redemption and justice, Bathsheba is elevated, at least in Matthew’s genealogy, to the position of matriarch in the messianic line.

People point to the story of Sodom to illustrate divine hatred of homosexuality, if not just sexuality in general.  What was hateful in Sodom was the wanton pursuit of sexual satisfaction without regard to the safety and welfare of the other, yet alone any thought of relationship.  The men at Lot’s door would not be satisfied without violent and abusive sex.  And the worst among them was Lot, who was ready to submit his own daughter to rape and murder in order to save his own sorry self.  That city burned itself down with self-centered violence.

The point of these tales is not that God (as the Bible names and perceives Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source) somehow had a negative view of homosexuality (in the case of Sodom) or on sexuality as a force in human relationships.  Rather, it is that sexuality was recognized as powerful.  Like all biblical stories of power, the consistent message is that it is used appropriately for relationship and for justice, and never for violence, greed or anything at the expense of others.

Under the Tree of Life, sexuality is a thing of astounding beauty, magnified in relationship.  It is, in the words of Jackson Browne (“Looking East”), “the power of a sunrise, the power of a prayer released.”

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we become lost in rules, social norms and false morality that have everything to do with the abuse of power and nothing to do with beauty, relationship or justice.  Our sexuality, when we own and celebrate it in relationship, travels with us as a lovely companion – strong, true, beautiful and useful – on our journey to the Tree of Life, at the center of the metaphorical city of God.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please mention the source.