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.

Dylann Roof and the Invitation to Transformation

On June 19, 2015, in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina, members of the families of the shooting victims of Dylann Roof, one by one, addressed Mr. Roof with words, not of reconciliation, but of forgiveness and the invitation to his own transformation.

In the words of Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of the murdered Daniel Simmons:  “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

These were words of deep maturity, of great strength and power of spirit.  These were the words of people who have made the arduous journey of transformation from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life.  They speak volumes to each of us and to our society, a society that more naturally turns to the language of vengeance than to the invitation to transformation.

Transformation is the movement from the lie to the truth.  It involves abandoning the lie of violent protection of the defended self and moves to open and compassionate engagement.  It is an assertive and passionate stance that postures itself in fearless non-defense as it presents its invitation to compassionate connection.

Transformation is all encompassing.  True transformation addresses every corner, every action and interaction of life.  The big transformation reflected in these people’s beautiful statements does not happen without continual loving attention to the mundane.  I want to drive the same streets as these people.  I want to meet them when the clerk cannot solve my problem at the checkout counter, when my computer crashes and the washing machine breaks down.  I want to be them when my neighbor hates cats or believes something not true about me.

Transformation denies nothing.  Rather, it feels all fully, expresses all truly and then makes the choice of non-defensive invitation.  I cannot say this more clearly than to use the words of Nadine Carter, daughter of the slain Ethel Lance: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Transformation is not distracted.  Rather, it is present and engaged.  This is no small thing in contemporary culture, a culture of the numbing distraction of the material packaged in the seductive pill of perpetual media.  The transformed life is practiced and lived in active presence, not in passive distraction.

Transformation addresses the heart, not the periphery of the matter.  Change happens by planting and nurturing the right seeds, not by trying to stick new leaves on old trees.  The courts will perform the duty of public safety by placing necessary physical constraints on Dylann Roof.  And to the extent of the law, they may go beyond that, in expression of the tree of our broader culture, by acting out violent retribution.  Aside from limited safety, nothing changes in this model.  But these profound people, instead, have offered Mr. Roof the seeds of true transformation in the gift of forgiveness, the invitation to repentance (change of heart and mind) and the call to engagement of new life through the path of transformation.

Transformation is for people and affects systems.  It is true that we need systems that reflect transformation.  But systems only reflect the condition of the collective soul.  Our collective soul reflects, increasingly, massive greed masked by perpetual distraction and enforced, ultimately, by violence.  Johnny Appleseed grew apple trees by planting apple seeds.  True transformation of systems happens through the constant invitation to and nurture of individual change.  Dylann Roof, dear friends, has been invited.

Transformation is a choice.  In fact it involves one choice after another, with practice.  Like musicians who have mastered their instrument through years of focused practice, these fine people have achieved mastery of their lives through abandonment of defended ego in favor of compassionate connection and engagement.

Ultimately, transformation is the singular journey of our life.  It is the journey home, the journey from isolated small “s” self to connected capital “S” Self.  It is the journey that transcends suffering and death, that recognizes and clings to the eternal and relinquishes the temporal.

May we each have the courage to engage transformation and practice it with the persistence demonstrated by these amazing people.  May we abandon isolated and defended ego in the embrace of fearless connection.  May we invite others – even those who would kill us in hatred with the hands and feet of fear – may we invite them to join us under the Tree of Life.

© 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.