The Way Through
I was talking recently with a friend about the upcoming Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Saskatoon that I will be departing for tomorrow morning. Like many denominations, ours is wrestling with some familiar trends (aging, shrinking congregations and the institutional challenges that go along with this) and predictable issues (same-sex marriage, how to respond to our nation’s history of colonial attitudes and actions towards indigenous people, among others). And, like many (all?) denominations who live and move in the twenty-first century western world, we do not agree on how best to negotiate these trends and issues. On top of all this, our polity is of a radically congregational nature, so every major decision comes with years of consultation and clarification and feedback and response. And, at the end of all that, we usually come to the unremarkable conclusion that—surprise!—we have a wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues.
“Do you see a way through all this?” my friend asked, after we had rehearsed the above scenario. My honest answer was, “No, I don’t.” I can’t imagine us all coming together from our disparate perspectives and diverse contexts and suddenly all agreeing on what the Bible “really” says about sexuality or about how we’re supposed to interpret it. I can’t imagine us all coming together and having this collective blinding moment of insight whereby the way forward for the shape of our institutional structures will become crystal clear. I can’t imagine us all being of one mind when it comes to our collective response to our indigenous neighbours or to the Israel/Palestine conflict or to the best approach to evangelism or whatever. I’ve been to enough of these kinds of events to know that people tend to come armed with their positions on this or that issue, determined to make sure their voice is heard. Is there genuine dialogue at these events that is meaningful and productive? Sure. Often it takes place far away from the official settings, in pubs or restaurants or hallways of meeting halls, but it does exist. But I don’t think that we will depart from Saskatoon a wonderfully united bunch who see eye to eye on all these temperature-raising controversial issues. I just don’t.
Unless…. Unless we decide at the outset that we will have a different criteria for what will count as a successful gathering. And what will count as unity.
I recently read somewhere that you can’t truly know someone—even an enemy—until you love them. So maybe that ought to be the goal of coming together this week in Saskatoon. That we would love each other well. That we would genuinely make an effort to see from the perspective of the other. That we would be patient with one another and ask good questions. That we would be genuinely curious about the answers to those questions, rather than just assuming we know what people will say. That we would refuse to assume the worst in people who don’t share our views. That we would resist the temptation to put people in boxes. That we would say “no” to easy and self-serving categorizations of image-of-God bearing human beings who really are often doing their best to love God and their neighbour as themselves. Whatever else “love” means, it surely at least means committing ourselves to these things.
At one point in our conversation today, my friend, who isn’t part of Mennonite Church Canada, said, “I hope all this doesn’t lead to an exhausted and divided church.” I hope the same. I know that it very easily could. I know that there are many tired people out there—tired of fighting, tired of “discerning,” tired of being dismissed by the “other side,” tired of church being a battleground rather than a shared space of joyful witness and reconciliation. I also know that division is our natural human state. We are experts at building walls or walking away from one another (oh boy, are we ever!). We are remarkably skilled at defining ourselves by what we are against or by who we are not (i.e., all those wrong-thinking people!). The road to exhaustion and division is an easy and well-traveled one.
I hope that we will take a different road. I hope that we will come together knowing that we will encounter difference, knowing that we will disagree, knowing that it will be tempting to just wash our hands of those who don’t see things with the luminous clarity that we do, but deciding nonetheless that God has bound us to one another and has called us to love each other well as a witness to the watching world.
Anyone can love when it’s easy, after all. Anyone can love those who are constantly reaffirming their own positions about everything. The true test of whether we really mean what we say about all this “love your neighbour as yourself” business comes when our neighbour comes in the shape of the one who annoys and frustrates us, the one we can’t understand and don’t want to. That’s when love is hardest. That’s when it’s needed most.
Have you ever said your position on same sex marriage on this blog?
This is one thing I’ve said. Not nearly enough for some people and far too much for others, no doubt. But probably as much as I’m comfortable saying in this context. To have anything resembling productive dialogue on matters like this requires a lot of patience, a lot of listening, and a lot of peeling back layers of assumptions and biases and expectations. Those kinds of conversations work best face to face, in my view.
You’ve tackled a critical issue here. We are in a heap of trouble in the church aren’t we? Jesus called a diverse group together to form the 12 and then prayed that they be one! He was’t thinking of unity and agreement. He affirmed radical diversity. Paul picked up the theme and used three key metaphors: the garden, the body, the table. Agreement, sameness was not his goal, but celebration of diversity and working witnessing as a diverse community of faith united in Christ. In the light of this the idea of ‘it’s time to run’ is not given a foothold. Rather, share the garden, celebrate the body and come to the table whether you are vegan or meat-eater. Be convinced in your own mind and come.
Yes, it certainly seems like we’re about to move into some pretty stormy seas. I’m hoping we’ll navigate the waters well.
I’m actually not altogether convinced that Paul affirmed radical diversity – at least not in the way that we understand and talk about the term today. I just finished a series of sermons on Galatians where he seemed quite determined to get churches to fall in line with a handful of pretty important theological realities. He even said that he wished those who weren’t falling in line would go and castrate themselves! So much for celebrating diverse perspectives!
In our time, it seems to me that we are, at times, guilty of almost making an idol out of diversity. And, not surprisingly, out of ourselves. This last is of course the oldest temptation in the book. For me, theological diversity isn’t necessarily something to be cherished or celebrated or sought in and of itself, but simply a reality we will encounter based on our epistemological and moral limitations. It’s part of the “furniture” of the parameters of human existence, and one that provides a context within which to learn to love one another better.
I appreciate the realism of your fears, but also the reminder that love is needed most when it is hardest (which implies that such love is actually possible).
Thank you, Byron.