On Public Writing and Polarization

IMG_1616I recently helped write a letter to leaders of my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. This letter asks that the denomination make space for congregations and pastors who welcome and bless LGBTQ people. Over 150 credentialed (and formerly credentialed) Mennonite pastors have signed it.  I shouldn’t be surprised that there have been letters in response to our letter. And now there is a sense among some that all of this letter-writing is polarizing.

And I’m a little confused because, in this context, “polarizing” seems to mean “to state your opinion in a public forum.” But I always thought it meant “to force people in opposite directions.”

If our letter said, “Every church in the denomination must hire a gay pastor and open their sanctuary for gay weddings,”–that would be polarizing.

If our letter said, “Our interpretation of scripture is the only valid interpretation and anyone who disagrees with this interpretation should be disciplined by the conference leadership,”–that would be polarizing.

Even if our letter said, “You have to change the denominational guidelines or we will leave,”–that would be polarizing.

What it says is that some of us believe that to faithfully follow Jesus our ministry must include a welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ Christians. We know you don’t all agree with us, but please let us stay and be church with you.

If this letter is indeed “polarizing,” it is only because there are people within the denomination who are at the opposite pole–the pole that says, “We will not be church with people who understand the Bible’s teachings on sexuality in a way that differs from our understanding.”

And apparently there are people at that pole. So it is difficult to see a way forward. Honestly, I do not know how (or if) all of us in MCUSA can hold together as a denomination.

But I will go out on a limb and say this: The way forward is not to dismiss every publicly stated opinion as “polarizing.” The way forward is not to simply repeat the word “unity” while the denomination crumbles–like a 5-year-old with her fingers in her ears and her eyes closed singing la la la la la.

We have to talk with each other honestly and listen openly. Yes we should be kind. Always. But being kind doesn’t mean pretending to agree when we don’t, and it doesn’t mean simply whispering about our disagreements within our own little circles.

And I’ll step just a bit further out onto that limb and say that they way forward is not to try to make everyone happy. Being church isn’t about being happy; it’s not even about being right; it’s about being faithful. I do believe that most of us are trying to be faithful. So may the Holy Spirit guide our feet . . . and our mouths . . . and our letter-writing.

13 thoughts on “On Public Writing and Polarization

  1. Thank you. I’ve been troubled by the sense that actually discussing the tensions that are already present (without the letters) is somehow disrupting unity. Real unity only comes when we are willing to address conflict and enter difficult space with one another. I don’t want to lose people along the way, but in reality we’ve been losing people already . . . it’s just that it has happened more quietly, as individuals and individual congregations wonder if they fit . . . the denomination has also been welcoming new congregations that have realized that maybe they have been Mennonite all along. If we are truly committed to unity, then we need to be committed to being healthy—and people, congregations, and denominations are never healthy when there are unaddressed issues lurking beneath skin level.

  2. Excellent, excellent response. This reminds me of the larger political context in the U.S. these days where Faux News and the conservative media scream polarizing! class warfare! socialism! (or something to that effect) when anyone progressive/ liberal tries to analyze the ills of our society. Does the loudest voice always win?

  3. Hi Joanna. I agree with everything you said in your post, as I usually agree with everything you write! Your words are always so life-giving.

    I do wonder about framing your thoughts in terms of “Writing Letters to Power.” The letter, if I understood it correctly, was written to me and other people. It seems to take away from the personal appeal of the letter to say that it was written to “power,” as if we don’t know one another, as if we aren’t friends.

    I imagine this relates to whom exactly the letter was addressed. Because, after all, it was an open letter, which means it was addressed to the public. Is that where I can begin to understand how the letter was addressed to “Power”? And if it is primarily addressed to an amorphous power that subsumes all of us, what would it mean for it also to be addressed to me–a person, a friend?

    • Isaac, that is a very good point. Writing to people with power and writing to “power” are different things and this letter is definitely addressed to people. Honestly, bad title work on my part. I am going to change the title and leave your comment as a good reminder to all of us that the conversation is personal as well as institutional. Thanks.

  4. good stuff, Joanna, as always… it is, in essence, some of what I’ve been saying…not just shouting “unity” but a church that recognizes, in humility, that we are all different and yet all are attempting to follow Christ…

    • Amen to this, Robert. I struggle with that word – unity. What does that mean? That we all think and act and look alike? I hope not. That we are willing to walk the journey together, including the times when we don’t like each other and we don’t agree? That sounds a bit more like reality. God, the Great Creator, made us as a diverse body, and Jesus came along to show us how to behave towards each other, which looks a whole lot like struggling in love.

  5. Thanks Joanna. This beloved church has been polarized for 4 decades over these differences. Over the years we’ve tried arguing, disciplining, dismissing, and silencing in the hope of not appearing polarized. It hasn’t led the church to greater faithfulness or effectiveness. Now is the time for being church in a new way together.

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