Yes, We Are Nice People

Me, Ruth Harder, Stephanie Krehbiel, and Sarah Klaassen

Me, Ruth Harder, Stephanie Krehbiel, and Sarah Klaassen

As some of you know, this fabulous foursome gathered in Kansas City a few weeks ago to talk to the Mennonite Church USA board. (Well, Stephanie was really just there to glare at people.) I appreciate the opportunity we were given to share about the movement of the Spirit in our communities and the hopes that we share for our denomination.

For those of you wondering how it went–it was fine. Ruth Harder and Sarah Klaassen are two of the most brave and articulate people I know. The board members listened respectfully. They were polite. They smiled at us. And nobody threw anything–not even a fit.

I did not come away from this session with any news about MC USA or any new insights into the inner workings of our denomination. But I did come away with one very clear message–something many people on the board wanted me to share with other inclusive-minded people. So . . .

Dear Pro-Inclusion Polarity Exacerbaters: The MC USA board members–at least the ones who spoke to me–are nice people. Every single person I talked with at the meeting was nice. I like them. And I think most of them like me. (I am pretty likable, after all.) You should like them, too. Because they are nice people. Who love Jesus.

I would also like to say:

Dear MC USA Board Members: I do like you. And so do a lot of my friends. Lots and lots of pro-inclusion, gay-loving Mennonites think you are nice people.

I like you.

I do not like the statement you put out about Theda Good’s credentials. Or the denominational policies against pastors officiating same-sex weddings. Or the way that statements coming from MC USA leadership present those working for inclusion as the problem children who are tearing the church apart.

I am allowed to not like these things and still like you. I am allowed to disagree–even publicly–with your theology and/or your polity and/or your Biblical interpretation and/or your word choices and/or your fashion sense–my disagreement does not mean that I do not like you and respect you and understand that you are deeply loving and lovely human beings.

Dear Everyone: I think it would be helpful on all sides for us to keep a few key points in mind.

  • Liking someone and agreeing with him are two different things.
  • Respecting someone and agreeing with her are two different things.
  • Loving an institution (say, as a random example, a denomination) and supporting every decision made by institutional leadership are two different things.

Here is what many Mennonites–from a variety of theological positions–seem to believe: If we can just get everyone to sit down together and talk and realize that we are all nice people who like each other then this whole controversy will go away.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, friends, but this is not a workable strategy.

I could give you a list of several Mennonites who have listened to me, who respect me and love me and I think even like me–who are still not willing to be church with me if I am willing to officiate same-sex weddings. Which I am. Even though I like them and respect them and think they are nice.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am glad that most Mennonites are nice people. And I am glad that most of us like each other.

But being nice is only a tool we can use to deal with our conflicts. Forming personal relationships with others–liking each other–is simply a tool that can make working through conflicts more bearable.

Being nice people who like each other–this is not our end game, folks.

Our end game is to be ever-more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Which means that we need to be nice and like each other while we talk honestly and work to create a denomination where all people are welcomed and valued.

Because the truth is that Mennonites have been nice about oppressing queer people they like for a long long time. And I, for one, do not like that.

6 thoughts on “Yes, We Are Nice People

  1. Well said Joanna. I couldn’t agree more. Being “nice” equals, well, only that “surface politeness”, while so many of us have been “politely shown the door” and somehow “loved” (Not!) while simutaneously being damned by those “inside”. I can’t help but think of others with profound prejudice who were also known for their genteel southern hopitality: “We was always good to our people” they said from inside the denomination, I mean, big house. Yes, of course, respect is, almost, always advisable, but “nice” after decades of discussion and ongoing exclusion I’m afraid is, perhaps, trying to put a pretty face on some very Not nice ancient prejudice. Joanna, maybe I could ask for your help here, help in spreading this idea of truth and coining this phrase: “It’s Not about “us vs. them”. It’s about Him. (Jesus)”. It seems to me that those who are willing to damn us and divide us might feel that it is only Them that are being asked to reexamine their beliefs, their comfort zones, to compromise lines they had drawn. This, of course, is simply not true. The radical, inclusive, offensive grace of Christ that includes me Also includes those that make Me uncomfortable, those that I disagree with, those that, were the Table invitations up to me (and thank goodness, they’re not) would Not be on the guest list. But I (and we) do not create the dinner guest list to The Table. That’s already been done and that guest list said “ALL”, whether I like it or am comfortable with it or not. The same grace that welcomes me welcomes those at the furtherst reaches of disagreement with me and even those whose words and behavior are shocking in their dehumanization of us. As Rachel Held Evans has said in regards to this: “What’s offensive about the grace of God’s Kingdom isn’t because of who It excludes, but precisely because of who it includes.” Again, “This is not about ‘us vs. them. This is about Him (Jesus).”

    • Thank you for the reminder that we all have people we wish to exclude–that indeed this is not about “us vs. them.” In Christ we are all “us.”

  2. You’re right, and we got the message, it isn’t just about being nice. Yup. And oh, how we’d love to be “inclusive” just like Jesus. But are you really tracking with the Jesus of scripture or the one you want Jesus to be. Yup, there are different theologies and ethics out there, and Jesus knew that, and commissioned Apostles to carry his message so people wouldn’t get carried away by some spirit and teach things he didn’t teach. There were a lot of historical examples of that surrounding the church he empowered. There are a lot of examples today of how to run beyond what the Spirit lead his earliest followers to teach and practice. So, we agree that, , , ,

    “Being nice people who like each other–this is not our end game, folks.

    Our end game is to be ever-more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Which means that we need to be nice and like each other while we talk honestly and work to create a denomination where all people are welcomed and valued.”

    I agree, and I think Jesus too agrees, that all people should be welcomed and valued in His Church. But I’m having a bit of trouble finding a Jesus in scripture that would agree with you in saying that following his teaching for about 2000 years (or since the Radical Reformation) should be considered a form of oppression, as though not condoning sexual immorality were unjust.

    Whether you like it or not doesn’t make it right or wrong. What Jesus said and says through his Apostles’ teaching does. Whether I like it or not. Still, I’m sure I’d like you even if you disagree with Jesus, not least because I’m sure I’m not fully conformed to the image of God in Him either, so we probably have a lot in common. Well, you’re probably nice and me not so much, but beyond that…. We’re both trying to love and serve Jesus.

    • I think a lot of folks who disagree with my biblical interpretation–as you do–are equally frustrated with the relentless “niceness” of denominational leaders and the consistent (and failing) efforts to somehow hold us all together by sheer civility. We are one in Christ–whether we like it or not. But our ability to function together as a denominational body is a serious question right now.

  3. It may be that the only solution to the ‘relentless “niceness”‘ of denominational politics is the kind of re-grouping that early Anabaptists experienced. Who maintains continuity with Christ and who keeps denominational names does not seem to be the main thing–fidelity to Christ and his teaching as witnessed in scripture is essential in the Anabaptist context. There are congregations abandoning the Mennonite name in response to the relentless niceness of the MCUSA denominational processes–it may be the case that others should be the ones denouncing the name Mennonite instead–not for me to say who which when. Not all are in Christ just because they say they are–we all have to discern what faithfulness means and accept the consequences of our decisions. Your suggestion that we’re all united in Christ sounds like a nicety less powerful than civility; there may be more unity in the niceties of civility than in universalist conceptions of who is in Christ.

    Since the only theologically oriented statement I can find you have linked to regarding this issue is from the Pink Menno posting on Communion in the Midst of Diversity—the Biblical case for LGBTQ inclusion, I’m responding to that here–I pray you moderators will allow this response, and hopefully critique my thoughts also.

    I’ve titled this a bit provocatively as reflective of a concern for the Mennonite Church I’ve been mulling recently. Well, here goes:

    NEITHER ANABAPTIST NOR MENNONITE: A Perspective On The Inclusivist Church by Richard Worden Wilson

    I’ve just recently begun grappling with the Mennonite Church engagement with the theology, ethics, and practices concerning homosexual relations. I am not a current member of a Mennonite fellowship but have some history with the Mennonite Church that I won’t go into here. I’ll quote extensively from Pastor Shelly’s statement in justification for his officiating at a same-sex wedding ceremony in May, 2014 in order to provide a particular context and foil for my perspective.

    Karl S. Shelly: The biblical witness regarding sexuality is very diverse. In the Bible, there is no one sexual ethic.  Sections of the Bible permit and do not condemn polygamy and concubinage, levirate marriage (where widows have sexual intercourse with their brother-in-law), sex with slaves, and prostitution (Genesis 38:12-19; Joshua 2:1-7).  At other places it condemns or discourages intercourse during menstruation, marriage with non-Israelites, nudity, and birth control.  Many Christians today would not agree with any of those cultural perspectives which were recorded and, in some verses, commanded in the Bible.[3]

    This argument does not correspond to the Anabaptist belief in the supremacy of the teaching and witness of Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament over that of the OT. This is not representative of an Anabaptist or Mennonite theology.

    Karl S. Shelly: The most significant themes running through the Bible include the ethic of love, hospitality, covenant-making, forgiveness, and compassion.  The condemnation of homosexuality is not only not a major theme, it arguably runs counter to the primary narratives.  In fact, as far as we know, homosexuality is something Jesus never spoke about even though forms of same-sex relating were present in his culture.

    Although love, forgiveness, and compassion are certainly significant themes in early Anabaptist thought and practice, the most significant themes for all early Anabaptists were Christ, his teaching and example in cross-bearing sacrifice, and commitment to following him as Lord in all of what he commanded. Other themes were dependent on correspondence with those. There is of course, the priority always given by followers of Jesus to first Love God; that not being mentioned here as a significant theme of the Bible needs to be noted in contrast to what is said, particularly as the assertion is made that “condemnation of homosexual [practice!],,, runs counter to the primary narratives.” Creating a new narrative is the only possible way this case could be made. Christ not explicitly saying anything about homosexuality is a canard, an argument from a supposed silence that only begs the question of what he did actually say about human sexuality, which in fact says a lot more than what he didn’t say. There is nothing specifically Anabaptist or Mennonite about creating new narratival perspectives or shifting to new partially biblical themes to make one’s case theologically.

    Karl S. Shelly: The seven verses[4] that people point at to condemn homosexuality either address other issues (e.g. hospitality) or do not speak to what we know today of loving, mutual, same-sex relationships that grow out of an innate same-sex orientation.  Books have been written on these verses for those who want to study this in more depth.

    For early Anabaptists divergence from the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles could never be based on “what we know today” over what Jesus and the Apostles knew then. This is, I think, the essence of the Inclusivist Ideology: we know better now about the nature of homosexuality and need to decide for ourselves what behaviors are acceptable. This is not inconceivably analogous to how the Constantinian church argued its case for taking up the sword and conquering the pagan world: we confront a new circumstance for which they could not have conceived or prepared a teaching. In that case they abandoned 300 years of teaching and practice; in our current case there is the abandonment of nearly 2000 years of teaching and practice. The books written in support of acceptance and inclusion of homosexual relationships in the Church are by far mostly asking whether God really said THAT, and arguing NO; there is a pattern here, for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. This is not an Anabaptist approach to scriptural faithfulness.

    Karl S. Shelly: A key biblical test of discernment is whether God’s Spirit is evident.  “Come and see,” Jesus says.  “Tell John what you have seen and heard.” (Luke 7:15-23).  Testify to whether the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – are present in a person (Gal. 5).  If so, “can anyone withhold the water for baptizing those who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).  The presence of these attributes in many LGBTQ Christians raises the question of why full recognition of their gifts and humanity are being withheld. 

    I’m inclined to think that what most early Anabaptists considered “faithfulness, , , and self-control” included avoiding homosexual relations as unacceptable just as Jesus and the Apostles did as well. Mixing scriptures to make a theological point seems a bit of a stretch, though it might pass muster for a sermon. Recognition of Christians’ gifts and humanity is not really the issue. The Anabaptist test for discernment was whether something was scriptural. Acknowledging good fruits and characteristics in those who may be considered disqualified by other actions is not a very compelling argument, and it wouldn’t likely have satisfied the early Anabaptists, who sought holy obedience above all.

    Sorry Karl, but I don’t think you brought a very good case here, and it is definitely not one that should be considered Either Anabaptist Or Mennonite.

  4. Pingback: Why I am going to “Fabulous, Fierce & Sacred” and why you should too | Young Anabaptist Radicals

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