Where Are the Voices in the Middle?
When I was asked to write an article for this booklet, I suggested a piece be included entitled, “Everything Jesus said about homosexuality”-composed of ten blank pages. The suggestion was only partly flippant. For a people who might claim a more radical commitment than other churches to Jesus’ message, Mennonites have spent an inordinate amount of time on a subject about which Jesus never said one word.
There’s a part of me that wanted to turn down this task because I do not wish to be part of the discussion anymore. I wonder whether by writing I may be one who generates more heat than light. In better moments, however, I see that there are good people who want to do the right thing on both sides of the debate. I see the trauma that churches have undergone as area conferences have expelled or disciplined them. To not participate in the discussion of this issue would be cowardly.
I write from the perspective of someone who takes the Bible seriously, including the laws of Moses, the writings of the prophets, the Gospels, and the letters of Paul. The Bible has a much larger impact on my spiritual life than the disciplines of theology, history, or sociology. When I seek answers to personal dilemmas, I turn first to the biblical witness. When I struggle to understand how systems of domination exploit people and construct matrices of deceit, I come back to the biblical record and the examples of Jesus and the prophets to find the best ways to respond.
I also write from the perspective of someone who has gay relatives and friends-people who also struggle for answers to personal spiritual dilemmas, who examine what Christ means for their lives. In addition, I have heard stories from my mother, who served as pastor of a church disciplined by Illinois Mennonite Conference because it included openly gay members.
As I have listened to the strident voices in this debate, I have noticed the absence of words from those who constitute the majority opinion in Mennonite churches. These are Mennonites who believe homosexuality is a sin but who are appalled by the angry manner in which people express themselves in this debate, by the method conferences used to expel congregations from their midst. These are people who, like me, are fed up with the time and emotional energy the wider Mennonite church has given to this issue.
Nearly every expelled or disciplined Mennonite congregation has included people who are not comfortable with the idea of committed monogamous homosexual relationships. However, these members would never consider kicking out gay members from their fellowship. They have known homosexual Christians as whole human beings, struggling with their sinful natures just as heterosexual Christians do and experiencing moments when grace takes hold of them and turns them into disciples of Christ.
These people, sitting awkwardly on the cusp, also see themselves and other heterosexual members of their congregation as whole human beings. They see heterosexuals living in affluence when two-thirds of the world does not have enough to eat. They see heterosexuals lying and cheating, treating other people with contempt, manipulating others in order to consolidate power. They see heterosexuals gossiping about other members in the church and treating people who fail without compassion. They see heterosexuals thinking more about their own pleasure than they do about building the kingdom of God. And they see that sometimes grace takes hold of the same people and turns them into disciples of Christ.
Living on the Cusp
I share in the fear that many people in our churches have about moral relativism. I want everyone in the church to agree that participating in the military is forbidden, that buying cheap clothes manufactured by people earning slave wages in other countries is wrong, that politics is an evil venue in which Christians should not be involved, that extramarital sex is not part of God’s plan.
Yet, in the most difficult periods of my life, I have been ministered to by people who did not share these values. I have known soldiers who earnestly sought God’s will for their lives. I have found emotional support from friends who lived together outside of wedlock. I have known people active in the political arena who want to use their power for good, even though they may occasionally compromise their principles through participation in the political process. The majority of Christians I know buy cheap clothing, utensils, and toys manufactured under exploitive conditions.
So where does that leave me?
On the cusp. I want to lead a sinless life, wholly pleasing to God. Every day, I fail in this goal. I choose to look to the Bible as a source from which I can best understand the will of God. I see that the Torah decrees that men (not women) who engage in homosexual activity should be put to death-along with stubborn and rebellious sons. I also see that the Torah forbids the eating of pork and shellfish (I love any kind of shellfish) and the wearing of mixed fiber clothing (the shirt and sweatpants I am wearing as I write are made from a cotton/polyester blend.) I see that Paul declares that homosexual activity among men is an abomination. I also see that he tells women that they should not wear jewelry or adorn their hair with braids. (I am wearing a gold watch and a silver ring, and my hair is braided as I write.)
Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, pork, shellfish, braids, or jewelry. When a young man comes to him, asking whether the six hundred laws in the Torah can be boiled down to the essentials, Jesus tells him that loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself are the foundations for everything God commands in the law and the prophets.
How are we doing with those essentials? At the time that Illinois Mennonite Conference removed the voting privileges of two of its congregations because they had gay members, a member of the conference commented that now only one requirement was made of people who wished to join a Mennonite church in the Illinois Conference. What was that requirement?
It was not baptism. It was not an acceptance of the Schleitheim Confession. It was not a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. It was not a commitment to radical discipleship and unconditional love of fellow human beings. The only requirement for membership in the Illinois Mennonite Conference was not being gay.
If our primary goal is to act according to our tradition of maintaining purity, then indulging ourselves in orgies of schisms and vituperation would be entirely appropriate. If, however, our primary goals are following Jesus and building the kingdom, then I think moving away from rhetoric and taking a good look at our fellow Mennonites as they are is vital. Taking a long view historically would also be helpful to this goal. If we remember that churches split over the issues of head coverings, Sunday schools, poultry shows, internal combustion engines, and nylon stockings, perhaps we will pause long enough to catch our breaths and recalculate our position. Perhaps we will take time to note where we are going, where we have been, and who is on the journey with us.
We may be on the cusp for the rest of our lives. Our descendants may be there for centuries. But when we are ready to move away from this position, we know that Christ is a solid rock, a sure foundation where we can plant ourselves with confidence. Human theologies and traditions will be built on this foundation and crumble away into dust. But the rock remains unchanged, a place where homosexual and heterosexual Christians can meet and where we can decide what to build next.