Creating Welcome within a Culture of Fear

Anne Breckbill

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God’s Table and Churchland Security:

Preamble:

The following speech was delivered at the BMC Luncheon hosted during the 2003 Mennonite Church USA convention entitled: “God’s Table: Y’all Come.” It provides commentary on the political climate in society and in the Mennonite denomination during the summer of 2003. The following is a brief synopsis of the political climate in U.S. government and church leadership as it pertains to the inclusion of queer individuals.

In the United States, we were at war with Iraq though we had neither found weapons of mass destruction nor Saddam Hussein. The Department of Homeland Security suggested we stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape in case of chemical warfare. Countless innocent individuals had been detained during the time since September 11, 2001 with no explanation or legal representation. We were told to trust that the Bush Administration had our best interests in mind.

In our denomination, Mennonite Church USA had been formed as a result of the MC/GC merger, but integrating individual conferences had been less successful. Questions of membership and polity-specifically as related to the inclusion of queer-welcoming congregations and individuals-proved to be the sticking point for some local conferences. Regional conferences had used a variety of disciplinary means to gain welcoming congregations’ compliance to the parts of the Mennonite Confession of Faith addressing marriage and sexuality. Some congregations had already been expelled from their conferences, including the oldest Mennonite Church in North America (Germantown). Over 15 years had passed since the Purdue and Saskatoon statements called for dialogue, but BMC had not yet been granted booth space at a national convention where dialogue might have started or continued. We were also encouraged to trust that the church leadership had our best interests in mind.

It is an honor for me to address you today. Thank you for joining me in my musings regarding our beloved denomination and its reluctance to offer an unbridled “Y’all Come” invitation to all who wish to eat at God’s table. I offer the following by means of introduction. I am a 41-year-old born and bred Mennonite. I am the Vice-President of BMC, having been on the BMC Board for six years. My partner, Jane Ramseyer Miller, and I are long-time members of St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship. My political bias is left of the Democratic party. I spend my work day supporting internet banking applications for credit unions. And, yes, Bill and Ina Ruth are my parents. I don’t address you as a representative of any of these groups or people today. I address you as a sister Mennonite seeking God’s will for my life and the life of our denomination. In the interest of clarity, the Mennonite Church that I refer to today is the Mennonite Church USA, as that is the context in which I have lived and experienced the church. For both its social and political significance, I have intentionally chosen to use the word queer when identifying gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. This term, adopted and reclaimed by the glbt community, aptly describes the both playful and profound difference of glbt people’s experience in a heterosexist society. The world-wide Mennonite Church is less well-known to me and may or may not fit the generalizations I will make about Mennonite Church USA. Mennonite Church Canada shares many of the same traits as Mennonite Church USA, yet it too functions in a different political environment. The critique I offer of our church is grounded in the love I have for this church. If I did not love the church and believe that it has a theology that can bring me closer to God and to whom God wants me to be, I would have left many, many years ago. But I am here still, issuing this challenge in hopes of calling out the very best in all of us.

I live in Minnesota, which, until recently, was a comfortable political fit for me. However, like most states last November, we took a wild swing to the right by electing an extremely conservative Governor. This Governor is so conservative that Garrison Keillor actually pines for Jesse Ventura! Thanks to this new Governor and the conservative backlash that elected him, the following situation is typical:

You go to a concert. You sit down and wait for the lights to dim. Just as a hushed anticipation comes over the crowd, a voice says, “Please respect the performers by turning off all cell phones and beepers. Firearms are not permitted on the premises. Thank you.”

You enter a restaurant. As you enter the front door you see a sign “No weapons”. The maitre d’ greets you by saying “Firearms are not permitted in this restaurant. Table for two? Smoking or non-smoking?”

The little piece of legislation that has store clerks, wait staff, and ministers alike talking about weapons with everyone they greet is called the “Personal Protection Act.” Under this legislation, any adult without a criminal record can get a gun license with no waiting period. Also under this act, concealed handguns are allowed in every public indoor and outdoor space except for schools unless a sign prohibiting them is posted and every person who enters that space is verbally informed that firearms are not permitted.

The Personal Protection Act. Why are we arming ourselves? What is the fear that made all these nice Minnesotans feel like they would be personally less vulnerable by packing heat to the grocery store, the park, the theatre and church? Has there been a glut of murders and violent deaths in Minnesota in the last year or two? There have been too many murders, to be sure, but the recent murder rates are well below the peak of crime we had back in 1996. I hope some of you have been able to see Michael Moore’s movie “Bowling for Columbine”. If you have not, I highly recommend it. It is at times comical, terrifying, tragic, surreal and sad. In it, he explores the US’s fascination with guns, killing, war and the right to bear arms. Though many factors play into the US’s unrivaled murder rate, Moore’s ultimate conclusion is that what makes us different is fear.

We live in a country right now whose greatest commodities are its people’s fear and its antidote, security. Much of the fear currently being sold does not represent genuine danger and much of the security promised does not represent true safety. Seemingly, our national appetites for this vague fear coupled with illusive security have no end. It is these appetites that are being taken advantage of by our war-mongering leadership. Our fears are played against us. They are used as the foundation for war, imperialism, obscene excesses and abuses. Our fears are used to silence those who question the course of action our government chooses and those who articulate dissenting opinions to those in power. Those fears are paving our way toward fascism.

We know from the lessons of history that the Nazi regime wielded its power through three major tactics-building the fear of “others”, promising security in exchange for blind faith, and promoting nationalism. The horrific deaths and abuses of the Holocaust began by generating fear of others-Jews, homosexuals, physically disabled people, gypsies. Without fear, security would not be relevant and nationalism would seem narrow. Adding the fear of an outside threat makes a decision to trade blind allegiance for security and mind-numbing national pride appear as sensible and reasonable conclusions. Without the commodity of fear, fascist leaders and dictatorial regimes would be impossible.

So as our nation allows its fear to balloon out of control, what is the witness of the Mennonite Church? Are we actively teaching openness and inclusion? Are we modeling honesty in relationships, respect for one another and openness to the “other”? Are we teaching compassion? Are we living “a true faith that casts out all fear”-or perhaps a true fear that casts out all variance?

I do not belittle the peace witness of the Mennonite Church, the efforts that have been and are being made to stop our government’s violence and arrogance, and all of the many, many things Mennonites around the world do out of love for the “other”. But, given the dire state of affairs in this world, does it not seem that the Mennonite Church has spent an obscenely inordinate amount of time in church basements and fellowship halls talking about sex? As our world, country and communities are embroiled in hate, we Mennonites spend our precious energy trying to legislate and regulate love! Where is the soul of this dear Church?

Our denomination is caught up in the torrent of fear that surrounds it-

  • our people have adopted the fear for survival and suspicion of the “other” that dominates our culture
  • our leadership has, perhaps unknowingly, assumed some of the same characteristics that mark our government’s reign through fear
  • we all have been co-opted by an ideology built on the polarization of threat and security, an ideology that is inconsistent with the good news of Jesus Christ

As a long-time member of a congregation identified as being “at variance” with Mennonite Church statements, I have had many opportunities to listen to and experience the processes, language, paradigms and relationships that are crafted as our denomination tries to deal with difference. Too much of what I have seen smacks of the fear culture in which we live.

Variance is difference. Variance is the “other” embodied. When I worked in the non-profit social service world, difference was called diversity and was highly desirable. In the Mennonite Church, difference is called variance and is highly undesirable. In the social service world, there is a value placed on being accessible, meeting people where they are, and developing an understanding and respect for cultural identity. Extending invitation and open-mindedness is the key to building respectful diversity.

In the Mennonite Church, unfortunately, ultimate value is placed on being in agreement. Certainly, there are cultural aspects to being Mennonite. Those cultural pieces, though clearly still present, have become a bit more inclusive over time. We no longer impose the same inflexibility and impermeability in our Mennonite culture as we once did. But what about in our theology? Shared theological beliefs are less frequently derived from our shared experience or mined from the spiritual lives and communities of our membership. Rather, they are regulated and enforced as the documented position of the Mennonite Church. Variance is not pursued and understood. Variance is rooted out, managed, subverted, contained and hidden. And, if we are to be honest, the current variance is nothing more than a euphemism for a queer-welcoming congregation. When we consider our theology and the spectrum of belief reflected in this denomination, it is stunning to realize that the only variance worthy of response is whether we believe that same-sex sexual activity is a sin. That alone defines our threat to the denomination.

As a result, the words “at variance” have begun to sound like “code orange”. Oh no! We have to do something! We need to protect ourselves-to root out evil-to manage the threat-and, as always, report anything that appears to be strange or out-of-the-ordinary. Just as Tom Ridge at the Department of Homeland Security (dubbed, incidently, by Garrison Keillor the “Department of Scaring People”) would have American citizens wrapping themselves in plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect ourselves from the imminent yet nonexistent threat of chemical warfare, the Mennonite Church has donned its own metaphorical duct tape and plastic wrap as it approaches its own diversity. I believe the people of this denomin-ation are good people who mean well, yet the fear and distaste of true difference and dissent is palpable among us. Five years ago, the Twin Cities queer advocacy organization, OutFront Minnesota, held a conference at a hotel in northern Minnesota. When the attendees sat down for the banquet, the hotel wait-staff served them wearing latex gloves. That situation has become a metaphor for me. I know when someone “handles” me with latex gloves, whether I can actually see the gloves or not. “At variance” churches have learned through painful experience to expect duct tape and plastic wrap as a denominational response to the diversity of thought and practice they represent.

The fear that George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft wield over the American populace is completely stripped of complexity and ambiguity. Complexity and ambiguity lessen the fear. They make one think. The last thing this Administration wants the American people to do is to think. So, we have clear, unambiguous rhetoric. Our Administration arrogantly decrees three countries to be the “axis of evil.” The world is put on alert that “you are either for us or against us.” Our aggression is redefined as an act of compassion. We are told that the “evil doers” have no soul. This Administration has successfully compelled us to circle our wagons and clearly delineate who is in and who is out. Dissenting views are not just discouraged; they are punished. We rename French fries “freedom fries” to punish the French for their dissenting views regarding Iraq. We parrot freedom rhetoric as we strip our neighbors of free speech, free expression and the right to dissent.

Rightly or wrongly, I see malevolent intent behind our current Administration. I see greed and a lust for power. I see ego and control. I don’t see that same malevolence behind our church leadership in regards to issues of variance. What I see is the culture of fear that feeds the need to secure and contain, the wish to placate and avoid, the impulse to silence dissent and a longing for less ambiguity. In reaction to this fear, we have begun to use the Confession of Faith as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Membership Guidelines as the Patriot Act. The identity of a congregation who could pose a “potential terrorist threat” is a congregation that has joined the Supportive Congregations Network. Such congregations may be detained for further investigation. Another potential terrorist threat is an employee of our denominational schools who may not agree with every point of the Confession of Faith. He or she may also be detained (and perhaps unemployed). Variance is to be reported to leadership and leadership is to manage that variance, and hopefully, make it vanish. We are encouraged to stay alert and report anything unusual. Again, I am reminded of the rise of Nazi Germany. Fear was so encouraged and nurtured, that people became vigilantes, reporting friends and family alike in an effort to secure their place inside the political circle of safety.

But safety is elusive. When security becomes the ultimate goal, the need to protect is unending. The more we have, the more security we need and the less secure we feel. When we feel insecure, we mustbecome more vigilant which will only lead to feeling less secure. When fear reigns supreme, goodness loses. Ideals, values, integrity, relationships-all is up for negotiation when fear reigns.

I see members of the Democratic Party selling their integrity and acting against their ideals in order to maintain the broadest, wealthiest constituency possible. Where acting out their beliefs could serve a powerful role in creating peace and modeling tolerance, they choose to violate those principles in an effort to hold together the biggest voting bloc they can. I see the moderate middle and moderate leadership of our denomination in a similar position. In an effort to maintain the unity of the body, moderate Mennonites are violating their own beliefs and values about inclusion, diversity and the on-going revelation of God. These are good people with good intentions and good ideals. But, while personally supportive, they are reticent to publicly take a position that would in anyway threaten their own position in the church and the acceptance they enjoy. They too often violate their own consciences. And when they do, they pay dearly and those who are the “other” experience the rejection of their friends.

Two weeks ago I attended the Central Plains Mennonite Conference as a delegate from St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship. On the docket was a Conference Council proposal that our congregation be moved from full membership to provisional membership. In an effort to be clear that we wished to continue as full members, our congregation wrote an honest, personal letter to all of the conference churches describing our beliefs and urging them to vote against the proposal. After the proposal was presented, an opportunity was given for discussion. There was silence. Not one delegate of this conference, of which we have been members for nearly 20 years, spoke in support of our congregation. The vote passed by 83%. I had expected argument-I was not prepared for the silence. As we left the session, I was reminded of the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “In the end, it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.” Indeed!

But we are a people who know the Good News-that love conquers fear-that Jesus taught a new way to respond to fear! We are a people called to be in the world but not of the world! We are a peculiar people! How did we come to adopt this mainstream culture of fear? How did we come to attempt to manage it using the same constructs as our government? Early Anabaptism’s ultimate goal was certainly not security. It was fraught with risk as believers stood firm on their dissenting beliefs. Despite the life-threatening dangers, these believers held firm to their convictions. Authority in their lives was no longer placed on government or religion or creed or a person. Authority was placed on their individual and communal understanding of God and God’s word. Authority was placed on the communal experience of seeking God.

The early Anabaptist experience was about freedom, empowerment, and the calling forth of passion. It was a social, religious and sexual liberation. These brothers and sisters moved from the celibacy and austerity of cloistered life into vibrancy, exuberance, hope, passion and spiritual connection with God. They explored the difference between a religion of power and greed and a religion of the Spirit. They lived their faith, they grappled together with their doubts and questions, they strove to live God’s will as they understood it. They made mistakes, they lost their lives, but they lived their lives fully spiritually engaged. In fact, this vitality-the very essence of Anabaptism-is precisely what was threatening to the powers of church and state. If they were going to start thinking for themselves, having individual and communal relationships with God, what would happen to the established church? Who would be in control? Would everything have to be re-thought? Would everything be changed? Anabaptism was a terrifying threat to the powers of the day. The Anabaptists, of course, were far from perfect. They, too, eventually adopted a pursuit of communal conformity designed to strengthen their influence even while it compromised a key tenant of their movement. Despite this, they remained true to their voice of collective dissent. When legislation failed in controlling the Anabaptist movement, violence was instituted and rogue Anabaptists who refused to recant their beliefs, who refused to give power back to the church as it was, were burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, drowned, buried alive, hanged, and stoned. And yet the movement grew.

Where is this Anabaptist spirit-that fully engaged, fervent seeking of God-in the Mennonite Church today? Have you felt it here in Atlanta? Did you feel it at your regional conference? Do you see it working in your congregation? Is that spirit and tradition reflected in the way we name and address variance? Does it inform our approach to new people and new ideas? Does it inspire us as individuals and congregations to experience God in new ways?

One cannot be open to experiencing God in new ways and not be open to experiencing new people, new information, new feelings, new ideas. Openness is, by nature, a vulnerability to change. Openness does not exist where fear and security are in control. In addition to risk, openness brings with it vibrant life. I have seen this life at work in the church. In my BMC work I have the pleasure of visiting with many variant congregations and variant individuals and I see them offering an invitation to return to our Anabaptist audacity. They are bringing a passionate, sensual openness back to worship. They are claiming their relationship with God as the cornerstone of their faith and are unwilling to recant in order to be in compliance with statements that do not ring true. They are inviting the church to change; to step outside of fear and embrace dissent.

The Mennonite Church rejects these congregations and in-dividuals at its own peril. When those who make room for passion and risk and vitality in their spiritual lives are censured, silenced or removed from this denomination, we suffer a collective loss of life. Our joy is silenced, our work for justice is compromised and our purpose obscured. To exchange a passionate life for one of policing and patrolling for the sake of Churchland security is to trade away the essence of the Spirit we mean to nurture. We have already made this error too many times. We need to stop.

So how, practically, do we begin to be open to the Spirit of God in the “other”? How do we end the reign of fear and offer exuberant welcome to new people, new ideas and a new church? How do we return to the passion and conviction of a people rooted in their personal relationships with God and community? How do we create welcome within a culture of fear?

First, we must release our obsession with fear and security. We need to remember that faith conquers fear and that Jesus gave us a new way to approach danger. Next, we must embrace ambiguity as a virtue. God’s world is complex. It is messy. It does not lend itself to neat categories of good and evil, right or wrong. If it were that simple, leading a Christian life would not involve faith at all. It would merely be following a recipe for doing all the right things at the right time and choosing good over evil. Instead, the Christian life is one of seeking to understand, learning to discern, grappling with one another in the search for truth, and experiencing grace when we falter. Being able to be honest about the ambiguities and incongruities of our faith and life is an invitation of welcome to all who seek the Divine.

It is imperative that we be a body of dissent. I don’t mean that we need to be open to having dissenting views, but that we must have dissenting views. Without them our spirits, convictions and passions wither and die. Those least empowered to defend themselves lose when a society eliminates dissent. A healthy community must be able to disagree. Dissent is not to be merely tolerated; it is to be encouraged. If we are to be open to the promptings of the Spirit, we need to be open to those with whom we do not fully agree. It is in articulating our own faith in response to another’s that we are changed and our faith deepened.

We must also reject the uncritical use of power in the Church. We owe it to our leaders and to ourselves to question decisions and demand accountability. When we put our faith struggles and discomforts into the hands of our leadership with the expectation that they will handle and fix these issues, we resign our Anabaptist legacy. We must own our own spiritual journey and struggles. In the end, doing our own spiritual seeking and practicing dissent will sharpen our witness as a denomination.

I truly believed that Amy Short (then the Executive Director of BMC) was joking when she told me the theme of this convention was “God’s Table: Y’all Come”. In addition to finding it patronizing of a culture we largely don’t represent, I was unbelievably offended by the image. BMC has been trying to come to this table for over twenty-five years and has never yet been afforded an invitation. My home congregation has been attempting to hold on to a few place settings at the Central Plains table for its 15 or so members. Two weeks ago, when we were voted from full membership to provisional membership in our conference, the message did not sound like “y’all come” but more like “well, you can’t sit at the main table, but we will put up a little card table in the kitchen you may sit at if you like”. There was no joyful welcome there. Germantown and Broad Street congregations are not even sitting at a card table. Their invitation has been an invitation out. And then there are the equivocating invitations for so many other churches: Maple Avenue, Southside, Assembly, Atlanta, Ames, Oak Park, Calgary, etc.

Perhaps I’m not asking the right questions. Perhaps the irony of this convention’s title is not about the invitation at all. Perhaps it is about the table. Is this table really God’s table? Does it have the look and feel of the tables where Jesus chose to sit? Is Zaccheus at this table? Mary Magdalene? Peter? John? The Samaritan woman? Thomas? Judas? Is the risk and diversity of Jesus’ church represented at this table? Perhaps we are looking for an invitation at the wrong table. Christ’s cavorting with passionate, sometimes unsavory characters created problems. His openness to all and the change that openness wrought on his world eventually got him killed. Yet his lasting legacy is about true love, compassion and welcome. Ultimate welcome occurs when the one who welcomes is prepared to risk as deeply as the ones seeking welcome. Christ is the embodiment of perfect welcome and an unbridled invitation to the passionate life.

May God forgive our imperfect welcome, our fear of the “other”, and our obsession with securing the church. May we open ourselves to encountering God’s spirit embodied by the stranger and to the ensuing transformations of our faith.

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