MCUSA, the US’s largest Mennonite denomination, meets in Orlando this week. Since the last national conference, in Kansas City, more of my friends have left the denomination, almost all over the church’s failure to honor the dignity of LGBTQ+ people, including LGBTQ+ Mennonites.
Above, the logo for the MCUSA national convention: a red heart with a white banner through it that says, “Love is a Verb,” the theme of this year’s event. But for many of us, the theme is, year after year, Can we hold it—the denomination, our sadness, and our frustration–together?
MCUSA continues to appease factions that refuse to honor the dignity of LGBTQ+ people/”endorse sin” (depending on how you look at it), some of whom have already made good on the threat to pack up and leave the denomination. In the meantime, the compromises continue to cause queer members to lose faith. Unlike the LGBTQ+ excluding churches (Sorry, Romans 1:28-29 fans—I don’t know a nicer way to say it), who have a process for exiting, they wander away, often unsupported (though this doesn’t have to be the way. If you are a LGBTQ+ Mennonite or an LGBTQ+ person drawn to the Anabaptist faith tradition who can’t or doesn’t want to “hold it together” anymore, know that you aren’t alone—and that those who have not welcomed you do not define Anabaptism, even if they’d like to.). This is the consequence of what Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader calls “false equivalencies of harm.” At her blog Spacious Faith, she writes:
The current narrative from denominational leaders is that the harm done to two particular groups of people in the church is equivalent:
people who hold “traditional” views of sexuality and marriage are harmed when people disagree with their theology, when people tell them they are wrong, when they have to be church with LGBTQ people and their allies
LGBTQ people are harmed when they are denied full inclusion in the church, when they must defend themselves and their relationships if they want to participate in the church at all, when they are told that part of their essential identity is unacceptable to God.
Please look over these two lists again and here me very clearly: These harms are not equal.
Some people leave with churches, and some people are discarded or give up. When non-welcoming Mennonites “lose,” more people know the mercy of God’s grace and the kindness of God’s justice. When they “win,” the wideness of God’s mercy is diminished.
After months of observing and participating in conversations with Mennonites who would exclude LGBTQ+ (by sexual orientation, by identity, by behavior—however you want to define it) people, I have drawn this unpleasant conclusion: Those who would exclude LGBTQ+ Mennonites from the faith are a danger to others, to the church, and to themselves.
They are a danger to others because they fail to show unconditional love. Once others understand that there are boundaries to your love, they know that they may stumble over them. And then, instead of being vulnerable and honest with you, they feel shame, and they lie in order to stay in relationship with you because you have made it clear that they cannot be honest. They don’t change—they just don’t share themselves with you. They lose the opportunity to be loved by you. You lose authentic relationships and the opportunity to grow in friendship. And others miss the opportunity to love and be loved by you—all because you cannot or will not decide that love can be limitless.
They are a danger to the peace witness of the larger Mennonite faith. According to “Mission and Identity Report: Discerning the Mind of Christ in Conservative Mennonite Conference,” a report by Conrad Kanagy and Jacob Kanagy, 98.1% of CMC respondents to Kanagy and Kanagy’s poll said that same-sex relationships were wrong (slightly more people than those who said abortion was wrong and slightly fewer than who said viewing pornography is wrong), but just 58.1% of the members of those polled felt that Christians should not fight in wars. While it’s true that Mennonites have never perfectly rejected military violence, this peace-church distinctive has perhaps drawn more people to the faith than any other. People come to the Mennonite church not just because it is anti-war but because being anti-war, at its best, stands for so much more: the religious freedom not to support death through taxation; an optimism about peacemaking; a focus on heavenly, not national, citizenship; stewardship of the planet; an affirmation of Jesus’ reconciling ministry. Likewise, an anti-gay position tells us much. In her work on evangelical sex advice websites, sociologist Kelsy Burke argues that religious teachings on sex do more than teach about sex: they teach about gender, reproduction, marriage, and more—and conservative teachings on same-sex sexuality correspond with political conservativism.
Mennonites who choose to exclude LGBTQ+ people espouse a message that increasingly aligns with the militaristic Religious Right. As more churches abandon their Mennonite identities to evangelical ones, they compete with conservative evangelical churches. CCM leaders are aware of the temptations of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and MCUSA needs to stay alert, too. If Mennonite churches become just another kind of politically, socially, and theologically conservative churches, here, they will lose—both to those other churches (who have had decades of practice and who, frankly, are almost always snazzier than your average Mennonite church) and to the rising tide of irreligion. (One million people have left the Southern Baptist Convention in the last 10 years.) If you are attracted to a church with an anti-LGBTQ+ message, you’re probably not looking for one with an anti-war one. On the other hand, if you are looking for a reconciling church that takes Jesus’ call to nonviolence seriously, you are also likely looking for a church that includes, not excludes, queer people. Anti-war, anti-LGBTQ+ Mennonites have few potential consumers in this religious marketplace.
These may be unfair lines to draw, and they are certainly inaccurate in some cases. (The Amish are doing a fine job, entirely through a high birth rate and rate of adult retention, of being both pacifists and anti-gay.) But the broad pattern—that Mennonites who want purity rather than hospitality are going to have to figure out how to distinguish themselves among the many anti-LGBTQ+ churches out there—is true.
When I look into the world, where Mennonites are called to “go and make disciples,” I see a lot of people earning for a faith that opposes military violence as much as they yearn for a faith that embraces LGBTQ+ people. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.
And they are a danger to themselves. The most “compassionate” justification that LGBTQ+ excluding Mennonites have is that they “love the sinner but hate the sin” of same-sex sexual intimacy. It is because you love gay people that you must preach against them, exclude them from fellowship, shame them, and denigrate their loving relationships. The real tragedy, you say, is that this is such lonely work—and you get called “hateful” and “intolerant” for it! LGBTQ+ people don’t even appreciate your efforts to save their souls! Still, though “this will hurt me more than it hurts you,” you soldier on, doing your duty to tell LGBTQ+ people how unacceptable their love is. Because you love them, you must tell them! Because you love them, you mustn’t let them continue to walk in darkness! Because you love them, you must intervene to let them know of God’s coming wrath!
LGBTQ+ excluding Mennonites who adopt this strategy, though, are putting themselves in spiritual danger. Very often, their drive to intervene isn’t born from love by from fear that if they don’t say something, God will be angry at them. Their own identity is tied up in being a “defender” of “what the Bible says,” and their need to bolster that identity controls them. Conveniently for them, the place where they can bolster that identity is on someone who is more vulnerable than they are. (They are far more likely to scold and shame a person they know who is gay than, say, someone who is in the military.) This, ultimately, then, is an act of fear and anxiety (that your identity will falter if you don’t speak against LGBTQ+ intimacy), not love, a self-centered/self-preserving act, not one of Jesus’ unsettling hospitality.