July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.

In Christ there is no East or West

Dear Rebecca:

I’m sorry I haven’t posted lately. My silence has been driven by two things: Busyness, but also a deep anger about our politics — with heartless Republicans and smug liberals — and, well, I haven’t trusted myself to comment rationally and persuasively.

I went to church this morning, though, and got to sing the traditional version of this untraditional Mavis Staples take on an old hymn:

The United Methodist Church has an interesting website devoted to the history of hymns. About the original version, it says this:

As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young observes, “[t]he theme of Oxenham’s hymn, one of the most durable hymnic statements of Christian unity in the twentieth century, is from Galatians 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.’”

Though originating in the missionary movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this hymn gratefully lacks the triumphalism and hegemonic assumptions of so many mission hymns of this era. Perhaps the author’s extensive travel helped him develop a sense of Christian unity beyond the racial and cultural differences that he observed.

This is my animating idea when it comes to the church, I guess. It’s why I resist Christianity as tribalism, or as a force that reinforces our tribalism. If there is a god and that being is the God of us all, what excuse do we have to separate ourselves and to exult in, be prideful about, those separations?

It was a good morning to be in church. A time to be reminded of some important stuff.

Sincerely,
Joel

Jesus Wants Me to Love Donald Trump (Or: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?)

Dear Rebecca:

Wait. Wait a minute. Gotta finish listening to this Elvis Costello track.

OK. Where were we?

Oh, yeah. It turns out that there’s going to be plenty of room on my “I hate Trumpism, but I’m going to love Trumpistas” bandwagon. As in: I’m possibly the only one on it.

That’s ok. I didn’t expect anybody to embrace it, really, and some of the objections are really, really good. What the last few days have made me realize is this: The advent of Donald Trump has made me embrace the Mennonite aspects of my personality much more than I’d realized. I like to think of myself as an agnostic, but the wisdom I’m seeking — and appeal to — has its roots in pacifist-Christian traditions that find their fullest expression among Mennonites, Quakers and other so-called “peace churches.” There’s a contradiction there for me, no doubt. It’s not going to be resolved today.

It also means that the stuff I’m writing here might be of limited use to a general audience. So.

Still, I want to talk about a couple of issues that were raised in response to my piece this week, if only to be more clear.

How can you talk about being friends with people who are clearly bad? There are a few variations on this theme, and I don’t mean to oversimplify it here, only to cover the broadest ground.

So let’s talk about Martin Luther King Jr.

I acknowledged in the last piece that King, in the 21st century, is kind of problematic. Lots of people whose commitment to racial equality seems, er, less than stout, appeal to his example regularly, sometimes to mean things he probably didn’t mean. Some of those people prefer to see black folks embrace nonviolence because that means they’re not going to face the armed rebellion they so surely deserve.

Still, I’m kind of surprised that some folks these days seem to dismiss his example so easily. When I talked about King’s example with an online friend this week, her response was: “He got shot.”

Well. Yeah. So did Gandhi, from whom King borrowed a lot of his approach. Their deaths were tragic, and I don’t mean to treat them lightly here.

But it’s also clear to me that Gandhi and King led movements that created unprecedented breakthroughs in their respective societies. Gandhi used nonviolence to help the Indian people achieve self-determination; it’s thanks to the movement King led that the laws evolved to guarantee the right of black people to go to vote, go shopping, and get an education like their white peers.

What they did worked. Did it produce 100 percent victories? No. Such victories are rare. But their societies were transformed. That’s a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it: What have you accomplished for justice lately? (I’m speaking of a general “you,” Rebecca, not you you.)

What both men sought was justice and reconciliation.

King:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

Gandhi:

My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.

The intertwining of justice and reconciliation was important to both men. I’m not sure why we find it so easy to ignore, or even dismiss, their examples.

Which reminds me of a point I really, really want to emphasize:

When I say “justice and reconciliation are intertwined,” it is not to diminish the role of justice. If I suggest that justice requires reconciliation, then the opposite is also true: Reconciliation requires justice. That means true friendship won’t be achieved until justice is. Seeking reconciliation isn’t about being namby-pamby in the pursuit of justice, but rather recognizing that reconciliation — while a good unto itself — is probably necessary to cement the gains that justice makes. The best example of this? South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. 

I’ve got some more thoughts about what that means, but maybe that’s for another post.

Wait. One other thought:

Does this mean I have to love Trump, too?

Short answer, yes. Kind of. Ugh. Longer answer: It’s complicated.

This conclusion makes me itch, frankly. But if I’m seeking wisdom from the Mennonite tradition, then I Timothy 2 probably bears some contemplating:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”

So does Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, loveyour enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

(Aside: This is why I’m skeptical of Christianity as tribalism. Because this is the opposite of tribalism, and what’s more, this shit is really, really, really fucking hard to do.)

Now: My own inclination is to make some distinctions. When I say I’m going to love Donald Trump supporters, dammit, it’s partly because they’re not Donald Trump. Best I can tell — and I don’t know his heart — he does awful things without remorse and for entirely base motives. The people who voted for him? Somewhat more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. Recognizing my own humanity forces me to recognize theirs, which forces me in turn to offer a bit of grace.

(True story: I cut off contact with a high school friend who, I felt, made racist jokes about Obama. When my mom died, though, he organized a dinner of guys from my graduating class upon my return to my hometown. It was an act of grace from an unexpected source. And I hate the racism I still perceive in this guy. But I also see where he’s trying to be better than what he is. So what’s my duty here?)

(This stuff is hard.)

Longer story short: Donald is responsible for his own actions more than his supporters are, though they bear some responsibility. If I get around to reconciling with him — and hoo boy, justice will have to be involved there — it’ll be after justice and reconciliation have happened, for me, at a broader, societal level.

Am I rambling? I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m thinking out loud. I’m almost finished with this post, swear.

Are we really in a civil war? I have a tremendously smart friend who objects to one of the core ideas of the last post: That we’re in, or headed for, a sort of civil war.

“Yeah, there’s a foul mood out there, and there are some paranoid people. And maybe it will get so bad that we’ll all freak out on each other. But I doubt it,” he writes. “I think we’re in an unpleasant period in our democracy. Not the first one.”

I hope he’s right. My own sense of things isn’t quite as hopeful as that, admittedly, and the people who I’m in contact are probably mostly in the top 15 percentile of Americans in terms of how much they care about politics. But politics isn’t everything, and maybe if I stepped back, I’d see more clearly that we’re a long way from that civil war.

Like I said, I hope he’s right.

All of this ruminating, which you’ve been so kind to read — or at least scan — probably isn’t a good guide to political organizing. It’s my own attempt to figure out how to live justly and humanely in an unjust and inhumane world. Your mileage may vary.

As I told one interlocutor:

I hate to get mystical about all this, but: On one level, I suspect that we’re each of us called to different roles in this. I think it’s clear the approach I want to take — one of resistance, and yet also fiercely resisting the ways polarization make us miserable — is one that few other people agree with, or can see a through-line to obtain the kind of justice they seek.

“You do you” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also a mission statement. I’m taking the approach I take because I think we’re in a dehumanizing era – Trumpism is, I think, dehumanizing – and I want to resist that to the point that I don’t even give myself permission to dehumanize the Trumpistas. I’m not necessarily good at that, but I also think it’s a lot to ask of folks like you. This is my mission, not yours. That’s OK.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Thanks for listening to me think.

Sincerely,
Joel

What Mike Pence Gets Right about Marriage and Wrong about Religious Freedom Makes Him Unfit for Office

I generally consider presidential and vice-presidential wives off limits for discussion, figuring that their lives are terrible enough, though I really struggle with anyone woman who could support either Trump or Pence.

Image result for mike pence wife inaugural ball

Above, Mike and Karen Pence wave at the crowd and one of the several inaugural balls this past January. Want to read more about how conservative Christian women understand freedom through constraint? Check me out

You may have heard that Mike Pence never dines alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, nor does he attend events where there is alcohol present without her. If he were someone else, I’d say cool, whatever your marriage needs.  Maybe it means he doesn’t trust himself not to sexually assault women. Maybe it means he doesn’t want to be falsely accused of sexual impropriety. Maybe it means he’s been unfaithful (or addicted to alcohol) before and that hurt his wife, or maybe her father was a philanderer or an alcoholic, and this is his way of addressing any insecurity she might have about lousy husbands. If it was just about them, I would be happy to give Pence the privacy and dignity in his relationships that he has withheld from same-sex couples.

But it’s not just about him. His decision to never meet with a woman alone means that men have had more access to him than women. That means that women have not had an equal opportunity to petition their government–our First Amendment Right. It means the women of Indiana (and now the women of the whole US) are not being treated equally under the law.

I’m sure Pence has his reasons–potentially even good ones–for this personal standard. If his reason is so worthwhile, though, he should have taken pains to insure that it didn’t undermine anyone else’s opportunities or rights. How?

He could meet with no one one-on-one.

If Pence could organize his life so that he never met with a woman alone, he could also have organized it so that he never met with a man alone.

This would have insured that all constituents had an equal opportunity to meet with him.

If that idea seems unworkable–How could he get any business done?–then you understand that his choice made politics unworkable for women. You also now see your assumption that politics is for men, not women.

This is typical Pence, though: willing to make women bear the costs of HIS personal choice. (Ironic, yes, for someone arguing against federal funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s moral failing.)

But it’s the same logic behind his anti-LGBT efforts in Indiana. An anti-LGBT Christian makes the personal choice to be a florist. She refuses to provide flowers for a wedding of two gay men. If you think that the First Amendment and equality are important, you probably think that the florist is choosing both her anti-gay faith and her job. She is not compelled to either, but the law does mandate that she treats customers equally. She has a choice: defy what she sees as a key point of her faith (Thou shalt not arrange flowers for gay weddings!) or quit being a florist.

You make your choice, and you take your consequences–but you don’t demand that someone else take the consequences of you living out your faith. That’s on you.

And you know who really should understand this, dear 606 readers? Mennonites. Even conservative Mennonites who oppose gay marriage. Because we are asked all the time to make the choice to compromise our faith or live with the consequences. And we do! Our kids get heckled for not saying the pledge. (“You must hate God!” as one sweet child told my daughter this year.) Our grandparents went to CPS instead of war, and our great-grandparents got tarred and feathered for refusing to serve in or support World War I.  Some of us pay the consequence of war tax resistance. The proudest parts of our history aren’t Anabaptists dying for their faith–they are the stories of Anabaptists refusing to let our enemies die so that our faith could be protected.

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Above, a woodcut telling the story of Dirk Willems. A Dutch Anabaptist in the mid-1500s when the faith was illegal, Willems fled a prison guard by crossing thin ice. When the guard fell in behind him, Willems turned back to rescue the man, leading to his own capture and, eventually, burning. 

Pence doesn’t have to be a theologian or a church historian to understand this, though. He simply has to care that his constituents and his colleagues have equal access to his ear. If he did–or if he had bothered to consult with a woman with more insight than the women he apparently does bother to talk to–he would have either stopped his discrimination against women or changed his policy to insure that he didn’t dine with men alone, either. His other choice was to not take a job that would require him to be alone with women in order to guarantee their basic constitutional rights. (Other examples: if you don’t want to look at ladyparts, don’t become an ob-gyn. If you don’t want to pour booze, don’t open a bar. If you don’t want to defend people who have done wrong, don’t be a public defender.) That, not his perhaps unusual marriage protocols, is why he’s unfit for office.

And his selfish, lazy Christianity should have clued you in.

 

Yes, Rod Dreher, Irrelevant Christians Should Go Away

My pendulum doesn’t swing quite as far as Joel’s when it comes to Rod Dreher. I am grateful for his work on Catholic child sex abuse. I can’t imagine the anguish of leaving his beloved Catholic church in light of that, but I admire him deeply for following his conscience. And I’m appreciative of his honesty about his regret for supporting the Iraq War. I think we need to give everyone (ourselves included) ample space to turn around when we’ve made a mistake.

But Dreher has done a lot of damage, too–especially in collapsing gay priests and pedophile priests, a move often used by those who scapegoat gay men for the child rape scandals that have rocked the Catholic church worldwide in their effort to defend the church’s cover-ups. And his worry that LGBT acceptance will be the end of Christianity is so overwrought that you have to wonder if it’s not the the result of some kind of spiritual or psychological wound, not just a gross, ahistorical statement. (The argument for Indian genocide or the enslavement of Africans was a much bigger affront to faith.) I wish Dreher could see how child sex abuse, misogyny, and anti-LGBT sentiment are related. Both rely on patriarchy, secrecy, and shame. I wish Dreher, who has shown himself to be a “big picture” thinker in many ways, could see that bigger picture.  Obviously, he’s not a pedophile priest, but his anti-LGBT statements and commitment to repressive gender norms also endanger children.

So when Dreher threatens to head to a monastery, I’m not sure I’d miss him.

Image result for meteoraAbove, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Meteora. Six active convents or monasteries, plus now-emptied ones, rest like eyries upon gigantic rock formations. It’s one of my favorite places. Dreher looks to the monastic tradition as a model for retreating from the world, to “embed ourselves in stable communities of faith,” in order to deepen spiritual faith. 

I’ve just finished The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation published by Sentinel, Penguin’s right-of-center imprint, and Dreher’s argument is pretty clear: we are in “post-Christian Dark Ages,” and the only way for Christians to keep their faith is to withdraw. He doesn’t call for them to head to actual monasteries but to create stronger Christian “villages”–for example, by homeschooling and living within walking distance of others of faith. The goal is twofold: to strengthen individuals’ faith and also to allow Christianity to survive (and maybe one day reappear triumphant, as it did after the Dark Ages).

Image result for st benedict of nursia

To the left, an image of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the western monastic tradition. 

Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby have developed a model for understanding religious groups’ orientation to the world: world conquerors, transformers, creators, and renouncers, patterns influenced by structure, chance, and choice. Dreher is calling for Christians to choose to renounce the world.

I’m empathetic to Dreher’s position, to an extent. As a native of rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I grew up isolated both physically and culturally. I headed off to a small liberal arts college in the rural mountains of Pennsylvania, a college with historic ties to religion in a region filled with churches and religious believers. In the lead up to Y2K, the land around me was being turned into bunkers–a really extreme Benedict option. I’ve taught in similar places. I currently live in Utah, where the LDS history of retreat and empire building continue to inform politics and faith. And I’ve loved living in religious and ethnic enclaves. When I taught at Hesston College, a small Mennonite college in Kansas, I drove past a half dozen Mennonite churches on the way to work. Each morning, I dropped off my child at the Mennonite childcare center and preschool that was located inside the Mennonite nursing home that was on the same block as my Mennonite college. Each afternoon, I returned to find my Mennonite baby being rocked by old Mennonite ladies who volunteered in the center. My child could have lived much of his life–infancy through pre-K, college, then retirement–on that single block.  My membership is in a church that started as an intentional community with a common purse. This kind of life can be lovely and also stifling.

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Above, “The Cliffs,” a place for retreat and mediation above within walking distance of Juniata College, my alma mater. The Juniata River runs through the valley below.

The Amish might be die Stille im Lande, but American Mennonites have generally been a rural, quiet people too, disengaged from politics, doubtful about the ability of government to get good results, and focused on their spiritual citizenship. The result has been a privileged ignorance about how the overwhelming whiteness of American Mennonites has benefited from institutional racism–like the Homestead Act, which allowed for cheap rural Midwestern settlement after the indigenous people of the region had been removed.

The Mennonite focus on rural life and retreat hasn’t always been our story, though. Early Mennonites were urban radicals, rabblerousers  who, in rejecting both Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation, were also rejecting the government and demanding radical change in politics. Though much reporting on Mennonite political engagement is about the shock of discovering that Mennonites are politically engaged, engagement, not just retreat, is part of our history. We haven’t always been–and many of us still aren’t–world renouncers.

World renouncers are relatively rare in Christianity–and for good reasons. First, isolation to a religious community has to be something you are called to; it can’t be something you impose on someone else–even one’s one children. What is faith if it’s not worked out? And how can it be worked out if it’s given or demanded by one’s parents or community? How strong is a faith that is never tried? How useful is it?

Those drawn to retreat won’t survive it if they are choosing it out of fear of the world, as Dreher seems to. A faith that can’t survive a pluralistic society won’t survive a purified one, either.

Dreher is quite right in his insistence (the real gift in this book) that “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.” And there are times when we must exit the world in order to wrestle with and renew that faith. But these are moments–maybe some moments every day, maybe shorter or longer uninterrupted periods of retreat. For most of us, our calling (and our challenge) is to learn to think and,more importantly, to do our faith in the world where we already are.

Those who retreat in order to save Christianity, as if it is some priceless artwork to be hidden from the Nazis, already have little faith. If your Christianity can’t weather the world, it’s not worth much. If it doesn’t speak to the needs of this present world–the only one we can serve–then the world doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t deserve to survive.