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“Painholders” are Christians who heroically nurture discernment rather than splitting, says seminary dean

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In this essay, seminary dean Michael A. King speaks of the pain caused by evicting those perceived as being wrong from the church family; he praises Christians who act as “painholders,” who nurture discernment rather than divisiveness. The essay was originally published in the Feb. 1, 2014, edition of The Mennonite.

In our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition we have followed Jesus and evicted whoever gets it wrong. A denominational body excommunicated my father’s parents for starting a Sunday school.

My aunt tells of that 1930s’ “chilly morning, when the little bishop with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his box-like Model-T … to tell my parents [they] … were going to be put out” (Evelyn King Mumaw, The Merging, DreamSeeker Books, 2000).

In the 1990s, the same denominational body excommunicated for its stand on homosexuality a congregation I had pastored in the 1980s. My father’s family would have approved.

It seems Mennonites were ahead of the times. Today literal and verbal bombs maim bodies and spirits. Chasms open across church, culture, politics, faith traditions and world.

Michael A. King

Michael A. King

Wounded by generations of battling

We fight about how Scripture is to be interpreted, including how literally, about sexuality, abortion, evolution, gun rights, climate change, whether government is problem or solution and so much more. We battle not only over how to bridge differences but even over whether to bridge them.

As one who feels in my bones the wounds centuries of splitting have inflicted, I dream of better. I dream of what might happen if more of us became painholders on holy ground.

But to set the stage for painholders, let me (1) probe the riddle lurking when we try to bridge divisions, (2) introduce communities of discernment as a way forward and (3) highlight the need for heroes able to hold the pain involved.

I crashed into the riddle when studying discussions of delegates who excommunicated my former congregation. In my dissertation research, I drew on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to look for evidence of success or failure in the delegate conversations.

Openness to enlarged understanding?

Based on the essential ingredient of conversational success I saw in Gadamer’s thought—openness to grow when faced with the other’s understandings—I found mostly failure.

And I spied the riddle:

“Gadamer’s prejudice toward openness … seems to place problematic limits on precisely the unfettered conversations it means to encourage. It leaves inadequate room for conversation partners who believe the essential integrity of their prejudice will be violated by any compromise. … They hold the stance precisely because it is the one ‘right’ stance required for them to be true to their community and their understanding of its doctrines; how then can they allow their stance to be enlarged? Meanwhile it seems Gadamer cannot accept their closure without violating the non-negotiable openness on which his conversation depends” (Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, Pandora Press U.S., 2001).

With Gadamer, I conclude, true conversation requires genuine openness to the other. I’m inspired by the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 conviction that now we know only in part. Hence we’ll want to allow our partial understandings to grow. And growth involves openness to views other than the one we start out holding.

But “the open” find it hard to be open to “the closed.” And “the closed” see it as violating their stand to be open to “the open.” So I can preach until I’m blue in the face (and my face is often blue) that Christians will be open to treasures in perspectives other than our own.

Treasures in other perspectives

Yet the “closed” will hear me as imposing an openness that closes them out, as demanding they play a game rigged against them. Should they in turn insist our divisions can heal only if I yield to their One True Truth, I’ll likewise experience the game as rigged. That’s the riddle.

Can we solve the riddle? If we could do it easily, we’d not lob more missiles by the hour. Yet I dream of painholders helping us try.

Their work is rooted in our moving from battling each other to collaborating in discernment. Among Christians, I’d define discernment as involving the community of believers gathered in Jesus’ name around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit to let God show us the way through the urgent, complicated and often divisive issues of a given time and place.

The Jesus of Matthew 18:18-20 inspires this vision for becoming communities of discernment. When two or three gather in his name, Matthew’s Jesus promises to be present. Jesus also amazingly says that what we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven.

How are we being invited to think, speak, live?

What if Jesus is giving us the holy and agonizing mandate properly to discern in our given settings how God is inviting us to think and speak and live?

If so, openness is involved—but it’s an openness to Scripture and Spirit. The call is not simply to be open to each other’s fallible human opinions but also together to tussle with something from Beyond.

Amid such grappling, just maybe “the open” can begin to see some “closed” views as valuable commitments to faithful hearings of Scripture and Spirit. And just maybe “the closed” can see some “open” views as not only misguided efforts to dilute the faith but as likewise flowing from Scripture and Spirit.

But this is difficult, complicated, agonizing work. That’s why we need the painholders.

I met them one evening over supper at a retreat. Because they help lead congregational groupings geographically near each other, they not only confer regularly but are sometimes drawn into the same dynamics. My fallible impression is that they might themselves tend toward different sides of some divides.

Painholders endure torment for sake of discernment

Yet both are passionately committed to something larger than position-imposing/defending. Both love the people in their charge, whatever their views. Both root for a church grander than whatever slivers manage to remain connected if in any disagreement one side must be victorious or both must split so each may go its “faithful” way.

When divisions come, these painholders resist widening them. Instead they walk lovingly into the torment, with a courage that evokes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego preferring life in the fiery furnace to giving up faithfulness to God. They absorb the pain. They absorb and absorb still more as they nurture not splitting but discernment.

Ceaselessly they roam among their shouting, suffering people. Relentlessly they invite the open to see in “the closed” not only blind rigidities or legalisms but a faithfulness the open ought also be open to. Endlessly they invite “the closed” to be open to the possibility that in “the open” there may be faithfulness and not only error.

Living with messy results

The results are rarely clearcut; we live in the mess of our times. But what I glimpsed that night at supper, as they told of pain they sought to hold and not heighten, was the hope of the church. I saw that they walk on holy ground. The ground is holy because God, as the lyrics of Arna Czarnikow remind us, “walks the dark hills” even of our peaks and valleys of hate. So the painholders look for God’s spoor even in the desolate deserts of division.

Instead of only imposing their theological biases—though like all of us they have them—they invite worshiping the God of the burning bush. They invite taking off our shoes before the God who is God beyond our human names for and understandings of God. You can see the cost in their faces. Still, Gethsemane in their bones, they hold the pain.

I dream of such painholders as models. I dream of them as offering templates for living the gospel in that far-off land whose outskirts the better angels of my splitting-prone ancestors invite us to enter: God’s country. In this country we love enemies, heap blessings on those who persecute us, send forgiveness 70 times seven down like waters on those who have offended us, at last pluck from our own eye the redwood log so we can see how tiny is the speck in the other’s eye.

As a seminary dean, I dream of seminaries, denominations and congregations coming to see painholders as the heroes of our time. I dream of teaching our students, congregants and each other that in our day painholding is a calling of callings. And I dream of painholders in turn showing us how at least to take another step toward solving the riddle of the open closed to the closed and the closed closed to the open.

Essay-writer Michael A. King, PhD, is one of the vice presidents of Eastern Mennonite University, as well as dean of its seminary, which he hopes will become a discernment training center. He is also the founding publisher of Cascadia Publishing House, LLC.

One Response to "“Painholders” are Christians who heroically nurture discernment rather than splitting, says seminary dean"

  1. Lisa Schirch says:

    This is a brilliant and prophetic essay. When the followers of Jakob Amman and Hans Reist disagreed about the nature of shunning and whether it included just not sharing communion together or complete social shunning, the resulting Anabaptist groups excommunicated each other. One said, “if even one hair on my head wanted to reconcile, I would pluck it out.” And these were our pacifist ancestors who believed in peace in a time of war.

    Surely Anabaptists can do better. “Painholders” and “conflict transformers” are surely Anabaptist leaders who are willing to take risks to follow their moral compass.

    I do wish theological leaders would challenge the basis of shunning and splitting… I don’t see Jesus doing this in the Bible. .