When the Enemy is Within

January 11th, 2011 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz, Editors Blog

In the last 48 hours a number of blog responses to the decision for MC USA to go to Phoenix in 2013 have disturbed me.  First, of all, let me say right up front, I’m extremely disappointed in the decision to continue to hold the convention in a place with such unfriendly immigration laws. I can’t pretend to understand everything that went into the decision but I am disappointed that it appears as though finances won over truly caring about people. If this is not actually what happened, I hope very soon that someone will set the record straight.

However, I am also disappointed in reactions to this decision. I have read two blogs, the one linked above and this one, where the writers suggests that it’s time to abandon the Mennonite church and form something else.  I hope and pray that these writers are speaking out of (justifiable) anger and disappointment and are not ready to act on their expressed anger. Here’s why: Mennonites in particular have a long history of separation and abandonment of those who are “wrong.” Our righteous anger seems to almost exclusively translate into separation, exclusion, shunning, and abandonment.

We have a very spotty history of separating over things that a generation or two later become non-issues. Past examples include Sunday School and instruments in church. These things seem trivial to us. So trivial, in fact, that I even hesitate to compare them to important issues like homosexuality and immigration. However, I think it’s wrong to assume that our ancestors had any less passion about Sunday School than we have about present issues.

I would weep if these minority (or even majority) voices left the denomination. I would weep if the young Mennonites and Anabaptists who are frustrated with the situation just threw up their hands and abandoned the denomination. We need all the voices of the church and we need to learn to talk to those who disagree. We need to learn to how to stay in fellowship with each other, even when we feel like enemies.

I believe this is part of our non-violent calling. What does it say to the world, when we, who claim to have the corner on the peace market, can’t figure out how to talk to each other? Are we called to have less compassion and love when the enemy is within the church? Jesus harshly criticized religious leaders, yet still met with them, talked to them, and stayed in fellowship.

The United States political climate is such that people no longer listen to those who disagree with them. Please let’s not let that reality turn into our reality. A giant institutional government is probably not the future of the church. It certainly seems unwieldy, frustrating, and authoritarian sometimes. I dream of a future church that is a centered set, rather than a bounded set. One who pays more attention to the core vision, mission, and theology than the boundaried edges.  I dream of a denomination that looks more like a network and less like an institution. I dream of a church that can hold in tension more ideas, opinions, and theology, not less.

We will never achieve that dream if those who disagree just abandon us (or are kicked out). Please, stay. Talk. Listen. For only then does the church have a chance at a future.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 11th, 2011 at 11:29 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to “When the Enemy is Within”

  1. Lisa Fleischhauer Says:

    Hard to be the light of the world if you keep running from the darkness. I’m not Mennonite but seems to me that the climate in Arizona NEEDS to hear another voice, if only for a short convention time in 2003.

    AND if the convention is moved to another city, who’s to say what will happen in the re-location city by the time 2013 rolls around!

    Laura – I agree, the Mennonite church would lose so much if a large vocal group split off.

  2. Lisa Fleischhauer Says:

    PLease correct 2003 to read 2013, thank you!!

  3. Mark Van Steenwyk Says:

    I don’t believe that either of the responses you link to suggest leaving the MCUSA. Rather, they both suggest that Mennonites can (and should) find ways to organize and network outside of denominational structures. Is this a bad thing?

  4. lbl346 Says:

    Mark- it is quite possible that I read into these blogs the desire to leave the denomination. I probably over-read phrases like “focus instead in building an alternative community outside of the shell of the old” and “Trying to affect the institutions of Mennonite Church USA feels to me increasingly like a path to burn out and cynicism.” from Tim Nafiziger and “I fear that the Mennonite Church will lose members like myself if it does not recover a Radical Reformation spirit once again.” from Andy Alexis-Baker. It is a failure of mine when I read blogs that I sometimes misread the authors intent.
    I agree that networking and organization outside the denomination is important and necessary. I want more voices, more ideas, more opinions in the denomination, not fewer, and so despite extreme frustration and cynicism I would hope that these writers, and others who agree with them, will continue to stay connected.

  5. Tim Nafziger Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and timely post. I particularly resonate with your vision of a centered set rather then bounded set model. I first came across this idea as part of my work with the Anabaptist Network in the UK and I continue to find it quite useful. A look at their site turns up dozens of references.

    I think your reminder of the fractious tendency in the Mennonite church’s history is an important one. It is a legacy that I reflect on often, especially in relation to similar tendencies on the political left. I can see how you read my blog post as a continuation of that polarization given the sentences you quote. So let me be clear: I’m deeply committed to staying in relationship with my fellow Mennonites. I hope that any experimentation in new ways of being Anabaptist together can co-exist with existing structures. Many of the Anabaptist experiments I’ve already been part of in the last few years have drawn strength, resources and inspiration from existing Mennonite organizations, including the Anabaptist Network in the UK.

    I think it also important in conversations like these to differentiate between structures and the people, especially when we are at our most prophetic. I find Walter Wink’s images of the Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12) and Angels of the Churches (Revelation 2: 1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). In both cases, this is biblical language that differentiates the spirit of the structure from the individuals who are part of it. This biblical language calls us to honor and love the individuals who make up churches or institutions, while also recognizing that the structures they are part of are at the same time good, fallen and being redeemed. Of course, living out that dance in our lives together isn’t always so easy.

  6. Dave Hockman-Wert Says:

    Amen, Laura! I was also disturbed by many of the comments on The Mennonite’s online article. There’s something amazing at people’s ability to show their peacemaking cred to “stand up for the little person” by bashing good-hearted people who are tasked with making a really difficult decision that has no perfect outcome.

    The more I’ve pondered Alexis-Baker’s response (as well as many of his other writings), the more I find him to be strangely akin to the conservative non-Mennonite background pastors who come in to Mennonite churches and lead them out of their conferences and/or MC USA. Like Alexis-Baker, these pastors have railed against MC USA (or its predecessors) for “reinterpreting” Anabaptism, for failing to live up to its true calling, and for being unsalvageable. So they start them on a path out of conference, and all too often, they succeed. I’ve seen this happen multiple times in multiple conferences. And there’s little that makes me angrier.

    Thus, I think I am beginning to understand why I have so little patience with Alexis-Baker’s smug self-righteousness and his claim to know the “truth” of Anabaptism. (Since one of the main truths of Anabaptism is discernment in the ekklesia of gathered believers, it’s a rather astounding claim!) Even though I am on his “side” on many issues, his need to make a name for himself by trashing institutions he only recently came to join is terribly unimpressive and undermines his stated values of peacemaking and following Jesus.

    Dave Hockman-Wert, Corvallis, Ore.

  7. Tim B Says:

    Laura, Thank you for your timely and calming voice. I only take notice of one thing in your post, it is something I have taken issue with all over regarding comments on SB1070 (or “The Arizona Immigration Law” as people keep referring to it.)

    Firstly, Arizona has no immigration laws. Only the feds have laws concerning immigration. Secondly, the state of Arizona is not stopping and asking for papers for all Latinos. They have created a law where, if someone is arrested, they ask for documentation that they are here legally (a license, state ID, or Federal ID will suffice.) Failure to do so is a misdemeanor subject to a $100 fine or up to 20 days in jail. Arizona cannot deport aliens, only the feds can. Speaking of the feds, I.C.E. has been rounding up aliens nationwide in a series of raids and holding them at their leisure. By comparison, Arizona’s law is downright tame. All Arizona’s law really does is affirm federal laws and create a procedure to check immigration status, that’s it. Speaking of the feds and their tactics, one could easily argue that the convention in Pittsburgh this year is equally as dangerous as the one in Arizona. Somehow, we have vilified Arizona for a federal law with which they have little control over. If the Feds did their job, solve the immigration problems that this country has, Arizona”s law would be non-essential, and all it does, as I said, is reaffirm the federal laws. Bearing all of this in mind, one could just as easily say: “The convention should not take place within the United States.”

    (BTW-When I said “Immigration Problems” I didn’t mean the aliens are the problem. However, their illegal status has created a number issues for them and for citizens of the United States. I won’t detail them all here, as I’m sure all of us could rattle off a dozen problems the immigration fiasco has created in the last 20 years. I just want to be sure you know I’m not referring to the people as the problem.)

  8. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard Says:

    With the final decision being made to continue in Phoenix, our energy must now shift from critique of that decision to envisioning how we faithfully, constructively live with this decision. Granted, we should take ample time and space to ensure that denominational decision-makers hear our reasoned dissent, but greater space and energy must now be given to working prophetically together to be a justice-filled church in July 2013–and more importantly, in the 2.5 years until then (including leading up to Pittsburgh).

    Tim, Laura, Mark, I hope your blog networks become substantial space for this constructive visioning and working with our marginalized sisters and brothers, fellow leaders in light of this decision. There is a wide range of groups affected by Phoenix 2013 (denominational leaders and structures, delegates, youth, MCUSA constituents, marginalized groups [esp. the largely migrant churches], convention center workers, residents of Phoenix, outside observers, etc) and thus, an abundance of incarnated responses are now necessary in order to live into our prophetic Christian calling.

    Yes, we disagree (from our own settings of privilege) and some of our sisters and brothers are deeply hurt (from their contexts of disadvantage). Yes, this decision (and the new building in Elkhart) surely indicate that some structural changes must occur in order to ensure that marginal voices play more serious roles in future decision-making processes. But in the meantime, let us commit our Spirited creativity to uncovering resurrection hope in the years leading up to Phoenix.