"It's Hard Work to be an Oppressor:" Notes from a Movement

February 27, 2014

These are difficult times for those who wish to preserve the status quo within the Mennonite Church. It is no secret that major parts of the denomination are in open rebellion, with denominational officials desperately attempting to reassert control and quell the turmoil. Attention has primarily focused upon Mountain States Conference for their decision to license Theda Good to the ministry. But other challenges remain; including the current discernment process happening at Eastern Mennonite University, the growing number of signatures to the inclusive pastor’s open letter, the increasing number of conferences that refuse to punish pastors who perform same sex marriages, the groundswell of young adult activism, and the sea change in social attitudes related to lgbtq people. Most of us were bitterly disappointed by the recent actions of the Executive Board. Truly, church leadership missed another important opportunity to help the denomination begin to step back from its disturbing history of abuse and maltreatment of lgbtq people. Instead, leaders chose to reinforce hurtful ideologies and uphold legalistic justifications that are increasingly being exposed as mean-spirited, uninformed and destructive. Old tricks like shaming Mountain State Conference and threatening punitive actions while simultaneously attempting to distract members with tired promises of “listening,” a dubious “third way,” appeals to “unity,” and odd declarations of “love,” are no longer working as well as they have in the past. And that’s a good thing. Perhaps one of the great lessons of the merger was the moral bankruptcy of creating “unity” on the backs of a marginalized group of people. We cannot be duped into that kind of compromise ever again. It might sound odd and terribly awry, but I actually marvel at this moment. Before dismissing me as crazy, please hear me out. The history of organized work for lgbtq inclusion within the Mennonite Church is nearly four decades old. It has been a classic progression of grassroots social change that began with lgbt individuals fearfully coming out to themselves and carefully doing the hard and courageous work of forming an organization (BMC) for support and advocacy. The realities of the times meant a lot of effort for very little gain in terms of denominational change. A major breakthrough happened in the early 90’s, when the Mennonite and Brethren lgbt community made the intentional decision to shed some of its internalized oppression and move from explaining and apologizing for our humanity to celebrating the sacred goodness of the lgbt community. With a growing sense of confidence, allies and congregations were invited to join in the creation and celebration of “grace-filled sacred space” that modeled what a vibrant faith community could be. While a powerful and necessary expression of community and hope, this remained a sanctuary based movement whose efforts at institutional change were generally met with a dismissive disinterest by church leaders. A shift came later as the BMC board, concerned about the experience of young lgbt youth who were being raised in hostile congregations, consciously moved to more of an advocacy posture vis-a-vis the church. This meant shifting resources into congregational trainings, growing the Supportive Communities Network (SCN), creating educational resources, and encouraging allies within Mennonite and Brethren congregations to find their voice. The emergence of Pink Menno in 2009, with its excellent leadership, playful witness and youthful energy pushed the movement for lgbtq equality to a new level of visibility and engagement. Meanwhile, pastors of SCN congregations were stepping forward with a strong theological voice that challenged the religious foundations of queer oppression. Congregations were exerting their presence and influence within conferences, while emerging queer groups and gay/straight alliances were making their presence known on college campuses. With that backdrop, think with me for a moment about what is happening right now: +Whole conferences are stepping up and challenging denominational polity. +Mennonite educational institutions are slowly moving towards eradicating decades old policies of blatant discrimination. +SCN congregations are growing rapidly (37% in the past two years). +Pastors are signing letters of inclusion and blessing same sex relationships. +College students are actively engaging trustees and demanding change. +Young adults are stepping into leadership roles throughout the church. +Queer scholars are engaged in serious analytical work. +Lgbtq people are coming out of the woodwork, and +More and more non-lgbtq people are currently standing in solidarity. With these factors in place, punitive decisions made by church officials to protect the status quo, long made in a perfunctory, almost careless fashion, are now being forced out into the open and actively challenged. As my friend and colleague Katie Hochstedler often comments, “It’s hard work to be an oppressor.” Although there remain many willing laborers , it does appear to be harder and harder work to justify anti-lgbtq behaviors within the Mennonite Church. This should only accelerate as more and more people realize what lgbtq people have known for a long time - that our lives, our love, our bodies, our gifts and our presence within the church are an expression of the goodness of the divine Spirit. But before we become overly optimistic, let me also state that progress is in no way inevitable. Indeed, it is at this very point where allies often disappoint by leaving in anger, compromising too readily, retreating to pockets of safety, or backing down in the face of pressure. What is desperately needed are those who are able to stand strong and gentle, loving and firm, and who are willing to hunker down for the long haul. Because this struggle is not simply about the well being of lgbtq people. Rather, this is a struggle for the soul and life of the church; the kind of people that we are and strive to become. In that sense, this movement is connected with every other struggle for liberation, dignity and respect, which is why we must be clear in rejecting efforts that seek, as did the Executive Board often does and did in its report, to pit one marginalized group against another. We are in this together, and the needs are many. So how might we respond in this kairos moment? With trust in our collective wisdom, I offer a few suggestions: +Write letters to Ervin Stutzman. But even more, write letters of support to the leaders of Mountain State Conference, to pastors who signed the Open Letter, to congregations who are publicly affirming of lgbtq people and part of the SCN network. Thank these people for their courage, their willingness to be in solidarity with a marginalized group, their vision for a kinder and more just Mennonite Church. Encourage them to stand firm. Then send a copy of your letter to members of the Executive Board. +If your congregation is not a member of the Supportive Communities Network, then your work is clear: begin this conversation and educational process within your local church. BMC and Pink Menno have resources to help you. +If you are an alumni, student, or donor to a Mennonite College or University, contact your board of trustees, college president and/or alumni association and call upon your school to change its discriminatory hiring practices. Goshen College’s Open Letter offers a model for response. www.gcopenletter.org. +If your pastor’s name does not appear on the Open Letter, schedule an appointment with her/him to discuss why not. Listen carefully, but also speak persuasively. +Learn about the intersections of oppression and the many ways that multiple systems of discrimination impact and enhance the vulnerability of particularly groups of people. Note how these dynamics are played out within the Mennonite Church and support efforts to mitigate against intersectional oppression. Learn how to be an effective ally and operate in solidarity with marginalized groups. +Show up...and wear pink. +Pay less attention to what leaders say to you personally, more attention to what they say publicly, and the most attention to how they actually act. +This work is difficult to do in isolation. Share, share, share. Connect, talk, write, sing, dance and imagine a more just and humane future! Most of all, plan on being in Chicago this summer for a conference that gathers the welcoming Mennonite community and collectively plans for our future. Dates and additional information will soon be released - be on the lookout! Strength and courage in the struggle, Carol Wise

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Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests

PO Box 6300

Minneapolis, MN 55406

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