Progress, of a sort

“Christian University Rethinking Ban On Hiring Openly Gay Faculty” is ordinarily a headline I’d browse past without much thought (especially on Queerty, where the next thing in browsing order is probably a curated assortment of images of freshly-out Tom Daley) But when I saw it the week before last, the third paragraph caught my eye:

Eastern Mennonite University could be the first Mennonite institution to formally reverse its policy that prohibits tenure-track faculty from engaging in same-sex relationships. Currently, openly gay professors in same-sex relationships are not eligible for employment. If they want to work at the university, they must keep their relationship statuses a secret.

Yeah, so that would be the same Eastern Mennonite University that occupies an entry on my curriculum vitae.

As I found out from a press release at the university website, the EMU board of trustees has “authorized President Loren Swartzendruber, DMin, and his cabinet ‘to design and oversee a six-month listening process … to review current hiring policies and practices with respect to individuals in same-sex relationships.’”

What precisely are those “hiring policies and practices”? Well, EMU expects its faculty, staff, and students to adhere to a Community Lifestyle Commitment that includes a pledge to “refrain from sexual relationships outside of marriage.” Per the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (a doctrinal document of Mennonite Church USA, the national organizing body of the church), “marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” So if you’re gay or lesbian and want to work for EMU, well, you can’t have a dating life—and certainly not a long-term, committed relationship—and also keep your Lifestyle Commitment.

That fact that this effective ban on the employment of LGBT people (and, indeed, education of LGBT students) only becomes apparent if you cross-reference two different policy statements tells you everything you need to know about how the Mennonite Church has historically operated w/r/t queer people: as indirectly as humanly possible. Back when I was on the EMU campus, lo these almost 10 years ago, that cross-referencing was a highly effective way to ensure that anyone on campus who even thought he might be gay (ahem) was alone and afraid for his academic standing.

Things may be better now. Indeed, with the university finally moving to discuss the possibility of maybe thinking about catching up to such radical social innovators as the U.S. military and the state of Iowa, things could be about to get a lot better. But I can’t say that I’m encouraged by the framing of this “listening process” so far.

Citing the thoughts of one board member, Swartzendruber said, “Unilateral decision-making leads to broken relationships and rogue actions. Collaborative decision-making means that a community is functioning well. This board’s decision and this process will, I think, show how well our community functions …

“Collaborative decision-making” is also an excellent way to privilege the majority perspective over whatever harm it does to a minority. It’s what gave the Mennonite Church its Confession of Faith, and EMU its Community Lifestyle Commitment. So, on behalf of the students who are where I was a decade ago, I dearly hope this results in better treatment—but I think they’d be better off getting well away from any community that wants to collaboratively decide who they can love.◼

Four-part sheet music is a challenging read

Via Kottke: Craig Fehrman has posted the complete text of a “lost” 1996 profile of David Foster Wallace written for Details magazine by David Streitfeld. It’s quite short, but it includes a couple of details about Wallace’s relationship with Christianity I hadn’t heard before, including one that really shouldn’t be surprising given how much of his life he spent in the Midwest:

Recently he found a Mennonite house of worship, which he finds sympathetic even if the hymns are impossible to sing.

Ten Thousand Villages making millions

Via Roxy Allen: Ten Thousand Villages, the not-for-profit seller of fairly traded handicrafts founded by Mennonite Central Committee, earns a write-up in Forbes. TTV’s roots apparently go back to 1946, when a Mennonite mission worker started bringing embroidery back from Puerto Rico — last year the U.S. branch of the charity brought in $24 million. And, as Forbes has it, they’re doing well by harnessing upscale consumerism for good.

New stores are in tony suburbs, in gentrifying neighborhoods and near college campuses. The typical consumer: an educated, socially conscious woman, aged 25 to 54, with a household income of $70,000 to $100,000. She might be looking for an inexpensive wedding present, replenishing her supply of Equal Exchange coffee or browsing racks of cheap jewelry for a gift to herself she’ll feel virtuous for buying.

Mennonites in pink

Pink Menno Campaign is organizing people to support broader (and officially-sanctioned) inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Mennonite Church by wearing pink at the upcoming biennial convention of Mennonite Church USA.

Mennonites are in a slightly unusual position w/r/t sexual orientation — the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective accepts only heterosexual marriage — but the CoF is more a descriptive than a prescriptive document, and because MCUSA lacks some sort of centralized doctrinal enforcement, a few individual congregations do welcome LGBTQ folks and even perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Sometimes such congregations and/or their pastors are “disciplined” in various ways by the local-level church authorities that can do such things, and the results are never happy.

I thought it was a big deal when, as a delegate at the last MCUSA conference, I was involved in preparing a statement on behalf of young Mennos that included a very brief nod to broader inclusion; much more recently, a group of Mennonite pastors signed an open letter to the church calling for an end to the exclusion of LGBTQ folks. (An article in Mennonite Weekly Review covers both the letter and its context.) Progress? Hard to say. A Delegate Assembly full of pink t-shirts is a mighty appealing image, though.

Hello to all of that

With 2008 nearly over, Mennonite institutions are looking forward to the challenges of the new year. Mennonite Weekly Review has not one but two minor prophecies in their Editorial section. Editor Paul Schrag calls out President-Elect Barack Obama on his promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan:

To keep Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq, the United States must recognize that “we can’t kill our way to victory,” said Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to Congress in September. … When a top-ranking military official urges using more “soft power,” those who reject the “war on terror” can join that call.

And Harvey Yoder reminds readers that an economic recovery based on consumption isn’t exactly Biblical:

… to pray for the recovery of a consumer-driven old order is to counter Jesus’ brand of good news. In his upside-down kingdom, where his words about wealth are both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed.

Mennonites and Barack Obama

In this week’s Mennonite Weekly Review, Steve Kriss confesses to something traditionally un-Mennonite: having a political position. Specifically, in favor of Barack Obama. This is awkward both because Steve is a pastor, and has to be in pastoral relationship with people across the political spectrum, and because of the compromises necessary when you have to vote for one of two candidates. And what do you do when the guy you backed because of religious principle wins?

I am wondering how the Anabaptist message might be relevant in this changing world. Who are we becoming, and who might we become, in an America that elects Obama as president? Will we have more “Esther moments” of speaking truth to power? Or is it a time to renew the tradition of separation from the world?

Photo by

And from a Mennonite perspective, there’s a lot to like about Obama (especially, I would say, in contrast to John McCain; but that’s another argument). He favors applying government resources to social programs, but is friendly to working with “faith-based” groups to do so; opposed the war in Iraq from the start, and favors diplomacy over military force; and seems to have a genuinely reflective personal faith. And, of course, Obama represents a transcendence of American culture and racial barriers that Mennonites have long aspired to, if not achieved.

But Obama isn’t Mennonite. He opposed the invasion of Iraq because it was a stupid move, not because he’s opposed to war in all its forms. He practically channeled George W. Bush during the campaign, talking about what he wants to do to Osama Bin Ladin. An Obama administration will be more peaceful than the Bush administration, but that’s like saying Obama is taller than a hobbit. Mennonites, and members of the other historic peace churches, will still have a role in witnessing to peace.

Conservative talk show host worried about “honesty” at Mennonite colleges

Someone attending a sporting event at Mennonite-affiliated Goshen College got his or her panties in a knot because Goshen, doesn’t play the National Anthem before games. (Just as with my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen takes the Mennonite loyalty to Christ over the state very seriously.) So this disgruntled sports fan called conservative radio talk show host Mike Gallagher to berate a liberal arts school with a student body somewhere south of 2,000. MWR reports that, apart from the McCarthyite concern with pledging allegiance to state authority, Gallagher is worried that pacifist Mennonites may not represent war fairly:

On his New York-based The Mike Gallagher Show, eighth in the nation in audience size, Gallagher criticized Goshen in a Nov. 7 broadcast, then invited Bill Born, dean of students, to speak on the show Nov. 10.

In that broadcast, Gallagher said he appreciated “the Christian nature of the Mennonite church,” but was concerned about whether Goshen was teaching against war in U.S. history.

“How would any student get an honest assessment of war at the Goshen College environment?” Gallagher said.

What Gallagher means, of course, is that pacifist history professors can’t be trusted to represent war as useful or necessary. And frankly, he’s right. In eight years of Mennonite private-school education, I took a lot of history classes, and I can’t say I ever got the impression that war was worthwhile. But that wasn’t because my teachers were teaching propaganda – it was because they fully represented the costs and consequences of armed conflict.

My question to Gallagher is, how can a history teacher honestly tell her students that war is useful or necessary?

Mennonites in the marketplace

In this week’s Mennonite Weekly Review, my friend Steve Kriss muses about the religious offerings in the marketplace of ideas:

When considering that the U.S. religious reality is a marketplace of faith and ideas, it’s easy to think that it becomes a competition. …

But the marketplace also invites creativity, not just competition. I think of the markets of Morocco or the shops at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Sure, what’s offered is largely the same — clothing, art, food — but it nourishes differently and uniquely.

Steve’s describing exactly the sort of interfaith relations that are key to a functional, multicultural, democratic society. But the thing about marketplaces is that everyone has to more or less agree on the rules that govern them. For different religious positions (including non-religion) to take part in a marketplace of faiths, every one has to consent to a certain level of mutual respect and civility, and everyone has to agree on some set of universal “goods” by which competing religions are measured. The separation of church and state is supposed to enforce exactly this idea – regardless of who is in the majority, be they Christian, Hindu, atheist, or whatever, society still works by a set of rules that everyone recognizes as good.

But I don’t know how many religious people are interested in playing by a set of common marketplace rules. To do so is to admit that there are some overarching ethical principles that are held in common by people with all faith positions – and that these common principles are more important to the way society works than the special revelation of any one faith or denomination. That’s directly opposed to the claims of most religions (and anti-religions), who are more interested in establishing a monopoly than trading ideas in the marketplace.

Mennonite Weekly goes Web 2.0

Mennonite Weekly Review, an independent publication covering the news of what a taxonomist might call the Mennonite community sensu lato (Mennonite Church USA, Old Order, Amish, Brethren, and other flavors of Anabaptists), has a slick new website. The overall setup is far easier to navigate than the old site, which was frankly painful to dig through, and articles now have comment forums attached. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this new site, and very probably making a donation.

Mennonites and Jesus

Photo by birdfarm.

In a comment a couple posts back, Krista Smith asks, “how much does a Mennonite believe in Jesus?” Which is a great question, and one I’m going to try and tackle here.

(You should also check out Krista’s blog Salt City Food – even if you’re not in Salt Lake City, there are some delicious-looking recipes.)

So what do Mennonites think about Jesus? The short, flip answer is that Mennonites like him a lot. The longer, messier answer is that when this Mennonite says he likes Jesus (and, though he is a product of both Mennonite high school and undergrad, he is not necessarily a representative sample) he means something a bit different from what most Christians mean by that. Mennonites are good trinitarians, mind you, but we understand the crucifixion of Jesus as more than just a sacrifice for our personal sins – we understand it as the example by which we must live, and the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible.

Christus victor

This view was best articulated by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (no relation) in his book The Politics of Jesus. Yoder argued that, in freely submitting to death on the cross, God (in the person of Jesus) subverts and triumphs over the worldly power of the Roman Empire that crucified him – Yoder’s perspective here is related to the “Christus victor”, or Christ victorious, view of the Crucifixion. Furthermore, Yoder interprets the Gospel to mean that Christians are to imitate Jesus by freely submitting themselves to nonviolent service, even total sacrifice, for others around them:

It is often mistakenly held that the key concept of Jesus’ ethic is the “Golden Rule”: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is stated by Jesus, however, not as the sum of his own teachings, but as the center of the law (Mark 12:28f; Matthew 22:40, citing Leviticus 19:15). But Jesus’ own “fulfillment” of this thrust of the law, which thereby becomes through his own work a “new commandment”… is different, “Do as I have done to you” or “do as the Father did in sending his son.”

This is the underpinning of Mennonite pacifism, and our understanding that Christians are called to service and peacemaking as much as to proselytizing.

The Gospel first

This perspective on Jesus is closely associated with – or even gives rise to – the way Mennonites view the Bible. Though we believe that it is sacred, and “God-breathed,” we also believe that the Bible is not a “flat” book, with every verse given equal theological weight. For Mennonites, the “weightiest” part of the biblical text is the Gospel message, centering on the teachings of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. All other passages are interpreted in light of the Gospels’ text. So, rather than understanding Old Testament passages that seem to sanction war or slavery as evidence that God likes either of those things, we look through the Gospel lens and conclude that these are records of life before the example set by Jesus, not models for Christian behavior.

This perspective is actually very important to me, as a scientist. If the Bible is not one monolithic whole, but a collection of stories, I can understand, say, the Genesis creation narrative as a symbolic account of God’s relationship to the universe without necessarily having to treat the Gospel in exactly the same way.

Further reading

But don’t take my off-the-cuff theologizing as the last word; the website of Mennonite Church USA has user-friendly explanations of Mennonite thought and doctrine and links to denominational documents that go into way more detail than this.