Robert Martin, one of my fellow MennoNerds, and I had a conversation recently on a topic that has divided conferences and congregations across our denomination (Mennonite Church USA). We come from different perspectives and opinions on the topic but felt it was an important conversation to have and to share. Follow along as we try to carefully find our way through this emotionally charged topic. Robert: I will have to confess that I feel very intimidated broaching the topic of homosexuality. I realize that, in some ways, my viewpoint is unpopular. And it is one that, at times, seems to draw some sense of attack, at least in my experience and what I’ve witnessed. I know that some people may call me a “hater” or a “homophobe” because of the way my position has been expressed in the past. And I really don’t like the way my position has been expressed. It certainly has not been full of love. And that grieves me, really, that folks that I agree with on a point make me ashamed of my position. So, it’s with a lot of trembling that I want to talk with you about this.
Jennifer: Since we are confessing, I must admit my own fears. It seems many assume that Christians who don’t share the view that homosexuality is a sin have simply thrown out the Bible and want to rewrite the tenants of the Christian faith.
Robert: And those who do have that view sometimes seem to get labeled as if we are going against the God of love and the gospel of grace, mercy and compassion.
Jennifer: So why is it that we aren’t able to come to the table and actually discuss these fears with each other more often?
Robert: I wonder if fear is, overall, the reason behind even that? Both sides seem to feel the need to defend, to stand up for a principle, and to make sure their voice is heard and not suppressed. I fully recognize that there are those who share my view who have contributed to the fear of those who affirm homosexuality. And so, those in my “camp” (and I hate making that reference), add to this fear while they, too, live in a sense of intimidation by opposing voices. And so fear divides us. Does this ring true with you?
Jennifer: You know, Chuck Neufeld, Conference Minister of the Illinois Mennonite Conference wrote a song last year, “I Can’t See What You See From Where I Stand.” Part of the chorus is “I can’t see what you see from where I stand / You can’t see what I see from where you stand / If we just stand together / Might we just brave the weather? / You got to look to see — you and me.”
Robert: Wow.. that’s pretty deep.
Jennifer: I’m glad that we are taking steps to stand together. It seems from our conversations before that we are both troubled by the sense of “issue” here and are more interested in the people that end up in the crosshairs. Is that accurate?
Robert: I think so. Why is homosexuality the “poster-child” sin? Why is it the issue that must be solved? That seems to be the question in my mind, especially since there are so many other sins that we could just as easily talk about. Divorce and remarriage, for example, is one that occupies some congregations. Meanwhile, there are human beings that get lost in the shuffle. It seems, sometimes, that as much as we are a church denomination that aims to be different than the world that we still tend towards the same polarization that characterizes the world around us. Is there a way through this which remains faithful to Jesus’ message of healing and compassion but stands counter to this division? What do you think?
Jennifer: It seems that if we set aside the sin/not-sin debate, we would see a lot of people who have been deeply hurt. Whether by a society that likes to place labels on people or by those in the church who have been yelling loud messages of hate, there are many in the LGBT community who have heard a message that they aren’t wanted. It seems that the message of Jesus is that we are to love one another. Are there ways we can do that with one voice?
Robert: One of the ways I’ve seen proposed, as you said, is to be very careful and cautious about the labels we use, even when it comes to characterizing our communities. Even the terms “affirming” and “not-affirming” have already been co-opted into the debate as representative of the two sides and so end up continuing the polarization. What if, instead of explicitly taking a stance, we simply stood by the Christian witness of hospitality, of being welcoming and allowing people to come as they are and know that there are folks who see them as human beings, worthy of love?
Jennifer: It seems one of the potential disadvantages we have in this conversation is that we are both straight. I think it is important to make sure we are listening to others—for instance, does our hospitality feel hospitable?
Robert: Yes, that is a disadvantage. Listening to the other is important and I think we do far too little of that. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw in their book “Prodigal Christianity” make this, actually, their 9th signpost. Relationship is important in this conversation (as well as in any others we might have) and we can’t really have relationship if we keep people at arms length. Welcoming has to be more than just opening the doors and let them occupy a pew. An attitude of mutual transformation is how those two authors phrase it. There is a recognition that, even in a “non-affirming” congregation, both sides will be changed and transformed into a closer image of Christ by exercising full hospitality.
Jennifer: I think that is part of the definition of relationship. If we are not changed by our encounters with someone else, are we really in relationship? Or are we just making someone else a project? There has also been a mistaken sense—on all sides—that all LGBT individuals share a common view or fall on a common “side.” Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network does a great job of representing the variety of viewpoints held even within the gay Christian community—from those who believe that committed same-sex relationships can be part of God’s plan to those who believe that they must remain celibate in order to follow what God wants for their lives. It becomes important to make sure that we invite all into the conversation.
Robert: I think that before that can happen, we need to take a step back out of our positions and find a common ground. Something that I hear you saying and that I have heard from others is that there is a need within the conversation to have a loving, servant, Christ-like position. We cannot hold people at arms length because we think they are sinners. Even if, somehow, Mennonite Church USA resolves this one issue, there will always come another one. And we will end up polarized then, too. How can we invite all into the conversation when, as we are carrying on our debates, we are creating a wider and wider chasm between us? It feels, sometimes, that there are some of us in the middle of that chasm who get lost as the efforts to be heard continue over our heads. That is where I feel I am at times. Can you relate to this feeling?
Jennifer: Certainly. And I wonder if the trouble is that while the wider conversation takes place, we see the need for ministry in our communities. I can’t help but think of all of the school bullying that ends up in the news. While bullying isn’t limited to those who are gay, gay individuals are certainly targets. It seems that MCUSA, as a peace church, has a responsibility to look at the ways our debates play out in the culture around us. Does the way we discuss certain topics aid—or fail to discourage—a culture of violence?
Robert: I think that the debate has become more about position and less about people. While you and I may disagree on the sin/not-sin position, as a follower of Jesus who asked, “Where are your accusers?” or told the woman washing his feet “Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven” it seems that my first duty would be to show love to others, not hate, and to bring them that grace and mercy that our culture seems to be lacking. Personally, when it comes to the work of the church, I think this is much more important than the debates that rage in our conferences and denomination. What do you think?
Jennifer: I think we may also need to recognize ourselves as the ones who are standing to accuse. We are the ones who are so-often holding the stones, at the ready to throw. In order for us to be more like Jesus, we must not only put down our stones, but seek forgiveness for the sin of holding them. I need forgiveness from you, with whom I have disagreed, and from my LGBT brothers and sisters. I need forgiveness for the times that I have been unwilling to sit with those who are different from me and learn from perspectives that are not my own. I need forgiveness for the times that I have allowed violence—both physical and the deeply-cutting emotional—by not standing against it. Perhaps that is where I must start. Will you forgive me?
Robert: Cliche as it may sound, I don’t think I could call myself a Jesus follower if I didn’t. In return, will you forgive me my judgmentalism and for those times when I’ve put being right ahead of the bond of filial love?
Jennifer: You got it, Captain.
Robert: Ahead warp factor 3, Commander Harris Dault…let’s see what this baby can do…
Jennifer: Dear Lord, help us all!
Robert: Hey, we wouldn’t be MennoNerds without some sort geeky reference…
Jennifer: Fairy Nuff (*term stolen from Robert)
Read more from Jennifer Harris Dault at her blog.