How we Keep Going When “Not Inhumane” feels like the Only Thing we Can Accomplish

Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early this afternoon Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (BTW, almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane–but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely.

Where do we go from here? Is the bar we’re working for, “not deliberately inhumane”? Put another way, is our hope to keep our country from “not actively violating international law“? It’s hard to maintain the energy for justice when the bar you’re trying to hold keeps slipping lower and lower. It’s exhausting to keep yelling when you’ve lost your voice ten times over. It is devastating to hold the present trauma of family separation while lamenting the historical trauma of similar policies like Japanese internment and Indian boarding schools. It’s helpless to feel guilty for unjust policies and simultaneously powerless to undue them. If Trump’s strategy to exhaust resistance until we’re too tired to call for justice, it sometimes feels like it’s working.

It’s been a hard 18 months. There are years to go. This announcement feels less like a victory than a chance to catch our breath.

But there are glimpses of hope. The family separation policy brought out the public tension among Trump supporters as evangelical Christians from the stronghold of his camp—such as the fundamentalist leader Franklin Graham—announced their opposition to the family separation policy.

We also learned something about the limits of biblical manipulation, as Jeff Sessions’ call to follow the law as mandated by Romans 13 was met with the correction from evangelicals, progressive Christians, Jews, and non-Christians that the Bible is not a book about assenting to abuse. The very premise of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is an insistence that unjust laws should not be followed. The 10 Commandments is God’s bestowal of laws that should always supersede human governments: you shall not steal parents from children. You shall honor your father and mother, and all the fathers and mothers around you. Jesus was tried and died on a cross under the guise of his breaking the law. Conservatives have long functioned on the assumption that if you’re the first to say “the Bible says…” you can claim the moral high ground. Jeff Sessions discovered the limit of that assumption.

The reason Trump finally rescinded this policy is because after trying every possible defense, the Administration found no moral high ground to stand on—with anyone. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the policy, a rare decisive majority in a politically partisan landscape.

There’s another kind of melancholy hope that comes from the biblical text. When it comes to resisting oppression, the Bible says it doesn’t get easier. Look at the criticism Moses gets from the Israelites when he first goes to free them from Egypt. Or Daniel’s move from the fiery furnace to the lion’s den. Or Jeff Session’s authoritative Apostle Paul’s repeated imprisonments (note: in spite of what he said in Romans 13, he was imprisoned several times after breaking the law). Look at Jeremiah 12, where the prophet complains that his calls for justice go unheeded and the God of Justice says, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” God practically promises us it’s going to get harder. Doing the right thing never gets easier, not when you live under a powerful, self-defending Empire that views people as pawns.

There’s a courage in proclaiming things don’t get easier from here. There is a resolve in constantly renewing our commitment to justice, which looks like a commitment to resistance. Because we move together, because we continue to tell the stories. Because we hold each other up. Because justice is our stamina. We don’t call for justice because we expect that we can usher in world peace or even that we can change a corrupt government—we call for justice because it is the right thing to do, even if nothing changes. When we call for justice, we change—we grow closer to God, we grow more faithful, we grow more stamina. We join a long line of faithful witnesses who continued to struggle even when they made little to no headway.

What will keep us strong and faithful in the coming years is not the outcomes we accomplish–most likely that we’ll accomplish little beyond damage mitigation–but the certainty that justice is always worth pursuing.

 

No matter where you're from we're glad

These signs began appearing across the country after the 2016 election; you can still find them in many places.

Advertisements

Is it Time to Stop Watching the NFL?

Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing? Continue reading

Why I Don’t Call God “Father”

God the Father is such a popular term for God that it’s almost redundant—by the time I say “God” from the pulpit, many people are already imagining a sullen, ripped, bearded fellow who may or may not be a father, but whose identity is reinforced when followed by the word father. That’s why, from the beginning of my ministry, I chose not to call God “Father.”

I believe the word is theologically accurate. I believe Jesus identified with God as a father (although he had an unfair advantage at his conception). I’m also cognizant of what the term means to me and that church attendance in North America is at record lows and that something in Christianity is “off” for many people.

Is it a mistake to throw out God the Father? Does nixing Father tempt us to throw out the whole notion of the Trinity’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Continue reading

A New Litany for Ordination

Ordination is a big deal. It only happens once in a lifetime. There is a standard litany for ordination. But, being a writer, as I prepared for my ordination last month, I couldn’t help rewriting the litany.

The standard Mennonite ordination comes from the Minister’s Manual, a handy little book published in 1998. The pocket-sized manual contains the words of institution for all our critical rituals and life transitions.

I believe in the power of a standardized litany, the power of all pastors reciting the same words of commitment at ordination. I also believe in low church, that each of our ordination reflects each of our journeys, and after all as a low church, ordination doesn’t set us spiritually “above” the congregation, but alongside of it in a particular way. Each candidate for ordination can adjust the words and be faithful to the ritual itself.

When I read Form 1 and Form 2 in the Minister’s Manual, neither one fit me well. The words were dry and formal, without imagery, the gospel commitments had no edge, no risk. It asked me to reaffirm the vows of my baptism, but didn’t say what those vows were. The repeated use of “brothers/sisters” excluded my gender nonconforming friends. There was an optional insert for the candidate’s spouse, but no insert for a single pastor to acknowledge the relationships that hold them in ministering work. Even more, the insert called the spouse to deeper commitment of their gifts without acknowledging the stress pastoral work (and helping professions) can put on a relationship and the importance of sabbatical, sabbath, and self-care. All of these seemed like very solvable problems, with a few substitutions and rephrasings. Continue reading

How to Read Half the Bible for Lent (and Still Take Days Off)

Two years ago for Lent, I decided to read a book of the Bible every day. It was more manageable than it sounds, mostly because you don’t realize how many short books there are until you start reading them. I more or less kept to my reading plan, which included Sundays off, as Catholics do in their Lent observations (the theory being that “each Sunday is like a mini-resurrection celebration”). I worked my way through two-thirds of the books of the Bible…. which left me with 23 very long unread books.

This year, I’m picking up where I left off. Coincidentally, these unread books fit well with the Year B lectionary theme, which is all about covenanting. It’s a good time to dwell in the Abrahamic promise; the covenants the Israelites developed in the wilderness; the failed covenant of kingship; and the somewhat obtuse covenant expounded in Hebrews. Continue reading

What Does MC USA Want in an Executive Director?

When a congregation goes through a pastoral transition, it has a lot of conversations. What do we want in a pastor? A good preacher? An activist? Someone who is good at visitation? Someone skilled in conflict resolution?

As Mennonite Church USA prepares to welcome a new executive director next spring, we ought to ask the same question: What do we want in an executive director?

We tend to think an executive director should be a pastor or a spiritual leader. But the executive director is not, as I’ve heard some people jokingly describe it, “The Mennonite Pope.” The executive director does not give spiritual mandates, define doctrine or appoint conference ministers. Instead, the job description includes supervising MC USA staff, serving as CEO and primary spokesperson, fundraising and monitoring spending. While many pastors do some of this in their positions, very few pastors go into ministry because they have fundraising, CEO or management skills.

The executive director is a management and business position. While it would be wonderful to find a candidate who is skilled at both management and ministry, the search committee’s primary charge is to find a skilled administrator. In the job description, “theological studies” and “ministerial credentials” are desirable qualities, not essential qualities.

We need church leaders with strong theological backgrounds. We also need church leaders with business skills; who understand strategy and marketing and can articulate strengths in ways that make people excited to be part of this group of peculiar Christians. Those may not overlap with pastoral skills like explaining Scripture through a sermon; greeting everyone on Sunday morning or visiting homes and hospitals.

The wide, clamoring, diverse body of MC USA must also change expectations of the executive director. Outgoing executive director Ervin Stutzman was often called in to keep this or that constituency in the church; to appease this or that group; to shepherd by speaking at conferences and gatherings. He was often expected to be a spiritual leader, to guide through challenging conversations about sexuality and the Confession of Faith. While the executive director has some role in shaping those conversations in a non-anxious way, the executive director is not hired to be the arbiter of orthodoxy.

As a nonhierarchical denomination, MC USA must resist the temptation to push a business leader into spiritual leadership. For that, look to the Constituency Leaders’ Council — the representative body of conference ministers, moderators and constituency group leaders who meet to “worship and pray together, encourage faithfulness, share ideas and resources, process concerns and discern direction on issues of faith and life,” according to MC USA resource documents.

The executive director faces a large challenge to navigate and unify the strong, diverse views of MC USA–and to restore trust during and after a major conflict. The new executive director is expected to be faithful to the Anabaptist vision and devout in his or her own spiritual walk. But that does not equate to a pastoral temperament or years behind the pulpit. The next executive director may very well come from the administrative staff of a denominational agency, be an educator in an Anabaptist institution, or an energetic Anabaptist entrepreneur.

The executive director can only be as good as the clarity of MC USA’s vision. Let us use these months of searching to discuss with each other our brightest vision of this beautiful, broken body of Christ.

 

***

This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

Is it Too Late to Save Mennonite Voluntary Service?

In 2009 when I graduated from college, I chose to go into Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS). I made the choice independently, only to discover that many of my friends were also choosing a year of service in cities across the country. The program was expanding rapidly. It added two units in 2009-2010, and for some time that spring, had a waitlist of young graduates eager to serve.

In 2015-2016, MVS closed half its units due to declining participation. In spite of downsizing, the program is struggling. This year, after hosting just two participants in a unit designed for eight, one congregation in a popular city is debating a “sabbatical year” in 2018-2019. Continue reading