Anabaptists, Abortions, and Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views.

There are a few small and vocal pro-life Anabaptist groups, but what speaks louder is the amount of silence on the subject. There is little data about Anabaptist views on abortion. The 2006 Road Signs for the Journey survey, a comprehensive survey of Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ led by sociologist Conrad Kanagy, lists the percent of Mennonites who find behaviors like gambling, marijuana, adultery, homosexuality, and working as a police officer to be immoral—but says nothing on the question of abortion. (The previous 1972 and 1989 surveys did poll on abortion.)

In Kanagy’s 2016 of Conservative Mennonite Conference, 95% of respondents thought abortion was never morally justifiable. However, members of Mennonite Church USA tend to respond most similarly to mainline Protestant groups, and data from Protestants suggest Mennonites might support legalized of abortion—even if they believe it is immoral (different phrasings of the question can yield dramatically different survey results).

For Mennonite Church USA, the clearest articulation of views on abortion is the 15-year-old Statement on Abortion passed by the delegate body at the 2003 convention. It is a deeply ambivalent document, that includes sentences like “The fetus in its earliest stages… shares humanity with those who conceived it” and “There are times when deeply held values come in conflict with each other” and “We will act with compassion toward those who choose to have an abortion.”

It is an excellent working document. It is excellent because it makes everyone, on all sides, uncomfortable. It expresses honest ambivalence about a deeply personal, deeply contextual moral dilemma. It does not pretend that all abortions are the same, that a teenager raped by a relative is asking the same questions as a married woman experiencing menopause, or that a wealthy woman whose parents have the ability to become full-time caregivers is asking the same question as a single mother on disability with three children and no familial support.

Abortion is a moral dilemma. It is a hot button issue precisely because it is the collision of deeply held principles.

Historically, the Anabaptist approach to abortion was avoidant and inadequate. As the country faces a vicious and polarizing political debate that will likely reshape the law, it is time to create space for moral ambivalence, for insecurity, for lament, for trust, and for affirmation in our congregations.

As the church prepares for this debate, there is one part of the 2003 Statement on Abortion that can guide the church: “The faith community should be a place for discernment.”

Until now, Anabaptists have tried to use the faith community as a place of silence. It is time to take the task of discernment seriously: to have honest, ambivalent, inconclusive conversations in church, as a church.

 

This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

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When I Say Christian, It Sounds Like B*&^%

This is one thing to be grateful for in the Trump presidency: Donald Trump identifies so crassly and insincerely as Christian that when he speaks no one can pretend it has anything to do with an actual faith in a living God who could assert any sort of authority (moral or otherwise). Even the right-wing evangelicals who support Trump make no pretense of endorsing his lifestyle or faith. Instead, they speak of him as an example of “God using flawed means to accomplish noble ends.”

It’s a small blessing for the progressive Christians who read Jesus as a revolutionary peasant who condemned the extreme wealth disparity of his time and gave away free healthcare and food. Continue reading

3 Easy Things to Do if You Want to Help with Family Separation but Don’t Know How

If you want to help and you have no idea what to do–that’s okay, and it’s completely normal. It means your heart is working, and you’re trying to translate it to your voice and your hands.

When I arrived at church last Sunday, the weight of all the border issues, pushed into our faces and all at once, threatened to pull all of us down. What to do? What needs to be done? Slowly, together, we built a list of ideas that felt manageable, important, incremental. I  volunteered to work on a list of resources and actions. As I built the list, along with others, several things became clear: my church wasn’t the only one struggling with how to respond. And our response was stunted by years of being systematically under-educated about immigration issues.

The list had to be short—choice paralysis is real; manageable—despair paralysis is real; and informative—ignorance can be paralysis, too.

The result is a list that I hope is to be just long enough to offer options and just short enough to avoid overwhelming.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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