Why Some Christians are Pro-Abortion

While Christians in the United States have a reputation for being pro-life, Christians are, like many groups, divided on the question of abortion. Following the leaked Supreme Court draft decision on Roe v. Wade, my social networks exploded with Christian memes in favor of abortion, like the excerpt of the 2018 Presbyterian USA statement “Religious Freedom without Discrimination.”

"Personally choosing not to have an abortion or use birth control... is religious freedom. Making that choice for someone else, on the basis of one's own religious principles, is religious oppression." From "Religious Freedom without Discrimination," approved by the 223rd General Assembly of Presbyterian Church USA.
Excerpt from the Presbyterian USA “Religious Freedom Without Discrimination” statement.

Christianity has been so thoroughly linked to the pro-life movement that it can be confusing how Christians got from here to there. Christians who support abortion on the grounds of about bodily autonomy, feminism, forgiveness, social safety nets, or science can sound more like liberal talking points than claims about who God is and what God hopes for humanity. However, these beliefs are rooted in a coherent and deeply Christian theology. It’s called incarnational, or embodied, theology.

Christians who defend abortion hold a fundamental assumption about who God is: flesh incarnate. God chose to come to earth in a human body because human bodies are inherently good, and holy, and at times a little bit silly. With the birth of Jesus, God made the stunning claim that the world directly in front of us is as holy as the place where God dwells. To have a body is to be loved by God, even if your body is awkward or doesn’t work very well or comes with a uterus or has chronic illness or is a child. In short: Jesus’ arrival on earth was an affirmation that every body is a beach body.

For pro-abortion Christians, this view of Jesus leads to two other beliefs: (1) sex is not sinful and, in fact, is an inherently holy reminder of human dignity and (2) life and death are blurry categories that are both holy. These views come directly from the Gospels. The first is about Jesus’ birth, and the second is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Quote from Benedictive Nun Sister Joan Chittister: "I do not believe that just because you're opposedc to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."
This quote from Sister Joan Chittister, first shared by supermodel Gigi Hadid, is one of the popular images shared by Christians in recent weeks.

Through the birth of Jesus, God chose the human body as the means for salvation. God reiterated the Genesis claim that humans were created good, bodies and all. Bodies are good not because some intangible divinity (the soul) temporarily resides there, but because the body is where intangible divinity meets concrete matter. Where stuff meets not-stuff. This means that everything bodies do—get fat, get old, get pregnant, snore, poop, make silly noises, have sex—is good and is sacred. Sex does not need to be controlled or punished, but should be approached as a holy gift from God. Because this theology has low anxiety about sex, these Christians also have minimal desire to control the outcome of sex. Sex can result in a multitude of outcomes, from no pregnancy to miscarriage to full-term birth to termination of pregnancy, and all of these are natural and honor the diversity of what it means to have a holy body. In spite of, or perhaps because, Jesus’ conception did not involve sex in our traditional sense, incarnational theology calls for a more expansive and embodied theology of sex. It is the fact of God-made-flesh that makes the body and all it does holy, not the details of Jesus’ conception. Likewise, this claim about the divinity of the body, created and nurtured inside a woman, counters the reading of Genesis that because woman was made from man’s rib she is inferior to man (and therefore should be controlled by men). Body is a body is a body, and all of it is what God called good.

A quote from Raphael Warnock: "For me, reproductive justice is consistent with my commitment to [ensuring health care as a human right]. I believe unequivocally in a woman's right to choose."
Rev. Raphael Warnock does not share his theology in this brief pro-choice endorsement, but we can read Jesus’ healing ministry as a statement that health and care is a human right, Luke 1:38 as an affirmation of a woman’s right to choose.

At the other end of Jesus’ life, an incarnational reading views the death and resurrection as a redemption that blurs our traditional concept of “death = bad, life = good.” God empowered us not to fear death. Just as Jesus became flesh to walk alongside humanity, God stays near to humanity in death. This counters the “life-at-all-costs” ethic that runs deep in both Christian and American society. Jesus’ death teaches us that it is possible to die well, to die as a result of living in impossible and unjust systems, and to still be connected to God. Jesus’ resurrection, alongside the raising of Lazarus and others, also tells us that the line between life and death is blurry. There is a certain humility required of us in the liminal spaces, whether at the end of the lifespan or the beginning. This is why Christians are hesitant to assume that the fusion of sperm and egg equates to a baby—having a body is anything but clear-cut.  

A consistent incarnational theology results in not just greater openness to abortion but also to end-of-life care, such as being removed from a ventilator when the brain has stopped functioning. These liminal states are not binaries, not “life vs. death” or “good vs. bad”—they simply are part of the incarnational experience. God-made-flesh is a repudiation of binaries.  

Although Christians today are known as pro-life zealots, that is a relatively recent phenomenon (with a fraught history). The Christian theology of abortion is deeply nuanced. Pro-abortion Christians exist because of Christ, not politics.

A black and white photo of two young men and two young women standing on a beach in 1938, looking toward the ocean.
I didn’t fact check, but I’m pretty sure The Message translates Galatians 3:28 as “Every body is a beach body.”

For Pacifists who Find Themselves Justifying War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is existentially shattering, for so many reasons. For the Christian pacifist, one of the shattered pieces of existence is pacifism itself. For pacifist Christians with Ukrainian heritage—like many Mennonites—the existential disintegration carries an additional layer of heritage, legacy, migration, and identity. My own great-grandparents (Orthodox and Jewish) immigrated from Ukraine to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and I write these words with the acknowledgement that I am only writing them—cozy in my peaceful home—because of some blood-stranger’s urge for survival.

So how does a pacifist cope? Is pacifism a valid moral stance in this war? What should we advocate for right now? What do we do about the complex emotion that surges through us when we cheer for the Ukrainian people’s resistance? How much of our existential disruption is rooted in our own unacknowledged racist notions of European exceptionalism and white nations’ post-World War II transcendence of violence?

This is existential disintegration with a side of moral crisis. A moral crisis is when something happens which is so profoundly earth-shaking that you question your most deeply held beliefs about what is right, even as you struggle just to survive day-to-day in this new crisis reality.

The pacifist in search of easy answers might gravitate to the claim that interpersonal pacifism is different from geopolitical pacifism. Perhaps we can simply say that pacifism is a policy of individual relationship navigation—“I do not initiate or support violence”—that doesn’t scale up. Geopolitical systems are too complex, the result of actions too unpredictable, the number of actors too high, to create any coherent global pacifist stance. I find this a deeply unsatisfying moral resolution. I do believe, however, that in any war there is a point of no turning back, before which there were multiple opportunities for redirection and prevention of violence, after which is acute moral crisis, survival, collateral damage, and entangled endings. From this lens, there is important work to do in acknowledging the points at which we could’ve prevented violence and didn’t. Political scientists and historians are doing this right now.

Secondly, pacifism, like any moral stance done correctly, is a check on the stories we tell ourselves. Our moral stances are designed to help us navigate moral gray areas, but often, we take shelter in them as if they will protect us from moral ambiguity. There is no protection from moral ambiguity. It is important to name Putin as the aggressor, but the West must also acknowledge their complicity in creating the conditions of violence.

A deeply held belief—like pacifism—should be a filter for decision-making, and what Russia’s aggression exposed is that preventing violence was not the deeply-held belief that guided Western actions. Instead, the West operated within a framework that allowed them to believe violence was impossible, given post-World War II reality and the narrative of post-Soviet Russia as a weakened state. The West followed the deeply held beliefs that protecting fossil fuel supplies is of upmost importance and the largest threat to global peace is China and our economic and military strength is an insurmountable deterrent. These beliefs were so deeply held that we did not question them, not in the decades-long dance between NATO and Ukraine, not when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, not even as the U.S. announced Russia’s military plans to invade Ukraine to the world. If we are guided by an ethic of peace, we should recalibrate in the face of evidence that threatens it. Yes, global politics are complicated and consequences aren’t always evident. Yet we, especially in the United States in its waning-but-still-present status of superpower, should have recalculated our foreign policy (even pre-Trump) with an eye toward what will preserve global peace. Instead, we focused on what will preserve our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

Now, the suffering is immediate and daily. In the midst of this suffering, there is another critical reality: violence and creative nonviolence share a fluid border. Pacifists are tempted to frame their belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, but during periods of war, there is no hard line between violent action and creative nonviolent action. Creative nonviolence remains a tool, especially for civilians caught in violence. As the Russian invasion began, Ukrainians removed road signs to complicate the Russian military’s ability to navigate. This is a nonviolent tactic that bought time for civilians to find more secure situations and disrupted the narrative that military might equates to power. Pacifism is an extreme stance, but one that continues to lives in the nuance. It is a mistake to think that “the presence of some violence means the absence of all nonviolent action.”  

Black and white image of a quilt propped up on a stage with its pattern facing the camera, surrounded by an auctioneer, two men in distinctly early 1980s attire, and a young Mennonite woman in a modest dress.
Mennonite Quilt Auction at the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale in 1981. Don’t you regret all the times you ever thought, “I’m so glad I wasn’t alive in 1981?” …maybe that’s just me.

At the end of the day, however, war is a threat to pacifist conviction. Pacifism might dissolve. That is sometimes the result of moral crisis. Pacifism functions best as a guiding ethical framework and, if it is a pedestal on which self-righteousness preens—as it has at times been for Mennonites—then some dissolution probably needs to happen. The great temptation of Mennonites has always been to use pacifism as a ticket out of hard conversations. Theologian Walter Brueggeman describes the Bible as a cycle of orientation (a state of homeostasis), disorientation (a state of crisis), and reorientation (a state of resilient response to crisis experience).

We are now in a state of disorientation. As Brueggeman reminds us, God is present in disorientation. Our task now is not to rush to reconcile our belief system or deny the deep, base level of dread that accompanies every day, but to calibrate to God in disorientation. To stay focused on who God calls us to be, to hold the honest chaos of our emotional state, to do what we can in the ways that we can and to remember that even curling up in a ball and collapsing is a way of doing that. Disorientation is a valid state of being.

I went to church on Sunday hoping that my church would help me make sense of what it means to be a pacifist Anabaptist during a twenty-first century land war in Europe. It didn’t, not because of the failure of pacifism, but because of the failure of sense.

Pacifists don’t need to be people with answers. Nobody has answers right now. We can acknowledge in these times that pacifism is an inadequate worldview, because at this point, all our worldviews are inadequate. Pacifism, like so many moral views, was never meant to be pinned down and displayed on a wall. It was meant to be a tool, taken out and used and repaired or set aside when broken. Right now, we are broken, and we can be God’s broken people, together.

Mennonite Church USA logo. MC USA does not endorse this blog in anyway, I just find the logo comforting.
Mennonite Church USA logo. MC USA does not endorse this blog in anyway, I just find the peace dove comforting.

Where Do Pastors Come From?: Solving the Worker Shortage in Ministry

Where do pastors come from?

Churches tend to behave as if pastors are a special kind of cyborg incubated for years in dusty seminary libraries and delivered, fully formed, to congregations as needed. It’s as if the shortage of pastors has something to do with the air quality of the seminary library or not enough dust on the shelves.

But generally, the pastoral path begins with one of three experiences: internal call, external call, or sense of obligation (legacy). Internal call does not necessarily come from inside of a person, but refers to any internal emotional experience in which a person encounters the divine and, as a result, feels compelled to enter ministry. That internal call can be supplemented by an external call, that is, trusted adults who affirm and invite an individual to participate and vision themselves in church leadership. (I have heard it said that women and LGBTQ people are more likely to experience an internal call first and heterosexual men are more likely to experience an external call first, because sexism, but I don’t know have the data to back this up.) Lastly, some people begin to pastor out of a sense of obligation, typically because they come from a family of pastors and the community expects them to do this work. This can be a set up for disaster, but many times, obligation blends organically with external and internal calls.

Most pastors experience both internal and external calls before they begin formal ministry, which means that it is us—collective adult churchgoers—who bear significant responsibility for identifying new pastors. Seminaries educate pastors, but these pastors come from the daily work of churches.

Which means that a decline in the number of pastors reflects something about churches rather than people. Churches no longer know how or they no longer believe their role is to call new pastors. Consider: how many new pastors has your church produced in the last decade? Two decades?

There’s limited utility in blaming churches for their struggle to pay people to serve them—blame doesn’t solve problems, and certainly denominational leadership and pastors themselves have demonstrated a short-sightedness in failing to nurture upcoming talent. The church has no coherent leadership development pipeline, and it shows.

Sometimes a leadership pipeline is just a clearly marked path.

The solution, then, lies in asking these questions: What can the church do to make ministry a more viable career? What does it look like when churches are intentionally calling their members—both young people and adults—into leadership? How do we affirm the gifts we notice in other people?

From the time I was about 15, my home congregation invested heavily in my leadership development, identifying retreats and theological summer camps and conferences, as well as inviting me to preach, serve on committees, complete a paid summer internship, and volunteer in other roles. The church invested significantly in my education at a denominationally-affiliated college, and their contributions covered roughly one full year of classes and saved me about $30,000 in college loans (before interest). They also provided financial support my first year of seminary, before they decided I had too much scholarship money from the school and discouraged me from asking for additional support if I was going to use the money for such ridiculous things as gas, rent, and living expenses (it was for books and tuition only, I was told).

Small moments of committee-driven discouragement aside, my home church made it easy for me to say yes to ministry. They invested in me with the church’s time, talent, and treasure. They made me feel that it was totally natural and reasonable for young women to become congregational leaders and affirmed my internal call.

Here are a few additional ways we can make it easier for people to say yes to pastoral roles:

  • Hire internally for the short term. In this bottleneck of pastoral supply, it makes a lot of sense to bring current attendees into 1-2 year paid roles both as a benefit for the church and to allow these members stepping stones to make other career transitions, whether post-college or into retirement. These laypeople may not have the passion or skills to stay in the role long-term, but relying on the old school Anabaptist practice of distributed, short-term leadership could be beneficial for both congregations and individual leaders.
  • Churches—supported by denominational leadership—should collect data to identify barriers to entry into ministry. Is the biggest barrier the high cost of graduate education, the low pay rate for most positions, the lack of boundaries and limited vacation time, the challenge of being given a stipend to “find your own healthcare” on the exchanges? Survey current pastors and seminary students and comb through existing data about what workers desire to identify 1-2 priority areas where church practices can be updated to better support the individuals in leadership roles.  
  • Search committees can review and revise their job descriptions in light of feedback from potential candidates and denominational leaders supporting the search process. This could include best equity practices like displaying the salary on the job description, describing benefits, or reviewing which job requirements are requirements and which are preferences. It could also include adding a section such as “People who tend to thrive in this role have the following characteristics…” or “This is a good fit for people with background in [insert non-church career areas, ie., social work, music, education, customer service, etc.].”
  • Speaking of boundaries and benefits, can you imagine a pastoral job description that pays a pastor for 12 months with one full month off every year? I can. It sounds like heaven. Rewriting rest into the job description—and committing to it and creating structures to support it—will make a position more attractive.
  • Search committees can also take the dramatic step of removing some of the job responsibilities. Because job descriptions are typically written by committees that have never worked in pastoral roles, they tend to write in too many job responsibilities. Recently, I was sent a job description that included four distinct competency areas and tasks that fell on all seven days of the week, within a 75% time role. I had a visceral gag reaction reading the job description. If you want to make a position more attractive, reduce the amount of things you’re asking one person to do. There’s nothing more beautiful than a job description that fits on two pages. 
  • Rely on cross-denominational hires. As denominations shrink and workers seek to live in areas that best fit their needs, it makes more sense to find someone who has the skills who can learn the traditions. This often feels risky, and it is, but if you believe that pastoral skills are essential, then you have to trust that the traditions can be learned. Or you can add a couple of years to your search timeline.
  • Churches who are looking for pastors—and those who are settled with a pastor who makes them very happy and will stay forever and ever amen—must ask themselves, “What are we doing to call forward the gifts in our own congregation?” How are we creating a culture of call and invitation? Are people given the chance to practice the pastoral role—through invitations to leadership, financial support for education and training, and affirmation of passions and competencies? At this point, churches must play the long game in order to play the short game. Calling forward new leaders (whether they choose paid congregational positions or other roles in church leadership) clarifies and strengthens the search for a new pastor.

The church is in a labor shortage largely of its own making. It will take years to rebuild a leadership pipeline and it will require intentional change in culture and practice. Which is all the more reason to start now.

It’s 2022 – Can I Keep my Pastor from Quitting?

It seems like everyone is quitting their job right now, including a healthy portion of pastors. Including myself. It’s been a long two pandemic years; churchgoers and pastors are exhausted; there are likely many, many more pastoral resignations coming in 2022. I know a number of pastors who are passionate about their work, have strong support systems, and are unlikely to leave. But I know a far larger number of pastors who are completely exhausted, stretched thin, and losing track of what called them into ministry. Is there any way to stop it?

You Can’t Make Anyone Do Anything

The bad news is no. You can’t make anyone do anything, and even if you could, your church wouldn’t be better off if you found a way to blackmail or otherwise guilt your pastor into staying. If you can somehow retain an exhausted pastor, they won’t be able to work at the level you’ve come to expect from them. Sure, they can make worship happen every week, but exhaustion disconnects us from creativity. Your pastor can keep things hobbling along, but they will struggle to keep things healthy.

I quit my pastoral role in June 2021, after the church had done some work to identify its priorities for the next three years. Those priorities included managing its new rental relationship; updating the child safety covenant; and evaluating and most likely overhauling the governance structure. All of these were things that I could do, and all were things that would suck the energy out of me at a point when I already felt isolated and overloaded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lead the way I hoped, or lead the way I had for the first three years of my contract. I didn’t want to be a leader who functioned at half-capacity. I recognized that I could make a bigger difference in the world, with less strain on my own health, doing something else.

This is the second problem with trying to make a pastor stay: Just as God calls individuals to ministry, God may call them out of ministry. When God calls ministers, God does not specify how or for how long. This is frustrating for congregations, and it’s downright infuriating for pastors. My call into ministry was clear and undeniable and came from outside myself; a word from someone I trusted completely rewrote my future. My exit from ministry was the same—a dear friend made a comment which forced me to recognize that I was more attached to my perception God’s future than God was. I had narrowed my identity and perception to an all-work-and-no-play pastoral role that was not where God believed that I was at my best. And so God called me out of ministry.

Attending to Burnout Before Someone Gets Burned

While leaving ministry is often a calling, it’s often, also, a result of burnout, and there are some things churches can do to make it easier for pastors to stay in their roles.

Pastors often find that loving the people who inside the church does not equate to loving the work environment. The structure of pastoral work is practically designed for burnout: flexible, often inconsistent work hours; undefined goals and vague performance review processes; limited or difficult to take paid time off; infrequent validation or recognition; high expectations to complete products that are minimally used (bulletins, sermon manuscripts, etc.); minimal support structures with excessive supervisory bodies; and often low wages.

Churches that wish to reduce burnout should attend to structure first. Clarify committee roles and responsibilities. Create consistent and affirming review processes. Set an expectation that at the beginning of the year, the pastor schedules at least four full weeks off (at least four). Encourage and enable your pastor to plan for sabbatical. We have significant data that indicates working overtime does not increase productivity; pastors who invest significant additional hours might have closer connections in the congregation and be perceived as “more present,” but that likely won’t create higher quality sermons, better leadership in complex decision-making processes, or creative new ministries. Those will be best achieved by having significant time off for the brain to rest, repair, and be creative.

A burned out prairie with a seed head ready to release new seeds to the ground.

The leadership, pastoral support, or evaluation committee should also work with the pastor to set annual priorities; this allows the committee to have a comparison point during review processes. Be clear about what expectations the pastor can drop–and be consistent.

In one congregation I worked in, I consistently received feedback that I didn’t spend time with a population of the church (seniors) that was not in my job description (which focused on youth and young adult ministry). The review committee encouraged to attend more events with the seniors, without identifying other job responsibilities I could release—a disconnect that fed into the expectation of longer work hours and never-enough-ness.

Churches who are proactive about creating healthy work structures will find their staff able to remain in those work structures for longer.

No Person is Final

A pastor’s exit ought to be sad. If you’re happy to see your pastor go, it’s way past time for them to leave. That sadness, however, ought to be rooted in a relationship, not an existential crisis of church identity.

When I was in seminary, a professor told our large class, “Never think that you are irreplaceable. The church does not need you, in particular, at all times, in order to function. If they do, you don’t have a church, you have a cult of personality. Work at all times to make sure you can be replaced, and your church will be healthier for it.” All pastors leave eventually, and while they leave holes in congregational hearts, it is the work of the congregation to remember that it needs more than one leader. The work of the church is to be perpetually calling out new leaders.

Every church has a responsibility for raising up new pastors. This requires not just mentoring young people, but supporting mid- and late-career adults searching for new, more values-aligned work.

Ministry requires a core skill set, but the idea that it is a professional career with specialized training is overstated. It’s less rocket science than improvisational jazz. Pastoring is work that varies daily from building a miniature barn inside the sanctuary; digging a labyrinth in the church yard; performing music in worship; navigating Social Security Disability paperwork with a congregant; preparing a meal; managing technology for virtual worship; and more. Churches need pastors with an understanding of scripture, theology, and emerging trends, but churches also benefit from pastors with non-traditional education paths. We need pastors who bring their skill sets from entrepreneurship, social work, teaching, writing, organizing, computer programming, music, and other backgrounds.

Any thriving church, by nature of its thriving, is creating leaders with the core competences of ministry. That is, any church that pursues God’s kingdom-building work, nurtures healthy community, and studies scripture and ethics together, is naturally creating a pool of leaders who can do pastoral work.

No person is final. Very few of us ever experience a pastor who stays with us for a lifetime, or even a half-lifetime. Pastors are designed to be replaced. You will feel closer to some pastors than others and that is okay—a pastor is not your personal on-call emotional support (although they can sometimes serve that role in a crisis); a pastor is a community leader who nurtures collective growth. It is okay to have a favorite or most formative pastor. No one else may be able to replicate that relationship for you. But they can replicate it for someone else in the community who is in a moment of need.

Honor the past, and recognize the ways a pastoral change allows God to set you up for the future.

Disrupt Your Election Day Fear

So you and everyone else who lives in the United States is experiencing some kind of terrible paralyzing fear-infused parallel universe version of Christmas Eve. There’s an irony that the presidential election—the most divisive one of our lifetimes—is the one experience capable of unifying the country, if only in the feeling of anticipatory outrage. But it’s an irrelevant irony, because our primal brains are already ensconced in their anxiety responses. Here we are with a whole Election Day to get through when our anxious brains skittering us toward dread and fear in a cycle of escalating tension.

This afternoon, I walked my dog with lunging distance of one of those giant purple floppy balloon things used to advertise car dealerships (apparently they’re called air dancers, but we all know they’re actually floppy balloon things), Only as she prepared for a straight vertical jump did I notice her hackles up, and realize I’d mistaken her anger for curiosity. I turned her quickly around, throwing treats to bring down her stress.

Election Day has driven most of us into the human equivalent fear level of encountering a giant floppy balloon thing for the first time. Our bodies’ hackles are up, our monkey brain/lizard brain/what-you-will in a mode of existential threat response.

But the lizard brain is tucked in the cozy gray mass of so much evolving brain. We can’t change the fact that a giant purple (orange?) flapping creature on the street will send us into an fearful anxiety. But we can hold that soft primal fear of our brains, tuck it in, turn it gently away and feed it treats so that we can hold fear alongside our hopes, our love, our kindness.

Be clear with yourself what tomorrow is about. It is not about productivity or powering through the day—it is a kind of national anniversary of some great grief we have been carrying. Whatever else you do, your body will most likely be carrying a layer of grief.

I will spend Election Day working the polls. Back in August, when political divisions only ran as deep as kiddie pools, I’d volunteered to work the polls and it seemed like a satisfying, even noble, decision. But each day since I committed, my enthusiasm has ebbed a little more into dread. I know my temptation will be to sit behind my sneezeguard and worry, worry, worry.

I wish to go to the polls as faithfully as I can. And my faith—rooted in Anabaptist understanding of the nonviolent life and salvation of Jesus Christ—is one that disrupts anger and hate and violence through surprising, playful, invitation. What would invite, surprise, play? A few last-minute stops in Halloween stores and I was prepared to work the polls as a spandex-and-glitter tutued, winged Voting Fairy.

What, never seen a voting fairy before?

My goal as a poll worker is to provide a positive Voting Day experience to everyone who walks into the room. My goal as a Christian is to witness to God’s love everywhere I go. And my goal as a human is to hush the lizard brain with the gentle and persistent witness to the humanity of each human. All of these goals lead to the same answer: Voting Fairy.

Whatever your self-care strategies on Election Day—yoga, meditation, spending time with family, spending time alone, stress baking (eating), disconnecting from social media—all those care strategies are designed to disrupt your overactivated fear drive.

Tomorrow, be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs to see in the world.

Maybe that means taking cookies to a friend’s house, wearing your favorite outfit, wearing your Halloween outfit, cooking something elaborate, ordering in, bringing flowers to the polls, making extra time for your Trump-supporting neighbor, avoiding your Trump-supporting neighbor. It may even mean recognizing that you are too anxious to work the polls and need to stay home under the covers all day. Be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs.

Like the old instructions for airplanes, disrupt your own fear first, then disrupt the fear of the person next to you.

“Defund the Police” is Deeply Anabaptist

From its origins, Anabaptism was a movement that questioned the belief that the state was worthy of wielding violence. So it surprised me, at first, that Anabaptist churches were even debating about defunding the police. This is a religious tradition that champions war tax resistance. We literally believe that religious freedom entitles us not to pay for our country’s military. It’s a hop, skip, and less than a jump to move from withholding military dollars to reducing police funding.

Anabaptist theology has no room for police, any more than it has room for soldiers, kings, or governments who claim to have God’s blessing. In 1527 in the Schleitheim Confession, Anabaptists made the bold statement that Christians should not carry weapons, but instead be “armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.”  

But over time, this ability to critique violence morphed into a desire to avoid violence at all costs. The logic went like this: Jesus calls us to peace; therefore, we cannot exhibit signs of violence; therefore, violence simply does not exist in Christian community. There’s no need to create a vocabulary for something that does not exist. The Anabaptist legacy is one that silences violence because there are no words for it.

And so, most of our churches simply function as though police don’t exist. People like us would never be police officers. People like us would never call the police on a fellow church member. And, it must be said, people like us are rarely policed because, until three or four generations ago, Anabaptists were almost exclusively white. The message in most Anabaptist churches today is that Anabaptists should not be police officers—but police officers are also permissible when necessary to quash any violence we witness since, of course, violence is immoral. Police are unnecessary to our daily lives because we are Christian pacifists; but we understand police are needed respond to the harm committed by other, more violent people in the world. Ah, the sweet, sweet moral high ground.

Anabaptists cannot be police officers, it’s often said, because they would have to carry a gun. This is the most obvious observation we make policing, and one that fails to mention that tear gas, pepper spray, riot gear, and rubber bullets are also tools of violence.

Our historically flat critique of violence—a critique that washes over race, power, socioeconomic disparity, and gender—no longer serves us. Most likely, it never served us.

“We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world,” begins Article 22 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

There is no way to get from “God created the world in peace” to “I’m okay with paying taxes to the government so that police have access to riot gear.” To be pacifist is to maintain that for every social problem, there are better places to put our money than police departments. Any government representative who is required to carry a gun is less effective at creating peace than a government employee who does not have “exercising violence when necessary” as part of their job description. Because, in the Anabaptist tradition, violence is never necessary.

The phrase “Defund the Police” is the most Anabaptist term to enter popular American social discourse in decades. As pacifists, we ought to be rushing full speed to join the movement. And if we are not, we ought to pull out our Confession of Faith and ask ourselves, “Why does this phrase make me uncomfortable?”

It is, most likely, because of our commitments to our own privilege, and not our commitments to God.

Keeping the ‘Baptism’ in Anabaptism

 When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the Search Committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, and is only made once, for life. During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word choice, an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to decide, to have control over what and how they consume. Choice is one of the highest cultural values—evident in the many advertisements appealing to customizable products that give you what you want, when you want it.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Continue reading

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral 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. 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