Refusing to fight the culture war

Apr 13, 2015 by

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The Mennonite Church USA credentialed leaders survey has opened a conversation that research coordinator Conrad Kanagy says highlights a growing divide. Kanagy sees homosexuality as a proxy issue that brings to the surface shifting perspectives and different understandings of Jesus, the Bible and the church. He points to James Davison Hunt­er’s Culture Wars, published in 1991, as describing a two-sided conflict that now permeates Mennonite churches.



Around the same time, the political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that after the Cold War we faced a next era of conflict. He framed it as a clash of Eastern and Western civilizations oriented around religious values and differences — primarily Muslim and Christian.

I don’t believe in the simplicity of binaries. Stories are often multifaceted rather than two-sided. In binaries, when we look for a fight we focus on the division rather than the commonalities, the contentions rather than the shared.

In the midst of this clash, I’m trying to find my way as a leader who walks alongside diverse communities. I found a helpful insight from Reza Aslan, who presents an overview of the contemporary clash of civilizations in How You Win a Cosmic War.

Aslan suggests the answer is not to fight the war.

In my work within Franconia Conference, I’m assigned to walk alongside a dozen or so communities from Vermont to South Philadelphia, worshiping in four languages — refugees, undocumented, people who live on the streets, millionaires, women who wear coverings, converts from humanism, Buddhism, Islam, consumerism, fundamentalism. I must figure out how to walk with all of them — to love, to call forth the best in each as they seek to follow Jesus together, and to live in a sense of commonality that crosses the barriers of space and time.

Each community requires me to respond differently, to hold my own beliefs and perspectives lightly. The way that God is experienced or manifests in one community doesn’t delegitimize the movement of the Spirit and faithfulness in another.

I don’t get the privilege of believing in one right way to do church. I’ve learned that any best practices, postures, shared visions and agreed-upon values are reshaped by language, geography, ethnicity.

Some of us are looking forward to a showdown in our own Mennonite culture war at Kansas City this summer. I am not. I live in a borderland, amid folks on both sides.

Kansas City could also represent a civil war. There are secessionists and liberationists. There are those who are happy to say to one another, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Others are prepared to walk away from historic connectivity because we believe truth requires more clarity than our current system can muster.

Biblical stories about separation abound, from Jacob and Esau to Paul and Barnabas. They all give us the fuel we need to part ways — trumping Jesus’ prayer for unity and Paul’s recognition of one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism — while we wonder if Acts 15 and the Jerusalem council has anything to do with our current context.

I think Gilberto Flores, in his departing speech before retiring as Western District Conference associate conference minister, was on to something when he suggested that “you don’t get up from the table in the middle of a family fight.”

Conscientious objection to war is a Mennonite tradition. In the midst of this cosmic culture war, I hear the pleading of Paul toward gentleness and humility, toward the hard work of keeping the unity of the Spirit. We share one glorious cosmic future. Our task is to live peaceably in the midst of warring madness, even when it is seemingly our own battle.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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  • Patrick Ressler

    Stephen, as a queer person with a non-binary gender identity, these words hurt me. You assert that you don’t believe in the simplicity of binaries, but you present a false binary in depicting the struggle for LGBTQIA justice. In describing a “cultural war” between two opposing camps, you have not acknowledged the lived reality of LGBTQIA people. The struggle for LGBTQIA justice in the Church cannot be simplified as a “cultural war” between two binary groups—it’s about the lives of LGBTQIA Mennonites and their struggle for justice.

    Your ability to observe the struggle for LGBTQIA justice from the sidelines as a cultural war is a position of privilege unavailable to LGBTQIA people. As a queer person, it’s my daily reality. I experience abuse and violence against my personhood at the hands of the Church. I am forced to advocate for myself and others in order to create space for LGBTQIA people. I can’t choose “sides”, nor do I have the luxury of abstaining from involvement—the war is over my body.

    Stephen, you express a desire to walk alongside diverse communities. Please walk alongside the LGBTQIA community. Choosing to do nothing while the Church inflicts violence against LGBTQIA people is not a third way. I challenge you to recognize that LGBTQIA people—those directly affected—have every reason to dread the showdown in Kansas City more than you do, and have the most at stake in the struggle for justice.

    • Stephen Kriss

      Patrick, thanks for your vulnerable response. I won’t write a lot more here as we’re continuing this conversation otherwise. I’m glad to learn more about walking alongside LBGTQIA persons and communities might mean, coming to increasing realization of my own privilege and power in the Mennonite landscape is a slow lesson.

  • Bruce Leichty

    Quite to the contrary, Stephen, one mistake we have made is to abandon all standards in the name of cross-cultural tolerance. What some thought was loving was instead the “broad way.” This approach has weakened the witness of the church including numerically. Let us distinguish what is happening in our church from war. This is not war. Luke 14:26 is a more apt starting point.

    • Stephen Kriss

      Bruce–I think we’d both agree that tolerance is a tired and more or less modernist framework. Help me understand how you’d apply the Luke 14:26 perspective at this point. I know very few legacied Mennonites that are willing to deny their own familial traditions and connections as the verse seems to advocate to my Anabaptist convert ears.

    • Elaine Fehr

      Yes, the “broad way” that leads to destruction (hell).

  • Robert Martin

    Stephen, thank you for this. I hold a certain set of convictions about any number of topics. And the commenter here before me, Patrick, obviously holds a certain set of convictions as well about perhaps the same topics, perhaps different ones, and perhaps in different directions on the spectrum of ideas on these topics. And these convictions are important and worth discussing, worth wrestling over.

    However, this past Sunday I taught the Sunday school class based upon the MennoMedia Adult Bible Study curriculum on 1 John 2… and the message that came out of that is that, as much as we may have important topics to discuss, convictions that are at odds between various groups and so forth, the Christian church has a higher ethic that trumps all that… the ethic of showing love for our brothers and sisters such that, even if we are in the midst of heated conflict, our love for each other is exhibited in laying down our lives for each other.

    Fighting Mennonite culture wars of schism, split, argument, etc., seem to go counter to that ethic. While we may say that we are parting ways in love, it rarely works out that way. Groups like AMEC here in Pennsylvania, Evana Network out in the midwest and so forth, as they go their seperate ways, leave pain and woundedness behind in broken relationships, no matter how amicable the separation may claim to be in the official statements.

    Personally, as much as I am able, I resolve to not let my convictions get in the way of my love for brothers and sisters whose convictions may differ from mine. If we are truly the church of Christ, his ekklesia, called out to show the world what the Kingdom looks like, and demonstrate that through a love that crosses boundaries that we make out of our convictions, this seems to me to be the only true Christian way forward. Yes, we may disagree…but our love for each other should supercede our disagreement.

    And note… This is a statement I make to all “sides” in our current situation. Whether a secessionist or a liberationist, whether conservative or progressive, we’ve all drawn lines in the sand dividing us and said, “This line I will not cross.” And I include myself in that… and I repent of that… my convictions may still remain, but it seems to me that Jesus was more about making sure that love wins than he was about anything else.

    • Berry Friesen

      Robert, it seems like just yesterday that the forward thinkers told us the age of big denominations is over and that the body of Christ should think of itself as an inspired mix of untamed and ever-shifting affinity networks.

      So I am fascinated by the way you frame your comment. I also taught the ABS lesson on Sunday. We talked a lot about helping those with whom we disagree (they sit right there in the meetinghouse with us on Sunday), but it did not occur to us that rearranging bureaucratic church structures might be disobedience to the love of God.

      • Robert Martin

        I find myself, in many ways, stuck in the middle of a very weird place in the history of the church. There is benefit and need for localized congregations to network and relate in some sort of way…perhaps formalized, perhaps not. Denominations fill this role by providing frameworks through which congregations can communicate.

        However, the hierarchal structure similar to what MCUSA has today (and many other denominations, BTW), I think is a problem in that this is not how the church appears to have been intended to operate. Any structure connecting congregations should be one of simple service, not hiearchal top-down…. so, I see MCUSA as a denomination now needing to “go away” but not necessarily entirely, but transformed into something else.

        As for “rearranging bureacratic church structures might be disobedience to the love of God”, that was not the crux of my comment or my lesson. The rearranging is not the disobedienace. However, we as individual members of the body working through such rearranging, too frequently we end up in such serious disagreement that we make enemies of each other… and it was this to which I was addressing my comment. Whether or not we divide, reorganize, restructure, dissolve, etc., it is HOW we do so, how we relate to each other in the process, etc., that is where I see us failing in this regard. Every schism I’ve seen and experienced has always ended up with two groups being at such odds with each other that they cease to relate at all… and, in many of these situations, they end up creating identities and policies DELIBERATELY intended to delineate “We are not like so-and-so-group because…”. It seems to me that this almost inevitable result is where we are in disobediance….

    • Stephen Kriss

      Robert–Thanks for your response. I keep wondering too what it might mean to have my actions rooted in love supercede the significance of being right in my belief. For me, being Anabaptist in a global age has more to do with important conversation on orthopraxis rather than particularlties on orthodoxy though I recognize the two are interrelated as all get out. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering how to judge less, love more. My role in church leadership and bureaucracy has traditionally been considered one of control. I’m fascinated by those who say that Pope Francis has shifted the role of church leadership from one of “tough love” to just simply “love.” I’m trying to figure out what that might mean and how it might cultivate the church into new spaces. So far that seems like hard work for me and in my own context.

  • Berry Friesen

    The citing of the Apostle Paul for the virtues of “gentleness and humility” brought a smile to my face. You do read Paul, don’t you Steve?

    Jokes aside, Steve’s broadened application of our beloved “conscientious objection to war” is worthwhile. The empire (the USA and its allies) tells us who to fear, who to hate, who to target. Followers of Jesus debunk the empire’s frame of reference and instead engage controversy within the worldview of the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated. As a result, we don’t (supposedly) divide up along the empire’s two sides.

    One application of this is the upcoming choice of a Republican or Democrat as the empire’s next Commander-in-Chief. It is not an important question because both parties support the same interventionist agenda. When followers of Jesus pretend that voting for President connects to something important, we legitimize the imperial program of domination and death.

    As followers of Jesus, we most certainly are engaged in conflict, but not on the terms and conditions handed to us by those who seek to dominate the world and use the tactics of divide-and-conquer to splinter and weaken our subversive witness. Thus, even though we are Mennonites, we can’t pretend to stand above the fray. Instead, we will engage the conflict using the values and virtues we have received.

    • Stephen Kriss

      Berry–I don’t t think of Paul has gentle and humble much. But they are his words of advocacy toward the church in Ephesus, I pulled those words from the text actually. And I think both you and I agree on the need to be more complex in our disagreeableness and witness as we seek to follow in the way of Jesus.

  • Debra B. Stewart

    I’m not one for heavy theological musing or ponderous pontification. Never worked for me. So, in a few words, this whole Mennonite Mess makes me want to do a Hillary: Grab my hair, bug out my eyes and shriek, “What possible difference does it make?” My friend Ruby and I were just talking about this last night – we’ve been friends for a long time because we know most things don’t make that much of a difference; that the few disagreements we have are way less important than the friendship we’ve enjoyed for years.

    I was part of Bethel Mennonite Church in Chicago for most of my adult life. Pastor Sowell, a wise man of Rev. Wright’s generation, used to say after contentious congregational meetings: “Nobody’s going home til everybody’s friends again.” Maybe once you get all these warring Mennonites rounded up in KC, someone should lock the doors and intone Pastor Sowell’s wise words.

    • Stephen Kriss

      Deb–Glad to have your voice back here!

    • Elaine Fehr

      “What possible difference does it make?”

      Some may look at this as a culture war, but that’s not what it is. We’re in all-out spiritual warfare and it’s taking the souls of many people. If we want to escape the judgement and wrath of God, we should read and learn about the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.

      • Debra B. Stewart

        Elaine, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t see this issue as a “war;” I see it as making sure everyone has the same rights and protections under the law. My husband and I found out exactly what can happen to unmarried folks when he became very ill. For example, had he died and we were not married, the City of Chicago would have kept his pension; only a surviving spouse could receive that benefit (as well as health insurance). I could have been barred from being with him in the hospital; his sister (a scary lawyer) would have had more rights in making his care decisions than I. Add to the mix an ex-wife and we went downtown the next day and did the deed! Perhaps my experience plays into my concern that all people be allowed to marry (and care for) the person they love most.

        • Elaine Fehr

          There’s no doubt, Debra, that all those things you mentioned result in financial hardship for those who are not married but are in a relationship outside of God’s plan. But that’s even more reason to comply with what He designed the institution of marriage to be. But that is the least of it.

          For those who are determined to remain non-repentant and live outside of the boundaries that God set for us will only result in everlasting punishment after death. Is succumbing to grave sin in the here and now worth that? I don’t think so. No matter what difficulties we face as we live out our lives out in Christ, those difficulties are nothing in comparison to what awaits those who refuse to repent. That’s one reason I call this spiritual warfare. There is a fight going on for the souls of mankind. And satan is gaining ground in this area.

          We should always keep an eternal perspective when we deal with such matters. I thank God for each and every leader who still teaches and encourages that in spite of the risk of becoming unpopular and being seen as “divisive”.

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