Righteous exclusion

Jun 16, 2015 by

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I was on a mountain bike ride talking with a kind man who I have biked with before. He knows I am a pastor, so he was talking about getting plugged into a new church. He shared that his parents attend a Presbyterian Church USA congregation, and said: “their church lets women be elders and deacons and preachers — I think they might even let gay people preach.”

As we continued biking, and as I thought about what he had shared, I realized: by controlling and excluding the voices of women and gays, his church felt that it was being faithful. He held it up like a badge of honor. He could prove that he was part of a righteous, faithful church because they had silenced these voices in the church — or at least kept them behind closed doors.

It made me think about my conference, Allegheny Mennonite Conference, and my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. We are struggling to understand how we relate to gays and lesbians, yet in the two conventions (Pittsburgh and Phoenix) I have attended, never has a gay or lesbian person been given a pre-planned and fully blessed opportunity to share as we collectively decide their status in the church. Pink Mennos again have been denied an official voice at the convention, and only now has the Brethren Mennonite Council been given a booth — with very strict guidelines set up to control their ability to speak.

Even in our conference, which is a much smaller and more connected group, I see the exclusion of gay and lesbian voices. Over the nearly five years I have been part of Allegheny Conference, I have never heard a gay or lesbian share in a formal setting their experience of trying to be part of the church. There have been several voices who spoke on behalf of gays and lesbians, pleading that we might tolerate them, but we have not allowed them to speak for themselves. For some reason, talking about the future of people in the church without allowing them to share never seemed weird before. Not until that moment riding my bike over rocks and roots while the Holy Spirit was working this out in me.

For most of the people I talked to, the exclusion of gay and lesbian voices seemed normal and appropriate. I heard people affirm the suppression of these dissenting voices in our churches. People were very upset that our conference leadership invited speakers who were led by the Spirit to advocate for tolerance. Things started to make sense as I thought more about it — of course people were upset that gays and lesbians had an advocate in the church. This is the way the power play of exclusion works, it silences the voices that are different.

Even if we believe that gays and lesbians must remain celibate for their entire lives in order to be faithful to Jesus, why can’t they speak? Why can’t we hear their voice, their struggle? Why must they stay silent while straight people decide whether or not to allow their voice to be a part of who we are?

How did this happen? How did it become “righteous” to take away people’s voices? How do we follow Jesus and say: “Our church is faithful because we don’t let this group of people speak?”

I have seen this quote from Palmer Becker lately in a great deal of MC USA materials that explains a Mennonite approach to Christianity: “Jesus as the center of our faith, community as the center of our lives, and reconciliation as the center of our work.” It is part of the #WeAreMenno campaign, and one of the Key Objectives for our convention in Kansas City, Mo., on June 30-July 5. But our actions towards gays and lesbians in our church are completely inconsistent with this vision of Mennonites. Reconciliation does not come from suppressing the voices of those we wish to reconcile with.The suppression of these voices in our church exposes our desire to control the conversation, instead of trusting it to the Holy Spirit. We cannot claim reconciliation as the center of our work, while imposing silence on those who think differently than us.

If community is the center of our lives, how can we continue to require silence of our sisters and brothers and sons and daughters? Many gays and lesbians have grown up in our midst, and deeply desire to follow Jesus. Taking away their voice is not community. If the children have no voice at the dinner table, then the community is broken.

A light went on that day in the woods. If we are going to follow Jesus, the one who said that we are loving him when we love the least of these, we cannot continue to suppress voices. The voices may be wrong, the voices may be those of sinners (like my voice), but we cannot suppress dissenting voices and call ourselves disciples. That is not how the Spirit works. Suppression and domination is how the flesh works, how the world works, it should not be how our church works.

Please pray with me that our church can find another way forward. May we respect our church community which includes gays and lesbians. May we work towards real reconciliation and not just domination. May we make room for the gays and lesbians in our communities to share their stories at convention.

Proverbs 31:8 says that we are to “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless.” I mourn the part I have played in silencing divergent voices in our beautiful church.

Bob Brown is pastor of Stahl Mennonite Church in Johns­town, Pa. 

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