If conservatives feel silenced, we need to speak

Jul 26, 2017 by

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I was not able to attend the Mennonite Church USA Future Church Summit in Orlando, Fla., but I followed with interest from a distance. I have since been putting together a composite picture of the event — a bricolage of stories and impressions from friends who did attend, seasoned with perspectives shared in the Mennonite media.

In her commentary on FCS, Joanna Harader makes two claims that I would like to explore in greater detail. First, she grants that the feelings of disenfranchisement expressed by conservatives are sincere, but claims that these feelings aren’t grounded in reality. To illustrate, she likens conservatives to her son, who, in her words, has “mental health and developmental struggles.” Second, she claims that conservatives have no one to blame but themselves for the current state of affairs in MC USA. Conservatives have not been “silenced” or barred from participation. Rather, they freely choose not to participate, based on their bad feelings.

Harader treads a well-worn path in the service of her first claim. Old, straight, white people are accustomed to having their voices unfairly amplified. As a result, conservatives (who, on her reckoning, are old straight white people) wield a disproportionately large share of influence. FCS is taking steps to correct this injustice by including a broader spectrum of voices. This means that conservatives are left in possession of a relatively smaller share of influence. While conservatives might feel as though they are being “silenced,” they are really just being treated fairly for the first time.

This is a powerful narrative: a rendering of FCS through the familiar lens of conflict between oppressor and oppressed. It’s a paradigm used by many in MC USA to analyze a wide range of issues. But is this story accountable to the facts? Sadly, we don’t have access to much contemporary sociological work on MC USA. But accounting for both for the liberalizing influence of higher education upon pastors, as well as for the departure of conservative groups like Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Conrad Kanagy’s 2014 survey of credentialed leaders suggests that MC USA is probably still home to significant ideological diversity. Do the themes generated by FCS reflect a body that is ideologically diverse?

Before moving on to Harader’s second claim, I would like to attend to her comparison between the conservative voices at FCS and her son. I admire Harader for adopting a child with special needs. But she does neither young people nor the mentally ill any great service when she compares these groups to a bunch of pouting conservatives! Jokes aside, we should question whether it would be OK for conservatives to infantilize progressives in a similar way.

If I’ve highlighted some modest reasons to consider that progressives actually did wield disproportionate influence at FCS, then the importance of Harader’s second claim becomes apparent, because it shifts accountability for this state of affairs back to conservatives. Disproportionate progressive influence at FCS isn’t MC USA’s fault, let alone the result of some vast progressive conspiracy. Conservatives are free to participate, and they simply choose not to do so. If conservatives would rather wallow in their feelings of disenfranchisement than share in the good work of the denomination, boo-hoo!

I am greatly in sympathy with Harader on this point, for three reasons:

First of all, I find the theatrics of “silencing” and “unsafeness” observed by Harader to be both manipulative and cloying. As a true-blue conservative, I pine for the days when theater was punished with swift and decisive excommunication. We should not resort to such histrionics, most especially when ISIS and Boko Haram are chopping off Christian heads and burning Christian bodies. Such posturing is even more absurd at a convention of avowed pacifists. If conservatives believe that denominational procedures are unfair, then they should invest their energy in articulating why.

Secondly, as someone with a generally conservative outlook (relative to the increasingly narrow spectrum of MC USA), I wish that the people responsible for championing my perspective would speak up. Their timidity is worthy of blame. If a delegate cannot summon the courage to vocalize an unpopular opinion, then he or she should think twice about accepting the responsibility of being a delegate.

Finally, MC USA is weaker (not just in some hokey spiritual sense, but institutionally) without the vigorous participation of conservative stakeholders. If conservatives are unrepresented (or, nearly as important, if conservatives believe themselves to be unrepresented), then MC USA can reasonably anticipate an even greater lack of buy-in from these constituencies, and greater splintering down the road. To the extent that I genuinely lament a lack of conservative participation at FCS, I must part with Harader’s presumptive “boo-hoo” while nevertheless endorsing her general point.

A narrow partisan of the progressive cause might judge that a lack of conservative participation, and so too a relatively weaker challenge to the progressive agenda, is a blessing for MC USA. I urge readers to think in broader terms. I believe that MC USA has a real interest in soliciting the participation of conservatives. How should MC USA do this? I have some hunches. But for the good of the denomination, I hope that progressive and conservative minds alike will apply themselves to this question.

Matthew Cordella-Bontrager is a third-year M.Div student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and attends Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.


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  • Berry Friesen

    Matthew, regarding your “sympathy”with Pastor Harader’s second point, your use of the word “posturing” is uninformed and unfortunate.

    The entire church knew that the FCS was designed to amplify progressive voices. I heard no objection (though I objected in a letter to Stutzman); the broader church apparently saw the merit of this for purposes of a wide-ranging brainstorming session. But then the Executive Board together with the FCS Theme Team came up with an undisclosed plan to leverage the FCS brainstorming session into a direction-setting exercise. You can review those details yourself; see my comment at https://themennonite.org/opinion/following-roberts-rules-culture-consensus-reflections-mennonite-process-displayed-orlando/ to get started.

    The traditionalists at the convention reconized the ruse and acted during the the few moments the Executive Board had set aside for them to function as our Delegate Assembly.

    So yes, conservatives freely and fully participated in the FCS, they remained alert to hidden agendas and they spoke up when they had an opportunity. Good for them.

    As for the future, I don’t know what will happen. People tend not to stay in a place where they are not valued. I hope you do not find that reality to be manipulative or theatrical.

    • Matthew Cordella-Bontrager

      Good morning, Berry!

      Did you follow my links? Because the comments you left on the piece to which you link don’t actually contribute much information that I didn’t already cite by linking to Darrin Snyder Belousek’s reflections on his abstention from the FCS resolution. I took this information into account when I formulated my view, and, moreover, I directed people to it in my own post.

      To your point: If conservatives “freely and fully participated” in FCS, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate it. Looking at the outcomes for the “direction of the denomination” (which I’ve cited by linking to Harold Miller’s article), it certainly doesn’t seem to me that that is the case.

      If you read me carefully, you’ll see that I use the word “posturing” specifically in reference to claims from conservatives that they feel “unsafe.” If this isn’t posturing, then I must have no idea what posturing is! I generally don’t like it when progressives leverage this kind of emotional blackmail, although I understand why they do so — the inviolability of subjective experience is very important to many of their arguments. But I certainly don’t think that it’s appropriate for conservatives to adopt the same approach!

      Rather than frittering away our energy in the comment sections of articles like this one, I would like to see strong, clear, generous conservative voices come out into the light of day, and present substantive arguments for their position.

      Does this approach guarantee success? No, of course not, and Harader says as much in her piece when she references conservative arguments which appeal to Romans 1. But I believe that clarity and openness are the more honorable course of action, and also the course most likely to yield appreciable results. It’s my hope that the honesty and openness of this approach would be a contrast to the kind of dishonorable gamesmanship that springs a vote on an unprepared body of delegates.

      And, of course, I’m in agreement with you that people “tend not to stay in a place where they are not valued.” I say as much at the end of the piece, where I part ways with Harader’s “boo hoo.” And, to strengthen your claim (as I did in the piece): I’d say that people tend not to stay in a place where they even *believe* they’re not valued. Perception is almost as important as reality, and we should be able to acknowledge the reality is pretty discouraging.

      I would love to see conservatives feel valued by MC USA. But there’s a lot of baggage to deal with here, and I’m quite clear that the odds would be slim… even if all MC USA stakeholders were wholly committed to soliciting the participation of conservatives. Harader’s comments (and I believe she speaks for many in MC USA) make clear that this is not the case.

      I hope that my comments haven’t caused you to identify me as anything less than an ally. Like you, a want to see a more faithful church emerge on the other side of these labor pains. Like you, I’m not sure whether that church will be MC USA.

      Your brother in Christ,
      Matthew Cordella-Bontrager

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        Just an FYI: The link in the post above is actually to my MWR blog post “Medium, message and Jesus.” The piece to which you refer in your reply here is to my opinion piece in The Mennonite, “Why I abstained from voting on the FCS resolution”–here’s the link to that: https://themennonite.org/opinion/why-i-abstained/

        • Rachel Stella

          Thanks, Darrin. Matthew confirmed this, so I updated the link.
          — Rachel Stella, web editor

  • Conrad Martin

    As Ervin Stutzman has articulated in the past, something to the effect: liberals stay and fight, conservatives just leave. This has been the case and it continues. Perhaps this is why the conservative voice is weaker.

    • Gary Hill

      Conrad, it could be that those who walk with God are kind of quiet, and with good reason.

      Pro_17:1 Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than an house full of sacrifices with strife.
      Ecc_4:6 Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.
      2Th_3:12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

  • Gary Hill

    the premise of Harader’s first comment is false. Corruption has made its way into this conference of the church. the first Scripture that comes up for me when aware of this kind of evil stuff, clearly shows where we are going with this stuff; Gen 3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

  • Rainer Moeller

    About “safety”: A lot of people need or wish a “safe” place as a place where they don’t have to explain or defend or justify themselves. And a lot of people try to find this place in a religious community. If the religious community itself becomes the place where you have to explain or defend yourself, it becomes less attractive. I suppose that that’s a motive for conservatives to leave instead of to fight.

    This cannot be changed, but something else can.

    Matthew spoke about the “liberalizing” effect of higher education. I must here repeat myself: The Mennonite media are to much made by pastors and professors. I won’t deny that these people have the best gifts for writing and also the greatest desire to make their thoughts public. But I think that a part of you might use your gift more in a sense of classical journalism, namely being the voice for other people which otherwise would remain unheard – people with lifestyles and experiences different from a pastor or professor. This is not even a matter of “conservative” or “liberal” – a conservative blue collar worker may read with interest about the life and ideas of a Bernie-Sanders-voting blue collar worker, without feeling alienated or “silenced”.
    .

    .

  • Evan Knappenberger

    I also want to affirm Joana in her work and calling. I also find her comparison distasteful. The lack of conservative participation in MCUSA is part of a centuries-long pattern, but I am not sure that Ervin has it right on that count either.

    I think that Anabaptism was founded by progressives and enshrined by conservatives. There is thus a wierd dualism that haunts it still. Both sides are obsessed with purity: liberal ideology however is supposed to be post-puritan and so there is an extra layer of unconscious repression shrouding the liberal purity instinct, blinding liberals to their own ecclesial affect; conservatives, even if they are just using the rhetorical device of “safety feelings” are right to point out the hypocrisy of an ideology of tolerance.

    Evan Knappenberger

    • Matthew Cordella Bontrager

      On point, Evan. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

    • Gary Hill

      Evan, I think that Anabaptism was begun by folks like Menno Simons who wrote and spoke the truth from the Scriptures, whether he and others were progressive or conservative at the time misses the real point, being the Anabaptist ideology of their faith.

      • Evan Knappenberger

        Gary,

        Anabaptism was begun by radical students — the sixteenth century equivalent of the 1960’s movement — in Zurich, and kept alive by an abbott who was so liberal he married a nun and studied at Freiberg.

        It wasn’t until generations later that Menno got conservative.

        Evan Knappenberger