Boundaries redrawn

Conference realignment diminishes diversity

Sep 25, 2017 by

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Gerrymandering — drawing a political district’s boundaries to assure a political party’s hold — isn’t new. It celebrated its bicentennial a few years ago.

Newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts elaborated on a variety of ills plaguing American society in a Sept. 12 appearance at Bethel College. He sees gerrymandering as a leading cause of partisan strife. Both major U.S. political parties are guilty of it. The practice has led to predictable elections and entrenched positions. A politician can’t deviate from party groupthink or move toward the center without risking a challenge by someone even more extreme. It has made compromise an endangered species.

Pitts hopes for better: “When either side gets some of what each wants, that’s a healthy way and the way democracy is designed to work.”

Like Republicans or Democrats carving out safe districts, Anabaptists often seek like-minded peers’ comfort. Some of the current realignment in Mennonite Church USA fits this pattern. As congregations jump from one conference to another, geography means little for conferences whose names still define specific regions. California churches look to join Franconia in Pennsylvania. Central District stretches ever farther in new directions. Whole conferences have seceded.

Realignments in church or state can have similar unintended consequences: more comfort within a subset but greater friction in the wider system. In the church, when area conferences lose internal diversity and become more ideologically pure, there’s more conflict between them as they move apart.

Before the merger that created MC USA, the overlapping Western District and South Central conferences included many congregations affiliated with both. After the merger, congregations were asked to choose one or the other. Now the differences are more pronounced: Western District has pledged to not punish a pastor who performs a same-sex marriage ceremony; South Central has granted permission for its most conservative members not to be part of MC USA.

Worldly political compromise is not a good model for members of a higher kingdom. But neither should we congratulate ourselves over division. If anything, we might demonstrate we are a people set apart by finding ways to get along.

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