This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Life with dignity

“…and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But their words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24: 9-11, NRSV).

In the 1980s, I was a project director for a temporary help service.

The other project director, Christopher, had some good ideas. The boss would “greenlight” them and inform me of the change. Whenever I had a good idea, the boss would greenlight it after running it by Christopher.

My sister, a corporate lawyer, was, for a time, the highest-ranking woman at a national insurance company.

She advised friends not to be impressed; there were several pay grades above her.

Over the span of her career she attended retreats. At one, a colleague, “Kathy,” presented an innovative plan.

The male officers and directors dismissed it as unworkable with no further discussion.

“John” presented an idea that struck my sister as hackneyed, but the men hailed him as “an idea man.” My sister spoke up and advised the men to take innovators like “Kathy” seriously.

Had my sister been younger, her words may have buttressed the glass ceiling she never shattered, but she was nearing retirement and no longer cared what the men thought.

Returning to Luke 24: in verse 12, which many scholars claim is a later addition to the text, Peter runs to the tomb and sees abandoned linen cloths.

Luke or his editor is confiding, “The women’s story is OK; a man has confirmed it.”

Later, in verses 33-35, men discuss Simon Peter’s experience, and Cleopas and another man add their story. Three men make the resurrection true.

In verse 10, we only know the number of women is three plus others, and theirs is an idle tale until proven otherwise.

Although regard for women has advanced from first-century culture, most modern women read Luke 24 with empathy. How often have we said something important—maybe not Christ’s resurrection important but useful—and had it dismissed, only to be restated by a male colleague and embraced as, well, gospel?

We avoid saying the word “sexism,” because we know we’ll be marginalized: Sexism doesn’t happen now, at least not to competent women.

Our marginalizing experiences sap our will to share our opinions. This may be a sign of warped wisdom. A recent Yale study identified a correlation between diminished collegial respect (from both men and women) for women executives who speak out and elevated respect for men who do so. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in a New York Times article note, “Women who worry that talking ‘too much’ will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.”

The upside to this situation is that as a woman I can feel outrage for others who do not enjoy society’s imprimatur as “the norm”—whether in the workplace or in church. I also understand how annoying it is to need a norming person’s seal of approval to be taken seriously. When a Christopher “approves” my idea for the boss, I bite my lip and thank him. It is a necessary step on the way to gaining my own credibility. Perhaps Mary Magdalene or Joanna thanked Peter.

Today, in Mennonite Church USA, I am the norm with regard to sexual orientation. At the risk of annoying people who should be heard when they speak for themselves, I hope to light one step on the way to inclusion and dignity for nonheterosexual people in this denomination.

Dignity is an interesting word, thrown about, its meaning assumed. In a lecture last December at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, bioethicist and professor Tarris Rosell advanced a novel concept of dignity that he related to reports of the recent death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer.

Maynard had moved from California, where prescription-assisted death was illegal, to Oregon, one of two states where it is allowed by law. She ended her life last November, surrounded by loved ones. Friends and family called it “death with dignity.”

“Death with dignity” is assumed to mean death without suffering or death on one’s own terms, but is that the full story?

Rosell notes that moving was unnecessary to accomplish a pain-free and self-directed death. Nonprofit groups committed to death on one’s own terms have existed for decades and now have a strong online presence. Committing suicide is not difficult, wherever one wants to do it, and it is not illegal.

But it is stigmatized. Rosell reached the conclusion that Brittany Maynard desired to be in a moral community that would not condemn her actions.

If this is an important insight into “death with dignity,” then what may we conclude about life with dignity?

As a denomination, among us are people who are tolerated but not embraced. They suffer Bible studies that say, “We love the sinner but hate the sin.” I imagine many bite their lips bloody.

First, they know that people in biblical times could not comprehend committed homosexual love as we understand it today. (Similarly, women today are recognized as trustworthy witnesses—inconceivable in biblical times.)

Second, Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality but was highly supportive of society’s outcasts.

Finally, even though other biblical texts may identify lying with one’s own sex as sin, homosexuals know that greedy people are also singled out as sinners, as are idolaters, revilers and people who lust in their hearts, but they are all allowed to lead church bodies or marry people they love, as long as they are heterosexual.

While drunkards, thieves, robbers and the like may be relieved of pastorates, they still can marry, if they’re heterosexual.

At this year’s bienniel conference, one elephant in the room is how we will relate to our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is my prayer, one norming person to others, that we are on the way to allowing some congregations to be Oregons: “We hear you and accept you. We embrace you in a moral community and will consecrate your unions.” Thus we may create dignity in difference, peace in disagreement.

Debra Sapp-Yarwood attends Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan. She is studying for her Master of Divinity degree at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan.

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