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.