Making Room: Can We Have a Conversation?

Photo: Mary Anne Isaak and I on a road trip (with Jon in his veggie oil VW) from Fresno, CA to Vancouver, BC for the 2010 Mennonite Brethren Bi-National Gathering.

I’ve posted five reflections on the US and Canadian Mennonite Brethren (MB) Executive Boards’ (EBs) interference in the publication of On Holy Ground.

1. I began by drawing attention to the stories that were erased when the three pages were deleted. LGBTQ people are often cast as the dangerous other to be feared. Women in ministry and other gender equality issues are pitted against LGBTQ inclusion, and as long as we continue to see each other as competition or adversaries, we remain easier to control within a patriarchal system.

2. I shared a story many women and queer people have experienced: we’re told to patiently wait for change even if it takes a lifetime. Leadership often resists meaningful progress when real change threatens to upend the status quo. Meanwhile, so many of us are suffering and dying. Many of us are ready to allow compassion to move us toward discerning ways toward justice for all, especially those who have been targets of injustice.

3. I explored how the stories that justify oppressive systems teach us to distrust ourselves and look for our identity and salvation from an external authority. In some ways, faith rooted in this kind of story leads us on a journey of disintegration, of losing connection to ourselves and each other. This makes us easy to control and abuse. However, faith rooted in love is shaped by a different story that brings us back to our full selves and fosters real belonging.

4. I drew parallels between the conversations about women in ministry and LGBTQ inclusion, demonstrating patriarchy at work in MB institutions. The same system of power that maintains gender inequality as seen in ongoing restrictions on women and the ability of the EBs to control women’s voices also silences and excludes LGBTQ people.

5. I focused on the statement released by the EBs, highlighting language, assumptions and practices fueled by a system of power-over. The EBs used their power to dominate conversation: by delaying, dismissing or prohibiting important conversations, they control the outcome. They also betray the same Confession of Faith they claim to uphold by undermining a community hermeneutic with their actions of censorship.

I’ve focused on the deletion of three pages. Now I turn to the pages themselves.

One comment on the EBs statement on the MB Herald website caught my attention because it broke from all the other comments I’ve seen online. Bryan Born begins his comment, “At the risk of facing considerable opposition… We are in a place where it has become extremely difficult to have a serious conversation about the merits or demerits of what [Mary Anne] has written.” If you’ve read it, it should be clear that Bryan and I do not agree on the question of LGBTQ inclusion. However, I do agree with the challenge he issues.

“To be frank, I am somewhat surprised that anyone would seriously use these texts to argue for an inclusive position… Perhaps there are more compelling biblical arguments for making a fundamental theological/ethical change from what the church has believed and taught regarding this topic… If so, I would suggest that those promoting a progressive position… work harder at developing a biblical apologetic.”

Bryan Born

Mary Anne’s theological reflection on the stories of Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27) and Israel’s request for a king (1 Sam. 8) as a way of making room for LGBTQ people, and gay marriage in particular, in the life of the church is problematic. I would not call it inclusive or progressive. Rather, it represents an attempt to accommodate what is otherwise understood as outside of God’s will/plan/design. For reasons I will outline in another post, this path “forward” is still harmful to LGBTQ folks.

When Mary Anne first shared a draft of her chapter and asked for my feedback, I was honored to appear in her reflection. Knowing that my story has impacted her is very meaningful. However, in our conversation, my response to River East Church’s “third way” attempt to make room for non-affirming and affirming views was that it seems unsustainable.

In a recent interview Mary Anne said, “I’m advocating for a conversation… How do we stay unified and make space for divergent opinions? What’s the core of what we believe?”

I am so glad that Mary Anne has opened up this conversation, even if it happened in an unintended way. I respect the journey she has been on, and the way she has persisted in wrestling with questions that continued to emerge in her 26 years of pastoral ministry.

I hope that my story continues to speak into her journey. I hope that by sharing my thoughts here, my story will speak into others’ journeys as well. My next few posts will focus on engaging Mary Anne’s reflections on LGBTQ inclusion as a way of opening up conversation and inviting others in.

To start, I want to acknowledge that she and I come to this conversation from different places. One important difference is that I am gay and she is not. I am part of the LGBTQ community directly impacted by pastors and others discussing whether or not to include us in the church, and if so, how.

In the interview I referenced earlier, Mary Anne says she feels compassion for the leaders who decided to delete three pages from her chapter and who did so without discussing it with her. “I feel like I’m talking with my former self.” As a pastor who in the past “dug in her heels” when she felt LGBTQ inclusion was not “honoring Jesus,” she makes a lot of room for others who may be struggling with the fear she once felt “to have the conversation in an open and honest way.”

I understand the compassion she wants to extend to those who are in similar places to where she was earlier in her journey. I was once non-affirming and advocated against LGBTQ inclusion. My first job out of college was with Exodus International, an ex-gay organization that caused immeasurable harm to LGBTQ folks. I sometimes struggle with deep shame over the things I believed and the way I passed it on to others. However, part of the way I take responsibility for earlier parts of my journey is to name the harm and speak out against the ways such harm continues. I advocate for change because lives hang in the balance. I am not willing to “be patient,” because every second that passes, people suffer.

My compassion prioritizes those who are being harmed, those who are marginalized and excluded. Jesus provides a good model: he stands with the oppressed and works for their liberation; he calls out the oppressors and urges them to repent. Salvation is God’s delivering action. Both the oppressed and oppressors are shown the way to freedom, but their paths are different because of where they stand in the social, political, economic and religious systems of their context. Some are lifted up, and some are brought low. Some have their wounds tended and healed, and some have to reckon with the wounds they have inflicted (assuming they are willing to stop inflicting those wounds in the first place).

In my next post, I will engage Mary Anne’s biblical reflections and explore different ways of “making room.” What do we mean when we say “welcoming,” “inclusive,” and/or “affirming” and why does it matter? Why do I think “staying unified and making space for divergent opinions” is unsustainable and still does harm even when the intention is to help and heal?

I think Bryan may have been surprised that I appreciated his comment when I reached out about it. He challenges us to have more and better conversation about this issue, and that is what I want to make room to do. I want to take the opportunity to engage Mary Anne’s reflection because it is getting a lot of attention, and it seems a good place to start. If we keep finding ways “to have the conversation in an open and honest way,” we can empower our communities to grow in compassion and wisdom toward greater justice and peace.

2 thoughts on “Making Room: Can We Have a Conversation?

  1. One thing I’ve learned recently is that to approach a conversation regarding inclusion, and in general any LGBTQIA topic, with an open heart and mind. Until recently I would approach those conversations as someone with their heels drugged in and unable to REALLY hear the other person. I would formulate my response to their comment instead of actively listen to what they had to say. That has changed and as a result has changed how I interact with people. I used to put those people who didn’t hold my viewpoint in the category of transphobic or homophobic. I would refuse to listen to them or I would try to argue till I was blue in my face to try to convert them to my viewpoint. It never worked.

    Thank you for your willingness to engage in hard conversations with an openness to hear each side and not just be hostile to their viewpoint.


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