The Stories We Tell: Centered on False Innocence?

We all tell ourselves stories about who we are, and our place and purpose in this world. We turn to them again and again for identity and guidance. Stories shape how we see and how we act.

As I said in my last post, sometimes we use the stories we tell as a defense against seeing ourselves, especially our “shadows,” clearly and honestly. I’ve been paying attention to the stories being crafted by Mennonite Brethren (MB) leadership in response to LGBTQ inclusion efforts. The “authorized” story is put forth in order to move people away from LGBTQ inclusion and back into alignment with “our” center.

For a while I’ve been troubled by the adoption of “centered” language. Not that I find the “centered” paradigm itself problematic. What concerns me is that leaders and communities seem to use it in a way that further blinds them from the kind of self-examination we need. Dare I say it is functioning as a tool for reinforcing “narratives of false innocence”?

When Mark Baker released his latest book, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism, I was eager to read it. The MB circles I’m familiar with were abuzz with excitement. Everyone I’ve seen comment about it loved it. I graciously received a complimentary copy upon request, and said I’d post a review. I’ve been struggling with my response to this book for the last year. I still can’t find a way to concisely capture my thoughts in a review.

As I’ve listened to MB leadership lean heavily on “centered” language and concepts, it hit me. The story they are telling about themselves casts them as faithful disciples within a centered church. Their job is to usher everyone toward the center, and to protect it from those who would “undermine our position.” They are using a centered-set paradigm to shape a story that positions them on moral high ground that, by virtue of the authority of such a position, exonerates them from any wrongdoing. In other words, they are “innocent” by virtue of adhering to this paradigm. They are following the right framework, so they cannot be (or do) wrong.

We’re sorry we didn’t talk to the author or editor of the content we censored, but we were protecting the vulnerable MB flock from confusion and being led down a slippery slope.

We’re not really kicking anyone out. We are just respecting the choice of these churches to choose their own path.

The message is clear: we are not responsible for the harm other people experience when we are doing our God-ordained duty to guard our center.

Being “judgmental” in our exclusion has become more difficult to defend. It’s a PR challenge in a context where we’re anxious about declining membership and shrinking budgets. Has a centered paradigm provided the “spin” we need to rebrand? Are we repackaging our harmful attitudes and practices in a way that allows the harm to be further obscured or justified?

I know Mark well enough to know that he does not intend for churches and denominations to use the centered paradigm as a mask or a weapon. However, I’m disappointed that the book does not adequately wrestle with issues such as power, equity, diversity, decision-making and change. The book largely assumes a conservative evangelical ethical norm, and gives examples of confronting inappropriate or sinful behavior in others in order to change their trajectory toward the center. If such lovingly concerned attempts fail, then the other person is essentially self-selecting their own exclusion. As I’m seeing unfold among MBs, this doesn’t seem to be dealing with the problem Mark sets out to address—the “bad fruit” produced by “bounded” or “fuzzy” churches. Rather, such fruit is being produced in abundance and sold with a veneer of niceness (as long as we’re “centered,” we’re not being “judgmental,” right?).

I’ll keep saying this: maybe the root of our problem goes deeper than we’re aware or are able to admit. Maybe something else is underground, feeding the systems that produce judgmentalism, shaming, exclusion, suffering, etc. Maybe exchanging one paradigm for another only scratches the surface of the work we need to do.

We want to tell ourselves the story: Jesus is the center of our faith; community is the center of our life; reconciliation is the center of our work. We want that to be true. We need that to be true. We think we can control or exclude our way toward integrity. Yet we are disintegrating when we suppress or eliminate diversity. We’re literally cutting people off and discarding them, saying, “I have no need of you.”

We cannot hide behind our centered language. I have no doubt that MB leadership believe they are operating out of a centered-set church paradigm. The “bad fruit” I’ve been naming, however, needs to be a wake up call that something is rotten. We need to critically examine our center, reevaluate what really functions as our center. We won’t get to the root of the problem unless we are willing to dig deeper.

So, what is going on underground? I’ve been pointing specifically to the fruit of LGBTQ harm that our tree is producing. We have to reckon with the roots of white patriarchy, and the way they feed our entire structure from trunk to branch to fruit. Otherwise we’ll keep telling ourselves “Jesus is our center” while “whitemalegod” runs the show from the shadows.

There are many people doing great work unmasking roots such as racism and sexism than run through the Christian tradition. I’ll highlight two: Christena Cleveland, God is a Black Woman, and Cheryl Anderson, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation.

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