On breast-feeding

February 12, 2014 | Editorial | Number 4
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

The headline caught my eye: “Breast-feeding on the rise, remains an issue in the pews.”

What? I thought, as intrigue took over and I continued to read the full article from Religion News Service. Of all the issues facing the church in our 21st century, do we really have to divide over one of the most basic and natural functions of human life? Has our conversation really descended to this level of discourse?

 “Jesus was breast-fed. It’s a point often made by mothers who want to breast-feed in church,” declared the writer in the lead sentence, “but they know others would prefer that they retreat to the nursery or find an out-of-the-way bench.”

I couldn’t believe how pedestrian this is, how unworthy of one ounce of energy expenditure. I began looking for some deeper meaning.

Then it struck me. This discussion symbolizes, at some level, how our conversation on faith matters is shifting from what has consumed us over the past 50 years to what seems to now demand our attention and serious pursuit. What seemed so important decades ago—right doctrinal statements, separation from the world, the right eschatology, pietistic practices to keep us uniform in our spiritual expressions, to name a few—now seem less important or are approached differently. Indeed, in retrospect, they appear a hindrance to developing a spiritual dynamic as Anabaptist Christians.

In large part, this has been culturally driven. We no longer live mostly in small, rural communities, where it was easier to define and implement our unique religious values. We were ethnically homogeneous—mostly of European descent. There was little dissent or challenge to what church leaders imposed. Today, younger generations have moved to urban centres which, in most of Canada, are highly multicultural. We encounter, every day, persons who are not like us, who do not share our cultural heritage.

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Most of us are no longer agrarians in our workplaces. We have successful businesses; occupy some of the leading centres of higher learning; have our own high schools and universities; are generally more educated than our forebears; are successful in the arenas of law, finance, art and literature as poets and writers; and in growing numbers have influence as government officials.

All of this is bound to change our worldview, our perceptions of where we fit into a society in which we have been integrated and are now intertwined, how we view both ourselves and our neighbours. No longer the “quiet in the land,” we struggle to be “in this world, but not of it.”

Which brings us back to breast-feeding as an issue. Does it occur to you, as it does to me, what seems to be a confluence of issues coming together around the issue of our sexuality? Presently it is occupying much of our conversation, including, apparently—breast-feeding.

There is the ongoing, and, for some, wearisome, coming to grips with the sexual abuse of our leading theologian, John Howard Yoder, now deceased for 17 years. Many letter writers, his women victims, the seminary at which he taught—Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary—and his publisher—MennoMedia—have all weighed in on the subject. The discussion has broadened to what the church should do to bring healing and perhaps compensation to the victims nearly two decades later, how to view him historically as a theologian/writer/teacher, how to view his widely published works.

The fifth plank in Mennonite Church Canada’s Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process is on human sexuality. The task force reports on page 16 of this issue that there is good participation of our congregations, as perhaps as many as 65 percent will report findings directly. This is encouraging and shows an engaged faith community in one of the pressing issues of 2014. We urge even fuller participation on this important subject.

Human sexuality is one of the engaging issues of our 21st century, happening in the context of a stronger voice for women and the growing acceptance of persons with differing sexual orientations. We need to address it reasonably and with great generosity towards each other in the faith community. We are both enlightened members of the kingdom and accomplished participants in our society.

For the BFC process, the planners have given us a good framework in which to carry on our conversation, not focusing on just one aspect of our sexuality, but attempting to make us faithful in its broader expressions. Let us respond in kind.

--Posted Feb. 11, 2014

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