A reasoned discussion

October 26, 2011 | Editorial | Volume 15 Issue 21
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

“Enough already.” I can already hear groans of despair as we, once again, open up the conversation about sexuality in all of its manifestations. In a search of our database, our managing editor, Ross W. Muir, discovered that this publication and its predecessor, the Mennonite Reporter, have carried a total of 232 articles on the subject, ranging from sexual abuse, child sex tourism, same and safe sex, to sex offenders, sex change, sexual abstinence, sexual misconduct and sexual boundaries. The list goes on.

Will we ever get enough? And what is the point of again launching into these controversial waters where no one wins, no one seems to change his or her mind, where the two sides accuse the other of unfaithfulness, of being misguided—or wrong—all the while proof-texting the Bible to win the argument?

It is my sense, as one of the denominational gatekeepers, that while wearisome and probably troublesome, as a steward of one of our public forums, we must continue this conversation, albeit with new guidelines, for two reasons:

  • First, as Mennonite Church Canada continues its Being a Faithful Church discernment process, the issue of sexuality is one of the primary components. I must clarify, however, that MC Canada officials are hesitant to open this topic up at this time; they did not request, or even encourage, our bringing it to the fore.
  • Second, it is time we reframe the debate with new guidelines of discourse, a time to covenant together that we will choose our words carefully, without judgment and rancour, to take a broad and thoughtful look at the subject and not confine it to the flash points of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, to deconstruct the old framework of using inclusion/exclusion of church members as a dividing line within our faith community.

In simple, straightforward terms, we, with Brian McLaren in his new book, A New Kind of Christianity, ask the question: “Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it? . . . Can we move beyond paralyzing polarization into constructive dialogue about the whole range of challenges we face regarding human sexuality?”

McLaren includes sexuality in a line-up of 10 major issues the church has to address if it is to listen to the Spirit moving across denominations and around the world, along with understanding the Bible as narrative and its authority in our lives, violence, a new look at the teachings of Jesus and what the church has done with them, pluralism and eschatology.

None of these issues can be trivialized or swept under the rug simply because we can’t agree on them. They are the nerve centre of our faith, the life-blood to our survival as a church. Therefore, we must engage, not dodge.With this issue, we are attempting to model this new framework for discussion. Keith Graber Miller’s feature, “Unwrapping sexuality,” on page 4, provides context, presenting readers with a broad view of the subject, not just the aspects that have tended to bog us down. Keep in mind that this was originally an address to university students who are the members of our faith community most wanting a thoughtful discussion, not a duel of warring factions. We owe them no less.

The first of a three-part series of “Letters to my Sister,” page 12, is a more intimate discussion between accomplished 80-year-old twins who, with their lifetime of experience, find themselves on opposite sides of the homosexual issue, but who respect each other and carry on a thoughtful debate in letters.

We hope this gives clear guidance for those of you who will surely respond with your own reflections. In that regard, let me clearly state what will—and will not—make the letters column or online postings of this publication:

  • Only those who add some new insight or information to the subject will be considered. We will not rehash old arguments and well-known talking points used in the old frame of this ongoing conversation, or countenance judgmental language either of individuals or organized groups.
  • Resist the temptation to use proof-texting of the biblical narrative to support any of your points. To quote McLaren again: “In a time when religious extremists constantly use sacred texts to justify violence, many of us feel a moral obligation to question the ways the Bible has been used in the past to defend the indefensible and promote the unacceptable.”
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(not for publication, unless there is some "new insight" on the topic--in which case this has to be severely edited!)

The great articles by Keith Miller and Dick Benner are very timely for me. This Sunday, November 6, we at Plains Mennonite will begin a four week study of the churchwide booklet, "Body and Soul." I'm teaching the 60-70 year olds and what do we know, or do with this topic at our age? Well, among other ways of introducing the subject, so that we might get into some new territory from the old ruts of the past, here is just a little bit of what I, as the teacher, plan to say near the beginning:

"My own interest in the topic goes back many years, involving both my experiences in
-- teaching high school students and in pastoring at Plains and Germantown.
-- My original thought (years ago) was that the Mennonite Church ought to have a “theology of human sexuality,” and maybe this could be a congregational initiative to begin such a task, beginning with an exploration with parents of children and youth on, 'what do you need from the church as you teach your children about sexuality?' Perhaps a congregation might even create some SS electives, or add complementary topics in the children’s 'Foundation' SS lessons. But for various reasons, including especially, my own uncertainty about how to proceed, this never happened.
-- Meanwhile, and during the course of my teaching and pastoral work, I became aware of, and had to deal rather directly with quite a number of issues related to sexuality and the human body, many of which are still very much experienced as 'problems' within Christian churches as well as in society at large. These topics would include (in no particular order except alphabetically):
--abuse in the family (spousal, physical, emotional, incest),
--clergy abuse (sexual and emotional),
--homosexuality (the whole gamut from gays coming out to me, to biblical interpretation, theology, and the churchwide issue of
-- if, how, when gays may be included in the church),
--patriarchy and the role of women in the church,
--pornography, and
--there may have been other problems and 'issues' I'm not recalling at the moment.

Not everything was this grim in my teaching and pastoral work! I had many positive experiences, including the many wonderful times I spent with persons preparing for marriage. However, these examples of issues and problems led me to write this in my journal some years ago (as adapted for this public purview):

“(during the early debates over homosexuality) I discovered we were not all that comfortable in facing other aspects of our sexuality . . . and a new thought slowly emerged. In the clamor over inclusion of gays in the church – across the wide theological spectrum, the debates about biblical interpretation, and over such issues as to whether homosexuality is innate or a chosen lifestyle – I wondered if there is any common ground that might serve as a bridge among a host of intractable issues. Is there a place where people of faith, with great variations in convictions and personal experiences, could meet and go forward as one Body in Christ? Could we find a level playing field on which we could address our common fears and ignorance, as well as experiences and wisdom? And could a common faith emerge out of that exchange?

“On what subject, beyond explicit sexuality topics, could we be stripped naked as it were, of our certitudes and posturing? Given our life experiences, how might we become free from prejudices (not that they are all bad) and be exposed to what I believe is a deeper angst than 'mere' sex? Then this thought emerged – what about our bodies? We are all – male and female, straight and gay, homophobic and prophetic – expressing some discomfort with our bodies. Regardless of our sex, sexual orientation, class, culture, race, education, or physical ability/disability, etc. – all of us bring deep anxiety about the bodies we live in. We are all, to one degree or another, a fearful people. We lack knowledge and understanding about our bodies. And even more obsessively, we have trouble in accepting our bodies as they are, with all their perceived imperfections. Further, though they contain much knowledge and wisdom, we have not developed skills in listening to our bodies.

“We love and we hate our bodies. Yes, this seems to be a level playing field – we’re pretty much in this game together.”
(excerpted from Lichty journal writings in late 1990s)

Yes, the subject is not simply about sex and sexuality, but what it means to be embodied creatures.

It is not 'issues and problems' delineated above that are the subject of our Sunday school lessons. I only cite them (along with my own limited experiences and my long interest in the topics of sexuality and human embodiment) as a major reason for us to do this study. We shall not enter this subject with the negatives, but look and see how we might look at our bodies in a positive, hopeful way, for that is the way God sees us. There are some qualifications we must name, however, to keep centered on our topic of a positive look at our bodies, as God sees them. Some qualifications, caveats, or, as the study manual says it, 'disclaimers' about this study:
“Some users may be looking to these resources to provide arguments 'for' or 'against' the church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality. These resources, however, envision something more foundational that must happen first: they seek to call all of us, whatever our background or opinion or sexual identity, however whole or wounded we feel, to recognize ourselves and our neighbor as created in God’s image, loved by God, and capable of being faithful and joyful stewards of God’s gift of sexuality. If the church can cultivate an atmosphere of humility and of honor for each other, more fruitful dialog and caring can result.” (page 2 of Adult Leaders Guide to, Body and Soul: Healthy Sexuality and the People of God, page 2)

There are other disclaimers which we will address in our first session.

Richard J Lichty
626 W Orvilla Road
Hatfield, Pennsylvania 19440 USA

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