‘They will know we are Christians by our love’

July 2, 2014 | Feature
By Lisa Schirch | Eastern Mennonite University
Harrisonburg, Va.

During the 2013-14 academic year, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) was engaged in intense conversations on and off campus regarding its hiring policy concerning individuals in covenanted same-sex relationships. Research professor Lisa Schirch sent the following letter to the university’s student newspaper, The Weather Vane, representing some of that conversation.

Here are 10 points to consider in the current EMU listening process:

1. Hate and homophobia are pervasive in American culture. School kids call each other “fags” and insult people by calling them “gay.” Bullies of all ages beat up gay and lesbian people, from the New York alley to the Kansas highway. Families disown their gay and lesbian children, a key factor in the alarmingly higher rates of suicide in these kids.

Jesus defended the humanity of all people, even society’s outcasts. A decidedly secular fear and lack of knowledge about homosexuality shapes many of the negative Christian attitudes about our brothers and sisters who are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered/queer (LGBTQ).

2. EMU leaders, like their Anabaptist ancestors, are taking great risks to follow Jesus’ “way of love” in allowing this listening process.

When I started leading campus dialogues on homosexuality at EMU in 1997, I began getting hate mail from others on campus. Other faculty shouted into the phone to tell me that I was a sinner for facilitating such dialogue. To this day, one EMU neighbour will not greet me as I pass by her home.

The most important part of the listening process at EMU is the tone it sets on how we deal with differences in our community. Can we practise the skills detailed in the Mennonite Church’s statement, “Disagreeing in love,” or is our pacifism only a theological position?

3. It is because of my faith, not in spite of it, that I believe the Mennonite church and institutions like EMU should accept all people—including those with an LGBTQ identity.

I trace my roots 500 years back to my ancestors in Switzerland who opposed the church hierarchy and challenged all to follow the radical way of Jesus at all costs. I have spent nearly my entire life attending and working at Mennonite institutions. Mennonite institutions have taught me to understand the Bible as a call to the “law of love” and to practise radical inclusion.

I learned not to water down the Bible, but to read the Bible alongside its culture and history. I learned not a selective reading of the Bible’s convenient passages, but to more fully understand that Jesus’ teachings can help human beings live in an increasingly chaotic world.

4. The Bible’s primary message is about acceptance, inclusion and an embrace of diversity. Jesus spent most of his time with people that the Jewish leaders of the day called “sinners.” Jesus embraced everyone, no matter who they were or what they had done. Jesus never practised exclusion. He welcomed all people to the table.

5. The biblical passages on homosexuality overwhelmingly refer to male slave owners who abusively sodomized their male slaves, often boys. The Bible refers to male rape as sin. Rape is always wrong. Rape is prevalent in our culture, but rape is completely different from homosexuality. Rape is a crime of power and domination. Homosexuality is not the same as rape. The Bible does not provide any comment on a loving relationship between two people of the same sex.

6. Science tells us that homosexuality is not a choice; it is a biological fact.

God creates up to 30 percent of people with diverse sexual orientations. People are born gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgendered. Homosexuality is not the same thing as being sexually “loose” or permissive.

Heterosexuals in our community often fail to respect their own bodies and those of their partners. Sexual integrity is a separate issue. EMU should continue to support a culture of sexual integrity for both heterosexuals and homosexuals on our campus, as we live in a world that teaches us to abuse others and ourselves.

7. Jesus does not command us to judge our neighbours or form an exclusive church for those without sin. Jesus does the opposite. He tells us to focus on the “log in our own eyes rather than the speck of dust in our neighbour’s eye.” Jesus repeatedly warns people against judging others. Perhaps the very arrogance of judging another is the highest form of sin, as feeling entitled to judge places us apart from God and divides the human community.

8. Even if we read the gospel without understanding its cultural context, Jesus mentions many different types of sinning or brokenness. Mennonites sin in many ways. Who would dare cast the first stone against another’s sins at EMU?

If we agree with Jesus that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through an eye of a needle, why are we silent about our addiction to wealthy donors who finance Mennonite institutions? There are too many biblical passages on the sin of gluttony to mention and too many delicious Mennonite recipes for any of us to point fingers at the extra inches on our waists.

Are any of us without sin? Or do we want to start ranking some sins as worse than others? Where is the biblical precedent for a policy of exclusion of any type of people? Would Jesus have turned away anyone seeking to learn how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?

9. In the past, EMU had closed its doors to African Americans. The church has been wrong in the past. Christians twisted biblical passages to make it seem that slavery was acceptable. At times, the church has been judgmental and racist. It took the leadership of courageous Mennonite women insisting on the full humanity of African Americans to eventually change EMU’s policy to welcome people of all colours.

In the footsteps of these women, we must stand beside our LGBTQ faculty, staff and students, and defend our right to learn from them and with them.

10. How will the world know that EMU is a home for spiritual growth, a university like no other? They will know we are Christians by our love, by our tolerance for diversity, for the way we care and respect each other even in the midst of our differences. No one will know we are Christians by our homophobic policies of exclusion and judgment.

I hope EMU will continue in the Anabaptist tradition of following Jesus’ radical love for and inclusion of all people, no matter the financial or institutional costs.

--Posted July 2, 2014

See also:

Jesus taught equality, regardless of sexual identity (feature article, July 7, 2014 issue)

For discussion: Jesus taught equality, regardless of sexual identity

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