A place for rebels

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September 6, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

If you’re reading this blog, the chances are pretty good that you or someone you know attended Canadian Mennonite University or another Mennonite post-secondary institution. My whole life, I’ve had ties to one of the founding colleges of CMU, Canadian Mennonite Bible College, where my parents met as students, and where they both later worked. I graduated from CMU myself a few years ago, and am still in the midst of processing everything that I learned there; it was such a profound experience, inside the classroom and outside of it, in residence life on campus. I thought this would be a fitting topic for this back-to-school time of year.
I keep thinking back to one of the dynamics of the student community while I was there, which was a kind of political polarization (see my first blog article). There were certain issues – alcohol, homosexuality, etc. – which really caused the students to split into opposing groups, despite the great miracle of CMU being the result of Mennonites actually getting together on something! Every year that I was there, we had letters posted on each side of these debates on the “Wittenberg Door,” a bulletin board dedicated to student opinions on different issues (kind of like a hard-copy version of these blogs, actually – and a reference to this door, of course). And usually every year, we’d have a debate on these issues, too. These questions were never resolved once and for all. People usually weren’t dramatically converted to the opposite opinion. But though we students were frustrated with each other, and maybe even disappointed that we couldn’t come to an agreement on these issues, I don’t think that was ever the point of these on-paper and face-to-face discussions.
One time, a few of us were talking to one of the profs (now retired – he’ll remain nameless) about this polarization and other changes that CMU was going through. He formerly taught at CMBC, and so we asked him what was an aspect of the place that he really valued. He said that he hoped CMU would always be “a place for rebels.” Not the first thing that would come to most people’s minds, I’m sure! I’ve heard that among some communities of Mennonites, CMU has a sketchy reputation – people are concerned that there aren’t strict enough lifestyle rules (or the enforcement of rules). There are clearly those who feel that CMU needs some “cleaning up,” that only the rule-abiding crowd should have the privilege of studying and living on that campus – so it’s interesting that this prof wanted to preserve what some consider a major weakness at CMU.
But there’s more to rebellion than breaking a few rules at university (at a time in life when people tend to be searching for who they are as adults, which may involve testing a few boundaries, I might add). It has to do with larger questions of what faith means, and what kind of place the church is, which church institutions like CMU are centrally concerned with. The thing is, I don’t think faith is about having everything figured out, and institutions like CMU aren’t about teaching people to be blindly obedient, or to have tidy answers to all of life’s tough questions – they’re about teaching people to ask tough questions, which in the right context, can deepen and strengthen faith, not do away with it. That’s what theology is, really; it’s wrestling with tough questions and ambiguous ethical issues within a context and community of faith, issues which may take lifetimes to be figured out. As twentieth-century American author Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.” Amen to that! And this is exactly what those first Anabaptists were all about, wasn’t it? They didn’t want to follow the theology that was being taught to them by the clergy, who forbade the kinds of tough questions they had. They wanted to figure things out for themselves, as a priesthood of all believers. They were definitely rebels in their time (have you ever looked at the Martyr’s Mirror?).
So I’ve come to see that those unresolved debates we had during my time at CMU contained a valuable lesson in themselves; they were teaching us some really valuable things about the world, and about the church – about dialoguing meaningfully with those whose opinions are different from your own. So I agree with my former prof; institutions like CMU shouldn’t be about making everyone into identical, cookie-cutter copies and to forbid any deviation from that norm through strict rules and harsh punishments (these are adults, after all). The point is not to build a perfect community without conflict (because there’s no such thing). Instead, these places can teach us how to deal with (not avoid) difficult questions in community, and how to deal with conflict when (not if) it arises. Of course, this is pretty complicated and messy in practice; the meaning and practice of accountability becomes particularly muddy, and is something I’m still thinking through. But until we’re given some kind of insight into how to move ahead on that, let’s make sure we keep the discussion going, shall we?

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