Readers write: May 9, 2016 issue

May 4, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 10

Tell the whole Mennonite story

Re: “People of the plains,” March 14, page 12.

“What is it with Mennonites and flat surroundings?” Bill Schroeder asks. But we also need to ask, “What is it with Mennonites and hilly country?”

I have noticed for a long time that when we purport to tell the Mennonite story, we tend to tell only our half of it. Certainly Schroeder accurately depicts the Dutch/Russian Mennonite experience of the land as flat lands. Several decades ago, when I worked in Mennonite tourism in Ontario, I realized what had been staring me in the face all along, that the two main branches of Mennonites—Dutch/North German and Swiss/South German—can be defined by their geography.

It seems to be a habit of the heart to settle in familiar surroundings with similar terrain. Both have learned well how to work within the topography they have chosen.

The Dutch Mennonites moved from the lowlands of Friesland to the lowlands of Prussia, then to the steppes of Russia. From there, they came to the prairie provinces in Canada and the midwestern prairie states south of the border.  

My Swiss Mennonite forebears left the hills of Switzerland and moved to the hilly countryside of South Germany. From there they came to the hills of Pennsylvania and, about the same time as Dutch Mennonites moved to the flat lands of Russia, they came to the hilly country of Waterloo County in Ontario. Since then, many Old (Swiss) Mennonites have moved to the hills of Grey and Bruce counties further north.

Let me conclude, as Schroeder does, with a paraphrase: “Swiss Mennonite farmers, too, have had a good thing going; for them, seeking subsequent countryside with similar surroundings was eminently sensible; at least it made sense to them.” And it still makes sense to me.

Maurice Martin, New Hamburg, Ont.


‘No useful information’ in Philpott interview

Re: “A Liberal dose of generosity,” March 14, page 19.

I voted Liberal in the last election and was impressed with Jane Philpott’s profile and pleased to see her become health minister. But I was disappointed in this interview, as I knew nothing more about her after reading it than I did before.

Since the interviewer brought up the subject of many Mennonites voting Conservative, surely he could have followed that up by asking her for some opinion about that or for her view of the differences between liberal and conservative values.

Also, he did not push her to give any opinion about the various issues around physician-assisted dying, which some Mennonites, as well as others, feel very strongly about. It seemed to me he was being so careful to be polite to her that he got no useful information.

E.J. Wiebe, Edmonton


The Bible is full of shortcomings and biases

It has become clear to me over the past several years, reading the debate over same-sex relationships in Canadian Mennonite, that the greatest hindrance to gracious interaction is our use of the Bible. Somewhere in history, many have become convinced that God sat at his desk in heaven and wrote this book and dropped it in our laps for us to hit each other over the head with.  

But the Bible is a collection of stories written by human beings just like us, collected and translated by human beings just like us—actually just half of us, as women have been excluded from this process. These stories are subject to the same shortcomings and biases of any story you or I would write.

There are many wonderful stories in the Bible, but their value is in the sharing with us of other’s perceptions of God and the world around us through history. The Bible is a story book, not a rule book.

Barry Heinrichs, Winnipeg
Barry Heinrichs is a member of Hope Mennonite Church.


MC Eastern Canada thanked for ‘giving voice to vulnerable people’

Re: “Church leaders thanked for naming Vernon Leis” letter, March 14, page 7, and Dick Benner’s “More transparency please” editorial, Dec. 14, 2015, page 2.

I write with appreciation for Miriam Frey, who thanked Mennonite Church Eastern Canada leaders for revealing the sexual misconduct of Vernon Leis. She said some of the things that I was trying to say in composing a letter to Canadian Mennonite, in particular that “your speaking up has given voice to vulnerable people who were taught by the church and society to live in silence and secrecy.” I, too, want to thank those who are taking the time needed to listen and respond to some of those affected by events from many years ago.

But I had trouble with the editorial that appealed to the church leaders “to be more forthcoming about the process . . . to open the investigative doors a little wider.” I think it cannot have been easy to come with this information to the church leaders, as there has to always be the risk that one might not be believed or taken seriously, and opening doors up further might not be the best action to be taken in this situation.

Julene Fast, Elmira, Ont.


Is there a liberation trajectory for gays on the horizon?

Re: “What is ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’?” feature, Feb. 15, page 4.

I would like to add a few comments on Darrin Snyder Belousek’s feature on his trajectory theory recently. Although I do not agree with his arguments or conclusions, I believe Belousek’s point of view is significant and we need to take it seriously.

Not surprisingly, Snyder Belousek has found plenty of scriptural reference points for liberation trajectories justifying societal equality for women, slave, and other formerly disenfranchised and marginalized groups, like foreigners and refugees. Also not surprisingly, he has found nothing in the Bible justifying a similar liberation trajectory for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender /queer (LGBTQ) community.

Many modern biblical scholars could have alerted him to the fact that searching for scriptural reference points for a trajectory arc justifying equality for gays—including same-sex marital unions—was destined to be a futile search. Scripture has nothing to say about same-sex attraction as it is understood today.

The trajectory for gay liberation in the sense that we are talking about it in the 21st century did not emerge until the mid-19th century. By this time, theology had lost its status as “queen of the sciences.” Ever since science definitively demonstrated that the earth is not flat, it had been establishing itself as an independent pathway to truth. It is arguably one of the great achievements of science that it paved the way, and set the trajectory, for the gay liberation movement.

The term “homosexuality” was coined in the late 19th century, not by the faith community, but by the scientific community. It was in the 1860s that the medical community began to argue that homosexuals should come under the care and jurisdiction of psychiatry, rather than the church and state. The word itself was first used in 1888. As Colin Spencer points out in his history of homosexuality, physicians “needed the word for their work in understanding human sexuality.” Psychiatrists, including eminent ones like Sigmund Freud, soon effectively argued that homosexuality was really a mental health problem, rather than a moral (sin) or legal one, as it had been defined by church and state over the centuries.

Until the medical community took over care and jurisdiction of the “gay problem,” homosexual activity in Christendom was deemed to be illegal and immoral, frequently resulting in harassment, imprisonment and even death. The infamous witch trials of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and North America resulted in many tens of thousands of deaths. The executions, often drownings, typically targeted women who did not fit the mould of society’s expectations. It is generally assumed today that this marginalized and persecuted group of women included in significant numbers what would today be referred to as the lesbian population of its day. The church fully collaborated with the state in these “witch hunts” that were eerily reminiscent of the Hitler era when gays and Roma were routinely incinerated along with Jews with nary a church objection heard anywhere.

It was the scientific community, rather than the religious or political communities, that set the trajectory for the much-needed change of society’s attitude toward those who had a same-sex attraction. Someone needed to bring to a halt the atrocities perpetrated by church and state against people deemed to have deviant sexual proclivities. Homophobia had become a pervasive, social dynamic, often with brutal consequences.

It is at this juncture in history where Belousek could productively have begun his search for the liberation trajectory for gays. Prior to the 19th century, there was no arc in sight, much less a trajectory pointing to gay liberation. Defining homosexuality as a mental health problem, as the medical profession did in the 1880s, was a significant step forward, bringing an arc of hope into the gay community. The change in thinking landed many gay men and women in society’s mental health facilities, rather than its jails, but, unfortunately, both were typically hell holes.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, following a decade of protest from women, blacks and gays through their respective liberation movements of the 1960s, that homosexuality was also taken out of the hands of psychiatry and fully de-listed as a mental health problem. Same-sex attraction was affirmed by the scientific community as a normal variation of human sexuality. Within the next several decades, significant progress was made in Canadian society in accepting the gay community. Gay marriages were legalized. The business and educational communities changed their policies to accommodate the new legislation forbidding discrimination against gays. No longer was homosexuality considered a sexual deviation, or a moral, legal or mental health problem. Annual gay pride parades across Canada became widely supported community celebrations, even tourist attractions, in which all segments of society participated, at times even a smattering of churches.

But not all agreed with the trend to acceptance and normalization. Because of the dramatic attitudinal changes occurring in secular society, many mainline churches decided to reconsider their position toward the gay community as well. Mennonite Church Canada, to its credit, was no exception. Sadly for the Mennonite gay community, in 1986 after some years of consultation and Bible study, the General Conference Mennonite Church voted at its tri-annual assembly in Saskatoon to buck the rapidly rising trend in secular society towards full acceptance of the LGBTQ community. The church reaffirmed its belief that gay sexual activity was an abomination in the eyes of God. In 1995, this view was incorporated into the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Nonconformity to the church’s position could lead to disciplinary measures, such as de-credentialling errant pastors or expelling welcoming churches. Understandably, very few Mennonite churches anywhere in Canada became havens of safety for gays.

On the other hand, in 1988 the United Church of Canada, despite huge protests from its conservative wing, accepted the position that homosexuality was a normal variation of human sexuality. Its view was essentially identical to the position accepted in 1973 by the medical, psychological and social service societies, although not always unanimously. The fight was on in the faith communities, both Catholic and Protestant. Who was right? The voice of theologians exegeting Scripture and tradition or the modern voices of scientific and humanistic secularism?

The fly in the ointment stalling any change in many Mennonite churches has been its core conviction that the findings of a scientifically based secular community cannot be normative on issues of sin and morality if they deviate from what is deemed to be the “clear” teaching of Scripture. For them, what matters above all is what the Bible says, not what courts of justice or the scientific community might say. The lack of any convincing biblical evidence arguing for gay equality is seen as proof that gay equality cannot possibly be God’s will. The incongruity which such a position poses to the church’s avowed missional goal of looking around in the world to see where God is working, and then joining in, has still not dawned on many.

For many in our churches, the next step forward is no longer found in more intensive Bible study. We’ve been there, done that. The option of splitting the Mennonite church is gaining traction both in the U.S. and Canada. Many churches choose to ignore 150 years of evidence piling up that argues for equality and justice for the LGBTQ community. None of that evidence seems important. What matters is whether this evidence is really the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob speaking. After all, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, they say. If God were in charge, they argue with Snyder Belousek, then surely the Bible would provide the evidence for this modern gay liberation trajectory, not science.

After over 30 years of discerning back and forth, one begins to wonder whether at the core of the whole controversy may also be an emotional and mental block which no amount of additional Bible study will solve. Perhaps it would be helpful if a dozen or so Mennonite scholars at our institutions of higher learning with a liberal arts focus, such as Canadian Mennonite University and Menno Simons College, both in Winnipeg; Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.; Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.; Goshen (Ind.) College; or Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., would enter the fray more aggressively. From these institutions might come the leadership that could persuade a fearful people that the modern secularly inspired trajectory for gay liberation and equality is indeed an expression of God’s will. After all, this is 2016. The earth is no longer flat, and truth, like human sexuality, is no longer one straight line leading back to the Garden of Eden.

So, does God work through science as surely as God worked through the prophets of old? Until we can accept that this is most likely the case, we are probably destined to flounder for another generation studying the biblical passages with futility for those “clear” elusive biblical trajectories as to what to do with the “gay problem,” even if it means splitting the Mennonite body of Christ one more time in the process.

Victor Fast, London, Ont.

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Thanks to Barry Heinrichs for advising a more realistic approach to the Bible. Despite its many gems, it's impossible for it to be nearly as complete, free of errors and biases, and understandable as we'd like. The "perfect" guide we seek is our deeper heart and deeper mind. There is only the the task of reading these better. The person who strives to understand wisdom emanating from within is further ahead than the person who dissects the Bible, word by word.

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