Be Somewhat Conformed to the Patterns of this World

Those of us in the Anabaptist community come from a faith tradition that takes Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart: “Be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” For us, nonconformity is more than a theological concept– it is a way of life.

Nonconformity is an expression of radical hope. Although we are a part of a wider world we don’t have to live the same way the rest of the world does. Our souls can be renewed and we can be freed to choose another path. When, for instance, the world chooses violence, we can choose peace. When it chooses oppression, we can choose justice. When it chooses hatred, we are free to respond in love. Our belief in nonconformity gives us the courage, at times, to say no to injustice and violence even when they’re taken for granted by those around us. It gives us the wisdom to imagine a world radically different than the one handed to us.

Rather than committing ourselves to the way of Jesus, we side with the path of domination whenever it happens to suit our purposes.

But at the same time, the discourse of nonconformity has often given us the false sense that we are more immune from the ways of the wider society than we really are. It would seem the patterns of this world weave their way through our lives, just as they do for everyone else. We claim to be a people of peace but our communities are rife with intimate partner violence, and we often protect abusers instead of victims. We claim to be a people of justice, but Euro-American Mennonites have historically been no less racist than other white people in this country.

Anabaptism began as a multinational, ethnically and linguistically diverse religious movement of poor people in Europe. The original Anabaptists chose to resist the nationalism of the state church and its addiction to violence, often at great personal cost. When European Anabaptist groups moved to North America, where we no longer faced systemic persecution, we quickly grew complacent.

Today I see nonconformity deployed most often by politically conservative Mennonites who are concerned that their way of life is disappearing. They see that young people are overwhelmingly politically progressive and they know that young people are the future of the church. As the church grows more progressive, political conservatives are concerned that the church will assimilate to the ways of the world.

When, for instance, same-sex marriage was legalized on the federal level, conservative leaders scolded inclusive churches for conforming to the patterns of secular society rather than abiding by the traditional understanding of marriage. But when homophobia was both the law and culture of the wider society– and indeed, that’s still overwhelmingly the case today– exclusionary Mennonites were happy to assimilate to the ways of the world. Likewise, patriarchy is very much embedded in the patterns of the world. But many Mennonites, rather than being transformed by the renewing of their mind, continue to believe that women must play a subservient role in the church.

Our dedication to nonconformity has sometimes meant wearing different clothes, driving different cars, and speaking a different language than the rest of society. But rarely has it meant resisting or dismantling the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, or ableism of the wider society. We’ve been more than happy to join in those patterns.

So it seems that our commitment to nonconformity has been inconsistent. Rather than committing ourselves to the way of Jesus, we side with the path of domination whenever it happens to suit our purposes. It would appear that, as Mennonites, we believe we should be somewhat conformed to the patterns of the world.

And yet, I have not given hope that nonconformity can be continue to be redemptive and revolutionary concept for us. But the first step will be to acknowledge that we are not so immune from the ways of the world than we think. We can no longer pick and and choose when we will align ourselves with Jesus and when we will align ourselves with injustice. And our nonconformity will need to be more than aesthetic, linguistic, or cultural. It must be economic, structural, and ethical. We must show with our whole lives that we are witnesses to a Kin-dom which is not beholden to the powers and principalities of the world.

When we resist the patterns of this world, we develop, articulate, and live into new patterns.

This is not an easy or simple transformation. Neither is it a one time event. But I believe that we are a resurrected and renewed people. So we must recommit ourselves, time and again to unlearn and resist the patterns of domination that undergird the social world around us. For those of in the United States, this means living in a way that disrupts the death-dealing power of the American empire, both within and beyond its borders. But we don’t do it alone. When we resist the patterns of this world, we develop, articulate, and live into new patterns. As we weave those patterns into the fabric of our community, we embody the hope that another way is possible.

Scott Sprunger
Mennonite Publications Should Uplift the Community

This article was also published in Mennonite World Review.

Mennonite publications play an essential role in the life of our community. Not only do they share news from Anabaptist communities around the world, but they’re also a vital forum on which we can have honest and sometimes difficult conversations about things that matter most. No matter how we engage with one another, the goal should be the same– to build and uplift our community and to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

A recent post from Harold Miller’s personal blog was re-published on Mennonite World Review. In it, Harold made a case against supporting same-sex relationships and advocated celibacy for those of us who are LGBTQ. It’s a case he’s made before in Mennonite publications and on his own blog. Except this time he used a racist analogy to support his views. According to him, the church should be free to discriminate against LGBTQ people because we can choose how we respond to our romantic desires. But he contrasts this with Black people on the basis that they have no choice over their skin color, implying that Black people would want to if they could.

But why should Black people want to change their skin? There’s nothing wrong with being Black. But there is something profoundly wrong with a society that treats people as less than human based on the color of their skin. In the same way, there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ. But there’s something profoundly wrong with a church that denies people full inclusion on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Fortunately, Executive Director of MCUSA, Glen Guyton responded publicly a couple days later, saying “Only hatred and evil equate our skin color with being less than...The author suggests that being white is better or something blacks aspire to. We don’t regret our identity.” And also that, “Talking about the need for long term study and data collection on people in the LGBTQ community sounds more like eugenics and less like the gospel of Christ.” This response was important and valuable, but it never should have been necessary. Miller’s article shouldn’t have been published in the first place.

While Miller later amended the language of the post and apologized for the racist phrase, the racist undertones continue to prop up the analogy. Not only is it racist, but its basic logic is false. Sure, nobody chooses their race. But neither does anybody choose their queer or trans identity. And there’s nothing wrong with either of those.

In reality, the appropriate comparison would be between same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. Again, this shows just how racist the analogy is. The argument that we should not be married because same-sex marriage is a choice was applied in the same way to interracial marriages. For centuries, white Christians argued that interracial marriages run directly against human nature and biblical values. They acknowledged that nobody picked their race, but that interracial marriage was a choice. That was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

But racism is never acceptable and should never be given a platform.

In our communities, there are a variety of views on LGBTQ inclusion. In my opinion, Miller’s writings on LGBTQ people are hateful, harmful, and stand in opposition to Christ’s love. I understand that not everyone may feel that way. But at the very least, we should all agree that white-supremacy is unacceptable in our communities and in our publications. It directly harms Mennonites of color, who by the way are the majority of Mennonites globally, and it tarnishes the integrity of the rest of the Mennonite church.

The Mennonite world is large and diverse. Unfortunately there will always be those among us whose words divide us and break down community. We cannot necessarily silence but them, but at the very least we can choose not to amplify their voices. It is okay, and even necessary, to have a diversity of opinions about a range of important issues facing the life of the church. But racism is never acceptable and should never be given a platform. Moving forward, it is imperative that Mennonite publications focus on building and uplifting the community. That will mean seeking out and amplifying a diversity of voices, and especially those who have been minoritized or oppressed within our communities.

Scott Sprunger
Why Do Homophobes Need Homophobia?

The future of the church is inclusive. Or at least, the church will need to learn to be inclusive of LGBTQ people if it’s going to have a future.

In many denominations, popular attitudes toward queer people are changing for the better, while changes in polity continue to lag behind. But homophobia and transphobia will not cease to exist just because churches are growing more diverse. A very real and very vocal backlash exists today in communities that are invested in maintaining homophobia and transphobia.

Ultimately, homophobia will not go away until straight people have a change of heart. And that will not be possible until we address the underlying issues that are being covered by homophobia and transphobia. Why do homophobes need homophobia?

The idea that God does not approve of same-gender relationships, or of gender-nonconformity, is one plausible way of reading the Bible, but far from the only one. There are many reasons why I think it’s a false interpretation, but that’s another discussion altogether.

But the handful of verses that are used to support homophobia and transphobia simply cannot account for the sheer moral panic surrounding them.

So I don’t doubt that those who want to exclude queer people from full participation in their churches do genuinely believe they’re following scripture. But the handful of verses that are used to support homophobia and transphobia simply cannot account for the sheer moral panic surrounding them. The fact that homophobes don’t share a similar zeal for prohibiting the consumption of shellfish, which has an equivalent level of biblical support, shows that their homophobia was never really about the Bible. And those few verses certainly don’t justify the hostility, exclusion, abandonment, condemnation, and violence that straight people have wielded to uphold them.

There is something fundamentally wrong with with the state of sexual morality today. The overwhelming prevalence of sexual assault, rape culture, intimate partner violence, and child sexual abuse indicates as much. I think this is something that both conservatives and liberals sense on an intuitive level.

People seek to control others only when they feel that something is out of control. Make no mistake, homophobia is a means of controlling other people. It’s a way of saying that I should be able to control your family, relationships, and sexual activity if I disapprove of it.

Why are homophobes so eager to involve themselves in the sex lives of others? They may genuinely believe that queer relationships and trans identities are sinful. But so what? It’s not like they’re directly impacted by the private actions of others.

But the truth is, homophobes and transphobes do genuinely feel as though they are impacted by the relationships and identities of others. Homophobes believe in a vision of gender, in which all human beings are neatly divided into profoundly distinct categories of ‘male’ or ‘female.’ In this system, everyone must identify with the gender they are assigned at birth. Their gender will govern their behavior, their appearance, and who they must love. When they do have sex, it must necessarily result in procreation.

To say that God intended human beings to fall into rigid gendered and sexual categories is to insult the imagination and wonder of God.

But the problem with this system is that it is neither biologically accurate nor biblically sound. If we look to nature or to the science of human anatomy, we see that God has clearly created a world in which gender comes in many diverse expressions, far beyond the rigid boundaries of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ And sexual activity exists with just as much vibrant diversity. Likewise, in the Bible, we see countless stories of individuals who resisted the gendered expectations placed on them by society and non-traditional families who embodied a love that was deeper than social conventions. To say that God intended human beings to fall into rigid gendered and sexual categories is to insult the imagination and wonder of God.

Homophobia is a band-aid that covers a deeper insecurity. Homophobes sense on an intuitive level the fragility of their gendered world view. They sense the brokenness of sexual morality in our society. But they think the problems can only be held at bay if they double down on their ‘traditional’ understanding of how people ought to exist and behave. That’s why transphobes talk about gender-neutral bathrooms through the distorted lens of protecting children, despite not having a single shred of evidence to suggest that trans people are a threat to children. Truly, cisgender adults are the world’s greatest threat to trans children.

By identifying same-gender relationships and gender nonconformity as the issue, homophobes turn the problem into a group of people. And they turn the solution into systemic persecution of those people.

In truth, most homophobes don’t think they’re being malicious. Some have, in a twisted way, convinced themselves that they’re actually being loving. But the fruit of their actions tell a different story. The gendered system they fight so hard to protect is actually at the root of so much sexual sin. Rape culture exists precisely because we teach our children from such a young age that they must act in a certain way – that boys must be dominating and girls must be accommodating.

Ultimately, when queer and trans people are no longer to blame for straight and cis- people’s problems, then they will have no choice but to look inward.

Today discussions in churches about sexual ethics almost always revolve around the ‘homosexuality issue’ and never rape culture or child sexual abuse. When straight people scapegoat ‘homosexuality,’ it’s a clever technique of changing the subject away from the sexual sins that really are devastating our communities. To be clear, not every homophobe or transphobe is covering up some secret sexual iniquity. But the sexual crises facing the church today will never fully be addressed as long as queer and trans people are scapegoated for them. Homophobes need homophobia because it disguises their own role in today’s crisis of sexual immorality.

Ultimately, when queer and trans people are no longer to blame for straight and cis- people’s problems, then they will have no choice but to look inward. I think homophobes are afraid of what they’ll find when they do. But if society or the church is ever to heal, it will require exactly that.

Scott Sprunger Comment
Reframing Church Leadership: From Pastoral Authority to Pastoral Trust

Pastors hold a unique position in the life of a community. They are simultaneously representatives of, and beholden to, the congregation. They lead and they serve at the same time. And the choices pastors make on behalf of the community have the power to promote healing or to inflict pain. What pastors do, from behind the pulpit or at the hospital bedside, can have life or death consequences.

For those of us involved in the world of ministerial leadership, there’s a phrase we use to talk about the immense responsibility and power handed to religious leaders– pastoral authority.

But just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it goes away.

To be honest, I’ve never felt totally satisfied with the idea of pastoral authority. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a Christian tradition which has historically challenged the rigid hierarchies and power structures of the state church. Perhaps it’s because of my dedication to the work of justice that I’m suspicious of leaders who wield power irresponsibly. Or maybe it’s because I know so many people who have been deeply and profoundly wounded by church leaders that took it upon themselves to act as mediators of God’s grace. Regardless, I knew at an early stage in my ministerial development that the language of authority would never adequately capture the way I feel about my own pastoral identity.

But just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it goes away. I remember vividly my time working as a hospital chaplain. When I walked into patients’ rooms I was met by a whole range of reactions. But sometimes, by virtue of my title alone, patients projected a great deal of authority on to me. And it fell on me to decide what to do with it.

One time, I had a patient with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Her husband told her that if she had enough faith in God, she would be healed. But truly she was nearing the end of her life. She told me in a moment of confidence that she was starting to feel tired of fighting the cancer– that she was ready to die. But she was immediately mortified. For her, those thoughts betrayed a lack of faith in God.

I told her that it was okay to feel that way. That it was normal. And that God is big enough to accept all of her questions, struggles, and doubts. She entrusted me with the authority to give her permission to feel okay about dying. I didn’t want that kind of power. But I was grateful for her trust. And I did my best to respect its sanctity.

Trust entails accountability, commitment, mutuality, and humility in a way that authority simply doesn’t.

Trust. As pastors it’s something we need to earn. When we receive it, it’s a rare and precious gift. And when we have it, it’s our job to honor it.

Trust entails accountability, commitment, mutuality, and humility in a way that authority simply doesn’t. And after all, isn’t that what God’s authority is like anyway? Jesus was a king, but Jesus was not a king in the same way as Caesar. He led by example, he washed the feet of his friends, and he chose to hang out with the marginalized instead of the powerful.

I believe in pastoral trust because it flips pastoral authority on its head. When we choose leaders to represent our community, whether in the church or in the movement for social justice, we place our trust in them. It is a gift that must be earned and respected, and which can be taken away if abused. But when our communities are built on trust, we can do powerful things.

Scott SprungerComment
Peace Begins in the Family

Content Warning: Child Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence

As a Mennonite, I am often inspired by stories of Anabaptist communities who courageously risked their own safety and well-being to testify that gospel of Jesus is one of peace. Our peace witness is most clear in the realm of military domination. We refuse to destroy the lives of God’s children around the world in the name of patriotism or nationalism.

But so often our peace witness begins and ends there. Violence takes many forms, and not all of them are so obvious or public in nature.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are survivors of intimate partner violence. The statistics are far higher in the trans and gender non-comforting community, among whom more than half of are survivors of intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence can include physical assault, psychological manipulation, sexual exploitation, and controlling or intimidating behavior, but usually involves a mix of all of these. Meanwhile, 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence, which has lasting psychological and health impacts.

Does nonviolence have anything meaningful to say about intimate partner violence and child abuse?

But here’s the most astonishing statistic– those rates are consistent inside and outside the church. Every single church community has members who are survivors of intimate partner violence. And nearly every church community has at least one abuser in its membership. What meaning does our peace position have, if we speak out against the evils of war but stay silent about the evils of rape or spousal battering?

Does nonviolence have anything meaningful to say about intimate partner violence and child abuse?

If so, then nonviolence must go far beyond mere abstention from violence. It must mean that we actively work to build peace in our world and in our communities. And that means that peace must begin in the family.

When a parent hits a child, or when a child witnesses one parent hitting another, they internalize the message which is at the heart of our society: that violence of the strong against the weak is perfectly reasonable and effective. But if our families are sites where justice is present, reconciliation is possible, and conflicts are resolved peacefully, then children will know that peace is a viable alternative to the violence of the dominant society because they have seen it with their own eyes.

Mennonites have a unique problem when it comes to addressing abuse and violence in our communities. We prefer not to rock the boat. We often choose a fake peace, which preserves the status quo, instead of real peace, which demands justice. But real peacemaking– the kind of peacemaking that Jesus demonstrated for us– demands rocking the boat. It means exposing the truth to the light so that justice may flourish.

Study after study has shown, the best thing any of us can do to help abusers is to hold them accountable for their actions. Otherwise, they will continue to carry out their destructive behavior.

Ultimately, child abuse and intimate partner violence are not carried out by individuals. They are carried out by entire communities who saw there was a problem but chose to stay silent. Imagine if those of us in ‘historic peace churches’ took child abuse and intimate partner violence as seriously as we took militarism and war.

Churches need to be places where victims of abuse and violence are protected, where education on intimate partner violence is offered, where abusers are held accountable, and where peace is fostered in families. Because our world will never have peace, if our families don’t have peace.

For stories of survivors of abuse in Mennonite communities, consider reading and donating to Our Stories Untold.

For a list of known Mennonite abusers, check out the Mennonite Abuse Prevention List.

Dove’s Nest is an organization that provides resources to faith communities about protecting children from abuse.
For an extensive list of resources for survivors and faith communities, click here.

Does nonviolence have anything meaningful to say about intimate partner violence and child abuse?

Scott Sprunger Comment
Why Can’t We Welcome LGBTQ People?

Originally Printed in The Nov. 2018 issue of The Mennonite

A handful of leaders in Mennonite Church USA, and especially Virginia Conference, have signed a statement called “Our commitment as we relate to same-sex couples: We Will Live in Grace and Truth.” Its aim is to reaffirm opposition to queer couples while still extending compassion and welcome to them.

This statement, which is intended to extend compassion to LGBTQ people, spends an inordinate amount of time justifying their condemnation. If we think we can welcome people into our communities, provided they remain second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then we have a limited understanding of welcome and an even more limited understanding of Jesus’ love or God’s peace. Exclusion from full participation in the life of the church is still exclusion.

Why was this statement written? And why now?

We live in a country where undocumented children are separated from their parents and held in cages, where white-nationalist groups continue to rise in power and influence, where military spending surpasses every other nation, where wealth inequality continues to skyrocket, where powerful men commit sexual violence with impunity, where mass incarceration disrupts families and where police violence destroys lives. But this statement demonstrates a different kind of priority—the repeated condemnation of our LGBTQ siblings in Christ.

This isn’t an issue of biblical interpretation; it’s an issue of moral outlook.

There have been many statements like this one, and I’m sure there will be more. As a life-long Mennonite and a life-long queer person, I feel compelled to read each one, in spite of the violence it will do to my soul. I have a personal and faithful relationship with Jesus, whose love and acceptance of me I have never doubted. So I don’t understand why so many straight leaders—and straight male leaders in particular—dedicate so much time and energy trying to prove otherwise.

I’m also a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary. I’ve spent the last three years ministering to LGBTQ people in New York City who have been wounded by the same tired rhetoric of heterosexism and transphobia found in statements like this one. I can debate the theological and biblical arguments for and against the exclusion of queer people from full participation in the church.

But those arguments have been made thousands of times and haven’t changed people’s minds. This isn’t an issue of biblical interpretation; it’s an issue of moral outlook. When the outright enslavement of black people was a legal and common practice in this country, white Christians debated among themselves over its biblical justification. Supporters of enslavement had more biblical support for their position than abolitionists did. There are dozens more verses supporting and regulating slavery in the Bible than are purported to talk about queer people and our relationships.

But slavery wasn’t about the Bible. It was about people who lacked the moral clarity or basic decency to treat other human beings as human. The spirit of Jesus is one of love, justice, peace and liberation, then and now. And as long as we have entrenched biases in our hearts, we will cherry-pick Bible verses to support them. Jesus had no condemnation for queer people or our loving relationships. But he had the utmost condemnation for exclusionary religious leaders.

This letter is wrong, not just because it misinterprets the Bible but because it narrows the scope of God’s grace and activity in the world. What God is doing will always be much bigger than the limited imaginations of religious leaders who preoccupy themselves with keeping others out of the kingdom of God.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I commit to respond in grace and truth. I will extend grace and forgiveness to all people. But I will tell the truth about injustice.

Scott SprungerComment