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John Chinaman

Reading old Newspapers can often be an exciting experience.  Especially in small town newspapers many editors were quite blunt and do the point.  Sometimes this makes for rather humorous descriptions of the rough and tumble life of early white frontier settlers.  Other times, their bluntness cut straight to the heart of an issue, convicting not only the readers of old but those who still gaze upon the articles today.  Recently I found such an article.

On May 18, 1888 the Harper Daily Sentinel in Harper, Ks published an op-ed piece about one of the Asian workmen who had left Harper to go back home.  While the wording grates on modern sensibilities, especially in the final sentence, the point comes across loud and clear.

1888 also happened to be the year that our church, Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, was formed.  While I would say that the Mennonites have had some significant positive impact on our community, it is also still unfortunate that this article is just as applicable to our community as it was 125 years ago.  While the ethnic group in question has changed overtime, the core response of Christians those in our community who are “different” than we are seems to have changed very little.

For that matter it seems as though this article could also be written about our entire denomination.  Yes, there is a sweeping change in our understanding of what mission work is and where it happens, but that change has yet to permeate every person in our pews.  Perhaps the bright spot is that things really are shifting.  With the help of people like Alan and Eleanor Kreider we are re-thinking mission in a post-Christendom world.  We are changing the question from “How do we take Jesus to ‘those’ people over there” to “Where is God at work in this world and how can we get involved with that”.

I will continue to hold on to hope that things are changing.  In the mean time, however, articles like this continue to convict me that things have not changed enough and that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Sometimes I wonder if Menno Simons would approve of how we’re using his name. If one pauses to look around one can find a plethora of institutions, products and websites that have added the prefix “Menno” to their name.

Some have ties to official church institutions or ministries in one way or another. MennoMediacomes to mind, along with church camps MennoHaven and Mennoscah. Then there are various groups of MennoSingersMennoHouseMennoHof, at least three different MennoTravel services and a host of Menno hospitalsclinics and retirement communities.

An Internet search also brings up numerous other gems, including MennoTeaMennoDiscuss,MennoMeet, and my personal favorite turn of phrase, Mennolicious.

With almost every kind of institution or product under the sun bearing the name of Menno Simons, it seems as though it’s worth pausing to examine why we’re invoking his name and whether or not we may be using it in vain.

As best I can tell, the addition of the name Menno to an institution or product serves a couple of key functions. First is that it identifies a product with an already existing culture, set of assumptions and worldview. It is an attempt to communicate something about the character of the business or product and the people who make it. Some, like MennoTea, are explicit about this, saying, “We’re brewing a culture.” That being said, there does not seem to be one particularly unified worldview among the various organizations; each draws on a part of the Mennonite worldview to which they are attracted.

The other reason the prefix Menno is used is to draw in a very specific demographic. To the people who are steeped in Mennonite culture, hearing the prefix Menno is almost like a Labrador hearing a dog whistle. While Menno does communicate a potential set of values, more fundamentally it sends the initial message “they’re one of us.”

Using Menno for these purposes is not inherently reprehensible; however it should raise some questions for us. Namely, does using Menno this way stay true to what Menno Simons actually believed? Someone once pointed out the irony to me that Che Guevara’s image has become an iconic, trendy engine of American capitalism, which is the exact opposite of everything for which he stood. Has Menno fallen into the same trap?

It’s worth noting that the primary list of reasons to use the name Menno as a prefix does not include communicating our faith. One can make the argument that our worldview and even our sense of community flow out of our faith, which Menno would conceivably approve of. However, if we’re honest, that’s not the primary reason for using it. If our faith really is the primary thing that some groups do want to communicate, using Menno only communicates a very specific version of faith.

To be clear, I raise this question as someone who most certainly has blood on my hands. I helped to start the website MennoShirts.com, where we sold a bunch of clever shirts (or so we thought), most of which were based on Anabaptist-specific theology or culture.

What’s more, I have been a vocal opponent of the trend to remove the name Mennonite from churches and church-related institutions. My resistance to these changes being that it sends the message that the name Mennonite is more of a liability than an asset.

Menno Simons had a clear and consistent message that the core of all faith was Jesus, not himself. Would Menno approve of how we’re using his name? Would he approve that we’re even using it at all?

Cross posted from Mennonite World Review

Fair warning:

Severe pessimism ahead.

In my more pessimistic moments in the last few years I have made the comment that the existence of MCUSA over the next 10 years is not a certainty to me.  It is well within the realm of conceivability that the denomination could fall apart.

Now I have something of a road map for what that could look like, and it starts in my back yard.

To begin the progression, you have to go back a couple of years.

1) 2010- Joanna Harader, pastor at Peace Mennonite in Lawrence, Ks, performs a same sex union ceremony.

2) 2011- In may, according to the agreement set out at the founding of MCUSA, Western District Conference Leadership Commission (the credentialing committee) reviews her credentials and finds them to be “in order”.  This is the first time in the denomination that a pastor has preformed a same sex union and has not been disciplined.

3) 2011- This upsets the conservative end of WDC and at the annual meeting of WDC in July they try to have the actions of the Leadership Commission overturned.  This motion is voted down because delegates a motion of this magnitude needs to be carefully considered by the whole constituency.

4) 2011-2012- over the next year the conservative churches get organized and bring several resolutions to be voted on at the July gathering.

As of this post, these are the current events.  From here on is my speculation.

5) 2012- The two motions are brought forth to the delegate body and both are defeated because a majority of congregations either a) agree with the original decision or b) do not see this as a big enough problem to overturn the authority structure of the conference.

6) 2012-2013 –  most of the Oklahoma churches leave not only WDC but also MCUSA.  Maybe one or two join South Central Conference, but most likely none will.

7) 2012-2013 – WDC is now out of step with the rest of MCUSA leading to two implications:

7.a) The MCUSA denominational leadership will begin to deal with the implications for church polity.  Specifically, how do pastoral credentials transfer from conference to conference when the conferences are at odds over credentialing standards?

7.b) There will be a congregational level backlash throughout the denomination.  There will be several churches that simply leave the denomination altogether, but most will wait for the denomination to respond to WDC with some sort of disciplinary action.

8) Most likely MCUSA leadership will not take a major disciplinary action towards WDC because a) it is one thing to remove a church, but removing a whole conference is a matter that they will defer to the delegate body and b) even if they wanted to, the polity structure isn’t really set up for that.

9) 2013- MCUSA gathers in July in Phoenix, AR.  Numerous resolutions and motions are brought to the floor (in spite of there still being no official resolutions allowed) calling for WDC to be sanctioned or removed from the denomination outright.

10.a) If there is no official action taken by MCUSA, many individual congregations will leave the denomination as well as several whole conferences (most likely led by Lancaster).

10.b) If there is an official action taken by MCUSA there will probably be an exodus of the more liberal churches, but more concerning there will probably be a mass exodus of individual young adults for whom this will be the final straw.

11) Either way, however, there will be a mass exodus of young adults for whom this is not a central issue (or they are in support of Gay rights) and who are tired of fighting about this issue.  This exodus is primarily facilitated by the fact that when this fight comes before the MCUSA delegate body, it will be an ugly, nasty, and hateful fight.

Other possible implications from this course

1) A new conservative Anabaptist denomination takes shape made up of the conservative churches and conferences that leave in the near future as well as those who have left in the past.

2) A new liberal Anabaptist denomination, or potentially a rather simple network of independent churches, takes shape.

3) Young adults leave Anabaptism for other denominations.

4) Young adults leave the faith altogether.

Best case scenario: 1/3 of the churches in MCUSA leave by 2015.

Worst case scenarios: MCUSA splits along several different factions and, combined with severe disillusionment, there is no denomination in 2015.

I genuinely hope that neither of these things happen.  I genuinely hope that the spirit of love and unity in the name of Christ prevails.  But in order for that to happen it is going to take some pretty amazing leadership.  What’s more, it’s going to take the entire denomination embracing a spirit of humility that, quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re capable of.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Military Spending

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is putting out a campaign called “Fear Not, Seek Peace”.  As part of that campaign there’s a learning tool to help people understand how much we actually spend on our military compared to what most of us think the government actually does.

I’ve adapted some of this information using something called Prezi.

Unfortunately, WordPress.com doesn’t really allow for flash animation to be embeded right here in this post, so you’re going to have to actually click through on the link.

http://prezi.com/udui-qvhbeln/follow-the-money/

Enjoy.

Hoodies in congress

Today Congressman Bobby Rush was removed from the floor of the house for wearing a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) in support of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was gunned down by George Zimmerman. (video below)

What’s made the news is mainly his being removed, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important part of this.  I’m most drawn to the fact that as he was being removed he was quoting scripture as he was doing it.  Specifically he was quoting two core Biblical texts on justice.

Micah 6:8 ” He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Luke 4:18-19 “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As a pastor this wanted me to stand up and cheer because, finally, someone is actually quoting scripture in the way that it was meant to be quoted.  Yes, I do think that a massive injustice is/was being done to Trayvon and yes, race plays a factor (but not the only factor) in this situation.  It has exposed some deep systemic problems in our culture, problems that result in peoples deaths.

This is bigger than Trayvon’s death.

This matters.

Pay attention.

Church and State

Some people find it odd that I am both a pastor and that I am against having mandatory prayer in the public school system.  After all, didn’t Jesus say things like, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” and “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory”?[1] Aren’t we called to boldly proclaim the Gospel in every area of our life?

The short answer is “yes.”  Unfortunately, that’s an answer to the wrong question.  The real question for me as a pastor does not have to do with religious freedom but rather with religious coercion.  In other words, the question is not, “can I freely share my faith” but rather “can I force others to share my faith”.  As I said, the answer to the first question is “yes”, but the answer to the second is “no”.  More importantly, considering that our schools and teachers are representatives of the federal government, the second question is not simply “can I force others to share my faith” but rather “can the government force others to share my faith”.

In fact, these two questions are tied together, and the answer cannot be “yes” to both of them.  If we live in a society where the answer to the second question is “yes, we can force others to have or express a particular faith”, then it is also true that “no, we do not truly have the freedom to express our faith as we see fit.”

This should of particular importance for Mennonites for a couple of reasons.  First of all, we should be committed to the separation of church and state because it was our idea to begin with.  Yes, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but that’s not the reason I hold this view.  I’m more concerned with what founding documents like the Schleitheim Confession say; “the rule of government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the spirit…Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven.”[2]

The reason that I want to keep church and state separate is not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the church.  Besides inviting corruption when the two are joined, we would do well to remember that the persecution that our spiritual forbears suffered was at the hands of other Christians, empowered by the state in an attempt to force us to believe, pray, and worship as they did.

I’m continually perplexed by Mennonites who argue vehemently that prayer and other religious activities should be mandatory in public schools.  How is it possible that we can have forgotten our own core values and history so completely that we some can argue against those values that our people pioneered?  What’s more, how is it possible that we have forgotten that Mennonites are still in the minority in this country?

I support a strong separation of church and state, not because I believe we should be ashamed of, or limit our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I support it because if the government did start forcing our children to pray in school, the prayers they would be saying would not be our own.


[1] Mark 16:15, Luke 9:26

[2] Dyck, C. J., & Koop, K. (2006). Confessions of faith in the Anabaptist tradition, 1527-1660. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press. Pg. 31

Fracking and Faith

This winter the invasion has begun.  The motels are full indefinitely.  Buildings have quickly and mysteriously been bought up.  Hundreds of trucks from 10 different states roll around town.  They found oil in Harper County.

Natural Gas to be specific.  At first it was a rumble of a rumor, but sometime this winter it really became official as several oil companies began to set up shop here in town.  There has been all kinds of speculation as to what this will mean for our community.  Some of it is pretty wild (quadrupling the population of the county within five years) and some of it is worth thoughtfully considering (how can the churches reach out to this new group of people).

While I’ve had a couple of passing conversations about this changing dynamic, I have yet to say something in my official pastoral role.  Perhaps this is an attempt to begin to articulate what I’d like to say.

The place that I want to start is with the Bible.  Specifically with an understanding of Biblical Shalom that I will shamelessly steal from Marion Bontrager and Michelle Hershberger.  Essentially the idea is that God created the world to be in a particular harmony, order, or relationship.  This right relationship we call Shalom.  These right relationships can be described in four ways: being in right relationship between each of us and God, us and other people, us and ourselves, and us and the earth.  Sin, then, is when these relationships get broken, which is something that can happen both on an individual level and on a larger systemic scale.

As I reflect on the impact of the oil boom I can see that there are some benefits to be had.  The biggest of which is that Harper County has been on an economic and population decline for about 40 years, and yes, we can definitely use the income and jobs.  But this is only a surface benefit.  The questions I have are much bigger and much deeper.  Most of the large scale questions that I have can be framed in Marion and Michelle’s understanding of Shalom and what it means to break those relationships.

Between each of us and others – There are two main areas of concern for me here; 1) housing costs and 2) unequal income distribution.

1) Harper County just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the influx of people that we are beginning to experience.  As a result, landlords can begin to raise the cost of rent quite drastically because they know that the higher price will be paid by someone, usually by the oil company.  I have already heard several stories, however, of landlords who have tripled someones rent, sometimes with less than a months notice.  Here’s the difficulty of sin: landlords are struggling too, and it seems pretty reasonable that if you could get a higher rent, you would charge a higher rent.  It’s an obvious choice.  The problem is that when a whole society does this, large populations of poor people who have been life long residents of Harper County are being pushed out on to the street for the sake of oil field workers who may not be here a year from now.  As individuals, it’s hard to fault a landlord, but as a whole, it’s definitely sin.

2) Yes, there is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Harper County because of the leasing contracts with the oil companies.  And yes, some of that money has begun to trickle down into some specific parts of the economy.  However, it is very important to note that this influx of money is not shared equally.  If you own land, you stand to make a tremendous amount of money.  However, the number of people who own land in the county is relatively small in comparison to the overall population.  This kind of massive inequality will, and already as begun to, breed resentment, hatred and injustice between neighbors.  Again, this is a difficult situation because I know many landowners do genuinely want to do the right thing, but what that is isn’t exactly clear.  Nevertheless, as a whole society, this is going to cause some problems.

Between each of us and the earth – I have jokingly said that yes, I think we need the economic boost in our county, but I also don’t want my water to light on fire.  Water is scarce enough already around here.  The damage that the hydraulic fracturing process does is irreparable and highly taxing on our already limited natural resources.  This is a major concern for me, and yes, I put the damage done to the earth in the category of Sin, not just politics.

Between each of us and ourselves – Money brings a lot of things with it, most of them aren’t particularly good.  I worry about what the greed and envy will do to each of us.  I worry about whether our hearts will be turned to stone or moved to compassion as the economic landscape changes.  Whether we are only peripherally connected to this change in our community or a direct recipient of it, it is going to change us.  The question is how.

Between each of us and God – Economics is always spiritual.  On on hand, these changes will affect our own personal spirituality, but they will also impact us as a church.  The impact on our church is coming.  Even in my own mind I’ve begun to think about new possibilities for additional programing or staff or buildings, all of which could be made possible because of the oil money floating around.  The question for me is yes, but at what cost?  Are we being bought off?  How will in change our church?  There’s at least one church in our area who was almost completely destroyed because they found oil under church land.  While I don’t know the answer, I feel like we need to ask the question whether or not our ideas for the future of the church are actually the leading of God or are they are something else.

I think that the most concerning thing about how our county has reacted to this industry moving into town is that there has been (or it feels like) little to no critical reflection on the deeper impacts on our community, our relationships and our faith.  The most telling example of this to me was an article in a local paper last fall that was talking about the economic growth in our county.  They outlined two major industries moving into the county.  One was the oil companies and the other was the large wind farm going in on the west side of the county.  In the article the only discussion was that of jobs and economic opportunities.  There was no reflection about the environmental or social impact of either of them, let alone the idea that they are two opposing industries in the energy industry.

I’m aware that right now I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to start to identify some of the issues.  Now if I can just figure out how to start the conversation in church and in the community.

 

 

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