More Than an Anabaptist Vision: A Call for Radically New Relationships between the Sexes
I am a Mennonite pastor who loves the Mennonite Church. I am also one who struggles with the ways the Mennonite Church disappoints me--and disappoints others.
Three years ago I left active pastoral ministry to engage in further theological reflection. I felt deeply that something was wrong with our Mennonite theology and practice. I was particularly aware that something was wrong with our relationships as women and men in the church. I sensed it had to do with our Mennonite understandings of our human bodies, our sexuality as males and females, and particularly our assumptions about the relationship between our spirituality and our embodiment and sexuality. I decided to go back to school to engage in some historical and theological reflection on these subjects--because I believed something terribly important was at stake for ALL of us. And I was convinced that Mennonite women, as well as Mennonite men, needed to give our hearts, minds, souls and bodies to this important reflection. For only together, will we forge a faithful future for the Mennonite Church.
I stepped back from active ministry for a while because I could no longer pastor
with integrity. I struggled with what genuine healing and hope the Mennonite Church
that I loved had to offer the world, especially to the women and girls. I needed some
answers to how it is that "good" Mennonite fathers and husbands, "well-respected"
Mennonite pastors and "revered" Mennonite employers could objectify and sexually
violate the women and girls in their lives--even as they held up an Anabaptist vision for
the church community. As a woman pastor, I witnessed in our Mennonite Church world
numerous ways in which the bodies and spirits of women carry a heavier burden for our
distorted Mennonite theology. I became deeply troubled as a church leader that the
Mennonite church at least tolerated, or worse perpetuated, such injustice. I could not
honestly proclaim that my Mennonite faith community was a community of healing and
hope as long as this reality continued. I had to give myself to pursuing an alternative
vision for being men and women together in the Mennonite Church. It is out of this
context that I share this manifesto today.
I long to identify with a Mennonite Church in the twenty-first century that will take a bold, new stand for truly respectful, mutual and reciprocal relationships between members in the faith community. Not only between men and women (which I am highlighting in this presentation) but also between different races, ethnic groups, ages, and economic classes. I long for a Mennonite Church that will take as radical a stand for loving and respecting women as we have taken for loving enemies. I yearn for us to embrace Jesus' radical critique of lust against woman as boldly as the early Anabaptists reclaimed his judgment against killing our enemies. I long for the Mennonite Church to live into the vision for a new community in which all are valued, respected and empowered to make their unique contribution to the whole.
I yearn for us to gain a clear understanding that the Mennonite Church needs, and truly would benefit from, the voice and the insight that comes from the particular experiences of each member of the body. The Mennonite Church needs the wisdom gained through lived experience in female and male bodies. The Mennonite Church needs to discern the truth that comes by living in black skin, brown, olive, tan, white and every other shade of skin. Our Mennonite theology and practice needs to be shaped by the experiences of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, rural and urban, old and young, and every other variable that exists. All need to be integrally a part of articulating a vision for the Mennonite Church in this new millennium.
Personally, I want more than an Anabaptist vision for the Mennonite Church of the twenty-first century. Neither the sixteenth-century Anabaptist vision nor Harold Bender's Anabaptist vision explicitly and thoroughly rejected the up-down, over-under relationships that existed between men and women in the church. Their visions for a new church and a vital Mennonite identity did not include radically reorienting relationships between women and men. Michael Sattler seems to have caught a vision for something new in male-female relationships in the church. His repeated use of the inclusive phrase "brothers and sisters" in the confession of faith affirmed at Schleitheim is significant for that time. But we know this inclusive language did not catch on in a widespread way. In fact, Anabaptist communities then and down through the centuries have often been identified as the "brethren"--the Swiss Brethren, the Hutterite Brethren, Mennonite Brethren. Fifty years ago, Harold Bender's Anabaptist vision called Mennonites to "the practice of true brotherhood and love among the members of the church." (1) The Anabaptist vision has historically obscured the presence and power of women in the faith community. In doing so, it has neglected to specifically attend to the relationships between women and men in the church.
To date the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has failed to confront wholeheartedly the hierarchical nature of the church family. It has failed to recognize how the use of the family metaphor for the church has perpetuated the over-under relationships of the patriarchal family system. By primarily using familial terms like "brothers and sisters" to describe relationships in the faith community, we have carried along in the church the imbalanced relationships of the patriarchal family. In a patriarchal system, it is a given that brothers are granted privileges and positions that sisters are not given. I wonder if we are aware how strongly the "brotherhood" mentality lives on in the Mennonite Church, even though we no longer use that language. I wonder if we're aware how subtly, or not so subtly, the use of "brothers and sisters" perpetuates unhealthy relationships between men and women in the Mennonite community.
Consider for a moment the different experiences of brothers and sisters in our Mennonite families over the generations. I grew up in a family with six brothers and two sisters. While Mom and Dad loved us all, it is my experience that my brothers were granted freedoms and privileges that my sisters and I were denied. The most blatant example is the gifts we received when we turned sixteen. Dad helped the boys buy a car. The girls received "a hope chest" --that is, a cedar chest to be filled with household items in "hopes" of getting married. There was equality in that at sixteen, both the boys and girls in my family were allowed to date. The difference was the boys could initiate a relationship with a girlfriend. The girls had to wait for a boy to come calling. My parents reasoned that the boys needed a car for dating. They assumed we girls would have a boyfriend. We didn't need a car, they said, because our boyfriends would provide the wheels for us. Perhaps this example seems extreme, but it points to a disparity between femaleness and maleness that has been common in Mennonite families.
It strikes me that something analogous to my family experience still goes on in the Mennonite Church family. In too many ways still today, the brothers in the Mennonite Church are receiving the cars and the sisters the hope chests. The brothers are given the freedom, the access, the independence, the control, the role of taking initiative in determining the relationships with women--which a car represents. The sisters of the church are too often still given only a hope chest. The Mennonite Church and its talk of "true community" offers women only the hope in the future--not the reality here and now--that in this faith community we will experience truly mutual, reciprocal relationships with men. As women, we are urged to patiently and passively wait for the men of the church to come and provide us access to the privileges of a "car" through them.
To a significant degree, we have still failed to grasp the radical nature of relationships in the new community that I think Jesus sought to create. I'd like to call it the "one-another" community. The community in which we all love one another, submit to one another, honor one another, bear one another's burdens and live in peace with one another. It's a community where genuine love is mutual and reciprocal between all members regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, class or age. Jesus rejected the up-down community, where certain ones lord authority and power over others. He rejected the more-important/less-important community where certain people matter more than others. Instead Jesus proclaimed a "one another" community in which relationships were radically reciprocal. He renamed the disciples his "friends". While I am aware that in Greek this word has a feminine and masculine form, in English it is an inclusive term. The metaphor of friendship for relationships in the church strikes me as a more reciprocal one. The term "friends" doesn't perpetuate the inequities that have traditionally existed between brothers and sisters in Mennonite families. I think the Quakers captured something the Anabaptists didn't by claiming their community to be a society of friends rather than a brotherhood.
I want the Mennonite Church in the twenty-first century to embrace a new vision for the kind of mutuality and reciprocity that exists in a "one another" community. Jesus called his disciples to wash one another's feet--a gesture of true reciprocity. Let us Mennonites grasp anew the meaning of washing one another's feet. We have emphasized the service of this gesture--and this is an important posture for all in the community. But it is a reciprocal gesture. The one who washes the feet of the other, then is seated and honored by having their feet washed in return. In Jesus community, all are humbled by kneeling to wash the other's feet AND all are honored and respected by having their feet washed as well.
Mennonites need to claim a new, bold identity as a community of friends who wash one another's feet. A community where none of the old categories of male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free are the basis for value, honor, respect or power. I yearn for the Mennonite Church of the twenty-first century to reclaim the image of washing one another's feet as the model for our relationships with one another. This means that men serve women and women serve men. Men lay aside their privilege and power to honor and respect women and women do the same for men. Women prophesy and teach while men listen, and women listen while men to the same. We need to catch the vision that there is a radical reciprocity in this community---all are honored and all serve.
In the sixteenth century, those who were labeled "Anabaptists" sincerely believed
something was wrong with the Christian Church. They dared to claim their own
authority to interpret the scriptures, to listen to the Spirit's leading in their time and to
live into a new vision of the church community. The early Anabaptists reclaimed some
of the radical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Others they did not address. Consider
for a moment, where the Mennonite Church might be today if our Anabaptists forebears
had had the vision and the courage to condemn lust against women as strongly as they
condemned all violence against enemies? Where might our church be today if they had
taken a strong stand specifically for reciprocal respect and love between men and women
as strongly as they had proclaimed love for enemies? More importantly for us to
consider, where might the Mennonite Church be by the end of the twenty-first century if
this generation takes a prophetic stand for a truly reciprocal community and against all
sexism, racism, and classism? The early Anabaptists are to be commended for their
wisdom, insight, courage and vision. We are the inheritors of their spirit and faith. In
our time, in our context, we must together identify what is still wrong with the church.
And we must courageously give our lives for forming a community of faith that is
radically new. May our days of dialogue here together forge such a future for the
Mennonite Church that we love.
1. Harold S. Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision," Church History 13 (March 1944): 3-24.