November 18, 2013
Vine and fig tree.
A few years ago, Jewish ethicist and educator Hanan Alexander published a book called Reclaiming Goodness—Education and the Spiritual Quest.
“People are searching for spirituality today,” he observed, “because comprehensive visions of the good are conspicuously absent from modern culture.”
He continues: “Education is not first and foremost about acquiring knowledge, or gaining identity, or insuring group continuity … but rather about empowering a person to choose a vision of the good life.”
A vision of the good life! What might that look like? The Scriptures have many astonishing images of the good life. Two come quickly to mind:
Micah 4:3-4: He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Acts 2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
In stark contrast to “visions” of the good life that scroll ad nauseam across the screens of North American consumer marketplaces, the biblical visions are of goodness that is shared in common.
Vincent Harding, longtime friend and co-worker of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a guest last year at AMBS. Harding said, “Martin used to love to say this: ‘We’ve got to organize goodness.’”
“What would it mean to organize goodness?” Harding asked. “Is that what seminaries are for?”
My mind has not stopped spinning around this intriguing question. I recognized immediately that it named what I believe to be our seminary mission: to educate leaders who are prepared to organize and guide communities of shalom:
How do seminaries figure prominently in “organizing goodness”? —to return to Harding’s question.
Unlike any other graduate school I know of, a seminary focuses on the astonishing biblical visions of goodness—visions so powerful that they have fired the imagination of untold numbers of musicians, poets, artists, activists, innovators, novelists, preachers, volunteers, physicians, mission entrepreneurs; yes, even radical reformers, for millennia.
When we lose sight of the comprehensive biblical visions of goodness, we gravely impoverish ourselves—as is evident everywhere in the remnants of our anxious, violent, greedy, polarized society. Perhaps more than anything, followers of Christ are called to empower persons to choose a vision of the good life; a biblical vision that springs directly from the Maker of the universe.
What vision of the good life fires your imagination?
October 11, 2013
In this post I share a “pastoral letter” from Anabaptists in the United Kingdom who are praying for us. Alan Kreider notes this in introductory comments to the letter:
The influence of John Howard Yoder’s writing is global. So the discernment that is current in North America about his writing and abusive behaviour will have an impact in many places globally. As someone who for many years was involved with the Anabaptist Network in the UK, I wanted the leaders there to be informed about the matter, so that they could discern with us and pray for us. In late August I wrote to Stuart Murray, a leading English Anabaptist thinker, providing him with a brief resume of what has happened here. Stuart then sent my letter to key participants in the Anabaptist Network, including conveners of the thirteen Anabaptist Study Groups scattered around the UK. Several weeks thereafter, the group that meets in the northern city of Manchester at its monthly meeting discussed the Yoder situation. After their meeting, their convener, theologian Brian Haymes, summarized their discussion and sent us the letter that is attached here with his and the Group’s consent. I am grateful for this Group, for their fidelity to Christ as English Christians learning from the Anabaptist tradition, and for their solidarity with us in prayer at this time of difficulty and hope. Alan Kreider
Following the request for prayer from Stuart Murray Williams to all Anabaptist groups concerning the situation that has arisen around John Howard Yoder we gave over much of our monthly meeting on Monday 16 September to this matter. Our knowledge of the situation is very limited although some members had discovered websites which told some of the story. All of the group admitted to being taken aback at the scale of the abuse.
JHY’s family and especially his widow were often mentioned. We realize they have carried and are still carrying a heavy load. They are not often mentioned in the written material available to us. We felt for them.
Much debate went on around the role of the seminary. Several of the group members had taught or presently teach in Colleges [which in North America are called seminaries] and were aware of the difficulty such a high profile case posed for the integrity of the institution. We thought the initial prompt action by the seminary was right and there was much support for the seminary’s present actions in refusing to bury the past in unhealed forgetfulness. We acknowledged that the leadership is responding in more creative public ways than some British institutions have done in such matters.
We knew we were in no position to judge JHY’s sincerity. Did he earnestly seek to share the discipline process? That, we thought, was a crucial question. There are issues here that are very important but that we were in no position to judge.
One of our members spoke quietly and tentatively about the possibility of JHY being troubled by Asperger’s Syndrome. He raised this question because he himself suffers with this syndrome and thought he sensed things in the story which he recognized. He told us that such is the nature of the problem that any sufferer has to have the reality of what they are doing pushed right square before their eyes before they will recognize the morality of their actions. Intelligent people with this syndrome have amazing abilities for self-deception. We had no way, of course, of judging all this but it added a possible level of sensitivity without in any way excusing what was done. We were moved by our member’s self-disclosure.
Another person in the group said that JHY was said to be working on some papers on sexual ethics, as yet unpublished. We thought these might reveal something important but would need reading with a very high level of critical insight as to their arguments.
A virtually unanimous response from the members was that it sounded as though the victims of abuse had not had the attention and care they should have had, especially in contrast to the help and counsel given to JHY. From our experience we knew that institutions could be more concerned for the offender and the good name of the institution than those who received the deepest pain. We knew of situations where this meant that wounds were left untreated and people suffered a serious loss of care by the community. We recognized we had a lot to learn ourselves in this respect. A high profile offender can claim too much attention by an institution wanting to keep its good name.
There was a clear distinction in the group as to JHY’s standing as a teacher. Most recognized that like all teachers he was a flawed man and that his work, especially in human relationships, should be read with much critical care. But we also acknowledged that the writings of JHY had meant a great deal to many of us and had been a blessing from God. A minority among us felt that he was too seriously damaged and that all his work was now in question. There was, however, strong support for the seminary’s actions in (a) maintaining courses in JHY’s work while (b) engaging in a public examination of the case and the consequences for all involved. This openness, while vulnerable to criticism and misunderstanding, was thought by the group to be a courageous and proper way forward.
Part of what makes this such a difficult issue is precisely the great Anabaptist insight into the fundamental relationship in Christian discipleship between belief and practice, that the Gospel truth we know shows in the way we live. JHY taught this so helpfully but apparently lived it so disappointingly. But let those of us without sin ….
We tried to imagine what all this must mean to the local congregation and seminary who had to bear and judge so much. Part of the Body of Christ is wounded from within and we felt for the pastors and members.
All this turned us to prayer and that prayer will continue in the personal devotions of group members. Please be assured that Anabaptists in the UK are standing with you as best we can, asking for healing, renewal and peace for all, longing for God to bring from this situation new beginnings we can hardly imagine. We greet you in Christ who is our peace.
September 12, 2013
Credit: Peter Ringenberg
The pulse of our church-wide network of connection is racing in recent weeks. Anxiety has spiked for some persons with the reemergence of deliberations around John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse along with the church’s prolonged failure to act decisively to prevent further victimizations and to seek healing. On the other hand, many persons are relieved that we’re talking about it; animated by and even hopeful about this opportunity to learn and grow as a people.
In what I read in the press and blogosphere or receive personally in emails and conversations, what intrigues me is who or what we choose to fault—whether JHY; or the “angry women”; or former church leaders; or current church leaders; or systemic forces like patriarchy, sexism, white male power; or a younger generation that doesn’t understand the historical context; or malevolent demonic powers…. You get the picture. Most of us tend to name the problem quite narrowly.
I think it’s absolutely essential to do the truth-telling work required to assess responsibility where it appropriately lies. Healing and reconciliation will not happen until that work is undertaken (and there will soon be reports from the discernment group convened by Ervin Stutzman about that).
But if we focus too narrowly on who or what is at fault, we may miss out on the generative conversations we must have in order to grow in maturity as a people of faith. As an educator, I recognize this as a profoundly teachable moment in our church—and for that I am hopeful!
I’ve listed below some of the additional conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This Practicing Reconciliation blog will become a platform for speaking to some of them by our AMBS faculty.
These are a few of the conversational topics that grow out of this teachable moment in the life of our church. What are topics that you’re engaged in or wish would happen as we practice reconciliation in our diverse communities?
I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
July 25, 2013
Photo by and ©2004 Dustin M. Ramsey
Time has its way. As does the Spirit.
The accelerating interest in and widespread appreciation for John Howard Yoder’s theological work has also provoked renewed calls for the Mennonite church, including AMBS, to revisit unfinished business with his legacy. Last year, in February and March of 2012, AMBS faculty did significant work to review AMBS’s history with John Howard Yoder and to come to a shared agreement that guides how we teach, critique, interpret, and use Yoder’s work with integrity, recognizing the significance of his theological work and the harmfulness of his actions. This Faculty Statement is posted on the AMBS website.
In addition to the hard work our AMBS faculty has done to interpret the complicated ironies of John Howard Yoder’s legacy over many years, I wanted to add a personal word.
As the current president of AMBS, I'm committed to a new transparency in the truth telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done. Some who are only tuning in now will say, I had no idea about John Howard Yoder’s widespread sexual harassment and abuse. Others will say, why keep bringing this up; it was settled long ago; he submitted to a church disciplinary process and was cleared for ongoing ministry. Others will say, FINALLY. This has taken far too long.
The renewed outcry for truth-telling about what really happened and what didn’t happen in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s has deepened my resolve and the resolve of Mennonite Church USA leaders, including Ervin Stutzman, to continue the healing journey. I was not close to the John Howard Yoder saga when it was unfolding and only heard him speak once during his visit in 1997 to Harrisonburg, VA. Now, as I review the written materials about him and talk to people, I am dumbfounded (appalled) at how long it took for anyone in authority to publicly denounce his harmful behavior.
I am also keenly aware that I was not there. I do not presume that I would have done things differently at that time. I thank God for all the faithful and arduous labor that was exerted under extreme stress to stop John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and to listen to the victims—as ineffective as it proved to be for many years. As AMBS professor Ted Koontz said elsewhere: “The women who experienced sexual and power abuse by John personally have far too long been sidelined (along with others who were directly abused by other church leaders) and are rightfully at the center of our concern. I nevertheless am aware the hurt caused by John's behavior was and is far-reaching. That circle of hurt includes some who carried major responsibility to work at stopping his abusive behavior, who were unsuccessful, and who were burdened by weight of that failure.”
True, there was confusion about who John Howard should be accountable to with various influential church leaders and institutions continuing to send him all over the world even as AMBS leaders of the time discouraged his use as a resource. It took far too long to realize how he was out-manipulating persons who sought to confront him, along with providing his own theological rationalization for his sexual activities.
But it’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time, must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight. What did actually happen? What was done to address it and what was left undone regrettably, or done poorly, in retrospect? Who suffered because of that failure? Who was disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure? In what ways would we respond differently today given the benefit of hindsight and so much learning in the meantime?
Yes, John Howard’s ministry was and is an exposition of the Gospel that is reaping an enormous blessing. Thanks be to God! This flawed man was gifted in ways that allowed him to grasp radically good news in the Gospel that needed retelling, reimagining.
Ironically, it is because of that Gospel that we can fearlessly call sin what it is. The far reaching hurt of the evil that was perpetrated and allowed to fester too long must be more fully and publicly acknowledged. It is then that we can move into deeper healing and reconciliation. May it be so!
July 22, 2013
Many people raised our voices in loud lamentation last week when a court ruled that a man who killed his unarmed 17-year-old black neighbor was legally justified within Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Much has been written about how the systemic racism plaguing our society was unmasked yet again in the stark injustice of the verdict. I, along with thousands of others, joined “cry for justice” rallies across the nation. Yet the question that nags (more like obsesses) me is: on what grounds does the “Stand Your Ground” law stand?
The law assumes that inflicting deadly harm on a neighbor if you feel threatened makes perfect sense. Why? Because it’s patently evident that self-preservation is the number one human right. Call it what you want—primal wiring, reptilian instinct, visceral vigilance. It doesn’t get much more basic than that. Or does it?
It’s heady stuff all right—to know you have the power to blow away anyone whom you “reasonably” believe could do you harm. To walk around with a gun in a hip holster, ready to kill anyone who threatens you has to be the ultimate adrenaline rush. No wonder massive numbers of Americans have been busy arming themselves to the teeth.
Yet, what is the ground on which we choose to stand? The right to eliminate all that threatens me? That seriously gets in my way?
Two stories from my grandfather illustrate the point. A D Wenger traveled around the world in 1899-1900. He wrote a travelogue which was published in 1902 called Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. Reportedly, the book was a bestseller among Mennonites soon after the turn of the last century.
While on a ship from Turkey to Syria, Grandpa was approached by a fellow passenger, Mr. Adiassewick, a Russian and a member of the Greek [Orthodox] Church. Grandpa writes: Shortly before our voyage ended he took me to his cabin where he strapped to his body a long sword that hung nearly to the floor, and got two well loaded revolvers out of his trunk; then he said, “This is the way I’ll travel when I get out there. They tell me those people are savage and if they come at me I will shoot. What will you carry?” I replied that I would also carry a sword, a Bible which is “the sword of the spirit.” With that a man is better armed than if he had a deadly weapon in every pocket.
While in Damascus he writes: Three men, ministers of the English Church, after wander- ing over the wild country on both sides of the Jordan for four weeks, came to our hotel on the evening of May 6th, tanned and toughened with their journey. When asked if they were not afraid of the Bedouins they replied, “No, we are all armed.” That doesn’t seem right does it, for ministers of the Gospel of the Prince of peace to carry carnal weapons? And it is not right, for Scripture saith, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.”
As our seminary last week began prayers of confession, lament and hope, our call to worship read: “As a community that values the voice of biblical witnesses, what do we do when confounded and in despair? We look to Scripture.”
Why do we look to Scripture? Because Scripture testifies across many centuries, through countless people in untold numbers of places, about a God who works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.
O Lord God of hosts, …
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne… (Psalm 89:14)
This is the ground on which we stand.
Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your mind, and with all your strength.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
There is no law greater than these on which to stand, Jesus said.
All other ground is sinking sand.
This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.
The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.