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.
- “How do we have a richer conversation about power—abuse of power, yes, but also nurturing power, power for justice, power for good? How can men and women each acknowledge the power they wield and commit to work collaboratively for the well-being of our communities?”
- "How can the church better create space for worship and transformative change both for those whose immediate, salient experience is having been sinned against and those whose immediate, salient experience is that of having sinned against others?"
- "What are the proactive steps that some congregations and church organizations have already taken to help guard against physical and sexual abuse in our homes and churches and where have we fallen short? How can we be helpful to each other in making our churches and communities safer places?"
- "How many of our families and congregations are able to talk thoughtfully about our sexual selves in relation to our lives of faith? What needs to happen so we can speak honestly and relevantly about Christian sexual ethics in ways that permit personal growth, healing, forgiveness, and joy?"
- “What would a positive theology of friendship between women and men entail? How do we make space for friendships between persons who deeply respect each other and communities where we so genuinely love each other as beloved children of God that we wouldn't think of crossing boundaries?”
- “We must have an in-depth discussion about the face of Grace and the shape of forgiveness, especially in the absence of a perpetrator's public confession. How can we explore the deeper issues of evil and grace theologically and jointly along with the psychological dynamics that tend to dominate the conversation thus far? Can we prayerfully visualize the kind of healing and wholeness longed for in light of God’s desire to reconcile all things?”
- “What can we learn by revisiting Yoder’s theology in light of his abusive behavior to ask how patriarchal tendencies in the 1940s and 50s helped shape Yoder in damaging ways, asking questions such as are his "politics of Jesus" overly masculine? Does his vision of ecclesial process insufficiently account for power imbalances? etc.”
- “How do we do theology with real, broken people as our guides? Many of the people whose work shapes our ethics, worship and life together were broken in their personal and academic lives. How do we hold the tension of exclusion and embrace: excluding the things that are oppressive, embracing the things that are helpful? How do we consciously read and assess their work in ways that critically examine what they call us to and boldly name the places where their thinking falls short?”
- “How do we create an ethos in which persons of great intellectual power are in close relationships of spiritual (including behavioral) accountability? Biblical understandings of the interdependence of gifts and psychological insights into multiple intelligences offer us tools for overcoming the ‘intimidation factor’ that hides abusive behaviors and deforms community. Great intellectual power which does not submit itself to Christ's Lordship is another rebellious and fallen power—and should be so named.”
- “What are the resources of the Scriptures that tell it like it is—the raw and redemptive truth—whether the rape of Tamar, or Jesus’ clear word that ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?’”
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).